Congratulating myself on my progressive attitude, I recently suggested to my 12-year-old that we watch Netflix’ Thirteen Reasons Why together. I was surprised when she answered, “I’ve already watched it, Mom—everybody has.” After furiously binge-watching it myself (I admit I’d only read a chapter of the Jay Asher novel on which it was based), I was both horrified by the graphic nature of some of the scenes, and grateful for the opportunity to discuss difficult issues with her. When I brought it up with a class at school, I was overwhelmed by my students’ eagerness to share their thoughts and feelings on depression, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health issues. Though they found some of the characterizations clichéd, they experienced parts of the story as disturbingly real.
May is National Mental Health Awareness month. There’s a rich tradition of mental health issues in young adult fiction—no doubt Gen-Xers like myself remember Joanne Greenberg’s 1969 autobiographical novel of schizophrenia, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and John Neufeld’s 1969 classic exploration of manic depression, Lisa, Bright and Dark. While there’s never been a shortage in this genre, a few recent entries to the field have really stood out to me.
While ostensibly about a teen trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s death, Kate Ellison’s The Butterfly Clues is one of the best representations of a character dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder I’ve come across. Penelope (Lo) is compelled to collect particular objects, and keeps her bedroom in a state that looks like chaos to others, but feels like order to her. Confession: I am a self-diagnosed mild OCD sufferer myself—a childhood “repeater” and “tapper” who still can’t walk by a wall-hung picture without straightening it, or slice an onion in any way but that certain way. When Lo shoplifts trinkets because she inexplicably has to have them, it feels plausible. When she chooses sketchy street artist Flynt over the all-American heartthrob at her high school because he feels and smells right to her, I get it, completely.
What Ellison does for OCD, Jennifer Niven accomplishes beautifully for bipolar disorder in All the Bright Places. Violet, grieving over the death of her older sister in a car accident, meets Finch at the top of the bell tower they’re both considering jumping from (“meets precarious” being the new “meets cute”). As in countless YA novels, they forge an unlikely friendship/romance. Unlike countless YA novels, Niven’s portrays Finch’s manic/depressive mood swings in such a true and vivid fashion that you feel them in your bones, and are rightfully afraid for him.
Likewise, Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces is, at times, almost too much to bear. Beginning in a Girl Interrupted-style psychiatric facility for girls, it follows 17-year-old Charlie, a nearly-mute cutter who’d been living on the streets, as she is released and tries to make her way in the world. Scarred in every sense of the word, she tries to navigate getting an apartment, a job, and connecting with people. Reading it is like watching a 70s slasher movie—at every turn, Charlie faces choices that leave you mentally screaming, “No! Don’t go down to the basement, girl!” But each dilemma Charlie faces feels necessary and authentic, highlighting just how fragile her mental state is and how easily one bad decision could derail her progress.
So yes, I plan to be much more proactive about what my pre-teen daughter is streaming in her room at night. But I also plan on supplying her, and my high school students who clearly crave them, with YA novels that unflinchingly explore personal trauma and mental health issues. Ultimately, we all read to see reflections of ourselves, or at least for the opportunity to say, “Yes—someone gets it!”. The realer, the better.