Here’s what happened over at Book Riot this week . . .
- 3 On A YA Theme: I talked about the YA books that were turned into films which you can watch on Netflix streaming (if you’re in the US). I’ll be back next week with three-ish additional titles.
Here’s what happened over at Book Riot this week . . .
The two final paragraphs from this blog post really resonated with me last week when I read them. Everyone knows mental illness exists, everyone knows that the effects of mental illness can be terrible, and yet, people don’t want to talk about it. It’s not a pleasant topic, but it’s one that needs to be addressed and needs to be approached with more honesty and compassion.
Over the last year, depression and suicide have seen more time in the spotlight. Ned Vizzini’s suicide, followed by Robin Williams’s — and the near 40,000 suicides that happen per year in the US — make it clear we need to be talking about this more. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America. While depression is not indicative of suicide, the two are linked together in a way that makes talking about them in tandem make sense.
There’s a mythology that surrounds depression and suicide, particularly when it comes to creative types. It’s a mythology that’s exceptionally destructive and belittling to all those who suffer from mental illness, and it’s this: that that anguish is what causes the best work to happen.
Following Williams’s death, I read the comment far too often that creative people are most likely to suffer because that suffering is where art is born. It tends to be the complete opposite. Creative types don’t see depression as what drives them. The best work isn’t made when they’re down, but rather, when artists are up. When down and the work isn’t coming together, it actually further fuels the depression/anxiety cycle, making it even more difficult to create and engage in a healthy way. Myra McEntire and Stephanie Perkins have both written about this and the ways that depression has impacted not just their careers, but their personal lives, as well.
Part of why people believe and engage in this myth telling is because it’s easier than trying to make sense of an illness that often doesn’t appear to have a root cause. How could someone talented or successful be depressed? How can someone who seems to have it all together find it difficult to get out of bed, to take a shower, to want to talk with the people who love and care about them? When people choose to look at an illness through that set of lenses, they blame the victim, rather than educate themselves on the disease.
When we do that, we further stigmatize those who are suffering from depression, making them less likely to seek treatment or practice necessary self-care and preservation.
One of the most memorable moments of my career in librarianship came at the very end. I’ve worked with teens for many years, and one of the reasons I like working with them and advocating for them is because they’re far more likely to be open minded and receptive to ideas and tough discussions than adults can be. But nothing really got to me and emphasized the importance of having resources available — and being a resource myself through listening, advocating, and being in tune with the array of challenges teens face — than when a teen got up during one of our programs and delivered a piece of slam poetry about a friend.
She’d been quiet during the event. Her cousin had been urging her to get up in front of the (small) group of mostly adults and some teens who’d come to the program. She’d written something while listening to other performances, and her cousin really hoped she’d share.
After she performed the piece, she stood at the front and accepted the audience applause shyly. But she didn’t leave the front of the room. She stood there, as if she needed to say more or explain what her piece was about. With more encouragement from her family, she explained that her friend had committed suicide just days ago, and the piece was a tribute to her friend.
The room went silent. People didn’t try to distract themselves. They sat. They’d heard exactly what she said and took it in, thinking about not just what that meant on a grand level, but what it meant right here and right now for a young teen girl to get up and express her feelings about the situation while the wounds were so fresh. What do you do with that? What can you do with that?
When the event was over, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t approach her, offering kind words or a hug. Many had said something after they’d collected themselves, encouraging her never to stop working through her feelings with words like she’d just done. And that she’d done so openly.
I put together a display in the teen area the next day of books about “tough issues”: realistic fiction tackling mental illness and suicide. I knew if one girl who was hurting, others were, too. The books did not last long on the display. People were looking for these stories. And as I saw again on social media in the wake of Williams’s suicide, people were asking for books about depression and suicide. Books and art, of course, are ways into talking about mental illness and suicide, as they allow a space for thinking, for considering, and for making sense of them privately.
That’s why hearing a teen girl sharing a poem about it left such an impact. She shared.
With that, here’s a thick list of YA titles that explore depression and/or suicide. Again, these aren’t inextricably linked: one can be depressed and never suicidal, while one can be suicidal and it’s not borne of depression. Likewise, depression is often linked to other mental illness, but I’ve tried to focus on those stories where depression is the primary force. I’ve limited myself to realistic fiction, but feel free to offer up additional titles within any genre of YA in the comments. These stories focus on depression and/or suicide from a wide array of perspectives.
All descriptions are from WorldCat. A handful of additional titles, which I’ve not included on my list, can be found at Disability in KidLit.
I Swear by Lane Davis: After Leslie Gatlin kills herself, her bullies reflect on how things got so far.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher: When high school student Clay Jenkins receives a box in the mail containing thirteen cassette tapes recorded by his classmate Hannah, who committed suicide, he spends a bewildering and heartbreaking night crisscrossing their town, listening to Hannah’s voice recounting the events leading up to her death.
Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta: Sixteen-year-old Francesca could use her outspoken mother’s help with the problems of being one of a handful of girls at a parochial school that has just turned co-ed, but her mother has suddenly become severely depressed.
Fat Kid Rules The World by K. L. Going: Seventeen-year-old Troy, depressed, suicidal, and weighing nearly 300 pounds, gets a new perspective on life when a homeless teenager who is a genius on guitar wants Troy to be the drummer in his rock band.
Hold Still by Nina LaCour: Ingrid didn’t leave a note. Three months after her best friend’s suicide, Caitlin finds what she left instead: a journal, hidden under Caitlin’s bed.
Impulse by Ellen Hopkins: Three teens who meet at Reno, Nevada’s Aspen Springs mental hospital after each has attempted suicide connect with each other in a way they never have with their parents or anyone else in their lives.
By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters: High school student Daelyn Rice, who’s been bullied throughout her school career and has more than once attempted suicide, again makes plans to kill herself, in spite of the persistent attempts of an unusual boy to draw her out.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick: A day in the life of a suicidal teen boy saying good-bye to the four people who matter most to him.
This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales: Nearly a year after a failed suicide attempt, sixteen-year-old Elise discovers that she has the passion, and the talent, to be a disc jockey.
The Death of Jayson Porter by Jaime Adoff: In the Florida projects, sixteen-year-old Jayson struggles with the harsh realities of his life which include an abusive mother, a drug-addicted father, and not fitting in at his predominately white school, and bring him to the brink of suicide.
Survive by Alex Morel: A troubled girl is stranded in an arctic winter terrain after a plane crash and must fight for survival with the only other boy left alive.
Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard: The summer Ryan is released from a mental hospital following his suicide attempt, he meets Nicki, who gets him to share his darkest secrets while hiding secrets of her own.
And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard: Sent to an Amherst, Massachusetts, boarding school after her ex-boyfriend shoots himself, seventeen-year-old Emily expresses herself through poetry as she relives their relationship, copes with her guilt, and begins to heal.
Crash Into Me by Albert Borris: Four suicidal teenagers go on a “celebrity suicide road trip,” visiting the graves of famous people who have killed themselves, with the intention of ending their lives in Death Valley, California.
Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams: Living with their mother who earns money as a prostitute, two sisters take care of each other and when the older one attempts suicide, the younger one tries to uncover the reason.
Fall For Anything by Courtney Summers: As she searches for clues that would explain the suicide of her successful photographer father, Eddie Reeves meets the strangely compelling Culler Evans who seems to know a great deal about her father and could hold the key to the mystery surrounding his death.
Saving June by Hannah Harrington: After her sister’s suicide, Harper Scott takes off for California with her best friend Laney to scatter her sister’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean.
Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford: Brimming with sarcasm, fifteen-year-old Jeff describes his stay in a psychiatric ward after attempting to commit suicide.
Blackbox by Julie Schumacher: When Dora, Elena’s older sister, is diagnosed with depression and has to be admitted to the hospital, Elena can’t seem to make sense of their lives anymore. At school, the only people who acknowledge Elena are Dora’s friends and Jimmy Zenk–who failed at least one grade and wears black every day of the week. And at home, Elena’s parents keep arguing with each other. Elena will do anything to help her sister get better and get their lives back to normal–even when the responsibility becomes too much to bear.
Everything Is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis: When her father leaves for a job out of town, Mazzy is left at home to try to cope with her mother, who has been severely depressed since the death of Mazzy’s baby sister.
Silhouetted By The Blue by Traci L. Jones: After the death of her mother in an automobile accident, seventh-grader Serena, who has gotten the lead in her middle school play, is left to handle the day-to-day challenges of caring for herself and her younger brother when their father cannot pull himself out of his depression.
Drowning Instinct by Ilsa J. Bick: An emotionally damaged sixteen-year-old girl begins a relationship with a deeply troubled older man.
Get Well Soon by Julie Halpern: When her parents confine her to a mental hospital, an overweight teenaged girl, who suffers from panic attacks, describes her experiences in a series of letters to a friend.
Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith: The discovery of a startling family secret leads seventeen-year-old Kiri Byrd from a protected and naive life into a summer of mental illness, first love, and profound self-discovery. *Read Hilary’s guest post on mental illness in YA fiction, too, while you’re at it.
Crazy by Amy Reed: Connor and Izzy, two teens who met at a summer art camp in the Pacific Northwest where they were counselors, share a series of emails in which they confide in one another, eventually causing Connor to become worried when he realizes that Izzy’s emotional highs and lows are too extreme. This book deals with bipolar disorder.
Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang (September 9): One cold fall day, high school junior Liz Emerson steers her car into a tree. This haunting and heartbreaking story is told by a surprising and unexpected narrator and unfolds in nonlinear flashbacks even as Liz’s friends, foes, and family gather at the hospital and Liz clings to life.
In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how I enjoy getting my nonfiction via graphic novel, and I read two spectacular ones over this past weekend. Coincidentally (or maybe not), they were both graphic memoirs about growing up as a girl in America.
Liz Prince’s Tomboy addresses this topic a bit more bluntly than Telgemeier’s Sisters does. Prince characterizes her identity as a tomboy as something she knew from almost the moment of birth, though she didn’t know how to articulate it right away. She hates wearing dresses, enjoys playing sports, doesn’t play with dolls, and looks down upon the “girly girls” who dress up like princesses and seem obsessed with makeup. The book takes Liz from her infancy up through her adolescence and into her later teen years, tackling friendship, bullying, dating, and other rites of passage. While it focuses primarily on Liz’s struggle with her gender identity, the book is also a story about family and art, much like Sisters is.
Liz’s preferred method of gender expression didn’t make things easy for her. While attending Catholic school, she was forced to wear a dress for monthly mass, and it was tortuous. She was teased a lot, called derogatory names, accused of being a boy or a lesbian (and these were definitely accusations from her tormentors), and never felt she fit in. She wanted so desperately to be “one of the boys,” but the boys wouldn’t ever allow it, and of course, she never felt like she fit in with the girls.
Savvy readers will pick up on the fact that Liz herself pigeonholes people, buying into the very system that she rails against. At one point, she reads about a girl in a magazine who describes herself as a tomboy, but this girl wears a pretty dress to go on a date with a boy, and Liz instantly decides this makes the girl not a real tomboy. Liz puts boys on a pedestal, believing their interests and values are more worthy of respect than girls’ interests and values, and this is part of what drives her desire to not be a girl.
Near the end of the book, Liz meets Harley, a woman who forces her to realize that she’s unwittingly become a part of the problem, too. She’s placed boys in one homogenous group and girls in another. Through Harley’s guidance (plus Harley’s encouragement of Liz’s artistic skills), Liz learns to see herself as a girl and embrace that identity, even if she doesn’t express that identity in traditional ways. This realization opens a door for Liz, allowing her to finally accept herself and settle into a personal identity that brings some happiness rather than discontent.
While both Sisters and Tomboy are about growing up as girls, they’re also about growing up as girls who like comics. These kinds of books are especially important for artistic girls who have a passion for these kinds of things that are often relegated to the field of “boys’ interests.” I can just imagine a pre-teen or teenager becoming inspired by Raina or Liz, seeing them struggle and emerge victorious. After all, the books are proof of the victory!
This should resonate with teens who struggle with gender non-conformity,
even in relatively minor ways, and get them to think more deeply
about the damage caused when we label people as one thing or another. Fitting in is the perennial topic for teens’ books, and for many, it’s a struggle that dominates their lives for years. Finding your place, your people, your passion is hard, especially when it seems everyone is out to stop you from doing it. Even those teens who express their gender in traditional ways usually have trouble fitting in elsewhere, and consequently, they should have no trouble relating in some way to Liz’s story.
Liz’s age through most of the book, the themes addressed, plus some minor swearing and drug use make this a memoir best suited for teens. When Liz finally finds her people near the end and is able to develop her passion for comics, it’s a gratifying moment. I think it’s a moment that happens to a lot of teens right around the time it happened to Liz. It gives the book a nice coming-of-age arc and provides satisfying closure. This is a stellar example of what the graphic format can do – it’s accessible, insightful, and fun to read. Highly recommended.
Finished copy provided by the publisher. Tomboy is available September 2.
I’ve found that I prefer my nonfiction in unconventional mediums – via audio, in short snippets on the web, or in graphic novel format. This past weekend, I dug into two stellar graphic memoirs, both of which tackled growing up as a girl in America: Sisters by Raina Telgemeier and Tomboy by Liz Prince. I planned to review both in this post, but because I love you, dear readers, I’ve split them into two posts (I got a little wordy, as often happens). Come back tomorrow for a discussion of Tomboy.
Sisters is a companion book to Smile and tells the story of a summer road trip taken by Raina, her little sister Amara, her little brother Will, and her mother. They drove from California to Colorado to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins when Raina was around 14. Interspersed among the events of the road trip are musings on Raina’s initial desire to have a little sister – and the reasons Raina felt this was a terrible mistake once it actually happened.
The book focuses mainly on Raina’s relationship with Amara, covering the road trip in a linear way and flashing back to various other moments in time: Amara’s birth, Amara as a toddler, Will’s birth, and so on. Every girl’s relationship with her sister is different, but they almost all share that lovely combination of love and intense dislike. Sometimes your sister will be your best friend; sometimes she’ll be your arch enemy. If you’re lucky, by the time you’re both adults, you’re solidly on the friend track most of the time. When you’re both kids, though, it’s an uneven, rocky trail.
Telgemeier rounds out the story with a few other elements: Raina’s relationship with her cousins (not great), her parents’ relationship with each other, her father being laid off, her interest in comics, and so on. There’s a great scene between Raina and her older male cousins where Raina expresses her interest in drawing comics, naming some of her favorite strips (For Better or for Worse, Foxtrot), and her cousins laugh it off as “not real comics” (like Batman or Hulk, according to them). This is such a simple and realistic way to address sexism in comics and how difficult finding and advocating for your passion can be when you’re a kid. I’ve no doubt that a conversation much like this actually happened.
As a child who went on numerous summer road trips with a brother and a little sister to visit cousins who weren’t always so nice to me, this was instantly relatable. It’s also funny. I laughed out loud at the story Telgemeier tells of her little sister’s pet snake getting loose in the van and living for days without dying or being caught (Raina is, of course, terrified of snakes, and Amara uses this against her). I have stories like this from my own family’s road trips, too. One of my parents’ favorite stories of sibling bickering on road trips involves one kid telling a parent about another kid: “Mom, she’s looking out my window!” (Apparently, we felt that we not only had our own seats in the minivan, we also had our own specific windows.) It’s funny now, but I know we were dead serious then.
Telgemeier has a magical way of making the mundane seem extraordinary. Nothing that happens is fantastical or unusual, but it’s riveting anyway. It should speak quite strongly to big sisters who look on their little sisters with equal parts fondness and aggravation (and vice versa!), bringing to light that contradictory fact that you can love someone and hate her at the same time. There are insights about love and kindness, sure, but it’s not saccharine and she never hits the reader over the head with a Message.
Telgemeier traffics in nostalgia for adults my age – there are references to battery-run Walkmans and a conspicuous absence of the internet or cell phones – but doesn’t allow the book to wallow in it. This is still a book for kids who are kids right now – kids who are forced into close proximity with their siblings who they may not have a lot in common with for a long period of time, whether that’s on a road trip or sharing a bedroom or enforced “family game nights.” It’s about how you get along (or don’t) with the people life has thrown at you through no fault of your own. It’s a lovely middle grade memoir about family with Telgemeier’s trademark expressive, cartoon-style art, and it should find a wide audience.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Sisters is available today.