i have been interested in how illness is presented in ya literature ever since i took a course in science and rhetoric during graduate school. so i was excited to begin nicola yoon‘s (2015) debut novel every thing every thing (delacorte press).
a book that starts out as a story about a teenage girl named madeline, who lives in los angeles and has severe combined immunodeficiency, becomes so much more (and less, really) than a book about her illness. in so many ways, every thing every thing is a book that makes us challenge our perceptions about what it means to live – not just exist but live.
readers are introduced to madeline, who spends much of her time reading in her room and under the care of carla, her nurse. but when the two neighbor kids (olly and his sister kara) bring over a bundt cake and madeline’s mother refuses to accept it because of the decontamination process objects and people have to go through to enter the house, something changes.
madeline and olly notice each other through their bedroom windows, and they begin to exchange emails. with carla’s help, madeline and olly meet in person – but only after olly agrees to be decontaminated and to not touch madeline.
the no-touching rule can only last so long. soon readers understand that madeline and olly’s relationship is more than just teenage love but a symbol of an escape from the tragic realities of their lives.
i will be honest. i did not love this book at first. i did not think the story moved quickly enough, and i had trouble not comparing several scenes in it to the fault in our stars. not that i hated the fault in our stars, but i want each ya book to be unique in its own way.
but every thing every thing grew on me. there are several beautifully sharp poetic lines sprinkled through the book, and the way yoon crafts the last seventy or so pages of the book is truly wonderful. unexpected and thought-provoking, the ending challenges readers. and if i love anything in a book, it’s when a book challenges my thinking.
every thing every thing, a book that started out as a ‘sick lit’ book on my reading list, became a book that me think about the extent to which people continue to believe something is what it is until they garner the power and strength it takes to push back against engrained beliefs. and when madeline and olly are finally ready to push back, they run the risk of hurting people they love.
i am teaching a multicultural literature course next semester, so i also think it important to note the diversity of the characters in every thing every thing. madeline is half japanese and half african american, and carla escaped mexico but lives in koreatown. whereas central themes of the text do not revolve around issues of race, the fact that madeline’s race breaks some ya boundaries is definitely worth considering.
another aspect of the book that people seem to enjoy are the multimodal elements (e.g. email transcripts, drawings, medical records, pictures of text messages, receipts, etc.) illustrated by yoon’s husband david yoon. the excitement about these modes made me think about a discussion between sarah dessen and jenny han i attended at flyleaf books in chapel hill. these ya authors were talking about the pros and cons of using so much social media in a book, especially because of the ever-evolving nature of social media tools. i will say my favorite multimodal element in the text was the “spiral” chapter.
let me know what you think of the multimodal elements – and any other aspects of every thing every thing – in the comments below.