Last week, Ned Vizzini, the young author of “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and other popular works for young adults, sadly took his own life. Here is a tribute from James Blasingame, associate professor of English Education at Arizona State University, and the 2010 president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English.
The world just lost a wonderful human being. On Dec. 17, at 32 years of age, Ned Vizzini, author of several popular young adult novels, including the semi-autobiographical “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” said goodbye to a world that had not always been a very happy one for him.
“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is about a teen spending a week in mental institution after considering suicide. The book was made into a successful movie with Emma Roberts and Zach Galifianakis and won multiple awards, such as the American Library Association’s 2007 Best Books for Young Adults. I have used it as required reading in my adolescent literature course at Arizona State University since it came out.
Every semester, the class has read the book, done a number of activities centered on the psychological/emotional issues of adolescence as they are so ingeniously portrayed in the book, and then each student has had the opportunity to ask Ned a question when he Skyped into the class. Even after he became so very famous and successful, writing for MTV, NBC, and more, he continued to Skype into our class every semester. Only a few weeks ago, Ned Skyped in for the last time, taking his lunch break at work to meet with us when three attempts to schedule a session had failed due to demands on his time. Ned ate his lunch and answered my students’ questions, treating every question as if it were the most important query he had ever received. He was so kind, so friendly, and so very understanding of other people.
Two semesters ago, when Ned Skyped in, he made fun of the broken institutional-style clock on the classroom wall which was so clearly hours off from the correct time. We all had a laugh about that and were pleasantly surprised when Ned sent a brand new Bulova wall clock to the class. Students loved it. He was someone you couldn’t help but love.
I met Ned Vizzini nearly 10 years ago, in 2004 in Indianapolis at the National Council of Teachers of English Assembly on Literature for Adolescents convention. I was on a panel about “The Art of Humor in Young Adult Literature,” and my component of the presentation was about the humor in a book by this very young author whom few people in our field had ever met. It was actually Ned’s second book, entitled “Be More Chill.”
The premise of the book was about a supercomputer in a pill the protagonist took that would guide him toward being cool or “chill,” as the pop culture of the time called it. Before taking the pill, Jeremy, the protagonist, never knew what to say or what to wear, and he suffered a million “small humiliations” every day as a world-class super-geek. But after the pill, he turned into the most popular kid in school, always wearing the latest fashions and quick with the witty comment in any situation. In the end, as in most fairy tales, fulfilled wishes turn bad, and Jeremy realizes that a pill is not the answer in life. I was using a recent theory about humor in an attempt to explain why this poor teen’s troubled life was so funny.
At the end of that presentation, a young man came up, and said, “Thank you for talking about my book. I really appreciate it.” It was Ned Vizzini. He was 22. He looked like he was 14, and actually, Ned was only a few years out of Stuyvesant High School, one of nine special Manhattan high schools that implement accelerated curriculum and only accept a fraction of applicants. Stuyvesant may very well have been the model for the high pressure Executive Pre-Professional High School, the protagonist, Craig, attends but hates. Ned and I exchanged email addresses. He promised to keep me in the loop on his next book, and I promised to give him consideration for a feature in the NCTE’s The ALAN Review, of which I was co-editor at the time, and for coverage in the International Reading Association’s Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, for which I was the book review and author interview editor.
And so our relationship began. We corresponded by e-mail regularly. Ned was interested in being a teacher, and as a professor of secondary English education at Arizona State University, I was thrilled. We even talked about him coming to Arizona and working on a degree in English education with a focus on young adult literature. He tried the New York City Teaching Fellows program to teach high school math, but his career path as a writer was undeniable.
Meanwhile, Ned provided me an advanced reading copy of his new book, tentatively entitled “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” After reading it, I knew it would be perfect for a review and author interview in my column in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. On Friday, as I read the news about Ned in Publisher’s Weekly, I was reminded of that conversation: “In a 2007 interview with the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Vizzini told writer James Blasingame that “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” was based on my real life and is 85% true.”
At the end of the book there is a note that Ned was in the psych ward at Methodist Hospital, in Brooklyn, from 11/29/04 to 12/3/04 and that he wrote the book over the course of three weeks following his experience.
I had forgotten how much of the book Ned took right from his own experience and also how quickly he chronicled it all, while it was still fresh in his mind. “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” does not capture the agonizing battle against mental illness as Joanne Greenberg did in “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” Nor does it reflect the smothering depression, brutal attempts at suicide, or barbaric medical treatment of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” Vizzini’s story is actually quite a sweet and optimistic one, which has readers empathizing with and coming to love the characters, both patients and medical personnel, which is so very much like Ned.
Nevertheless, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is honest. In the end, Craig is released to go home and when he does so, he makes sweeping changes in his life to make it better: new high school, new girlfriend, new life. However, as Ned knew to be true, Craig explains that you’re never cured of this condition, you can only change your behavior, especially your reaction to painful feelings:
I’m not better, you know. The weight hasn’t left my head. I feel how easily I could fall back into it, lie down and not eat, waste my time and curse wasting my time, look at my homework and freak out and go and chill at Aaron’s and look at Nia and be jealous again, and take the subway home and hope it has an accident, go and get my bike and head to the Brooklyn Bridge [the site of Craig’s first suicidal thoughts]. All of that is still there. The only thing is, it’s not an option now. It’s just . . . a possibility. . . not a very likely possibility. (441)
Craig goes on to consider what has happened in his brain:
“I don’t know where my brain went. It got knocked off-kilter somewhere. I got caught up in some crap it couldn’t deal with.” (443)
And as he leaves the hospital, he has a plan:
Get into a school. Celebrate. Have a party. Write a thank-you note to someone. Hug your mom. . . . . Travel. Fly. Swim. Meet. Love. Dance Win. Smile. Laugh. Hold. Walk. Live. Live. Live. Live. (444)
Everyone who knew him, loved Ned Vizzini. If we had him back for a day to tell him how much we loved him, we surely would do so. When my good friend and successful author Bill Konigsberg texted me that Ned was gone that morning, I felt like part of my heart had been cut out. Students from my adolescent literature course for the last four years have been emailing or calling to say how bad they feel but also how privileged they were to have the opportunity to know, even for just an hour of conversation, someone like Ned Vizzini.