The drawing on the cover of this It’s Kind of a Funny Story is what first made me decide to pick it up. The outlined image of a head filled with a map of streets that probably don’t exist in the real world was interesting. What is this place? I had no idea.
To me, this drawing is a great visual example of the mind of a person with mental illness. Streets that take you nowhere, but seem to hold so much promise at first glance. Readers attracted to the artwork on the front of the book will be excited to learn that this kind of artwork plays an important part in the story itself. It’s not just pretty cover art!
Craig Gilner is one of the smart kids. He studied extremely hard, for most of a year, to get into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School. He was the kid in Junior High sitting at the lunch table studying flash cards, when all the other kids were making friends, and having first crushes.
Craig does more than get accepted to the school, he also aces the entrance exam. This makes him feel like he is on the first stepping stone to a successful future. The summer before high school, Craig starts making friends and having a social life, and even having some fun for once.
But then, things start getting difficult. Readers learn early in the book that Craig is telling us his “kind of a funny story” from the inside of a hospital’s mental ward, which he voluntarily checked himself into.
This is a book one would find in the Teen or Young Adult section of the big chain bookstores. Craig is fifteen. His friends smoke pot, and he decides to try it as well. All the teens have the expected awkwardness that happens to everyone when they find themselves attracted to someone for the first time, and unsure what, exactly, to do about it. High school is the entire universe.
Guys who are around fifteen, Craig’s age, are going to have an easy time relating to Craig in a lot of ways. Vizzini’s story is written with the perfect mix of seriousness and slightly twisted humor that will captivate readers of any age, even adults. The thing I like best about “Teen books” is the freedom authors have to take the story into unexpected places. There is this acceptance of mixed genres that one does not find on other shelves in the bookstore very often.
What I found to be most interesting about this book is the depiction of mental illness. Readers get the view from inside Craig’s head, as he struggles. He identifies things as “Tentacles” and “Anchors”, feeling that there are too many tentacles grabbing at his time and attention, and not enough anchors to grab on to.
He also is having trouble eating, and keeping food down, and the way Craig visualizes this is unique, but also very relatable for anyone who has had food issues of their own to deal with. He’s got this Army Sergeant in his head he feels the need to answer to (but not out loud). Readers will get a glimpse of what it can be like to have intrusive thoughts, to know these thoughts are insane, and to be unable to simply get past them.
This isn’t simply a book about teenage angst gone intense, however. Due to construction work at the hospital, the teen ward is full, and Craig ends up housed with the adults. Vizzini has created some fascinating characters here for Craig to meet. My favorite is his roommate, Muqtada, an Egyptian man who is afraid to leave his room.
The rest of the ward, I will leave you to discover for yourself. Mental illness takes many forms, and differs in how it is expressed, and this is something Vizzini represents very well in his cast of characters. Perhaps the authenticity in the characters comes from Vizzini’s own experience. He spent five days in a hospital’s adult mental ward himself, before writing this book.