Title: Sick Bay
Author: Nova Weetman
Publisher: UQ Press
Published: 4th June 2019
Synopsis: Meg uses Sick Bay to hide from other kids. She’s struggling with changes at home, wears slippers to school and buries her head in books.
New girl Riley is a type 1 diabetic with an over-protective mother. She’d rather chat with her friends than go to Sick Bay, but sometimes she has no choice.
They think they’ve worked each other out, but what if they’ve got it all wrong?
On the brink of high school, Meg and Riley need a place where they can find the courage to be themselves.
Notable Book, 2020 CBCA Book of the Year Awards – Book of the Year: Younger Readers
2020 CBCA Notable Book, Sick Bay by Nova Weetman centres around two girls – Riley and Meg, in their final year of primary school. Meg is struggling at home, and needs a space where she can just breathe easily, eat and stay away from bullies like Lina and her friends. Riley has diabetes and has to go every day to test her bloods before eating – but she longs to spend time with her friends. Slowly, Riley and Meg start talking, and they open up to each other. They’re on the brink of high school and filled with the anxieties that come with heading towards a new venture in your life.
Riley and Meg, and their home lives, couldn’t be more different. Riley’s mother is over-protective, and won’t let Riley do anything, or show her how to manage her diabetes. Riley’s father and sister are a little easier to deal with but tend to agree with Riley’s mother. Riley longs for freedom. Meg’s father has died recently, and her mother isn’t coping – depressed, and dealing with anxiety and panic attacks, Meg has taken on the role of caregiver, as well as attending school. She’s struggling yet tries to make sure people don’t know the full story.
Both Riley and Meg are coping with invisible illnesses and disabilities – something not often explored in literature, and overall, disability is not really explored in main characters, unless they’re there to inspire non-disabled characters or as a tragic story. Here we get a story where the lives of those impacted by disability are shown as a whole – how their disability and home life affects things, but also, the everyday desires. Riley and Meg are active in their lives, they are shown as whole people. They’re more than just their disability, and they grapple with some people not understanding, as well as family pressures to constantly think about it. Nova has managed to get the balance right and acknowledges disability activists such as Jessica Walton in the back of the book, and people she knows with diabetes, who helped her make what Riley and Meg experience valid and authentic.
Nova’s characters grapple with a transition in their lives as well – from primary school to high school, and the challenges they face from teachers, friends and home, only to discover that maybe they have a better bond than they do with others, and perhaps they can rely on each other as friends. Meg seems to understand that Riley doesn’t want everything to be about her diabetes, and Meg never asks questions that Riley doesn’t like.
Told in first person, in alternating chapters between Meg and Riley, we get an understanding of what each girl is going through in their own words, and how they see the other throughout the novel. It is beautifully written, with friendship and understanding at the heart of the novel. Every time Lina spoke down to Riley, I wanted to hug Riley. The events that unravelled empowered both Riley and Meg to be friends with the people they truly liked, rather than being alone. They might seem like an unlikely pair at first, yet I could see a beautiful friendship beginning to blossom. It is a touching story that I read in two sittings because it was so engrossing, and I felt as though when I was reading one girl, I was missing what the other one had to say and was looking forward to any of their interactions.
It is the kind of book that gives insight into the world of mental health and invisible disabilities, that has been well-researched, and might spark a conversation. It is also quite Australian. Sick Bay is something unique to Australia, a place in schools where students go when feeling unwell, or when they’re injured. These stories that have a distinct Australian flavour to them are very enjoyable and relatable, because it gives Aussies a reference point in their lives – whether it’s from school, or any other area of their lives. This differs from book to book, but each Australian story will explore an aspect of Australia. I love these books because we get so much saturation of stories from America, we need more Australian stories.
This touching and gentle story is a reminder to take care of ourselves, each other and the power of friendship coming from the most unlikely of places to heal and bring us together.