Sean Griswold’s Head by Lindsey Leavitt

Chick-lit dramedy of a quirky teen's struggle with her father's serious illness

Fifteen-year-old freshman Payton Gritas is a straight-A student and basketball player with a great best friend and loving parents, but her world falls apart when she discovers her parents have kept a huge secret from her for months. Her father has multiple sclerosis. Payton is furious that her parents shared her father's diagnosis with her two older brothers but not her. She is also fearful about what MS will do to her father. Can he continue work as a dental surgeon? And what about basketball? He has played it his whole life, including on a college team, and taught the game to Payton, but MS is making it increasingly hard for him to play. And what if MS actually kills him?

Payton's drops out of basketball, which she feels too guilty playing when her father can't, lets her grades drop, and refuses to talk to her parents. As her silence drags on, her mother insists that Payton talk to the counselor at her school. Payton reluctantly agrees but struggles with the "focusing" exercise the counselor assigns. She wants Payton to choose something to concentrate on that she has no emotional investment in and write detailed reactions and feelings about this "focus object" in a journal in order to work up to eventually being able to face her feelings about her father's illness.

While ignoring a video in biology class, Payton is struggling to come up with a focus object when Sean Griswold, who has sat in front of her since third grade because his name appears before hers alphabetically, turns and remarks that he has trouble focusing on videos in class. Payton suddenly decides this is a sign. She should write about Sean Griswold. Specifically the part of him she knows best, his head, which has been blocking her view of the teacher for years.

Many author's would choose a dark tone to approach a serious subject like a major illness. Instead, Lindsey Leavitt employs the intriguing alternation of drama and comedy often called "dramedy." The main source of Leavitt's humor is Payton's quirky take on life. Whether intentionally or not, over the course of the book Ms. Leavitt also impressively reveals Payton's awkward, and frequently funny, progress through many of the classic stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), famously described in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's, On Death and Dying.

There are three main plots centered on Payton's significant relationships, each presented from Payton's comically skewed perspective. The lynch pin of the novel is Payton's relationship with her father. Though she spends most of the book refusing to even talk to him, the love and concern emanating from both of them are clearly and touchingly demonstrated. Ms. Leavitt also does a wonderful job presenting the struggles of the family as a whole as they adjust to the major changes in their dynamic due to the father's MS.

A second important plot is Payton's relationship with her best friend Jaclyn. Jac is from a prosperous family, but her father deserted them, and her mother neglects Jac. As a result, Jac's main emotional support is Payton. Payton was there for Jac when Jac's father left, acting as both a "drill sergeant" and protector to her lovely, boy-crazy friend. To keep Jac safe, who was a young teen at the time, Payton told a boy that Jac was becoming dangerously physically involved with that Jac had "mono so he would stop jamming his tongue down her throat every time they saw each other."

Now that Payton has father problems of her own, Jac does her best to be there for Payton. But since the two girls have very different personalities, Jac's approach to emotional support is flamboyantly different than Payton's. She is an impulsive, social butterfly into fashion and the drama club, and all of her help involves cheerleading Payton by shoving Payton into coming out of her despair and self-imposed isolation. In particular, Jac believes that Payton should get to know much more about Sean than just the back of his head. Jac's crazy schemes to help her friend semi-stalk Sean as "research" are another strong source of humor in this book.

A third central plot is the romantic relationship that develops gradually and subtly between Payton and Seth. What a welcome change of pace in today's teen novels, where obsession is so often presented as "love," to encounter non-threatening (but anything but weak) Seth who is an empathetic listener, compassionate, and an all-round decent guy. He is also a dedicated athlete who swims and bikes and has the goal to participate in a triathlon when he is old enough. He and Payton begin their relationship bonding over hardcore biking, which offers the athletic Payton a chance to substitute another challenging sport for the basketball she's sacrificed.

By the way, I personally found the biking scenes believable, including how relatively quickly Payton got into shape for a marathon, since I myself rode in a 100-mile marathon at eighteen having only previously ridden 26 miles tops before that day. The fact that Payton is in shape from basketball and that she constantly bikes both outside and in spinning classes before the marathon makes her quite believably prepared to take on a 75-mile marathon.

Finally, there are several other subplots built around Payton's relationships, and each of the characters involved, though only relatively briefly onstage, are vivid, realistic and poignantly sympathetic. They include Payton's mother, her two brothers, and most of all Grady, Seth's Goth friend. The evolution of Payton's understanding of who Grady is and what his life is actually like is brilliantly done. The scene that is the climax of this relationship is one of the most moving parts of the book

I highly recommend this book for all ages, not just teens. There is no violence, foul language, sexual content, alcohol or drugs, so it can safely be read even by preteens, but it is emotionally engaging enough to be enjoyed by adults.