"Children of all ages are whole people. They deserve great art and true stories."
My beautiful friends, I was asked to write to you about my work in the YA space—the ways my characters wrestle with mental and emotional health, and the ways I approach these topics.
I thought about this request, and I realized that the work I do in the YA space isn’t categorically different than the work I do for younger readers—in picture books, chapter books, and middle grade books. So I asked if I could expand the topic to this: Writing Across Ages and Toward Mental and Emotional Health.
Luckily, the good folks at A Novel Mind said yes.
I say “luckily” because I am a people pleaser, by nature. This may surprise you, if you’ve read my work. I sometimes get called flattering things, like “brave” and “unflinching.” These words cause me to look over my metaphorical shoulder to see if they are talking about someone else. For I am not brave! And I flinch, often.
What I am is this: a kid who didn’t understand the way her brain worked. A kid who, if one foot scuffed the ground, needed to scuff the other foot to make things even. A kid who could read the emotional temperature in her home and knew when to duck and cover, when to appease. A kid who was not a “fighter” or a “flighter,” but rather a “freezer” and a “fawner.” Have you heard those terms? It turns out there’s more than “fight or flight”—there’s also “freeze” and “fawn.” These were my specialties as a kid, a teen, a young woman. Even now, they are my impulses when conflict rises.
What I am is a teenager who believed that everyone had a say about her body except maybe her. The mother who said I shouldn’t shave my legs, even though I wanted to. The teachers who commented on my clothing, my eyes, my shape. The boy who told me I had cellulite and I shouldn’t wear shorts that short. The images all around me, as they were around all of us, shaping my perception of who I needed to become.
What I am is a young woman who neither fought nor fled when assaulted, but rather froze and fawned, and who felt ashamed and guilty after. Since I didn’t fight and I didn’t try to leave, then it must have been my fault, what happened. After all, boys aren’t mind readers, I told myself. Never mind that I held my arms across my chest, that I shivered all over though it wasn’t cold, that I cried.
What I am is a whole person, one who wants people to love her, one who wants to add good to the world, one who wonders if she is enough of the things people want her to be, enough to be part of groups, enough to be included, enough.
So, writing about mental and emotional health: How do I do it?
Given the people I am, one inside another inside another, and all me—how could I not? When I am writing about a difficult topic, one that springs from personal experience (as almost everything I write does, one way or another), I tell myself, “Well, I can always take this out later, if I want to.”
No matter the age category, my job as I see it is to tell the best, truest story I can, keeping two core beliefs at the center. First: Children of all ages are whole people. They deserve great art and true stories.
This second core belief, harder earned than the first: I am a whole person. My stories are valid. And I get to decide what I do with them. What I choose to do is to make art through stories.
This is maybe not the sort of essay the kind folks at A Novel Mind had been hoping for me to write. To be honest, it wasn’t the sort of essay I thought I would be writing. But, darling, wonderful humans, it’s the truth. I write about mental and emotional health for readers of all ages because I am a human (like all humans) who has faced struggles with mental and emotional health at all ages.
So, my advice to you, if you want to tell stories about mental and emotional health, for readers of any age: Don’t teach a lesson. Don’t worry about the moral of the story. Tell the truth, the best way you can, and be vulnerable on the page.
After all, you can always delete it later… though, if you’re like me, you’ll find that those stories, those scenes, those moments—they are the ones, if you leave them in, that readers will deeply respond to. The impulse toward vulnerability has consistently helped me to produce my best work and has helped me to make my most important, deepest connections with other human beings.
And every move toward vulnerability and honesty has also helped me reconnect with the child me, the teen me, the young woman me. We are not wooden nesting dolls, painted arms at painted sides, but rather a series of true breathing selves, arms wide, each embracing the next.
If you are interested in more inspiration and guidance from Elana on the art and heart of writing for children, her Fall "Revision Season" workshop has just opened enrollment. Find out more info here.
Elana K. Arnold is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including Rise, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of
photo credit: Tristan Ervin