Great stories remind us that we are not alone. Despite our differences, we all have similar struggles, fears, dreams and hopes. By identifying with a book’s character, we can see our own situation from another point of view and discover new ways to deal with our problems.
But what if you have a hard time finding fictional figures you can relate with?
‘Sick lit’ is the somewhat questionable name for a new genre of novels, featuring characters who are faced with illness. Following John Green’s blockbuster book The Fault in Our Stars, lots of gripping stories about terminally ill teenagers and their tragic romances have hit the book shops and movie theaters.
However, there haven’t been many novels written that put living with chronic illness in the spotlight. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, because let’s face it, being chronically ill is kinda boring. Instead of going on ‘before-I-die’ adventures, life with MS, chronic migraine or Lyme disease feels more like an endless repetition of doctor’s visits, therapy and sick days in bed.
Fortunately, the sick lit below shows a glimpse of what it’s like to be diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, HIV and osteogenesis imperfecta. And although they’re mostly young adult novels, the older ones among us can still relate to the medical dilemmas, everyday problems and existential questions that the protagonists struggle with.
So if you’re looking for a relatable read, check out these 6 captivating novels that star chronically ill characters.
Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott
This bestselling novel features the heartfelt romance of two chronically ill teens who face one major obstacle: they have to stay six feet apart at all times.
Stella Grant suffers from Cystic Fibrosis (CF). This hereditary and life-threatening disease causes the body to produce thick mucus that clogs up the lungs and obstructs the pancreas. Stella’s only hope is to get a lung transplant, and she meticulously follows the necessary, time-consuming, daily medical routines.
During a hospital stay, she meets Will, another young CF patient who recently contracted B.Cepacia. This bacteria makes his lungs even more vulnerable – and dangerous to other sufferers. To avoid contamination, Stella and Will can’t get within 6 feet of each other without risking her place on the transplant list. The only way to stay alive is to stay apart.
But when tragedy unfolds around them, Stella wants to ‘take back’ one foot that their illness has stolen from them. Will living five feet apart hurt their broken lungs, or will they get their heart broken?
Five Feet Apart is a touching sick lit story about being torn between the oh-so-important treatment compliance and breaking the isolation of living with cystic fibrosis.
Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult
In this well-researched novel, Jodi Picoult once again puts the spotlight on the ethical questions and moral dilemmas that having a seriously ill family member can bring. Willow is born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. Despite this genetic defect that causes her bones to break easily, Willow is a smart and sweet 5-year old girl.
In order to keep up with the mounting medical bills, her devastated mother Charlotte decides to sue her midwife – who’s also her best friend – for ‘wrongful birth’. But that means Charlotte and her husband Sean must testify under oath that, should they have been given all the facts about their daughter’s condition, they would have terminated the pregnancy. And that statement puts a bomb under their already strained family and faith…
Using alternating narrators, Handle with Care highlights the deeper issues of illness, from financial troubles to caregiving and troubled family dynamics, from different point of views.
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Jessica is born to run – until she loses her leg in a car accident. The 17-year old star of the track team is struck with despair, even though doctors tell her she can learn how to walk with a prosthetic leg. But when Jess sees a video of Paralympic athlete Oscar Pretorius running with two prosthetic limbs, she dares to dream about one day running again…
While Jessica’s struggling to learn to live with a missing leg , the world around her didn’t stop. To catch up on schoolwork, Jessica gets help from Rosa, a math whiz with cerebral palsy whom she and her friends always overlooked. Rosa doesn’t just come to Jessica’s rescue in math, she also shows her new friend that you should never judge a book by its covers.
When her track team raises money to get her a special running leg, Jessica is determined to cross that finish line. But can she take Rosa with her on her recovery journey?
The Running Dream is more than a moving story about recovering from a leg amputation – it’s also about the power of hope, determination, friendship and support.
Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon
What if you could never feel the sun on your face, meet new people or leave your home? Madeline Whittier is an 18-year old Afro-Asian girl who suffers from Severe Combined Immunodeficieny (SCID). She is life-threatening allergic to basically everything. Together with her mom, Maddy’s confined to her sealed-off, sterilized house, and the only other person she ever sees is her nurse Carla.
Then one day, her world gets turned upside-down when a charming boy moves in next door. When Olly catches a glimpse of Maddy, he writes his email address on the damped window and they start exchanging messages. Maddy falls hard for Olly, but will she sacrifice her personal health for love?
Everything Everything shows what it feels like to truly want to live, even if that means taking huge risks. As the seemingly doomed love story unfolds via illustrations and diary entries, we catch a glimpse of the dilemmas people with chronic illness, mental health problems and child abuse face.
Positively by Courtney Sheinmel
Emerson Price is only 13 years old when her mother passes ways from AIDS. Lost and confused, Emmy is sent to live with her estranged father and stepmother. To make matters even worse, Emmy is HIV-positive herself. And now that her mom’s gone, she’s left in charge of her own health. Every day feels like a reminder that the disease that killed her mom still courses through her own veins.
When her father sends her to Camp Positive, a summer camp for HIV-positive kids, for the first time in her life Emmy’s surrounded by girls her own age who really understand what she’s going through. Will Emmy finally open up and learn to let others in again?
Positively is a heartbreaking yet hopeful story about feeling alone in the world, dealing with the death of a loved one and learning to love again.
Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider
Lane is a straight A student working hard to get into an Ivy League school when he’s sent to Latham House, a sanatorium where kids with tuberculosis go to heal. Because this infectious disease attacking the lungs is highly contagious, he can’t have visitors or leave the grounds.
Lane won’t let this period of quarantine get in the way of getting into a top university. But then he meets Sadie, a girl who’s been at Latham House for so long it’s starting to feel like home. Sadie and her misfit friends love to break the rules and get in trouble; sneaking out and taking risks. And Lane starts to wonder if there’s more to life than achievement…
Told from both Lanes and Sadies point of view, Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny sick lit about first love, friendship and second chances.
What do you think of the ‘sick lit’ genre? And what’s your favorite book starring chronically ill characters?
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