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Sara and the Search for Normal

LIST PRICE $17.99

“Readers will appreciate [Sara] as good literary company even as they develop sympathy for her struggles.” —BCCB
“It’s the vivid, insightful depiction of Sara’s internal struggles that readers will remember.” —Booklist
“A must-buy.” —School Library Journal (starred review)

In this prequel to the Edgar Award–winning OCDaniel, fan-favorite Sara quests for “normal” and finds something even better along the way.

Sara’s Rules to be Normal

1. Stop taking your pills
19. Make a friend
137. Don’t put mayonnaise on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Sara wants one thing: to be normal. What she has instead are multiple diagnoses from Dr. Ring. Sara’s constant battle with False Alarm—what she calls panic attacks—and other episodes cause her to isolate herself. She rarely speaks, especially not at school, and so she doesn’t have any friends. But when she starts group therapy she meets someone new. Talkative and outgoing Erin doesn’t believe in “normal,” and Sara finds herself in unfamiliar territory: at the movies, at a birthday party, and with someone to tell about her crush—in short, with a friend. But there’s more to Erin than her cheerful exterior, and Sara begins to wonder if helping Erin will mean sacrificing their friendship.

A Reading Group Guide to

OCDaniel

Sara and the Search for Normal

By Wesley King

About the Books

Sara’s mind plays games: games like False Alarm, the Lead Ball, and Danger Game, each one more unnerving than the next. Her hope is to quiet the way her mind speaks to her and find her own “normal.” She meets with Dr. Ring’s therapy group and discovers that there are more kids like her, all searching for their own paths. One of them becomes a friend, and it’s Erin who welcomes Sara as a Star Child, someone who has special or unusual traits or abilities. After meeting Erin, Sara can feel the change inside her. Erin opens Sara’s world to new people and situations she never expected to experience, and she comes to find that she’s stronger than she ever believed she could be.

At school, Sara has noticed a boy named Daniel and suspects that he is also a Star Child. Daniel’s mind also does many unnerving things. Every time he sees a bad number, he gets a Zap. Before he can go to bed at night, he must follow an exact routine. If he falls into the Great Space, nothing makes sense in the world except for his fear and his desperate need to try to fix things. He is certain that his behaviors aren’t normal, and he carefully hides them from his friends and family. One day, Sara says hello to Daniel, and he begins to realize that she’s guessed some of his secrets. After she asks him to help her solve a mystery, the two begin spending time together, finding connections, strength, and friendship in their commonality.

Discussion Questions

1. Both Sara and the Search for Normal and OCDaniel look at mental health from inside the mind of someone living with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other neurodiversities. Why do you think that it’s important to read and talk about mental health awareness? Had you heard about any of these mental illnesses before reading these books? If so, have you ever talked about them with anyone? Did these stories change anything about the way you think of mental illnesses? Explain your answers.

2. The author uses both slang and medical terminology throughout the books. Why do you think the author creates names for Sara’s and Daniel’s disorders? Do those invented names give you a better idea of what those disorders are like? Do you think it is important to use correct terminology when it comes to identifying and discussing mental health?

3. Discuss the inappropriate words that are used throughout the stories to describe mental health. Why do you think the author chooses to include offensive language when certain characters speak about and to Sara? Why do you think Sara uses some of these words to describe herself and others in the therapy group? Why does Daniel describe himself as “crazy” and “bonkers”? Explain your answers.

4. The opening line of Sara and the Search for Normal reads, “Introductions are hard, so let’s just start by punching something.” OCDaniel begins with “I first realized I was crazy on a Tuesday.” What do these lines tell us about the stories themselves, and about the points of view of the main characters?

5. When reading the introduction of Sara and the Search for Normal, how do you feel about Sara’s dressing room story and the way that she chooses to disclose her medical diagnoses? What is your first impression of Sara? Does that change throughout the book, or as you read OCDaniel? Explain your answers using examples from the books.

6. Daniel refers to himself as an “eccentric thirteen-year-old social oddity,” and gets embarrassed if he thinks anyone has witnessed his Zaps, but most of his friends don’t seem to think he’s as odd as he does. Does the text provide us with any clues about why he is so ashamed of his compulsions? When did he start to realize he was different? How did he handle that discovery? Explain your answers.

7. Discuss Sara’s self-talk. How does her view of herself and her brain contrast with the talk from her parents, Dr. Ring, Ms. Hugger, and others?

8. Both Sara and Daniel have an offbeat sense of humor, and Daniel’s helps him relate to some of the other kids. Do you think that being able to make light of things can help when living with mental illnesses? How are Sara’s and Daniel’s jokes different from others’ making fun of them? Why doesn’t it bother Daniel when Max calls him Space Cadet?

9. Talk about Sara’s and Daniel’s best friends. Daniel says that Max “didn’t ditch me when he got cool in the fifth grade and I didn’t.” What does that statement tell you about Max’s personality or the quality of their friendship? How does Max’s role as football star help protect Daniel and make him feel included on the team? Why do you think Erin instantly deems Sara her best friend? What influence does Erin’s friendship have on Sara?

10. Because she is taught in a separate room at school, Sara is more isolated from other students than Daniel. How does this impact her school experience or shape her goals for the year? Name other ways that the author depicts Sara’s alienation.

11. At one point, Sara says, “I was the worst bully of them all.” Daniel refers to “being bullied by [his] own mind.” What does their use of terminology tell you about how they view their illnesses? Do you think any of the tactics that kids use against bullies could help Daniel or Sara battle their own minds? Explain your answers.

12. Discuss Sara’s games and the terms that she’s created for them. Do you think having terms for the games is helpful for Sara’s mental health? Do you think the story that Daniel writes serves a similar function for him? What other coping mechanisms do you see in these stories? How do you handle stressors in your life? Explain your answers.

13. It’s clear in Sara and the Search for Normal that she feels closer to her dad than to her mom, and some possible reasons for this are introduced in OCDaniel. How does learning about what happened to Sara’s father make you feel? How does that relationship compare to Daniel’s relationship with his dad?

14. Unlike only-child Sara, Daniel has two siblings. Talk about how differently his brother, Steve, and sister, Emma, perceive him. What are their relationships like? Do you think they understand him? Do you think they wish that things were different? Explain your answer using examples from the book.

15. In both books, Sara and Daniel see each other having humiliating or difficult moments. Both realize that, as Daniel puts it, “watching someone else break [makes] me feel a lot less broken.” What do you think he means by that statement? Why might that be comforting? Explain your answers.

16. How are Erin’s tenets for Star Children similar to Sara’s rules for being normal? How are they different? Do you think one list is better for Sara’s mental health than the other? What is your definition of “normal”? Do you think it can change depending on the person? Explain your answers.

17. Daniel talks to many people at school, both in class and during football games. Sara says that she only speaks to four people. Throughout Sara’s story, we see her increase the number of people whom she’s willing to speak to. What happens that allows her to feel she can open up to new people? Are all the people whom she chooses to interact with supportive of her? Are all the people whom Daniel befriends supportive of him? What characteristics do you look for in a friend? Explain your answers.

18. What would you identify as a turning point in Sara’s or Daniel’s stories? How does Sara realize that “normal” isn’t what she’s searching for? What do you think she was searching for? What role does Sara play in helping Daniel accept that, as he says, “‘I wasn’t normal. I never had been.’”?

19. Daniel says, “‘We were only crazy when we thought we were alone.’” What does he mean by that? Connection is a major theme in both books. How does finding each other help Sara and Daniel understand and accept their mental illnesses?

Extension Activities across Books

1. There are many books, movies, and television shows portraying mental health. Select another show, movie, or book that you’ve connected with, and compare it to Sara and the Search for Normal or OCDaniel. Compare and contrast the ways they portray mental health.

2. After reading both Sara and the Search for Normal and OCDaniel, discuss another character in the books who you think should have their own story. Who is it? When or where would it be set? What would you like to know about them? Explain your answers using scenes from the books.

3. The author uses the designation Star Child to represent the differences and uniqueness of kids living with mental illness. Research and write a report on Star Children, and discuss your findings with the class. Which information most surprised you? What left the biggest impression on you? What do you think is most important for others to know?

Extension Activities for Sara and the Search for Normal

1. There are notes from Sara throughout the book. At first, these notes appear after each chapter, and then sporadically throughout. Select one of the chapters that does not have a note following it. Write a note in the same manner and tone used in other places. Consider why Sara feels the need to explain details in these notes.

2. The story begins with a very specific personal narrative of Sara in the dressing room. This narrative gives us insight into Sara’s character and shows us a very detailed account of an everyday activity in Sara’s life. Reflect on your everyday activities: going to lunch, attending practice, shopping with a parent, cleaning your bedroom, etc. Select one activity and write about it on a specific day, with specific details in mind. What makes this everyday activity different on this specific day? Why was it memorable? How were you feeling? Did it change the way you might experience the activity next time?

3. Think about how Sara’s list of rules for being normal affects her. What do you think about the rules on her list? If you could change the list to read “Rules for Being Happy,” what ten things would you put on your own list? Write them down. Then discuss with a classmate and see if the two of you wrote similar or different items for your rules. How do you think having a list of “Rules for Being Happy” might have affected Sara’s life?

Extension Activities for OCDaniel

1. Different people in Daniel’s life view him from their own perspectives, including Max, Emma, Steve, Raya, and his dad. Choose three of these people, and write a description of Daniel from each of their perspectives. Then write a description of how you view Daniel. Finally, write a description of how Daniel might view himself. Discuss as a class the differences in perspectives, and their impacts on Daniel. How can you work to better listen and understand each other?

2. After Daniel scores a touchdown and wins the football game, he says, “It [is] the best day of my life.” Think about the best day of your life, and write a story about it.

Lexile level, OCDaniel: Lexile ® 560L

Guide written by Bobbie Combs, a consultant at We Love Children's Books.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

The Lexile reading level has been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®.

Wesley King is the author of the Edgar Award–winning OCDaniel, which Booklist praised as “complex and satisfying” in a starred review. It was also named a Bank Street Best Book of the Year and received Canada’s Silver Birch Award. King’s first middle grade novel, The Incredible Space Raiders from Space!, was called “a well-drafted coming-of-age story” by Publishers Weekly. King is also the author of The Vindico and its sequel, The Feros, which were both Junior Library Guild selections, and Kobe Bryant’s New York Times bestselling Wizenard series. He lives in Nova Scotia.

Diagnosed at age six with bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, mild schizophrenia, and depression, Sara attends public school and does well academically. Now in seventh grade, unable to attend regular classes because of frequent, disruptive panic attacks, she’s known to other students as Psycho Sara, and she yearns to be “normal.” At group sessions led by her psychiatrist, she meets outgoing Erin, who befriends her and urges her to adopt a more positive outlook, to see herself as a “Star Child,” and to celebrate the differences that make her special. Becoming an agent of positive change for others, Sara faces painful losses, but she makes impressive gains as well. In this prequel to King’s OCDaniel (2016), readers will meet Sara in the period before her story intertwines with Daniel’s. The first-person narrative reveals her concerns and shifts in confidence as this vulnerable, truthful character meets challenges and becomes increasingly determined and brave. Adults and young people alike are portrayed as flawed here, but it’s the vivid, insightful depiction of Sara’s internal struggles that readers will remember.

– Booklist, February 15, 2020

How can Sara even try to make friends when she knows in her heart that she's really what her jeering classmates call her? Sara, who was diagnosed at 6 with bipolar and anxiety disorders, mild schizophrenia, and depression, lives a mostly solitary life. Though she attends a public school, she's not mainstreamed. The school believes Sara's too intellectually gifted to be in a regular special education classroom, so she's been learning solo. Wracked with self-loathing, she's obsessed with being "normal." When her therapist (also her psychiatrist) encourages Sara to join a therapy group for teens with mental illness, Sara makes her first friend ever. Erin has trichotillomania, an anxiety disorder in which she pulls out her own eyebrows and eyelashes, and (unlike nearly silent Sara) she's gregarious and affectionate. Though Erin and Sara adore one another, they could hardly be more different. Sara is desperate for a cure while Erin insists she has no desire for normalcy. Sara constantly uses slurs to describe herself while Erin's convinced that they're special kids: Star Children. Nearly all the characters are white except for one other kid in the group. With multiple encouraging adult mentors who say mostly excellent things about mental health, the educational message is unsubtle, but it's delivered in a thoroughly compelling vehicle with a tidy but gripping subplot. This prequel to OCDaniel (2016) works just as well as a stand-alone. Readers will take heart to see this well-realized character learning self-esteem and life skills. (Fiction. 10-13)

– Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2020

*KING, Wesley. Sara and the Search for Normal. 272p.  S. & S/Paula Wiseman Bks. Jun. 2020. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534421134.

Gr 4-8–King has done it again with this in-depth look into life-altering mental health issues. Sara, who was a supporting character in King’s book OCDaniel, gets to tell her own story. Sara is 12 years old and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and schizophrenia. She also is selectively mute; she only speaks to four people in her life when the story begins. Sara’s goal in life is to become normal, and she has 154 rules for achieving it. Rule number one is, “Stop taking your pills.” We follow Sara as she goes to therapy, faces horrible bullying, finally makes a friend, and faces both setbacks and success. Mental health stigma is still so strong and easy to internalize. The stigma against schizophrenia is especially strong, and this book portrays Sara’s symptoms from her own point of view. They are frightening to her, but her symptoms don’t make her dangerous to anyone else. There is a teachable moment about the use of the “R word,” and child abuse and alcoholism are also discussed. The story is not didactic in addressing these issues, so conversations with students reading the book may be necessary. The one aspect of the book that pushes suspension of disbelief is that it is very rare for someone of Sara’s age to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia; the narrative implies that Sara was diagnosed quickly at the age of five or six. VERDICT Readers of all ages will learn from Sara’s journey through shame to a point of growth and acceptance. A must-buy for elementary and middle school libraries.–Jeri Murphy, C.F. Simmons Middle School, Aurora, IL

– School Library Journal STARRED REVIEW, May 2020

More books from this author: Wesley King