In the Author's Note, Sheinmel writes, "Jake once said that one of the most important things his mother did was leave us with a story."
She is referring to Jake Glaser, son of actor Paul Michael Glaser and his wife Elizabeth Glaser. Jake, his sister Ariel, and his mother Elizabeth all became HIV+ due to a blood transfusion Elizabeth experienced while giving birth to their first child, Ariel.
Sheinmel was 13 when she first read of the Glaser's story in a People magazine. She then went on to discover the Pediatric AIDs Foundation and donated ten dollars a week from her babysitting money to it, and then even used a summer of her to time to volunteer at the Foundation.
Positively is not the story of the Glaser family. Yet, Steinmel's story is built from what she knows, what she has learned, and what she has seen. Her interest in the Glaser's story eventually led to this novel: Positively. It is the story of a fictitious 13 year old girl named Emmy who is growing up HIV+. Early in the novel, Emmy loses her mother to AIDs and the reader accompanies Emmy on her journey from sadness, confusion, and anger through resentment and frustration to acceptance, self-discovery, and love. For a fictional story, it feels incredibly authentic because it is authentic. Nothing needs to be made up. Emmy might be fictional, but the story is real for adolescents many experiencing life as HIV+:
The novel brings these experiences up close to the reader. toIt is natural for children infected with HIV ask Why us? Some adolescents are public about their condition, and others are not. Some get angry when friends, not infected, talk about members of the opposite sex. In Positively, Emmy doesn't want to talk about or acknowledge cute boys because she fears she'll never know what it is like to be loved by one -they'll all fear growing close to her.
A strength in Steinmel's story is the strength and courage which her HIV+ characters learn to gain through others. Much of this strength, for Emmy, comes from the compassion she receives while at a six week camp exclusively for kids who are HIV+. I had no idea camps like these existed. Even the simple condition of being someplace where everyone is like you is in itself unique, and eventually comforting. Emmy is actually allowed to feel normal for a brief period. She takes her meds, and so does everyone else. Her fears and thoughts, are similar to those around her. She has lost someone who contracted AIDs, and those around her did as well. Having others who understand what you feel and experience on a daily basis is a powerful tool to help people move towards acceptance and love.
One of the sweetest motifs in the novel is the story of Caesar's breath. We all breath in molecules from Julius Caesar's last breath; the molecules never go away. They get redistributed evenly throughout all the air throughout the planet. There is nothing unique abuout Casesar's breath; it is just a charming piece of forklore. However, the science behind is true. We are all breathing a piece of each other as well as those who have been. We all breath a little piece of the breath of Caesar, George Washing, Einstein, or in Emmy's case her mother. The concept that we never truly lose someone is blended into that motif:
It didn't matter if I was at camp. I could be breathing Mom in, no matter where I was.The novel comes to its own rest as Emmy comes to terms with her mother's passing, her own condition, and most importantly, and brilliantly in the book, life itself:
I picked up the very last pill and held it between my fingers and then I did the weirdest thing: I kissed it before putting it on my tongue, because it was keeping me well. Life was weird, like Robin said, but it was also important. I wanted to live.Highly recommended for middle school students and anyone who enjoys YA literature. The novel is not too heavy for 12-13 year olds; it actually handles everything brilliantly and sensitively. It is probably in the realm of crossover literature in that it is really suited for any age. It is one of my favorite books which I have read in the past year. I will be mentioning it to my classes when we get back to school next week.