Author: Natasha Friend
Publisher: St Martin’s Press (2017)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a middle grade readership)
“The first month of school, thirteen-year-old Anna Collette finds herself…
Dumped by her best friend, Dani, who suddenly wants to spend eighth grade hanging out with different people.
Deserted by her mom, who’s in the hospital recovering from a suicide attempt.
Trapped in a house with her dad, a new baby sister, and a stepmother young enough to wear her Delta Delta Delta sweatshirt with pride.
Stuck at a lunch table with Shawna the Eyebrow Plucker and Sarabeth the Irish Stepper because she has no one else to sit with.
But what if all isn’t lost? …With help from some unlikely sources, including a crazy girl-band talent show act, Anna just may find herself on the road to okay.”
I did a search at my local library for books with representation of children of a parent with a mental illness (COPMI) and was delighted that Where You’ll Find Me was available. I read it quickly and was unsurprised that Natasha has lived experience as a COPMI. This book had all the elements of an excellent COPMI story:
- peer support,
- a stable and honest adult in Anna’s life and
- an honest, unvarnished exploration of the emotional complexities of having a parent with a mental illness.
Natasha Friend gave Anna a strong support network, thereby underscoring the power of care and connection for young people. Anna had Marnie (her step-mum), Regina (her mum’s best friend) and her schoolteachers. Regina explained bipolar to Anna in an age-appropriate way. She helped Anna understand that her mum can’t control her feelings, that “it’s not her fault,” and Anna later explained this to her dad. Marnie became a maternal figure for Anna in her mum’s absence. There was no competition between Marnie and Anna’s mum, nor did Anna feel forced to choose between them, which I really appreciated. Love isn’t limited. It can grow and expand, as it did for Anna, her mum and Marnie. There’s room for everyone. Having said that, Anna’s love for her mum was deep and complex.
Anna’s emotions were intense and palpable throughout the novel, and Friend explored them in a nuanced way. For instance, Anna felt frustrated that she couldn’t visit her mum in hospital, angry that she had been the one to find her mum and call the ambulance after her attempt to take her own life, and relieved that her mum would be staying with Regina after leaving hospital. Anna also struggled to regulate her emotions, which impacted on her ability to focus at school, something which many readers (myself included) may also have experienced. She visited her mum at Regina’s house but placed boundaries around their interactions to protect herself, such as leaving before dinner. In this way, Anna’s story was both unique and universal: trust, once broken, is not easily repaired and familial mental illness leaves no one unscathed.
Not only did Friend explore the impacts of bipolar disorder, she also touched lightly on trichotillomania. I hadn’t seen the condition represented in fiction before and it was refreshing that Friend managed to pack psychoeducation about two conditions into one novel. Shawna’s trichotillomania also acted as a vehicle for Anna to reconsider her preconceived ideas about her new friend and allowed them to grow closer. Shawna was the first of Anna’s new friends to learn about Anna’s mum. Shawna’s vulnerability in opening up to Anna about her condition matched the vulnerability Anna felt when Shawna met her mum, an excellent set up for their friendship. There was also an element of disability pride in the way that Shawna chose to paint on such outstanding eyebrows. As she explained to Anna, “I own this look. I could glue on fake ones and look ‘normal’…but this is my choice, This is me.”
My favourite line was actually a paragraph of Anna reflecting on her behaviour at a party, to which I related so much:
“I have mastered the art of silence. This happens sometimes, after I’ve gotten emotional. I go into mental hibernation. Not deliberately. My brain just powers down for a while, until it can recharge.”
Where You’ll Find Me was an excellent novel. Anna’s experience will resonate with readers everywhere. Natasha Friend has crafted a story that will comfort readers and invite their empathy for Anna and young people like her. You can buy a copy of Where You’ll Find Me from Australian online retailer Booktopia.