L. Lee Butler reviews WHEN REASON BREAKS

L. Lee ButlerL. Lee Butler is a middle school librarian in the DC Public Schools. He’s a pretty typical librarian : likes to read, does crafts, gay. In addition to serving on YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection Committee 2013, he also reviews diverse titles for School Library Journal.


Cover for WHEN REASON BREAKS

The hook of When Reason Breaks, as presented in the flap copy, is to present two very different girls and tease the reader as to who will attempt suicide. Although that seems crass, showing the parallel journeys of Emily and Elizabeth allows author Cindy L. Rodriguez to explore two different expressions of depression. That either one of them could believably be the girl overdosing at the opening of the book all the way up to the ultimate reveal is the result of the author’s deep understanding of the manifold ways that depression affects people, as well as skillful misdirection.

Elizabeth Davis and Emily Delgado are classmates without much socially between them despite their last names leading them to be seated next to each other in every class. Emily is fresh off a social media debacle that led her politician father to punish her in humiliating ways. Elizabeth has rage and angst fueling her gothy new persona. And both of them will be studying Emily Dickinson in Ms. Diaz’s English class. The novel takes much of its structure and characterization from Dickinson’s poetry, biography, and speculation about her life, but keeps its influences from overwhelming the narrative.

Elizabeth’s depression is the more stereotypical teen girl depression depicted in many novels, with goth fashion decisions, secretive poetry, and violent acting out. Her depression is revealed piecemeal, so it’s not until much later in the book that we see its particular genesis. It is a testament to Rodriguez’s skill as a writer that these often-used character traits do not feel stale, but are part of a character that feels very real. It’s no wonder that Ms. Diaz latches onto her issues before Emily’s, and it is a welcome choice to see a teacher in a YA novel taking appropriate measures to deal with an obviously troubled student. I know I am not the first well-meaning adult reader of YA literature to be (inappropriately) frustrated with the lack of adult presence in the genre, so I am glad to see the depiction of a well-boundaried adult who is there for her students struggling with mental health issues. But Ms. Diaz is not the adult-insert savior of Elizabeth or Emily; she is a realistic but completely inadequate resource just like those I encountered as a depressed teenager.

But the depiction of Emily’s depression is the real jewel in the novel, painfully accurate to the kind of feelings and actions that are less showy than the typical treatment of depression in media. Without a traumatic root, Emily’s depression is an organic thing that dictates her reactions to the normal ups and downs of teenage life, which is a rarity for narrative depictions of depression. Her position as a pretty, popular girl does not save her from her mental illness. As her downward spiral begins, we get a telling glimpse into the way that depressive mindsets not only make everyday struggles difficult, but add guilt on to the struggle.

 

Emily looked at Mama and Pop and thought about her friends and Kevin. Like Jacob, they all had struggles, but none of them had faced a major tragedy. She watched the news. Compared to others, her life and her problems were pretty ordinary. So why did it all feel like she was in an epic battle? Why did every snarky remark become a festering wound? Why did she always feel like she was pinned to the mat and crushed under their weight? (pages 112-113)

Rather than accepting that every life has struggles, the depressive mind tries to put feelings into false perspective. The internal monologue of “your problems aren’t so bad, cheer up!” can feel like it’s coming from a place of balance, but it’s actually just another facet of depression reflecting back on itself. It’s just as destructive as the more obviously self-hating narratives.

I am particularly grateful for and impressed by the unflinching nature of Chapter 35’s depiction of suicide. The mechanical descriptions of CPR and the ministrations of the paramedics are real and unsentimental. The following chapters, showing the fallout for others and the resistance to treatment, are correct to my recollections of a similar time in my life and what has been related to me by my family and friends. Although it is the climax of the novel, the suicide does not stand as the endpoint of the narrative. It is a turning point, as in real life, when rock bottom or a nearby shock can be a catalyst for change. The narrative shift from the past tense to the present underlines the uncertainty that this change brings.

There is so much to recommend When Reason Breaks that it’s impossible to fit it into this review. From the recognition of the physical symptoms of depression to the way diversity is woven into the characters to the realistic role that social media plays in the lives of our protagonists, this novel is a real accomplishment of characterization. Depression and suicide is not all there is to Emily or Elizabeth, nor is it the only point of the narrative, but they take center stage in an astutely observed way that is wonderful to read.

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.

Amalie Greenway reviews DON’T TOUCH

Amalie GreenwayOriginally from the exact center of nowhere in Texas, Amalie Greenway has moved thirteen times in the past seven years, accompanied by OCD (acquired at age 8) and severe migraines (age 4). She has settled—for now—in the chilly Midwest, where she grumbles about the cold and works as a nanny to several wonderful little girls, while writing and revising novels in her “free time.” You can find her on Tumblr and Twitter.


Cover for DON'T TOUCHThirty minutes into reading Don’t Touch, I went to look up the author’s bio and confirm what I already suspected: like me, Rachel M. Wilson has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to write well about a disability if you don’t have it. I certainly hope not; I write characters with disabilities I don’t have. But there was something in this story—some intimate, intangible Knowing—that made me believe, This author has been here. This author has walked in these shoes.

The story follows Caddie, a freshman at Birmingham Arts Academy who dreams of being an actress. Years ago, her severe OCD put her in therapy; she clings to the narrative that she’s better now, even as her parents’ failing marriage drives her deep into obsessive thought and compulsive behavior. Her primary compulsion is avoiding touch: If she doesn’t touch anyone’s skin, maybe her distant father will come back home. Caddie knows this likely isn’t logical behavior, but she can’t stop—even as it rips away at her life, damaging her rekindled friendship with former best friend Mandy, her maybe-romance with magnetic Peter, and her chance at playing the dream role of Ophelia.

Despite the many differences between my life and Caddie’s, the general pattern of her illness—early onset, temporary improvement, and teenage relapse—was eerily like mine. And as someone who has lived with active OCD for most of my life, I can say that this book’s portrayal of the illness rang incredibly true. Caddie’s obsessive fears and intense anxiety attacks are so vivid that I often had to put the book down and take a break to let my own echoes of sympathetic panic ebb away. And I loved the main character: Despite her constant, exhausting background roar of fear, Caddie is empathetic, a good listener and good friend when she isn’t in the grip of panic. Her passion for acting, even when it conflicts with her severe anxiety, permeates nearly every page. She is a complex, well-drawn character, far more than just “a girl with OCD”—but as her illness worsens, it tangles into everything she does, affecting all her decisions. My anxiety did that, left untreated. It narrowed the world and it ate at the sky until I had fewer and fewer options left.

Caddie obsesses over feeling safe, which has little to do with being objectively safe—the idea of touching another person’s skin sends her into complete panic, while certain kinds of actual physical danger might evoke no such response. She hides her compulsions from friends and family, weaving a series of lies and half-truths, building herself a quirky persona to cover the fear. She sometimes hurts the people closest to her, shoving them away when they try to help, pushing harder the closer they get. All these things were like seeing pieces of my own history, set down on a page in black and white.

I live in a world where my friends laughingly say they’re “so OCD” when they line up objects neatly on their shelves. I live in a world where popular media often presents superficial “OCD” characters who count things, worry about germs, memorize details as an almost-superpower, have “quirks” we’re all supposed to find funny, and rarely get to be real people whose minds are collapsing under the weight of crippling anxiety. Here, finally, is a book I can give to friends and family and say: “If you want a glimpse of what it’s actually like inside my head, read this.”

Emma Crees, Courtney Gilfillian, and s.e. smith review SAY WHAT YOU WILL

Emma CreesEmma Crees is 32 and lives in Oxfordshire, UK. A life long wheelchair user she’s passionate about all things disability and can often be found online ranting about this. If she’s not ranting about disability she’s probably talking about books or writing. All of this and more is on her blog, A Writer In A Wheelchair, or on her twitter account @FunkyFairy22. When Emma isn’t online she can often be found knitting, sailing or volunteering.

Courtney GilfillianCourtney Gilfillian lives, writes, and works in New York City. She is constantly on the hunt for a good cocktail, the best pancakes in the city, and most of all a good book. Find her on Twitter at @whitegirlbkcvrs and at her blog about diversity in YA lit.

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.


Today, we’re hosting a discussion of Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (titled Amy and Matthew in the UK). Our participants were Emma Crees, Courtney Gilfillian, and s.e. smith, who discussed the portrayal of both main characters’ disabilities–cerebral palsy and OCD–as well as several other disability-related issues that came up in the book.

Please note–this discussion contains spoilers.

Cover for SAY WHAT YOU WILL

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars meets Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park in this beautifully written, incredibly honest, and emotionally poignant novel. Cammie McGovern’s insightful young adult debut is a heartfelt and heartbreaking story about how we can all feel lost until we find someone who loves us because of our faults, not in spite of them.

Born with cerebral palsy, Amy can’t walk without a walker, talk without a voice box, or even fully control her facial expressions. Plagued by obsessive-compulsive disorder, Matthew is consumed with repeated thoughts, neurotic rituals, and crippling fear. Both in desperate need of someone to help them reach out to the world, Amy and Matthew are more alike than either ever realized.

When Amy decides to hire student aides to help her in her senior year at Coral Hills High School, these two teens are thrust into each other’s lives. As they begin to spend time with each other, what started as a blossoming friendship eventually grows into something neither expected.

Continue reading

Corinne Duyvis: The Mystical Disability Trope

Corinne DuyvisA lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Find her on Twitter or Tumblr. Her YA fantasy debut Otherbound released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It has received four starred reviews and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Kirkus Reviews called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”


The trope of the mystical disabled person is varied, flexible, and very common.

At its core, it’s about a disabled character—frequently mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and/or blind—with some sort of unusual ability. While this trope is related to that of the “disability superpower” and often overlaps, I feel like it has a unique status of its own. Rather than just any superpower, these abilities are often unexplained and mysterious; the characters either hold or are the clue to saving the day, giving them a unique, mystical role in the plot.

A blind girl who’s the only one to see the ghosts haunting the main characters.

A little kid with Down’s syndrome who solves the riddle everyone is struggling with.

A schizophrenic person whose seemingly nonsensical ramblings hold the clue to the mystery.

An autistic boy with world-altering powers beyond anyone’s comprehension.

(And on and on.)

All of these characters are ridiculously easy to imagine because we see them so often. They’re most common in SFF settings, where either they’ll be the only person with a magical ability, or—in a world where these abilities are commonplace—theirs will be the rarest, strongest, or most important. They also appear in settings without any supernatural aspects, in which case the character often has savant-like abilities or unusual insight.

One of the typical things about this trope—although not essential—is that the characters usually aren’t well-rounded, realistic, grounded characters. They’re Othered. They’re ooh-ed and aah-ed over, feared or worshiped, set apart. They’re unusual. They’re mystical. They’re mysterious. They’re different. They’re unexplained.

They’re rarely just a regular person dealing with their own crap alongside the rest of the cast. Instead, their disability and their ability—and the seeming contradiction thereof—are defining aspects of their characters.

Dinah Bellman from The Langoliers.

Little Pete from Gone.

Kazan from The Cube.

Gabriel from FlashForward.

Kevin Blake from Eureka.

(And on and on.)

Writers are often intrigued by the unusual. We see something interesting and our mind starts working overtime, thinking of how to integrate this into a story. This results in seeing a disabled person and thinking of how differently that person must perceive the world, and how that could be used for plot purposes. Or we’ll need a character to perform a certain task, but putting that ability in the hands of a non-disabled character would ruin the plot. Instead, we hand that ability to a disabled character. That way we have a great excuse to only trot out the ability when it’s convenient to the plot. Or maybe we don’t want to explain the reason for the ability, so we just give it to a disabled person. They’re different as is! It’ll be all mysterious and creepy!

There are all kinds of reasons for writers to fall back on this trope, but that doesn’t make it OK. It’s based on existing prejudices and misinformation. Just give disabled characters roles like any other character in the book rather than setting us apart.

John Coffey from The Green Mile.

Jake Bohm from Touch.

Lil’ Bro from NYX.

Duddits from Dreamcatcher.

River Tam from Firefly.

(And on and on.)

I want to encourage writers to start recognizing these characters when they occur, and to steer clear from them in their own fiction. We don’t need some mystical ability to make up for our disabilities. We should not only exist to impart meaningful advice. And we’re not prophets or plot devices.


Otherbound Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea … until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

Kody Keplinger interviews Rachel M. Wilson about DON’T TOUCH

September 2nd sees the release of Rachel M. Wilson‘s debut Don’t Touch, a contemporary YA novel from HarperTeen about a girl whose OCD is endangering her aspirations of becoming an actress. For our one-year anniversary, we invited Rachel to the blog to discuss the book.

To make things even more exciting, we’re giving away a signed ARC of Don’t Touch! Details at the end of the post.

Take it away …


Cover for DON'T TOUCHKody Keplinger: First of all, can you tell us how you got the idea for Don’t Touch? How did this story come to be?

Rachel M. Wilson: Don’t Touch began as a very personal book. I experienced OCD and anxiety from age ten into high school, and even after my symptoms were under control, I was left with a lot to process. My first pages were close to my own experience, but I needed more distance to be able to craft a story.

Once I decided to focus on Caddie’s fear of touch, I was partly inspired by superheroes like X-Men’s Rogue. Caddie doesn’t have superpowers, of course, but we all have the power to affect the world around us. If we don’t trust ourselves, that can be scary. As a magical thinker, Caddie worries that her thoughts or actions might have dangerous consequences, and this freezes her up. She’s scared to act, to change or move forward, and compulsions like avoiding touch give her a temporary sense of control over those fears.

During the writing process, other bits and pieces gradually came to seem essential to my story. The scene in which Caddie and Peter visit an abandoned pool, for example, was inspired by an exploratory drive into old Irondale. That setting led me to Ophelia and to so much more of Caddie’s story.

Kody: I think a lot of people think it’s easy to write your own disability, but in my experience, it can be tricky. How was this experience for you? Were there any challenges you faced in writing about a character with OCD?

Rachel: Yes, I found it very tricky. First off, OCD can consist of many different obsessions and compulsions at once, and these are often hard for someone without OCD to understand. Media portrayals of OCD often stick to neat freaks obsessed with cleanliness or germs, but most of my own fears and compulsions were much more “creative.” For example, for years I avoided gum and blueberries like the plague for fear of blowing up like Violet in Willy Wonka.

All the different symptoms in my first draft overwhelmed my early readers and took away from a coherent story arc. My last advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Martine Leavitt, wisely encouraged me to narrow my focus, and at that point I zeroed in on touch. I considered presenting Caddie’s fear as a phobia, but that didn’t fit in with her magical thinking. Eventually, I found a balance by acknowledging that Caddie has other symptoms without spending too much time with them on the page.

The other big challenge was that obsessions are often constant. I had the phrase “don’t touch” in my novel about a zillion more times than it appears in the final draft. My editors convinced me that a little goes a long way, and we really pared it back. That was for the best because readers still comment on how constant that obsession feels to them.

I also found it hard to handle the dueling beliefs that go along with OCD. Some call OCD “the doubting disease” because OCD sufferers know our fears aren’t justified, but we doubt this knowledge. What if we’re wrong and the compulsions really do matter? We’ll do almost anything to avoid that uncomfortable worry. It’s good practice in fiction, though, to invest your characters with unshakeable drives and convictions. Some of my early readers had trouble with Caddie questioning or even ridiculing her OCD beliefs. I had to be true to that doubt, but it was challenging to make sure that it wouldn’t diminish the force of Caddie’s fear for the reader.

On a less technical note, writing about Caddie’s anxiety often brought up anxiety for me, but experiencing an emotion while writing doesn’t guarantee that your reader will feel it. I needed to make sure that those feelings came through on the page and not just in my head. The only way to do that is by getting distance from your character and reading with fresh eyes—or by soliciting feedback from honest readers. For me, getting distance came not only from taking time away between revisions but from giving Caddie experiences that weren’t as personal to me. Yes, I love theater, but I’ve never played Ophelia. I understand separation and loss from other experiences, but my parents are nothing like Caddie’s and they’re still happily married. The ways in which Caddie is not like me were as important as the ways in which she is for me to be able to write fearlessly.

Kody: Every disability has its tropes. Were there any specific OCD stereotypes you tried to steer clear of in writing DON’T TOUCH?

Rachel WilsonRachel: Yes. For one, OCD is often portrayed as quirky or cute. I don’t mind a comedic point of view on OCD as long as it’s balanced with the reality of how awful it can be. I addressed the quirky trope head-on by having Caddie attempt to pass off her symptoms as “artistic quirks.” She’d like people to think she’s a whimsical oddball if the alternative is being perceived as crazy, but she’s hiding the pain. In reality, this kind of anxiety can be completely debilitating, even life-threatening. It isn’t cute, and I don’t think anyone who reads the book will perceive it that way. Even Caddie’s friends, who want to support her, find her OCD frustrating. That’s true to life—it can be hard to empathize and be patient with someone who’s highly anxious. Caddie’s friends connect to her because of how she works to be open with them—not because her OCD is some adorable quirk.

I’ve also been put off by stories that treat OCD (or any mental illness) as a character flaw or weakness of will. When the movie As Good As It Gets came out, I was excited because I’d never seen a movie or read a book about someone with OCD, but I was disappointed that Melvin’s OCD seemed conflated with his misanthropy and general nastiness. When he said he wanted to “be a better man,” it felt like he was saying that OCD made him a bad person and that he’d suddenly chosen to “fix” himself. It’s tricky because of course one can be nasty and have OCD; one might even become nasty in response to illness. But something about how that narrative mashed up out-of-control compulsion with willful bad behavior left me feeling icky.

I don’t think of Caddie as perfect by any means, but she’s trying to be a good friend and handle her anxiety as best she can. There’s strength in that, and I hope that comes through even when she’s struggling.

Kody: How similar is Caddie’s experience with OCD to your own? 

Rachel: Caddie’s younger history of handwashing and magical thinking is close to my own. My biggest symptom from fourth to eighth grade was handwashing—the bit about Caddie having raw and bleeding hands that her parents suspect might be caused by allergies comes from experience. At another point, a teacher thought I might have diabetes because I asked to go to the bathroom so often—for handwashing, of course. I never wore gloves, though I might have liked to. Instead, I kept my hands tucked under my arms and used my elbows to open doors and turn on faucets. I wore socks at all times and used my toes to change TV channels. I lined my school bag with paper everyday so it wouldn’t be contaminated by my social studies book, which had been contaminated by a copy of Watership Down that I checked out from the library. Random things like that were always turning menacing to me. Something about the intelligent rabbits—their glossary and the violence of the first few pages had really disturbed me. So all year, the social studies book had to be lined with paper and kept in its own cubbie hole—until one day, I accidentally let it touch my vocabulary book, and then there were two books in the cubbie hole. My own fears around touch had more to do with contamination, while Caddie’s are tied up with magical thinking—if she touches another person’s skin, her parents’ separation will be permanent. I had a lot of magical thinking games, but not specifically around touch. Some of mine involved clicking my teeth or blinking while looking at a particular color, focusing on “good” words or images to cancel out “bad” or scary ones, and repeating prayers over and over in my head. I chose to focus on touch with Caddie because it’s such a clear metaphor for what her anxiety does—it keeps her from connecting with other people.

Kody: What have you learned from your experience writing DON’T TOUCH? Do you have any advice for writers trying to negotiate that balance of writing characters with their own disabilities?

Rachel: Well, one danger of writing about your own issues is that you do have ownership. You may feel a sense of entitlement to write what feels true to you, but it’s important to remember that you’re still representing a group of people who are often underrepresented. There’s a need to step back and make sure your story doesn’t have implications you didn’t intend . . . But once you’re conscious of that, at a certain point, I think it’s important to let go of the fear of getting it wrong.

I definitely worried about getting things wrong in fictionalizing OCD, but ultimately I gave myself permission to tell a story. I learned that—for me—it was more important to capture the feeling of OCD and anxiety than to write the experience literally, moment-to-moment. Had I written a stream-of-consciousness account of my own OCD, it would have been distancing, chaotic, and frustrating to read. Some of that might serve my story, but a little goes a long way. I also found it important to be conscious that every element of a story doubles as metaphor. The idea of thinking about OCD as a metaphor made me uncomfortable, but I needed to consider how it worked as metaphor to know what story I was telling. There’s a delicate balance to that—the balance between medicine and metaphor—and I can’t promise I’ve handled it perfectly, but I think it’s more important to attempt the balance than to avoid sharing our stories altogether out of fear of getting it wrong.


Thank you, Rachel!

Rachel has generously donated a signed–and personalized, if desired–ARC of Don’t Touch to 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 open to US and CA addresses.

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

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.e. smith: ‘Don’t Worry, It’s Fine When It Happens to Crazy People!’

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.


As a mentally ill reader, one of my most pressing frustrations when reading YA, or interacting with any pop culture, is the handling of mental illness. Mental illness is frequently dealt with in very troped, and often harmful, ways, illustrating that creators didn’t take the time to research, learn about the lived experiences of the communities they are writing about, or think about the responsibility involved in depicting mentally ill people, an already marginalised group within our larger culture.

To be crazy is to be dangerous, and not necessarily to yourself or others. Mental health diagnoses are used as a tool for power and control, to silence people, to take their children away, to deny employment and benefits, to abuse people, to threaten people. Mentally ill people, like others with disabilities, are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Somewhat uniquely, though, this is a disability that hits adolescents and teens particularly hard, because mental illness often onsets around this age. Unlike other disabilities, which may be congenital or acquired at any age, and thus can play an emergent role in any stage of life, mental illness is often something people grapple with for the first time in their teen years (though younger people can and do have mental illnesses). The fiction they’re interacting with at the time can have a profound effect on how they deal with their diagnoses, and unfortunately, that fiction often sends very negative messages.

The onset of mental illness doesn’t happen like flipping a switch; you will not wake up one morning and suddenly be crazy. Instead, it happens by stages, often so subtly that you may not fully realise what is happening to you. You don’t understand why you’re getting increasingly tired, everything is hard to do, and you’re losing the will to get out of bed. You don’t see any reason to go on living. There’s a voice in your head compelling you to do something—and warning you not to listen to other people who tell you the voice in your head isn’t there. You’re bounding with abundant energy, you can take on the world, you don’t need to sleep or rest EVER AGAIN! Everything makes you cry and you feel like the entire world is fracturing around you. You trust no one, and everyone is obviously out to get you.

These are just some of the many symptoms youth can experience at the onset of mental illness. Often, they happen late in high school and early in college, when people are trying to live independently and may be afraid or unwilling to reach out. Thanks to tropes and stereotypes about mental illness, and the stigma associated with mental health conditions, people who think they might be sick could be reluctant to seek help, and they may not even recognise what they’re experiencing as mental illness.

After all, OCD is when you’re super particular about your kitchen, right? So compulsively washing your hands, needing to check and recheck and recheck your doors, or being constantly worried about leaving the stove on isn’t OCD. You’re not sure what it is, but you definitely don’t have a treatable mental health condition. And schizophrenia is when you have a split personality, right? So experiencing a break with reality, not being sure about what is real and what is not, that’s definitely not schizophrenia—besides, schizophrenia is scary and it only happens to crazy people, like that freaky homeless guy by the post office.

So we come to mental illness in YA, which is often depicted in very stereotyped and inaccurate ways; like TV OCD, as I affectionally (and bitterly) call depictions of OCD on television, the handling of mental health conditions in YA often leaves much to be desired. It reflects the fears and imaginations of the author, rather than the reality of the mental health condition, and it is perhaps not surprising that the best examples of mental illness in YA come from authors who have experienced it themselves.

One of the most troubling things about the way mental illness is handled in YA is that, as in society, it is framed as something inherently wrong and awful, rather than a simple fact of life. It’s estimated that around 20% of people will experience mental health conditions at some point during their lives, making them extremely common—and breaking down stereotypes about them would make it a lot easier for people to seek treatment.

There are two recurrent tropes around mental illness in YA that particularly trouble me, beyond falsities in the depictions of specific mental health conditions. One is the character who thinks she’s mentally ill who later realises she has superpowers. The underlying message here is actually a kind of interesting one: here’s a protagonist experiencing something totally unfamiliar, scary, and alien (which the onset of mental illness can feel like) who doesn’t know how to handle it…but then it usually gets twisted, and she is afraid she’s crazy, because being crazy is bad.

Maybe she has a mentally ill family member or friend who has exposed her to the ‘horrors’ of craziness. Maybe she’s institutionalised, either mistakenly or with malice by another character who wants to keep her from accessing her powers. In all cases, the takeaway is that being crazy is definitely not okay, but having superpowers, of course, is awesome.

What’s notable about this, other than the underlying assumption that being crazy is wrong, is that this is never actually challenged in the narrative. Never once does the protagonist ask herself what would be so wrong about having a mental health condition, and rarely do we see her exploring treatment and management options. Instead, she flails in terror until she finds out she has superpowers, at which point everything is usually fine again, except more awesome, because superpowers.

What’s the difference between being crazy and having superpowers? Why is one good, while the other is not? Why do we consider one to be a condition that must be managed in a particular way, and the other something that people should be trained to use and then harness for good? Picking apart these distinctions is critical for authors who want to explore storylines like this, because while ‘woah, I think I am going crazy’ may be a legitimate response to seeing things others don’t, appearing to experience a break with reality, and appearing to alter the world around you, the followup response shouldn’t be ‘how terrible, now I am a crazy person! Oh no!’

Similar narrative structures take place within the framework of institutionalisation, where the asylum is framed as something horrifying and awful…for sane people. When we see institutions in YA, we usually see them crop up in one of two contexts: a sane person wrongly incarcerated in one, or a spooky (often old, sometimes abandoned but haunted by ghosts) asylum filled with crazy people. Asylums are scary because they are filled with crazy people, and our protagonists don’t belong in them because they are sane, healthy, ‘normal,’ not people who should be wrongfully trapped in among the dangerous, frightening, traumatic mentally ill people.

Never once is the concept of the asylum challenged, or is the larger discussion about institutionalisation and oppression incorporated into the narrative. Members of the mental health community might also argue that some asylums are bad and scary, but for a very different reason. The problem with mental health facilities isn’t that they are filled with people who need treatment, but with the fact that residential institutions have a long and horrific history of patient abuse, experimental ‘treatments’ amounting to little more than torture, and a host of other problems. Historically, asylums were used as a tool to suppress and confine people, and today, some are used for much the same purpose, right down to purposefully overmedicating people to keep them compliant. Victims of sexual assault, physical abuse, and other indignities in asylums are often prevented from reporting, or mocked when they try to report.

These are horror stories, but they aren’t the horror stories we usually see when it comes to talking about mental health facilities in YA. Instead, these facilities are cast in simple terms: they’re okay for crazy people, but not for ‘everyone else.’ This idea is common with the handling of mental illness and disability in general, that treatment as a second class is acceptable for ‘them’ because it’s simply part of how the system works and it always has been. Thus, YA rarely challenges the fundamental assumption that institutionalisation is an acceptable and productive way of dealing with mental illness and mentally ill people; it doesn’t explore the warehousing and torment of human beings that occurs in long-term facilities.

When we see positive, mental illness-centered depictions of institutions, it’s usually inpatient hospital wards in issue books where people are sent for ED or suicide attempt recovery. While both depictions are vitally needed, they need to be balanced with the fact that psychiatricisation and institutionalisation have been used as abusive tools against not just mentally ill people, but also women and people of colour, for centuries. When I see asylums promoted as a positive good (and authors failing to distinguish between, for example, a highly ethical inpatient ward in a modern hospital and a long-term residential care facility), I see yet another reminder that society believes mentally ill people are best when locked up, hidden away from public view, ‘in treatment,’ no matter what that ‘treatment’ might look like.

How can authors avoid these tropes, and others associated with mental illness? Obviously, research, research, research, and interacting directly with members of the mentally ill community, including those with the specific diagnoses being depicted, such as anxiety disorders. It’s critical to talk to more than one person, as well, because mental illnesses are highly variable, and diagnostic creep means two people with the same diagnosis may have radically different symptoms, just as two people with very similar symptoms might have totally different diagnoses. And remember that even someone with a well-managed mental illness has bad days, because sometimes, disability really sucks.

Want to avoid problems with characters who mistake the onset of supernatural powers for mental illness? Think carefully about what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and how you’re interacting with the character. Talk to people about their onsets of mental illness and the emotions that swirled around them, so you can depict your character’s fear, uncertainty, and nerves accurately, but avoid falling into the trap of suggesting that developing a mental illness is a negative thing. Explore how people define ‘normality’ through the depiction of your character, and ask yourself: how awesome are superpowers, really?

Are there days when your character has trouble functioning because of her superpowers? When she’s frustrated because she feels like she can’t manage them? Instead of inadvertently turning superpowers into a bright, shiny alternative to disability, make them come at a cost; not only will you avoid some painful disability tropes, you’ll also make your book more engaging by raising the stakes and creating more tension for the character.

Planning to include a mental health facility in your book? Do. Your. Homework. Talk to people who have been institutionalised about the care they received, where they received it, and their experiences in the mental health system. Someone who was on suicide watch for two days in a hospital has a very different story from someone who was on an adolescent psychiatric ward for several weeks or months. Someone who stayed at a residential facility (or who lives in one) for an extended period of time has yet another experience to narrate.

Psychiatric facilities are as diverse as snowflakes, running the gamut from those that provide patients with maximum support for developing coping tools and techniques, managing their mental illnesses, and living independently, to abusive nightmares that are everything you imagined and worse. If you’re depicting one, don’t forget about the other, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all institutions are horrific dungeons of abuse or fairylands of supportive staff, and never forget the long and complex history of psychiatric facilities.

Above all, remember that being crazy is not a bad thing. Don’t attribute negative or undesirable behaviours to mental illness, or excuse a character’s unacceptable behaviours to mental health diagnoses. Like other disabilities, mental illness should be value-neutral: it’s a trait some people have and other people do not, and we all interact with it in very different ways.

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.”

s.e. smith: Crazy Creative

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.


Mental illness as inspiration is one of the oldest tropes in the book. According to pop culture, mentally ill people are magically more creative than everyone else, filled with a manic drive to create art that pushes them to the brink until they finally explode—but what fantastic art they produce in the process. And what tragic heroes they become as a result of sacrificing everything for their art.

The myth of the ‘crazy artist’ is one that looms large in the popular mind, and it’s reinforced by books, film, and television where we see mentally ill characters who are also deeply creative, intelligent, and driven. According to this common disability trope, mental illness begets creativity—or perhaps vice versa. Either you start out with mental illness that makes you creative because it forces your brain to see differently, or you’re creative and it drives you into mental illness because you become consumed by your work. The two traits become inextricably linked in this metric, impossible to separate out.

I get this a lot as a mentally ill writer, perhaps most especially when I am manic and writing a lot. People attribute my writing to my mental illness rather than to who I am or any innate part of my nature, and along with that attribution comes an uncomfortable implication that my creativity must be the result of poorly controlled mental illness, because everyone knows that medications slow people down, blunt thinking, destroy creativity. Even my own medications manager seems to push at that idea when we meet to discuss how I’m feeling.

To be viewed as a creative success because I’m crazy, and to be told that I can only be creative if I don’t manage my mental illness effectively, is troubling. It’s especially troubling to see it reinforced in the pop culture around me.

One reason I loved Hilary T. Smith’s WILD AWAKE was because she captured, perfectly, the problems with the crazy creative trope. Kiri is a very talented and amazing musician who also has mental illness—and when she experiences a Thing, she doesn’t get more creative. Her work doesn’t flower into an explosion of amazing, inspiring, wonderful creation. It gets violent and ugly and all-consuming.

When I’m manic, I write upwards of 20,000 words a day. That is not healthy. When my mental illness was untreated, I didn’t sleep, I rarely ate, I just worked endlessly, sharklike; I felt like if I stopped for a single minute, I would die. Everything was so ferociously bright and glittering around me that it was like being on a concert stage and I felt like I had to perform at every minute—but that wasn’t healthy.

When I found a treatment regimen that worked for me, and when I started managing my mental illness effectively, I didn’t become less creative. Did I change on medication? Yes, I did. I had fewer mood swings. I was a lot more comfortable. I didn’t fly off into the stratosphere at the drop of a hat. I wrote, a lot, but not in that out of control, desperate, fevered kind of way that left me feeling dizzy and slightly sick. That writing was good—some of my best, actually.

Did I also tend to sleep more because of the sedating effect of my medications? Well, yeah. And that was a good thing, given my lack of sleep before. Did I sometimes feel foggy in the brain? Certainly. Was that my new permanent state of being? No. And I worked with my medications manager to find the dosage that worked most effectively for me, allowing me to be myself—my true self, not the snarled, manic, jittery self that I had been before—without disappearing.

And yet, I, like many mentally ill people involved in creative fields, had felt hesitant about seeking treatment, fearing that treatment would destroy my creativity. I had bought into the myth that the two were linked, and that with treatment my creativity would wither away and die, leaving me just another drooling overmedicated mannequin. I envisioned the abusive use of psychiatric medications and didn’t understand that there was actually a middle ground; I didn’t have to have uncontrolled mental illness, and I didn’t need to be a zombie, either.

Yet, this reality is so rarely depicted in pop culture, or in young adult fiction. All too often, people are presented with the choice of unchecked mental illness devouring someone and remaining creative, or turning into a passive ghost of who you were before. It stigmatises the use of medication and other treatments, and it creates a difficult bind for people who actually are mentally ill and creative (including, I note, a lot of young adult writers!).

Talking openly about mental illness in young adult fiction is so important; not just because I want to see more positive and accurate portrayals of mental illness in general, but because the age of onset for many severe mental illnesses is often in the teens. If your framework for mental illness is built on incorrect tropes, that’s a recipe for disaster. If it’s built instead on depictions that capture the diversity of mental illness and mentally ill people, that’s going to radically change the way you relate to the onset of your own mental illness. It also radically changes the way people including parents, peers, and loved ones interact with mentally ill teens.

Instead of being something you should feel ashamed of, or something you should resist treatment for, mental illness becomes simply a part of you. Not your sole defining characteristic, and certainly not the thing that makes you creative. Just something about you that makes up a part of your life.

And creativity is part of you too, not something caused by (or likely to cause) mental illness.