Welcome back to another edition of YAs That Get it Right, in which pros weigh in on YA books they think nailed an aspect of the human experience. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I asked some of my favorite authors of mental health YA, as well as (and including) authors who are also mental health professionals, to share their favorite mental health YAs that get it right.
Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
YA novels about families and mental health are my jam. When it’s done by the amazing Melina Marchetta, it’s a favorite. Saving Francesca is a quiet but powerful novel about the effects of depression on a whole family. Opening with “This morning, my mother didn’t get out of bed,” Marchetta crafts the poignant and genuine story of Francesca as she struggles to understand and help Mia, her mother, who’s battling depression. Marchetta doesn’t romanticize the struggles of mental health—it’s frustrating and it’s difficult to talk about and it’s every day. And ultimately, it’s the little triumphs that really matter. Saving Francesca is a touching and ultimately hopeful look at what it means to both struggle with depression and to love someone struggling.
–Annie Cardi, author of The Chance You Won’t Return
Every Exquisite Thing, by Matthew Quick
Matthew Quick’s novels (both YA and adult) always deftly investigate the complex ways mental health affects personal relationships, and his new YA is no different. His latest manages to scrutinize the stress and anxiety of Nannette O’Hare’s battle against conformity by taking on two of the key experiences of many high schooler’s lives (sports participation and prom). As with anyone trying to manage their mental health, Nannette makes choices that bring about serious consequences; but what Quick succeeds in showing is that for many of us, we have to make bold, life-altering moves to survive in the long run.
–Evan James Roskos, author of Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets
How to Be Brave, by E. Katherine Kottaras
I wish I’d had E. Katherine Kottaras’s debut, How to Be Brave, as a teen. This novel so realistically captured what it’s like to lose a parent to illness at a young age that I found myself nodding along with a lot of the things Georgia said. Throughout the story, Georgia struggles through her grief and her changed family while trying to live up to a promise she made to her dying mother to “be brave.” This book is such a great portrayal of bereavement and the grieving process—I loved it. Other YAs I’d recommend include Leah Scheier’s Your Voice is All I Hear for a great portrayal of schizophrenia and hospitalization, Cole Gibsen’s Life Unaware for a character who takes medication for panic attacks, and Paula Stokes’ Girl Against the Universe for a great depiction of therapy.
–Meredith Tate, Licensed Social Worker and author of Missing Pieces
The Marbury Lens, by Andrew Smith
Despite my clinical background, the representations of mental health in YA literature that resonate with me the most are ones that are the least clinically presented. They don’t focus on symptoms or diagnoses or treatment plans. Their goal isn’t to educate or give answers. The stories I connect with, that feel authentic to my own adolescent struggles with mental health, are the ones that are messy and nonspecific. They’re unique and individual. They don’t explore disorders, but rather a single teen’s qualitative, lived experience of what it’s like to have perceptions or thoughts or feelings that are frightening, distressing, or unexplained. Four books that I highly recommend are The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith, Pointe by Brandy Colbert, The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter, and Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
–Stephanie Kuehn, Psy.D. and author of The Smaller Evil
Second Position, by Katherine Locke
What I loved about Second Position was that we got a real glimpse into the WORK of recovery. Not every moment in therapy was a magic lightbulb moment. Aly wasn’t always thrilled with Dr. Ham, and the process didn’t move forward seamlessly. But there was real, visible, hard-won progress. And an actual therapeutic alliance that carried Aly and Dr. Ham over the rough periods.
–Becky Albertalli, author of Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
(Blogger’s note: Second Position is New Adult, not Young Adult, but the content is teen-friendly, and the therapy depiction is too excellent to omit.)
When We Collided, by Emery Lord
This book is so perfectly bittersweet. It doesn’t flinch when it comes to depicting the realities of living with bipolar disorder, but the book also somehow manages to still be filled with hope and joy. So important. I hope many young women are inspired to claim their days as Lord so beautifully writes at the end of the novel. I know I was.
–Jasmine Warga, author of My Heart and Other Black Holes
Invincible, by Amy Reed
Very few books really get the complexity that is addiction. Amy Reed’s Invincible goes deep down into the particular mix of anger, hopelessness, isolation, and longing that can breed addiction, and the result is astonishing. Books that deal with mental health can go a lot of places, but Reed’s book ventures somewhere I’ve never been before in a book. If you want to know what it’s really, truly like to love someone struggling with addiction, this book is it. To write about addiction you can’t be afraid of showing something ugly and unrelenting and powerful and frustrating. Reed has that bravery and paints a challenging portrait that makes it easy to understand how one disease (cancer) could lead so seamlessly into another (addiction).
–Corey Ann Haydu, author of OCD Love Story
Every Last Word, by Tamara Ireland Stone
Finding authentic, truthful depictions of obsessive compulsive disorder in young adult literature can sometimes feel like a treasure hunt. In this case, Tamara Ireland Stone’s Every Last Word is the treasure chest. Sometimes our societal image of OCD fixates on the “obvious” symptoms: counting, obsessive washing, rituals that play out in public. Though Samantha’s OCD is easier to hide, her life is slowly and carefully imploding. She is one of the It Girls of her school, popular, impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place, and yet plagued by obsessive thoughts, worries, and rituals that control her entire life. When Sam discovers a secret poetry club at school and a new group of friends, she’s forced outside her comfort zone and begins to reevaluate the clash of her internal life and her external life. Every Last Word will especially appeal to readers who love books about girls navigating tricky friendships and the perils of mental illness.
–Katherine Locke, author of Second Position
The Distance From A to Z, by Natalie Blitt
Natalie Blitt’s The Distance From A to Z is a charming contemporary romance about french and baseball (MAIS OUI!). It also feature a wonderful secondary character with anxiety, and a bi main character. It’s a sweet and funny romance—just perfect for the summer.
–Heidi Heilig, author of The Girl From Everywhere
My Heart and Other Black Holes, by Jasmine Warga
My Heart and Other Black Holes does so many things right, so I’ll keep myself to one. In reading an honest, unflinching tale of a teen suicide pact, I expected to cry. (I did.) I did not, however, expect to laugh out loud. (I did.) Jasmine Warga deftly adds a dark humor that provides both levity and a truthful portrayal of how many of us process our mental health. In this book as in life, the struggles within are often not funny at all. But sometimes? Being able to see the irony and absurdism of our depression can poke tiny holes in its power. I’m grateful for a book that captures this nuance so artfully.
–Emery Lord, author of When We Collided
OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu
OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu is the best representation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I’ve come across in YA lit. Haydu smashes OCD stereotypes and presents a real, raw look at the myriad of ways OCD actually manifests. She creates full, round characters who are so much more than the disorder that at times takes over their lives, and weaves an unconventional, yet believable, romance that will have readers rooting for a happily ever after.
–Rena Olsen, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of The Girl Before
Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson
If you want to read a gripping portrayal of a girl with anorexia, check out Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls. As someone who struggled with body image and eating disorders throughout high school, I can tell you having anorexia is usually about more than trying to lose weight. Often it’s about feeling overwhelmed and powerless, about seizing one tiny bit of control in an otherwise out-of-control world. In Wintergirls, food is not just something to be avoided—food is the enemy. The main character, Lia, feels completely authentic, from her obsessive thoughts, to her manipulative tendencies, to her self-destructive behaviors. Eating disorders are dark and chilling things, and Laurie Halse Anderson does not hold back.
–Paula Stokes, author of Girl Against the Universe
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
One of the reasons I love Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is its depiction of anxiety. College freshman Cath Avery is anxious about navigating campus life alone after her twin sister, Wren, decides they needed some space. She’s anxious about screwing up. She’s anxious about her father—who has mental health issues of his own—being able to care for himself with his daughters away at school. Anxiety is a constant hum inside Cath’s head, except when she’s in her safest space: the world of Simon Snow fanfiction. Online, Cath is confident and driven. Her real-world self has yet to catch up. I really admire how Rowell captured that feeling on the page.
–Kathryn Holmes, author of How it Feels to Fly
Damsel Distressed, by Kelsey Macke
Damsel Distressed by Kelsey Macke nails the experience of living with depression, the complicated and heart-shattering head space that can lead to self-harm, and trying to claw your way back to some sense of normalcy. With unflinching honesty, Macke shows that while depression is not truly cured, life doesn’t just go on after hitting rock bottom—there’s potential to positively thrive.
–Michelle Smith, author of Play On
Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman
Neal Schusterman’s Challenger Deep is a brilliantly crafted peek into a boy’s schizophrenic mind. What makes this story vividly real is the portrayal of paranoia and the gentle acceptance of there being two realities. One scene in particular—when Caden calls his doctor “Captain,” showing that his realities were intermingling—struck me like a lightning bolt.
–Beth Revis, author of A World Without You
Wild Awake, by Hilary T. Smith
Kiri is a brilliant pianist whose major concern is preparing for a huge competition, until a major family secret is revealed and it throws her for a loop. Suddenly, everything seems different and less important and her life feels completely changed; she wants new things, new people, and new experiences, and watching her chase them is exhilarating. By the time the reader realizes something is seriously wrong, Kiri has descended into an episode that neither she nor anyone else understands. This book brilliantly explores family, friendship, first love, creativity, and mania. We need all types of mental health books in YA: we need books that focus on diagnosis and treatment and we also need books like Wild Awake—books that show what mental illnesses feel like.
–Ally Watkins, Librarian and Co-Coordinator of MHYALit