Suicide and depression are two passion topics for me. Part of it is that I’m someone who suffers from depression — something I haven’t talked openly about because it’s very hard to talk openly about — and part of it is that when I was in high school, I knew more than one person who committed suicide. Though none of the people who did were close to me, those deaths still had an impact on me. Maybe what’s most vivid about them is how much silence had to surround them; the school shut down all avenues of grieving or discussion, with the thought that keeping quiet about what happened would prevent it from happening again. Whether or not that’s true or was the right choice is hard to say.
Having worked with teens in the library, I know too well that suicide is something they experience in their lives, and it’s something that stays with them forever. Though they’re not one in the same, suicide and depression can often go hand-in-hand, so in many ways, it makes sense to talk about them in tandem.
Last fall, I put together a resource and discussion guide to suicide and depression, which included a hefty reading list. I didn’t think about forthcoming titles much when I put it together, but over the last few months, I’ve noticed a steady increase in the number of YA titles that are exploring suicide head-on.
It’s interesting to think about publishing trends in YA and what it is that might drive them. Without any research at all, I can call up 4 or 5 YA titles publishing between the start of the year and end of February where suicide is a major — if not the major — theme. While we know contemporary realistic YA has been in an upswing lately, what is it that made suicide bubble up as a common theme?
My guess, at least in part, is the perennial popularity of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why has spurred an interest in finding similar titles. Asher’s been a marvelous advocate for teens, and his book has been a staple of bestseller lists for years.
I’m generally not someone who needs trigger warnings for reading material. Dark books work really well for me, since so often, they’re at an extreme where I don’t feel the need to ever look at my own life or experiences and try to compare. It’s easy to disconnect myself from the story and look at it as story. Other readers are far more sensitive than I am to tough topics, and for them, knowing ahead of time helps them make an informed decision about whether or not a book is the right read for them. It’s not about censorship, but about making an intelligent personal choice.
But something’s changed recently, and I find myself almost needing to know a book is tackling the topic of suicide before I go into it. Not a trigger warning, per se, but I’ve found this is a topic I’m no longer able to read as easily as I used to. Maybe it’s having seen first hand with teens today how hard it is to deal with. Maybe it’s coming to terms with my reading preferences and habits and understanding this topic isn’t one that is enjoyable to me as a reader. Part of it may also be that my own thoughts and beliefs behind suicide don’t always mirror the way it’s presented in fiction, which comes as a result of being someone who struggles with an illness that has left me with uncomfortable, complicated, and messy feelings on the topic.
In other words, it turns out this isn’t a topic I can divorce myself and my own experiences from when I’m reading.
One of the best things about reading and talking about books is being able to put up a lens to your own biases. You discover new pages in your own story and in your own thinking that you didn’t realize were there before. Sometimes, you discover that what you thought you knew about yourself and your reading habits aren’t that at all; sometimes you discover your habits and preferences simply change and evolve as you grow and evolve. Where mental health books are still a deep and heavy part of my reading life — a topic I seek out and am always eager to read, think, and talk about — suicide is my wading zone. I need to know what’s out there, I need to give some of them a chance, but I don’t need to invest all of my time and energy into them when they don’t give back to me. They are, in many ways, like cancer books for me. A good premise can and does change my mind, but ultimately as a theme, it’s one I don’t seek out even though I’m seeing it with more frequency.
While I’m no longer working in libraries with teens, thinking about how to share these titles with teens never strays from my mind. Last spring when a teen shared that her friend had committed suicide, I knew I needed to pull out books that might help those in the community grapple with their feelings. But rather than develop a “suicide books” display, I pulled together a larger display on hard topics in realistic fiction, which included mental health, sexual assault, eating disorders, suicide, and more. It felt too on-the-nose, too prying, to build around suicide specifically, even though books on suicide were — and are! — exactly what teens sometimes need and sometimes just want. It’s not that the topic is sexy to them, and in many cases it’s not something even relevant to their lives, but rather, it’s fascinating. It’s fresh to them.
I’m curious if anyone else has noticed this uptick in suicide titles and if so, what do you make of it? What sort of opportunities or challenges do these books, when presented in a trend-like wave, present? More, I’m interested in hearing about your own reading biases and experiences with them — and I’m curious how it is you’re talking with teens about them.
If you’re curious about specific titles, here are a handful of suicide-themed YA books out in the first few months of the year. Descriptions are from WorldCat, and if you know of others out early this year, feel free to leave them in the comments, too.
All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven: Told in alternating voices, when Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school–both teetering on the edge–it’s the beginning of an unlikely relationship, a journey to discover the “natural wonders” of the state of Indiana, and two teens’ desperate desire to heal and save one another
The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand: After her younger brother, Tyler, commits suicide, Lex struggles to work through her grief in the face of a family that has fallen apart, the sudden distance between her and her friends, and memories of Tyler that still feel all too real.
When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez: Elizabeth Davis and Emily Delgado seem to have little in common except Ms. Diaz’s English class and the solace they find in the words of Emily Dickinson, but both are struggling to cope with monumental secrets and tumultuous emotions that will lead one to attempt suicide.
I Was Here by Gayle Forman: In an attempt to understand why her best friend committed suicide, eighteen-year-old Cody Reynolds retraces her dead friend’s footsteps and makes some startling discoveries.
My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga: Seventeen-year-old Aysel’s hobby–planning her own death–take a new path when she meets a boy who has similar plan of his own.
Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff: After his best friend, Hayden, commits, suicide, fifteen-year-old Sam is determined to find out why–using the clues in the playlist Hayden left for him.
These next two books — which I just finished back to back– have been really enjoyable but both also included suicide in them. Knowing that won’t change your experience with either, since it’s not integral to the plot, but seeing it pop up in consecutive reads when this was already on my mind was jarring.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman: A teenage boy struggles with schizophrenia. (I hope they end up saying more than that in later descriptions, as this one doesn’t come out until April).
I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios: Skylar Evans, seventeen, yearns to escape Creek View by attending art school, but after her mother’s job loss puts her dream at risk, a rekindled friendship with Josh, who joined the Marines to get away then lost a leg in Afghanistan, and her job at the Paradise motel lead her to appreciate her home town.