Words Can and Do Hurt in Abby Cooper’s Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones…

We all know the phrase.

And something else we all know, that dirty little secret, is that words can hurt. Maybe not physically. But the inevitable name-calling, the teasing, and the outright mean words that comes with adolescence leave an invisible mark.

That is, unless you’re Elyse Everett. Twelve years ago, Elyse was born into the world and immediately pronounced a beautiful baby. Nothing new there; everybody knows babies are beautiful. But then the word “beautiful” actually appeared on baby Elyse’s arm. From there, there were tests, and doctors, and ultimately a diagnosis of the very rare cognadjivisibilitis—CAV for short, which means that words used to describe her actually appear on Elyse’s arms and legs. At first, things aren’t so bad. Babies are cute and adorable, after all. But then came the other words, the worse ones. Dork, and freak, and loser. Each one shows up on Elyse’s arms or legs, like a temporary tattooand those hateful words aren’t harmless. They actually bubble up and itch.

For the most part, Elyse has learned to live with her unique diagnosis. She has her best friend Jeg by her side, her overprotective mother, and her doctor, Dr. Patel. But as Elyse starts middle school, things begin to change. Jeg starts hanging out with the cool girls; the group she and Elyse used to call The Loud Crowd. Her mom has become kind of embarrassing. And worst of all, Elyse discovers that it’s not only others words that can hurt her, it’s her own, too. Words like stupid, and unlovable, and worthless. Not even her mother’s super-strength-ultra-gloopy cream can make these words stop itching.

It would seem, though, that Elyse is not alone as she feels. Notes, typed on blue paper, begin appearing in her locker, tucked into her backpack, even in the teacher’s mailbox. The notes are anonymous, but the writer knows a whole lot about Elyse, about her condition…and how to help. As the year goes on, the notes continue to appear just as Elyse needs them. It’s with the help of these notes that Elyse discovers  she’s capable of far more than she imagined, CAV and all. It’s the kind of support Elyse would love to thank her mysterious stranger for…if only she could figure out who that stranger is.

In Sticks and Stonesauthor Abby Cooper explores the power of words. Elyse is your typical middle schooler. She’s dealing with crushes, the desire to fit in, changing friendships, jealousy, embarrassment over parents. The kind of stuff every reader can relate to. But then there are the words. As adults, it’s easy for us to brush the teasing of adolescence aside, to say that it’s just words, that words can’t really hurt us. But what if they could? What if they left physically stung? What if they left visible impressions? There’s always the occasional compliment, but those sensations never seem to last as long. And what about the words like interesting, that are harder to figure out? Is being interesting a good thing, or a bad thing? The reality is, we all carry these descriptive word tattoos. Just not on our arms. Sticks and Stones takes an insightful and inventive look at the impact that name-calling has on us. It might make young readers think twice about the power of words—for good, as well as for evil.

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