When I was in elementary school I read Kissing Doorknobs by Terry Spencer Hesser, a novel about a girl who suffers from OCD. I remember I picked up the book from a local library, it was in the “Young Adult” section, which made me feel very grown-up. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember that I loved it because it brought to life these very real issues of mental illness that people dealt with and I never knew existed.
Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen reminded me of it because I could see how it could be just as an eye-opening experience to someone of that age today. It doesn’t deal with OCD, but with other important mental health issues such as depression, guilt and self-identity. The great thing about Optimists Die First though, is how fun it is, and despite dealing with some difficult subjects, it is light-hearted and approachable.
Petula De Wilde is sixteen years old and she always plans for the worst. She doesn’t walk past construction sites, she carries a rape whistle, she makes sure to frequently look for newspaper articles about freak accidents just so she can be prepared. It’s no wonder why she has to do these things since her little sister died choking on a button from a onesie that Petula made for her. After her sister’s death, Petula became paranoid and anxious, her father became distant, her mother grew an obsession about fostering unwanted cats, and they live around things they can’t talk about.
Things begin to change when Petula meets Jacob, a boy with a bionic hand that recently moved to the city. They both attend a Youth Art Therapy class, with other three dysfunctional teenagers, and they bond when they come up with an idea to express themselves through film. As Petula opens up to experiences of both friendship and romance, she begins to lose her fears, and sorts through her guilt and anger. She even reconnects with her old best friend, her DIY-buddy, who she fell out with after her sister died. But just as love heals, it can hurt, so when Petula realizes that Jacob might not be as truthful as she hopes, and that her parents wants to divorce, she has to use her new ways of dealing.
Optimists Die First was a sweet, short read (it took me about 2.5 hours but it is meant for elementary school ages), and I really enjoyed it. As a lot of books at that level, it was quirky, but pleasantly so – not quirky enough to be annoying. The characters were diverse, funny, rounded, interesting. The love interest, Jacob, wasn’t a “wooshy haired” heartthrob, but a normal [bionic] teenager with something to hide. Petula was different from her peers, but found a group of friends where her differences were embraced and supported. At times she was wrong, abrasive, and drawn to self-pity, but she was also sad, and strong while dealing with real-life situations.
That is where Nielsen really impressed me. Even though Optimists Die First is a relatively short book, it is full of fantastic, complicated characters and strong plot. She was informative without being preachy. Her approach to the teenage experience seemed genuine and not forced – which makes complete sense since she did write for the TV show Degrassi. She knows her audience, and I could picture Optimists Die First being a film. In a way, it reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower but without all the heaviness, forced emotional drama and overwrought characters. I also admired the way that Nielsen dealt with sexuality, and with the brightness and amusement that she delivered her morality.
All that said, the one downside – and I’m being really nit-picky – was her use of popular culture and technology. Those things tend to date extremely quickly, which will lower the impression of readers of Optimists Die First in the future.
Hopefully, kids will be seeing Optimists Die First on their Scholastic lists in the coming years. I know that as a preteen I would have enjoyed it immensely.
I received the ARC of Optimists Die First from a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review. I want to thank Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a copy.