Sones, Sonya. 1999. Stop pretending: what happened when my big sister when crazy. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books. ISBN 9780064462181.
Plot Summary –
This verse novel for young adults by Sonya Sones is an autobiographical collection of poems cataloging her experiences when her older sister developed a mental disorder. Each poem moves the reader through the early traumatic months of learning to cope with this life altering event.
Critical Analysis –
Stop Pretending is an emotionally powerful collection of poems that chronologically reveal the painful progression of a teenage girl dealing with the mental breakdown of her older sister whom she adores. Sones masterfully sequences the poems. The first poem titled “My Whole Family” describes her last happy memory before her sister’s mental collapse. Then, she shares her sister’s breakdown Christmas Eve, a holiday which is perhaps the most sacred of family time. The next poems expose a passing of time through holidays, her birthday, spring, disturbing hospital visits, glimmers of hope, more disappointment, and finally the day when they could play Scrabble as a family together again spelling the word “BETTER.” Despite all the emotional anguish revealed in the poems, Sones leaves the reader with hope.
Sones creates rhythm with line lengths and stanza breaks. She frequently uses short staccato lines and single word lines to add emphasis. For example, in the poem “Apologies,” she has six stanzas of apologies trying to relieve herself from guilt, but when she gets to the last stanza, her last apology is formulated into single word lines, “every/single/terrible/thing.” This structure allows her to emphasize the fact that she would take back every single terrible thing she ever did if it would erase what happened to her sister. Two other examples of her short staccato style are “The Truth Is” and “You Are.” In each of these poems, she hammers home her point by using short or one word lines. This structure creates a powerful emotional impact.
Most of her poems are free verse, but she carefully places rhymes for maximum effect. In the poem “It’s Been Forever,” Sones describes her sister’s emotional detachment as a child’s game of hide-and-seek. By using rhyme in this poem it reinforces the childlike mental condition her 19 year old sister has entered. Another example of rhyme is on page 22. Sones is questioning what might happen if her friends find out that her sister is crazy. She ends this poem with the two line rhyming stanza, “If I let them all know, /would they go?” By placing the rhyme at the end, it emphasizes the question and causes it to linger. Her perfectly placed rhymes add to the emotional impact of the poems.
The most striking element in her poems is her use of powerful images mostly created through sensory detail. In the poem, “Paper Doll,” Sones describes a memory of her sister creating “that perfect little paper doll” which occurred some time before her sister was hospitalized. This image allows the reader to feel just how fragile and unreal their life must have been. In other poems, she uses sensory details to provoke intense emotions. Her first poem, “My Whole Family” while short conveys the warm feeling of togetherness by using “whole,” “woven,” “moondappled,” and “swayed as one.” On page 35, she has a very short poem about wanting a dog which ends with, “he’s lick the salt off my cheeks.” This image shows her deep emotional need for relief from her grief. One of her most emotionally packed poems is “During History Class.” She draws the reader into the moment, and her sense of betrayal is equally felt by the reader. Every poem is an example of her skillful art. Her poetic structure and conventions along with her powerful images worked together to create a moving masterpiece.
Review Excerpts -
Kirkus Reviews – “The poems take on life and movement, the individual frames of a movie that in the unspooling become animated, telling a compelling tale.”
Booklist (starred review) – “The poems have a cumulative emotional power. They record the personal and translate it into the universal.”
School Library Journal – “Unpretentious. Accessible. Deeply felt.”
Horn Book – “Sensitively written.”
- Christopher Award
- Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry
- Myra Cohn Livingston Poetry Award
- Gradiva Award for Best Poetry Book
- ALA Best Book for Young Adults
*As the students read the poems, have them plot the events on a time line.
*Have discussions about mental illness.
*Using the poems, have the students write diary entries-changing the verse to prose.
*Have the students write poems about themselves or someone they know who has experienced something traumatic.
*Have students read The Diary of Anne Frank and find diary entries that match the emotions in some of Sones’ poems.
*Visit the web site http://www.sonyasones.com/spteachers.htm for more ideas.
*To promote author appreciation - share some of the author interviews from the web site http://www.californiareaders.org/interviews/sones_sonya.php
*Encourage students to read other Sonya Sones books:
- What My Mother Does Know ISBN 9780689855535
- What My Girlfriend Does Know ISBN 9780689876035
- One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies ISBN 978-1416907886