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
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.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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 thatcontrary to the expectations of Dora and their parentsElena 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
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)
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.”