YA & Mental Health
As it’s World Mental Health Day today… recommended YA reads on the topic. This list was originally published in Inis #44 (April 2015).
All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven (Penguin, 2015)
A relationship between a grief-stricken girl and a bipolar boy prompts an adventure into seeing the beauty in life, without dismissing its pain.
Wintergirls – Laurie Halse Anderson (Scholastic, 2011)
An intense and difficult journey inside an angry anorexic mind. Haunting and beautiful.
I Was Here – Gayle Forman (Simon & Schuster, 2015)
When your vibrant best friend commits suicide, there are questions that need answering.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green & David Levithan (Penguin, 2012)
Alongside zany musicals and romance, this dual-viewpoint novel explores depression.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story – Ned Vizzini (Disney, 2007)
A suicidal high-achiever finds himself in a psychiatric hospital, where he begins to recover.
Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher (Penguin, 2009)
This sometimes-problematic but thought-provoking novel explores the reasons behind suicide and our responsibilities to one another.
Scarred – Julia Hoban (Piatkus, 2010)
After the loss of her parents, Willow turns to self-harm.
I don’t want to be crazy – Samantha Schutz (Scholastic, 2010)
A novel in verse relates surviving the first year of college with panic disorder.
Improper Order – Deirdre Sullivan (Little Island, 2013)
Sullivan’s second novel handles self-harm and grief with a light but sensitive touch.
Tyranny – Lesley Fairfield (Walker, 2011)
This graphic novel conveys the horrors of anorexia and the gap between perception and reality.
Three more YA reads worth checking out…
Gayle Forman – I Was Here
Cody’s charismatic best friend Meg has killed herself, and Cody’s determined to find out why. Her laptop contains old emails and information about a guy named Ben, as well as a pro-suicide ‘support group’, and Cody’s determined to figure out who’s to blame for pushing her friend over the edge. Her quest begins to lead her into other possibilities, though – like, did she really know Meg at all? This is one of many books about mental health issues out this year, but the topic is in good hands with Gayle Forman. Cody’s own grief is handled wonderfully, and what the book is good on, more than anything, is the nature of small-town life: the assumptions that are made, the secrets that are kept, the fears underneath the surface. Well worth reading.
Rachel McIntyre – Me and Mr J
This terrific and funny diary-style debut tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lara, who’s being horrendously bullied at school. Falling for her new English teacher (always the English teachers!) is a distraction and then a saviour; as time goes on, he not only helps with the bullying but also seems to be interested in her. Her reactions are brilliant – on the one hand, you’re rooting for her, and on the other hand, you’re going ‘oh dear god no no NO’. This does a really good job at handling the tricky situation – yes, Mr J is at fault, but no, he’s not ‘grooming’ her. (Compare to Amanda Grace’s The Truth About You and Me, where the girl is blamed entirely for lying about her age, or Jacqueline Wilson’s Love Letters, which paints it entirely as a thwarted love story. It’s a difficult topic to handle in a way that is respectful of teenagers while also being mindful of the responsibilities adults hold, and this book does it really well. Plus is a delightful read.)
Jenny Hubbard – And We Stay
Poetry. Boarding school. Emily Dickinson. Oh, this book has it all. Set in the mid-90s, the novel focuses on seventeen-year-old Emily Beam, a new student at an all-girls’ school in Amherst, who uses poetry and the new connections in her life – including with the house Emily Dickinson used to live in – to process the upsetting events of the past year, including the loss of her boyfriend Paul. Gorgeously written.
Favourite YA books of 2011
… in my opinion, entirely subjective, yadda yadda. And in no particular order. (My favourites of 2010 can be found here.)
Jeri Smith-Ready – Shift
Caragh M O’Brien – Prized
Laura Jane Cassidy – Angel Kiss
Denise Deegan – And For Your Information…
Deb Caletti – Stay
Gayle Forman – Where She Went
Veronica Roth – Divergent
Patrick Ness – A Monster Calls
Cat Clarke – Entangled
Lauren Oliver – Delirium
Authors I’d read before: 7
Authors new to me: 3
– surprised there’s not more contemporary stuff on it, as that’s most of what I read. But also sort of feel that I tended to be more surprised by non-realism stuff that worked really well for me, and maybe liked it more because of that.
– lots of books that are part of a series, a trilogy or even a two-book set. Only three stand-alones (Entangled, Stay, A Monster Calls).
– also several books that are second books in trilogies or sequels. Now that is odd – sequels can be disappointing, and middle books in trilogies can be difficult. Wonder if these were more impressive because of typical difficulties with these types of books?
– the two paranormal ones (Angel Kiss and Shift) are ones I love in part because they seem more plausible than vampires or werewolves or zombies.
– all single-author novels this year, no short story collections or collaborations (unless you count the Ness one maybe? From an idea by Siobhan Dowd).
– I’d like there to be more British teen stuff in there – I feel like there should be, somehow. And also another male author or two wouldn’t go amiss.
– I’m still loving the dystopian stuff. It makes up for the fact that the bookshelves are still a little too crammed with sexy vampires.
– Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution and Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss were both late 2010 releases, but I didn’t read them ’til this year, so yes, must make note of these. Both Parisian, funnily enough. The former involves time travel back to the 1790s and the latter involves a boarding school. No further explanation should be necessary as to why I adored these books.
Catching up with books I’ve read… not so much recently but recent-ish-ly.
Jeri Smith-Ready – Shift
Absolutely adored this book, the sequel to Shade and the second in a trilogy which will conclude with Shine next year. Despite being a Middle Book, it has a satisfactory conclusion – not everything’s been sorted out, but enough has changed and enough has been revealed for the book to feel complete in itself. (I am wary of trilogies – they ask a lot of their readers and very often what they’re doing is telling one-story-in-three-parts, which bothers me. But anyway.) Shift is set in a world where only young people can see ghosts. The heroine, Aura, was the first person born after the Shift that made this happen, and she and her friend/crush/possible soul-mate Zachary are trying to find out more about the Shift – why did it happen, and how are their parents (who were at Newgrange a year before, at the winter solstice) connected to it? And what does it mean for them – Zachary born the minute before the Shift happened, Aura the minute after (and possibly the cause of the whole thing)? Oh, yes, and Aura’s ghost boyfriend, Logan, is still hanging around, having returned from being a Shade, or dark spirit, which no one’s ever done before. And the DMP (Department of Metaphysical Purity) are keeping an eye on things… I loved this book. The world is completely convincing, and Aura’s voice is compelling. Plus, having heard way too much about Newgrange growing up, it’s nifty to see the way it’s used here. Highly recommended.
Veronica Roth – Divergent
Really enjoyed this dystopian novel set in a world where sixteen-year-olds must choose a faction to be part of for the rest of their lives, each centred on one particular virtue, and then struggle through their faction’s initiation, or risk being an outcast. The writing’s terrific, and Tris faces a variety of tough choices along the way, as she moves from her birth faction of Abnegation, prioritising selflessness, to the brave, wild, and possibly slightly corrupt Dauntless, and tries to endure their brutal initiation procedures, all the while wondering what her ‘divergent’ test result means. The focus shifts towards the end of the book, where faction rivalries and politics play a larger role, and to some extent this feels like more of a set-up for subsequent books than part of Tris’s journey here. Still, an immensely gripping book and definitely worth checking out if you enjoy your dystopias with a dash of romance, rather than vice-versa.
Lili Wilkinson – Pink
Ava moves schools, leaving behind her beautiful black-and-burgundy-clad girlfriend Chloe in exchange for a world of intimidatingly pretty and perky Pastels and geeky Screw (stage crew) types. She wants to be pink – pretty, girly, into guys – but fate seems to nudge her more into the world of misfits and screw-ups, even though she’s not sure she belongs there, either. The new-friends, discovering-identity theme is made fresh by the funny, vivid writing – worth reading.
Gayle Forman – Where She Went
I was wary of this. Oh so wary. It’s the sequel to If I Stay, the hauntingly beautiful if-you-don’t-cry-there’s-something-wrong-with-you tale of a girl, Mia, in a coma following an accident that’s killed everyone else in her family, and recalling the key moments in her life, including the things to hold onto if she chooses to wake up. Her boyfriend, Adam, is on the list of Best Fictional Boyfriends Ever. So learning that there was a sequel, set three years later, from Adam’s POV – an Adam whom Mia had left – just about broke my heart. It changed how I saw the ending of If I Stay, and shifted Adam off the Best Fictional Boyfriends Ever list. But every time I saw in the bookshop, every time I wandered over to Gayle Forman’s blog… I wanted to read it. Just to see. Just in case. Just in case it could possibly live up to its extraordinary prequel. And. Yes. It does. I have no idea how Gayle Forman’s done it. How on earth do you follow up a life-or-death novel? How do you do it well? I have no answers, but this book does it, however it does.
Judi Curtin – Eva’s Journey
First book in a new Judi Curtin series (well, new-ish – she’s also kicked off her Forever Friends series recently), this time focusing on spoiled rich girl Eva whose lifestyle changes drastically when her dad loses his job. It’s nice to see contemporary kids’ fiction dealing specifically with recession-ish changes, and the story – though sweet – thankfully avoids being overly didactic on the issue of money and consumerism.
Erich Segal – Love Story
I remember the film from childhood and knew it was going to be all tragic and horrific, but I wasn’t expecting how sudden it was, or for that matter how short the book is. I can’t quite decide whether the swiftness of everything is clean, pared-back prose or whether it’s frustrating – I don’t get what Jenny sees in Oliver, at all. Still. If you don’t get a little teary-eyed at the end of this, you must have a heart of stone.
Caitlin Moran – How To Be A Woman
Funny, the laugh-out-loud sort of funny that gets you strange looks when you’re reading in public places. Caitlin Moran takes on a variety of topics – clothes, sex, lap dancing clubs, work, abortion, relationships – and rants, wisely and entertainingly. It is not the next Great Feminist Text, but it does make its points well, and entertainingly. Worth picking up.
Beyond red, black, and death…
Now. Don’t get me wrong, there are things I adore about the current wave of the red/black/death/vampire stuff in the teen sections of bookshops nowadays (Hodges Figgis actually has a separate section within their teen books for this stuff) – it is fantastic to see new editions of Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire series, as well as some of his other books (Read them. Read them all.), and to see teen books doing well, but occasionally (as a writer and reader of realistic fiction) I get gloomy. So many vampires and werewolves and zombies and fallen angels…
I also know that for a lot of readers, the ones who’ve been reading all along (instead of suddenly discovering books exist, as so often happens when there are big bestsellers out there), it’s off-putting to feel like something as huge in scope as young adult fiction is being reduced to a couple of its current trends. It feels like all there is is the red/black/death stuff.
One of the great appeals of having books categorised by age is that it evens out the playing field in other ways. It’s basically having, in that one section of the bookshop, what would happen if all those General Fiction/Literary Fiction/Irish Interest/Fantasy/Horror/Crime/Science Fiction/Classics/Anthologies barriers dissolved. You do hear, more frequently than is really necessary, “oh, it’s written for teens, but actually it’s a really good book”, but at the same time that snobbishness and mentality cuts down on what people say about ‘adult’ novels, the “it’s just light reading but…” or “it’s just a thriller/crime novel/romance/page-turner…” stuff that people throw out to justify reading something they actually enjoyed reading.
So there is more to the teen section in bookshops, in books generally, than the red/black/death. Lots more. This would be the part where I start making suggestions….
Meg Cabot turns up in the black/red/death for her The Mediator series (originally published under Jenny Carroll), but The Princess Diaries books, though occasionally irritating, are definitely worth reading. But the best ones are the standalones (and I’m immediately going to contradict myself here, because there are two All-American Girl books, both brilliant), including Teen Idol, Tommy Sullivan Is A Freak and How To Be Popular.
Sarah Dessen writes love stories that go way beyond love stories, the kind of entanglements that happen when you’re not quite ready for them and yet need anyway, because of everything else that’s going on. Family looms large in Dessen’s books, as does summer – the long days of a different routine and pace, when you get that little bit closer to discovering who you are. Her latest is Along for the Ride.
Deb Caletti is another one writing what are ostensibly love stories and actually journeys of self-discovery. The supporting characters are always fleshed out, and there is always a sense of the narrators figuring out where they fit in the wider world, not just at school/home/in a relationship. Her latest is The Six Rules of Maybe, though you’re more likely to find Honey, Baby, Sweetheart or Wild Roses on this side of the Atlantic.
Abby McDonald writes smart, funny, feminist books. Life Swap is the best take on the ‘let’s trade lives! Fish out of water!’ plot I’ve seen.
Siobhan Vivian writes terrific, realistic, funny, compelling books about friendships and romances and creativity. Highly recommend her second novel, Same Difference; her third, Not That Kind of Girl, is out now.
E Lockhart writes funny, quirky, insightful books about teenagers. I can take or leave the Ruby Oliver books, but Dramarama and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks are two of my favourites.
Sara Ryan, despite being very fond of and knowledgeable about fantasy and sci-fi, has written two of my very favourite contemporary YA novels – Empress of the World and The Rules for Hearts.
Adele Geras writes a number of different things, but when she writes realistic fiction, it is thoughtful and quiet and moving and stunning. Pick up silent snow, secret snow or the Egerton Hall trilogy (The Tower Room, Watching the Roses and Pictures of the Night).
Laurie Halse Anderson will blow you away. Speak is an extraordinary book about being a teenager and being afraid. Catalyst (even though I think Kate is a lot more right about things than the book gives her credit for) is another stunner about what happens when the life plan goes off-course. Prom is a fun Cinderella retelling; Twisted dissects the male teen psyche; Wintergirls is a modern day Persephone story about ghosts and eating disorders.
David Levithan has written several extraordinary books for teens, including the very brilliant Boy Meets Boy, the heartbreaking/heartwarming Marly’s Ghost, the thought-provoking Wide Awake and Love Is The Higher Law, and (with Rachel Cohn) Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Naomi & Ely’s No-Kiss List. Sharp, fast-paced, and sympathetic.
John Green gets a lot of love on the internets generally, but is being mentioned in this list anyway for smart and quirky realistic fiction – with (gasp!) male narrators. Why, realistic teen books for boys do exist after all! I have a particular fondness for An Abundance of Katherines, which has anagrams and a mathematical formula to predict break-ups.
Garret Freymann-Weyr writes exquisitely. She has written five YA novels and I can’t recommend just one, but if I had to it would be My Heartbeat. Or maybe Stay With Me. Or After the Moment. Or The Kings Are Already Here. Or When I Was Older. Hmm. The teen characters in these books are thoughtful and introspective, and the adult characters are consistently complex and compelling.
Jacqueline Wilson has written approximately ten bajillion books, for children and teenagers. Some of my favourites for older readers include Kiss, Dustbin Baby, My Sister Jodie, and the Girls quartet.
Sara Zarr writes about family and redemption of various kinds. Story of a Girl, about a girl who dreams of getting out of her small town and is still haunted by an early sexual encounter, is a moving read. Zarr’s most recent book, Once Was Lost, is about a reverend’s daughter and life falling to pieces around her one summer.
Donna Freitas‘s The Possibilities of Sainthood and This Gorgeous Game are two very different but equally compelling books about girls, love, obsessions, religion, and family.
Elizabeth Scott writes consistently readable fiction, mostly realistic, including The Unwritten Rule, Something, Maybe, Bloom, and my favourite Love You Hate You Miss You. Particularly worth noting is the way that parental relationships are always handled in an interesting way, rather than falling into either category of invisible/overbearing parents.
Julie Anne Peters writes teen fiction mostly LGBTQ-related, including the stunning Luna (dealing with transgender issues), Keeping You A secret (oh, Holland and Cece!) and Rage: A Love Story (intense/damaging relationships).
Melina Marchetta is a superb Australian author, whose Jellicoe Road and Saving Francesca are well worth checking out.
Gayle Forman‘s If I Stay has potentially fantastical elements, but it’s how real it all feels that makes it so moving.
Sally Nicholls writes mostly about death. Ways to Live Forever and Season of Secrets are often shelved for older readers for partly this reason, I think. Well worth reading, but do have tissues handy.
Rachel Vail understands the details of teen friendships, obsessions and feelings. Her books ring true. Particularly recommended are Ever After and You, Maybe.
Ned Vizzini‘s It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a terrific (and funny) book about depression and self-expression. This and Be More Chill are fantastic additions to the ‘realistic fiction for boys, should they want such a thing’ category.
Ellen Wittlinger‘s Hard Love and its sequel, Love & Lies: Marisol’s Story, are two amazing books about love, writing, and self-discovery. There are no easy answers or neat solutions: sometimes people get hurt, and quite often they don’t get what they want.
Kevin Brooks writes fiction that isn’t afraid to go dark. Lucas is one of my favourites.
Melvin Burgess wrote Junk and really, that’s all you need to know. ‘Gritty’ is a word thrown around a little too much, perhaps, but it definitely applies to Burgess’s realistic fiction for teens.
(For the sake of my own sanity, I’ve left recent debut authors with only a first novel out off the list. I know we got an extra hour today, but nevertheless…)