Teresa Toten’s newest award-winning young adult fiction book, “The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B,” tackles tough topics such as mental illness, grief, secrets, and the truth with intensity and humor. Her 14-year-old protagonist, Adam, is just the kind of hero this story needs. Adam has just become the youngest member of an OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) support group for young adults. Chuck, his therapist, suggests that he might gain support and insight from being in a therapy group with his peers in addition to his medication. It is with the unique crew in Room 13B that the most extraordinary thing befalls him, Robyn enters his life.
“The boy inhaled as the door opened. It was as if he knew. The girl stepped into the room, and within the space of a heartbeat, he was lost.”
Was it possible that a normal romance could start when Adam’s life was so out of control? Would this impossibly beautiful girl with eyes the color of “an angry sky” fall for him? Impossible! As Chuck has the group introduce themselves, he also prescribes a twist. Everyone in this session has to choose a “nom de guerre” — an alias, a pseudonym of power, a superhero’s name. A name that would give them psychological armor and superhuman strength to deal with their OCD and anxiety issues. Adam was acutely aware of everyone’s’ choice: Wolverine, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Thor, “Snookie,”. and Captain America. So when Robyn choose to be “Robin”, of course Adam just has to be her “Batman” consequently a tentative and hopeful romance begins. Adam is on a secret mission — above all else he must save Robyn! Right?
Toten’s book helps readers delve into the world of OCD, mental illness with wry sense of humor and acute honesty. Adam is perceptive and sensitive to everyone’s needs around him. He is consumed with ever-intensifying OCD rituals of counting, tapping and difficulties with thresholds as anxiety mounts in his everyday life. He knows how to be the dependable person every significant person in his life leans on including his hoarder mother, anxiety-riddled little step-brother, and overweight best friend. The one person he wants to lean on him is the one person who needs the least help. The healthier Robyn becomes the more complex and debilitating Adam’s OCD becomes. In order to save Robyn, he may have to break her heart. He may have to learn how to take care of himself.
Toten does a masterful job conveying Adam and Robyn’s complex, sweet and intense relationship while realistically looking at young adults dealing with mental illness and instability. Readers will come to love and root for the well-honed realistic personalities represented in this story. Especially as they share their quirky and somewhat inspirational experiences filled with laughable moments even during their darkest and most painful times. As each character takes on their superhero persona, they also find the strength to support one another. These kids are smart and sensitive who find out they are neither helpless nor hopeless as they thought. Don’t underestimate this mishmash of heroes as they battle through everyday trials and tribulations with courage, resilience and some success. They not only have to learn to navigate through their intensive and sometimes destructive behaviors; they also have to deal with the usual teen issues of love, friendships, families dynamics and self awareness. Toten handles the subjects of OCD and mental illness with wisdom and understanding as well as offers her protagonists and readers hope and healing. Her characters have become well-loved superheroes of mine, and I am sure they will find a following with young adult readers everywhere.
The “Unlikely Hero of Room 13B” won the Young Adult Schneider Family Book Award this year for the book that best embodies artistic expression of a young literary character’s disability experience. Her book has also won the Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature in 2013, which is equivalent to our Newbery Award here in America.
Sue Engel is the library director at Horace Mann Middle School in Wausau.
About the book
Title: “The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B”
Author: Teresa Toten
Publisher: Delacorte Press (American Edition)
Award: The Schneider Family Book Award 2016 Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award
Audience: Young Adult