The Lightness of Hands

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
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Bipolar teen tries to help struggling dad in charming tale.

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

Educational Value

Detailed look at living with bipolar II disorder, hypomania, and suicidal ideation. Story examines the real-life effects poverty and housing and food insecurity. Some information on magic acts and how they're performed.

Positive Messages

Keeping secrets and lying hurts you as much as it hurts other people. All relationships are built on trust. Let others help you when you need it. Don't feel like you have to solve everyone's problems. There's no shame in getting professional help for your issues.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ellie is a responsible kid who feels she has to keep everything together to keep her family afloat. She makes some poor choices and her mental health issues make it hard for her to trust herself, but her heart is in the right place. Ellie's dad also has made some poor choices, but he loves Ellie and is trying hard to balance caring for her and maintaining his career. Both characters grow a lot over the course of the book. Most of the side characters are good, trustworthy, caring people. Ripley is Ellie's rock. He's funny, smart, and mature beyond his years.


Two instances of men grabbing a girl's rear end. A person yells and throws a phone in rage. Car accident with minor injuries. One character has thoughts of suicide, imagines how to do it, and comes close to trying a few times. A few dangerous moments in magic acts.


Dating and attraction figure into the plot, but nothing too sexy or heavy happens. There's some flirting and making out. A character takes her shirt off in front of people at a party. Ellie uses her sexuality to take things from people. One character is asexual.


Some strong language, but not frequent, including, "f--k" and variations, "s--t," "ass," "piss," "d--k," "bulls--t," " God," "hell," "Jesus," "bitch," "Christ," "c--k," "a--hole," "damn," "goddamn," and "motherf--ker."


Many mentions of brands and media, mostly for scene setting, including, YouTube, Google, eBay, Facebook, Yelp, Twitter, Skype, BuzzFeed, WebMD, KOA, Smirnoff, Wonder Bread, Jif, Walmart, McDonald's, Pop-Tarts, Froot-Loops, 7-Eleven, IHOP, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, In-N-Out, Pepsi, Coke, Hostess, Venmo, Sprouts Market, Apple Store, Neiman Marcus, Starbucks, Burberry, Tiffany, Mustang, Prius, Hyundai, Dairy Queen, Rockstar, 5-Hour Energy, Taco Bell, Panda Express, Pringles, and Mountain Dew.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens drink at a party and a wedding. A character's parent is addicted to meth. Drinking at fraternity party. An adult character smokes and drinks bourbon first thing in the morning.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Lightness of Hands by Jeff Garvin (Symptoms of Being Human) is about a teen girl struggling with bipolar disorder, poverty, her mother's death, and caring for her dad while managing his failing career as a magician. The main plotline involves Ellie accepting an offer without her dad's knowledge to re-create the big televised act that led to his ruined reputation and career, but the story really deals with mental illness, access to healthcare, kids taking on too much responsibility, poverty, and homelessness. There's a romance subplot, too, but the sexy stuff's mostly limited to kissing. Characters use some strong language ("f--k," "s--t," "ass"). There's minimal violence, including two instances of men grabbing a girl's rear end, a car accident with minor injuries, and one character has thoughts of suicide and comes close to trying a few times. There's some drinking, and smoking: Teens drink at a party and a wedding. There's drinking at fraternity party. A character's parent is addicted to meth. An adult character smokes and drinks bourbon first thing in the morning.

 Ellie and her dad cheat and steal a few times to get money to stay afloat. The story offers good discussion opportunities around communication between family and friends, how to ask for help when you need it, and how much burden kids should shoulder for the sake of family.

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What's the story?

In THE LIGHTNESS OF HANDS, Ellie is a lonely 16-year-old battling bipolar II and feeling the wear and tear of living in an old RV with her formerly famous magician father. Ten years earlier, at the height of his career, her dad attempted a major feat of illusion on live television but failed spectacularly. Her mom died shortly thereafter, adding another layer of emotional complexity to an already rough life. Bouncing from one low-paying gig to another, they aren't making enough to live on and both have to sacrifice taking medications important to their emotional and physical well-being. When they seem to have hit bottom, Ellie gets a call from one of the most famous magic acts in the world asking whether her dad will agree to re-create his failed illusion as an opening act to their live television special in Los Angeles. She agrees, and as his manager negotiates the deal and signs the contract, all without telling her father. She knows he'll say no, but she thinks that if she can get him from the Midwest to L.A., she can convince him to go through with it. Along the way, she receives the support of Ripley, her only friend, and Liam, a romantic interest she meets at a magic gig. The journey exposes the seriousness of her mental health issues and her dad's heart problems, the need for stability in a child's life, and the importance of honesty and communication in relationships.

Is it any good?

This coming-of-age story has a slow start, but the engaging, relatable characters make it a charming read. The plot of The Lightness of Hands involves Ellie lying to her dad to get him to restage his notoriously failed magic act. But at its heart, the book is about Ellie's precarious mental health, trust between friends and family, and responsibility. It puts a human face on poverty and how easily kids slip through the cracks in terms of education and getting necessary services (medical and mental health help). Ellie is a sympathetic narrator, and her loneliness and struggle with her bipolar disorder are gripping. The book is a bit too long and some of the plot details feel contrived, but the story finds its footing after the halfway point.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Ellie's mental health issues in The Lightness of Hands. Do you understand why it's hard for her to tell people close to her what's she's going through? Why do you think mental health is a common subject in books and movies?

  • How much responsibility should teens have to take on for their family's happiness and financial stability? Where is the balance between letting kids be kids and teaching them to be responsible young adults?

  • Have you ever done anything that took a lot of courage? What happened?

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