My 10-year-old read this before I did, and she told me I MUST READ IT. So I dutifully picked up Alyson Gerber’s FOCUSED, and read it. My 10-year-old gives good advice.
The novel, aimed at 8-12 year olds, follows Clea, a newly minted 7th grader struggling with the growing responsibility and expectations of middle school. Told in the first person from Clea’s perspective, readers are immersed into the stop-and-start thoughts and distractions Clea faces every day. Her academic struggles and behavior lead to Clea being tested for and diagnosed with ADHD. Focused ensures that kids with ADHD will recognize some of their own experiences, and it is an important read for neurotypical readers, including family, teachers and community leaders, who care about the kids around them.
As Gerber explains in the Author’s Note, her personal experiences with ADHD informed the thoughtful and detailed descriptions of Clea’s reactions and concerns throughout the novel. The frustration and helplessness she feels come through particularly well, especially involving schoolwork and the distractions that contribute to derailing her from success. As a former classroom teacher, I recognized many of the traits and reactions Clea exhibits, and I wish I’d had some of the insights shared back then.
Also important in the details about Clea and her symptoms is the attention paid to her friendships and interactions with peers. Her outbursts and repeatedly calling herself stupid wear on her best friend, who is also going through adolescent trauma at home. Clea’s distractions keep her from being a reliable friend, and even push her to reveal sensitive secrets in an incident she immediately regrets. Clea’s attempts at a new friendship and navigating “mean girls” show a vulnerability sometimes overlooked in children who act tough or apathetic to protect themselves. In fact, more than one supporting character shows similar dynamics and growth in their personalities.
Clea’s experience, albeit frustrating, becomes relatively smooth once the diagnosis process begins, which is not every child’s experience. Clea’s teachers are understanding and happy to accommodate her needs, the school has a skilled and caring “middle school learning specialist” whose office is cozy and calm, her family is patient, willing to have her tested, and generally available for appointments, and her doctor is child-focused and able to explain Clea’s needs in a kind and straightforward way. In addition, Clea starts a medication that seems a perfect fit right away, despite a few days of stomach aches. However, these fairytale aspects of the novel don’t take away from the importance of demystifying and destigmatizing neural processes that challenge our traditional structures. In fact, this condensed success story will encourage more educators and parents to read the novel and learn more about the reality of growing up with ADHD.
Other topics broached in the novel include divorce and its effects on children, bullying, crushes, and friendship’s ups-and-downs. Clea’s younger sister has a speech impediment, which is a physical challenge that contrasts to Clea’s “unseen” challenges. The interactions Clea has with her friends and family, especially he young sister, are wonderful supports to the main theme of learning to adapt and accept an ADHD diagnosis.
FOCUSED in an important novel for kids with ADHD to feel seen, but it’s just as important for educators and caregivers to understand the frustrations and upheaval ADHD can cause in children’s lives.