Get A First Look At Farrah Penn's Heartwrenching YA Novel About Addiction

by Caitlin White
Macey J. Foronda, Little Brown and Company

Addiction doesn't just affect your body and mind; it permeates every single aspect of your life — even if you're not the one addicted. That's what teenager Kira has learned from her father, whose alcoholism has lead to several disappointing, unsuccessful attempts at getting sober, pulling her own life apart. Buzzfeed writer Farrah Penn's debut YA novel 12 Steps to Normal follows Kira in a heartfelt, powerful story about attempting to put together the shards of your former life after it has been shattered by addiction. And Bustle has the exclusive cover reveal and an excerpt of Chapter One.

As Kira's dad attempts to recover yet again, she has moved her entire life — leaving her friends, her school, and her (now ex-) boyfriend — from Austin to Portland to live with her Aunt June.

Now Kira's father is back again from his latest rehab stint, and Kira is forced to move back to Austin to live with him. She's pessimistic about his sobriety, but she hopes that she can reclaim the life she once had. Of course, it won't be that easy. In her own type of 12-step program, Kira maps out what she needs to do:

  1. Accept Grams is gone.
  2. Learn to forgive Dad.
  3. Steal back ex-boyfriend from best friend...

Kira's story will feel visceral to so many readers: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that as of 2012, 10 percent of children live in a home with a parent who abuses alcohol.

Penn's 12 Steps to Normal will be published by author James Patterson's Little, Brown and Company imprint JIMMY Patterson, so all proceeds will go to charities with pro-reading initiatives. Patterson also penned the foreword to Penn's debut novel.

12 Steps to Normal will drop March 13, 2018, but if you can't bear the burden of the wait, Bustle exclusively can let you read Chapter One. But first, check out the gorgeous cover...

12 Steps to Normal by Farrah Penn, $18, Amazon

Chapter 1

I used to think the worst moment of my life happened in eighth grade when I got caught stealing the latest issue of Cosmopolitan from 7-Eleven because I didn’t have four dollars to learn all the secrets of being a great kisser.

I was wrong.

From several thousand feet in the air, our plane shakes. I try not to take it as a universal sign of my slowly accumulating bad luck. It doesn’t help that Aunt June put me on a flight to Austin on what is probably the rainiest day in the history of Portland. This delayed my departure, which forced me to text my dad to inform him I’d be arriving later than expected.

I try not to take it as a universal sign of my slowly accumulating bad luck.

I’ve been unraveling the tight knots in my earphones for the last half hour to take my mind off my impending doom. The woman beside me watches as I do this. I’ve noticed she’s already read through her paperback romance and since there aren’t any movies playing on this flight, I must be the next best form of entertainment.

My fingers work through the last knot and break it free.

“Wow,” she comments. “Must have been really tangled in your pocket.”

I don’t respond. Instead, I take the white cord and begin looping it back into tiny knots, making sure I pull hard. She gives me a puzzled look before glancing away.

Our plane hits another spot of turbulence. I tell myself to concentrate on undoing the knots. I hate planes. I don’t particularly trust anything designed to defy the laws of gravity, nor do I enjoy being trapped in such a close vicinity to strangers who are all breathing the same recycled air. We have another hour before we’re scheduled to land, and then I’ll be home.

As much as I wish this were a celebratory occasion, coming home was not my decision. I thought I was accepting my permanent fate when I was sent to live with Aunt June in Portland. I’d learned to put up with the noisy city voices and the uncomfortable foldout bed and walking a block and a half to do laundry. All of this was better than living with my dad.

As much as I wish this were a celebratory occasion, coming home was not my decision.

But last week Aunt June broke the news that he was officially released from Sober Living Alcoholic and Drug Rehabilitation Center. She even brought home lasagna to celebrate — the slightly pricier frozen kind from Trader Joe’s.

“Of course I love having you here, doll,” she told me, squeezing me tight in the middle of her tiny kitchen. “I’m going to miss you something fierce.”

“But you want me to go back?” I mumbled into her crocheted top.

She pulled away, but I noticed a weight of emotion fall over her features. “I really think it’ll do you good to be home. I’ve talked with your daddy over the phone, and Margaret’s had a few meetings with him. I wouldn’t be telling you this if we didn’t think it wasn’t a good environment.”

Margaret is my social worker who always wears big Audrey Hepburn sunglasses to our meetings. She was a big believer in this particular rehabilitation center, but I was skeptical. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings hadn’t been enough to help my dad, so I doubted this would either.

“He’ll be home Sunday morning,” Aunt June continued, handing me a plate before sitting down next to me. She took the broken chair—the one that rocked slightly if you leaned the wrong way. “I’ve already submitted your transcripts back to Cedarville. That way you can be back with all your friends in time to start junior year together.”

I could tell she expected me to be more excited. Going home meant that I could go back to my old life. The life that contained my best friends and boyfriend (well, ex-boyfriend now). I’d been on the dance team and participated in National Honor Society and Earth Club. I grew up going to school with everyone in my class, which was comfortable more than it was congested. Cedarville was a small town, but it was my small town.

Aunt June would have lost her job if she came to live with me in Texas, which is how I ended up in Portland. It wasn’t that I was unhappy with the situation, but I wasn’t exactly happy having to start over, either. My grades made it clear I wasn’t trying very hard in school. In the entire eight months, I’d only made one friend—Katie Jones, who was obsessed with the movie Borat and had memorized all the national capitals of the world.

It wasn’t my best friends or ex-boyfriend that was making me hesitant to return. It was my father.

“Sounds good,” I told her, but there was very little enthusiasm in my voice.

She put her fork down. “You know you’re always welcome back here, doll. If you go home and decide it’snot where you want to be, you call me. Anytime, day or night. Okay?”

I promised I would, and that was that.

When she sent me off to the airport this afternoon, she gave me a long hug. I breathed in her scent of jasmine that had become one of my only comforts over the last several months.There were tears in her eyes when she pulled away.

In the row across from me, a dad watches his kid play some game on his Nintendo DS. The glow of the screen lights up their faces. He gives an encouraging, “good job, buddy!” when his son levels up. The entire exchange makes my gut twist in nervousness. I wish coming home to my dad would be that easy.

I pull tighter at my knots.

After six hours and one layover, I finally land in Austin. I’m jittery, like a rattling car engine on the verge of breaking down. This is home. I should be breathing sighs of relief. So why does being here feel so . . . foreign?

I go through the motions of shuffling off the plane, then make my way to the baggage claim. My two huge suitcases are patterned with silhouetted birds in flight, so they’re easy to spot on the carousel. I’m channeling all my inner Hulk strength—why did I bring so many shoes?—as I lift the last one from the belt.

This is home. I should be breathing sighs of relief. So why does being here feel so . . . foreign?

And that’s when I hear it.


I am not actually named after a particularly ill-tempered bird. I should find comfort in the longtime nickname my dad gave me, but a part of me doesn’t want to be his Goose. I just want to be Kira.

“Hi,” I say as he comes toward me. I’m sort of glad I have my luggage in my hands, because it’s an excuse not to hug him.

The first thing I notice is that he’s lost weight. His naturally dark hair is peppered with more gray than before, and he has traces of bags under his brown eyes. Most evenings he would drink himself to sleep, but maybe the detox threw off his internal clock.

My dad steps through my barrier of luggage and leans in to hug me. I breathe into his soft button down out of habit. Smelling alcohol on him was always a giveaway, but all I smell is unfamiliar laundry detergent and a bit of musky cologne.

“Here, let me get that.” He takes the handles of my two heavy rollaways in each hand. “How was your flight?”

“Good,” I lie.

Small talk. I’m sure he doesn’t care to hear about the weather and the plane that shook us around like a Magic 8 ball.

“Good, good,” he repeats, and then we walk out of the airport and into the balmy Texas night.

I spot his cherry red Nissan as we walk to the parking lot. Old dents and dings and scuffs litter the body, but I find myself inspecting it for new scars. Which is stupid. My dad wasn’t allowed to bring his car to Sober Living and he hasn’t been home long enough to inflict new damage.

He places my bags in the trunk and then we get inside, ready to make the forty-minute drive to Cedarville.

My stomach flips in a nervous sort of way. I shouldn’t be so anxious to go back. Maybe it’s because I haven’t contacted Lin or Whitney or Raegan, three of my best friends since elementary. It’s not that I didn’t want to let them know I’m back, because I definitely do. I guess I wanted it to be real for me first.

I begin to type a group text to them.

“Good to know not that much has changed,” my dad jokes, glancing at my cell.

It’s an attempt to break the ice, but I don’t reply. I’m not in the mood to try and put forth any type of conversation. Even though he’s written me dozens of apology letters, that doesn’t make up for all the time I lost being without my friends and boyfriend and my own life.

I finish typing and hit send.

My dad takes a small breath, like he’s gathering up the courage to speak. Then he does. “Sober Living is a great facility. Really great, supportive people. I’m feeling really good about this, Goose.” When I don’t respond, he continues. “The ranch was beautiful. I took some pictures, but I still need to figure out how to get them off my SD card. There were horses—it reminded me of when you were a little thing. When I took you to the petting zoo near Austin?”

I nod, remembering the brochure from Sober Living all those months ago. It talked all about how the 12-step program could explore and empower their lives and how they used equestrian therapy to create connection and personal fulfillment. I didn’t quite understand how riding a horse was supposed to enforce sobriety, but whatever.

“We made a lot of ceramics, too,” he continues.

Arts and crafts. Brilliant.

I don’t want to come home with a terrible attitude toward his progress, but it’s hard to trust his optimism when Alcoholics Anonymous hasn’t exactly worked for him in the past. He’d commit to it for a while with the help of Michael, his sponsor, and the 12-step program, but then he’d ultimately fall back into his excessive drinking routine.

I was thirteen when my dad came home from his first AA weekend retreat. He brought a present for me, poorly wrapped in newspaper. When I opened it, I discovered a pale green ceramic mug he’d made by hand. At the bottom was a decal of a cartoon pug, his floppy tongue hanging out.

“Because you love pugs!” he said.

He was so proud of himself. It made my heart ache. My pug obsession had ended in like, second grade. It was like he barely knew me at all.

His creation was placed in the china cabinet, displayed for all to see, but when he wasn’t home I took it out and hid it in the back of the pantry. It was embarrassing — something a little kid should show off, not a grown adult.

It was like he barely knew me at all.

I wonder how many ceramic mugs it took to help him stay clean this time. I say this aloud because a part of me feels like being spiteful. Silence falls thick between us. I’m not sure if he heard me. I tell myself I don’t care.

We clear through dense clusters of oak trees and emerge into the flat, wide landscape of Cedarville. It’s a running joke that there are more cows than homes out here, but I’ve always loved how everyone on the farm town outskirts owns so much property. Whitney is the only one of my friends who lives a few miles outside the suburbs of Cedarville. When we were younger we would take turns riding her go-kart on the expanse of green acres in her backyard.

“Mr. Buckley offered me a janitorial position at Cedarville Elementary,” my dad says. “I guess we’ll both have big days tomorrow, huh?”

I shrug. This time he gives up on the small talk. We stay silent for the rest of the ride home.

It never used to be like this. Before Grams died, we would watch the newest episode of Crime Boss every Wednesday night while sharing a jumbo tub of cheese balls. He used to scribble awful puns on napkins—ORANGE you glad it’s Friday?!—and slip them into my lunch sack. I’d always pretend it was so lame, but I was secretly pleased when my friends found them hilarious.

Sometimes he’d text me selfies he took in the milk aisle of the grocery store, mock-terror on his face as he captioned it with, I CAN’T REMEMBER WHICH % WE BUY HELP. He’d buy ingredients for dinners he found on cooking blogs and together we’d whip up homemade ziti and falafel.

We’re a long way away from those days now.

When we pull in the driveway, Dad gets out to grab my bags from the trunk. I reach in the backseat for my purse, but I’m fumbling blindly in the dark. I flip on the over headlight so I can see. That’s when I spot it. There, lying in the middle seat, is a mug-shaped gift wrapped in newspaper, tied neatly with a turquoise ribbon.

12 Steps to Normal by Farrah Penn, $18, Amazon