Kat is far from your typical 16-year-old girl. She is a “cancer sib” grappling with her 12-year-old brother’s third recurrence of cancer. Kat is the protagonist in Dessert First, a realistic fiction debut novel by Dean Gloster. Dessert First is a must read for young adults and anyone wanting to know more about how cancer affects families and the teenage heart.
Kat is the awesome big sister any child with cancer would love to have. Yet her family, friends, and teachers don’t always see that. As the highly informed sib, she takes on the responsibility of researching the best available treatments for her brother, affectionately known as “Beep.” Kat struggles as everyone in her family repeats the roles they played the “first time around,” even though these roles were not particularly functional and now have only become more entrenched.
Kat is the one in the family to have heart-to-heart talks with her brother in the hospital, and doesn’t seem to mind that much when she has to make her own way back home in the dark on public transportation to an empty house. In perfect “Mom Calmese,” she posts updates on her brother’s Facebook page so that neither her mom nor her brother has to deal with putting on a happy face. Her heart and mind are filled with far too many questions, yet she feels alone – with no one to turn to for answers, except for maybe her almost boyfriend, whom she might have alienated. It is no wonder Kat finds herself falling way behind in her schoolwork, feeling like there is no way to dig herself out.
Inspired by Kat’s story, her favorite teacher allows Kat the opportunity to write about her experience as an alternative homework so that she will not flunk out of school. She does so with alarming insight, and through the power of self-reflection and writing, emerges from her journey to a place of clarity and emotional strength.
Throughout the book, Kat deals with her pain through both anger and humor, gaining wisdom from those around her who are very sick. Working through her thoughts and feelings leaves Kat rough around the edges at first, but the transformed Kat eventually uncovers her path in this inspiring, very real story of a cancer sibling’s experience.
Kat exists in several parallel universes—her own reality of a family impacted in so many ways by cancer, and the universe of a the teen girl experiencing a high school filled with insensitive students working too hard to be “in.” Having boys as friends (and potentially more than friends) both online and in “real life” pushes Kat to explore difficult issues and emotions. Through introspection, Kat learns to be honest with herself and respect the abilities and inabilities of those around her.
Believe it or not, the book is entertaining! Gloster perfectly captures the voice of a witty and wise teenage girl. Even if your intent is just to scan Dessert First before giving it to a teen in your life, you will not be able to put down this home run novel.