Books CORL (Check Off your Reading List) Challenge 2014 GB Challenges Multicultural - Diversity Reading Themes Young Adult (YA) Literature

Whitman’s Yawp, Depression, and Celebrating One’s Self in Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets


Myra here.

This book was one of the finalists for CYBILS 2013 YA Fiction awards. When I read the blurb and noted that it was about depression, I thought it would be a good book to read for our current theme that celebrates voices of the silenced and the rainbow colours of diversity.


James Whitman is a tree-hugging, bird-saving, Walt Whitman-loving teenage boy who is suffering from depression. He wakes up in the morning with a celebratory YAWP for the precise reason that it irritates his father when he does it. While written in the voice of James, the story also revolves around the seeming-mystery behind his sister, Jorie’s expulsion from school, and her eventual banishment from home as an off-shoot of a school mishap that ended with Jorie’s ex-BFF being hospitalized.

While it started off a bit slow for me, the pace picked up somewhere in the middle. The plot became more engaging as James’ voice starts really coming through, and I did feel for a moment there that I was a teenage boy with adolescent angst and concerns and all the drama that comes along with it. Perhaps what really pulled me into the story (apart from the poetry and the make-believe therapy sessions with the fictitious Dr. Bird) was when I found out that James’ sister, Jorie, was cutting herself – not really to kill herself but to remind herself that she can feel something else other than pain. James found his sister’s box of story-poems marked in blood, and the damning blades enclosed among them. Among the fragments of stories he is piecing together to make sense of his sister’s eviction from both home and school, he found this “explanation” from his sister’s written words:

The lines are thin enough to not exist. The lines are nothing and then appear in red. The lines are lines; the lines are dots. The sharp lines on my arm are made with a sharper line of a blade. Like meets like, even if it hurts for them to meet. The lines fade and I can recreate them anywhere. But I need to breathe easy while I do it. I need a steady hand. A straight thin line, not too long, makes me feel better. A curve hurts. A curve ruins the whole moment.

I have mastered lining myself with evidence. The evidence has mastered invisibility. (pp. 91-92).

I am alarmed as I hear and know more about a growing number of young people doing this to themselves, young girls in particular. As a clinician, teacher, and parent, I do hear reports of this happening.

This story does not really come up with big revelations or amazingly-wrought poetic insights to explain away existential queries. It really is more a feeling-through the edges of the pain, trying to get a literal grip on things that are real and can be touched. James acknowledges that there are other people in the world who are worse off than he is – I was particularly struck by these lines, as I am sure most people might have this kind of judgment in their heads as they read about these so-called ‘first-world’ highly-suburban-almost-stereotypical-non-problems:

People in the world suffer from greater calamities than I do. I eat, I have clothes, I have a house. I read about people around the world who survive on less than a dollar a day. I read about how there are hundreds of millions of widows living in poverty. I see ads for kids who are born with ragged lips and jagged teeth. I don’t have anything like that. I just wake up with a deep hatred of myself. How selfish is that? (pp. 115-116)

I am not sure if this is written in anticipation of resounding claims about most teenagers’ evident self-absorption. Yet it seems more like a litany of oft-heard remarks given by older, perhaps a tad-more-impatient elders; trite, old remarks that did not particularly sink in since this kind of reality, while “known” to young people, is never a fully-realized truth to those who wake up with self-pronounced animosity towards themselves – as they are unable to see past this haze of hatred to see anything else. It might even serve to trivialize the experience of “millions of widows living in poverty.”

Yet, what is apparent from this book is that this is also a keenly-felt reality and definitely not something to be perceived or taken lightly, as much as it attempts to do that for itself. What I enjoyed about this novel is that while it deals with a very sensitive issue, it never really takes itself too seriously. While thick, it is a relatively quick read. There were several places where I found a few editing errors, but the book as a whole was engaging enough for me to look past it, yet not enough for me to not make mention of it here. There is buoyancy in the writing, a desire to go past the pain to see the poetry peeking on the other side and the jagged pieced-together edges of a tree portrait, allowing one to greet the day with a resounding yawp. A very interesting read.



Reading Challenge Update: 48 (25)

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

4 comments on “Whitman’s Yawp, Depression, and Celebrating One’s Self in Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

  1. I found this one a slow start too and ended up putting it down in favor of something else. Will definitely get back to it after reading your review. It also sounds like a title several of my students would like. Thanks for featuring it!


  2. For a book on depression I felt that James had some great coping skills. Thanks for such a thorough review on the book.


  3. This sounds good. I like the cover.


  4. Pingback: [Poetry Friday]: Mental Illness and Emily Dickinson | Gathering Books

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