Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.
Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)
Monday, January 17, 2011
Book Review: It's Kind of a Funny Story
It’s fairly well-known that Asian teenagers are under a lot of pressure to succeed academically. Forget making a decision about your major when you reach college –students in many Asian countries have to choose a career by the time that they finish junior high. (The pressure to succeed begins much earlier than that, though – see this Time Magazine article.) Once they make a decision, students have to take an entrance exam to get into the appropriate high school for their chosen career track. If they change their mind once they’ve started studying one subject, they have to take another exam to place into a different high school program – and the competition for career placement grows fierce after that. But many Americans think this kind of pressure is unhealthy and inappropriate to put on teenagers. (Never mind that our country is falling further and further behind in the global economy.) We would never dream of putting our children under that kind of stress. That only happens in Japan and Thailand, right?
“Two years ago I got into one of the best high schools in Manhattan: Executive Pre-Professional High School. It’s a new school set up to create the leaders of tomorrow; corporate internships are mandatory; the higher-ups of Merrill Lynch come and speak to classes and distribute travel mugs… You can come out of Executive Pre-Professional High School and go right to Wall Street, although that’s not what you should do; what you should do is come out and go to Harvard and then law school. That’s how you end up being, like, President.”
This is the story of Craig, the once-ambitious student at the heart of Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story. As a seventh grader, he decides that he wants to go to the most prestigious school in Manhattan—yes, Manhattan. It turns out that there are plenty of kids in the United States who face the same kinds of academic pressures as teenagers in Japan or Thailand, although pop culture doesn’t often represent that type of American teen. That’s why Vizzini’s book is such an absolute blessing, a total godsend. Academic pressure and its serious emotional results are subjects that needs to be discussed.
The novel chronicles how Craig diligently studies to make sure that he aces the entrance exam for Executive Pre-Professional, but becomes so isolated that he falls out of touch with the rest of his life. He sacrifices his sense of self in order to get into school—but when he gets there, he finds that he’s at the bottom of the pool and unable to compete with the other students:
“The other kids were geniuses. I thought I was a big deal for getting an 800 on the [entrance] exam—[but] like the entire entering class had gotten 800… I wasn’t gifted. Mom was wrong. I was just smart and I worked hard. I had fooled myself into thinking that was something important to the rest of the world. Other people were complicit in this ruse. Nobody had told me I was common.”
Some people would say that this is typical adolescent fear and angst, a self-esteem problem. But eventually, Craig becomes so depressed that he can no longer eat and thinks about wanting to kill himself all the time. And while some might believe that all Craig really needed is to go to counseling and learn to believe in his own potential, the honest truth of it is that Craig is right. He’s smart, he’s hard-working, but ultimately he’s average – as most of us are. The truth is that no matter how much you work hard and believe in yourself, most people will hit a glass ceiling somewhere in the course of their lives. The truth – that you’re an average citizen – can be hard to swallow when you’ve been fed the American Dream all your life.
Craig is pretty average, then – he just hit his glass ceiling a lot sooner than most and discovered that even smart, hard-working people are often limited by their circumstances and measured by/in a certain context. Craig was smart compared to most of the students with whom he attended high school, but perhaps not as smart or prepared for the kind of competition at Manhattan Pre-Professional. So what Craig really needed was not just to believe in himself, but to understand himself, learn to love himself for his own abilities, whatever those might be. Part of that is accepting his own limitations as well as his particular talents, which is exactly what he starts to do through the course of the novel.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is about, among other things, Craig’s short stint in a mental ward at Argenon Hospital in Brooklyn, where he learns about the kinds of things and people that he should pursue in life. What make this book really interesting are the other patients that Craig meets, the way that he learns to treat them as friends, and the artistic career that he begins while he is still staying in the ward. He draws “brain maps,” turning detailed maps of cities plan (with roads, rivers, highways, etc.) into diagrams and illustrations of people’s brains – highlighting the complexity and value of each individual.
As Craig becomes an artist, he learns to accept himself, learning that despite his limitations, he can figure out how to be happy. He doesn’t have to compete with the students at Manhattan Pre-Professional; he needs to find a different world, a world where he can live. This is a both a well-delivered story and an important message that helps readers understand the pressures of society, the weight of depression, and still feel as though there is a way out from underneath all of it – a good read for anyone who has ever felt frustrated with the circumstances of his or her life.