Welcome to another edition of YAs That Get it Right, which is all about YA books that truly nail an element of the teen experience. Last time, we focused on the mental health issue of anxiety. This time around, we’re focusing on another highly common mental health issue that’s only come to be discussed somewhat openly in the past few years: depression. One thing I love about the YA community is how outspoken mental health advocates from all over the industry are about their experiences, and I’ve asked a collection of those people to discuss the books that really resonated with them. Here’s what they came up with.
Imagine Us Happy, by Jennifer Yu
One of the central thoughts I had while editing Imagine Us Happy was how perfectly Jen Yu conveys the experience of living with depression. While this is a wonderful nonlinear story about a first love falling apart, it’s also an expert portrayal of how mental health issues can impact a person’s life. There’s one line where main character Stella describes feeling like there’s a black hole in the center of her stomach that spoke to my personal experiences with depression in a way I’d never encountered before, and it stayed with me long after I finished the book.
—T.S. Ferguson, editor at Harlequin Teen
We Are Okay, by Nina LaCour
Depression is difficult to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. Luckily, there are books like Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay. I want to press this book into the hands of everyone I know. Those who suffer from depression will find comfort here; others will find the seeds of empathy. Yes, this is a story about depression and grief, and the insidious ways they can take root in you, changing you into someone you don’t recognize. But it’s also a story about love, hope, and the small kindnesses we can offer to help each other through dark times. This is an extraordinary and important book.
Little & Lion, by Brandy Colbert
Depression can also come in the form of depressive episodes. In Little & Lion, Suzette comes home from boarding school where she was sent after her stepbrother, Lionel, was diagnosed with bipolar type II disorder the year before. Colbert gives a well-rounded view of depressive symptoms, capturing the nuances through showing rather than telling, but the story of loved ones trying to walk the line between helping and harming will resonate with readers just as much.
—Nena Boling-Smith, creator of Down to Utopia
Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta
I think Marchetta expertly depicts not just how depression affects one person, but how it spreads its tendrils out and affects the lives of everyone connected to that person. How battling depression isn’t something you have to do alone. It was a tough call between this, The Piper’s Son, which isn’t formally depression but felt like a really accurate portrayal of depression to me, and Cracked Up To Be. I think Melina Marchetta, Courtney Summers, and Hannah Moskowitz are like my YA Holy Trinity.
Definitions of Indefinable Things, by Whitney Taylor
Besides being a generally awesome book with great romance, Definitions of Indefinable Things has some of the best depression rep I’ve ever seen, starting with the title. I often find I can’t articulate why I’m depressed or how it makes me feel. Reggie, the main character, gets that. The depression in this book isn’t flowery or symbolic. It’s real and brutal. So many experiences Reggie has are true to life: she takes medication, her mother doesn’t believe her depression is a real illness, sometimes she has days where she can’t get out of bed. There’s an awesome romance without the idea that “love cures all” that manages to be hopeful while being completely accurate. I love it.
—Camryn Garrett, author of the upcoming Full Disclosure
None of the Above, by I.W. Gregorio
None of the Above brings depression onto the page while also navigating gender, identity, and inner strength. Krissy Lattimer is a senior who has everything she ever wanted; she’s a top athlete, has a great boyfriend and wonderful friends, and is voted homecoming queen. Yet after mysterious pains and seeing a doctor, Krissy learns she is intersex. The novel pulls no punches in the bullying and harassment that follow after she is outed to her high school, and the depression that follows that. I found Krissy’s depression highly relatable and realistic, and I.W. Gregorio gets it absolutely on the head, discussing Krissy’s inner thoughts, her nervousness about seeking help, and getting to see her navigate support groups and sessions with a therapist. None of the Above is a powerful book that ultimately follows a girl who finds courage to move forward, build new friendships, reconnect with old friends, and form strong relationships.
—C.B. Lee, author of Not Your Sidekick
Vampire Academy, by Richelle Mead
When I was younger, I really struggled with depression. At the time, mental illnesses were often brushed off by my family as “white people problems,” so though I knew I was really, really sad, I didn’t know what depression was—I had no idea how to begin to talk about it. I was also obsessed with vampires. There was something about their tortured souls that spoke to me, a girl so in tune with my melancholic emotions and so aware of my own mortality. I fell in love with Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy at just the right time. It was the first in the teen vampire series of my dreams, and one of its main characters, Vasilisa “Lissa” Dragomir (which is a beyond cool name), was depressed. She has this power no one else had that emotionally drained her, it caused her to turn to self-harm and self-loathing, and she was really, really sad and kept it all to herself because, like me, there was just so much else going on—she told everyone she was “fine.” She didn’t want to be a burden. I could never read realistic stories about a teen suffering with depression—they were often too painful to get through and the ones that existed when I was younger often ended with the teen dying. Seeing Lissa overcome her struggles in Vampire Academy gave me hope. It encouraged me to open up to friends and family about my own struggles, and I eventually went to therapy. It’s why I write and edit books like it—books that are like gummy vitamins—they appeal to the teen I once was, who just wanted a book about best friends who were vampires and ended up saving their own lives.
—Patrice Caldwell, writer, Associate Editor at Disney-Hyperion, and Founder & Fundraising Chair of People of Color in Publishing
Suicide Notes, by Michael Thomas Ford
The thing about depression is that it’s different for everyone, and even for one person it isn’t the same every day. Suicide Notes portrays this perfectly—the ups and downs, the confusion, the uncertainty, and even the bouts of denial. And Michael Thomas Ford does all of this with a healthy dose of humor that never detracts from the story, but only amplifies it. Whether depression is something you’ve dealt with or not, this is a book that can open your eyes to what it can mean to be clinically depressed.
—Michael Strother, editor
This is Not A Test and Please Remain Calm, by Courtney Summers
On the morning Sloane planned to die by suicide, the infected begin to overrun her small town. She and six other students hole up in their high school, desperate to survive—only Sloane isn’t sure she wants to survive. The first time I picked up This is Not A Test, I put it down because Sloane’s depression felt too close. Summers nails Sloane’s sense of hopelessness, how impossible it feels to keep going, keep being. How all the color feels leached out of the world, replaced by gray. Summers’ vision of the infected and their grasping, insatiable hunger are a powerful, terrifying metaphor. The second time I picked it up, I couldn’t put the book—then its companion, Please Remain Calm—down because I so desperately wanted Sloane to be okay. Not just to survive the zombies, but to make the decision to keep going, keep fighting, as so many of us who struggle with depression do.
—Jessica Spotswood, author of The Last Summer of the Garrett Girls
The Memory of Light, by Francisco M. Stork
That’s right. I’m not really here. I died last night and this is just a dream. That’s a good way to put up with life while you have to. It’s just a dream.
Because I wrote a book about a teen girl with depression, my inbox is often full of tender, touching, and sad messages from young readers who also live with depression. The number one question, or complaint (ha!) is, “Why didn’t you write more about Charlie being in the hospital?”
In my book, I tried to focus more on what happens to Charlie after her stint in Creeley. But there are books that do explore the environment within a psychiatric hospital in more depth, like Francisco M. Stork’s powerful and criminally overlooked The Memory of Light.
Vicky Cruz is sixteen when she attempts suicide by swallowing pills. She wakes up in Lakeview, surrounded by a richly imagined cast of kids that includes her roommate, Mona, a ball of energy who refers to their kind as “us mentals.” The brilliance of Stork’s book is in the details of what happens “after” Vicky’s attempt: this is a book about the hard road to recovery, through hospitalization, group therapy, and putting one foot in front of the other. It’s about talking about it with the help of doctors, in a safe environment, with other kids enduring the same struggle to live. Stork sensitively writes about bipolar disorder, anger management, and teen suicide. One of the reasons teen readers might thirst for books about mental illness that show the psychiatric hospital atmosphere is a desire to know, “If I go, will I be okay? Will someone care for me?” They need a book that tells them it’s okay to ask for help.
Stork’s book nails this. The Memory of Light is a beautiful, powerful story of a girl learning to live.
—Kathleen Glasgow, author of Girl in Pieces and the upcoming How to Make Friends with the Dark