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Sunday Reflections: When Darkness Means You Can’t Read – Reflections on Mental Health and Reading

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TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses depression, anxiety, mental illness and suicide

Recently, Time magazine reported that less 1/3 of teens don’t read for pleasure. At the same time, a lot of YA/Teen librarians are looking at their circulation statistics and wondering why they’re going down. I did a completely informal and unscientific Twitter poll, and about half of the 88 respondants indicated that their circulation stats were going down. This was not surprising to me because it’s something that I see a lot of my peers talking about and working to fix.

There are a lot of possible reasons as to why. For one, we know that more teens are reading digitally and these circulation statistics aren’t counted in traditional ways. If you use Hoopla, for example, they don’t separate YA books out in their reports. But we know that a lot of teens are migrating to digital content, both ebooks and audiobooks. In addition, a lot of teens are abandoning traditionally published fiction and embracing fanfiction on forums such at Wattpad. It’s not that teens aren’t reading, they’re just reading differently. And of course, we can’t ignore that a lot of teens are spending more time engaged with social media just as adults are.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent. (Source: http://theconversation.com/with-teen-mental-health-deteriorating-over-five-years-theres-a-likely-culprit-86996)

But I would like to suggest that another reason for the decline in reading pleasure would be the increase in mental illness. Statistically, we are seeing a growing number of teens report episodes of depression and anxiety. The Center for Disease Control reports that incidents of depression, anxiety and suicide having been steadily rising for teens, and I think this is a significant issue that needs to be addressed for a lot of obvious reasons, but also because I think it affects reading.

I am an adult human who struggles with depression and anxiety. I am prone to panic attacks and have some serious moments of suicidal ideation. As such, I find myself involved in a lot of online forums with others who struggle with these same issues. One of the things that seems common for a majority of us is that when we are in the midst of a depression or anxiety spiral, reading is hard. Full, immersive reading that requires a type of physical and emotional investment can be hard for people struggling with mental illness. Let me explain.

For a lot of us with depression and anxiety, the most basic of functions can require an amount of energy that can be hard to muster. Your body can feel heavy, weighed down. You’re tired a lot. And if you are in an anxiety spiral, there is a lot of negative self talk that is happening in your head that takes a very dominant position. All of this is a type of clutter in the mind and body that makes everything else so much harder. So your goal is to survive and, if possible, dull the static noises inside of you. For me, and many others like me, scrolling through social media and looking at pictures or reading fluff headlines while watching fluff tv in the background can sere as a means to try and help drown out the noises. It’s a type of survival technique to help get you through the moment. I personally find that Food Network or mindless comedies are great for this. They’re not heavy, they don’t require invested attention, and the fluff of it helps me to cope. And the act of scrolling and reading on the Internet takes up a space that darkness is trying to occupy.

These are coping techniques. I’m not saying that they are healthy ones, but I find them to be employed by a lot of my fellow depression and anxiety sufferers. For many of us, there are periods of time when reading for pleasure is just simply not an option.

In the height of my worst depressive episode, I went three months without being able to read a book. I typically read about 3 books a week, but there are often times when I can read no books at all because I can’t get my mind settled enough to commit to the act of reading. I have reason to believe that I am not the only person that this is true for.

Yes, it is different for some people and for them, reading is the escape that they need. Reading can be the coping mechanism that some need while for others it is an insurmountable hurdle. No two people struggle with the same mental health issues in the same ways. But I think it is important that we acknowledge two things when considering a decline in reading:

1. We live in a world where many people are facing increasing struggles with depression and anxiety.

2. For some people, un-managed mental health issues can result in the loss of the ability to read for periods of time.

I believe that it is important that we talk more about and provide better treatment and support for mental health issues in our world. I also think if we truly want to explore things like education and reading for pleasure, this is another reason we need to look into mental health more closely. Not every teen who chooses not to read is struggling with mental health issues, but I believe that some of them are and recognizing that will help us better understand the problem and get us talking about mental health, coping strategies, support and treatment. What if part of the reasons teens are reading less is because they are hurting more? It’s a question we should investigate.

Twin Cities Teen Lit Con 2018: Mental Health in YA Literature Presentation

Saturday, May 12 was Twin Cities Teen Lit Con, a wonderful yearly event that I have now had the honor of speaking at for the past three years. This year it took place at Chaska High School, an absolutely stunning (and giant!) school. If you’re unfamiliar with Teen Lit Con, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a convention dedicated to teen (YA) literature. This event is FOR teens—teens win the prizes, teens get first dibs at getting a seat in sessions, etc. I feel extremely fortunate to not only present there each year, and meet so many wonderful teens, but to then also be able to hear fantastic talks from YA authors from around the country. Big thanks to everyone at MELSA, the Teen Lit Con team, the many volunteers, and Chaska High School for the amazing day. What a lot of work went into pulling it off.

 

Waiting for the kickoff panel with Angie Thomas, Adam Silvera, Melissa de la Cruz, and Barry Lyga.

Waiting for the panel with Angie Thomas, Adam Silvera, Melissa de la Cruz, & Barry Lyga.

 

 

 

Two years ago, I presented on new and forthcoming YA. Last year I also presented on Mental Health in YA Lit. I presented one session to an absolutely packed room. You can read more about that here. This year, they asked me to present my Mental Health in YA Lit talk twice, so we can accommodate everyone who wanted to attend without squishing people into one session. I was a little nervous because my first session was opposite Adam Silvera’s talk and wasn’t sure anyone would come see me when they could be seeing Adam. Fortunately, my room filled up.

 

 

 

 

Callum and his BFF Miya came with me and were lots of help setting up all my free stuff.

 

Mental Health in YA Lit is one of my main areas of interest. I have presented on this topic before at NerdCon: Stories and for the International Bipolar Foundation (that webinar is archived and available in the link). Since 2016, we at Teen Librarian Toolbox have been running a Mental Health in YA Literature project (#MHYALit). This link will take you to the hub for our project, which so far has had well over 100 guest posts from authors, bloggers, librarians, and other teen advocates, often about our own mental health struggles and successes. I am passionate about advocating for mental health awareness, care, and representation in YA books. I never tire of talking about it.

 

Thank you to To Write Love on Her Arms, Mental Health Minnesota, and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for providing me with free materials to hand out at each presentation. Thank you to my fellow Teen Librarian Toolbox blogger Karen Jensen for the reading- and TLT-related buttons. I also made buttons that said STRONG on them to hand out. Thank you to the great Buffy Summers for saying so many things that apply to both literal and metaphorical demon-slaying.

 

 

 

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IMG_2764 (1)A big thank you to the years of effective care and treatment behind me, and to the medications that allow me to get out of bed every day and function. Other than my laptop, the most important thing I packed for Teen Lit Con was my anxiety medication that I needed to pop before I could get up and speak in front of people. Thanks, science!

 

 

 

 

Posted around Chaska High School.

I’m going to post a few relevant statistics slide from my presentation here (click on the pictures to enlarge the slides). My presentation was a mix of the reasons why good, accurate, and compassionate mental health depiction in young adult literature is so vitally important; a look at the staggering statistics about teen mental health; and a rundown of just some of the many YA books I recommend that get mental health rep right. I also made handouts (because I love handouts) with YA titles that deal with mental health. Those are available here: Teen Lit Con 2018 handouts MHYALit and 2018 TLC Additional handoutSchools and libraries, please feel free to reproduce these and share these, but please leave my credit at the bottom of the page. 

 

 

 

 

 

My pal Dezra brought me this on Saturday. She couldn’t have known I would talk about feeling like a superhero in my talk. Sometimes you just share a brain with your pals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As has happened each time I’ve given a presentation on this topic, people came up to talk to me afterwards to share their stories or thank me for speaking out about a topic that still carries so much shame and stigma. All of those conversations after I talk are so important to me, but it’s the one with actual teenagers that really get me. One teen quietly asked me, “But how do I actually get some help if my parents don’t think there’s anything wrong with me?” Oof. As people waited to talk to me after, one attendee slipped me a note of thanks. Those conversations, those hugs, those notes are all so meaningful to me. If there is any one upside of living with mental illness (and believe me, it’s pretty hard to find one), it’s that I get to speak up about something so vitally important and help people feel less alone.

 

I had a long conversation after my morning presentation with a teacher who is advocating HARD for increased support and understanding of the mental health challenges her students are facing. We talked about using the privilege we have to speak up while so many others can’t. As a white middle class woman with lots of resources and support, I feel like it’s my duty to talk about something that remains so hard for others to talk about. I’ve somehow developed an impenetrable shell around me, one that doesn’t let the constant shame and stigma the world hurls at mentally ill people to get to me. There are so many who want to listen and who want to talk. There are so many who are so relieved to not feel alone. We’re not alone in this fight. The reminder is so powerful.

 

We had such a great day at Teen Lit Con. As a pretty hardcore introvert, being on display like that, socializing that much, drained me. But I can’t think of a better reason to feel totally tapped out than hanging out with people who love YA books. I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

 

(This post is cross-posted on my personal blog, amandamacgregor.net. Hop on over there to see lots of pictures of my three dachshunds, reviews of adult books I’m reading, parenting meltdowns, plenty of talk about mental health, and many more random thoughts.)

Book Review: Life Inside My Mind: 31 Authors Share Their Personal Struggles edited by Jessica Burkhart

Publisher’s description

life insideYour favorite YA authors including Ellen Hopkins, Maureen Johnson, and more recount their own experiences with mental illness in this raw, real, and powerful collection of essays that explores everything from ADD to PTSD.

Have you ever felt like you just couldn’t get out of bed? Not the occasional morning, but every day? Do you find yourself listening to a voice in your head that says “you’re not good enough,” “not good looking enough,” “not thin enough,” or “not smart enough”? Have you ever found yourself unable to do homework or pay attention in class unless everything is “just so” on your desk? Everyone has had days like that, but what if you have them every day?

You’re not alone. Millions of people are going through similar things. However issues around mental health still tend to be treated as something shrouded in shame or discussed in whispers. It’s easier to have a broken bone—something tangible that can be “fixed”—than to have a mental illness, and easier to have a discussion about sex than it is to have one about mental health.

Life Inside My Head is an anthology of true-life events from writers of this generation, for this generation. These essays tackle everything from neurodiversity to addiction to OCD to PTSD and much more. The goals of this book range from providing home to those who are feeling alone, awareness to those who are witnessing a friend or family member struggle, and to open the floodgates to conversation.

Participating writers include E.K. Anderson, J.L. Armentrout, Cyn Balog, Amber Benson, Francesca Lia Block, Jessica Burkhart, Crissa Chappell, Sarah Fine, Kelly Fiore, Candace Ganger, Meghan Kelley Hall, Cynthia Hand, Ellen Hopkins, Maureen Johnson, Tara Kelly, Karen Mahoney, Melissa Marr, Kim McCreight, Hannah Moskowitz, Scott Neumyer, Lauren Oliver, Aprilynne Pike, Tom Pollack, Amy Reed, Cindy Rodriquez, Francisco Stork, Wendy Tolliver, Rob Wells, Dan Wells, Rachel Wilson, and Sara Zarr.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Frequent readers of this blog will know just how important the topic of mental health is to those of us at TLT. In fact, we focused a whole year on examining Mental Health in YA Literature. The fact that not only are there now so many books that deal with mental health in good, accurate, supportive ways, but anthologies like this, that share authors’ real stories, is wonderful. I think it’s invaluable to see these real stories—to have so many prominent voices lending themselves to helping remove shame and stigma, to showing teen readers that they are not alone—they are, in fact, in pretty great company.

 

The authors included here write about a wide swath of mental health-related topics. In these 31 essays, they share about: anxiety, panic attacks, dermatillomania, OCD, depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, addiction, PTSD, self-harm, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, social anxiety, trichotillomania, nervous breakdowns, anorexia, and more. Generally writing in a very conversational tone, they talk about their symptoms, their medications, their treatments, their fears, their hope, and their survival. They talk about family histories of mental illness, shame, avoidance, recovery, and the sometimes long, hard road to getting help. The authors discuss things that have helped them, like medication, therapy, yoga, service animals, rehab, hospitalization, meditation, mindfulness, exercise, sleep, diet, and so much more.

 

Many of the authors note how hard writing this essay was, how even after (in most cases) years and years of treatment and acceptance, it is still extremely difficult to share these very personal stories. It’s so important that teens can see these stories, not just fictionalized in literature, but in nonfiction collections like this. While no one person experiences their mental illness exactly like any other, all of the authors in this anthology show that the most important common thread of their journeys is one of help and hope. An important addition to all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481494649
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 04/10/2018

#MHYALit: Small Towns and Mental Illness, a guest post by This is Not a Love Letter author Kim Purcell

Today we are honored to have a guest post by author Kim Purcell. She is discussing with us the topic of small towns and mental health. She is also generously offering to give away one copy of THIS IS NOT A LOVE LETTER, which comes out tomorrow, January 30th, from Disney Hyperion.

thisisnotaloveletter

In This Is Not a Love Letter, I wanted to talk about the issues of living with a mental illness in a small or isolated community. I grew up in an isolated, medium-sized mill town in Northern British Columbia.

Growing up, there was a stigma against seeking therapy and medicine for mental health issues. It’s gotten better now, everywhere, but small or isolated communities still have this problem.

In my research, I found that small towns statistically have more mental health issues, and these issues go untreated. Studies have shown that suburban teens also have higher rates of depression and anxiety, and rural teens commit suicide at twice the rate of their urban peers. In smaller communities, teens are more likely to turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.

Is there something about living in a small community that leads to mental health issues? Is there anything we can do?

It turns out that it’s a combination of many factors. In any smaller environment, there are fewer therapists and psychologists. People are less likely to seek help due to the lack of anonymity and the stigma. Sometimes there are long waiting lists for the one psychiatrist in the region. In rural areas, it is compounded by poverty and a lack of health insurance.

On top of all this, smaller communities are particularly difficult for anyone who steps outside of the norm, who looks or acts differently. If you can’t conform, it can be a struggle. I found it difficult to conform, to be “normal”. Also, everyone knows and judges your business, and bullies are very hard to escape.

When I started writing This Is Not a Love Letter, I was living in a small village suburb of New York City with my husband and kids. We only lived there for two years, but I was alone too much, and I started to feel depressed. On top of that, I remembered all the ways that living in an isolated environment was difficult for me growing up, and also for my friend Al, who went missing right before graduation. This story is based on that time in my life.

In some ways, writing this book there helped me dive into the growing desperation of my main character, Jessie, as she starts to fear the very worst. As I looked around, I saw other women who were depressed, but nobody was talking about it. The place lacked the joy of the city. Mothers were held up to an impossible standard and this bled down to the kids. Children with mental health issues were socially isolated, and their mothers were seen as failing. There was an incredible amount of pressure on everyone.

For example, one friend of mine was a hoarder. It was untreated and hidden for years. This inspired the hoarder environment that Jessie lives in. It was how I processed her desperate situation. Fortunately, she did drive to get help, eventually.

In this book, I wanted to take the reader into the life of a small-town person, and to reach out to people in those small towns and tell them they aren’t alone, that it’s important to seek help, even if you have to travel to get it. Also, you can move to a bigger environment, where you’ll find other people like you, and it will change your life for the better. I have lived in Vancouver, Seoul, New York City, Guadalajara and Los Angeles, and I can tell you it’s a big difference. It’s great to be accepted for exactly who you are. So, if you’re a teen, just hang on, talk to your doctor, get help, and reach out to others online.

And if things get too hard, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

About THIS IS NOT A LOVE LETTER

One week. That’s all Jessie said. A one-week break to get some perspective before graduation, before she and her boyfriend, Chris, would have to make all the big, scary decisions about their future–decisions they had been fighting about for weeks.

Then, Chris vanishes. The police think he’s run away, but Jessie doesn’t believe it. Chris is popular and good-looking, about to head off to college on a full-ride baseball scholarship. And he disappeared while going for a run along the river–the same place where some boys from the rival high school beat him up just three weeks ago. Chris is one of the only black kids in a depressed paper mill town, and Jessie is terrified of what might have happened.

As the police are spurred to reluctant action, Jessie speaks up about the harassment Chris kept quiet about and the danger he could be in. But there are people in Jessie’s town who don’t like the story she tells, who are infuriated by the idea that a boy like Chris would be a target of violence. They smear Chris’s character and Jessie begins receiving frightening threats.

Every Friday since they started dating, Chris has written Jessie a love letter. Now Jessie is writing Chris a letter of her own to tell him everything that’s happening while he’s gone. As Jessie searches for answers, she must face her fears, her guilt, and a past more complicated than she would like to admit.

Publishes January 30, 2018 from Disney Hyperion. ISBN: 9781484798348

Meet Author Kim Purcell

Kim Purcell has written two young adult books, Trafficked (Penguin) and This Is Not a Love Letter (Hyperion). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, two dogs and three cats. She loves dancing in elevators, swimming in lakes, drinking hot tea and eating chocolate chips with almonds.

Comment below to be entered to win a copy of This is Not a Love Letter by author Kim Purcell. Please enter by February 6th. Open to U.S. residents. One randomly selected winner will receive a copy of This is Not a Love Letter. You will be contacted via email. Do the Rafflecopter thingy to enter.


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Book Review: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez

Publisher’s description

i am not yourThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian meets Jane the Virgin in this poignant but often laugh-out-loud funny contemporary YA about losing a sister and finding yourself amid the pressures, expectations, and stereotypes of growing up in a Mexican-American home. 
 
Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Julia is blunt, funny, sneaky, and also fairly miserable. Her sister, Olga, was recently killed and Julia feels more off-kilter than ever. She’s grieving, of course, but also intensely feeling her parents’ disappointment in her and trying to find ways to get a little breathing room, especially in respect to her judgmental and strict mother. All Julia wants to do is graduate and move to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, but it’s hard to feel like that dream could become a reality since her parents think a good daughter would be happy to continue living at home and attending community college. That’s what Olga did, and especially as far as her mother is concerned, Olga was perfect. Julia, who talks back, is unabashedly a feminist, and isn’t particularly concerned with consequences, knows she is far from her parents’ ideal. She carries that weight while trying to just live her life in spite of her grief and her increasing depression. And while Julia certainly doesn’t think she has her own life figured out, she did think she had Olga’s nailed: boring secretary who attends one class at a time and was her parents’ pride and joy. But while trying to get to know her now dead sister a little better, Julia must face the fact that she didn’t actually know her sister at all–that no one in their family did. Julia assembles clues based on her limited findings and follows them until she is able to put together a more realistic picture of who Olga was. 

 

Overall, I liked this book. Julia is a complex character. Her struggles as a first generation American teenager and as someone living in poverty are just as complex and well-drawn as she is. However, once I realized the part mental health would play in her story, I wanted more from it: I wanted it woven in throughout, instead of just kind of dropped in, and explored more fully. The plot suffers a bit from being overstuffed—not that she can’t have multiple things happening in her life at once (friends issues, grieving her sister, her first real boyfriend, mental health stuff, a trip to Mexico)—I kept wanting Julia to either really hone in on the mystery with her sister OR explore her grief and hopes for her own life more fully, something to make the plot feel tighter to me. Maybe it just needed to cover less time. At any rate, as a character-driven reader, Julia’s emotionally complicated journey held my attention even when the plot meandered. Her desire for something bigger in life as well as the reveal that people aren’t necessarily what they seem will resonate with teen readers. 

 

ISBN-13: 9781524700485
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 10/17/2017

Book Review: Sparrow by Sarah Moon

Publisher’s description

ra6Sparrow has always had a difficult time making friends. She would always rather have stayed home on the weekends with her mother, an affluent IT Executive at a Manhattan bank, reading, or watching the birds, than playing with other kids. And that’s made school a lonely experience for her. It’s made LIFE a lonely experience.

But when the one teacher who really understood her — Mrs. Wexler, the school librarian, a woman who let her eat her lunch in the library office rather than hide in a bathroom stall, a woman who shared her passion for novels and knew just the ones she’d love — is killed in a freak car accident, Sparrow’s world unravels and she’s found on the roof of her school in an apparent suicide attempt.

With the help of an insightful therapist, Sparrow finally reveals the truth of her inner life. And it’s here that she discovers an outlet in Rock & Roll music…

 

Amanda’s thoughts

sparrowA middle grade book that deals with mental health? YES, please.

14-year-old Brooklyn 8th grader Sparrow has debilitating social anxiety. She has always dealt with her fear and shyness by flying away—not literally, of course, but pretty close. She pictures herself off with the birds, away from everything on land that makes her uncomfortable. When she’s found on the school roof during one of her flying episodes, everyone assumes it’s a suicide attempt and won’t hear otherwise. Sparrow begins therapy with Dr. Katz. At first, she’s reluctant to open up, worried Dr. Katz will think she’s crazy. It doesn’t help that her mother isn’t thrilled that she’s in therapy and thinks of it as White Girl Stuff (Sparrow and her mother are black). But slowly, Sparrow begins to talk to Dr. Katz, admitting to herself and her mother how much good the therapy is doing. School is still hard for her, especially because her beloved favorite teacher, Mrs. Wexler, the librarian, died earlier in the year. Sparrow had spent every lunch since 5th grade in the library, finding solace in both the library and Mrs. Wexler. Everything since her death has been harder. But therapy is helping, as is her new (and intense) interest in music. Dr. Katz introduces her to older punk and indie music (think Pixies, Sonic Youth, Patti Smith), and Sparrow revels in the connective and redemptive power of music. Dr. Katz pushes Sparrow to learn how to deal with all of the things that make her want to fly away, but it’s really through a month-long girls’ rock music camp that Sparrow begins to find her voice and overcome her fears.

 

This is a fantastic book for older middle grade readers. Sparrow, though silent through much of school, is such a profoundly real character. Readers get to know her well far sooner than her peers get to know her. She’s funny and bitingly clever. Her passion for books and music will send readers seeking out the bands they’ve maybe never heard of or delighting in seeing their favorite titles or songs as part of the story. Dr. Katz, Mrs. Wexler, and Mrs. Smith, the English teacher, are wonderfully supportive, compassionate adults who see Sparrow for who she is. Though her mother is wary of therapy and Dr. Katz, she loves Sparrow and wants the best for her. She may not totally understand what her daughter is going through or how to best help her, but she’s open to doing whatever seems right for Sparrow and desperately wants to be a part of Sparrow’s very private inner life. Well-written, emotionally powerful, and packed with stand-out characters, this middle grade title is a must for every library. A welcome addition to the small field of middle grade books that address mental health. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338032581
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 10/10/2017

Book Review: Madness by Zac Brewer

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of School Library Journal

 

madnessMadness by Zac Brewer

ISBN-13: 9780062457851 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 09/19/2017

Gr 9 Up—Finding a kindred spirit turns chilling in this exploration of depression, suicidal ideation, and toxic love. Seventeen-year-old Brooke is freshly out of a treatment program after attempting suicide. Back at school, her classmates stare, whisper, and write “RIP” on her locker. Brooke’s situation at home is strained, therapy seems pointless, and the only good thing is Duckie, her lifelong best friend. Angry to still be alive, Brooke is determined to die soon. That is, until she meets Derek, who recently moved to town with his abusive, alcoholic father. The two bond over depression and suicide attempts, Derek’s favorite topic of conversation. Brooke immediately falls in love with him and even feels that he has given her a reason to live (though, of course, her therapist encourages her to find ways to live for herself). She also begins to open up at therapy, gets involved in activities, and raises her grades, but she fixates on Derek, who is clingy, jealous, and needy and has a quick temper. Brooke’s story perpetuates the dangerous idea that love will cure mental illness. Even after her eyes are opened, she worrisomely believes Derek is ultimately a good guy but “troubled,” excusing his horrific behavior and conflating controlling, abusive behavior with love. While the novel is filled with suspense and offers a compelling, cautionary look at an unhealthy relationship, the underdeveloped characters and lackluster dialogue detract from the potential impact of the tale. Graphic descriptions of suicide attempts are included. VERDICT A strictly additional purchase only where the author’s work is popular.

Book Review: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

Publisher’s description

ra6Matt hasn’t eaten in days. His stomach stabs and twists inside, pleading for a meal, but Matt won’t give in. The hunger clears his mind, keeps him sharp—and he needs to be as sharp as possible if he’s going to find out just how Tariq and his band of high school bullies drove his sister, Maya, away.

Matt’s hardworking mom keeps the kitchen crammed with food, but Matt can resist the siren call of casseroles and cookies because he has discovered something: the less he eats the more he seems to have . . . powers. The ability to see things he shouldn’t be able to see. The knack of tuning in to thoughts right out of people’s heads. Maybe even the authority to bend time and space.

So what is lunch, really, compared to the secrets of the universe?

Matt decides to infiltrate Tariq’s life, then use his powers to uncover what happened to Maya. All he needs to do is keep the hunger and longing at bay. No problem. But Matt doesn’t realize there are many kinds of hunger…and he isn’t in control of all of them.

A darkly funny, moving story of body image, addiction, friendship, and love, Sam J. Miller’s debut novel will resonate with any reader who’s ever craved the power that comes with self-acceptance.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

art of starvingFirst of all, I feel like it’s important to know that Sam J. Miller had an eating disorder as a teenager. Had Miller not had a personal experience with an ED, I probably wouldn’t be reviewing this book. I feel like books that deal with eating disorders are so fraught with the potential to be triggering/upsetting/completely done “wrong.” I have no experience with an eating disorder, so I still hesitate to review this just because the subject matter has the potential to be so triggering for readers. All of that said, I also think this book is important because it shows us someone we don’t see much of in YA: a boy with an eating disorder. And, while Matt, our main character, believes that power (and superpowers) can come from pain and starvation, his eating disorder is not romanticized. It’s awful to read about and awful to witness and just plain awful in general.

 

Matt, who is gay, is in dire need of medical and therapeutic intervention for his eating disorder. A school psychiatrist recommends urgent action after a visit with Matt proves he feels both suicidal and homicidal. But Matt swipes the letter from school, hiding it from his mother, just like he hides everything else from her. He’d like to run away, just like his older sister Maya has recently done. He suspects that soccer star Tariq and his bully buddies may have something to do with Maya’s disappearance, so he works to get closer to them to learn more. Matt is in complete denial about his eating disorder. He views his body as the enemy, keeps track of calories, and hates how he (thinks he) looks, but he doesn’t allow himself to ever throw up after eating, because that is what would indicate he has a problem. And, according to Matt, he does not have a problem. Also according to Matt, his hunger gives him clarity, insight, and superpowers that allow himself to get closer to truths, maybe read people’s minds, and allow him to control the uncontrollable. He is starving himself, still in denial, intent on further awakening his mind. He researches online for eating disorder tips and tricks, sharing some of them in his narrative. When he ends up in the emergency room, malnourished, he knows what he needs to do and say to convince people he’s okay. When an unexpected relationship grows, Matt worries that happiness is blunting his powers. He eventually admits to an eating disorder and ends up in treatment, where several months are summarized in broad strokes.

 

Matt is an unreliable narrator. Are his powers real, somehow, or is this all in his head? I found myself repeatedly doubting if he actually did or said something, or if it was just how things played out in his mind. At certain points, I doubted that any of the events were actually happening at all, wondering if maybe Matt was imagining everything (his relationship with the other boy etc). Matt makes some compelling observations about masculinity and social constructions of gender as he thinks about his body and how he tries to control and shape it. He even, at one point, notes that his story is not so much an actual guidebook for the art of starving as it is a desperate cry for help. This unique and well-written book is a dark, upsetting, and moving look at one boy’s experience with an eating disorder that will leave readers hopeful that he’s on the path to recovery, but maybe still doubting what has happened to Matt and what his future will hold.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062456717

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 07/11/2017

Social Justice and Mental Health: Accessibility to Treatment in YA Literature, a guest post by Alyssa Chrisman

Today we are honored to present to you a Mental Health in YA Literature guest post that looks at the accessibility to treatment in YA literature. You can read all the #MHYALit posts here or by clicking on the tag below.

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When I was 12-years-old, I went to therapy for the first time. Seventh grade is a notoriously tumultuous year, and although I hardly remember the sessions now, I believe they were helpful in a way I didn’t quite understand then. As I have aged, I have weaved in and out of multiple types of mental health treatment as needed. Even in moments where it seemed like recovery was not possible, books like Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story inspired me to speak up and ask for help. Now that I am an adult studying YAL, I have immense gratitude for the positive impact books like that had on my life and am an advocate for diverse YA books featuring mental health topics. As Teen Librarian Toolbox’s 2016 #MHYAL (Mental Health in Young Adult Literature) project illustrates, issues of mental health are prevalent in YAL, especially in recent publications. Most mental illnesses are represented somewhere within this body of texts, but one important aspect is often overlooked: teenage accessibility to affordable and quality care. I was, and am, lucky to have access to mental health treatment through affordable medication and quality therapists, yet that is not the case for many Americans. By considering the intersectionality of mental health and social justice in quality YAL texts, practitioners can help teens think critically about issues affecting their worlds.

Recently, I completed a thesis on representations of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in YAL. I found that most of the protagonists in these texts are privileged in some way. They often have supportive families (at least by the end of the novel) and appear to be in the middle-upper class. Because of these privileges, the protagonists of most of these novels are able to receive the medical care they need in the form of therapy, medication, and even hospitalization. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the protagonists in these texts are also racially privileged through their whiteness. While mental illness affects people across all genders, races, ages, and class levels equally, a recent study showed that “young people in general aren’t likely to see mental health specialists. But the numbers fell further when racial and ethnic backgrounds were factored in. About 5.7 percent of white children and young adults were likely to see a mental health specialist in a given year, compared with about 2.3 percent for black or Hispanic young people” (Luthra). Young adults of oppressed racial and class backgrounds have multiple factors working against them when trying to receive adequate psychological care. They have issues that affect all minors, such as getting parental or adult support, but they also have to overcome systemic problems more likely to negatively affect them, such as a lack of quality health insurance coverage and a high cost of care. By only featuring characters who are white, are economically advantaged, and have a fair amount of parental support, YAL as a whole is not providing literature that accurately represents many teenagers’ lives and is missing out on a significant opportunity.

I believe that mental health representation in YAL is critical, and practitioners who work with young readers should make these texts accessible. However, I argue that practitioners, especially librarians and teachers, also have a responsibility to recognize aspects of privilege within the texts they suggest and to identify what may be lacking. Mental health representation is important, but a person is never just their mental illness. Intersectionality is realistic, and the protagonist’s race, sexuality, and class can affect them just as much as their mental illness or other disability. By looking at what types of identities are lacking in this YAL, we can construct our conversations with teenagers in more meaningful ways. Recognizing a lack of class issues in these novels can help teenagers understand social justice in the context of mental health. I recommend pairing two novels, both featuring protagonists with OCD, together to open up discussion of these issues: Matt de la Peña’s Ball Don’t Lie (2005) and Tamara Ireland Stone’s Every Last Word (2015). Warning: plot spoilers ahead!

balldontlieBall Don’t Lie is written in third-person and tells the story of Sticky, a white teenager in the foster system, who spends his days at school, playing basketball at the local community center, and with his girlfriend, An-thu. A diagnosis of OCD (nor a suspicion of its existence) is not mentioned at all in the novel itself. However, readers familiar with OCD can assume that Sticky’s repetitive actions, such as unplugging and replugging his headphones until it feels just right, would be interpreted as compulsions by a medical professional (de la Peña 231). Most importantly, “obsessive-compulsive disorder” is the second tag for the book, alleviating readers from the inappropriate job of having to diagnose Sticky by doing it for us. At the climax of the novel, Sticky’s compulsions result in him getting shot in the hand. He wants to get An-thu a piece of jewelry for her birthday, but he cannot afford it. Although he initially intends to steal it from the store, he decides to steal money from a person on the street instead. When he starts compulsively counting the four hundred dollars over and over, “he freezes. He can’t move. He hasn’t counted right. He hasn’t stacked the bills right. He hasn’t done anything the way it needs to be done, and his body won’t let him move on to the next step” (258).  He continues to count, and the person he robbed catches up to him and shoots him in the hand. He is hospitalized for his injury, but his compulsions go unnoticed and untreated. The reason for this is not explicitly stated, but an assumption could be made that Sticky’s lack of adequate adult support, as well as his lack of class privilege and impoverished community, contribute. Sticky has a happy ending when he physically recovers from the injury, but it is difficult not to imagine these compulsions continuing to affect him as he transitions to playing basketball for a university.

everylastwordSam, the protagonist of Every Last Word, tells her story in first person and has been diagnosed with OCD prior to the start of the novel. She takes medication and has a therapist, a prominent character in the book. From the beginning, it is evident that she also has support from her mother. In the prologue, Sam is cutting flowers with her friends when she starts to worry that she may cut one of her friends with the scissors, a type of obsession that is manifested in some people with OCD. She escapes to the kitchen where her mother helps her work through the obsession, all while keeping what is happening private from Sam’s friends. Once Sam has calmed down, her mom assures her that she loves her and says, “Whatever you’re thinking, it’s okay. It doesn’t mean anything about you. Got it? Now tell me.” Sam thinks, “The two of us have been here before. It hasn’t happened in a long time, not like this, but Mom slips right into her assigned role as if it’s second nature. She’s well trained” (7). Sam’s mom then leads Sam through exposure therapy by having her hold a pair of scissors. In the author’s note, Stone reveals: “While there are hints in the text itself, it is important to me that readers understand that prior to this scene, (1) Sue [Sam’s therapist] has led Sam through exposure therapy sessions in her office, (2) Sue has formally trained Sam’s mother, so she can provide the 24/7 support Sam might require, and (3) Sue and Sam’s mother operate as a team and are in constant communication about managing Sam’s disorder” (357). Interestingly, Sam’s family appears very little throughout the rest of the novel (although her therapist plays a larger role). However, this interaction between Sam and her mom in the prologue, as well as the additional information provided in the author’s note, shows that Sam’s mom is positioned as a character who loves Sam and gives her the tools and experiences she needs to recover safely. This type of support system between parent and therapist is ideal for a young adult working through the struggles of OCD. Sam is privileged in that she has accessibility to quality care in multiple aspects of her life, which greatly contributes to her recovery.

These two protagonists lead very different lives. Sam has the support of her mother, while Sticky has lived in several foster homes and currently lives with a family who sees him simply as a means of gaining income. Throughout the novel, Sam’s therapist supports her, but Sticky does not receive help—in fact, he is never even diagnosed with OCD. This lack of care is particularly frustrating for readers who hope that he will get help when he is hospitalized for his injuries, but his mental illness is overlooked, potentially a result of his class status. Very few YA novels about mental health discuss issues of class, and even fewer include protagonists from diverse races. As a person who has personally benefited from multiple types of treatment at various stages of my life—and as a person who simply cares about the well being of teenagers— I believe that all people suffering from mental illness should have such an opportunity for recovery. Looking at Ball Don’t Lie and Every Last Word together can help teenagers better understand how social justice issues impact teenagers with mental illness and hopefully even inspire youth-led campaigns and activism for the cause.

What do you think? Are there any other books you would recommend pairing together? Is there an exemplar YA novel that illustrates how class, race, etc. can affect mental health treatment? Leave a comment below!

Works Cited

De la Peña, Matt. Ball Don’t Lie. Ember, 2005.

Luthra, Shefali. “Race, Ethnicity Affect Kids’ Access to Mental Health Care, Study Finds.” Kaiser Health News, 12 Aug. 2016, http://khn.org/news/race-ethnicity-affect- kids-access-to-mental-health-care-study/

Stone, Tamara Ireland. Every Last Word. Hyperion, 2015.

Meet Our Guest Blogger

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Alyssa Chrisman is a 26-year-old living in Columbus, OH. A former secondary English teacher in Memphis, she just received a M.A. in Teaching and Learning from the Ohio State University and is about to start their Ph.D. program in Literature for Children and Young Adults. When she is not doing schoolwork, she is probably spending time with her fiancé and three dogs. Sometimes she updates her Twitter and blog: @radwarriorgirl/(http://www.radwarriorgirl.com).

About the Books

Ball Don’t Lie by Matt da le Pena

Newbery Award-winning author Matt de la Pena’s Ball Don’t Lie about basketball “is a must-read.” [The Bulletin]

Sticky is a beat-around-the-head foster kid with nowhere to call home but the street, and an outer shell so tough that no one will take him in. He started out life so far behind the pack that the finish line seems nearly unreachable. He’s a white boy living and playing in a world where he doesn’t seem to belong.
But Sticky can ball. And basketball might just be his ticket out . . . if he can only realize that he doesn’t have to be the person everyone else expects him to be.
Matt de la Peña’s breakout urban masterpiece, Ball Don’t Lie takes place where the street and the court meet and where a boy can be anything if he puts his mind to it.

[STAR] “[An] inspiring story. Sticky is a true original, and de la Peña has skillfully brought him to life.”-School Library Journal, Starred

Riveting…Teens will be strongly affected by the unforgettable, distinctly male voice; the thrilling, unusually detailed basketball action; and the questions about race, love, self-worth, and what it means to build a life without advantages.”-Booklist

Stunningly realistic, this book will hook older readers, especially urban teen males.”-VOYA

“The characters live and breath…This is a must-read.“-The Bulletin

“De la Peña does an excellent job of combining the streets with the sport. Gritty and mesmerizing.“-Kirkus Reviews

“I have never before seen blacktop ball depicted so well. In this novel, you will find its flash, its power, and its elegance without chains. This is powerful stuff.”-Antawn Jamison, forward for the Los Angeles Clippers

From the very first sentence, this book grabbed me and didn’t let go. The deeper I got into it, the more I felt like Sticky’s story was my story. His heart, his handle, the guys in the gym, his potential pitfalls, his dreams. All of it. In a weird sense, this is my life.”-Grayson Boucher (“The Professor”) of tha AND 1 Mix Tape Tour

“Truly authentic in its examination of both the game I love and the invariable missteps toward manhood. You cannot fail to be moved by the eloquence and truth of this story.“-Rick Fox, former forward for the Los Angeles Lakers

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults

An ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers

(Ember, 2005)

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone

If you could read my mind, you wouldn’t be smiling.

Samantha McAllister looks just like the rest of the popular girls in her junior class. But hidden beneath the straightened hair and expertly applied makeup is a secret that her friends would never understand: Sam has Purely-Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off.

Second-guessing every move, thought, and word makes daily life a struggle, and it doesn’t help that her lifelong friends will turn toxic at the first sign of a wrong outfit, wrong lunch, or wrong crush. Yet Sam knows she’d be truly crazy to leave the protection of the most popular girls in school. So when Sam meets Caroline, she has to keep her new friend with a refreshing sense of humor and no style a secret, right up there with Sam’s weekly visits to her psychiatrist.

Caroline introduces Sam to Poet’s Corner, a hidden room and a tight-knit group of misfits who have been ignored by the school at large. Sam is drawn to them immediately, especially a guitar-playing guy with a talent for verse, and starts to discover a whole new side of herself. Slowly, she begins to feel more “normal” than she ever has as part of the popular crowd . . . until she finds a new reason to question her sanity and all she holds dear. (Disney Hyperion, 2015)

In Our Mailbox: More Thoughts on 13 Reason Why, Teens and Libraries

Trigger Warning: Discussion of Sexual Violence and Suicide

So I received a message in my email asking my thoughts on 13 Reasons Why and programming. At the same time, Heather Booth was thinking about doing a book discussion and she tweeted out asking people their thoughts, so we called and talked about it. Here’s what I’m currently thinking about 13 Reasons Why, libraries, teens and programming.

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1. The Contagion Effect

In my previous post I alluded to the fact that for reasons that we don’t quite understand, when a school had one suicide they will often have a few more. The term I was looking for at the time is the Contagion Effect. Alexandra Duncan wrote an amazing thread on the teenage brain, mental health and the contagion effect with links to good resources and I highly recommend that everyone read it. When we talk about teens and 13 Reasons Why I think it is important that we keep this information in mind.

2. We Are Not Concerned with Teenage Intelligence, but with Mental Health

Some of the conversation I have seen regarding 13 Reasons Why suggests that this is adults once again not respecting the intelligence or depth of teens, and I think that is not what is happening here. This is about recognizing, as Alexandra Duncan mentions above, that mental health is different then intelligence. People who struggle with mental health issues, depending on what those issues are and where they are at in their treatment, can respond differently to the same input as a person who does not struggle with mental health issues. There are definite times when that mental illness works really hard to trick us into thinking things about ourselves, our worth, that are a skewed distortion of the truth and it’s easy to see how people in vulnerable situations may react differently to the graphic conversations and depictions of suicide depicted in 13 Reasons Why. It’s not about not respecting teens, it’s about respecting teens who may be struggling with mental illness and understanding how triggering this can be to some of them. It’s also about respecting experts who have dedicated their lives to learning about their field of study, remember it’s not just random adults and parents who are concerned with the on screen depiction but mental health experts with knowledge and experience.

3. Speaking of Experts

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I have no problem with the idea of having book discussions or programs on controversial materials or subjects, I just recommend thinking about how we approach those. For example, I have worked at libraries where we have had programs on teen dating violence and domestic violence. The difference is that I had an expert come in and do those programs, and I would recommend the same when talking about 13 Reasons Why which involves mental health and suicide. This isn’t just a program, it’s a program about a topic that is literally life and death and it’s important that we acknowledge the weight of that and respect it. Having an expert on hand to facilitate your program/discussion and to answer any questions is important to make sure that teens are getting the most correct information available to them. If our goal is to serve teens and recognize this important discussion that they are having, then let’s serve them well and make sure they are getting the best information out there on such an important and sensitive topic.

4. Remember, Programming is Opt In

The truth about any book discussion or program in a public library is that it is opt in. This means that our patrons make the choice to come. As long as our marketing is truthful and fully informs our audience of the content of the program and the sensitive nature of the topics, I do think if done well that we can talk about sensitive and controversial things. We put the program together and invite the public, each individual decides whether or not they want to come. Our library system is in its second year of hosting the Great Discussions program, which can in fact contain some controversial topics and discussions. The key is making sure in our marketing to fully inform our prospective audience of what those topics are.

5. What’s the Very Least a Library Should Do Regarding 13 Reasons Why

The popularity of the Netflix series has brought the topics of sexual violence, bullying, mental health and suicide to the forefront of teen discussion. Not only are teens talking about it, but parents, teachers and community members are as well. So this is where we put on our information specialist hats and be pro-active rather than reactive. At the very least, take a moment to review your library policy and inform staff what they are legally and morally required to do if they have a conversation with a teen who they suspect is in some type of harm or danger or at risk for committing suicide. This is an important conversation for librarians to be having with their administration.

Second, think of having some type of resource ready should questions come up. Make sure you have access to a couple of articles regarding the book and show, have a list of some companion reads, and – MOST IMPORTANTLY – make sure you have a list of local and national resources available. There is a National Suicide Prevention Hotline (shown below) and you may want to put up signs in the library letting that information be known. Locally you may also have some resources that you want to know about to share with patrons.

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And finally, a word about streaming the Netflix show in the library. Netflix contracts do not legally allow for the public sharing or streaming of Netflix content, with the exception of The 13th which has been given special permissions for public streaming. In addition, this show is rated M for mature, and if you haven’t watched it yet you should know that is has graphic language, graphic rape scenes, and a graphic depiction of suicide.

And I want to reiterate my previous concern that while it may be great that this book and this show are out there getting teens to talk about very real and important topics that affect them, not all teens have someone to talk to about these topics. And I would caution librarians to think long and hard about what types of conversations they want to have about teens regarding these topics. Know the law, know what your administration will and won’t support, know when and who to refer to, and remind teens that although we may be valued and trusted adults who are experts on the topic of librarianship, we are not experts on the topic of mental health but we will help them find the answer to their questions.

What about sharing our personal stories? I think that is a personal decision that each librarian has to make. And again, each library culture and admin is different so you’ll want to keep in mind what type of boundaries your admin wants you to have with your teens.