Kinda Like Brothers is New York novelist Coe Booth’s first book for middle-grade readers, and it is told from the point of view of an eleven-year-old boy who has asthma. Jarrett is struggling to keep up at school and to show the other boys that though he may be smaller, he is tough. In the midst of his difficult transition from child to young man, Jarrett’s mom takes in Kevon. Kevon is a foster kid who is a lot like Jarrett except a little older, a little taller, a little more confident with girls and better at sports. Jarrett hates him. Kinda Like Brothers is a pacey, touching look at foster care from an adolescent perspective.
Jarrett’s asthma—a condition of the airways that can make it harder to breathe—is not the character’s defining characteristic. Asthma is well integrated into the plot and his experiences, and explains some of Jarrett’s difficulties at school:
Every time I had a bad asthma attack, I had to stay home from school for a day or two, and then when I went back, I never knew what they were doing. In sixth grade, I missed sixteen days. All because of stupid asthma.
Jarrett finds having asthma very annoying. As someone who was diagnosed with asthma when they were around 11 years old, I felt this. It was freaking annoying. Inhalers—the most commonly used form of asthma medication—have a legacy of being used in movies and television as short-hand for “weak”, “anxious” or “nerdy.” My local pharmacist tried to dress up my “puffer” by housing it in a huge rubber Lisa Simpson accessory, but even this hit of obvious street cred couldn’t hide that an inhaler was desperately uncool. Plus, the Ventolin puffer I was on at the time was impossible to use discreetly. You had to shake it up before each use, which came with a loud spray-can-rattle, and then push all the air out of your lungs before you took a puff. The “puff” involved pressing the inhaler to your mouth, squeezing down on the metal canister (which made a sound like a bike pump) and heaving in a deep breath at the same time. The rattle and puff of using it gave you away on the playground.
Personally, as a 29-year-old, I will still try to find an empty room or a toilet stall before I use my inhaler. My secrecy around my asthma medication may have started because in childhood, as Jarrett says, “having asthma really wasn’t cool,” but now it is also based in practicality. Most people don’t seem to know Asthma Inhaler 101, which is that you need to hold your breath after taking your medication. So, if I use my inhaler around other people—the pop of the plastic cap coming off, the inhaler twist, big exhale, then the dramatic gasp inwards—they immediately start asking if I’m okay. I’m holding my breath! I try to gesture that I’m holding my breath, and they get more confused. Now, when I’m with people and I feel the pressure on my lungs, I just excuse myself and use my inhaler in private. It’s easier.
Coe Booth’s Jarrett does what I did and what probably a lot of kids with asthma do—he goes without his medication rather than take it in front of his friends. In a group at his local community center where they’re practising a step routine, he starts to feel symptoms but would rather risk an attack than pull out his inhaler in front of the guys. He says:
It was bad enough that I kept messing up the step routine all the time. The last thing I needed was for everyone to know I had asthma, too.
He leans against a wall and tries to “relax till my breathing got back to normal.” Being good at sports and physical activities is important to Jarrett’s identity, important to being cool, so it frustrates him that his asthma holds him back. I experienced a similar frustration, with memories of having to lean against a tree to use my inhaler while my classmates lapped me in the school cross-country race.
It’s especially embarrassing because of the lack of understanding about asthma: as I mentioned earlier, films and TV have a way of making asthma inhalers seem like something you use when you’re overreacting to a situation, as opposed to medication for a legitimate condition. At an emotional climax of the story, Jarrett describes a pain in his chest, difficulty breathing, but that “it wasn’t like I was having an asthma attack again. I was feeling something and it hurt.” This kind of distinction between an asthma attack and emotional stress is important, and rarely seen in fictional representations of asthma.
Booth casually drops in mentions of asthma triggers throughout the story, like Jarrett’s mom checking the weather to see if it would be a “bad day for asthma.” It was refreshing to read a representation of asthma that mentioned this—that the lung condition can be triggered by weather, air pollution, or exercise.
Later in the story, the seriousness of Jarrett’s condition is revealed to the reader when he has a severe asthma attack in the middle of the night. That’s when we find out that Jarrett’s mother keeps a breathing machine in their house. The family doesn’t call for an ambulance straight away when they find Jarrett unable to breathe, suggesting that these attacks are somewhat common for him. Scary, but common. Booth does a great job of conveying the terror of experiencing an asthma attack:
I could feel it starting, that heavy weighty feeling right on my chest … I coughed and coughed and coughed. And every cough hurt more and more.
Terrifying, too, is that Jarrett’s roommate Kevon does not immediately realise that Jarrett is in trouble. First he mumbles that Jarrett is probably having a nightmare, then he starts questioning him: “Hey, what’s wrong with you?” “You okay?” Eventually he runs to get help, but Jarrett is already lying on the floor, ready to die.
The representation of asthma in Kinda Like Brothers rang true to me, with everything from the description of symptoms to the boy’s feelings about his condition matching up with my lived experience. My only concern, however, is that Jarrett’s repeated assertion that having asthma is not cool may perpetuate the very same stereotype that makes kids not use their inhalers. If I’d read this as a kid, I would have had my feelings about asthma—that it held me back, that it was embarrassing—reinforced.
Perhaps, however, kids who don’t have or don’t understand asthma will read this and come away with the impression that it can, in fact, be life-threatening. When they see a kid take out their inhaler during a physical activity, they might know what it’s for. Coe Booth’s protagonist Jarrett is complex, relatable and interesting—perhaps having a literary figure like him carry around a puffer will inspire young readers to take this medical condition in stride.