Black Box

Black Box

4.3 16
by Julie Schumacher

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WHEN DORA, ELENA’S older sister, is diagnosed with depression and has to be admitted to the hospital, Elena can’t seem to make sense of their lives anymore. At school, the only people who acknowledge Elena are Dora’s friends and Jimmy Zenk—who failed at least one grade and wears blackevery day of the week. And at home, Elena’s parents


WHEN DORA, ELENA’S older sister, is diagnosed with depression and has to be admitted to the hospital, Elena can’t seem to make sense of their lives anymore. At school, the only people who acknowledge Elena are Dora’s friends and Jimmy Zenk—who failed at least one grade and wears blackevery day of the week. And at home, Elena’s parents keep arguing with each other. Elena will do anything to help her sister get better and get their lives back to normal—even when the responsibility becomes too much to bear.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Lena Lindt and her older sister, Dora, have always been close, like "right and left hands laced tight together." They and their parents accept that Dora is the moody but fun one, "a storm on the horizon, [Lena] the needle that always pointed to steady," a formula that works until Dora is overcome by severe depression in her junior year of high school. Schumacher's (The Book of One Hundred Truths) characterizations are humane yet shaded: to combat the effect of Dora's illness, Mr. and Mrs. Lindt send the outwardly coping Lena to a therapist but treat Dora's eventual hospitalization like a shameful secret. Lena, meanwhile, feels an us-against-the-parents bond with her sister, who uses their intimacy to pressure Lena to keep secrets that may be endangering her recovery. The title refers to the drugs prescribed for Dora; at least one comes with a "black box" warning, meaning that the person taking it is at increased risk for suicide and needs to be watched closely-traditionally, Lena's job in the family. An expert use of metaphor, combined with sympathetic insight into the impact of depression on families, turns a painful subject into a standout novel. Ages 12-up. (Sept.)

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KLIATT - Myrna Marler
Depression is "the black box," and this novel focuses on families who love someone in the grip of mental illness. True depression can be likened to a black hole, walking underground, breathing underwater. It cannot be described, as the 15-year-old protagonist's parents do, as "the blues," or "sadness," or "feeling down." It cannot be fully understood unless experienced, which makes the illness so bewildering for family and friends. Why would someone with a perfectly manageable life want to commit suicide? Elena, the younger sister, is efficient, organized, generally cheerful, and labeled as "the steady Eddie" in her family. Her 16-year-old sister Dora, on the other hand, has always been moody, artistic, mercurial. She sinks into a severe depression, tries to take her life, and is hospitalized. There, she is drugged and released. Elena is then caught in the middle, knowing her sister is still depressed, not taking her pills, cutting school. She wants to save her sister, but is unable to talk to her parents. They want to pretend to the world that all is "fine." Elena doesn't know whether to betray Dora's trust to save her or spill her secrets. She believes that Dora will never break a promise not to kill herself, but ultimately finds that Dora's pain is greater than any promise. This is a quick read with short chapters; the story holds no ready answers but expresses with understanding the confusion, pain, shame, and helplessness that family members feel. Ultimately, even mentally ill people are responsible for their choices, but social isolation and embarrassment should not be the consequences of illness that comes without warning and with few explanations. Reviewer: Myrna Marler
Children's Literature - Naomi Milliner
Even though she's two years younger, 14-year-old Elena has always looked out for her big sister: "On a barometer, Dora was a storm on the horizon; I was the needle that always pointed to steady." However, despite Elena's best efforts, Dora grows more and more troubled until she swallows too many pills and lands in a psych ward. The first time Elena visits her there, Dora whispers "Save me." Loyal, dependable, trusting and loving, Elena is determined to oblige; she just isn't sure how. Guidance comes from an unexpected source: Jimmy Z, a strange, unorthodox peer whose brother allegedly spent time in the same psych ward. Elena also begins seeing an older woman she thinks of as "Grandma Therapist," who gradually helps her realize that—contrary to the expectations of Dora and their parents—Elena is not responsible for Dora's recovery. This is an excellent, powerful book filled with honest emotions, complex characters, and even an unexpected twist or two. Elena is a tremendously sympathetic character, and her family's journey is a compelling one. Reminiscent of Ordinary People (whose author, Judith Guest, is fittingly quoted on the cover), this is a beautiful and sensitive exploration of a difficult subject. Highly recommended. Reviewer: Naomi Milliner
VOYA - Barbara Johnston
Lena and her older sister Dora are close, but Lena is shocked when Dora swallows too many antidepressant pills and has to be hospitalized. With their parents in denial and disagreeing about treatment, Dora begs Lena to "save her." When Dora returns to school, the concerned and dependable Lena discovers that all is not well. Surprisingly her unusual friend Jimmy Zenk seems to understand Dora's behavior. He uncovers a stash of her pills, explains the "black box" warning, and urges Lena to tell her parents, but Lena will not break Dora's confidence. Eventually Dora's attempted suicide forces the family to seek different treatment. Encumbered by her failure to save Dora, Lena finally realizes that she can trust Jimmy enough to release her own emotional burden. With its concise prose, short chapters, and compelling main characters, this book vividly captures the far-reaching tentacles of depression. Feelings of shame and the need to pretend that "all is fine" not only cloud Lindt family decisions but also are common in real situations and actually delay effective treatment. In her author's note, Schumacher states her hope is that this book might provide solace to anyone who is suffering from or impacted by depression. If merely one person is rescued by recognizing its symptoms and seeks help or is given hope of recovery, she has succeeded. Schumacher wisely lists the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at the novel's end. Heart-wrenching and educational, this book should be available to all readers. Reviewer: Barbara Johnston
School Library Journal

Gr 7 Up

Stable and stoic Elena is a high school freshman when her beloved older sister, Dora, is hospitalized for depression. Elena takes it upon herself to look after her sibling when she comes home, while Dora and, ultimately, the entire family fall to pieces. In the end, Elena, with the help of her friend Jimmy Zenk, comes to realize that she alone can't make her better and that Dora has to help herself. With few words, characters are expertly fleshed out. For example, telling details reveal Elena's personality: "Matching socks was generally acknowledged to be my specialty." Schumacher eloquently describes the devastating effect that depression can have on a family. The writing is spare, direct, and honest. Written in the first person, this is a readable, ultimately uplifting book about a difficult subject.-Ragan O'Malley, Saint Ann's School, Brooklyn, NY

Kirkus Reviews
Sisters Dora and Elena had been as close as "right and left hands laced tight together," but temperamentally they were completely different; Dora was the "storm on the horizon," while Elena was "the needle that always pointed to steady." When Dora begins suffering from a depression so profound that she becomes suicidal, Elena, who is starting a new school and lacks social support, puts her own life on hold as she struggles with the impossible task of trying to save another. Elena's one friend and sounding board is the boy down the street, a nonconformist with a devastating secret, and their oddball, off-center dialogue is the high point of this heartrending novel. As Dora's condition worsens, Elena is forced to choose between competing loyalties. Fittingly, the novel doesn't resolve neatly; although it ends on a note of healing and hope, its strength is in the way it allows readers to see the messy, ugly complexities of mental illness and witness the collateral damage it wreaks on the entire family. (Fiction. 12 & up)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, School Library Journal, August 2008:
"A readable, ultimately uplifting book about a difficult subject."

Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, August 4, 2008:
"[A] standout novel."

Starred Review, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September 2008:
"[T]his understatedly told story dramatically illustrates the way one family member's setback happens to the whole family, but they must all still find their own ways through it."

Starred Review, Booklist, November 1, 2008:
"Schumacher beautifully conveys Elena's loneliness and guilt as she tries to protect her sister without betraying her, as well as the emotional release she experiences upon finding someone to trust with her own feelings."

“This tale of a good family that suddenly finds itself in bad trouble is witty and spare and expertly maps the territory of depression. Julie Schumacher is a wonderful writer; I love this novel.” —Judith Guest, bestselling author of Ordinary People

“Schumacher’s books ring with genuine and true memories, and her technical skills put her among the top middle-grade and YA writers working today.”—Pete Hautman, winner of the National Book Award

Black Box is a vivid, intimate portrait of the effect depression has on its immediate victim and on the people around her. Taut and compact, it is written with passionate clarity.”—Andrew Solomon, bestselling author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

Product Details

Random House Children's Books
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Random House
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File size:
265 KB
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

On Sunday right after breakfast we went back to the hospital.

We walked through a sudden rain to the double doors of the main entrance, then shook the water from our clothes and crossed through the emergency room waiting area, where people with dislocated arms or broken fingers–things that were probably easy to fix–waited their turns the way we had done two days before.

My mother pushed the button for the elevator and turned to me as if discovering my existence for the first time. “Are you sure you’re up for this?” My mother was short, like me, and I worried I would grow up to be a lot like her: determined, chubby, and a pain in the neck. “That was traumatic yesterday,” she said. “You can wait in the lobby if you don’t want to come.”

“Of course she wants to come.” My father put his hand on my shoulder. I felt like their private puppet. Let me make her talk!

The elevator opened. Everyone else who filed in with us was carrying flowers and GET WELL! balloons. A little girl was dressed as if she were going to a birthday party. We got off on the fourth floor (no one else got off with us) and nodded to the security guard.

“Let’s not say anything to upset her,” my mother said.

“We ’ll just be ourselves.”

Who else would we be?
I wondered.

We stowed our jackets in a locker, walked through the metal detector, and buzzed the bell by the door.

I had brought Dora’s favorite pajama pants and a sweatshirt that said IOWA SURF CLUB, but the nurse who answered the door and let us in said Dora couldn’t have them because the sweatshirt had a hood on it and the pants had a string. “No ropes, no strings. And nothing sharp,” the nurse said. “I’ll keep these behind the desk so you can take them home.”
Beyond the desk where the nurses worked, I saw a group of kids–maybe a dozen of them–sitting in gray plastic chairs in a semicircle. One girl was asleep sitting up. The others didn’t seem to be doing anything. A boy lifted his head and stared at me blankly, and I thought of the animals at the zoo, living their lives behind glass while a series of spectators either ignored them or hoped they would get up and do something worthwhile.

The nurse–her name tag identified her as Bev–said that Sunday mornings weren’t technically set up for “socializing,” but since we hadn’t been able to see Dora yet, she supposed we might stay for a short visit.

Where is she?” My mother hugged her arms to her chest.

One of the kids–he had short blond hair and what appeared to be fifteen or twenty stitches in his forehead–pointed toward a set of open doorways on the right: “She’s in her room.”

My sister’s new bedroom, like every other bedroom on the adolescent psychiatric ward at Lorning Memorial Hospital, had two narrow beds, both of them bolted to the vinyl floor, two wooden cubbies bolted to the wall, a gray smeared window that didn’t open, and a bathroom door that didn’t lock. She was reading a comic book on the bed nearer the window, her long legs straddling the mattress. She was wearing jeans and a hospital gown. The gown was printed with teddy bears holding stethoscopes.

“Dora,” my father said. “Hey. It’s great to see you.”

My sister turned toward us where we were clustered in the doorway. There was something different about her, I thought. There was something new about the way she looked at us, as if we weren’t the family she had expected.

I thought my mother was going to cry again; instead, she rushed forward. “We tried to visit you yesterday but you were . . . upset.” She sat down on the bed next to Dora and touched the side of her face, her arms, her hair. “You look good, sweetheart.”

Dora put down her comic book. Her skin was blotchy and her hair was braided. Dora never wore braids. “They locked me up,” she said. “I wasn’t ‘upset.’ I was throwing a fit. They wanted me to eat something disgusting and when I wouldn’t eat it they decided I was anorexic.”

My father told her that throwing a fit was probably a bad idea and that she might want to maintain an even keel. One of the nurses from the desk poked her head through the doorway, seemed to count us, and nodded.

“Ten-minute checks.” Dora picked at her fingers.

“Someone sticks their head in here and stares at me every ten minutes, even at night.” She tugged on the hem of my T-shirt. “What do you think, Lena? Nice place, huh?”
“Great,” I said. “It’s really elegant.”

Dora’s expression changed slowly; she almost grinned.

“Let me show you around.” She swung her leg over the bed and stood up. “Closet,” she said, pointing with a flourish at the wooden cubbies. “For all those up-to-date hospital fashions. And look in the bathroom: no hooks. And no shower rod. They don’t want you to hang yourself. I can’t even hang up my towel.”

My father was standing in front of the window, facing out, even though there was nothing but a parking lot to look at.

“No blinds on the windows,” Dora said, still posing like a game-show hostess. “No shoelaces, no razors, no scissors or pencils. No cell phones. No music.”

I was waiting for her to say that she didn’t need to be there; I was waiting for my parents to tell her it was time to come home.

“I know this is hard,” my mother said. “Just do what the doctors and the nurses tell you. We’re supposed to meet with the doctor on Wednesday.”

“Why aren’t we meeting with the doctor until Wednesday?” my father asked without turning around.

“Because,” my mother said. Her voice was taut. “That’s when they told us we could get an appointment.”

Dora sat down on the bed again. She flopped face first against the sheets and let my mother scratch her back. Dora loved to be scratched. “I wanted more clothes,” she mumbled. “I thought you would bring some.”

“We’ll bring them next time,” my mother said.

“And I want my hairbrush.” Dora’s eyes were closed.

“And I want underwear and socks and a pile of T-shirts. And some gum and a book. I need something to read.”

“Your father’s writing this down,” my mother said. My father searched for a pen.

“And bring me a sandwich?” Dora asked. “The food here is terrible.”

Meet the Author

Julie Schumacher is the author of three books for middle-grade readers. This is her first YA novel. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Black Box 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
BlkosinerBookBlog More than 1 year ago
This is a powerful read, and a true peek into the world of depression and how it effects other people. Elena is strong, and it is hard to experience her sister's depression and the fallout, but it is such an important topic. She makes some mistakes, and it shows good things to do and not to... As relating to her sister, her family, and keeping her life outside of Dora going. It is such a hard balance. Jimmy is a great addition, and even though I began to suspect his big secret, I really loved how he stepped up and was there for Elena. This is a quick and poignant read that I def recommend.
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
BLACK BOX by Julie Schumacher is a heartfelt and moving portrait of teen depression. The author captures the pain of trying to rescue someone you love when you do not know how to save them.

Elena's otherwise typical teenage life is suddenly a lot more difficult when her older sister, Dora, is hospitalized for depression. There is nothing Elena wants more in the world than to see her sister happy again, back to her old self, when they used to play silly games and enjoy the little things in life.

The bond between the sisters is so powerful that Elena knows she is the only one Dora trusts. It is rare for a younger sibling to be put in the position of watching over an older one, but Elena rises to the occasion with an intense love and determination to protect Dora from herself. Soon, Dora's depression becomes all Elena can think about, smothering all other interests and feelings.

Family dynamics make the situation even more stressful, especially when Elena's parents try to keep Dora's depression as secret as possible. When Elena is not included in her mother and father's discussions about her sister, Elena loses her trust for her parents. However, she vows to do her part in helping her sister recover, with or without her parents' help.

Turning to a new friend at school, Jimmy, Elena tries to understand what Dora is going through and what she can do to help. Jimmy and Elena form the closest kind of friendship - the kind where it is comforting just to sit on the phone without talking, knowing that the other person is there for you.

Short, direct chapters emphasize Elena's anxiety and sense of ever-increasing urgency for her sister's condition. Though the story is told solely from Elena's perspective, readers can sympathize with and understand both Elena's and Dora's struggles.

Schumacher portrays depression as a disease that torments loved ones of the depressed with almost the same ferocity as the depressed themselves. Dora is the one fighting depression - but Elena is also suffocating from the pressure.
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
4.5 stars. I found myself laughing and commenting to this CD’s all the way through as this family deals with the affects of depression. I picked this set up at the library on a whim, loving the cover and the fact that it wasn’t too long. There were days I was anxious to get back into the car so I could pick this story back up and other times, I ended up sitting in the car long after I had arrived at my destination just so I could hear more of the novel. Some of the chapters are extremely short but those short chapters pack a powerful punch. As Dora is diagnosed with depression, her family begins to feel the ramifications of this medical condition. Her sister Elena is questioned/harassed by individuals at their school and as she tells the story, the weight of her sister’s diagnosis seems to weigh her down. Their once peaceful household is now home to arguing, irritation and anger. I don’t know whether I enjoyed this novel immensely because it was an audio or because of the emotions and truths that spilled forth from the speakers but the way the author included all aspects affecting this family was wonderfully done. Elena is thrown a lifeline by Jimmy, a boy whose circle she hadn’t ever cross but Jimmy knows things and they way those two connected, it was exactly what Elena needed. This one will stay with me a while.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although fictiion, this story sucks you in and shares the very real struggles of depression.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. It's such a good read.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think this book was wonderful. Though i am young(11 years old) and people may think its useless coming from the mind of a child this book really opened my eyes. It showed me depression isn't something you kid about and the characters in the story sort of learned that in their own way. Dora suffers and Elena is suffering her sisters suffering, Jimmy is supposed to be there to help but how could he? This book keeps you interested in some ways and in others it gets you a little lost but it does tell a story about a girl and her family that you might want to know(even though it's not real.)
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow, this book is truely amazing its entertaining, you can feel the emotional issues with the family as you turn the page. I could really feel for the younger sister Elana, the things she went through. And Dora reading the book just made me want to help her. This is a great book and I recomend it to anyone who likes challenging emotional stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is one that icould not put down i read at school night morning lunch and even at sleepovers. Scince this book i own every schumacher book and they are all amazing books i recomend them!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is amazing and awesome! I read it in a half of a day and could not put it down!!!!