Books featuring a father with a mental illness

Book review: The Rollercoaster Boy

Author: Lisa Thompson
Publisher: Scholastic (2022)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a middle grade readership)

“Todd and Laurie’s dad is either on top of the world, taking them on fun adventures, or down in the depths and sleeping all the time.

In the middle of the night, he bundles them into the car and drives them to the Paradise Hotel. He paints a picture of a luxurious mansion by the sea, but the reality is a rundown dump and the disappointment means Dad takes to his bed.

Todd and Laurie have the run of the place, and meet Scout, the daughter of the owner, who tells them about the night many years ago when a famous novelist vanished from her room on the top floor, which was locked from the inside… with clues to crack, a mystery to solve, and Dad to worry about, this holiday is full of twists and turns.”

In The Rollercoaster Boy Lisa Thompson used the apt metaphor of a rollercoaster to conceptualise the feeling of living with someone who has bipolar disorder. Todd and Laurie were children of a parent with a mental illness (COPMI), and Thompson highlighted several of the unique elements of that experience.  

The COPMI experience tends to have several common features. For instance, Todd took on some caring responsibilities for Laurie while their dad was in bed. Todd tried to reassure his sister that their dad was okay, even when he wasn’t sure of it himself. He kept Laurie entertained and made sure they had food to eat. Todd felt like he couldn’t tell his friends at school about what was wrong with his dad, explaining that he had a bug because it was easier to explain than the truth. Furthermore, Todd was constantly on edge and worried (about his dad, and his friendships and life in general) which earned him the nickname “Panic Button.” Todd’s tendency to worry and his isolation were both exacerbated by the fact that he had little mental health literacy or understanding of what was happening at home.  

Something that stuck out to me in the first half of the novel was the lack of psychoeducation or explanation that Todd and Laurie received about their dad’s condition. Like in Gwyneth Rees’ COPMI middle grade Earth to Daniel, the parent without the mental illness was overseas (in this case, Todd and Laurie’s mum was away for work), which meant that when Todd began to worry about his dad, he was reluctant to contact his mum about it, compounding his sense of isolation. As the novel opened, Todd’s aunt Lexi noted that life must have felt like being on a rollercoaster for him and Laurie. However, she did not take the opportunity to tell them (or at least Todd, who was old enough to understand) about their dad’s condition or what they might expect, nor did she ask them how they felt about it. This omission was crucial because if Todd had known about mania, he might have recognised his dad’s agitation and sleeplessness for what it was instead of reasoning that it must have been okay because his dad seemed happy and was out of bed.

The mystery at the run-down Paradise Hotel provided necessary levity and a reprieve from the reality of their dad’s illness, for Todd and Laurie as well as the reader.   

As an aside, I listened to the audiobook version of The Rollercoaster Boy and I thought the narration was really well done, especially the distinct voices of Todd and Laurie (pronounced LOR-ee and unexpectedly similar to my own name).

Great for fans of Nova Weetman, The Rollercoaster Boy explored parental mental illness in an age-appropriate way and is an important addition to COPMI literature.

You can buy a copy of The Rollercoaster Boy from online bookseller Booktopia.

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