Twenty-five years ago, very little in children’s literature dealt accurately and sensitively with mental illness as experienced by young main characters themselves or within their families. Today, there are many hundreds of books with more and more coming out that do just that. But given that mental illness affects one out of every six children, and one out of every five adults --- many of whom are parents and caretakers of young readers --- stigma keeps that number woefully low.
Fellow author Dr. Nancy Bo Flood and I have been tracking traditionally published young adult and middle-grade novels, as well as picture books, that accurately and responsibly portray mental illness and let readers know they are not alone. The stories we love and recommend largely avoid tropes and stereotypes, and model characters who:
seek and receive professional care,
enjoy at least some family and community support, and
ultimately cope effectively.
Here are three outstanding examples we’ve recently added to our list.
1. YA novel When We Were Infinite (Simon & Schuster, 2021) by Kelly Loy Gilbert stars seventeen-year-old Beth, a high-achieving Silicon Valley high school senior, savoring the last months with her core group of best friends, all of whom are Asian-American. (Beth’s MIA father is white and her mother, Asian-American.) The five friends play in a regional youth symphony orchestra, make excellent grades in AP classes, and are applying to top US universities. Until Jason—the one Beth’s in love with—begins to crumble under abuse at home along with the intense pressures, sliding into depression and suicidality. Beth, who has always suffered from anxiety, begins her own downward spiral and painful and bumpy journey back to health. This gorgeously-written story plumbs the depths of young love, loss, intense friendships, and family—while eloquently exploring teen anxiety, depression, and suicidality.
2. Middle-grade novel, A Thousand Minutes to Sunlight by Jennifer White (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 2021) is a gentle story about family and friendship. Main character eleven-year-old Cora is struggling with: the loss of her best friend who just moved away; difficulty making new friends; a new "forced-friend"; outgoing younger sister Sunshine who eclipses Cora; family substance-abuse issues; and most of all, with Cora’s debilitating anxiety as evidenced by her snarky brain with its own negative, defeating, and intrusive voice.
Cora focuses on minutes and seconds as a coping mechanism. The matter-of-fact and ultimately effective treatment of her mental illness by her therapist, and the support from her family and school (mostly) are realistic and reassuring, sensitively portrayed, and a triumphant window and mirror into living with mental illness for all kids. A sub-plot involving an alcoholic uncle whose return disrupts the family, but with whom Cora has some things in common, adds more dimension.
3. Last but not least, middle-grade novel Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial Books, 2020) won a 2021 Newbery Honor. Protagonist ten-year-old Della, short for Delicious—has a problem with swearing. Her beloved sixteen-year-old older sister, Suki, instructs her to use “snow” instead of cursing, as in, “don’t you take snow from nobody.” Their substance-abusing, incarcerated mother is, according to Della, “no better than a hamster,” and the sisters are in foster care together.
This book adroitly reveals the crippling effects of long-term sexual abuse, including depression, self-harm, a suicide attempt, and psychiatric hospitalization. But it’s Suki who suffers most of this and Della who becomes aware of it. It’s written with nothing graphic, great warmth, and laugh-out-loud humor—for me, always a plus. Best of all, Della and Suki are up against formidable circumstances yet manage to seek out and then advocate for life-saving support from adults and professionals. It’s an excellent example of how therapeutic care can empower characters to change internally, break their isolation, find their voice, and use it. Readers can follow suit.
Ann Jacobus earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is the author of YA novels Romancing the Dark in the City of Light and the forthcoming The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent. She teaches writing at Stanford Continuing Education, is a suicide crisis-line counselor, and her and Dr. Flood’s article, “Writing the Story of Mental Illness for Young Readers,” will be in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) journal, The Chronicle, in April 2022. Find her at annjacobus.com