Karen Harrington’s Courage for Beginners: a middle-grade book for all ages

If you think that children’s realistic fiction isn’t relatable, I suggest giving Karen Harrington’s work a try. In Courage for Beginners, readers are dropped into the very believable but also very difficult world of Mysti Murphy. Mysti is 12, and learning to navigate the shark-infested waters of seventh grade. Unfortunately, her former best friend Anibal has decided to “become a hipster” in order to win the heart of a cheerleader. According to Anibal, this  means that he can no longer associate with Mysti at all. Worse, he makes a point of publicly teasing her. Mysti has bigger problems, unfortunately. Her mother is severely agoraphobic, and is unable to leave the house. Her father, who takes care of the family’s daily needs, is in an accident and falls into a coma. Mysti is forced to be provide for her family at home (which includes her mother, her dog, and her little sister) while being bullied in school.

Mysti has a wild imagination, and is such a witty and creative character that it’s hard to feel sorry for her. Although she remains upbeat in the face of immense difficulty, she is still only twelve years old. As the family’s toilet paper and food supply dwindle, Mysti must face the long, scary walk to the grocery store which is an insurmountable obstacle for her mother. Mysti triumphantly champions an absorbing a story about inner strength, but this book doesn’t let other people off the hook, despite Mysti’s resourcefulness. It also doesn’t attempt to gloss over mental illness.  In addition to learning how to be brave (although we suspect that she had it in her all along), Mysti also learns the value of being–and having–true friends.

Ms. Harrington has written two books so far, and I have loved both of them. Her debut novel, Sure Signs of Crazy was a poignant and absorbing read. Ms. Harrington’s sensitive treatment of mental illness and its effect on family life makes both of her middle-grade novels worth reading, discussing, and thinking about. This one is great for ages 8 and up, and stands out with other middle-grade winners like Genie Wishes, Pack of Dorks, and authors like the great Rebecca Stead and Susin Nielsen.