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Barbara Dee: Writing About Mental Health for MG Readers (Bipolar)

If you've been reading recent Middle Grade fiction, you know that the genre is tackling topics previously considered taboo. My own most recent Middle Grades novels have explored sexual orientation (Star-Crossed), pediatric cancer (Halfway Normal), eating disorders (Everything I Know About You), and sexual harassment (Maybe He Just Likes You). To be honest, these books were tough to write. I had to very carefully balance authenticity with age-appropriateness. The books had to do justice to some serious stuff--but also entertain. They couldn't be depressing or scary; they had to be hopeful, even humorous at times. Above all else, they needed to be real. There's no point in coating these topics in sugar, because Middle Grade kids detect fakeness right away.

My latest book, My Life in the Fish Tank, is about a twelve year old kid's experience dealing with the mental illness of a sibling. After a self-destructive incident in college, Zinny's beloved older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sent to a residential treatment center. Zinny's parents tell Zinny, her sixteen year old sister Scarlett, and her eight year old brother Aiden to keep Gabriel's condition "private"--which to Zinny sounds the same as "secret." The book is about the burden of that secrecy--how it affects the family dynamic, as well as Zinny's relationships with friends and classmates.

As with my other recent MGs, I wrote this book to fill a gap on the bookshelf. Because while there are some excellent recent MGs about kids dealing with their own mental health challenges and neurodiversity (for example, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally Pla, Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos, See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng, Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz), and others depicting the mental illness of a parent (The Science of Unbreakable Things by Tae Keller, Where the Watermelon Grows by Cindy Baldwin) there are few dealing with the mental illness of a sibling. And when it's your big brother whose behavior is suddenly out of control, when it consumes all your parents' attention and shifts the dynamic with your other siblings, it's easy for a kid to feel lost, anxious and confused--especially if you're supposed to keep it secret.

As we all deal with the fallout of the pandemic, we need to be mindful of the toll it's taken on everyone's mental health. We need to share some important messages with Middle Grade readers:

--Mental health challenges aren't anything to be ashamed of. Even "nice," "normal" families like Zinny's may face mental illness, especially (but not exclusively) in times of stress.

--When a family member is affected, the whole family is affected. No one gets a pass.

--A middle-school-age kid's perspective on a family member's mental illness is valid. A kid experiencing the mental illness of a family member may be feeling confusion and guilt, as well as anxiety and depression. Kids in this situation are not mere bystanders. They deserve attention too.

--Help comes in many forms. Zinny's big brother gets medical and psychological care at a residential treatment center. Zinny's sister and mom go into talk therapy. Zinny sees the school psychologist but isn't ready to communicate. Eventually she gets support by her school's guidance counselor and his weekly guidance group, the Lunch Club. She also gets a different kind of support from an attentive and cool science teacher. As we continue to deal with Covid-related stresses, such school-based support is going to be even more vital for many kids.

But while I'm focusing on mental illness -- a topic of special importance in these challenging times -- I never want to create a one-note story. My Life in the Fish Tank is not just

about a sibling's diagnosis of bipolar disorder and its effect on the family. It's also about friendship, crushes, science experiments and food. Some of it (especially Zinny's interactions with her little brother Aiden) is actually funny. My hope is that even as it entertains, My Life in the Fish Tank will shed light about mental health, offer hope, and spark discussion for middle grade readers.


Barbara Dee is the author of eleven middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including My Life in the Fish Tank (September 2020). Maybe He Just Likes You is a 2020-21 Project Lit selection, one of the Washington Post's Best Books of 2019, a 2020 ALA Notable Book and an 2020 ALA Rise List Book. Everything I Know About You is one of the 2019 Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year, and included on A Mighty Girl's Best of 2018. Halfway Normal (2017) appears on state lists in Pennsylvania, Missouri, South Carolina, Maryland and Vermont. Star-Crossed (2017) is an ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, a 2018 Goodreads Choice Finalist, and on many Best of 2017 lists.

Barbara lives with her family in Westchester County, NY. She's on Twitter @BarbaraDee2 and IG @Barbaradeebooks.


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