Courage For Beginners
Author: Karen Harrington
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Being 12 isn’t easy to begin with, but for Mysti Murphy the school year doesn’t get off to a good start.
First of all, her only friend, formerly “extra, extra large” Anibal Gomez, decides to conduct a social experiment and become a hipster in order to attract the attention of the most popular girl in school.
Unfortunately for Mysti, this means that he stops talking to her in school and in the process, becomes less of a friend and more of a bully.
This is doubly bad for Mysti because Ani is the only one who knows her family’s secret.
It’s Mysti’s father who goes out to work, runs errands and does shopping, while her mother bakes bread and paints murals.
All the while, there’s the huge elephant in the room that no one talks about – that Mysti’s mother never leaves the house.
So when Mysti’s father falls from a tree and is hospitalised for weeks, Mysti, her mother and her sister are thrown for a loop.
Who’s going to run all the errands? Who will get the groceries? And who will hold the family together?
In Karen Harrington’s artfully written Courage For Beginners, Mysti learns to not just survive Year Seven but to thrive in it, and in the process learns that courage comes in all forms, from unlikely friendships to an ugly orange coat and a talent show.
Every author is asked at some point or another if their novel is based on true events in their life.
And Harrington, whose previous novel Sure Signs Of Crazy dealt with issues of alcoholism and mental disabilities, has said that Courage For Beginners is based on some key experiences in her life, namely what it was like to live with an agoraphobic mother.
Perhaps this is why she captures the feelings Mysti feels so perfectly, and discusses the issue (when it is finally talked about) with an emotional maturity that is lacking in many young adult novels.
Another selling point of this novel is how each chapter starts with an evocative snippet, for example: “Here is a girl with a mind full of worry and a stomach full of carrots.”
Mysti, who wants to be a writer and dreams of being a girl with a normal family living in Paris, gets through her days by writing stories in her head, and imagining that she is a character in them.
The portrait Harrington draws, of a young girl who digs deep inside herself to find her courage, is a beautiful one made even better by the fact that it is a believable story.
What makes Mysti and the novel stand out isn’t that she gets through her difficulties, instead, it’s how she does it that wins the reader over.
With inner monologues and creative solutions that effectively balance painful topics with smatterings of humour, Mysti is one kid you want to see win.
She’s far from perfect – she puts marbles in her little sister’s bed because it’s what older siblings do; she loses her temper; she clings to the hope that Anibal Gomez really is just doing a social experiment.
But through all of this, the reader and Mysti herself realise that she’s getting stronger and more resilient.
And that’s the best thing about this book. It teaches and it inspires, and it shows you that you can overcome anything, if you find the courage to do it.