Alex Townsend reviews ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES

Alex TownsendAlex likes to read and think about things. Like wombats. Did you know wombats have upside-down pouches? It’s to keep dirt off their babies while they dig underground. Keep reading, kids. It’s how you learn things!

Cover for ALL THE BRIGHT PLACESI went into All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven with my guard up. No matter how good or bad the book was, I knew a story about depression was likely to trigger my own. No surprise, it did. All the Bright Places is a beautifully written book that is, at times, very difficult to read. I’d like to warn the reader up front that this review will have some pretty big spoilers.

All the Bright Places is about two teens with depression. Violet’s sister died in a car accident the previous year and Violet blames herself for it. Finch has a long history of acting out and having sudden extreme mood swings. It is heavily implied that he is also bi-polar. At the start of the book both teens have suicidal thoughts, but Finch manages to talk Violet off of a ledge and Violet becomes Finch’s new reason for living. From there the story becomes about their budding romance as well as their personal growth. They learn about themselves and each other while exploring the hidden wonders of Indiana.

Violet and Finch are both very well-written and developed characters. It’s interesting to see them evolve and to understand more of their personal histories. It’s poignant, slice-of-life stuff and the John Green comparisons are sure to pop up. As a representation of how it feels to be depressed, All the Bright Places does a great job. I connected with the way Finch needed to find an active reason to stay alive, how he regularly pushed himself to physical exertion to feel life pumping through him, but still couldn’t stop himself from thinking about all the ways people have killed themselves. It’s a great illustration of the contradictions that can fill a person with depression.

However, now we come to the book’s greatest flaw: this is not a book for people with depression. I would absolutely not recommend it for anyone with depression who was looking for representation. The problem, and this is the big spoiler I mentioned, is that one of the protagonists kills himself. I was worried about this for the entire book. I kept flipping ahead and peaking at the last page, knowing what I saw and hoping I was wrong.

Of the two, Finch is the character with the more deep-rooted mental issues. It’s made clear through the book that he’s had suicidal thoughts for years, which hasn’t been made easier by years of bullying in school, an absent mother, and an abusive father. Being with Violet makes things better for a time, but as the book progresses I could see his dark thoughts coming back. In the end, he runs away from home and isn’t heard from for weeks. Finally Violet finds him, drowned in a lake where they’d had a date.

Suicide is a delicate topic to put in any story. Sometimes it’s used for sensationalism and sometimes it’s meant to illustrate poignant tragedy. In a book about depression though, it’s simply an essential element to discuss. Sadly, depression and suicide go together all too often in the real world. Unfortunately, Finch’s suicide is one that is handled poorly, ruining much of the book.

Once Finch dies, I feel that All the Bright Places really shows its true colors. I have seen this novel advertised as a story about teenage depression, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s a book for people with friends who commit suicide. The author admits at the end that it was an experience she went through herself and the last chunk of the story is all about Violet coping with losing Finch.

In his absence Finch goes from being an interesting, well-rounded character to a manic pixie dream-boy. Prior to killing himself he left all sort of special messages for Violet to find, final love letters to the wonder of their romance. During this section Violet doesn’t question what was going through Finch’s mind or the tragedy of suicide. Instead it’s all about finding the next whimsical message and ultimately giving Violet the strength to move on with her life.

It all left me incredibly sad and angry. Depression is a terrible illness that will regularly make a person believe the worst things about themself. It’s painful and it’s deadly and anyone with it knows that it’s daily struggle to find reasons to stay alive. Yes, there are wonderful people like Finch who lose that battle, but that isn’t the message that teens need to read about. What anyone with depression desperately needs is hope. We need to believe that we can get better, that we can get to a place somehow where we can function without that little voice saying “This would all be easier if you just died.” All the Bright Places does not leave the depressed reader with that hope. Instead it says, “If you die the right way, you can end up being an inspiration to others.”

The book also does an awful job of portraying the means to recovery for depression or any mental illness. In the fashion of any 90’s coming-of-age story, Violet and Finch both grow and evolve entirely through talking to each other, whimsical adventures, and abstract philosophy. While those things might help some people, things like therapy and medication are often essential. In All the Bright Places both standard treatment methods are shown in a very negative light. Therapists are well-meaning adults who don’t really understand at best, or at worst will put in minimal effort to try and get the depressed kid back in line. At one point Violet finds Finch living in his bedroom closet and suggests therapy to him, only to have him run away. That winds up being the last time she sees him. She partially blames herself for his death because she pushed him to seek help.

The only mention of medication comes when Finch drops in on a suicidal teens support group and sees several kids with “the dull, vacant look of people on drugs”. No one explains the benefits of antidepressants. Instead any hint of medical treatment is treated with disgust and outdated ideas. Finch says that medication will take away who you are or that or a medical label like “bipolar” will only reduce you to a crazy case-study. This notion is never refuted.

It’s painful because the writing and the characters are wonderfully well-crafted, but if you’re looking for a book about depression I’d pass on this one. The demonization of proper treatment, the presence of possibly preventable suicide, and the sudden transformation of Finch into a manic pixie dream-boy all weigh the story down too much. Save yourself the heartache and read something with a bit more hope.

s.e. smith interviews Hilary T. Smith about WILD AWAKE

Last year, writer and journalist s.e. smith reviewed Wild Awake, a contemporary YA novel by Hilary T. Smith featuring a protagonist with bipolar disorder. We invited the both of them to the blog to discuss books, mental illness, and everything in between.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed copy of Wild Awake! Details at the end of the post.

Welcome, s.e. and Hilary! Take it away …

Cover for WILD AWAKEs.e. smith: What are some of your favourite literary works (for any age) depicting mental illness? What about them speaks to you?

Hilary T. Smith: I love everything by the New Zealand author Janet Frame. Her books aren’t “about” mental illness; however, they immerse the reader in the minds of characters who experience the world very differently than the norm (or perhaps less differently than you’d think, the difference being that Frame wasn’t afraid to set down a messy, strange, and sometimes disturbing internal reality for her characters, where other authors feel the need to tidy it up and make it coherent). Her descriptions of social anxiety in Towards Another Summer are scarily accurate, taking readers deep into the experience without labeling it or making it an issue. Everyone should read her books!

On the more well-known side of things, I was moved by Allie Brosh’s depiction of suicidal depression in her collection Hyperbole and a Half — raw and funny and heartbreaking and completely relatable. I have no doubt that book saved a lot of lives.

s.e.: What’s it like being an out mentally ill author? Do you feel like you’ve experienced discrimination or other barriers as a result of your frankness about your mental health status, or just the opposite?

Hilary: I’m really not aware of any differences. My life is pretty quiet…it’s not like I’m making public appearances all the time where that status/identity gets discussed or called into play. In fact, my status as an author (let alone “author with mental illness”) has so little impact on my daily life that it feels a little disorienting to hear myself referred to that way — I certainly don’t think of myself in those terms.

s.e.: Identity politics, and the decision to label or not label, gets complex. I totally know what you mean when you say it feels disorientating to be called an ‘author with mental illness,’ but do you think labels have a function? Where and when?

Hilary: There is quite a debate about the label thing, isn’t there? We live in an age of labels and categories, and this is reflected in our fiction — just look at our obsession with the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, the Factions in Divergent, and all the associated personality quizzes and “which-blank-are-you” tests online. We want to belong to something, to say “I am this!,” to make some coherence out of this noisy reality. And there is obviously value in that (people building communities around a certain identity, finding support, pushing for change…) and also some problems (because once you are in that community, there may be a certain pressure, whether intentional or accidental, to conform to a model of that identity that isn’t quite true for you). Personally, I am growing more and more uncomfortable with any kind of us-versus-them duality, especially when it comes to something like mental illness – because our society as a whole is deeply disturbed, and to single out some people as “mentally ill” implies that the problem is contained in a small population, when in fact it’s embedded in our way of life.

s.e.: In the larger conversation about #WeNeedDiverseBooks, a complementary hashtag was started: #WeNeedDiverseAuthors. How do you think the publishing industry can work on the shortage of diversity on spines, not just between the covers?

Hilary T. SmithHilary: My answer to this question would entail a complete dismantling of our economic system. *grins*.

This is a multifaceted problem. On one hand, you have the publishing industry, which includes well-meaning but underpaid and overworked editors who are under tremendous pressure to acquire profitable books (at the expense of diversity and other good qualities) and do not have much latitude for taking necessary risks. On the other side, you have a population of writers, some of whom have much more of the time, resources, connections and skills needed to get a toehold in the publishing world than others. The publishing world (if we’re talking about the big houses, as opposed to small presses) is very corporate, and it can be hard to navigate unless you are comfortable working within those parameters and speaking that language.

In my ideal world, everything would be human-scale…smaller publishers, slower pace, no auto-responders or form rejections. While we’re at it, how about less pollution, fewer cars, more trees, less noise…you see where I’m going with this!

s.e.: Tell me EVERYTHING (well, okay, something) about [your next book] A Sense of the Infinite! That’s not a question, but whatever.

Hilary: It was hard to get Kiri’s voice out of my head after writing Wild Awake, and I had to find subtle ways of forcing my brain to change gears (past tense instead of present, East Coast setting instead of West, expanded timeline instead of compressed one, short chapters instead of long ones, etc. etc.) The result is a book that is as different from Wild Awake as it could be, yet it’s still a very “Hilary” book…same animal, different dance, if that makes any sense. I’m terrible at plot summaries (“hero goes on a journey! stranger comes to town!”) so I’ll leave it at that…

s.e.: What has the response to Wild Awake been like?

Hilary: Unless someone e-mails me directly, I don’t track response to my books. The e-mails have been heartwarming. Other than that, I can’t say!

s.e.: I know that many authors prefer not to follow responses to their books — is this a tactic you used to help manage your mental health, allow you to focus on writing, or just avoid pointless one-star Goodreads reviews from people who got mad because their copies were delivered late and never actually read the book?

Hilary: When I was blogging a lot, I used to feel a lot of anxiety about comments — I was afraid to check them, and I don’t know why. It got to the point where I was feeling bad about myself all the time, for no good reason — I just had this general sense of doom, like some cosmic axe was about to fall, like all these imaginary people were very, very disappointed in me. It wasn’t productive. It wasn’t doing anybody any good. By the time Wild Awake came out, I realized that most of what I was doing on the internet was making me unhappy. So I stopped.

I don’t spend much time on the internet anymore. I practice music. I work in the garden. I’m not saying I’ll never do more internet writing, or participate in that community, but I needed to prove to myself that I didn’t OWE it to anybody to tweet, or blog, or track reviews, or feel that anxiety. And yes: less response-tracking = less anxiety = more creativity. So there’s that.

s.e.: As an author, and a person with mental illness, and a person writing mentally ill characters, what’s your advice for noncrazies looking to authentically depict the experience of mental illness in teens and young adults?

Hilary: There’s no such thing as a non-crazy, there are just people who have yet to experience their crazy. So if you want to write a character with a mental illness, but you do not consider yourself to have experienced anything on a spectrum with depression, mania, paranoia, obsession, anxiety etc, one idea would be to live another decade or two before you attempt it. I’m not saying you need to have a mental illness yourself in order to write good fiction involving mental illness, but it helps to find some kind of seed in your own experience. For example, ask yourself “What does it feel like when I’m anxious?” Then imagine that feeling expanded ten times. Starting with your own experience, no matter how mild that experience may be, is going to yield better results than assuming that you have nothing in common with your mentally ill character.

s.e.: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sarah McCarry’s Working Project – it’s a fascinating series of interviews with mentally ill writers (and authors) speaking frankly about their mental illnesses. I’ve also noticed more and more YA authors, like Lauren DeStefano, speaking up about how mental illness affects their lives (she speaks quite frankly about the disruptions anxiety causes for her, for example). Do think we’re starting to see a renaissance of openness, and perhaps a shift in the way people talk about mental illness as a result?

Hilary: I do think the internet has made it easier for people to write about mental illness and other “personal” topics – you’re not shouting into a void, and there is often a flood of support and validation that you might not “hear” if you’re publishing on paper or speaking in a school gym. I think everyone feels a little safer when they reveal things on the internet, both writers and readers/commenters…because it’s not you revealing things, it’s your avatar, your e-personality, which may be very close to your everyday self, or it might be a braver version. And of course, it’s easier for your writing to find its intended audience.

Of course, the real test will be to see if all this openness and sharing results in different lives for people who are currently homeless or otherwise suffering due to their mental illness…it’s one thing to do a lot of talking and commenting, and another thing to change the way we operate as a society.

s.e.: Could you tell me a little about your working environment/habits? Because somehow I imagine you buried in a cabin in the woods like me and I really like this visual image. Cats in the office or no cats? Cake or pie? Coffee or tea?

Hilary: Haha! Right now, I am living across the river from some very nice woods, which are currently packed with thimbleberries. I have a nice big desk I got off Craigslist—it is cluttered with bird skulls and bottles of fountain pen ink and postcards from Morocco and the “Author! Author!” button from my first book event. No cats. The house was built in 1905 as a millworkers shack, and it has an attic full of squirrels, eaves full of birds, and no appliances. I love it!

Thanks so much, s.e. and Hilary!

Hilary has generously donated a signed copy of Wild Awake be given to one of our followers. To enter, simply leave a comment here on WordPress or reblog our Tumblr post. (Yes, doing both increases your chances!) In one week, we’ll select a single winner from one of these locations to win the book. This giveaway is limited to US addresses.

The giveaway over, and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who entered!

S. Jae-Jones: I’m Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Creature–Debunking Bipolar Stereotypes

S. Jae-JonesS. Jae-Jones (called JJ)’s emotional growth was stunted at the age of 12, the age when adventures were imminent and romance just over the horizon. She lives in grits country, where she pretends to be an adult with a mortgage and a car. Other places to find JJ include Twitter, Tumblr, and her blog.

But you don’t seem bipolar.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say this to me. I also can’t tell you how many times people have been dismissive or incredulous about my mental illness, simply because I don’t fulfill many of their preconceived notions about bipolar individuals.

Here is a truth about me: I have a mood disorder. I was first diagnosed when I was 17 years old, and a senior in high school. I have been hospitalized, I have been medicated, and I have spent years in therapy. I am also—I would like to note—a happy and (mostly) productive member of society, with a full and fulfilling life. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Being “out” about my bipolar disorder is tricky, partially because society as a whole still demonizes mental illness, and partially because—unlike being female or a person of color—bipolar disorder is not a visible aspect of my existence. Do I wear the physical signs of a “crazy person” the way I am identifiably female and not white? No. Because of this, a lot of people tend to write off or trivialize my mental disorder as being invalid.

Here are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual:

  1. I suffer from mood swings, or more properly, “states”. I have manic states and depressive states, and cycle through them a few times a year.
  2. I am no longer medicated for my disorder.
  3. My family has a history of mental illness: my maternal grandfather and my maternal uncle most likely suffered from bipolar disorder (although it was undiagnosed in both). My grandfather led a rich and artistic life until he passed away from lung cancer when I was two. My uncle was an alcoholic and committed suicide.
  4. The severity and intensity of my mood episodes have lessened as I’ve grown older. Or perhaps I’ve become more equipped to deal with them through therapy and with the support of my family and friends. It does not, however, mean I am “cured” or that I no longer suffer (and suffer in very real and tangible ways).
  5. It is a very private disorder. I keep my feelings to myself. This is in part because I don’t want to contribute to the very stereotypes that plague other individuals with the disorder, but also due to the fact that those who do not suffer from mental illness simply do not understand how my manic and depressive states differ from more moderate feelings of happiness and frustration. My friends and family can provide support, but otherwise, I prefer to be left alone.
  6. How do I tell the difference between a manic episode and happiness, a depressive episode and sadness? In between my moods, I have a “normal” state of being. I get annoyed by little things or excited by big ones. I get sad when my feelings are hurt or pleasantly surprised by small acts of kindness. In the 11 years I’ve lived with this disorder, I’ve come to recognize JJ vs. Manic/Depressive JJ. When I am manic, I am Too Much Me. When I am depressive, I am Not Enough Me. But this revelation comes after years and years of trial and error.

These are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual. But not all bipolar individuals exhibit symptoms of their disorder in the same way, just as my experience as a woman and my experience as a person of color is not identical to every other woman of color. I do not speak for everyone with mental illness, but I can tell you about the stereotypes about bipolar disorder that are harmful to those us who live with it:

  1. Bipolar people are a ticking time bomb.
    There is no enormous sign that says HANDLE WITH CARE. Bipolar states are not necessarily triggered by small, external factors like a work disappointment or a bad day. More often, these small external factors are like the straw that broke the camel’s back; chances are you were already approaching a state of mania or depression, and this small, external factor exacerbated a mood you were already in.

  2. Bipolar people are moody and sensitive.
    I suppose by definition bipolar individuals are moody, but not all of us are habitually so. When I am Me (as opposed when I am either Too Much or Not Enough Me), I’m generally sanguine and easygoing. A minor frustration or setback doesn’t usually make me irritable or put me in a funk; I tend to laugh it off and move on. There are plenty of moody individuals who are not bipolar; therefore, moodiness and bipolar disorder are not one and the same.

  3. Bipolar people are self-destructive and lack impulse control.
    I don’t deny that there is a high incidence of suicide and substance abuse comorbid with bipolar disorder. I also don’t deny that in the early stages of my disorder, I engaged in a lot of self-destructive and suicidal behavior, and felt as though I couldn’t control myself. Many undiagnosed and untreated cases of mental illness devolve into suicide and substance abuse, but correlation does not necessarily imply causation. A lot of times, people with mental illness turn to self-destructive behaviors as a way of coping with their disorder, either consciously or subconsciously, and in many of those instances, these self-destructive behaviors can be treated with medication and therapy.

    The thing about impulse control though—I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but as someone who considers herself a person with a large amount of willpower, Sitzfleisch*, and self-discipline, sometimes I feel as though certain behaviors are beyond my control. Sometimes, in either my manic or depressive states, I find myself doing things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and can’t for the love of God figure out why I can’t stop. Or why I can’t start. Most of these behaviors are small: I can’t make my bed (and my make my bed every day, thank you very much), I can’t respond to an email, I’m smoking cigarettes again, I can’t bear to face people I know and love, I can’t do anything but sit in front of my computer and obsessively read 70 million articles about the history of pantaloons. Sometimes I honestly can’t get up out of bed and face the prospect of eating. Or working. Or existing. I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles. With some things, I can wrest back control. With others, I can’t. But again, this is something I’ve learned to live with over time.

    I have to note too, that when I am Me, I know the difference between “I just don’t feel like it” and “I cannot”. Sometimes I feel like a lazy slob. But then I usually kick myself in the butt and get it done. Sometimes I feel like a gross person and eat an entire can of Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Pringles in one sitting. But then I shrug it off and go back to my normal routine. That’s “I don’t feel like it”, or the occasional indulgence. These things are normal, and even good from time to time. And then there is “I cannot”. I am not hungry, but I cannot stop eating. I am hungry but I cannot bring myself to eat. I am desperately lonely but I cannot bear human contact. These are the “I cannots”. They are very different from the “I don’t feel like its” and that’s where the issue of “impulse control” can become very fuzzy with people with mental illness.

  4. Bipolar people are artists, magical, tortured, misunderstood, etc.
    As with suicidal tendencies and substance abuse, there is also a strong correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity. There is a strong artistic streak in my own family; my grandfather was a painter, my uncle was a poet. I dabble in art and writing and music. But that in itself doesn’t indicate bipolar disorder; there are plenty of artists, musicians, and writers who do not have mental illness.

    But what I loathe in portrayals of bipolar people is this tendency to turn them into Manic Pixie Dream Creatures. Certainly manic episodes can come with increased creative output or productivity, as well as impulsive and reckless behaviors. In my own manic states, I have been described as being mercurial, tricksy, coy, a “free spirit”, eccentric, etc. As with some depressive states, in my manic ones, there are a lot of instances of “I cannot”, but sometimes, it comes with “I can and I WILL”. I can do this extreme thing because I can, so I WILL. It’s not to impress anyone, and it’s absolutely not to make anyone think I’m this otherworldly fairy put on this earth to change your life. In this case, it is compulsion rather than lack of impulse control that I feel is beyond me.  For me, a manic state feels like there’s an external force pulling at me, pushing me, and I’m just swept along in the current. Swimming upstream is hard.

  5. Bipolar people are “crazy”.

    This one is a little harder to unpack. “Crazy” is a loaded word, and it’s also a word that is so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless. But in everyday parlance, “crazy” is often a word lobbed at young women who act in ways that go against the grain of society. I hate that word. I hate how unspecific it is. I hate how dismissive it can be of the complex and varied existence of those living with mental illness. I also hate how it seems to be almost exclusively applied to young women, whereas young men are “troubled” or “tortured” or “misunderstood.”

    What is “crazy”? In nearly every context I’ve heard that word applied to someone, the person saying it usually means “she’s acting in ways that are contrary to my interests”. I don’t deny that manic or mixed states often cause me to act in ways that are irrational and unreasonable, and that I’m not exactly the easiest person to be around. And certainly many people who have mental illness can suffer delusions. (I have.) But “crazy” is thrown around so lightly these days that it’s become a dismissive slur.

    People living with mental illness can be unreasonable, irrational, and delusional. They can also make poor or selfish decisions. But that is not exclusive to people with mental illness; everyone can be “crazy”. Bipolar people are not this way ALL THE TIME, nor are they always this way when not on meds.

The other day I was out with a new-ish friend of mine and I casually mentioned my bipolar disorder.

“You’re not bipolar,” he said.

“How would you know?” I asked.

“You don’t seem bipolar. You’re not nuts.”

“And I suppose you would know.”

The truth was, he didn’t know. He made assumptions based on the stereotypes that exist. He assumed that because I wasn’t a “constant emotional wreck” and that I didn’t have a mental illness.

“How do you function without meds?” he asked. “I know bipolar people, and when they’re off, they go off the deep end.”

“You’ve never seen me on meds,” I replied.

“That’s true,” he said. And he got thoughtful. “Funny. Would never have thought that about you. But you don’t always know everything about people.”

Medication is something of a tricky subject for me. Many people need medication. And when I was first diagnosed, I was placed on a pill regimen. (Diagnosis is tricky—I was initially diagnosed as clinically depressed, then they thought I also had an anxiety disorder, or perhaps OCD, and even potentially ADHD. It was only after two psychiatrists and four different therapists that I got a proper diagnosis.) I disliked it. Later I would describe it to my therapist as feeling like I was never myself. I felt like a robot or an automaton, or another thing that went about its business and routine with no passion or intensity. I disliked it. I would have hated it, if I could feel.

Fortunately for me, I had a therapist who worked with me. We worked on a lot of different exercises, including writing down what I felt in a journal, and then reading back to recognize the patterns in my manic, normal, and depressed states. Then I learned to recognize when I was in those states. And then I learned how to live with them.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone. It works for me. For me, there is power in naming something and recognizing it for what it is. And just like everything else in this complicated world we live in, there isn’t a unilateral treatment for mental illness. I was lucky; my parents were incredibly supportive and helped me find the treatment that worked for me. Each bipolar individual is different. I’m just one.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you include a bipolar character in your work: the disorder often manifests itself in late teenage years. I was 17 when I was diagnosed. This is possibly THE WORST TIME in life to be diagnosed—in addition to the trainwreck that is puberty (or maybe that’s just me) and hormones going wild, you have mental illness fucking up your shit.

BUT. It doesn’t define your life. Or at least it didn’t define mine. I had to learn how to modify my life to accommodate it. I had to miss 2 months of school, and I eventually had to drop physics. (Boo hoo.) This was a huge blow to my pride; I was always a good student, and moreover, I was always at the top of the academic pyramid. But I couldn’t continue living the way I had with my disorder, so I made compromises. In between manic and depressive episodes I was still me. I was still silly, fangirlish, serious, and thoughtful; I still participated in activities that were important to me: visual arts, creative writing, and piano. Sometimes I couldn’t manage the things I loved. Sometimes I could. Being bipolar didn’t overtake my life. And it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines your character either.

*Sitzfleisch: German, noun. The ability to sit through something boring. Lit. “sitting-flesh”. This is one of my favorite German compound nouns.

Recommended Reading List

Throughout the past month, we’ve discussed a lot of the ways YA/MG lit can get disabilities wrong. It’s important to catalog and analyze all the many different tropes, to bring up specific examples of inaccurate and offensive portrayals, and to educate writers about the truth of living with various disabilities.

However, we also want to celebrate those books and authors that get it right. We asked our contributors to tell us which kidlit books they’ve read that handle disability well. So here’s the “recommended reading” list our contributors came up with!

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS (John Green) – Blindness

“Some will disagree with me on this, but I was pleased with the portrayal of Isaac. His experience is different from mine in that he goes blind as a teen, but I thought his reactions and frustrations were very real (even if his video games were not). Isaac isn’t as independent as I would like blind characters to be, but he’s still transitioning and he’s learning at a realistic pace. Also, he is a fully fledged character outside of his disability – he isn’t defined by being blind, even if he might worry that he is. So despite some reservations, I’d recommend this.”

CRAZY (Amy Reed) – Bipolar

“I had some issues with the book but virtually none were due to Amy’s treatment of bipolar disorder. She nails it (as a person with bipolar herself–openly–this isn’t too surprising). It’s complex and ugly and life-swallowing. The letter format shows it from both her perspective and her love interest’s. Really good.”

WILD AWAKE (Hilary T. Smith) – Unspecified, but likely Bipolar

“As Kiri Byrd slowly descends into a manic episode, we have an opportunity to see mental health conditions depicted from the point of view of someone who has them, rather than friends and family, and Smith also brilliantly captures the bright, sharp edges of mania. I’d note that Smith also has a mental health condition (she’s written about it, I don’t know if she’s specified what it is).”

COLIN FISCHER (Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) – Autism

Colin Fischer is a murder mystery that only Colin and the school bully can solve, but Colin has problems of his own when it comes to reading people’s emotions effectively and navigating the world. Colin Fischer explores some of the experiences of autism authentically (ymmv when it comes to autism depictions and authenticity, of course), and again, features a disabled character as primary narrator instead of object. Zack (full disclosure–Zack is a friend and colleague) is on the autism spectrum disorder, as are his children, and he’s discussed this openly.”

MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD (Francisco X. Stork) – Autism

Marcelo in the Real World explores coming of age for a Latino teen who serves as the primary narrator in a novel about being forced into a series of social and ethical situations that make him extremely comfortable. One of the things I love about this novel is that his struggles with ethics and community are more closely linked to coming of age and maturing as a human than they are with his disability–while Marcelo sometimes struggles to read people in complex situations because he is autistic, this isn’t a story All About Autism.”

KNOWING JOSEPH (Judith Mammay) – Autism, ADHD

“Judith was my crit partner at one time, so I’ve had the honor of reading all her books which center on autism and AD/HD. I think her portrayals are very realistic, both for the person who has the disorders as well as the family members who deal with them and their valid feelings on the matter. This book is written simply, so it has broad appeal – from independent reader to classroom read for teachers to help fellow students gain compassion and understanding.”

THE BOYFRIEND LIST (E. Lockhart) – Anxiety, Panic attacks

“So much to love here: Ruby’s frustration with a lack of diagnosis and her ambivalent feelings about being put on meds, her family’s reaction to her panic attacks, and how they affect her life (they’re the catalyst for why she goes to therapy and starts thinking about the boys in her life) without defining it. They reappear throughout the series. No magic cures here.”

WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON (John Green and David Levithan) – Depression

“This. Just, this: I had no doubt that Tiny thought he got depressed, but that was probably because he had nothing to compare it to. Still, what could I say? that I didn’t just feel depressed – instead, it was like the depression was the core of me, of every part of me, from my mind to my bones? That if he got blue, I got black? That I hated those pills so much because I knew how much I relied on them to live?

No, I couldn’t say any of this because when it all comes down to it, nobody wants to hear it. No matter how much they like you or love you, they don’t want to hear it.'”

“Seconding this recommendation very strongly. The way Will Grayson talks about experiences of depression is both painful to read because it feels so true, and fantastically expressive.”

LOVELY, DARK, AND DEEP (Amy McNamara) – Depression

“Wren Wells wants to hide herself away in the wake of a horrific car accident, and she’s almost dragged under by the strength of her own depression. Lovely, Dark and Deep explores not just the experience of situational depression, but the role of therapy and other tools for managing depression without shame or judgement. This is also a fantastically beautifully-written and intense novel, so there’s that too.”

Maggie Tiede: Popping Pills: Mental Illness Medications in YA and Why They Matter

Maggie Desmond-O'BrienMaggie Tiede is a teenaged writer and book blogger out to change the world, one word at a time. She was diagnosed with bipolar I and obsessive-compulsive disorder when she was seventeen. She lives in northern Minnesota, United States, North America, Planet Earth, where she is currently at work on a novel; and probably would like to be your friend.

She’s previously written about mental illness in YA here.

Minor spoilers for Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, and Silver Linings Playbook.

About a year ago, I was in the hospital. I remember hoping I’d be out by the 4th of July so my family could celebrate the holiday at home, instead of staying in some cramped hotel room near the psych ward so they could visit me. Through group therapy and visits with the ward’s psychiatrist, I was on best behavior. (I was, in fact, out by the 4th.) I remember the overwhelming guilt and shame I felt at ending up in the hospital in the first place. If I’d been strong, I wouldn’t have needed help. If I’d been strong, I could have made the horrible thoughts of hurting myself, and hurting others, go away. If I’d been strong, I wouldn’t have needed the medications that the nurses handed me with little Dixie cups full of water twice daily. If I’d been strong.

My bipolar I disorder, and my obsessive-compulsive disorder: before my fateful two-hour drive to the emergency room in the closest big city with a psych ward, I believed these things were weaknesses to be eliminated by sheer force of will. Pills were for pussies, I told myself. Which was why, prior to the hospital stay, I had slowly been reducing my dose of Risperdal, the primary medication that managed my terrifying manic highs, without telling anyone, until I was hardly taking anything at all. The two or three months I managed to get by on the reduced dose were enough to convince me: My psychiatrist is lying. I don’t need medication. I’m fine. I can beat this. Until, of course, I couldn’t.

It’s taken me months to get my medications stabilized, but it’s happened, and I’m happier and healthier now than I’ve been since I was fifteen years old. But, looking back, I can’t help but wish that I’d been able to come to terms with the “weakness” of taking the medication I need to be well sooner. And it’s hard not to lay some of the blame for my attitudes at the feet of the books I love.

Though there are countless others, two of my favorite YA novels, in particular—Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly and Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves—are unfortunately guilty of the same mental illness trope: that someone is “just not themselves” on medication, that they feel like they’re swimming through syrup, or that they are somehow buying into the “system.” In both cases, the protagonists—one severely depressed and one schizophrenic, respectively—end up tossing out their pills as part of their character arc, liberating themselves from the negative effects of their mental illness in the process.

Contrast this with the movie Silver Linings Playbook, in which Pat, the bipolar protagonist, initially makes similar arguments—that he’s bloated and dull on medication—but by the end of the movie, reaches health and happiness by taking medication and making life changes. Why can’t we see more of this in YA?

It’s frustrating to see mental illness treated as just one more way to stick it to the establishment, instead of as the very real spectrum of disorders that it is. Attitudes can’t change until writers with mental illness make their voices heard, and write their own stories. When we do, it will change lives.