There are people who re-read books and people who stubbornly oppose it. In eighth grade, my teacher told me that while the words of books may stay the same, our experiences, moods and thoughts change so that we never read the same story the same way twice. This notion was certainly mind-blowing as a thirteen-year-old and obviously impactful (since I still remember it). However, I’m the kind of person that rarely re-reads books. There are, of course, a few of my favorites that I can read over and over. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and Looking for Alaska by John Green are the first two that come to mind.
Recently, I took on a particularly difficult re-reading challenge. For the first time in nine years, I revisited Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story. The book follows Craig Gilner, a fifteen-year-old New York City teen, as he begins his recovery from depression following a near suicide attempt and nearly weeklong stay in an adult psychiatric unit. The book is a perfect mix of light, innocent comedy and the darkness of mental illness. To this day, it is one of the most distinct, deep and well-written voices I have found in YA.
The girl I was when I first read the book at 12 and the near-woman I am now at 21 are almost different people. When I first read the book, I was vulnerable and depressed. I found Vizzini’s novel in the young adult room of my public library thanks to the teen librarian, Kate, who never shied away from filling the shelves with edgy and painfully honest teen voices.
I remember being intrigued by the cover and curling up in the corner of the room by the windows to read the first two pages. At fifteen, the narrator Craig seemed so old to me. He was in high school, he was brutally honest and I could relate to his feelings of depression and anxiety. I was experiencing them too at the time and found solace in his words. I brought the book home and, at a point in my life when everything felt like it was spiraling downward, It’s Kind of a Funny Story allowed me to breath and see that things could be okay.
Books have that kind of power. This is the book that saved my life. This is the book that got me hooked on YA, that led me to seek out books by Laurie Halse Anderson, David Levithan and John Green.
I’ve tried to re-read It’s Kind of a Funny Story in the past, most recently last fall. However, I was never able to get past the first few dozen pages or so. I just wasn’t in the right place emotionally to re-read the story, until recently when I made it through the whole book. Re-reading this book nearly a decade later gave me a new appreciation for the story, its characters and its themes.
From the opening pages, I re-fell in love with Craig’s voice and found myself immersed again in his voice and journey. I was again amused by Humble, Jimmy, Bobby, Noelle and all of the other patients and staff of Six North. I was again amazed at how Craig used art, creativity he never realized he had, to fuel his recovery. I expected to cry when I dove into this re-reading, but all I could do was slip into the story, unable to put the book down, with a stupid grin on my face.
Re-reading Vizzini’s novel at 21 instead of 12 also gave me new perspective on the story. When I read it at 12, I was looking for help. I needed a relatable voice and I found it in Craig. I clung to the story, but raced through it.
At 21, I read through the book more slowly, took in the rich description and voice of the narrator. I was able to understand the story more completely, but at the expense of that intense emotional need for the voice that I had at 12.
There’s a give and take with re-reading. One can never read the same book for the first time more than once, but reading the same book at different points can offer new insights. At 21, I still found Noelle’s (a girl Craig meets while in the psychiatric hospital) storyline to be as relatable and impactful as I did at 12, but with fresh eyes and broader experiences. As a writer and artist, I found the storyline of Craig’s brain map artwork as a step towards his recovery inspiring during my re-read, but didn’t really remember that part of the story from when I read it at 12.
Another thread I noticed at 21 that I missed before was the way in which Craig reacts to his friends’ responses to his mental illness. His friends Aaron and Nia claim to understand on some level, but mock him in other ways for his mental illness. At first, they don’t recognize its severity and apply what they perceive to be Craig’s feelings to themselves. The capturing of this nuanced reaction, and Craig’s discomfort with it, is a feeling I’ve had but haven’t seen captured as well anywhere else in YA or any other book. It’s missed details like this that make a book one I want to revisit again and again. I might have read the same story, but I picked out and appreciated different parts of it so that it felt familiar in some ways and new in others.
This might be true for many other readers of this book, but It’s Kind of a Funny Story will always have a special place in the process of recovering and managing my own mental health. Perhaps the most poignant thing I learned from re-reading it is that it’s okay to be vulnerable, it’s okay to slow down and it’s okay to reach out to other people for help.