Kirkus Review August 2017

Starred review

Desperate to cling to something of his mother’s after her death, 16-year-old Max believes he has invited her tumor into his brain and that it is slowly killing him.

Max is increasingly withdrawn, lost, and strange. His father, desperate to help him with his grief, enrolls him in an exclusive school filled with eccentric artists. There, Max meets Fish, a bubbly girl with pink hair, and her band of misfit friends. Max also meets the curmudgeonly creative-writing teacher, who uses unorthodox methods to force Max to talk about his pain. He has a breakthrough during a staging of Hamlet, in which each cast member is forced to confront his or her own ghosts. Max’s tightrope walk between sanity and insanity will resonate with anyone suffering from a loss. While he must find a way to live again, it takes the combined efforts of his wild friends, his devoted family, and a few dedicated and eccentric teachers. Lyrical prose, fresh and compelling images and unforgettable characters create an experience that will stay with readers far past the last page. The principals are white and Jewish, but the school boasts students of many races, religions, and sexual orientations.

Grief becomes something oddly beautiful—and beautifully odd. (Fiction. 14-18)

New York Public Library Oct 1, 2014

In honor of October, National Bullying Prevention Month, Freak was included in Recommended list of ten YA novels featuring characters who had to make difficult decisions because of how bullying changed their lives.

The Center for Teaching and Learning — Edgecomb Maine

Freak was included in Recommended Books list of The Center for Teaching and Learning

Sunday NY Times Book Review Dec 18, 2011

“I’ll never let you go, Lizzie. No matter what happens to me, I’ll never ever let you go.” This refrain, which runs through “Without Tess,” contains a dark double message about the bonds and boundaries of sisterhood. Following up on themes raised in her well-received first novel, “Freak,” in which a teenager distances herself from a bullied younger sister, Marcella Pixley continues to explore the complexities of sibling loyalty; this time, a girl’s separation and loss as she comes to terms with her sister’s suicide.

Like many little sisters, 9-year-old Lizzie Cohen wishes she could be like 11-year-old Tess, who claims she can shape-shift into flying horses and selkies. Under Tess’s spell, Lizzie sees gossamer wings sprout from her sister’s shoulders, and together they gallop happily until Lizzie can just about feel her own wings emerge.

The shift from puberty to adolescence is itself a kind of shape shifting. But Tess is a terrible role model. She starves herself, behaves in bizarre and unpredictable ways and demands tests of Lizzie’s devotion that include eating rotten crabs and lying in an icy tidal pool.

Tess is a girl who won’t grow up, and her efforts to hold Lizzie close become increasingly suffocating. When Lizzie meets Isabella, her soon-to-be best friend, a jealous Tess smears the face of Isabella’s Italian family’s Virgin Mary statue with chocolate. Isabella’s suggestion that Tess might go to hell as a consequence prompts a dialogue between the girls about the afterlife, sin and guilt that weaves throughout the book, along with a mélange of rituals drawn from Judaism, Catholicism and magic. During one of these rituals, Lizzie confesses an awful secret: she has wished her sister dead. “Tess, I said in my mind, I wish you would just die. Just die already, would you? We’ve all had enough.” When the family learns that Tess is psychotic, Lizzie is torn between loyalty to her sister and the need to protect her from herself.

Five years after Tess’s suicide, 15-year-old Lizzie has cut herself off from friends, family and any further belief in magic — or in her own potential. Drawing on Tess’s journal, which is filled with expressive drawings and incantation-like poetry, a high school psychologist helps Lizzie emerge from her punishing state of grief.

Alternating time frames give intimate access to Lizzie’s character as both tween and teenager, and her voice is true to both ages. Pixley’s writing is richly imagined and intricately detailed. Vivid scenes blur make-believe with the supernatural, just as Tess’s fantasy life veers from imagination to psychosis.

The use of fantasy as a metaphor for mental illness certainly makes the difficult subject matter accessible for young readers; at times, however, the blur between fantasy and reality challenges credibility. And while the portrayal of Tess’s disease as a refusal to be human fits the story’s themes, her character remains something of an enigma. This may be why I found the book ultimately less convincing than Nina LaCour’s “Hold Still,” for example, in which a teenager strives to understand a friend’s suicide, or Cathi Hanauer’s adult novel about anorexia, “My Sister’s Bones.”

But this is Lizzie’s story, and her confrontation with the question “What’s wrong with my sister?” will resonate with young readers, most of whom, at some point, yearn to become their own person and discover their own unique magic. — Mindy Lewis, author of “Life ­Inside,” a memoir, and the editor of “Dirt,” an anthology.

Horn Book Review for Jan/Feb 2011

The imaginative play of two sisters is tinged with menace in Pixley’s (Freak) intense, lyrical novel. Lizzie was always the follower in the fantastical games her older sister Tess conceived. Now, five years after Tess’s death, Lizzie has taken the copying a step further and is passing off Tess’s poems as her own in her high school English class. Floating gracefully between the present and the past, Pixley paints a portrait of eleven-year-old Tess’s “magic” that at first seems luminous. Remembering a game of Pegasus, Lizzie says, “I can almost see the moonbeam wings coming up from the surface of [Tess’s] back, pushing through the skin, the long, white bones rising like glaciers from the sea, the moonbeams feathering out, each tiny filament, shining, sparkling, until she has wings, beautiful, new, magnificent wings.” But the portrait soon darkens. As Tess falls deeper into mental illness, her behavior grows more disturbing, with loyal Lizzie sometimes putting herself in physical danger to protect her sister. The East Coast setting, a fishing village, is beautifully, often heartbreakingly woven into Tess’s delusions, one of which involves the belief that she is a selkie, a seal maiden trapped on land without her seal skin. It is a fitting metaphor for Lizzie and her parents, trapped by their loss. Lizzie eventually realizes that they have to find a way up from the depths of mourning and guilt—to break through the surface to a new life without Tess. christine m. heppermann

Starred Review Publishers Weekly Dec 12, 2011

With pensive and darkly lyrical prose, Pixley (Freak) immerses readers in the harsh realities of mental illness and its far-reaching effects. Growing up, sisters and best friends Tess and Lizzie fill their days with magical games, pretending to turn into flying horses and selkies. But as the girls grow older, Lizzie is ready to leave flights of fancy behind while Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her fantasies. In turns dreamy and disturbing, Pixley’s story reveals how Lizzie worships fiercely imaginative Tess but suffers as a result of her delusions. When Tess decides that she can’t bear the real world any longer, her actions trigger a maelstrom of guilt, grief, and shame that burden the now 15-year-old Lizzie, five years later. Under the guidance of a therapist, acerbic Lizzie revisits Tess’s journal (Tess’s sublime but sinister poems appear between the book’s chapters). Slowly, she inches her way toward understanding the dizzying power of the bond that still holds her to Tess. Pixley’s memory play is a difficult, sadly beautiful ode to a complex and heartbreaking issue. Ages 12–up. (Oct.)

Starred Review School Library Journal (SLA) Nov 2011

Gr 7-9–Lizzie Cohen, 9, and her sister, Tess, 11, are incredibly close. They live in a world all their own, filled with selkies, magical toads, and horses with beautiful wings. When Lizzie tries to leave this fantastical world in favor of reality, Tess tries hard to keep her there. Her imagination becomes more and more delusional, and she becomes harmful to herself and others. She starves herself, claiming that she is immortal and doesn’t need nourishment. Then she makes a decision that leaves Lizzie, five years later, struggling to confront the past through Tess’s worn-out Pegasus Journal, full of poetry and disturbing images. With the help of the school psychologist and a childhood friend, Lizzie tries to find a way to let go of her guilt. Alternating between chapters of prose and poetry, the novel gives readers glimpses into the minds of both girls, balancing past and present and slowly revealing the entire story. The setting is a riverside town, and the pivotal events take place at the razor’s edge of fall and winter, creating a chill of apprehension. Girls struggling with anorexia may benefit from reading about an issue that hits close to home, and anyone coping with harmful relationships, especially within the family, will relate to this lyrical, heartrending novel.–Kimberly Castle, Stark County District Library, Canton, OH

The Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books, Nov 2011. Recommended.

Once Tess was the whole world to Lizzie, her younger sister; now Tess is gone and Lizzie’s on her own, struggling through high school with the aid of a therapist and handing in Tess’ poems as her own. More real to Lizzie than this present is the past, when Lizzie was nine and Tess eleven, and Tess’ rapt involvement with fantasies of selkies and flying horses dominated the sisters’ daily thoughts. As the narrative of the sisters’ past unfolds, interspersed with the account of Lizzie’s tortured present and with Tess’ poems, it becomes clear that Tess’ imaginings extend beyond childhood pretend to something more psychologically disabling; as Tess descends further into her fantasy world and repudiates reality, Lizzie witnesses her desperate parents’ attempts to pull Tess back to mental health. Pixley, who skillfully tackled another complicated sisterly relationship in Freak (BCCB 10/07), takes a rather provocative step here: she sets up some alluring and imaginative magical conceits that will immediately catch the attention of fantasy readers just as they did Lizzie, and then mercilessly makes their appeal their danger. This really isn’t a cautionary tale about make-believe, though; it’s the poignant tale of a younger sister who is caught up in the world made by the elder, and who abandoned her sister both by not believing and, in a key tragic moment, by believing. It’s both ironic and understandable that the story is at its most vivid when following Lizzie and Tess as they cast their Merlin-taught spells, while contemporary Lizzie moves quietly through a silenced house and slides darkly under the radar at school. The nature of Tess’ delusions will give this particular impact, but ultimately it’s Lizzie’s finding her own artistic voice that’s the triumph, and readers will be happy to see her moving out from under Tess’ haunting shadow. DS

Junior Library Guild Selection, fall 2011

VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)

The writing is smooth, well-paced, and contemporary. Several of Tess’s poems appear between chapters, and Lizzie’s poem about Tess’s life and death lend closure to the story. Teenagers with family members or friends suffering from mental illness will recognize the brutal nature of Tess’s behavior, much of which makes for disturbing reading. Other teens will relate to Lizzie’s role as a student who does not fit in, acts out when offered kindness, and is intelligent but locked into self-destructive behaviors. Lizzie is finally able to acknowledge the truth about Tess’s illness and restart her own life journey, scarred but standing.—Florence Munat.

Kirkus Review

Pixley (Freak, 2007) once again plumbs the emotional depths of a tough subject with sensitivity and insight into the complexities of human nature and sibling bonds.

Booklist Online Review

“I’ll never let you go,” 10-year-old Lizzie’s sister, Tess, tells her. Five years later, Tess, who was mentally ill, has committed suicide, and Lizzie hides the guilt she feels about the night that her sister died, even though she has weekly sessions with a kind school psychologist. Interspersed with lines of Tess’ poetry, Lizzie’s first-person voice alternates between flashbacks and the present, revealing Tess’ escalating illness and its impact on her family. Lizzie had been enchanted by Tess’ wildly imaginative games of selkies, flying horses, and magic, and she’d needed only her sister as a companion. But as Lizzie matures socially, Tess becomes increasingly ill, and her games become increasingly dangerous. Pixley’s lyrical writing is at its best in the childhood scenes, which open a window on a family struggling to help a mentally ill child. The story is resolved hastily through the persistent help of a sensitive (and also hot) boy, but the hopeful ending is deeply satisfying. Wrenching and authentic, this is a skillfully written, courageous look at a difficult subject.
— Lynn Rutan

Francisco X Stork, author of Marcelo in the Real World

WITHOUT TESS is a psychological thriller. a book of profound truth. Alternating between past and future, between loss and hope, Lizzie’s story will grip you from beginning to end.

5 stars out of 5 Review from GoodReads
Posted October 02, 2011 by Book Twirps

Without Tess is an achingly gorgeous read. The writing is so lyrical and the characters so vivid, I felt as if I were in the same room with them. The story focuses on Lizzie whose sister Tess died when she was younger. Six years later she is still coping with the grief.

Next Best Book
Posted June 30, 2012 by Mindy Rench

Every once in a while a book comes along that makes me say, “Whoa” when I close that back cover. Without Tess was one of those books. The format of this book was original, with the story being told in both prose and poetry and with chapters alternating between past and present. At first I thought perhaps Lizzie, the main character, was a bit whiny, wallowing in self pity. But as the story unfolded, I began to see her in a more sympathetic light. I realized she was harboring quite a bit of guilt about her sister Tess’s death, even though Lizzie herself could not stop her sister’s steep mental decline.

This is one of the few YA novels that I have read that has dealt with a childhood mental illness and the effect it has on a family. When mental illness in a family is addressed, it seems to be that of a parent rather than a sibling or even the main character herself. We know that mental illness is a real problem for many families, and having books to turn to may help teens in similar situations feel as if they are not alone in dealing with such problems.

The writing in this book is truly beautiful, and I think girls (because they are definitely the target audience for this novel) who enjoy realistic fiction will find much to love.

YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Best 2012 Fiction for Young Adults Nomination

Nominated for the 2013-2014 Truman Award — Missouri Association of School Librarians.

Starred review Booklist

Poet Pixley’s gripping story of middle-school bullying may call to mind Spinelli’s Stargirl (2000) and Anderson’s Speak (1999) . . . Thorny, determined, brilliant, mature yet surprisingly naïve, Miriam is unforgettable.

Starred review Kirkus Reviews

An expertly – and lovingly – narrated story about girls and bullying . . Stunning.

Starred review Publisher’s Weekly

First Time novelist Pixley crafts a disturbing tale that taps into the harsh reality of what it means to be a middle school outcast . . . observant and tough, Miriam’s voice has a knife edge that tears past the surface.

Starred review Bulletin of Center for Children’s Book

Pixley writes with well-crafted intensity of a girl in an agony of perplexed exclusion…readers will be intrigued by her eventual ability to make a new way for herself.

Fall 2007 Children’s Pick, Book Sense

A riveting, heartbreaking, ultimately redemptive book about the cruelty of middle school students.

School Library Journal

This is a powerful look at middle school angst and transformation from a new YA author to watch.


Middle School girls will read this book and realize how many girls are just like them.

Teens Read Too

Marcella Pixley has created a character and a story filled with raw emotions. The sense of isolation is thick as you read deeper into Miriam’s story. You will never forget Miriam or the lessons she manages to teach. . . an inspirational story for anyone who has ever been known as a freak.

Chris Crutcher, author of The Sledding Hill

Wow! Freak is heartbreakingly funny, heartbreakingly spot-on, and heartbreaking. If you’ve ever been on the outside – and you have – Miriam Fisher is your new best friend.

Gabrielle Zevin, author of Elsewhere

Marcella Pixley has written a poetic, painfully well observed, and very satisfying first novel. I would recommend Freak to anyone who has ever felt like a freak – that is to say, everyone.