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How It Feels to Float

Book review by
Lucinda Dyer, Common Sense Media
How It Feels to Float Book Poster Image
Teen battles mental illness in unforgettable, hopeful story.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Author Helena Fox shares in the Acknowledgements that she's lived with mental illness her entire life. She's drawn on her own experiences to give readers a powerful and detailed look at a life spiraling out of control -- showing what's it like to have a panic attack or a hallucination -- and what it takes to move forward toward a hopeful future. 

Positive Messages

There's help (and hope) for anyone dealing with mental health challenges.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Biz is brave. When she has the opportunity to receive treatment for her mental illness, she takes it and works hard to get better. Japer has fought battles of his own, being labeled "different" simply because of a limp. When Biz is in need of help and support, Jasper is there for her.

Violence
Sex

Biz is undecided about her sexuality. She kisses Grace, who doesn't return her feelings, and then decides she wants to have sex for the first time with a boy. But after he pulls down her underwear and puts his hands between her legs, she stops and runs off. A boy sends Grace photos of his penis. Grace ends up dating him and having sex "all over her house." Grace briefly describes her first sexual experience ("awkward," "fast, " "hurt a bit").

Language

Characters (teens and adults) regularly and casually use lots of profanity ( "s—t," "f—k," "a—hole," "dick," "slut bitch," "Jesus").

Consumerism

Biz and Grace love The Beatles and the movie version of The Great Gatsby.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Helena Fox's How It Feels to Float is narrated by 17-year-old Elizabeth Martin Grey (Biz), who lives in a town south of Sydney, Australia. She's never told anyone that her father, who died when she was 7, has regularly been visiting and talking with her. Not even her mother or her closest friend, Grace, fully realize the extent of Biz's mental illness. She's trying to cope as best she can, but things begin to spiral out of control for her in the aftermath of a drunken beach party. Teens regularly get drunk and there's lots and lots of profanity ("s--t," "f--k," "a--hole," "dick"). A boy sexts a picture of his penis to a girl he wants to date. A boy pulls down a girl's underwear and puts his hands between her legs, and she stops and runs off. And a girl very briefly describes her first sexual experience. While Biz is exploring her sexuality (she kisses Grace and then decides she wants to have sex with a boy) this isn't a major storyline. 

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What's the story?

As HOW IT FEELS TO FLOAT AWAY begins, Elizabeth Martin Grey (known to everyone as Biz) is about to start her junior year of high school in a town south of Sydney, Australia. She has a close group of friends ("The Posse") and a best friend named Grace. She also has a secret. Her father, who died when she was 7, still visits and talks with her. He's become a constant and reassuring presence amid the increasing emotional turmoil of her life. Biz also believes his death was her fault, that she was the reason he "was sad." She's barely holding it together when a series of events throw her life into a tailspin. After a drunken beach party, a boy tells everyone he had sex with her, which she denies. The Posse believes him and Biz is exiled from the group. She begins seeing a psychologist and eventually takes a trip to the farm where her father was born, as she tries to unravel both his life and his death.

Is it any good?

This brutally honest story of mental illness is beautifully written and deeply moving. It doesn't spare readers, though -- they're with Biz during the terror of panic attacks and the disorientation of hallucinations. How It Feels to Float Away is just as much a story of hope and power of love and friendship.

While some teens might question how much they could have in common with a girl battling a serious mental illness, any reader who's ever experienced grief, felt betrayed by a friend, or begun to have questions about their sexuality will be able to relate to Biz and her struggles.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how mental illness is portrayed in How It Feels to Float. Why do you think it takes so long for those close to Biz to realize how ill she is? How important is it to know if there's a history of depression or mental illness in your family?

  • Biz and Sylvia become great friends, even though Sylvia is more than 60 years older. Is there a "Sylvia" in your life? What do you think teens can learn from a friendship with someone decades older?

  • The boy Biz did not have sex with tells everyone she did. They believe him even when Biz denies it. How common do you think it is for teens to believe the boy in a situation like this and not the girl?

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