Welcome to another edition of YAs That Get it Right, which is all about YAs that truly nail an element of the teen experience. This time, we’re talking about an issue that’s close to home for a lot of YA readers: anxiety. People experience anxiety in so many different ways, and no single depiction can possibly capture it for everyone, so I asked a bunch of different people in different spaces in the world of publishing (including authors of a couple of our favorites) to discuss books that nailed the experience for them on a personal level. (And, as you can see, there were a couple of repeat favorites!)
A Quiet Kind of Thunder, by Sara Barnard
A Quiet Kind of Thunder is heartbreaking, beautiful, and so very real. It’s about navigating the messy reality of what it feels like to live with social anxiety. This book is honest about all the ways people try, fail, and succeed to support loved ones living with anxiety, while truly centering Steffi’s story and how she’s affected by the world around her. I absolutely adored her journey toward accepting herself and the way she communicates, while also learning that sometimes the smallest steps can make a world of difference.
—Akemi Dawn Bowman, author of Starfish
The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli
Reading The Upside of Unrequited made me feel seen in ways I had never experienced before. Molly is the character I saw most of my anxious self in as a teen. I think that if sixteen-year-old me had her, she would’ve known that she would be alright and that she is not alone in what she’s feeling. Becky Albertalli does a great job at normalizing anxiety talk in her book, mentioning medication as part of a daily routine, exploring the ups and downs, the struggles as well as the victories. It was a comfort in more ways than one.
—Fadwa, creator of Word Wonders
Without being a book specifically about anxiety, Becky Albertalli’s The Upside of Unrequited is a great look at what life can be like for a person who suffers from it. Molly is on Zoloft, which seems to work pretty well for her, in the sense that while she experiences anxiety, it doesn’t control her life. I love the way the book leaves a bit of breathing room around Molly’s mental illness—it’s a part of her, sure. But it’s not the only part.
—Katie Cotugno, author of Top Ten
The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is one of those rare books that appreciably changed my life. When I read it, my anxiety was suspected but as yet undiagnosed, because I found the prospect of finding a therapist deeply stressful. At the time, I knew about the way a small incident would cause my mood to spiral out of control, but I didn’t know about my social anxiety until I read this book. The book includes multiple therapy sessions, and one of the things Mikey talks to his therapist about is how he believes people, even his best friends, would have more fun if he wasn’t there or secretly don’t like him. This resonated with me powerfully, because that’s always how I’ve felt. I just thought I felt this way because it was true, even once I realized I did have anxiety issues. The revelation that this was actually my anxiety trying to sabotage me was life-changing. While reading books about characters doesn’t replace therapy, it does help. I made so many positive changes to how I lived my life based on the therapy sessions in books like The Rest of Us Just Live Here. It’s a great book for a lot of other reasons, but I love it for this one: for making me feel understood in a way I’d never experienced before.
—Christina Franke, creator of A Reader of Fictions
The Boyfriend List, by E. Lockhart
To be anxious can mean so many things, but admitting that you live as a person with anxiety is a truth that morphs and learns to weigh most heavily on you when the diagnosis is clinical. E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series is a careful, loving, in-your-face exploration of what it means to be young and feeling your mind lead your body on a revolt against itself. It provides both insight for neurotypical readers and a sanctum for the neuroatypical among us. Ruby’s journey shows us the potential for deeper, brighter, and fuller lives.
—Candice Montgomery, author of Home and Away
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
When I picked up this book, the last thing I expected to find was anxiety rep in its pages. I picked up Fangirl because I could relate to the transition from writing fanfiction to writing my own fiction, but then…Cath struggles separating herself from her father and sister. Sometimes, she comes across as surly and she needs to create safe spaces for herself when things get difficult with her Kanye emergency dance parties. All of these things resonated with me and my anxiety. I recognized my own bad-temperedness when my anxiety is on a high in Cath. I saw myself struggling out of my comfort zone because my brain just goes off listing every possible horrible outcome I can have when I read about the struggle Cath was going through with those changes. I treasured the moments when Cath had Kanye emergency dance parties because I also look for a safe space in music or one thing that brings my mind to the here and now. And most of all, this book gave me hope, because Cath marches on with and in spite of her anxiety.
–Mara Delgado, Managing Editor of FORESHADOW
When I first started to experience anxiety, I’d turned to Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl for nothing more than a comforting distraction. Though I’d always adored the story and Cath as a character, I could never relate to her anxiousness, especially her social anxiety—I am a true extrovert at heart. But just as suddenly, I could see myself so clearly in so much of what Cath was going through: her limiting fear of the unknown and of taking risks; her obsession with the thought that she was going “crazy” and was powerless to stop it; her desire to hide away in fictional worlds. It was all there on the page, so viscerally relatable to me. There is one powerful scene in particular, in which Cath escapes to a bathroom stall, granola bar in hand, tears dribbling down her cheeks. Rowell writes Cath’s internal monologue:
“God, she thought. God. Okay. This isn’t that bad. There’s actually nothing wrong, actually. What’s wrong, Cath? Nothing.”
In just a few sentences, Rowell captured exactly what anxiety was like for me, and it’s a depiction we don’t see very often. Anxiety can be such a quiet thing. It doesn’t always come with extreme panic attacks or hard and fast phobias—at least, it didn’t for me. And yet, there it still sometimes is, even when there’s actually nothing wrong, actually. To read such an accurate description of my own experience, and then follow Cath as she worked through it? It was crucial at a time when I was otherwise so lost in my own mind and body.
–Kerri Jarema, Books Writer at Bustle
Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo
My PTSD and my anxiety go hand in hand and present themselves in ways I don’t often see in fictional characters. Kaz in Six of Crows was the first I read whose PTSD and anxiety felt like my own: a need for control, like walking carefully on the edge of a razor. Intrusive thoughts, as if my brain was a spy in my own head, passing me information to tip the scales toward anxiety. Anxiety isn’t always dramatic panic attacks (although I’ve certainly had my share of those): sometimes it’s a quiet violence that feels like it’s stitched along the underside of everything you are. Leigh Bardugo captured that with Kaz, along with the shame that is such a big part of PTSD. Kaz couldn’t let go—as much as he wanted to. Sometimes our brains work against us.
–Olivia A. Cole, author of A Conspiracy of Stars
Queens of Geek, by Jen Wilde
Queens of Geek,by Jen Wilde, is so very loved in the book community. And with reason! It is one of the most fun books out there—one that talks about geek culture, bisexuality, anxiety, the film industry, and more. It’s such a shame that there isn’t moooore to read when you’re done. Because for sure you crave more story with those characters you end up loving so much. (I sure did want more *sobs*) This novel is about fandom. But between the pages of this book you’ll find out it is so much more than that. It’s about three friends, two love stories, and a super cool convention. Charlie, a bisexual vlogger and actress, is there to promote her first indie film, while Taylor, a professional fangirl, is ready to see and support her favorite fantasy series alongside her best friend and crush, Jamie. Taylor is the one with anxiety and the book doesn’t shy away from it. The portrayal of her anxiety has resounded with a lot of readers.
With its beautiful bright pink cover and fabulous synopsis, Queens of Geek enchants you pretty fast even before you open the book. Inside a geek convention many things might occur. Expect romance blooming! Friendships growing! And mentions of your favorite TV shows!
–Silvana Reyes, creator of The Book Voyagers
Isla and the Happily Ever After, by Stephanie Perkins
I was an adult when I read Isla and the Happily Ever After, but it’s a book I desperately needed as a teenager. Growing up, my anxiety made me feel isolated, and it would have meant everything to not just see a character whose anxiety manifested in very similar ways to my own but to read about Isla making friends and finding love and learning to communicate how she felt to the people around her—things that seemed impossible to me back then. All of the books in this series are uniquely atmospheric page-turners full of complex, charming characters, but Isla has a special place in my heart.
—Laura Sebastian, author of Ash Princess
Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now by Dana L. Davis
Tiffany Sly Lives Here Now begins with the titular character’s fear experienced during her first airplane ride, fear that you feel through a careful mix of dialogue, inner turmoil, and soothing words from stranger. From the start, Dana L. Davis’s debut YA contemporary weaves together a complicated story of grief and loss with the complications that come from generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD. Davis states in the Author’s Note that Tiffany’s experiences are based on her own, leading this #OwnVoices book to ring true in a way I don’t see often in YA. Add to this the devastation of entering a new, strict household (with four siblings!), and you get a novel that entertains as it introduces the reader to life with an anxious mind.
—Sierra Elmore, creator of Sierra Writes YA and contributor to YA Pride
Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
I am a fan of John Green’s books and his writing style, so I knew I’d pick up Turtles All the Way Down no matter what it ended up being about. But when I read that Green included his own grappling with mental illness, especially anxiety and OCD, in the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I found it to be one of the most exquisite, authentic, raw, and beautiful explorations of navigating life with anxiety and OCD I’ve ever read. Green’s writing and descriptions of Aza’s rituals, thought patterns, and choices rang true line after line (in fact, it was so good it triggered my anxiety and I had to put it down several times to breathe). Where books with anxious and/or obsessive-compulsive characters too often feel like they’re looking from the outside into the character, and thus carrying a weight of disbelief or judgment, Green’s writing and Aza’s disorders clearly come from the inside out. Even as she’s scooping handfuls of antibiotic hand sanitizer into her mouth, there’s never a feeling in the book that she’s bad or wrong or weird or terrible for this. There’s overwhelming empathy and understanding, as if the narrative reaches out to Aza and the reader and says, “I know. Me, too.” Sometimes you need a book that leads you out of the dark. But sometimes you need a book that sees you first, where you are, even if that place is dark and full of shame and secrets. Turtles flicks on the flashlight and holds out its proverbial hand.
—Katherine Locke, author of The Girl with the Red Balloon
Starfish, by Akemi Dawn Bowman
As a Malaysian reader, it’s not often I see myself in current mainstream YA—in fact, I see glimpses of myself so rarely I’ve generally stopped looking altogether. But Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Starfish made me feel seen in a way I’ve never experienced before. Our worries stem from different places, yet somehow the descriptions of Kiko’s anxiety literally made me feel as if the author had somehow heard all my thoughts and transferred them onto the page. That it’s a beautifully written, utterly gorgeous story is a bonus.
—Hanna Alkaf, author of The Weight of Our Sky (coming in 2019)
How it Ends, by Catherine Lo
What struck me in Lo’s debut, and which I haven’t really had hit me in the same way in any other book, is the way anxiety can take over your life in the way the insecurity it produces can quietly tear friendships apart. The way Jessie imagined people were viewing her, the way she assumed she was being judged, the way she was unable to voice her thoughts and feelings resonated with me so strongly, and watching her friendship with Annie crumble because they weren’t equipped to have the conversations they needed to have was painful to read in large part because it’s so real. This is such an underread book, and it’s a shame because when I read it, all I could think was how many people I knew would see themselves in its pages. So I hope they—you—pick it up now.
—Dahlia Adler, author of Behind the Scenes and blogger at B&N Teen Blog (including this post)