Diane Scrofano is a former high school English teacher and librarian who now works at a California community college. She recently did a sabbatical on the topic of mental illness in books for young adults.
Did you know that May was Mental Health Awareness Month? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to one in every five of our students may be struggling with mental illness (for this and more startling statistics, see this handy infographic from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens). But there are plenty of great books out there to give the next generation the insight they need to break down stigma. Here is a brief guide to my favorite YA novels of mental illness and what makes each story special:
On Bipolar Disorder
In All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven (2015), Finch and Violet take turns telling us the story of how their relationship develops alongside Finch’s illness. Two other novels do a great job with narration alternating between male and female characters, one of whom is ill: Crazy, by Amy Reed (2013) and When We Collided, by Emery Lord (2016). While the temptation in bipolar stories is to sensationalize manic behavior, Niven gives Finch a wonderful insight and capacity to describe the other side of bipolar: “the Asleep,” as Finch calls it. Wild Awake (2015) focuses on manic episodes but author Hilary T. Smith, who has bipolar disorder herself, really helps the reader understand how a person could slip into that type of thinking. The classic Stop Pretending, by Sonia Sones (1999), provides us with the point of view of the sister of a teen with mental illness in the form of a verse novel with a resource guide at the end.
Challenger Deep (2015), which is based on the experiences of and includes the sketches by author Neal Schusterman’s son, places the reader inside the two vivid worlds that protagonist Caden lives in: one in reality and the other on a pirate ship. While the boundary between reality and hallucination is clear in that novel, Schizo, by Nic Sheff (2014), pulls us into the narrator’s symptoms so smoothly we don’t even realize that they are symptoms; just as the hallucinations feel real to the ill person, the reader too is deceived by them. Another novel that lets us step into the shoes of a person suffering from schizophrenia is Inside Out, by Terry Trueman (2003). The margins of this book are sprinkled with insults that narrator Zach’s voices hurl at him. While adults have to come to the rescue in some of these novels, in Freaks Like Us, by Susan Vaught (2012), it is the ill teen who does what not even the FBI can do: he solves the mystery of his friend’s disappearance. In Han Nolan’s Crazy (2010), Jason, the son of a man slowly becoming more and more psychotic, must negotiate with the judge to arrange his father’s care. Part of the charm of this novel is the stylistic aspects borrowed from the protagonist’s Greek heritage, including dramatic dialogue, a chorus, and, yes, even the Argonauts.
Define “Normal,” by Julie Ann Peters (2000), is the story of a middle school student trying to manage her and her siblings’ lives while their mother is debilitated by depression. In Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos (2013), it is teenage James who is depressed, and his old-school parents don’t understand. James, whose last name is Whitman, uses both Walt’s and his own poetry as he ponders whether the causes of depression come from nature (genes) or nurture (abuse). On the other end of the parental spectrum, It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2006) depicts the teen narrator’s psychiatric hospitalization, which was encouraged by his progressive urban parents. This story is made all the more poignant with the realization that while medicine and art save the narrator, author Ned Vizzini committed suicide a few years after writing it. The idea that once you get your diagnosis and treatment you’ll live happily ever after is challenged by David Levithan and John Green in Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010). Many novels of mental illness begin with confusion or denial, proceed to a breakdown, and end with treatment and acceptance, but will grayson (lowercase on purpose) starts at a place of acceptance in his mental health journey, and Levithan explains in an interview published at the end of the paperback edition why he did this.
As authors break away from problem-novel patterns, we are seeing more and more depth in this new and exciting branch of literature. From theme to style, there are a lot of exciting developments happening in the YA novels of mental illness. I hope you can check some of these books out soon!
For more, please see my recent blog post on YA novels of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at Teen Librarian Toolbox.com.
– Diane Scrofano