Laura Wahlberg has a secret that she hides from her friends and teachers—her mother’s mental illness. Once upon a time, her mother wanted to be an artist, but now her mother stares into space, often not recognizing her own family and sometimes smashing things in uncontrollable outbursts. Laura, too, is a gifted painter, but she fears that she too is destined to lose her mind. After all, it runs in her mother’s family. And in the early 1960s, not much is known about mental illness—either how it happens or how it can be treated.
In Crazy (Eerdman’s, 2014), Linda Vigen Phillips offers an authentic and powerful portrait in free verse of a teenager coping with both the reality and the stigma of mental illness. To Laura, every repeated thought, every nightmare, every vision of something that isn’t there is evidence that she is going down her mother’s path. When Laura’s suggestion that her mother take up painting again leads to a crisis and her mother’s hospitalization, Laura gives up the thing that has for years given her happiness and a sense of self-worth. Yet, this resilient teenager doesn’t give up art altogether. She begins to make clay figures that represent her mother’s suffering, her own pain, her father’s efforts to move onward, and the hope she finds in friendships with a surprisingly sensitive popular boy and a store owner who is grieving her daughter’s death from a rare neurological disorder.
We may have moved forward in our understanding of and ability to treat mental illness, but these advances rest on the courage and activism of people in earlier generations. Breaking the silence is the first crucial step. By showing through vivid language and imagery Laura’s fears and her commitment to telling her story through art despite those fears, Phillips creates an unforgettable protagonist who can inspire readers today. One of the great things about reading historical novels like Crazy is that we realize the challenges we face are not new, and that people survived and persevered. The impact Laura makes may be within her own family and community, but with many efforts like hers, attitudes can be changed and lives made better.