Welcome one and all to another instalment of Fangirling About Holly Bourne. I read Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes? mostly on a flight to Montreal to visit my friend Rebecca, on whom I foist all the Holly Bourne books after I read them, finishing the book at her place while I waited for her to come home from work. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the spartan description on the back—but having read quite a lot of Bourne’s books by now, I knew I could expect something good. I knew I could expect some smiles and tears and maybe a little laughter, and Bourne delivers all of these things.
Trigger warnings for this book include discussions of suicide/suicide ideation, sexual abuse, OCD related to smells, and anxiety, as well as depictions of bipolar disorder and hypomania, and scenes of psychiatric treatment and therapy in and out of hospital settings.
Olive has just finished Year 11, and she’s going through rather a lot, mental-health-wise. She can’t stand the noise around her, and sometimes it seems like everything is just too much. We quickly learn, though, that Olive also doesn’t want to know what mental health professionals have diagnosed her with—she doesn’t want to be labelled. So she agrees to go to a pilot program for a new youth treatment camp. There, she will participate in completely optional classes and therapy sessions. Will a summer away help Olive feel more normal? What even is normal, and is that even what we should want? These are big questions for anyone to wrestle with.
What I love about Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes?, as I love about all of Bourne’s writing, is its deep and abiding honesty. This book neither sugarcoats nor exaggerates mental illness, its effects, its consequences. Near the beginning of the book, as Olive navigates another episode of a fragile mental state and finally emerges from it, she contemplates how horrible she feels she was to her parents. Some of that is, of course, blaming herself for something that isn’t her fault—but I like that Bourne takes the time to explore the nuances, the edges and vertices of the facets of the mental health journey. It can be simultaneously true that it’s not your fault, and that you don’t need to apologize, yet also that you were being somewhat horrible to the people who care for you. And that can be awkward and uncomfortable.
I also really enjoyed Olive’s parents here. I love that Bourne portrays them as very supportive, well-meaning people who do almost everything they can for their daughter. In doing so, she demonstrates that sometimes even being loved very much by the people around us doesn’t preclude mental health issues. I do think Olive’s dad sending her that tell-all email was a bit of a dick move on his part, and I wish the book had dealt with that more thoroughly—we never really see the results of that, never really get to hear Olive and her dad talk about it in detail. Nevertheless, overall I like the dynamic she has with her parents. They are clearly trying to help her, even if they don’t always get it right, and sometimes it’s enough and sometimes it isn’t.
Similarly, with Olive’s peers at the therapy camp, Bourne reminds us that everyone experiences mental illness—and reacts to it—in different ways, and that those reactions can spill over and be negative towards others who share mental health issues. The initial conflict between Olive and Hannah, for example, captures how people can be very sensitive about how you bring up or discuss their mental health. Bourne artfully demonstrates that mental illness isn’t an excuse for acting like an asshole, yet at the same time, it’s also important for us to try to understand why others might lash out or be extra-sensitive about a topic.
The fact that Olive isn’t 100% in the right all the time is very clearly on display throughout this book. Other characters, both her peers and the adults around her, constantly question her in healthy ways. Sometimes it’s difficult to parse, because everything is from Olive’s point of view, but I read her treatment by mental health professionals not so much as overbearing as well-meaning but perhaps not as helpful as they could be. That is to say, I didn’t interpret this as Bourne trying to depict a “bad” experience with psychiatry and therapy so much as showing that psychiatrists and therapists are only human, and they won’t always say or do the right things for every patient.
The last half of this book is like a slow tumble downhill for Olive. Even as she hatches her brilliant and fun “Kindness is Contagious” campaign, thanks to Bourne’s writing, you almost feel your stomach twisting into knots as you watch Olive become more and more frantic, euphoric, and less focused on her own journey. This idea, this mission, becomes everything to her, to the point of ignoring everyone else’s expressions of concern. It must not be easy to pull this off, to show a character’s gradual decline from their point of view in a way that is both realistic and also still coherent enough for a reader to follow. Bourne manages it, though, right until the classic Holly Bourne climax when the character hits rock bottom and needs a hard reset.
Are We All Lemmings and Snowflakes? reminds me a lot of Am I Normal Yet?. Bourne is a master at talking about mental health for sure. I love how compassionate, how tender this book is in so many ways. I do wish that we had learned more about Olive’s life before coming to this camp—we only barely meet her best friend, Ally, and only hear superficially about stresses she experienced in the past school year. I understand the focus is on her experience at camp, yet I don’t really feel like I got to know Olive as well as I could.
Still, as far as mental health in YA goes, it’s hard to beat Bourne, and this book just further demonstrates why.