Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Beyond "Issue" Books: Unpacking Mental Health Issues in MG and YA Fiction

Last week I was honored to be a part of a presentation with several other YA authors at the annual American Association of School Librarians conference in Columbus. Led by the lovely Natalie D. Richards, our group, which included Liz Coley and Kristina McBride, presented statistics on teen mental health and shared what everyone pretty much agreed were the "go to" books when it comes to mental health issues in fiction, but also introduced what we hoped would be a starting point for discussion on books that stretch the usual definition.

If you're the librarian at a school where you know you've got a student struggling with an eating disorder, the book that would likely come to mind is the brilliant and heart wrenching Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. We know how powerful and essential it is for kids to see themselves in books, to know they are not alone, to read about characters struggling and ultimately, triumphing.

A kid being bullied or suffering from depression might find himself or herself in a book like 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, a modern classic told between the points of view of a girl who's committed suicide and a boy who may or may not have been in a position to help her when she was alive.

We know that books like this--that deal with issues head on, without flinching-- are books we must have in our school libraries, and not only for the kids who are suffering--with eating disorders or depression or thoughts of suicide or a variety of other mental health issues-- but for their classmates and their friends and their siblings to gain a better understanding and empathy.

Mental health disorders are much more common in teens than any of us knew before we started researching for our presentation. According to the National Institute of Health, 46% of 13-18 year olds have suffered from any disorder--these include panic disorders, major depression, PTSD, ADHD, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and autism spectrum disorders.

Books, of course, can help, and we wanted to build a list of books-- what we call "issue" books, as well as books that feature characters dealing with a particular issue, but where the issue isn't the primary focus of the book.

Natalie started the discussion by talking about a child she knows who has ADD. She gave him one of the Joey Pigza books (this is a brilliant and hilarious series by Jack Gantos about a boy who has ADD.) But the child didn't connect.

Instead he devoured Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, the page-turning fantasy adventure series that features a boy who discovers his father is Poseidon. The main character also happens to have ADD.

Natalie realized that kids want to see themselves in books, but sometimes they also want to look away, escape for a while, or perhaps see a version of themselves being the hero.

The librarians in our audience had great ideas for books to include on our list. For the anorexic student who might not want to read about the issue head on, there's Dumplin by Julie Murphy about a self-proclaimed fat girl who doesn't have to lose weight to win the boy

or The Girl of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson, which stars a main character who grapples with a poor body image but ultimately discovers her own external and internal strengths.

The list we created--with much help from librarians-- is something we would like to continue to build. If you've got ideas for titles that deal with mental health issues-- or those that might skirt the edges but have another primary focus, feel free to let us know in the comments, and we'll add your recommendations.

Here's the list--so far.

And here's the write up of our presentation--for a bit more on what we're looking for--from the AASL blog.


  1. So as someone with a history of anorexia, I have never read Wintergirls. It is a VERY triggering book and I'm not sure I recommend it to girls or guys who dealt with their "friend" Mia (as the internet calls her). However it's definitely an important book and useful for teachers/librarians/others. This sounds like it was an amazing panel and experience, Jody!

    1. Thanks, Rachel. I feel the same way about child abuse books. I would never have read them when I was a kid. I read the opposite: books about happy families, quiet mysteries, fantasy.