Getting Better: YA lit reflects a more nuanced representation of mental health | Great Books

Not only is the representation of various mental illnesses in YA literature expanding, but so is the ­sensitivity of their portrayals. Here are 13 standout titles. 

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We’re seeing more YA books that address mental health and new ways of tackling a difficult subject. Not only is the representation of various mental illnesses expanding, but so is the ­sensitivity of their portrayals. The #OwnVoices movement has, no doubt, played a critical role: As authors writing about mental health put their own experiences on the page, both in fiction and in nonfiction, readers can witness the many ways the mind works—and the challenges that arise when things are askew.

In addition to featuring mental health stories written by those who have personal experience with mental illness, the world of YA mental health representation is enriched by its inclusivity. The books listed below center on teens from a multitude of socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds; religious beliefs; and sexual and gender identities. Moreover, these aren’t just ­contemporary realistic novels; characters in fantasy and historical fiction, too, wrestle with the realities of having a brain. Because of the stigma still surrounding mental illness, it’s impossible to verify whether all of these titles are drawn from the writers’ own lives, though many of the authors have been forthright about their experiences.

ACEVES, David. The New David Espinoza. 335p. HarperTeen. Feb. 2020. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062489883.
Gr 8 Up –After becoming the target of bullying, David decides to bulk up over the summer so he can come back to school bigger, stronger, and ready to impress his classmates. But as he spends more time at a gym frequented by bodybuilders, he finds himself sucked into a world from which he cannot escape. This book offers a look at a teen of color struggling with body image issues and exercise addiction.

ALKAF, Hanna. The Weight of Our Sky. 288p. S. & S./Salaam Reads. Feb. 2019. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781534426085.
Gr 8 Up –In this novel set in 1969 Malaysia during the Kuala Lumpur uprising, Melati, who is Muslim, copes with obsessive compulsive disorder in a place and time where many people don’t understand or believe in treatment for mental illness. This is a fascinating, sensitive examination of how mental health has been viewed in another culture and era.

CHAN, Crystal. All That I Can Fix. 320p. S. & S./Simon Pulse. Jun. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781534408883.
Gr 7 Up –Ronney has more than enough to deal with—when you’re a small-town kid from a biracial family and your father has attempted suicide, people know who you are. Then the local zoo lets the animals loose, and chaos ensues, with protesters from all political sides arriving to propose solutions. Chan has crafted a savvy, heartening, and funny look at depression from the perspective of a loved one watching it from the outside.

COLBERT, Brandy. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph. 336p. Little, Brown. Aug. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316448567.
Gr 8 Up –Birdie has always been a follow-the-rules kind of girl. But the arrival of her aunt, who struggles with alcoholism, and her newfound interest in a boy who has a reputation push the teen to rebel. Colbert explores addiction and the tolls it can take on a family—and what recovery might look like.

DEAVER, Mason. I Wish You All the Best. 320p. Push. May 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781338306125.
Gr 8 Up –When Ben comes out to their parents as nonbinary, they’re kicked out of their house. Once settled in the home of their estranged sister, Ben not only has to come to terms with their new living situation but also must reckon with severe anxiety. This is a necessary addition to the YA world and to the exploration of an anxiety disorder.

FLORES-SCOTT, Patrick. American Road Trip. 336p. Holt. Sept. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781627797412.
Gr 7 Up –When Teodoro’s perfect brother Manny returns home after a tour of duty in Iraq, Manny is anything but OK. He has severe post-traumatic stress disorder, so Teodoro and his sister take their sibling on a road trip, hoping to visit loved ones and reestablish their strong family bonds. This stirring novel centers on a teen of color grappling with how to love someone who is struggling.

FOX, Helena. How It Feels To Float. 384p. Dial. May 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525554297.
Gr 9 Up –Biz is an expert in the world of floating (dissociating or hallucinating). Floating allows her to spend time with her dad, who died when she was six. Biz doesn’t tell anyone about the ability to float or about her conversations with her father in this haunting, evocative, and moving story of intergenerational mental illness.

GANGER, Candace. Six Goodbyes We Never Said. 320p. Wednesday. Sept. 2019. Tr $18.99. ISBN 978-1250116246.
Gr 7 Up –It’s tragedy, not love, that brings together Dew and Naima. Dew is processing the sudden death of his parents and his post-traumatic stress disorder, while Naima is grieving the death of her father and trying to manage her obsessive compulsive and generalized anxiety disorders. Though sparks might not fly romantically, Dew and Naima find support and comfort in each other through their challenges.

HEILIG, Heidi. For a Muse of Fire. 512p. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. Sept. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062380814.
Gr 9 Up –Rarely do we see teens with mental health challenges in genre YA, but Heilig offers just that in this compelling fantasy. Jetta’s family are renowned shadow players, and Jetta’s own talent in the troupe goes even deeper than she—or they—can imagine. With rebellion afoot, Jetta must not only fight for her family and their talent but also navigate what it means to be bipolar.

HUTCHINSON, Shaun David. Brave Face: A Memoir. 369p. S. & S./Simon Pulse. May 2019. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781534431515.
Gr 8 Up –In this raw memoir, Hutchinson shares his experiences growing up gay and coping with depression, which, he notes, wasn’t the result of his sexuality, though his sexuality did impact his mental health. Hutchinson’s mistakes will be relatable, as well as comforting, to readers facing their own hurdles.

KAPLAN, Ariel. We Are the Perfect Girl. 384p. Knopf. May 2019. Tr $17.99 ISBN 9780525647102.
Gr 7 Up –In this clever, humorous reimagining of Cyrano de Bergerac, Aphra deals with body dysmorphia and the overwhelming fear that she’ll never be loved for who she is. This is a book about self-worth and self-discovery. It shows how sometimes, even if we aren’t aware that we’re struggling with a ­mental illness, we can still find a way to manage it.

MCGINNIS, Mindy. Heroine. 432p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Mar. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062847195.
Gr 9 Up –When Mickey and her best friend are in a car accident, the duo know they need to heal fast to be in peak shape for their final high school softball season. Mickey, who is prescribed OxyContin, believes she’s feeling great, even when she’s not. What begins as a story about healing turns into a tale about how quickly—and easily—drug addiction can take hold. This moving, timely novel tackles the opioid crisis.

WEES, Alyssa. The Waking Forest. 304p. Delacorte. Mar. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525581161.
Gr 8 Up –As lush as Pan’s Labyrinth, this is a dark fantasy about dream worlds and waking worlds. Rhea’s and her sister’s struggles with anxiety are masterfully woven into the story—something rare and, indeed, magical for YA fantasy.


Kelly Jensen is a former teen librarian who covers YA for Book Riot.

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Rebecca Modys

Please do not refer to someone who suffers from bipolar disorder or any other mental illness as the name of that mental illness. For example, "what it means to be bipolar" could be better worded as "what it means to cope with bipolar disorder" or "what it means to suffer from bipolar disorder." People who have mental illnesses are not their illnesses, just as people who suffer from cancer are not referred to as "cancer." Thank you for being sensitive to the terrible stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Posted : Oct 16, 2019 07:53

Kelly Jensen

Hi - author of the piece here, who also happens to have depression and anxiety. While I appreciate and see your perspective, there's no universiality for how to name these things. Some people prefer it the way I've written while others prefer yours -- and there's no one way to get it right and make it universal. Thanks!

Posted : Oct 16, 2019 07:53


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