THE WORDS WE KEEP by Erin Stewart

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Lily is the one who found her sister bleeding on the bathroom floor, the razor still in her hand. But she didn’t go with her dad when he took Alice to the hospital. Or when he visited her in the treatment center. Instead, she stayed home and made Alice’s bed.

And made Alice’s bed.

And made Alice’s bed.

Now, with Alice coming home, Lily will finally have to confront her sister’s bipolar disorder diagnosis. But how can she face Alice when she’s been working so hard to keep her life together–to keep her grades up, to stay at the top her game as a runner, and especially to hide the truth about Alice and the ways that Lily might be losing her mind, too? When her teacher pairs her with a new boy for a poetry project, Lily is horrified to learn that he was at the treatment center with Alice and knows Lily’s secret (or at least, one of them). When they stumble onto an idea for their project that involves anonymous poetry shared in public spaces throughout the school, however, she realizes he might actually be the key to helping her get through this–not just because their poetry is an instant success that sets them up for a top grade and the possibility of an elite summer program at UC Berkeley, but because through the poetry, Lily is finally able to anonymously express some of the darkness that she’s been hiding from the world. But as the time for revealing her identity as the mysterious “Guerrilla Poet” draws closer and Alice seems to be spiraling again, Lily begins to wonder whether her family can survive the revelation of her darkest thoughts when she’s the one they depend on to hold them all together.

This is both high praise and a warning: the depictions of an anxiety disorder, self-harm, and suicidal ideation in this novel are so real and raw that readers will feel them right along with the character. For some readers, this will be validating–a rare and powerful experience of seeing their own struggles reflected by another person, realizing they are not alone, seeing a path forward to hope and mental health care. For other readers, it may be triggering. Be aware before picking this book up and share trigger warnings with kids you recommend it to.

That praise/warning aside, I highly recommend this novel for YA Contemporary fiction fans and YA library collections. In addition to the realistic portrayal of mental illness, the novel features a strong, determined, witty narrator and a heart-warming romance, both of which buoy the reader up in the book’s darker passages. And the “guerrilla poetry” movement that the protagonist starts–and the way that poetry allows her and others in her community to anonymously express thoughts they fear to admit and forge unexpected connections–will warm the heart of any readers who have found themselves in the arts and literature (and of course every teacher and librarian!). It is a well-crafted and important story, and I highly recommend it.

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