The Best Medicine

Christine Hamill

The Best Medicine by Christine Hamill, Published by Little Island Books, 978-1910411513, 166pp, Paperback, for 10-14 Middle/Secondary, RRP £6.99.

This review is available on the Books for Keeps website. Thank you to Books for Keeps for permission to reproduce their review.

Twelve-year-old Philip, would-be comedian, reluctant poet and fervent Harry Hill fan, is busy dealing with the usual teenage problems, girls, teachers, the school bully, when his Mum is diagnosed with breast cancer and life takes a more serious and difficult turn. Philip has a whole new series of problems to face and his progress from an initial reaction of sulking and wishing his Mum had a less embarrassing type of cancer through the realisation that he could lose the most important person in his world to a desire to help and make a difference is portrayed with humour and poignancy.

Philip’s efforts to cope and to help his Mum are both funny and moving and the story is broken up by Philip’s advice-seeking letters to his hero, Harry Hill. The appearance of this fictional version of Harry Hill at a fund-raising event at the end of the book provides a fitting climax to a story that seeks to deal with a serious subject in a comic way.

The author has written a successful non-fiction book for adults on breast cancer so the stages of Philip’s Mum’s illness and treatment and its emotional effects are portrayed convincingly and the light-hearted fictional approach to a difficult subject, told through Philip’s likeable, funny voice, will help young people to understand and cope with a situation that many are likely to face.

The Power of Children’s Literature: Making connections between books

The Best Medicine deals with the heartrending issue of Philip, who is a twelve year old boy, learning about his mum’s breast cancer, then how he copes with this life changing news. His preoccupations prior to this are similar to other teenage boys and include, a school bully, detention, his best friend’s behaviour and a girl he really likes. It is a funny book as well as very moving, and could be a great help to empathise with children in this situation.

Themes:

  • Dealing with life threatening illnesses or death.
  • Using humour as a way to cope with overwhelming difficulties.

Dealing with Life threatening illnesses or death.

The details of Philip’s mother’s illness and treatment deal with the physical and emotional issues both for himself and his mum. It emphasises the difficulty Philip has in explaining what has happened to his mum because his acute embarrassment, prevents him from discussing it even with his best friend Ang. The loneliness this results in adds to Philip’s anguish.

The Pig Heart Boy Malorie Blackman Double day UK. 1997

Here Cameron is the young teenage boy with a failing heart who needs a transplant to survive. He is offered a transplant, but controversially the replacement heart will come from a pig. There could be good opportunity to discuss the ethical considerations about this idea and how friends and school mates line up on different sides of the argument, when they learn that the new heart came from a pig. There is a fair amount of graphic detail included as well as an insight into the emotions of someone facing this choice. The ambiguous ending is also a chance for discussion. Was the author unable to write a clear ending for emotional purposes or does it leave the story open to be picked up again later?

Two Weeks with the Queen Morris Gleitzman. Blackie UK. 1989

Colin is a young boy sent to England from Australia to live with relations because his brother Luke has cancer. In the course of a hectic and humorous account of Colin trying to see the Queen on his brother’s behalf, Colin comes across the name of the best cancer hospital in England and the best surgeon there. He meets up with a man called Ted and discovers that the most important thing he can do is to spend time with his brother Luke during his final days. Working out the best course of action for someone close to you who is terminally ill could be a very helpful conversation for students who have had this experience and need to share it or wonder how they would cope.

Bridge to Terabithia Katherine Patterson Harper Collins 1977.

This book was written for the author’s son who had to deal with the death of a friend through a tragic accident. The majority of the story is about the development of the friendship between Jesse and Leslie, two lonely children, and the imaginary kingdom they create in deserted woodland. There is an accident, Leslie is killed and Jesse has to deal with the loss. His teacher, who has seemed remote and authoritative, offers him condolences and shares her own sorrow at her husband’s death. She helps him understand that he has to take the memory of Lesley and what they enjoyed together along with him for the rest of his life. This could be a helpful way of approaching bereavement with younger children, who like Jesse are bewildered and unsure of how to cope.

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake. Walker Books 2004.

This is a visual and written account of the death of Michael Rosen’s son Eddie. It shows a wide range of ways he celebrates and grieves for his son as well as some of his coping strategies. They are beautifully illustrated by Quentin Blake, and would be a great way of chatting about all the confusing ways you feel when someone very close to you has died.

Using Humour as a way to cope with difficulties that could be overwhelming.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾. Sue Townsend. Methuen 1982.

Adrian Mole is a teenager with no ambition to be a comedian, but has a comic way of recording the events in his life. The reader is laughing both with him and at him, and unlike Philip in The Best Medicine, takes himself very seriously. The two styles could be compared. In both cases they help to ease the pain and anxiety that is part of daily life for the two heroes. Adrian Mole is not a heroic figure and presents himself and his family troubles with apparent sincerity, giving a satire of social history of life in 1982. The invasion of the Falklands, Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding are included, alongside the breakup of his parent’s marriage and his Dad’s redundancy.

It would be interesting to compare how the two styles work, with Philip telling jokes as a way of helping people cope with their pain and illness, and Adrian making comments that are very funny but only supposed to be for himself and his diary.

“How does laughter help and is it the best medicine?” This could be a possible starting point for discussion.

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