Monday, October 24, 2016

Sure Signs of Crazy: A Review and Autographed Giveaway!

Congratulations to Linda Phillips who won an autographed copy of BE LIGHT LIKE A BIRD on last week's blog.

Several years ago I bought Karen Harrington's book, SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY (Little Brown Books, 2013) at a SCBWI conference. As my bookshelves fill up with newer books, sometimes older ones take a back seat. Deciding it was time to read this debut novel, I sped through it in just a few days. For some fortunate reader of this blog, I bet you will too.

Twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson is haunted by her past. When she was two, her mother tried to drown her and her twin brother, Simon. Sadly, Simon died and her mother was sent to a mental-health facility. Sarah hasn't seen her for the last ten years and hears from her only two times a year. More than anything, Sarah longs to know her mother, to have her mother know her, and to not go crazy like her mother did. 

Recently, I blogged about Jan Cheripko's workshops at Highlights Summer Camp about secondary characters. Since I found the secondary characters in SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY to be so well-developed and adding so much to the plot, I decided to show how they contributed to Sarah's story. 

Early on the reader meets Plant, Sarah's best friend. Plant gets moved from one rental house to another and is the recipient of Sarah's confidences and fears. 
Most days when I water Plant, I have a new trouble word to tell her. All of them are mixed deep in her soil. If secrets were seeds, she could bloom leaves that would make me blush.
And if she did bloom and show the world all my secrets, I just don't know what I'd do. Probably I'd lie and say, "Oh, she was here when we moved in. These are the secrets of another girl." (p.  13)

The book begins with the end of sixth grade. Sarah receives an assignment from her English teacher, Mr. Wister, who is another important secondary character. On the last day of school he hands out composition books with the assignment to write an actual letter or story. When the students complain he answers, "Most people don't know what they truly think until they write it down. Don't you want to know what you truly think?" (p. 39)

Without too much thought, Sarah begins a letter to Atticus Finch, one of her literary heroes.
Dear Atticus Finch,
I am writing to you for a class assignment given to me by the greatest English teacher ever, Mr. G. Wistler. He had the idea that we should choose a character to write to. I can't say for certain, but I think I'm the only one writing to you. That is good for me. Most of my classmates are writing to Harry Potter and Lucy Moon. Maybe you've met them at the library. When I was little, I used to think that when the library closed, all the characters came out of the books. (p. 41)
With that, a "correspondence" between Sarah and Atticus begins in which she pours her heart out to him. Although she tries hard to hide the reality of her mother's actions from the people around her, Atticus (and Plant) are safe. They'll never rat on her and they help her feel less alone. 

Lisa is her best friend ("But when you hardly have any friends, best is relative." p.45) who really doesn't serve as much purpose as Atticus or Plant do--except that Sarah hides the truth of her family from her. Lisa is also the girl who is what Sarah wants to be-- a "normal" about-to-be-seventh-grader that has pierced ears and wants her first French kiss. 

Charlotte is the college-aged babysitter who Sarah stays with while her father is at work. She is like a big sister to Sarah, helping her out when Sarah gets her period for the first time and teaching her about make up. But Sarah is more sensible than her babysitter. When Charlotte can't seem to break up with her loser boyfriend, Sarah tries to convince her that she'd be better off without him.  

Because Sarah spends her summer days at Charlotte's house, she meets Charlotte's younger brother Finn. Despite a big age difference, the two connect over their love for words. One day they're killing time watching The Price is Right when an announcer breaks into the show. 
"This is only the second time in Texas's history the charge has been brought forth, the first time being the case of Thomas Nelson following the trial of his wife, Jane Nelson." And there she is, entering my life announced and unwanted. (p. 157)
Finn handles the news with aplomb and later says to her,
"Anyway, we all have big secrets," he says. 
"Really? What's yours?" I ask. "Do you have a tattoo somewhere?" 
He leans into the door frame, studies his shoes."My dad killed himself when I was eleven." 
Then time waits for him to speak again. That's how big the secret is. It has to come out slow. "Apparently, I look just like him, which is a real problem for my mother," he says. "She still has a big reminder of him, you know, whether she wants it or not. So when he died, I sort of lost both my parents, you know. I was mad at both of them, but that doesn't help. I think that's how it might be with your dad." 
I swallow hard. This is the kind of information you want to run and be alone with, dissect it and break it down to be sure you heard it right. 
"It sucks," is all I can say. 
"I agree with your choice of verbs," he says. 
"At least your secret cannot be announced during The Price is Right.  (p. 190)
Sarah's alcoholic professor father, Thomas Nelson, is a very important secondary character. Although Sarah hates his drinking and even at one point pours out his Jim Beam, he is all the parent she has. Her growth is almost in spite of him. At the end of the book after Sarah sees him passed out on the sofa at his parent's house Sarah announces: 
"I'm going to go see her so I can talk. Just to her. I have things I need to day." 
"Couldn't we talk---" 
"No," I cut him off. 
"Maybe a counselor..." 
"No," I tell him again. I want to cry, but the brave girl won't let me. "You are evading. Atticus says a child can spot an evasion quicker than grown-ups. You are supposed to answer my questions." (p. 253)
Sarah tosses To Kill a Mockingbird at her father, tells him to read it and suggests he might learn something from it. 

Easily the most important secondary character is Sarah's mother, Jane Nelson.  The reader mostly meets her in Sarah's thoughts about her, but despite her father's protests, Sarah decides to visit her at the hospital. On the bus trip to the hospital, Sarah writes a moving letter to her mother, pouring out all of her hopes for the relationship they never had. Sadly, Sarah never gets to say what she longs to tell her.  

But her letter writing to Atticus has changed her. Before visiting the hospital they stop by Simon's grave. Afterwards her fathers asks Sarah:
"What did you put on Simon's grave?"
"A page." 
"From the book?" 
"The part where Atticus describes courage. What it means to have it." 
Dad tells me I'm the most courageous person he's ever met. It goes straight to that secret place inside of me where I keep my favorite words. (p. 272)

To win my autographed copy of SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, please leave me a comment by October 27th. If you decide to follow my blog or post this on social media, I'll enter your name twice. Just let me know what you decide to do and PLEASE leave your email address if you are new to my blog!


Rosemary Basham said...

Hello, THE Carol Baldwin. This book sounds great.

Debbie Allmand said...

This sounds like a real study in secondary characters and how they shape the main character. Would love to read it!

Connie Porter Saunders said...

I wasn't familiar with this book but it sounds like a heartwarming read. Carol, thanks for sharing your copy with a lucky winner.
I shared on Twitter.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Rosemary and Deborah. You're both in!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Connie, for commenting and sharing on Twitter. You're in twice!

Halli Gomez said...

Wow Carol, you pick some amazing books. Please enter me in the contest! And I will share on Twitter!

sheri levy said...

Carol, you did it again! Your reviews bring out the wonder of each book. I love how you mentioned the importance of the secondary characters.
I will be sharing, also!

Theresa Milstein said...

Wow, this sounds like an important book. I'm working on a YA manuscript that deals with mental illness and alcoholism. Looks like this would be an important read for me!

Gretchen Griffith said...

Fascinating! Please enter me in the contest!

Linda Phillips said...

Thanks for reviewing this book, Carol. Of course I love the topic and have the privilege of working with the same agent, Julia Kenny of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

I have a feeling multiple characters might be crazy,

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Sherri, Linda, Gretchen, Theresa, and Malcolm for leaving comments. Malcom please leave your email address in case you win. And since they are secondary characters, it''S not a crazy book at all!

Vijaya said...

Another wonderful review. And how funny, I used to think book characters came out to play too, along with toys. Ah, the nightlife!!! Please put my name in the hat. I would love to read this.

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

What a treat to learn about a book new to me. Thank you, Carol.

Carol Baldwin said...

Who knows, Vijaya--maybe they do come out and play! You're in along with Bonnie.

Sandra Warren said...

This sure sounds like a "MUST READ" for writers.

Even though I was fortunate enough to win your last giveaway, I'd love to win this book also.

I agree with the person that said, "You pick great books!"

Carol Baldwin said...

thanks Sandra, for your comment. You're in this giveaway and I'm glad you like the books I pick. There are some great ones out there!

Rosi said...

One of my all time favorite books! I love this and all of Karen Harrington's books. What an interesting study of it. Thanks for the interesting post. No need to enter me in the drawing. I have my own copy.

Kelly Farnsworth said...

I love the review and summary of Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington. I've read Mayday and was fully engaged and loved that story. My 6th graders have been reading it as well.
Sure Signs of Crazy deal with some tough topics that will find their way in some hearts for sure. Thank you so much for the review and an opportunity to win a signed copy.

Unknown said...


A wonderful analysis of what sounds like a very engaging story. For me, the key to those secondary characters is to give them their due. They can't just be a caricature or two-dimensional figure. Can't be in the story just as a prop for the main character or a mere function of the plot. Each has to have her or his own voice. The problem, of course, is how to do that judiciously. Offer the reader a full-bodied being but with a just a few strokes. In a way, it's like writing a good poem: move to the essence quickly. Invite the reader into the secondary character's life, but then move back to the main character. Thematically, the secondary character is a variation on the why of the novel. Sounds like Sure Signs of Crazy has those elements. Thanks for the review

Jan Cheripko

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Kelly and Rosi for your comments. Kelly--make sure you leave your email address in case you win. Jan, thanks so much for your lengthy comments--I continue to learn from you!

Ann Eisenstein said...

Wow! I cannot wait to read this book now - I love books that deal with contemporary, real life issues that kids have to understand and work through.
I am intrigued by characters with whom I immediately feel a sense of kinship. I love these lines: "That's how big the secret is. It has to come out slow." That is truly the way deep secrets must be delivered.
Secondary characters that add so much richness are integral to a great and complex story!
Thanks for this great interview, Carol!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Ann. Entered your name and yes, you must read this book!

Karen Harrington said...


Thank you so much for this wonderful post, which allowed me to revisit these characters and remember why I loved them. They were and are so real to me. I'm recalling how in an early draft the character of Finn was Charlotte's boyfriend, not her brother. The change made him more accessible to Sarah as that "brother of a friend" we all had a crush on. (At least, I did.) I also love Mrs. Dupree for her complete support for Sarah and her ability to impart a few motherly life lessons. I had them all living on a cul-du-sac around Sarah because I wanted her to be encircled with people who would help her to grow up. Thanks again!


Carol Baldwin said...

My pleasure, Karen. I liked Mrs Dupree also. You created such real secondary characters! I'll remember them for a long time.

Linda A. said...

I really enjoyed reading the selections you shared. I love the author's voice. I will put this to Facebook so others can appreciate this post too.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, LInda. You're in twice!

Unknown said...

Sounds like a great read, Carol. Please add my name.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Chris. you're in!

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