Finding a Voice by Kim Hood (reading copy) - 'One, two, three, four. I started counting the steps as soon as my feet left the drive - each step took me further from my house, where I couldn't control the chaos...'
Jo's got used to keeping her head down and getting on with things. Between looking after her mother and avoiding the mean kids at school, she's never had much time to think about what she wants - and it wouldn't occur to her to ask for help. She has to be the strong one, always.
When she meets Christopher she wants to help make his life better and will go to dramatic lengths to do so. But she finds out that friendship is a two-way street...
A moving and compelling story of friendship against the odds. From the blurb.
I decided earlier on in the year, when The Bookseller first announced that it was creating its own YA Book Prize for UK and Irish YA, that I would try to read all the 2015 shortlisted books once they were announced. Finding a Voice by Kim Hood is one of the titles nominated, and I was lucky enough to get hold of a reading copy through work. It's such a beautiful story!
Thirteen-year-old Jo has a tough life. Her mother has a mental illness, and Jo's her main carer. Sometimes there are good days, where her mum just seems eccentric and strange, and sometimes there are bad days, when it's all Jo can do to keep her mum from going right over the edge. Sometimes she can't. School is the only place Jo can escape the stress at home, but she doesn't have any friends because of her "crazy" mum. Then she meets Chris, a boy with Cerebral Palsy in the Special Education Unit after volunteering to help him out at lunch. Chris can't speak and has very little control over his limbs. It seems to Jo that most people fail to see the boy inside the disabled body, but Jo is sure Chris is more aware of what's happening than everyone else seems to think. She's determined to help Chris have a better life, but Chris isn't the only one who could do with some help.
I have to say, if it wasn't for the YA Book Prize, I'm pretty sure Finding a Voice wouldn't have crossed my path. It's been out since August, but I hadn't heard of it once. Which is such a shame, because it's such a beautiful debut novel, and really quite thought-provoking.
In a way, Finding a Voice reminds me of Amy & Matthew by Cammie McGovern. Both stories involve mental illness, and both have a teenager volunteering to help out a fellow disabled student. But that's where the similarities end. This is not a romance, this is very much a book about friendship, and it really is beautiful to witness how important Jo and Chris become to each other. Because of Chris' disability, Jo notices that the people who work with him - his carers, his aides and teachers at the school - either talk to him like he's a baby, or talk about him as if he's not there. At first, Jo isn't sure how much Chris is aware, and that's why she finds it so easy to talk to him. While visiting the Special Education Unit at lunch times to feed Chris, she finds it very easy to open up about how she feels looking after her mum, and very quickly, through his behaviour, she becomes aware that Chris seems to be listening to her intently. The fact that she is actually being listened to encourages Jo to talk more, but also to talk to him as if he's an actual, normal teenager. Jo has found someone to talk to, and Chris now has someone who's treating him like a person.
It's only when during one lunch time that Jo realises that Chris is flailing his legs to kick her on purpose rather than through lack of control this time, that Chris is trying to tell her something - he doesn't like the food. From that point on, Jo focuses a lot of her attention on trying to help Chris communicate. She knows Chris has things to say, he just needs a way to say them. Jo puts in so much work in trying to find ways to help him speak, thinking of ideas, in an attempt to make his life better. No-one else asks what Chris thinks, or wants, or likes, because he can't tell them. All decisions are taken away from him. Jo can't sit back and let this continue when she knows Chris wants to be able to tell people what he wants. It's really just incredible to see her try so hard to make things better for her friend. It's so heart-warming.
And it's even more incredible when you put this into context with her own life. Her mum suffers from a non specific psychiatric illness. At first I thought she had bi-polar; she would have very strange, eccentric days most of the time, or she would have terrible, awful days no child should have to witness. But it seems the doctors haven't been able to nail down a specific mental illness to her mum. Jo has to walk on tiptoes most of the time, trying to keep her mum calm and happy, keep the routine, keep things normal. The slightest thing wrong, and they're both in for days of heartache. Jo's mum's episodes are horrific to read about, and to imagine that Jo has had to deal with this her whole young life is so heartbreaking. And she's so scared to tell anyone how bad it can get some days, because she feels she'll be letting her mum down.
Finding a Voice is such an emotional story, and a really powerful one. It's an incredible debut novel, with such a wonderful ending. I implore you all to give Finding a Voice a read; I guarantee you'll find yourself moved.
Thank you to O'Brien Press via Foyles for the reading copy.
Published: 11th August 2014
Publisher: O'Brien Press
Kim Hood's Website