“There are things in the world too big to talk about,” says the protagonist of one of these five novels. But these young adult books dare to explore these issues: anorexia, bipolar disorder, drug addiction, depression—and how to love someone who lives with a mental illness.
As the most common form of mental illness and the leading cause of disability in the United States, depression is something all should take seriously. Awareness is important and should start at a young age, as teenagers are certainly at risk. These young-adult novels depict depression and other mental illnesses honestly and offer hope for teens, whether they are dealing with a family member with a disease or are struggling with it themselves.
Julie Randeria is a gifted Indian-American girl with a love of painting, but her sensitive nature makes it hard to simply fit in. The world in general, the idea of normalcy, and especially people, including her sister Maya, overwhelm Julie, and as she advances in age, her thin grasp on her own personality, and eventually reality itself, weakens. Full of lyricism and emotion, Sparks Off You depicts the unraveling of a young woman as she desperately struggles to navigate a world that doesn’t seem to have a place for her. Complex characters and effective, often evocative description set the novel apart from the standard coming-of-age story.
The harmful stigma around anorexia often prevents sufferers from sharing their experiences, not just for girls but also for boys. Bones, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of this touching novel is one of only two males in the Eating Disorder Unit of a hospital. Each day he shudders at the number of calories the doctors are attempting to shove down his throat, listens to the tragic stories of his peers, and falls deeper in love with fellow resident, ballerina Alice. With humor and respect, this novel explores eating disorders and their roots, appealing to a wide audience.
Laura is a typical fifteen-year-old growing up in the 1960s, but she carries a secret: her mother suffers from a mental illness, and Laura is terrified that she will face a similar fate. She finds some refuge in art, but when her mother suffers a breakdown after taking painting back up again herself, even art ceases to provide much comfort. Eloquent and compelling, this powerful novel-in-verse will have readers rooting for Laura to find her courage and face her worst fears.
After his parents’ divorce and a tough move to Oregon, teenage Bill turns to drugs and alcohol to calm his nerves as he struggles with his sexual identity in a prejudiced small town. Plagued by nightmares as his addictions grow and his depression deepens, Bill gets the impression from his distant parents and grandparents that “there are things in the world too big to talk about”—namely love. Told in a series of short vignettes, this raw and heart-wrenching novel illuminates how loneliness can exacerbate depression and how while compassion may not always help, it can reveal the start of the path toward healing.
Basically friendless because she rushes home after school every day to make sure her mother eats and takes her medication, responsible yet anxiety-filled Sophie keeps her mother’s bipolar disorder a secret from everyone. But after she finds her mid suicide attempt, Sophie stays with her aunt, uncle, and cousin while her mom is in the hospital. As she learns more about her family and begins to make friends, she also discovers how strong she really can be. This honest novel conveys the reality of taking care of someone who’s supposed to be taking care of you, and how one girl takes charge of her life.
Aimee Jodoin is deputy editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow her on Twitter @aimeebeajo.