While mental illness touches everyone’s lives in different ways, many people are especially affected after a horrific year of isolation and global strife. It’s a particularly important time to reflect on mental health and mental illness: the struggle and loss, the care and healing, the beautiful, heartbreaking humanity of it all.
We asked thirteen authors publishing books this year with themes of mental illness to talk about why they write what they write, and what stands to be gained by exploring mental health in literature. These writers and their narratives span generations, cultures, and experiences, and offer readers of all ages comfort, hope, and most of all: recognition.
*Publishers’ notes in italics below.
*Content warning: references to suicide, addiction, and self-harm.
Faith Gardner, author of Girl on the Line
“So much of mental health and mental illness is experienced alone—a private inner space not easily accessed by or shared with other people. Literature is one of the few places where we can actually illustrate what it’s like to be inside another person’s head. By reading stories by and about people who experience mental illness, we are able to better understand our fellow human beings, to empathize with struggles outside our own, and sometimes, to see ourselves reflected back at us.”
About the book: Life’s tough when you didn’t expect to be living it. But now that Journey has a future, she apparently also has to figure out what that future’s supposed to look like.
Some days the pain feels as fresh as that day: the day she attempted suicide. Her parents don’t know how to speak to her. Her best friend cracks all the wrong jokes. Her bipolar II disorder feels like it swallows her completely.
But other days—they feel like revelations. Like meeting the dazzling Etta, a city college student who is a world unto herself. Or walking into the office of the volunteer hotline, and discovering a community as simultaneously strong and broken as she is. Or uncovering the light within herself that she didn’t know existed.
Girl on the Line
By Faith Gardner
January 19, 2021
Jimmy Matejek-Morris, author of My Ex-Imaginary Friend
“People have often asked me if discussing Bipolar Disorder in a middle grade novel is too heavy or inappropriate for a young reader. What this question doesn’t consider is that many children, my younger self included, may be struggling or know someone who is struggling with their mental health. Without upfront conversations and resources, a lack of understanding may lead to feelings of fear and confusion. Writing about mental health with compassion and care, on the other hand, leads to empathy and understanding. As someone who has personally benefited from therapy and medication over the years, I feel it is so important to bring these conversations out into the open and let young readers know that they are not alone.”
About the book: Eleven-year-old Jack thought he had outgrown his imaginary friend, George—until his dad also disappears from his life. His mom’s bipolar disorder isn’t being properly treated, so while in the throes of a manic episode, she ditches Jack with his aunt, uncle, and cousins. Jack decides that only George can help him figure out where people go when others stop believing in them—and how Jack can put his family back together.
Meanwhile, the imaginary George—half-walrus, half-human, all magic—has a problem of his own: with nobody to believe in him, he is slowly disappearing. Rejoining Jack is his only hope for survival. Or is it?
My Ex-Imaginary Friend
By Jimmy Matejek-Morris
February 2, 2021
Meg Mason, author of Sorrow and Bliss
“Everything I know about mental health, I learned from fiction. The Bell Jar, Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry and her three-part memoir An Angel at My Table, Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore are the works that have most shaped me as a writer on mental illness. Without them, I would know nothing of what it must feel like to suffer from a disease of the mind, how it informs identity, how someone so afflicted might be treated by those who are not. And I would be a lesser person, a poorer writer or perhaps not a writer at all, were it not for their example, their extreme bravery as women, especially considering the era in which they wrote. And so I am grateful. If it is anything, Sorrow and Bliss is my quiet thank you note to them all.”
About the book: This novel is about a woman called Martha. She knows there is something wrong with her but she doesn’t know what it is. Her husband Patrick thinks she is fine. He says everyone has something, the thing is just to keep going.
Martha told Patrick before they got married that she didn’t want to have children. He said he didn’t mind either way because he has loved her since he was fourteen and making her happy is all that matters, although he does not seem able to do it.
By the time Martha finds out what is wrong, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It is too late to get the only thing she has ever wanted. Or maybe it will turn out that you can stop loving someone and start again from nothing – if you can find something else to want.
But maybe, by starting over, Martha will get to write a better ending for herself—and she’ll find out that she’s not quite finished after all.
Sorrow and Bliss
By Meg Mason
February 9, 2021
Laekan Zea Kemp, author of Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet
“I remember reading an article a few years ago that said Latinas have the highest attempted suicide rates of any demographic. As a Latina myself, those numbers are incredibly jarring. But I think they speak to the fact that this is an epidemic happening in the backgrounds of so many people’s lives, and because of the stigma of mental illness, because of lack of access to mental health care, it’s a problem that just festers.
So while I’m personally motivated to consistently explore mental health in my own work because I find it incredibly healing for my own mental health journey, I’m also extremely motivated by the responsibility I feel towards my community. I know there are so many young Latinas out there who desperately need these stories the same way I needed them when I was their age, and I know what a difference it can make when you feel like someone else understands what you’re going through.”
About the book: Penelope Prado has always dreamed of opening her own pastelería next to her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos. But her mom and dad have different plans—leaving Pen to choose between disappointing her traditional Mexican American parents or following her own path. When she confesses a secret she’s been keeping, her world is sent into a tailspin. But then she meets a cute new hire at Nacho’s who sees through her hard exterior and asks the questions she’s been too afraid to ask herself.
Xander Amaro has been searching for home since he was a little boy. For him, a job at Nacho’s is an opportunity for just that—a chance at a normal life, to settle in at his abuelo’s, and to find the father who left him behind. But when both the restaurant and Xander’s immigrant status are threatened, he will do whatever it takes to protect his newfound family and himself.
Together, Pen and Xander must navigate first love and discover where they belong in order to save the place they all call home.
Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet
By Laekan Zea Kemp
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
April 6, 2021
Lauren Hough, author of Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing
“Depression is, more than anything else, isolating. It’s always been the greatest comfort when I get to thinking no one could understand, to open a book and feel seen, known, and a little less alone.”
About the book: As an adult, Lauren Hough has had many identities: an airman in the U.S. Air Force, a cable guy, a bouncer at a gay club. As a child, however, she had none. Growing up as a member of the infamous cult The Children of God, Hough had her own self robbed from her. The cult took her all over the globe–to Germany, Japan, Texas, Chile–but it wasn’t until she finally left for good that Lauren understood she could have a life beyond “The Family.”
Along the way, she’s loaded up her car and started over, trading one life for the next. She’s taken pilgrimages to the sights of her youth, been kept in solitary confinement, dated a lot of women, dabbled in drugs, and eventually found herself as what she always wanted to be: a writer. Here, as she sweeps through the underbelly of America–relying on friends, family, and strangers alike–she begins to excavate a new identity even as her past continues to trail her and color her world, relationships, and perceptions of self.
Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing
by Lauren Hough
April 13, 2021
Joan Smith, author of The Half-Orphan’s Handbook
“The writing community is keenly aware of how much storytelling builds empathy; it is vital for people to read stories that they can relate to as well as stories outside of their own lived experiences. No matter where someone is on the spectrum of mental health, it’s the longest relationship you’ll ever have—the one with yourself. Reading authentic, well-researched, nuanced character experiences with mental illness or neurodiversities can provide readers with insight and a greater depth of understanding of how they or loved ones experience the world. As someone whose mental health and neurodivergency is partially a mix of genetics and trauma (losing my dad to suicide, my cousin to addiction, and more), I think it’s so important to understand how thinking informs lived experiences. It’s a way to build our toolboxes for our future selves and those around us.”
About the book: It’s been three months since Lila lost her father to suicide. Since then, she’s learned to protect herself from pain by following two unbreakable rules:
1. The only people who can truly hurt you are the ones you love. Therefore, love no one.
2. Stay away from liars. Liars are the worst.
But when Lila’s mother sends her to a summer-long grief camp, it’s suddenly harder for Lila to follow these rules. Potential new friends and an unexpected crush threaten to drag her back into life for the first time since her dad’s death.
On top of everything, there’s more about what happened that Lila doesn’t know, and facing the truth about her family will be the hardest part of learning how a broken heart can love again.
The Half-Orphan’s Handbook
By Joan Smith
April 20, 2021
Tashie Bhuiyan, author of Counting Down with You
“I think it’s incredibly important to see mental health and mental illnesses depicted in literature, especially from the lenses of people who have experienced the struggles themselves. In my debut novel Counting Down with You, the main character Karina Ahmed has on-page anxiety based on my own, and I chose to include it because so many young teenagers experience it, and it doesn’t always have to define them. For Karina, it’s just a part of her everyday life. She has coping mechanisms which she employs throughout the book to show healthy ways of dealing when professional help is inaccessible, which it is for many teenagers in BIPOC households, where mental health can be a taboo topic. I hope that seeing her anxiety will allow readers to feel seen, understood, and represented.”
About the book: A reserved Bangladeshi teenager has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake-date her school’s resident bad boy.
How do you make one month last a lifetime?
Karina Ahmed has a plan. Keep her head down, get through high school without a fuss, and follow her parents’ rules—even if it means sacrificing her dreams. When her parents go abroad to Bangladesh for four weeks, Karina expects some peace and quiet. Instead, one simple lie unravels everything. Karina is my girlfriend.
Tutoring the school’s resident bad boy was already crossing a line. Pretending to date him? Out of the question. But Ace Clyde does everything right—he brings her coffee in the mornings, impresses her friends without trying, and even promises to buy her a dozen books (a week) if she goes along with his fake-dating facade. Though Karina agrees, she can’t help but start counting down the days until her parents come back. T-minus twenty-eight days until everything returns to normal—but what if Karina no longer wants it to?
Counting Down with You
By Tashie Bhuiyan
May 4, 2021
Ellen Oh, author of Finding Junie Kim
“I have three children and they have all been in therapy to treat depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, two have been hospitalized, one multiple times. Mental illness is still a stigma in our world, but it is also a reality for so many of our children. It was important for me to share Junie’s struggles with depression and suicide in a way that would let children know that there is hope and help for them. That they didn’t have to suffer alone and that getting help was in no way shameful. I truly believe we have to talk openly and honestly about mental illness so that we can get rid of the stigma that surrounds it once and for all.”
About the book: Junie Kim just wants to fit in. So she keeps her head down and tries not to draw attention to herself. But when racist graffiti appears at her middle school, Junie must decide between staying silent or speaking out.
Then Junie’s history teacher assigns a project and Junie decides to interview her grandparents, learning about their unbelievable experiences as kids during the Korean War. Junie comes to admire her grandma’s fierce determination to overcome impossible odds, and her grandpa’s unwavering compassion during wartime. And as racism becomes more pervasive at school, Junie taps into the strength of her ancestors and finds the courage to do what is right.
Finding Junie Kim offers a reminder that within all of us lies the power to overcome hardship and emerge triumphant.
Finding Junie Kim
By Ellen Oh
May 4, 2021
JP Brammer, author of ¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons
“Books allow us to slip into someone else’s experience. When I write on mental health, be it fiction or nonfiction, I am painting my reality as I know it. It can be a powerful thing to read something and recognize a familiar texture in it. It can make you feel like you’re not alone. Like you don’t have to apologize after all.”
About the book: From popular LGBTQ advice columnist and writer John Paul Brammer comes a hilarious, heartwarming memoir-in-essays chronicling his journey growing up as a queer, mixed-race kid in America’s heartland to becoming the “Chicano Carrie Bradshaw” of his generation.
In ¡Hola Papi!, JP shares his story of growing up biracial and in the closet against the backdrop of America’s heartland, while attempting to answer some of life’s toughest questions: How do I let go of the past? How do I become the person I want to be? Is there such a thing as being too gay? Should I hook up with my grade school bully now that he’s out of the closet? With wit and wisdom in equal measure, ¡Hola Papi! is for anyone—gay, straight, and everything in between—who has ever taken stock of their unique place in the world, offering considered advice, intelligent discourse, and fits of laughter along the way. As #1 New York Times bestselling author Shea Serrano says: “I loved ¡Hola Papi! I’m certain you will too.
¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons
By JP Brammer
Simon & Schuster
June 8, 2021
Cassandra Hart, author of The Sea Is Salt and So Am I
“My writing process involves crawling inside my characters’ heads and living there for years at a time, so I can’t imagine not writing about mental health. Sometimes that looks like on-page diagnoses, sometimes not. Therapy and drugs can be part of a character’s life always or occasionally or never. Anything goes. Mental health looks like different things at different times for different people, and I want to explore that complexity, even when it’s uncomfortable. If I question whether some thought or feeling is too dark or messy for a character to have, I ask myself, does it feel honest? If the answer is yes, I have to write it.”
About the book: West Finch is one hurricane away from falling into the sea.
Yet sixteen-year-old Harlow Prout is determined to save her small Maine hometown. If only she could stop getting in her own way and find someone, anyone, willing to help. But her best friend Ellis MacQueen “fixes” problems by running away from them—including his broken relationship with his twin brother, Tommy. And Tommy’s depression has hit a new low, so he’s not up for fixing anything.
In the wake of the town’s latest devastating storm, Tommy goes out for a swim that he doesn’t intend to survive. It’s his unexpected return that sets into motion a sea change between these three teens. One that tests old loyalties, sparks new romance, and uncovers painful secrets. And nothing stays secret in West Finch for long.
The Sea Is Salt and So Am I
By Cassandra Hart
Roaring Brook Press
June 8, 2021
Jessica Lewis, author of Bad Witch Burning
“It’s extremely important to me to depict mental illness in literature, especially in children’s lit. When I first started struggling with depression and anxiety, I was confused and scared, and I wish I’d had books that featured main characters who had similar experiences. It’s important for kids to see themselves in fiction, and that includes mental illness. Because when they do, it teaches readers that mental illness is a part of them, but it’s not something to be afraid of; it’s something that their heroes have too, and since they saved the world, readers can too.”
About the book: Katrell can talk to the dead. And she wishes it made more money. She’s been able to support her unemployed mother—and Mom’s deadbeat-boyfriend-of-the-week—so far, but it isn’t enough. Money’s still tight, and to complicate things, Katrell has started to draw attention. Not from this world—from beyond. And it comes with a warning: STOP or there will be consequences.
Katrell is willing to call the ghosts on their bluff; she has no choice. What do ghosts know of having sleep for dinner? But when her next summoning accidentally raises someone from the dead, Katrell realizes that a live body is worth a lot more than a dead apparition. And, warning or not, she has no intention of letting this lucrative new business go.
Only magic isn’t free, and dark forces are coming to collect. Now Katrell faces a choice: resign herself to poverty, or confront the darkness before it’s too late.
Bad Witch Burning
By Jessica Lewis
August 24, 2021
Kathleen Glasgow, author of You’d Be Home Now
“One of the pleasures of reading fiction is when you have a personal a-ha moment: “That happened to me, too!” One of the pleasures of reading is also finding a sense of relief: “Oh. This character feels the way I feel inside.” Stories that explore anxiety, depression, self-harm, addiction are safe spaces for readers to encounter personal issues they may not feel ready to talk about yet. A story can give you the courage, and sometimes the language, to say out loud to the world, “This is me. This is who I am.” And sometimes, “I need help.””
About the book: For all of Emory’s life she’s been told who she is. In town she’s the rich one–the great-great-granddaughter of the mill’s founder. At school she’s hot Maddie Ward’s younger sister. And at home, she’s the good one, her stoner older brother Joey’s babysitter. Everything was turned on its head, though, when she and Joey were in the car accident that killed Candy MontClaire. The car accident that revealed just how bad Joey’s drug habit was.
Four months later, Emmy’s junior year is starting, Joey is home from rehab, and the entire town of Mill Haven is still reeling from the accident. Everyone’s telling Emmy who she is, but so much has changed, how can she be the same person? Or was she ever that person at all?
Mill Haven wants everyone to live one story, but Emmy’s beginning to see that people are more than they appear. Her brother, who might not be “cured,” the popular guy who lives next door, and most of all, many “ghostie” addicts who haunt the edges of the town. People spend so much time telling her who she is–it might be time to decide for herself.
You’d Be Home Now
By Kathleen Glasgow
September 28, 2021
Jordan Silversmith, author of Redshift, Blueshift
“Hamlet’s dilemma could be restated. It is not enough to be, but to be well: the challenge is in knowing that both can be had, but only one comes as a matter of course in living, while the other must be sought. The solace that books provide is one way to get there: in the loneliest times, often, the only ones who will talk to us, and listen to us, are those long-dead voices in books. We can learn a way to be well through reading. It’s there, but it must be sought through the mire.”
About the book: When a prisoner in an unnamed labor camp finds his journal of memories taken from his cell, he sets out to console himself and perhaps reclaim his freedom by again writing down what he can remember from his past. As the prisoner writes and passes through the vivid world of a distant life, he is eventually confronted by a strange memory that, if true, questions the reliability of his memories and whether what he remembers was really his own life or, somehow, someone else’s.
By Jordan Silversmith
Jen St. Jude is the managing director at Chicago Review of Books and has work in Catapult, Gigantic Sequins, and The Rumpus. Her debut YA novel, IF TOMORROW DOESN'T COME, will be published by Bloomsbury Children's in 2023. Find them on Twitter: @jenstjude.