Tell Me Something Real

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Tell Me Something Real Book Poster Image
Taut, compelling drama about teen coping with mom's illness.

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

Educational Value

Some facts about Laetrile, a cancer treatment that's illegal in the United States. Brief information about some Catholic saints, especially Joan of Arc and St. Ursula. Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen by proxy syndrome briefly explained.

Positive Messages

You have to take charge of your own healing process. No one can do it for you or tell you how it should be done. Sometimes you have to make tough choices, but stick to your guns and make sure you get what you need for your own grieving and healing process. Every decision about your life matters, so keep it real.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Vanessa is a good caretaker and is the glue that holds the family together. She's a piano prodigy and models discipline and practicing to learn something new or improve her skills. Older sister Adrienne uses lots of profanity but is a caring and supportive sister. Dad is attentive and caring but has to learn to stand up for himself and to take action when things go wrong. The sisters have brief but positive interactions with local workers at a medical clinic in Mexico. 


Mention of blood trickling from accidental injury.


Kissing, hand-holding, light caressing over clothing. Mention of seeing nipples through sheer, wet fabric. A man staring is called a "pervert" who prefers children to grown women. Mention that 17-year-old has been having sex with her boyfriend for a year. Mention of a past rumor about a student getting "knocked up." A poster on a school wall says a boy "gave me gonorrhea," "can't get it up," "can't get laid in a whorehouse," and "sodomizes livestock."


Older sister frequently uses profanity to push boundaries and rebel: "f--k" and many variations including "motherf---ker," "s--t" and many variations such as "chickens--t" and "s--tless," "hell," "goddamn," "boobies," "crap," "a--hole," "ass" (body part), "jackass," "badass," "bitch," "slutty," "Jesus f---king Christ," and "sucks." She puts up a poster at school that says a boy "gave me gonorrhea," "can't get it up," "can't get laid in a whorehouse," and "sodomizes livestock." Middle-finger gesture once.


Food, beverage, magazine names, and beauty products establish mood and mid-'70s time period.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A person with leukemia goes to a clinic in Mexico for Laetrile treatments, which are banned in the United States. Taking prescription pain and sleep medications occasionally mentioned. Dad says he needs a beer once. Adults have champagne in celebration; older sister plans to sneak some later.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tell Me Something Real is about a family in the 1970s coping with a seriously ill mother. Some scenes take place in a clinic in Mexico where she receives treatment that's illegal in the United States, and painkillers and sleeping aids are mentioned occasionally as part of her treatment as well. The oldest daughter frequently uses strong language, most often "f--k" and "s--t" and many variations of each. Sexual content is light, with a few kisses, hand-holding, and caressing over clothes. Mental illness is touched on but not explored in depth; the emphasis is on family and loved ones coping and trying to heal in the aftermath.

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What's the story?

In TELL ME SOMETHING REAL, Vanessa Babcock spends the summer before junior year shuttling from her home in San Diego to a clinic in Mexico, where her mother receives a treatment for leukemia that's illegal in the United States. Vanessa and her two sisters spend most of their time hanging out on the patio, and there she meets Caleb, who's in remission from leukemia himself. Caleb and his mother, Barb, move in with the Babcocks, both to be closer to the clinic and to help keep the household going when Mrs. Babcock reveals that her illness is terminal. As Vanessa and Caleb start to fall for each other, Barb starts to notice things that don't quite add up, and both families soon discover that another deadly illness has invaded their home. This one threatens to tear the family apart as dreams of the future are put on hold, and it tears Vanessa apart when Caleb suddenly has to leave San Diego and go back home to Seattle. 

Is it any good?

Calla Devlin's debut novel is taut and well-structured, with a believable narrator teens will relate to and a surprising twist on the terminal-illness story that grabs you and doesn't let go. Tell Me Something Real is about the impact of her mother's illness on Vanessa and her family, focusing on their ability -- or lack of it-- to cope with illness and heal after betrayal. The patient and the illnesses are seen exclusively through the family's eyes, so the medical issues, or what it's like for the patient, aren't explored.

The well-developed characters, air of mystery, splash of teen romance, and unexpected turn in the story keep the pages turning. Readers will root for Vanessa as she tries to keep herself, her love life, and her family together without giving up her dreams for the future.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Adrienne's swearing in Tell Me Something Real. Why does she do it? What kinds of things can you try when and if your swearing starts to get out of control?

  • Vanessa says she just wants to be free. Free from what, or whom? What do you wish you could be free of? What can you do to help yourself get there?

  • Both Vanessa and Adrienne put their futures on hold while the family is in crisis. Have you or someone you know ever had to do that? Were you or they able to get back on track? How?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age and illness stories

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