Cover of Confessions of a Teenage Leper by Ashley Little. A makeupbrush and a pile of powder on a black background

About the Book

Title: Confessions of a Teenage Leper
Published: 2018

Cover Story: It’s Time to Put on Makeup
Drinking Buddy: No
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Language, sexual situations, some crude humor)
Talky Talk: Eh
Bonus Factors: Hansen’s Disease, Webcam Boy
Bromance Status: Study Buddy

Cover Story: It’s Time to Put on Makeup

I’m not sure reason for the makeup brush, unless it’s a reference to Abby’s attempt to cover up her lesions with makeup.

Note: The author repeatedly states that the terms ‘leper’ and ‘leprosy’ are considered offensive today, due to their historical context as insults. The preferred term is now ‘Hansen’s disease.’ Like in the novel, I’m going to use the L word for clarity’s sake.

The Deal:

Abby Furlowe (not her real name) is a cheerleader and aspiring dancer. She’s not quite a queen bee, but certainly a princess in her Texas high school. She has plans to study dance in South Carolina. She doesn’t exactly get along with her family, especially her older brother, Dean. All in all, though, life is good.

But one day, she starts experiencing strange symptoms. A weird fungal infection that won’t go away. Loss of equilibrium. Numbness. It’s only after she has an accident during cheerleading do the doctors finally figure out what’s wrong: she has leprosy. Yes, leprosy. And now she has to move to a facility in Louisiana for mandatory treatment. Her entire world is falling apart. Leprosy! A disease so hideous, the Bible has entire chapters about how to fight it! Will her fingers and toes start falling off? Will she have to move to some island?

Like most people dealing with a sudden and serious illness, she’s forced to reevaluate her life choices and her future. Maybe she’ll end up becoming a stronger person. If she survives.

Drinking Buddy: No

Two pints of beer cheersing with a "Denied" stamp over them

Abby starts out as beautiful, talented, and popular. But with spots breaking out all over her body, she’s lost her beauty. With the damage to her nerves, she loses her dancing and cheerleading skills. And having to leave town for months, she loses her popularity. She has to think about who she really is inside.

The problem is, the author really went over the top in her attempts to portray Abby as a mean girl. She blatantly insults the unattractive girls at her school, she’s mean to her family, and genuinely acts superior to everyone. I had a hard time liking her from the start, and the redemption arc was hard to swallow.

Also, her brother was an absolute jerk. I think the author was trying to go for siblings who don’t get along until one of them falls ill, but Dean was just plain mean, even after she gets sick. It felt less like sibling rivalry and good natured insults, and more like emotional abuse.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Language, sexual situations, some crude humor)

Abby has never had good luck with boys. The first guy she was serious about dumped her via text. And now that she has, well, leprosy, her romantic prospects haven’t improved. But the treatment facility she goes to shares a dining hall with a teen camp. Actually, a boot camp. A knock you into shape program for nonviolent juvenile offenders. And it’s there that Abby meets Scott, a minor criminal with a heart of gold. There’s a little bit of zing there. An older patient, Jane, encourages Abby to cultivate the relationship, but Abby doesn’t buy it. He knows what she is.

The author kind of went overboard in some situations. Abby falls off a cheerleader pyramid, due to the lost of sensation in her feet. But she winds up with broken wrists and legs and ends up in a coma for weeks. I think a simple fracture would have driven the point home much better. A long-term coma is a book in itself. Dean also drinks so much at a party that his heart stops and Abby is forced to perform CPR on him. But their parents somehow never find out.

Talky Talk: Eh

I certainly learned a lot about leprosy, more than I ever have in real life. And the framing the subject in a novel was certainly more entertaining than reading a textbook. But shallow characters, forced plot development, and in-book lectures kind of cooled things for me.

Bonus Factor: Hansen’s Disease

Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) is a misunderstood disease. It’s only after page 100 that Abby’s doctors realize that she’s not dealing with an especially aggressive skin fungus. She somehow contracted the disease from eating armadillo at a barbecue (armadillos are one of the few animals susceptible to the disease). And going away for treatment is not optional.

As mentioned earlier, leprosy has been considered a stigma since prehistoric times. There’s a reason the word ‘leper’ is synonymous with ‘outcast.’ Even in 20th Century America, those afflicted were treated like monsters. Abby meets Grace and Lester, a married couple who met at the facility. They have lived at the facility for 70+ years. When they were first diagnosed, the government took them into forced custody and they were not allowed to leave. Their families were told they were dead (in Grace’s case, by her own mother). They were prisoners of the state.

Of course, that’s no longer the case, and Grace and Lester have long since been cured. The government allows them to stay at the college dorm-like facility free of charge as a kind of reparation.

It was fascinating to read how people with leprosy were once viewed as nothing but agents of disease. It really mirrored how the public dealt with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It was also interesting to learn that a lot of what we believe about leprosy is untrue. For instance, it does not cause your fingers and toes to fall off, though there’s a high risk of losing digits to burns and accidents, due to a lost of sensation. Abby is forced to wear ugly orthopedic shoes, as she could easily break an ankle and then keep walking, unaware that anything was wrong.

Bonus Factor: Webcam Boy

Stylized computer screens

So Abby’s brother, Dean, has become secretive and later disappears. Abby learns that he is a webcam boy: he acts out sexual scenarios for wealthy patrons who pay top dollar for the service. Dean is also gay. As Abby finishes her treatment, she’s terrified as to what might have happened to her brother and what he’s gotten himself into.

  Bromance Status: Study Buddy

While I found your characters and plot uninspiring, I have to admit I learned a lot.

Literary Matchmaking

One

One, by Sarah Crossan, has an HIV positive character whose status as an outcast mimics Abby’s.

How We Roll

Another great book about a teenager with an embarrassing medical condition, is How We Roll, by Natasha Friend.

Kiska

John Smelcer’s book¬†Kiska deals with another girl who’s forcibly sent away from her home for a much more arbitrary reason.

FCC full disclosure: I received no money for writing this review. Like Abby, I have also eaten armadillo.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.