There’s no way to beat around the bush on this one: books about being sick or disabled often suck. They’re typically depressingly dreary stories about a courageous person who somehow still does something amazing despite an incredible illness and then they die. There’s a formula; you can see it in classic books like “Johnny Tremain,” “Pollyanna,” or even one of my favorites, “The Secret Garden.” The messages in these books are for healthy people written by healthy authors and most chronically ill people in the modern era can’t see themselves in their shoes. (Unless you lost your hand in a silversmithing accident, in which case I apologize.)
Even some of the more modern tales seem to use sickness merely as a crushing plot twist and the sick person as a learning lesson for the actual main character or the reader (see “A Walk to Remember” or “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes“). I love all these books, but they’re not always exactly what chronically ill people need in their life. So here are some of my favorite books about chronic illness that really get what it’s like to be sick without trying to be preachy about it.
1. “The Fault in Our Stars” — John Green
Let’s just get this one out of the way because a lot of people assume this is the same sucky nonsense using sickness as a plot device that I was just talking about. The problem is, most people are judging it based on the movie and I’m extremely passionate about this book not sucking. My favorite scene is not any of the romantic monologues — it is one of the main characters, Augustus, crying in the parking lot outside of a gas station. He is going through chemo and he drove there even though he wasn’t supposed to. He’s soiled himself and vomited on himself and his girlfriend finds him. He wants so badly to simply go inside and buy a pack of cigarettes. He doesn’t smoke but he likes to hold one, to have a bit of normalcy. He wants to be normal: to simply be a teenager who can drive to the gas station, buy some cigarettes, and go home.
He can’t, though, and that is what this book so perfectly nails about chronic illness — that desperate need to feel “normal” with your body repeatedly telling you no. Naturally, this scene was not in the movie. Nor was the line I got tattooed on my ribs: “The voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and again.”
2. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” — Ned Vizzini
I first read this book in 2010 and I loved the writing. It was so clever and enjoyable. He wrote about depression in a way that made it beautiful. The author died by suicide in 2013 and I realize now there was nothing beautiful about it, it was haunting. The story is inspired by the author’s own brief stay in a psychiatric hospital and tells many tales about the other inhabitants of what he calls “the loony bin.”
The main character, Craig, is stressed beyond belief by an extraordinary pressure to do well at his high performing high school and finds himself with an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts. The book has a sharp edge to it, with humor taking the upper hand over dark and depressing, but rereading it after 2013, the ending definitely takes a harsher tone. I still heartily recommend it, but I warn you if you’re not in the best of spaces, this probably isn’t the book for you.
3. “No One Dies in the Garden of Syn” — Michael Seidelman
I feel as though this was a fanfiction of “The Bridge to Terabithia” or “The Secret Garden” gone awry, in only the best of ways. Syn is a teen girl with cystic fibrosis who one day is pushed into a pond and wakes up in a new world where illness and death don’t exist. I loved that Syn’s symptoms are never glossed over (when she has them) and she’ll cough up blood just as casually as blow her nose because this is her normal.
That aspect of chronic illness is so often missing from authors who have never dealt with anything of the sort. Not every symptom or attack even registers as an event when you’ve been sick as long as Syn has. Sometimes you forget that not everyone knows you’re sick because it’s as obvious to you as your hair color. I haven’t read beyond the first book, but the third book in the trilogy is coming out soon.
4. “Extraordinary Means” — Robyn Schneider
OK, this one isn’t going to win any literary awards anytime soon. It’s derivative and cliched, it tries too hard to be cool and a little too hard to be John Green. But it does a phenomenal job of portraying what it is like to be sick as a teenager — especially how monumentally amazing it is to find someone who has the same illness or disability as you.
This book tells the story of Lane and Sadie, who are separated from society for contracting a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. Those with this form of TB are sent off to live at different sanatoriums, and Lane is sent to Latham House where Sadie has been for some time. In this world, some survive to go back to their normal lives, but some aren’t so lucky. The teens at Latham House are already facing a life or death situation, so the typical teen mayhem is turned up to 11 here. I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the overarching themes, but I think the relationships between the teenagers really save this one.
5. “Furiously Happy” — Jenny Lawson
Sometimes you just need to laugh at the situation you’re in. And that’s what Jenny Lawson does with severe depression in this book. It’s an absurd string of consciousness that she crafts perfectly to give an intimate portrayal of what it’s like to live with such a debilitating illness. It’s a refreshing look at mental illness and depression that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s full of funny anecdotes, hilarious side notes, and all-too-true observations about living a “crazy life.” I laughed out loud at a lot of her terrible stories because she has an amazing way of turning bad situations into relatable jokes.
6. “How to Train Your Dragon” series — Cressida Cowell
I know you’re thinking, “wait, they’re a book series?” And yes, the beloved kids’ movies are indeed based on a series of books about a Viking boy and his dragon with a broken wing. Hiccup hurt Toothless while trying to capture him, but with the help of a prosthetic Toothless is able to fly again. Eventually, Hiccup is also injured and loses his hand. He needs to relearn how to do everything, including riding a dragon. And in the end, Toothless and Hiccup both have matching prosthetic limbs.
One of my favorite things about this series is not only the prosthetic limb aspect, but Hiccup was already an underdog to begin with. He was “weak” and “small” in comparison to the rest of the Vikings and dismissed as useless, but his caring heart is what saves the village in the end. And honestly what is more badass than a Viking dragon rider with a hook for a hand?
8. “Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling” — Lucy Frank
A novel in verse is not my typical cup of tea, but this story broaches a topic I’m so intrigued by. Some people cope with disease/disability like superheroes, while others look at it as if it’s the day they died. This yin and yang story about two girls both going through Crohn’s is enlightening in a way I never expected it to be. I tend to have a more negative outlook on life, and reading the other side made me realize that. It helped me comprehend that everyone’s pain is their own and there’s no replicating it even if you have the same disease.
9. “Ask Me About My Uterus” — Abby Norman
Anyone with endometriosis should read this book, or hell anyone with a uterus or lack of a uterus or just… people should read this book. One of the things that constantly gets brought up on online chronic illness forums or websites or even conversations I have with people who are sick is the fact that women often have a harder time with the healthcare system than men do. Don’t believe me? Well, that’s part of the problem.
Abby, the author, details her struggle to get a diagnosis and her stories about doctors dismissing her pain are all too familiar. I actually laughed out loud when the doctors began to take her seriously only after her boyfriend went with her and confirmed their sex life was diminished. Forget the woman in pain, sound the alarms! A man isn’t getting sex! Sigh. I wish this story wasn’t as relatable as it is, but unfortunately, even without endometriosis, I relate all too well. (Also, she gets all the points for referring to Accepted‘s “Ask Me About My Weiner” joke with her title.)