“How to Disappear” by Sharon Huss Roat is a book that once begun, is difficult to put down. It starts innocuously enough with the story of a girl with severe anxiety. Vicky can’t function at high school and must disappear into the stall of the bathroom when she just can’t bear going to class and facing others. Since her best friend moved away, she’s been trying to disappear completely, since that’s easier than actually talking to people and making new friends.
One night, after watching her best friends and others on Instagram, seeing their photos of people actually living lives — or not — she randomly creates an Instragram account and uses a photograph that she’s Photoshopped to show her, dressed and made up to be unrecognizable, in scenes that she wishes she could really attend. She makes her screen name Vicurious because that’s what she always said to her best friend as a riff on “vicarious.” She adds the hashtag “#alone,” and several people start following her, and soon, watching her Instagram and counting her followers becomes important.
Vicky sees that there are many other people who feel #alone, just like her. Problems communicating with Jenna, her former best friend, and people whom she meets at school begin to change how Vicky sees the world. First, it’s innocuous, like when Marissa, the most perfect student at Richardson High School, and whom Vicky gets to know by working on Photoshopping yearbook photos, says, “Nobody pays attention to me…”
Vicky starts to see other ignored, invisible students. She looks at those who have followed her Instagram account and sees hashtags like #lonely, #talktome, and #donttalktome. She starts to comment on their posts. She tells them, “I care,” “I see you,” “I’m here for you,” “I understand,” and “You are not alone.” She sees many of her followers are #alone, #ignored or #depressed. She keeps commenting, offering hearts and smiley faces.
Her Instagram account grows and grows, and finally, Ellen DeGeneres herself comments on it. Now Vicky’s account is in the hundreds of thousands, and she’s shocked by its popularity — and the reason behind it. Some of her comments, like “You are not alone” and “Me, too,” become stock phrases. (Ironically, #MeToo has become a stock phrase because of sexual harassment, but that hashtag didn’t go viral until October, 2017, after this book was published.)
Vicky says, “Sure, it started with the Foo Fighters post, people saying they were there, too. Me too, me too. But then it turned into something more. It meant “I’m scared, too” or “I’m alone, too” or, more important:
You are not alone.
The book also has moments of humor. During a yearbook meeting, the talk turns to shoes. When one of the characters mentions his size thirteen shoes and says, “And you know what they say about –” someone else responds, “Please, this is a yearbook meeting, not a presidential debate.”
This book is written in first person narrative, and it becomes so touching and so moving that the pages keep turning, and the reader is compelled to continue reading to find out what happens and how it all ends. It’s about feeling alone. But it’s also about how even those who seem to never be alone can sometimes be the most alone. Popularity brings pressure, and no one ever truly knows what someone else is going through.
The ending is lovely, but so is the whole story. Although this novel is aimed at teenage readers, there is nothing graphic or so inappropriate that a mature fifth grader couldn’t read it. It’s beautifully written and should appeal to a wide ranging audience of readers. Definitely one that middle school and high school libraries should stock. Definitely appropriate for a mother-daughter book club.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, HarperTeen, for review purposes.