Ugh. Why are sad stories so darn alluring?!
I have a friend who refuses to read sad books, and that seems like a decent self-preservation strategy, but I can’t seem to help myself!
I’m not the only one. My students are frequently attracted to some young adult books that deal with some heavy topics! The fascination is just too intense, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think it must be a curiosity that people have about the world. Or, maybe, we just like to know that we aren’t alone in our trials and tribulations.
A few students book-talked Five Feet Apart by Rachel Lippincott, the novelized version of the 2019 film by Mikk Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis.
The book is a two-perspective narrative between Stella Grant and Will Newman. Both are high school seniors and suffer from cystic fibrosis, a disorder that primarily affects the lungs but can affect other organs.
Reading a book about difficulty breathing during the COVID-19 pandemic was not my wisest decision regarding self-care. Still, I did enjoy this book, even though it’s tough for me to read about childhood illnesses without getting too distraught.
Stella is a fighter. Despite juggling her condition, the grief and survivor’s guilt over losing her older sister in a car accident, and the fallout from her parents’ divorce, Stella is on top of her game. She’s an excellent student, involved with her friends and school, and keeps a vlog (video blog) about her day-to-day life with cystic fibrosis.
Stella foregoes traveling to Mexico with her friends for spring break because her cystic fibrosis flares up at the start of the novel. Instead, she checks herself into the hospital, not wanting to burden her parents with her illness.
“I’m pretty sure keeping me alive is the only thing keeping my parents going.”Lippencott 101
Stella is a familiar face at the hospital; having spent periods of her childhood in and out of it, she is friendly with the staff and her best friend, Poe, lives down the hall.
“I’ve had so many firsts at this hospital, it’s hard to count them all. My first surgery. My first best friend. My first chocolate milkshake.”Lippencott 176
Will is a trouble maker. He knows he needs to be careful and take better care of himself, but he’s pretty much reserves no hope of living past his young adulthood.
“When you have CF you sort of get used to the idea of dying young.”Lippencott 18
“‘It’s just life. It’ll be over before we know it.’”Lippencott 19
His mother, however, remains vigilant and checks him into the hospital for a new treatment for his Burkholderia cepacia complex, which complicates his CF even further. The trial drug, Cevaflomalin, is fiction, of course. The authors express their hope at the end that someday there will be such a treatment for patients with CF who contract B. cepacia.
“I reach out to touch it gently, feeling the weight of the bag in my palm. The trial is so new. Still too new to know how this will turn out. It’s the first time I’ve even let myself think about it . . . which might be dangerous. Or even stupid. I don’t know. Getting my hopes up when a hospital is involved doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.”Lippencott 110-11
Will copes by getting lost in his artwork; he enjoys creating political cartoons and hopes to rattle the establishment.
‘They’re subversive you know? They can look light and fun on the outside, but they have punch.’” Lippencott 112Lippencott 112
He also gets a kick out of annoying Stella. He doesn’t see the purpose behind her dedication to caring for herself.
At first, Stella has to remain masked and six feet apart from Will, anyway lest she contracts the B. cepacia. And she is absolutely fine with that, despite teasing from Poe that she likes Will.
“He thinks I’m crushing on Will. Crushing on the most sarcastic and annoying, not to mention infectious, boy I’ve ever met.”Lippencott 89
But, as Stella and Will get to know each other, their opposites certainly attract. Even when they can admit their feelings about each other to themselves, they are hesitant to act on it. They both know that getting closer than six feet might be signing their death sentences.
“I realize for the first time in a long time, I don’t really feel alone.”Lippencott 97
“For the first time I feel the weight of every single inch, every millimeter, of the six feet between us.”Lippencott 107
But one day, Stella takes a stand against her disease. She proclaims on her blog her feelings for Will, and she declares that she will take back only one foot of the distance she is supposed to keep from him.
“How long will I live my life afraid of what-ifs? My life revolves around an obsessive regimen and percentages, and given that I was just in surgery, the risk never seems to go down. Every minute of my life is what if, and it would be no different with Will. But I can already tell one thing. It’ll be different without him.”Lippencott 160
“‘Cystic fibrosis will steal no more from me. From now on, I am the thief.”Lippencott 172
Throughout their whole first date, they remain a dangerous five feet a part.
As their feelings for each other blossom, their relationship becomes more and more dangerous.
I think books like this and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green are essential. We need the voices of all young people, including those who live with illness or different abilities. I mentioned earlier that it’s hard for me to read about children who experience these unfair illnesses. I get angry because I want all children to have safe, happy, and healthy childhoods, and I feel helpless when it seems like I can’t do anything to help them.
“I breathe in and out, feeling the ever-present struggle of my lungs to rise and fall, and I wonder what it would be like with new lungs. Lungs that, for a short while, would completely change life as I know it. Lungs that, for a short while, would completely change life as I know it. Lungs that would actually work. Lungs that would let me breathe, and let me run, and give me more time to really live.”Lippencott 189
I’m not a doctor or scientist, so it’s not likely that I’ll be developing cures for various diseases any time soon. But, I do like to talk about books. So, when I can share voices and stories of young people who experience adversity like this, I make a point to do so. Maybe those young people will feel less alone because they see themselves in the literature they read. Perhaps it will inspire young people privileged with heath or other abilities to investigate, develop, and create treatments, technologies, and discoveries that will make the world more accessible for all children.
“‘I hope my life wasn’t for nothing.’ . . .
‘Your life is everything, Stella. You affect people more than you know . . . I speak from experience.’”Lippencott 189
Another thing that we can do to help children strengthens their communities is by supporting local businesses such as independent bookstores. You can find Five Feet Apart at your local indie bookstore or get it from Bookshop.org! Check out how supporting local businesses helps children here.