If your brother is “mental,” what does that say about you?
The only thing 14-year-old Zach wants for Christmas is to visit his older brother Derek. The catch: Zach is in Maine, and Derek now lives in a mental institution in New Jersey. But with his trusty grandfather in tow, Zach makes the long bus pilgrimage during a snowstorm, encountering a punked-out older girl along the way. Once “Purplehead” shares her troubled past, will Zach reveal his own secrets? In first-person narration with ample flashbacks, Zach struggles to understand Derek’s stormy bipolar illness, retracing his brother’s unpredictable swings from charming flirt to self-harming wild-man. Zach also ruminates on his own worst fears (“I might wake up some morning and be just like him”), even as he rejoices in his newfound relationship. Deans (Rainy, 2005, etc.) weaves in social commentary via the family’s financial struggles with That Thievin’ Insurance Company, which have forced them to make Derek a ward of the state. Although told in an energetic, sympathetic voice, the story occasionally suffers from predictable and underdeveloped action. Still, readers, especially those with family or friends with similar challenges, should find this book reaffirming and poignant. And few writers have the same passion for exploring the lives of the poor as Deans.
Both compassionate and amusing, with memorable characters, if a bit light on plot and heavy on message. (author’s note) (Fiction. 12-16)