Book Review: The Year My Life Went Down the Toilet by Jake Maia Arlow
A hilariously honest book about surviving middle school while navigating a chronic illness from the Stonewall Honor-winning author of Almost Flying.
Twelve-year-old Al Schneider is too scared to talk about the two biggest things in her life:
1. Her stomach hurts all the time and she has no idea why.
2. She’s almost definitely 100% sure she likes girls.
So she holds it in…until she can’t. After nearly having an accident of the lavatorial variety in gym class, Al finds herself getting a colonoscopy and an answer—she has Crohn’s disease.
But rather than solving all her problems, Al’s diagnosis just makes everything worse. It’s scary and embarrassing. And worst of all, everyone wants her to talk about it—her overprotective mom, her best friend, and most annoyingly her gastroenterologist, who keeps trying to get her to go to a support group for kids with similar chronic illnesses. But, who wants to talk about what you do in the bathroom?
The Year My Life Went Down the Toilet is a wildly funny and honest story about finding community, telling the truth even when it’s hard, and the many indignities of middle school life.
If you are a daily TLT reader, you probably see a lot of my reviews. And maybe you think, good lord, does she just LOVE every book she reads? Because, yes, I LOVED this book. Like so many others I review. But here’s the deal: I don’t review things I don’t like (unless maybe I find something so outrageously damaging or offensive that I want to talk about THAT aspect). Not only that, I don’t really even read things I don’t like. Generally speaking, if it’s a meh kind of book, I set it aside (or maybe just skim over it for major plot points and the resolution) and move on. I have too many books here to read everything. I have too many books here to read things that don’t grab me. And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, we live in a world filled with constant negativity. I don’t need to add my voice to that. I just think, this book is not for me, and I move on. And if the result of that is that all my TLT reviews are me gushing that I love something, great. Because I want you to find the GREAT books, so yeah, I’m going to gush a lot.
Here I go again!
Al is recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. She has spent so much time feeling absolutely mortified to constantly be running to the bathroom and battling her upset stomach. Now, at least, she has an answer why, but like so many diseases, there’s not an easy fix. A diagnosis is not a cure. She has some things to help her manage her symptoms, but this is something she will likely have to deal with for the rest of her life. This is, of course, a bummer, but there turns out to be an unexpected upside to this diagnosis. Her doctor hooks her up with a support group of other tweens/teens dealing with similar issues and diagnoses. Al is completely uninterested in going, but when her very best friend Leo starts to get involved in theater and live his own life, Al goes to the group as kind of a “well, fine, I can make new friends too” move. To her surprise, she actually does make new friends there.
Suddenly, she’s around kids who totally 100% understand what she’s been going through. And it’s not just that—everyone in the group is awesome. And, you know what, let me just go ahead and spoil this eventual reveal to you, because it’s important to see this especially if you buy books for your library or classroom etc: basically everyone in this book is queer. Al is just starting to understand this about herself (as are some of the others) and gets to have a really sweet and joyful crush/first girlfriend experience. And watching these kids come together to support each other and reveal these identities and share their feelings was just lovely. My husband came down while I was reading this on the couch and I was like, “How beautiful is it that in 2023 we get all kinds of wonderful stories we’ve never seen before that can make readers feel so seen and not alone!” I don’t normally fold down corners in a book, but often do in ARCs, when I want to remember a certain part. I folded down SO MANY corners because of all the brilliant lines that just nailed adolescence. Lines like, “Everything about being a human feels overwhelmingly embarrassing” (pg 148). This book just captures the many ups and downs of middle school so well. The fact that it normalizes kids dealing with not just a chronic illness but one that can be really embarrassing or uncomfortable to talk about is wonderful.
All of this is to say that this book was fantastic. This is a great look at coping with illness, connecting with others, adjusting to new realities and identities, and accepting the infinite change that comes with being a person (and not a supercomputer without a body, Al’s one true wish in life). Don’t miss out on this one!
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 08/01/2023
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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