Yes, that is the title. Sean Griswold’s Head. And while Sean Griswold’s head is one of the primary focuses of Lindsey Leavitt’s novel, it’s really the story of protagonist Payton’s efforts to get outside of her own head, especially when her thoughts wander into the territory of her father’s multiple sclerosis. Payton wants to think about anything but her father’s disease, and at the prompting of her school counselor, she chooses a “focus object.” Take a guess what “object” Payton chooses.
Sean Griswold has been sitting in front of Payton for years (Sean Griswold, Payton Gritas—it’s an alphabetical thing), but she’s never really noticed him, much less gotten to know him. But when her focus object turns out to be a kind and generous guy, Payton’s assignment gets more interesting, and more complicated.
One of the best things about Leavitt’s novel is Payton. Though Payton’s spent her whole life striving for perfectionism and avoiding any of life’s possible potholes, news of her father’s illness—news that’s delivered in one of the worst possible ways—sends her flying off her mark. Her clothes stop matching, she has a falling-out with her best friend, and she even—gasp—gets a “C” on her report card. But Leavitt doesn’t allow Payton to play the victim of circumstance, and that’s one of the strengths of Sean Griswold’s Head.
Payton’s battle is as much within herself as with any of the problems that are thrown at her. In moments of clarity, Payton recognizes that she’s gone astray, such as when she gives her father the cold shoulder, not long after she discovered that her family was keeping her dad’s MS a secret from her. When her father leaves her bedroom, “I let out a sigh, hoping it releases some of the bad karma I just incurred from being so heinous. I don’t want to be like this, but I don’t know how else I’m supposed to act” (42). Even when Payton knows she’s doing the wrong thing, she still does it, because she can’t see the right thing. It’s a conflict almost any reader can identify with, and it’s why almost any reader will find a way to identify with Payton, following her and listening to her and cheering for her even when she’s being an idiot, even when she’s not being fair, even when she’s being cruel.
Sean Griswold’s Head is also about looking beneath the surface of things, beneath the surface of people. As Sean tells Payton, when she’s criticizing his goth friend Grady—who, in Payton’s defense, did actually try to bite Payton when she tried holding on to a locker in Grady’s territory—people aren’t always the way they appear. Sean says,
“But that’s what I’m trying to tell you. That’s not him at all, just how you perceive him. It’s like, you could go dress yourself in a potato sack, and you’d still look…”
Say good. Or if I’m being greedy, beautiful. But good will do.
“…like you. It doesn’t change who you are. Haven’t you ever looked past your first impression and seen more?” (113)
Lindsey Leavitt’s novel asks readers to remember to look past our first impressions, to try and see more. It’s not a complicated lesson, and Sean Griswold’s Head isn’t some complex story with crazy twists and turns. It’s a realistic story about an ordinary teenager who deals with events that, while they don’t rock the universe, rock her world plenty. So while the idea that we all might look a little more closely and with a little more empathy at the people around us may be simple, that makes it no less significant. In fact, maybe the simplest lessons are the most significant. And they deserve stories like this: honest, true, and trustworthy. Open up the cover of Sean Griswold’s Head. See what’s inside.
[Leavitt, Lindsey. Sean Griswold’s Head. New York: Bloomsbury, Release Date March 2011.]