The opening line of Cursed—a debut YA novel by a former Philadelphian featuring a snarky teen with a chronic illness—semaphores so much of what readers need to know about 14-year-old Erica (Ricky) Bloom.
“I have a perfect mouth,” Ricky declares, with both irony and exaggeration, self-abasement masquerading as conceit.
To her dentist father, whom Ricky calls “Dr. Dad,” her mouth is indeed cavity-free and orthodontically excellent. But where speech is concerned, Ricky’s mouth is anything but exemplary; she salts her sentences with swear words, including frequent F-bombs—one of which, scream-blurted to a middle-school teacher’s face, lands her in the principal’s office and jolts the plot of Cursed into high gear.
That opening boast is followed swiftly by a heartbreaking reveal: While her mouth may be perfect, “the rest of me is anything but,” Ricky says. “It’s irregular. Damaged. Cursed.”
Ricky, a ninth-grader at the fictional Grant Middle School in nonfictional Philadelphia, grapples with typical triggers of adolescent angst: insensitive teachers, oblivious crushes, disloyal “friends,” and parental divorce (“the Disaster-Formerly-Known-as-My-Parents” is Ricky’s shorthand for the hostility between her mother and father).
No bake sales
She also has rheumatoid arthritis—a painful condition made worse, in Ricky’s mind, by its invisibility. Ricky, like nearly everyone in the maelstrom of puberty, wants simultaneously to blend in and to be seen.
“Worse yet, pretty much no one gives a crap about this boring-ass disease,” she says. “It’s not something that would prompt my classmates to shave their heads in solidarity or have a bake sale for me. I doubt it’s ever trended on Twitter. It’s just this embarrassing, painful, fucked up thing I have.”
The author of Cursed should know. Silverstein, who was raised in Northwest Philadelphia and decamped to Los Angeles in 1990 to attend the American Film Institute, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 13; as an adult, she has undergone numerous surgeries, uses crutches, and offers a frank response to children who stare at her twisted fingers: “Are you wondering what happened to my hands?”
Silverstein never planned to write about her experience of chronic illness—she initially resisted a screenwriting mentor’s suggestion that she use it as a topic—but “found” Ricky’s voice during a writing-class exercise.
She’s not the easiest protagonist to embrace: Ricky is blunt, sarcastic, and self-absorbed—the antonym of a heroic sick-kid narrator. She curses. She complains. She cuts school (for six weeks!) and, in one excruciating scene, fails to stick up for a friend who’s being bullied.
But those qualities, along with Silverstein’s knowledge of the emotional and physical anguish of a chronic illness, make Ricky real. Ricky’s joints hurt all the time: when she tugs on her jeans, when she stands up, when she lowers herself into a hot bath in search of temporary relief. She describes the nine-block walk to school from her father’s apartment (“The Batch Pad”) this way: “It felt like I was wearing bags of broken glass on my feet… a thousand tiny stabs cutting into me with every step.”
Every action brings an emotional calculus: How can Ricky move in a way that conserves energy and draws the least attention to her clumsy gait? “I wait for the horde of students to thin out before heading into the stairwell,” she says. “I need to take the steps one at a time, using whichever knee hurts less and grabbing the handrail to pull myself up.”
Once Ricky’s parents learn of her truancy, the stakes get steep: Grant’s principal demands that she quit cursing, show up every day, and complete all her missed assignments… or repeat ninth grade, a fate worse than root canal.
She’s determined to graduate. That means weathering the cruelties dealt by callous classmates (one lobs an ad for adult diapers onto her desk) along with an unrequited crush on a music-loving classmate named Julio, a demanding teacher in her public-speaking class, a gaggle of “cool girls” whom she christens “The Barbies,” and a cavalier doctor who talks over her during appointments.
Fortunately, Ricky does have a few allies, chiefly her older sister Dani, a star basketball player at Temple University. There are redemptive moments with her mother, including an exuberant scene at a karaoke bar. And there is Oliver—a “loser” with stringy brown hair, stunning blue eyes, and an ever-present bottle of hand sanitizer—who turns out to be a survivor of childhood cancer.
A valuable addition
Anyone familiar with the trajectories of YA novels can forecast the unfolding of Cursed. Julio will turn out to be a cad; the rigorous public-speaking teacher will coax the best from Ricky. Mom and Dad will learn to be civil in each other’s presence. “The Barbies”—shocker—have their own vulnerabilities. Oliver will become her best friend. Eventually, they will kiss.
What’s less obvious, and far more interesting, is how Ricky will learn to cope with her illness, a process that requires humility, self-advocacy, and a new doctor who actually listens. The swear words were a means of self-protection; when Ricky feels less cursed, she stops cursing (well, nearly). And that story—of a teen with a disability who is the protagonist, not the sidekick—is a valuable addition to YA shelves.
What, When, Where
Cursed. By Karol Ruth Silverstein. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge, June 25, 2019. 315 pages, hardcover; $17.99. Click here.