Review: Counting Backwards by Laura Lascarso


Hardcover, 279 pages
Published August 14th 2012 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Source: Library

“I exhale slowly, ten, nine, eight… counting backwards without meaning to, but it feels better than counting up, because at one it will be over, right?”

It is important, especially after the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, to take a careful look at the way mental illness is portrayed in popular media and literature. There is a stigma attached to mental illness and shrinks are almost always accompanied by an eye roll and a moue of disbelief in their capability to help. I found Counting Backwards to be really refreshing in its approach to mental illness or, if not illness, a disorder perhaps. An inability to work through your emotions and deal with what life gives you. Taylor is fifteen and her life is a wreck around her. After being caught stealing a car, she, at the behest of her father, is sent to what adds up to a mental asylum. A place for mentally disturbed teens. She swears up and down that she’s okay, she’s not crazy, there’s nothing wrong with her and as the reader follows along, she almost convinces everyone that it is the circumstances and not her that need changing.

Usually in books where the protagonist ends up in a mental asylum, hearing voices etc, there are almost always supernatural entities involved. In this case, there aren’t vampires, fairies or anything of that sort. Just one very angry little girl who thinks the world is against her. Taylor doesn’t make the right choices, she refuses to seek the help she won’t admit she needs and she thinks her five hundred dollars is a lot of money as she schemes to run away. She trusts only one person and when he betrays her, she breaks down.

I like how internal the novel is. How Taylor almost unwillingly concedes to getting help. My heart broke with her as she makes decisions no child ought to have to make. Counting Backwards portrays receiving help for mental illness or whatever you want to call it, in a positive light and that is a step in the right direction. Lascarso’s characters are all complicated and there are no easy ways out or glossing over terrible incidents. There is no romanticizing the issues that hinder Taylor’s growth as a person. Taylor’s reluctance to trust and form relationships (of any kind) reads authentically. I also love the imagery and symbolism in the garden – it is lightly done, subtle and adds a lot of heart to the narrative. I think the message at the end is a positive one, though not especially didactic in tone or portrayal, and as I said earlier, I think it is time mental illness was given the gravitas it deserves. We cannot afford not to think about it anymore. As for the book, it’s one of those quiet reads that slips into your mind and stays there, making you think beyond the story and into the implications of what was left implicit. Strongly recommended

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