The Gray by Chris Barron (Feiwel & Friends, June 2023) tells the story of a young teenager with anxiety that experiences panic attacks. During his forced device-free vacation in the country with his aunt, Sasha finds his own confidence. His trip into the country becomes one of self-discovery as he makes new friends and faces unique challenges that he would never have encountered in the city.
Thirteen-year-old Sasha wanted to spend his summer before eighth grade playing video games with his friend. His video gaming worlds have more defined boundaries and rules than real life does. In real life, Sasha faces anxiety. When he has an anxiety-induced panic attack, Sasha feels out of control. His view of the world changes as his heart speeds up. He calls these anxious moments “The Gray,” and he finds them embarrassing to deal with. I’ve gone through similar panic attacks, and understanding other people’s challenges like these are essential. I’m glad there are books to let middle grade readers peek into such moments in order to get a better understanding of mental illness in general, and especially to recognize and help those around them.
As he meets new people, Sasha comes to recognize that everyone else also has their own issues. Eli is a teen dealing with his own difficulties, including similar anxiety, and Ivy is a confident girl who wants to find her own place outside of the small town in which she lives. Boon acts like a bully, but misses his best friend. My favorite dynamic in this book is that Sasha also finds a closeness with his beloved Uncle Lou, who died two years previously; Aunt Ruthie tells Sasha about Lou’s own anxiety and panic attacks, and Sasha gains confidence to face “The Gray” with Uncle Lou’s strength in mind.
Sasha’s story was enjoyable and will certainly be enjoyed by middle grade readers (especially those who love nature), but it was not one that I loved. Although I liked Sasha and I could relate to some aspects of dealing with anxiety, his transformation did not resonate with me as much as I expected it too. His transition from gamer to nature lover felt too sudden, from the beginning to the end, or maybe he just wasn’t developed enough for me to like more. True, Sasha found confidence, learned new skills, and did hard things he did not do. He realized that being outside sometimes was better than just video gaming. But these realizations felt superficial to me.
Note: I received a digital review copy of The Gray.