The Bravest Word
Walker Books, 2022
240pp., pbk., RRP $A17.99
Last year Matt did really well at school, loved being a star football player, hanging out with his friends Kai and Ted and playing jungle Warfare, while avoiding bully-boy Joseph. But this year things are very different – and it’s much more than the changes that being at high school bring.
Instead of enjoying football, he has a panic attack when he steps on the field; he avoids Kai and Ted; he’s not paying attention in class or doing his homework – in fact, he feels like he is so worthless that he is ruining the lives of those around him, including his loving parents and is beginning to wonder whether he should really be here at all. He is always tired and wanting to sleep and the tears come all the time, especially when he doesn’t want them…
While his mother dismisses his issues as “growing pains”, his father has a suspicion that there is something deeper going on and he takes Matt on a walk to see if Matt will open up. But before he gets the chance, they hear a whimper in the bushes and discover a severely neglected and abused dog tied to a tree. Together they release it and take it to a vet where Matt promises Cliff, whom he has named after his recently passed, dearly loved grandfather, that life will get better. But is that a promise he can keep when he is in such a dark place and his mother has said no to having a dog so many times before… And when it all boils down, who helps whom the most?
While this is a story probably more suited to the upper end of the target audience of this blog, nevertheless it is a poignant, compelling story for both teachers and parents as it gives such an insight into childhood anxiety and depression demonstrating that these are real illnesses for our kids, and also for the students themselves, because there will be some who will see themselves in Matt and who may, through him, build the courage to utter that bravest word. Although the story is written very positively, the characters are very real and there were times when I was close to tears as I read. Why is there still such a stigma attached to having a mental illness but not-so when it’s a physical illness? Why is it OK to take medication long-term to have a healthy heart but not to have a healthy brain?
However, shared as a classroom read-aloud in conjunction with the teachers’ notes and other authoritative resources, this could have a positive outcome for someone, especially when suicide is the leading cause of death in Australians aged 15-24 and “for every youth suicide, there are 100 to 200 more attempts.” At the very least it will raise awareness and understanding and even if the sick child doesn’t or can’t open up, one of their classmates might trigger a conversation.
Kate Foster is also the author of Paws, in which she drew on her own son’s experience to give us a look into the world of the autistic child and this book is every bit as eye-opening as that. If we are to acknowledge and recognise the struggles that some of those we know are experiencing, then this is a must-read in my opinion.