In Jennifer Yu's debut novel, Four Weeks, Five People, teenagers Clarisa, Stella, Mason, Andrew and Ben meet at summer camp. But this is no ordinary summer camp. It's a camp for teens with mental-health challenges. The protagonists didn't choose the camp as a fun way to spend a month – they're there because the camp was mandated to treat issues like OCD, anorexia, and depression. Their four weeks at Camp Ugunduzi is a chance for them to become "normal" in the eyes of their parents and teachers.
"It wasn't like I was trying to write a book. I wrote two pages and didn't realize it was going to get longer," Yu says. "The voice of Stella just came to me so strong. She's returning to camp for her second summer and talks about how stupid it is – the idea of 'getting better' and what does that even mean? But at the end, it's hard for her not to hope that it will help."
While at camp, the characters voice opinions and talk through challenges that Yu has faced in her own life. And, like life, there are no easy cures and no easy answers.
"In school, I would read these stories of people with mental health challenges and it was like they realize they have a problem, they commit to something, and...they did it! But that's not how it really works. I think it's important for young people to see that change doesn't always happen. I hope this book shows that for people with depression or other issues, it's okay and they can be less hard on themselves. I hope that reading about characters who struggle will help people see that it's okay to struggle," Yu says.
At its heart, Four Weeks, Five People is about the struggle to connect. The adults in this story hope that camp will help their teens act like everyone else and learn to connect with the mainstream world. But what happens is much different. As relationships and conflicts evolve, the book shows the power of connecting with others who understand what it's like to not be "normal," and, ultimately, the power of connecting with a self that, outside camp, has been systematically devalued.
"I used to think, if only I could be a different person! I wanted to cut out part of myself – cut out the part that felt totally inadequate at school," Yu says. "But now I see you have to look that part of yourself in the eye. The most you can learn is to be okay with the person you are."
Yu's gorgeous exploration of herself, distributed across five characters, will resonate not only with teens in therapy but with every teen reader who feels at odds with the world – namely almost every teen. Teens will see in these pages and in this author a voice that's been there. Sometimes it's enough for now just to feel understood.
Four Weeks, Five People is available for pre-order in advance of its May 17, 2017 publication. I was given an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.