Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert is the third novel in our YA Book Club Winter Games Series. We previously reviewed The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue and There's Someone Inside Your House. For our final installment, we'll be discussing They Both Die at the End at the end of March. But for now, let's get into Little & Lion!
Emily: Little and Lion was, surprise surprise, a Book of the Month pick. As we have mentioned in past blog posts and podcast episodes, a lot of contemporary lit (especially thrillers) seems to get mental health issues completely wrong. When I saw that this was a novel that had a main character with bipolar disorder, I was really intrigued to read it because my experience with YA novels is that, generally speaking, they are a lot better at handling the topic of mental health than, say, The Couple Next Door. Just as a for instance.
So for a quick summary, Little & Lion is the story of Suzette (Little) who is sent away to boarding school after her brother Lionel (Lion) is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While Little is away at school, she has her first relationship with a girl, causing her to question her sexual identity. Little comes home for the summer, and those issues of identity are exacerbated when she gets a crush on two different people, her childhood friend Emil and a girl named Rafaela, who her brother Lion ALSO HAS A CRUSH ON. DUN DUN DUUUUN.
Mary: Which I found WILD. I started reading before looking at a summary and was blown away. There are so many great issues at work in this novel.
Emily: Oh yeah I should add I just gave Mary a copy of this book and was like here read this.
Mary: Yes! And read it I did. And I wasn't disappointed.
Emily: GOOD. I like that positive affirmation. It makes me want to give you more things.
Mary: Yes please.
Emily: So how did you feel about this book? Where should we start?
Mary: The two big themes in the novel are mental health and sexual identity. But also family!
Emily: And family loyalties! And flowers!
Mary: Yes and flowers! I say maybe let's start with mental health?
Emily: Yes, lets.
Mary: So as you said, Wow! This does such a better job than many other books.
Emily: Yes, definitely. Lion is not defined by his mental illness.
Mary: He feels like he is sometimes, but his whole support system is there to say otherwise.
Emily: And people who try to define him through his disorder are heavily critiqued for doing so. Looking at u, Catie u bitch.
Mary: Ugh Catie.
Emily: Catie was the worst, but maybe almost like so awful she was not a real person. Like why would you hang out with anyone that terrible?
Mary: You shouldn’t for sure. She felt like a movie bully.
Emily: Yes, very one note.
Mary: One thing I was really impressed by is that medicine is depicted as a positive thing.
Emily: Yes. Not like OMG HE IS ON MEDS. But like hey you're sick and you take medicine when you don't feel well.
Mary: It’s not something to make Lion feel worse, even though he initially sees it as that. They help him FEEL LIKE HIMSELF.
Emily: Yes. You know what else is great? Lion didn't accidentally kill someone during his hypomania and then FORGET ABOUT IT (Hi, Couple Next Door). Instead, he did something totally believable like... he tried to buy a 20,000 dollar book.
Mary: Yes!! Which is an, oh idk, ACTUAL THING PEOPLE WITH BPD DO, trying to make extravagant purchases, because your brain says to do so.
Emily: Oh yeah, when he said, "I felt like I needed it" I was like yep, because, like many people, I know someone with bipolar disorder. And I've been with this person when she was going through a manic episode, and so a lot of what happened with him, I was like, yep, that seems real.
Mary: It seems very scary, just the unpredictability of it, and Lion seemed caught in that balance in a way that was heartbreaking.
Emily: He wanted to believe he wasn't as bad off as he was, and I know that is a disappointing feeling, when you don't have control and you disappoint yourself. And you feel like you've disappointed all of the people around you. All of that felt very real and relatable.
Mary: Exactly, and the book does a good job of showing how even though someone suffering from a mental disability may FEEL that way, it’s the distorted thinking. Because little and the rest of the family VERY MUCH wanted him to be well and did not feel disappointed, or blame him. It’s just really great to see such a supportive family—and a non traditional one too!
Emily: Yeah so Little and her mother are black and Lion and his father are Jewish. Lion and Little are step-siblings, but they grew up together, so they're basically real siblings. And their parents have built a life together but have decided not to get married. Yet they still very much work as a family and have taken on each other's traditions and are responsible for one another. I love how Saul and Little have father daughter days together. Like everyone in the family seems equally connected.
Mary: It's really great. I love when step siblings feel that way in books because I very much feel that way about my siblings, who are steps I grew up with!
Emily: Aw that's amazing. I didn't grow up with my step-siblings at all And even though my step-brothers are great, I forget they exist most of the time.
Mary: It’s a very different experience, for sure. Because you already have other lives, but when you live together through middle school like my sisters and I did, you’re forced to bond.
So... Sort of the crux of the novel is the intersection of family and mental health and identity, because when Lion goes off his meds, he threatens to basically disown and out Little if she tells their parents.
And it becomes a huge deal, understandably.
Emily: Right. Little is not really out to her parents or herself at the beginning of the novel. We see her come to the decision that she identifies as bi.
Mary: She’s really trying to work it out, for herself especially.
Emily: Which was great, I thought, because I feel like a lot more often we see characters who pretty much already know.
Mary: Yes definitely!
Emily: So it was great to read her figure herself out and what she wanted and what that meant in this really understandable way.
Mary: And she actually has to sit with her feelings and think on it.
Mary: There also is decidedly a lack of bisexual characters in pop culture.
Emily: Oh absolutely. Or they're depicted as sluts. Or polyamorous. At the very least.
Mary: And Little is a good one—not tragic or tormented, just figuring normal teen stuff out.
Emily: Or just confused about what they want. And she very much knows, look, I can't be with this person until I figure out what's going on with this other person. She's not like, I NEED A BOY AND A GIRL.
Mary: She struggles with having feelings for two people but she is very honest about it when given the chance.
Emily: Yes. So like. Speaking of the two people she's into. I'd like to talk about Emil and Rafaela, her two love interests for the majority of the book. And Iris, the girl she had a relationship with back at school.
Mary: Yeah! We never see Iris, really. And only get an idea of her through Little’s memories.
Emily: In the flashback "THEN" scenes.
Mary: But Iris seems comfortable with who she is and is fine telling everyone she’s a lesbian.
Emily: Which, just for like... a quick workshop corner...I didn't like that the flashback scenes were in present tense.
Mary: Oh yeah, me neither. That’s such a YA novel thing to do though.
Emily: Yeah but I'm getting pretty burnt out of the first person present tense narratives. Just in general. I'm ready for a new trend. Anyway, back on track. We were talking about Iris.
Mary: Me too me too. Iris seemed ok, I guess? Which is kind of how i felt about a lot of characters in this book.
Emily: I think the guilt Little has surrounding what happened with Iris is very central to everything she is feeling about her sexuality and what kind of person she sees herself as. And when Lionel asks Little to be loyal to him and not tell anyone he's off his meds, I think obviously part of the reason she says yes is her history with Lion and how they've always stuck up for each other. But also she feels guilt about not being loyal to Iris, and she's conscious of not doing that to someone again. Cause she does feel like she threw Iris under the bus.
Mary: Right right, that’s all a good analysis of it.
Emily: Oh man. Thanks.
Mary: Iris is central, but not because of anything she did, more how Little reacts to her.
Emily: Yes exactly. Iris could be any lesbian.
Mary: And she kind of is! What do we even know except she lives in Michigan?
Emily: And yo, you realize Iris means RAINBOW right?
Mary: OH MAN. I didn’t even realize. I feel like a dumbo now.
Emily: Nah I just realized that. But seriously. Gayest name ever.
Mary: Hahahaha. I’m more interested in Rafaela because she is “bad” for Lion.
Emily: Personally I think she's terrible.
Mary: Ooooh how do you think she’s terrible??
Emily: I thought she was bad news bears.
Mary: She’s a trash person but I’m not sure how she’s bad for Lion just by being her.
Emily: Well she's a shit-stirrer. There's this lame-o stalking her basically, and knowing this, and knowing how he feels, she tells him she's going to be at this party with Lion. Basically because she just wants to see what will happen. AND THEN AT THAT SAME PARTY SHE HITS ON LITTLE IN THE BATHROOM! A dude you're dating's sister is off limits. I'm sorry. It's really not cool.
Mary: That was the worst.
Emily: Seriously if she did that to me, I would be like "crush officially over." Because I'm sorry, you don't treat my brother like that.
Mary: And she’s a total edgelord about hitting on Little, saying, I don’t cheat, I don’t cheat. Like, no one said you did?
Emily: Oh for real. She just wants Little to make the move. Even Little is like, I know I could kiss her right now.
Mary: Also, she comes and GETS IN THE BED with little while Lion is missing!
Emily: Yes. I think she sucks.
Mary: She does she does. But Lion should see she sucks too, right?
Emily: It seems like she's pretty hot though, so you know how boys are. Emil was a sweet baby though.
Mary: Emil was very tender. I liked him a lot.
Emily: I feel like Emil made the choice really easy. Like obviously you pick Emil between Rafaela and Emil.
Mary: It was also great—as with everything else!—to see someone with hearing aids! Not a big deal, just thrown in.
Emily: Also I was visiting my nephew Emil while I was reading this. So I might be biased, because obviously my Emil is a perfect human.
Mary: Awwww yes! That’s very true. Overall, I couldn’t help feeling like this was a best case scenario world of identities. Other than a few scenes where random folks gave a weird look, all the disabilities and sexual identities are very accepted.
Emily: Yeah well they're in LA, so that felt believable.
Mary: I really like this book. But like a lot of YA books, I’m not sure how much I’ll remember it. It’s a good read though! I would give it 4/5!
Emily: I also gave it a 4/5. It was really sweet and I felt like the way it dealt with a lot of issues was very well done, and it was a super fast read.
Mary: Yes! I agree. It just doesn’t get to that classic sort of YA status for me. That’s not a bad thing though.
Emily: I had a few issues with it, as far as character development and fucking 1st person present.
Mary: Definitely. Those are valid problems to have This was a good pick overall!
Come back at the end of March for They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera! We're so excited!
- Mary & Emily
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The authors of this blog are four women with opinions about pop culture. That's all you really need to know.