Asthma in Mainstream(ish) Media: Teen and Tween Fiction Books, 1990 to now
I have to confess that I’m not the most up on pop culture. As Dia will attest, the answer to “Hey have you seen [insert movie title here],” is usually no, unless that movie happens to be Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, mostly.
Books, however, I’m a tad more invested in. By invested I mean I plan to read 40 books this year and I’ve read all of 6 and it’s June. That’s beside the point though. In the past, I’ve read a small handful of books involving characters with asthma. Most of the time, they do a surprisingly good job–at least the ones I’ve read!–of accurately portraying asthma, aside from, say, Lord of the Flies. And even then, “Sucks to your ass-mar!” is still among my all time favourite asthma quotes, because I’m kind of self-depreciating that at times–and plus, a line like that is really, in a weird way, empowering in the right context. “Forget asthma, do it anyways.” Otherwise, Lord of the Flies annoyingly portrays the kid with asthma as the obese, dweeby, uncool nerd kid with asthma who can’t do stuff (which may also have to do with its writing in 1954).
Beyond Lord of the Flies, here are the books relating to asthma I’ve read–usually barely about asthma which is a fairly accurate interpretation on the realistic asthma life: it’s more than asthma.
The Baby-Sitters Club: California Girls (December 1990) | Ann M. Martin
Mary Anne takes on a baby sitting client while vacationing in California (because it’s reasonable for like 7 13 year old girls to go off to California after winning on a lottery ticket, and also reasonable to babysit enough to develop a solid friendship with a kid on vacation? The book makes it work, because fiction.)
Mary Anne’s client is a pre-teen girl whose mother recently died, who has asthma in response to emotional stress and onlyyy emotional stress (red flag!). Mary Anne starts off hype vigilant about the kid’s asthma, but everything is fine… Until their discussion on last day of Mary Anne’s babysitter-ship triggers an asthma attack where she starts gasping and says she needs her inhaler (or, inhalator–what is that even?!). It’s a big production as she takes her medicine on the way to the park and then has to go home to take some kind of pill and rest on the couch all afternoon after Mary Anne calls the kid’s dad. Fortunately when they part ways for real, there’s no asthma to be seen.
I like that they finally brought in a kid with asthma; I don’t get that it had to be a one time use character in a non-regular series book, and the impression is that asthma is emotionally mediated. Nope. Unlike Lord of the Flies, though, we probably knew a bit better than that in 1990… Maybe?
The Baby-Sitters Club: Welcome to the BSC, Abby! (1996) | Ann M. Martin
Six years later we revisit asthma perceptions with the Baby Sitters’ Club. Abby is new to town, and after moving in nearby the President of the BSC, Kristy, is invited to join the club. Abby is an athlete and has asthma that’s mostly triggered by environmental stuff (she says life makes her sneeze), but also apparently stress. She does fine until–of course!–she has a random and abnormally severe for her asthma attack while working and playing basketball, and her inhaler doesn’t help. Fortunately one of the kids runs off to get help, an ambulance is called, and Kristy–who Abby is trying to prove herself to–has to take over the job. Abby gets the works, including oxygen and epinephrine, en route to the hosptal. She is fine by the time her mom gets there but has to rest a few days. The rest of the book is spent regaining Kristy’s trust and getting the babysitters to understand that asthma isn’t a big deal but stuff happens. While there’s some heavy emphasis on the stress factor–which is an asthma trigger of course–Abby emphasizes that it was stress that made the attack worse but other things like the exercise and allergies caused the attack.
So, the BSC made strides in six years, which is pretty cool. Although I recall there’s some mention of folding an inhaler… What kind of inhaler is this?!
Series: The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes (2000) | Anne Mazer
Told through a combination of journal entries and third person narration, Abby Hayes is a fifth grader (at series start), whose best friend Jessica is a great athlete who happens to have asthma. The author makes regular (but not annoying) notes about Jessica’s inhaler peeking out of her pocket, or her stopping to take a couple puffs here and there due to allergies at seasonally relevant times. Jessica also on one occasion has to ride the bench during a soccer game due to an asthma attack, or will miss an extra school day or two if she’s sick (as I recall).
I feel Jessica’s character pretty accurately portrays asthma, and what kids with asthma are like. Jessica changes her style and personality later in the series, changing from jeans and overalls to wearing more preppy clothes, so I presume her inhaler became a staple in her purse and wasn’t ever mentioned again (as far as I’ve read).
Breathing Soccer (2008) | Debbie Spring
The most recent of the lot I’ve read, is actually written two decades back, set in 1992. Lisa, the main character, has been told by her doctor that she needs to stop playing soccer because of her asthma after a severe attack. Fortunately, her roommate in the hospital recommends another doctor who prescribes Lisa a controller inhaler and tells her to take her inhaler before exercise. Despite the new doctor’s recommendation to continue activity taking her inhaler beforehand (and get rid of their beloved dog, causing much turmoil), Lisa’s family is skeptical and forces her to miss soccer camp. As she gradually gains better control of her asthma over the summer, Lisa fights her parents, and her friends and their parents who are misinformed—along with her lungs—to allow her to play soccer… Will she be able to compete when her team needs her most?
While Lisa also is given a home nebulizer, which isn’t super common (especially in Canada where the book is set), I felt this book hit many pieces of the asthma puzzle—and involved athleticism which is always a plus—including various medicines (vaguely), emergency treatment, allergies, and so on. Probably a great pick for younger teens and tweens.
(Personal disclosure: I received a copy of Breathing Soccer from Debbie in 2014 for review on my blog. You can read my full disclosure, and see my interview with Debbie here).
How about you?
What fiction books have you read that have a character with asthma? Did they do a good job portraying asthma realistically? Let me know in the comments!