Imagine that you are a 17 year old girl, and graduating high school is just around the corner. You’re making joyful memories with your friends, laughing with your sisters, dazzling everyone with your figure skating, singing and song writing, and you’ve just felt the indescribable spark that grows from meeting that special someone. Life couldn’t get much better. And then you are diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer. What do you do? How do you react? Speaking for myself, I’d be terrified and become a shell of my former self.
This was the hand that was dealt to 17 year old Carley Allison, a Toronto native and a promising figure skater and singer/songwriter. Carley wrote a blog detailing her fight against cancer, and while she initially wrote it as a school assignment, she soon discovered that her uplifting words inspired others, and it gave her an outlet for self-expression so she continued to write it with the hopes of helping those who were fighting their own battles. Carley’s blog forms the basis for the young adult book by Alice Kuipers, “Always Smile – Carley Allison’s Secrets For Laughing, Loving and Living”. I can say without any reservations that this book will change lives for the better. It has changed mine.
From the time I first heard about Carley Allison and saw the film about her life, “Kiss & Cry”, to the time I turned to the first page of this book, I saw Carley as a figure of strength, courage, and optimism. Then I read this book and everything changed. Carley was no longer a “figure” but a person. Prior to reading this book, all I knew about Carley came from the aforementioned movie, YouTube clips, social media posts from Carley’s Angels Foundation, and stories from her family and friends. What was missing was hearing from Carley herself. This book introduced me to Carley Allison- the fun-loving, sassy, ambitious, competitive and funny teenage girl. This story is largely told through Carley’s own words, and the best compliment I can give is that I felt as though I lived through each moment of Carley’s journey, the highs and the lows; and as I finished, I truly felt like I knew Carley. I believe that Carley will come alive and her spirit will shine for each and every person who reads this book.
This is not a typical young adult novel. The story is true, the people involved are real; and it is told through the words of Carley’s blog, through heartfelt anecdotes and stories from Carley’s family and friends, and through Alice Kuipers, the author, who, at specific points in the book, writes from Carley’s perspective and recreates meaningful moments in Carley’s life as told to her by Carley’s family and friends. With essentially three different sections, the story could have easily become disjointed, unclear and vague; however that is not the case. The book is written in chronological order, starting just prior to Carley’s diagnosis and each chapter focuses on specific events that occurred throughout the 2 year time-span. The stories told by several voices seamlessly blend into one another and within these voices, the following truths emerge:
Carley had the most supportive, caring, loving and dedicated family and friends that anyone could ever have asked for. In reading the book, you will hear from Carley’s immediate family – her mother, May; her father, Mark; her older sister, Riley; and her younger sister, Sammy. Each of them recount their experiences and memories of Carley during this period in her life, and they all did everything they possibly could to help Carley feel comfortable, loved, and safe. Some of their stories are heartbreaking –her parents constantly rushing Carley to the hospital in the middle of the night as she was violently ill; and some are incredibly moving – Mark, Carley’s dad, taking her on a vacation to Florida and the two of them attending a father-daughter night at a dinner theater. Riley would serve as Carley’s voice when she was unable to speak; she always knew what Carley needed and was trying to say, and Sammy honoured Carley by wearing Carley’s prom dress to her own prom.
Some of Carley’s friends – Kat, Lyndsay, Jill, Denzelle, and Sarah (who portrayed Carley in “Kiss & Cry”) recount their memories with Carley, including visiting her at the hospital, taking part in a hair-cutting party, going to prom, and with each story you can feel the love and admiration they all felt for Carley; and Carley too expresses several times how much she appreciates all that her friends and family do for her. Her friends would visit Carley after school every single day and they’d stay with her for hours, even while Carley slept. What I really like is the inclusion of text messages between Carley and Lyndsay and Carley and Sarah. These conversations provide you with a greater understanding of Carley’s personality and the deep friendship and love she had for her friends and vice-versa.
Then there is John, Carley’s boyfriend. What’s beautiful about this book is that you’re able to follow along with Carley and John from the time they’re best friends, to recognizing that they have feelings for each other, to their dates, and to the unwavering, profound and sincere love and support they gave to each other under the most difficult of circumstances. You follow along on this journey and you’re able to understand and appreciate Carley’s love for John and John’s love for Carley; and their quirky, charming and playful banter will bring a wide smile to your face.
What I was really impressed by was how John, for being so young, never once made Carley feel anything less than beautiful, strong and loved. Unfortunately we all hear stories of teenage guys who are quite shallow in their feelings and respect for their girlfriends. John was everything you could think of when you think of the ideal boyfriend, and the same could be said for Carley as a girlfriend. They lived and shared a lifetime of experiences, emotions, and challenges together.
The other truth that is abundantly clear is that Carley’s spirit never faltered. No matter how weak or sick she may have felt, she was always looking ahead, always pushing herself to make progress, always expressing hope. I have no doubt in my mind that Carley, had she lived longer, would’ve made a major splash in the world either with her music, her figure skating, or both. She possessed a level of determination, dedication and discipline that all those who achieve greatness possess.
That’s part of what makes this story so heartbreaking and yet so inspiring. Despite her short life, Carley accomplished more than most people twice her age could accomplish. She performed the national anthem at the Toronto Maple Leafs games, she recorded songs within a professional recording studio, she competed at a very high level as a figure skater, and her blog received world-wide attention. Carley shared her story with various news outlets, both in print media and on television, and touched the lives of countless people. The fact that Carley updated her blog as often as she did even throughout the worst parts of her fight against cancer, tells you all you need to know about how remarkable she was.
The book is not all sunshine and rainbows of course. When cancer is involved, there’s going to be heartache, there’s going to be pain and suffering and there’s going to be anger. There are moments recounted in this book that made me furious and heartbroken. How someone so talented, so kind, so full of potential; could suffer so severely, I’ll never understand or accept. It’s a raw, unflinching and devastating reminder of the damage cancer can cause and why it is so important to continue to raise money and search for a cure. Alice Kuipers does an excellent job of balancing joyful, funny and inspiring stories with harsh doses of the reality of fighting cancer and the suffering it not only inflicts upon the person it inhabits, but also those who care for that person as well. As one of Carley’s friends states in the book, seeing someone so obviously in pain and being unable to relieve them of that pain is unbearable.
This brings me to the cover and design of the book. The old saying is to never judge a book by its cover, and I believe that saying rings true with this book. On the front cover is a beautiful photo of a smiling Carley, and the title “Always Smile” is printed in a light and playful font. The background colour of the book is light pink. The impression I received from the book cover and colour choice is that it’s being marketed to young adults- specifically teenage girls. I have no problem with that. It makes sense as Carley was young, and her story is told through her own words, so she’ll be speaking for many young girls, and they will see themselves in Carley. That is so important.
However, this book will resonate with everyone – girls, boys, men, women, young, and old; because the story is so powerful and universal – a young person striving to live her life on her terms while battling a terrible disease and receiving unconditional love and support from those closest to her. I am an adult male and once I began reading, I literally couldn’t put it down. I was engrossed, captivated, saddened, angered and inspired from beginning to end. So whomever is reading this review, trust me when I tell you that several aspects of Carley’s story will resonate with you and you would be wise to read it.
Lastly, I want to touch upon the educational possibilities that this book presents. It is my understanding that this book will be showcased at major school and library conferences and it is my hope that this book finds a place in the libraries of all schools.
Students of all ages will learn many crucial life lessons from Carley, her family and her friends – the importance of time management (Carley balanced school work and her social life with long hours of skating practice), overcoming adversity, aspects of a healthy relationship between friends, family, and significant others, how cancer affects the body and specific steps to take in treating it. Even looking at it from a strictly literary standpoint, students could learn how to write a story that balances various voices and contains different text mediums (blog, text messages, first person perspective).
Most importantly, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s told almost entirely in Carley’s own words, and young people will see themselves in Carley – her excitement for prom, her inside jokes with her friends, her love for John. So many young adult novels are written by adults who try to tell the story from the perspective of a teenager. This story is not only told from the perspective of a real teenager, but it’s true! Carley is such a strong, influential, inspiring and positive role model for everyone.
This book is essential reading for anyone of any age. What could be more universal than Carley’s motto to “Always Smile”? Her passion, strength, charm, humour, love and courage shine through in every page and you owe it to yourself to read it, share it, and teach others the importance and power of family, friends, and never ever giving up.
Pre-orders for this book are available at HERE
By: Ryan Corkum