Putting the Fun in Books About Dysfunctional Familes

During senior year of high school, we had to read one very thick classic and write one very thick paper on it.  We had all of second semester to do this, and a small pile of books from which to choose. I reached for Anna Karenina and opened to the first page, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  With that one line, I was completely sold.

All these years later, I'm still hooked.

What is it about reading about unhappy families that is so much more fun than dealing with them? Is it that each story is fascinatingly unique, strangely relatable, and often darkly funny? The last four books I read seem to have nothing in common and yet they're all about dysfunctional families. Each is alternately touching, funny, quirky, and engaging.

In Rabbit Cake, a young girl struggles to adjust to life after her mother drowns while sleep-walking.The greatest challenge may not be the loss of her mom, but the increasingly alarming behavior of her older sister (also a sleepwalker). Will setting a world record for rabbit cakes baked actually make things better?

Buster and Annie Fang are tired of living in the shadow of their parents and have done their best to distance themselves from The Family Fang, but circumstances drive both adult children back to the nest at the same time. Just when the siblings begin to feel settled, their parents disappear, leaving Buster and Annie to search for them (and ultimately find themselves).

Though Eleanor & Park is a teenage love story set in the 1980s and built on mix tapes, it's also an exploration of what it means to feel out of place and even in danger (both at home and out in the world). When you never really feel at home when you're at home, it's a big deal to find someone who makes you feel that it's okay to be you. 

In her hilarious but poignant memoir I'm Down, Mishna Wolff recounts a childhood spent in South Seattle with a father who doesn't seem to grasp that they are white. She never quite succeeds in being "down" enough to fit in, but after enrolling in a gifted school, she learns that life is no easier in the wealthy white neighborhoods across town.

Somehow all of these characters came to feel like old friends. I can't wait to see who I'll meet next!

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