CM Magazine: Confessions of a Teenage Leper.
________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 40. . . .June 15, 2018


Confessions of a Teenage Leper.

Ashley Little.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Teen, Sept., 2018.
296 pp., hardcover & E BOOK, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-7352-6261-4 (hc.), ISBN 978-0-7352-6262-1 (E BOOK).

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Wendy Phillips.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



I was crowned princess of my junior high, I was on the high school cheerleading squad, and I was crowned Miss _______ two years ago. I got to wear a rhinestone tiara and a dress Miss Universe herself would’ve killed for. I stood in the back of a red convertible cruising down Main Street, waving to onlookers at the Fourth of July Parade. You would never think that now, if you saw me today, but it’s true.

I guess the very first thing I noticed was a little reddish spot on my thigh, like a little sunburn patch or something. It was the summer I turned seventeen, and I was a lifeguard at the local pool. No big deal, right? It’ll go away. Just leave it alone, I thought. But it didn’t go away. That’s the thing. That’s the worst thing. It never really went away.


Abby Furlowe, a 17-year-old from Austin, Texas, has always taken her golden life for granted. Her natural blonde beauty, her popular circle of friends and her athletic prowess mean she gets away with casual cruelty and unkindness. But when she contracts leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, through an unlikely alignment of circumstances, her world falls apart. Before she can restart her life, she must confront who she is on the inside and rediscover what it means to be beautiful.

      In Confessions of a Teenage Leper, author Ashley Little has used the context of what many assume is an extinct condition to create a story that will both horrify and uplift teenagers, especially girls. Abby’s mindless mean-girl ways – she and her popular friends casually and loudly criticize unattractive peers when they are bored – at first make a reader feel she deserves a blemish or two on her perfect face. But the extreme disfigurement, weakness and numbness brought on by the disease are so disturbingly described that readers will react with sympathy when Abby’s life crumbles.

      Her eventual diagnosis after months of disturbing symptoms leave her filled with fear and disbelief. Fortunately, a Louisiana treatment centre offers a long-term treatment that will allow Abby to control her symptoms and learn to live with the disease. But Abby’s challenges are more than physical. She cannot imagine another life than the cheerleader-Hollywood track she was on (“There IS no plan B!” she tells a counsellor), and her negative habit of criticizing others makes her road to maturity and acceptance a rocky one. A sweet relationship with a cadet, Scott, who is in the centre as part of a youth offender rehabilitation program, teaches Abby the true meaning of acceptance. Scott cares for her in spite of her disease, and he helps her look beyond her self-hatred to create a better person inside.

      The novel also demonstrates the importance of family. Abby’s relationship with her brother, Dean, borders on mutual abuse. They can hardly speak to each other without exchanging vulgar, cutting insults. Dean lives a dark and secret life, but after he and Abby learn to be honest with themselves and each other, we see their mutual affection. Abby’s parents are helpless to help her, but they offer unstinting love and support that Abby eventually appreciates.

      Little convincingly captures Abby’s disbelief and outrage at her fate. Her self-disgust and horror at the relentless march of sores, swelling and numbness on her formerly lovely body is utterly believable. At times, it is difficult to listen to her rage against the inevitable. However, when she confesses to Scott that “I think maybe the last five years of my life were a mistake…definitely all of high school”, it is clear she is developing the grit she needs to survive the ravages of Hansen’s disease.

      Little also captures the vulgarity and excess of some adolescent lives. Drinking, drugs, online pornography and sometimes brutal verbal cruelty make Abby’s life far from perfect, even before she discovers she has leprosy. Confessions of a Teenage Leper authentically depicts the realities of Hansen’s Disease, but it is also traces Abby’s development from shallow and mean to thoughtful and caring. The novel will provide teen readers with meaningful questions about the true meaning of beauty.


Wendy Phillips is a teacher-librarian in Richmond, B.C. and the author of the Governor General's Literary Award-winning young adult novel Fishtailing.

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