Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon
Everything Everything follows the story of Maddy- a teenager who’s spent her entire life shut off from the world due to a rare disease called severe combined immunodeficiency. SCID has weakened Maddy’s immune system to the point where any little thing – whether that’s the smell of a flower, or the touch of a hand – can make her sick. She lives in a white life, reading books and interacting only with her mother and her nurse, Carla. When a family moves into the house next door, Maddy gets to know the boy- Olly- through IM. They have a connection, but Maddy knows she’s stepping in dangerous waters. Can they ever truly be together given how weak outside contact makes her?
I have a lot to say about this book- most of which is negative. You may be surprised given that this book has gotten nothing but rave reviews since it was released; arguably, Nicola Yoon has proven that she’s a popular new author, and no matter what she puts out, she’ll be successful. I’ve not yet given up on Yoon’s books, because I believe in people’s capability to learn. Most of my problems with this book revolve around thematic elements and Yoon’s lackluster – and frankly offensive – representation of disability. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
The good: the beginning was a strong one. Everything Everything starts off with nothing short of a bang; the narrator’s voice is established from the get-go. We get interesting, cute illustrations and graphs, and the premise itself is so fascinating that you can’t help but devour the story. When Olly is introduced, you’re immediately drawn to his character too. The brooding, mysterious kid from a dysfunctional family… honestly, I was quite interested in every character belonging to his family too- that’s just how good the novel was set up. But unfortunately, Olly’s family never gets the development it deserved. And from a book seemingly about Maddy, her relationship with her mother and her nurse, her actual disability was largely pushed aside and was only brought up in a context of “oh, I want to be with Olly now.” This book became something I hadn’t anticipated: a book about her and Olly.
It’s not that I have anything against romance. I can be a rabid shipper like anybody else, but you go into books like these with expectations. In the YA genre, disabilities are under-represented, so I expected representation. I expected this book to be more wholesome. I wanted more from it. The romance felt rushed after the first few interactions; everything began to happen too quickly. Maddy’s infatuation with books is thrown out of the window. Her relationship with her mother is left dangling. Olly’s life at home is referred to in a couple of conversations and well-placed notes, but other than that, it’s largely ignored for cheesy one-liners.
But that might not have been too bad if it weren’t coupled with all the offensive thematic material in this book. It wasn’t a story about a young boy and a girl falling in love and having to deal with the realities of Maddy’s sickness- which are things so many people all over the world go through. Where they have problems and arguments and frustrations; the things that make and break relationships. Not even necessarily due to sickness, but other things- things that happen in every relationship. But in this story, Maddy’s disability becomes the single obstacle standing in between an otherwise perfect love story. I got the impression that Yoon was saying, “Oh, imagine how perfect they would be, how happy and content if only she wasn’t sick.” I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. That’s bullshit. Framing a disability in a way that the main character cannot live or love with it is so, so harmful to the millions of people all over the world who are happy, who make their lives and relationships work. It made me cringe and fume- I cannot begin to imagine how young people who had picked this book up looking to see their lives reflected on the pages felt.
If you’d like to know more, continue reading on to the spoilery section; I think it’s important to know exactly what’s wrong with this book on top of what’s already mentioned. Which I cannot really discuss without giving away part of the book. If you want to know why this book is problematic, read on. Having said that, I’d urge you to read this review @ Disability in KidLit on the representation of disability in this book, because much of what I say next is said much better in this review.
Everything Everything has a twist in the end, and the twist is that Maddy doesn’t have SCID. She’s never had SCID; in fact, her mother has a severe case of Munchausen syndrome that led her to believe that Maddy was sick, so she kept her indoors all her life. Maddy, when she finds out, is both distraught and happy: distraught because her mother has lied her entire life, and happy because she can finally live. Two things: first, Munchausen syndrome is a serious mental illness, and children die all over the world because mothers – truly believing that they are protecting their kids – are ill. To fucking pass Munchausens off as a plot twist so that the audience can be ‘happy’ for the main character is sick.
Not only has the author done a disservice to mental illness, she’s done a disservice to the kids reading her book because wow, all the main character’s problems are now solved because she’s not sick. Because God fucking forbid that a character with a disability can be happy and content, can get what she wants in her life. No, for a character to be able to live their life, they need (1) a miracle cure, or (2) a cheap plot twist that invalidates the lives of millions of other people in our world. I’m sorry; it doesn’t sit right with me, and it honestly gave me such a bad taste in my mouth.
Can I just say that I’d like to think I’m engaged in a reasonably active community; the only thing I’d heard about this book was how good it was, how great it is that a diverse book is getting this much attention. Not once had I heard the disgusting ableism and offensive themes in this book mentioned- not a single time. Until a friend of mine who suffers from a disability told me that the book made her feel like shit, and she sent me the review I linked above. Just because a book is diverse and is written by an author of color does not mean that you give the problematic bullshit a free pass. Talk about the themes, because unless things are called out, nobody learns. Nobody grows. I am not ostracizing the author because like I said, people learn. Nobody was born pitch-perfect, and I’m sure I’ll give her another chance. I am, however, ostracizing the community for turning a blind eye. For being quiet, or simply for not noticing. Or – and this may be a reality – for not caring.