This post was written in honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States.
The following post contains spoilers for the novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which discusses suicide. If you are struggling with your mental health, please check out the resources at the end of this post.
Title: It’s Kind of a Funny Story
Author: Ned Vizzini
Publication Date: April 2, 2006
Genre: Young adult fiction
Premise: Craig Gilner is a 15-year-old high school student who starts attending Executive Pre-Professional High School, an elite high school in New York City. Prior to his acceptance to the school, Craig’s life focused solely on getting into the school. He begins to inadvertently ignore his friends because he dedicates all his time to doing well on the admissions exam. The work pays off, as Craig earns a perfect score. But once he starts attending the school, he realizes he isn’t as smart as the other students, often scoring 93s on his assignments and tests.
Craig becomes discouraged, slacks off, and realizes he is clinically depressed. As such, he sees a psychopharmacologist, Dr. Barney, who prescribes him Zoloft and helps him find the right therapist.
After being on Zoloft for a few months, Craig decides he’s well enough to stop taking it, so he does. Eventually, however, his depression worsens. Craig has serious suicide ideation but calls the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. He’s told to go to a hospital, as his suicide ideation is considered a medical emergency. Craig does as he was told and admits himself to the psychiatric ward at his local hospital.
Ashley: Even though mental health can be complicated, Ned Vizzini does a masterful job of portraying mental health in a simple manner while still giving the complexities of mental health their due. The story is a good read that offers great, honest insight and lessons through a main character, Craig, who’s very relatable and well-developed. Vizzini has Craig narrate his own story, doing a good job of letting the audience know exactly how he feels and what his life is like.
Amanda: Overall, It’s Kind of a Funny Story does a good job portraying the complexity of mental health and uses helpful analogies that makes it easier for those who haven’t experienced major mental health issues understand what it can be like to have such overwhelming thoughts and emotions that cause someone to act and/or think in a certain way. The book even briefly explains how anti-depressants work.
Carly: I really enjoy this book’s style of narration. Craig’s inner dialogue, though brutally honest, is set in a conversational style that is easy for young adults to relate to while still providing character depth. Craig doesn’t hold anything back from the readers, and we gain a deep sense of who he is over time. I like the unapologetic nature of this book, because it documents the darkest parts of mental illness without making excuses or trying to fit it into a narrow box of what mental illness should look like. Being a fairly introspective person myself, I find a lot of Craig’s mental processes to be similar to my own, and that makes this book all the more appealing.
What We Liked
Ashley: Craig’s brain map art concept is fascinating. The art isn’t just something thrown into the story for the sake of giving Craig something else to grasp on to either. The art has a backstory, serves a purpose, and is implemented well in the story; it’s a part of his past, something he rediscovers, a way to cope with his depression and overwhelming thoughts. He could have simply discovered a love for art without any underlying story concerning it, and it wouldn’t have been a implausible idea. But the fact there is background makes it more meaningful. I also like how he uses his art not only to get through his time in the hospital but also to express his gratitude for his time there and the people he meets there.
The emphasis on doing what makes you happy over what’s impressive is my favorite thing about It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Craig loses all sense of purpose and ambition after getting into the Executive Pre-Professional High School, and he figures his starting there to correlate with his depression. Craig isn’t happy again until he finds art and realizes it’s what he should be pursuing, not an elite education at his exclusive high school that’ll lead him to a career he won’t enjoy. Craig realizes it’s one thing to excel at something, but it’s another thing to enjoy something, and the latter matters more.
Amanda: I always thought the book had a really interesting cover. Once you start reading the book, it’s easy to understand why the cover design is what it is. I really like the cover now that I fully understand what it is and definitely think it’s an excellent choice for cover art. It’s so artistic and especially meaningful to Craig and the story.
I liked that a huge part of Craig’s overwhelming emotions and mental illness is from the pressure of high school, something a lot of kids can relate to. It makes it easier for any students who decide to read this book understand that there are bigger, more important things than grades and school. Yes, those are important, but Craig’s story helps demonstrate that grades aren’t everything. (I am fully aware Craig doesn’t do all of his schoolwork when it’s assigned, so he puts some pressure on himself, but still.)
It’s Kind of a Funny Story does a pretty decent job at portraying the educational world students live in today where there’s this immense pressure to do well that can make our education system kind of dangerous and detrimental. Of course Craig didn’t have to go to an elite high school, but in our society, students feel pressure to have to go to the best schools, take the right classes, be in the right extra-curriculars. Otherwise, their futures might be ruined.
I also liked the rather accurate portrayal of mental health in that someone can have multiple mental health issues, because it’s not uncommon to experience more than one, especially when dealing when suicidal thoughts like Craig. He also struggled with eating disorder behaviors and anxiety, demonstrating the complexity of mental illness.
Carly: This book masters the art of explaining what it’s like to have no control over your thoughts. While everyone’s experience with anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation is different, Vizzini captures at least one very powerful snapshot of it. Vizzini outlines Craig’s struggle with mental illness by using different analogies: Tentacles are anxious thoughts that are far reaching and oppressive, and Anchors are placating ideas that keep Craig grounded. The Shift is a concept of recovery, something that Craig places a lot of hope into. Cycling is the mental process of turning obsessive thoughts over and over in your brain. All of these analogies help to place Craig’s struggles into a context that others can understand, and I am all here for it.
Ashley: I’d get confused about the other patients in the psychiatric ward with Craig. Maybe that’s just me, though. I understand why there were a myriad of characters in that setting, but I feel one or two characters, at least, could’ve been omitted from the story without losing anything important.
I didn’t completely mind the Craig-Nia-Aaron love triangle, but the story could’ve been fine without it. However, if there had to be a love triangle, I would’ve preferred it to be an internal one for Craig in choosing between Nia and Noelle. Then the focus really would’ve been on Craig, how he thought he felt, how he really felt, and what kind of relationship he really needed.
Craig spends all this time pining for Nia, but they end so abruptly. Nia mentions she feels this connection with Craig and acts on it a little. Then things got physical pretty much as soon as possible, and then they were just done. I didn’t feel I got an actual reason for why they weren’t going to work. I think Nia ends up being more of a physical attraction for Craig but doesn’t realize it until he really connects with Noelle in a way he thought he would with Nia. With Noelle, we know she inspires Craig to start his brain map art, and he accepts Noelle completely—her past, problems, and presents. Neither of them are not perfect, but they embrace that in themselves and each other. So it would’ve been interesting to see Craig’s internal conflict between his romantic interests.
Amanda: While I wasn’t surprised by it, the love triangle between Craig, Aaron, and Nia isn’t very necessary and didn’t add much to the story. It’s kind of just there, creating tension between Craig and Aaron, but that’s about it? Unlike his relationship with Noelle, the love triangle doesn’t really contribute to the main story of his mental illnesses and recovery and sort of just feels like your everyday teenage drama that you can find it lots of TV shows, movies, and books.
Perhaps the biggest suggestion and improvement to make (despite it being a small part of the book) is to not call skipping “gay” (Craig says, “Okay, it’s gay, whatever, skip.” at the end of the book.) It’s just rude and insensitive, especially considering LGBTQ+ are no strangers to suicide and mental illness. Unfortunately, I suppose it’s not entirely inaccurate for a teenage boy like Craig to say immature and dumb things like that, but let’s refrain from doing so and making it seem like it’s okay to call things “gay” when they are literally just actions that have nothing to do with sexuality.
Carly: Even though I know the high school love triangle adds a layer of emotional complexity to the story, I could do without it. I feel like it’s not necessary to the main plot, and is kind of just a side story that keeps being dragged back in. Maybe I’m just over teenage romance, but this one doesn’t seem to add a whole lot of value.
Ashley: Young adults are definitely the target audience, as Craig’s struggles can be relatable to them. But this would be a good read for parents and adults in general, too. I know parents want what’s best for their kids, and some parents will think that means pursuing high-paying, well-off careers like law, medicine, or business—basically not art of any kind. And that’s very understandable, but It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a perfect example of why that’s not always the best idea.
There’s a line in the book where Craig says, “Take a look around. I tried to go to the best high school in the city. And this is where I ended up,” referencing his elite education has also hindered his wellbeing to the point where he needed to be admitted to the psychiatric ward at the local hospital. It’s a good reminder for anyone that, in the end, your happiness matters more than your financial status.
Amanda: With a high-school-aged protagonist, It’s Kind of a Funny Story appeals most to high schoolers and other young adults, but I think anyone who’s mature enough to handle the content can find value in and enjoy the story. A younger YA reader could read this, but a certain maturity and level of understanding is needed to fully appreciate the book.
Carly: This book appeals largely to young adults, but I think older generations will appreciate it as well. The content is too mature/too dark for a young audience, but anyone high school age or older might find this book intriguing. You might find yourself laughing, crying, or just nodding along to this book. If books are not your thing, the movie comes highly recommended as well.
- American Psychological Association
- Crisis Text Line
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- To Write Love on Her Arms
- Trevor Project (LGBTQ): 1-866-488-7386
Image via MichaelTalbot.info.