World Mental Health Day 2015 – Some Books to Try

Suffering from a mental illness is a terrifying experience. To the outside world, it seems trivial, harmless and invisible, but to those of us suffering, it’s anything but. And it isn’t just an illness of the mind – It can cause all kinds of physical effects too. 1 in 5 Young People are now being diagnosed with some form of mental health problems, from generalised anxiety and depression, to eating disorders and schizophrenia, and there’s no one-size-fits-all guide to what to expect from these illnesses. Stigma and misunderstanding, confusion and fear, are all rife when it comes to understanding mental illnesses, and I’ve always found that the best way to understand something is to read about people in down to Earth, sensitive and respectable Fiction and Biographical accounts. So as last week was Mental Health Awareness Week, I thought I’d throw together a list of fantastic YA and Teen Fiction titles that either deal with, or have characters who suffer from, mental health problems. Many of these have helped me in the past, and I’d love to know that they’ll go on to help others. People with these illnesses aren’t monsters – they’re not crazy, dangerous lunatics – they’re people struggling with an invisible, but deadly disease.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

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Themes – Depression, Suicidal Thoughts, Eating Disorders, Anxiety

Inspired by the author’s own experiences of hospitalisation for depression, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is a brilliant mix of genuinely sharp humour and honest, heartfelt emotion that absolutely buzzes in the words he writes. Vizzini’s tragic death at just 32 years old makes the impact of these book painfully real.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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Themes – Depression, Suicide, Identity

The quintessential book when it comes to main characters with depression, Plath’s only novel is beautifully haunting and poetic and while it’s dated in some ways, the feelings at the heart of it remain as current and relatable as ever. The book touches on how the pressures of adult life can weigh heavily on young people, and ultimately has a hopeful tone to it.

 

All Of The Above by Juno Dawson

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Themes – Eating Disorders, Self-Harm

Juno’s first contemporary novel is by far her most diverse, intelligent and emotionally articulate offering to date. It examines the stresses and pressures that teenagers and young people go through in a chaotic, messy and heartfelt way, never pulling any punches, but always holding your hand, it looks at how people can hide things about themselves and how there is no definitive normal.

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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Themes – Depression, Suicidal Thoughts, Self-Harm

A wonderful, heart stopping, devastating and uplifting book, All the Bright Places is a beautiful tale of friendship and love told alongside some dark, complex themes, all in a sensitive and intelligent way. The words crackle with energy on the page, and the characters are wonderfully real and relatable.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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Themes – OCD, Depression, Eating Disorders

Not out until later this year, but I can already tell you that Patrick Ness continues to be one of the finest YA writers working today. In The Rest of Us, our narrator Mikey suffers from near crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, frequently washing his hands until they bleed. Patrick paints his own self-loathing honestly, tackling the concept that OCD is synonymous with being neat head on with a sledgehammer of truth. He also touches on eating disorders with a secondary character, and really captures the helplessness and hopelessness that sufferers of these illnesses can feel.

When Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

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Themes – Tourette’s Syndrome, Bullying

Shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction, When Mr. Dog Bites is one of the very very few books out there that looks at what it means to live with Tourette’s Syndrome, an often over looked and woefully misunderstood illness. Naturally, it’s rude and funny in places, but it’s also it bristles with an honest energy and has a brilliantly open and genuinely well-intentioned main character.

Solitaire by Alice Oseman

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Themes – Depression, Suicide, Eating Disorders

Alice’s debut novel is one of my favourite YA books of all time, and her drive to be inclusive is what makes her book stand out so well. Tory’s brother, Charlie, suffers from a number of mental health problems, highlighting that these things often aren’t as simple as the media makes them out to be. His anorexia is sensitively handled and I feel like having a male character suffer from an eating disorder is so important to have in fiction, and his relationship with his sister is absolutely wonderful. He’s a sensitive, intelligent young person who struggles with the harshness of the world, and Alice never lets him become a stereotype.

Heroic by Phil Earle

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Themes – PTSD

Phil Earle is one of the best unsung writers in Teen and YA literature, purely because of just how well he manages to capture the anger and confusion of teen life. Heroic is looks at friendship, the relationships between brothers and the dark and upsetting effects Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can have, not just of sufferers, but on their families too. This book is hauntingly real and gritty, but from there is its power, to overcome the darkness of the everyday and reach the light that we can find in each other. His characters are brilliantly created, snappy and intelligent, and by writing from two perspectives, we get a fully layered and complex look at a harrowing condition.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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Themes – Suicide, PTSD

Without any spoilers, I will just say that Perks is one of my favourite ever books ever ever. It made a huge difference for me in my life, and Charlie is the music obsessed, shy and sensitive young man I needed to read about. It’s a book that teaches that it’s okay to be who you are, that gender stereotypes are dumb, and that through each other, we can overcome even the most horrifying events. The way Stephen Chbosky flashes back through Charlie’s life in this book is haunting and gripping all at once.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Themes – Social Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder

Fangirl is a sweet story of love, friendship and coming of age that also works in an underexplored and worryingly misunderstood condition – social anxiety. In an age where everyone can be in contact with one another without ever actually having to see those people physically, Rainbow works it into Cath’s character without being dismissive or painting it too lightly. She also makes sure that we know it’s okay to be shy, to need space or prefer to be alone, and in doing so, she creates a character that is so easy to relate to, in a sweet novel that’s already becoming a massive bestseller.

Other recommended titles:

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (Depression)

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Suicide, Depression)

Panther by David Owen (Depression)

Every Day by David Levithan (Depression)

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green/David Levithan (Depression)

The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle (PTSD)

A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook/Brendan Halpin (Eating Disorders)

Butter by Erin Lange (Eating Disorders)

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (Eating Disorders)

Hello Darkness by Anthony McGowan (Psychosis)

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dallaira (Depression)

You can find more on this fab list on Goodreads too.

Part of the best way for us to tackle to misconceptions and stigmas that surround these illnesses is to talk about them, and share our own experiences as well as stories like the ones I’ve talked about here. These books aren’t just for those of us who struggle with these things every single day, they’re also for the people who have never had to cry when they wake up, who don’t know what it’s like to struggle with thoughts and feelings that can’t be controlled, and who can’t put themselves into those lives. Empathy is the key to humanity, and we all need to do our best to understand and care for one another.

Or something like that, anyway. I ain’t a great philosopher, I just read a lot of books.

Obviously, many of these books will contain triggers/upsetting scenes, so please always do some research and never be afraid to stop reading something that’s upsetting you.

If you need someone to talk to, The Samaritans are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to just listen, and never judge.

Thanks for Reading. I hope you find a book that helps.

D

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The Bubble Wrap Boy by Phil Earle

Probably one of the biggest unsung heroes in the UKYA and Teen community is the wonderful Mr. Phil Earle. Through his work at Penguin, he’s known throughout the publishing industry as enthusiastic, always ready with a smile and a handshake, and a passionate recommendation for twelve dozen upcoming titles that he can’t wait to see you enjoy. Of course, in addition to his evangelical zeal for Teen Fiction and his warm, approachable demeanour, Phil is also a hugely talented (and woefully underrated) author of Teen Fiction himself. He’s skilled at drawing on his past experiences working with troubled youths to create heart wrenchingly honest and touching characters, as I mentioned in my previous review for the emotional rollercoaster that is Heroic. With The Bubble Wrap Boy, Phil is aiming at the younger end of the Teen market, with a softer, shorter novel… But he sure can still pack a huge heart into it.

Yet another vibrant, striking jacket.

Yet another vibrant, striking jacket.

The Bubble Wrap Boy tells the story of young Charlie Han, an unusually small, accident prone teenager who lives with his overbearing mother and nearly mute father above the family Chinese Takeaway restaurant. Charlie is far from popular at school, his minute stature and accident prone nature meaning he’s the source of a lot of pranks and laughter, and his mother is so overprotective that his home life is practically a padded cell. His only friend is the similarly outcast Linus, nicknamed Sinus because of his oversized nose, a sarcastically sharp individual with an obsession with staring at brick walls. So, yeah, Charlie Han’s life is far from exciting or comfortable, let alone exciting. He yearns for a chance to not always be the little kid who falls flat on his face just trying to walk to classes, and for the chance to prove to his mum that he’s not made out of fine china. Then, he comes across his chance when he accidently stumbles into the local skate park and is completely captivated by the teenagers who soar like birds, and more importantly, who fall over – a lot. An activity where falling off the board is part of the fun? Nothing could be more up Charlie’s street! Sinus isn’t so sure, but he admits that the promise of watching his tiny best friend break both arms and legs does have some appeal. The only problem is, how can Charlie possibly become a skating pro when his mum insists on a helmet just to go in the shower? He has to become a ninja of skating, hiding all evidence from her, including board, scratches and bruises… It isn’t going to be easy, but Charlie can’t avoid the call.

Phil's debut, Being Billy, is a blisteringly honest novel.

Phil’s debut, Being Billy, is a blisteringly honest novel.

When The Bubble Wrap Boy opened with Charlie listing his problems with being short, I immediately felt a connection with him – I too had always been shorter and clumsier than the other kids at school. Charlie’s talent for over exaggeration and outlandish thought processes makes him a vibrantly likable, plucky little protagonist with brilliant melodramatic tendencies. In counterpoint to this is Sinus, who I thought was delightfully weird, confidently strange and acid tongued, is a sarcastically apathetic character. Between the two of them is a constant up and down of emotion, as Charlie becomes excitable and Sinus knocks him back to Earth with his dry realism. Charlie’s mum starts out the book on the line of caricature, but she swiftly develops into a warm woman with a whole host of deeply rooted troubles and a psychologically complex background that makes her behaviour heart aching – though frustrating. Phil has again created wonderfully faceted characters that encompass strengths, weaknesses and flaws perfectly, making them all outlandish, yet relatable at the same time.

Just... Such a great book.

Just… Such a great book.

As with his other books, The Bubble Wrap Boy positively crackles with distinctive voice that I’ve come to love from Mr. Earle’s books – He has an easy way of writing that is at times absurdly hilarious, pulling in great over the top metaphors, but also has a soft, muted sense of sadness that he can turn on at a moment’s notice. In fact, his quick, smart humour makes the drama stand out so sharply and in contrast that it can take your breath away. His narrative in The Bubble Wrap Boy is immediately outlandish, but when it hits the emotional points, it does it with poise and dignity that holds the reader’s attention and helps grow his character’s personalities, rounding them and making them more three dimensional. This book made me laugh out loud, and made me gasp out loud, and whilst the plot might have points that you can see coming as the reader, the intelligent, relevant voice in the storytelling makes everything feel shiny and new, dynamic and realistic despite the outlandish comedy beats. And just as you think you know where it’s going, an explosion of darkness, sadness will derail your expectations and keep you absolutely on the edge of your seat.

Flying for Dora,

Until next time, thanks for reading.

D

My 10 Favourite 2013 Reads!

So once again, Christmas is over & we stare down the barrel of a brand new year. I’ve never done one of these round ups of my reading before, but 2013 has been an absolutely storming year for YA, Teen & Children’s Fiction, hitting comedy, fantasy, sci-fi & contemporary with some exciting & passionate authors. So without further yammering by yours truly, lets get one with it!

10. Fearsome Dreamer by Laure Eve

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A stunning début from one of the hottest new publishers of YA literature at the moment (Hot Key Books), Fearsome Dreamer is a brilliantly paced fusion of Science Fiction & Fantasy, focusing around individuals with the ability to teleport. Laure’s novel is gloriously well written, with a deep, textured world & layers of mystery waiting to be unfolded. It’s set for big things.

9. Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

The UK Hardback Jacket

The UK Hardback Jacket

Part one of a brand new series from the Bartimaeus author, Lockwood & Co takes the classic ensemble style of Percy Jackson or Harry Potter, but with a delightfully gothic twist, replacing gods with ghosts. A book I just know I would’ve become obsessed with as a 9 year old obsessed with all things dark & spooky, The Screaming Staircase isn’t light on laughter though, & with a very Doctor Who/Sherlock style lead – It’s sure to capture imaginations as the series goes on.

8. Heroic by Phil Earle

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Phil is a charming author with a deep understanding of troubled youth. Heroic is a harrowing story of war, told not just from the front, but from home, allowing the story to examine the effects tension & stress have under combat situations, as well as in the helpless environment of an East London council estate. Heroic also looks deep into the bonds of family & friendship, & has a powerful message behind it, lending it a serious emotional punch, as well as bringing attention to the very misunderstood subject of Post-Traumatic Stress in Young Adults. All in all, Phil has done a wonderful job at a moving story once more.

7. ACID by Emma Pass

ACID's jacket features protagonist Jenna, & tells you all you need to know.

A one-off kick-ass Dystopian novel set in a United Kingdom taken over by a harsh, totalitarian police force, ACID is an adrenaline fuelled ride full of action, mystery & plot twists, all topped off with a strong, direct heroine with a real edge to her. Blending Orwellian surveillance  & social commentary with pulse-pounding action, ACID grips the reader from the outset & doesn’t let go until the very last page. Perfect for people who’ve been devouring Hunger Games & Divergent series, Emma Pass is great at keeping the reader engrossed with high tension drama.

6. Monkey Wars by Richard Kurti

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One of the books I’ve yet to do a full review of, Monkey Wars is a unique story of gang warfare between two tribes of Monkey’s on the streets of India. Despite sounding like a lovely animal tale, Monkey Wars is smart, sharp & brutal, soaked in gore & betrayal. It’s a classic story in one way, very reminiscent of Romeo & Juliet, but with an energy that literally crackles off the page. Constantly high stakes, with emotional turmoil & political rivalry, this is a visceral book that would be ideal for fans of fantasy & war novels alike.

5. Geekhood: Mission Improbable by Andy Robb

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Archie the Geek is back, in Andy’s follow-up to Close Encounters of the Girl Kind – And the laughs are strong with this one. Crammed to bursting with references to nerd culture, & a big feature on Live Action Roleplaying, Andy fully throws his passion for all things Geek into his writing, & that honesty & passion makes the book feel so much more personal to him. Geek culture is big business write now, with shows like Big Bang Theory written by non-Geeks for non-Geeks, so it’s refreshingly satisfying to have someone doing it from the fan side of things. Also, as with the first Geekhood novel, Andy works in the true emotional sweetness & turmoil of being an adolescent teenage boy, & all the embarrassing scenarios that go with it, in naked, cringesome honesty – Helpful to every young adult struggling through not being the strongest, fastest, toughest kid in school.

4. The Last Wild by Piers Torday

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A modern day Animals of Farthing Wood, with a post-apocalyptic twist, The Last Wild was funny, touching & engaging, blending environmental issues with a bold main character, determined to do the right thing. The world of The Last Wild is wrapped up in layers of mystery begging to be unfolded, but with a bleak beauty that admires the determined power of nature, & rather than taking the usual stance of man vs nature, it shows how greed can overcome humanities normal moral compass. It’s a book of passion, power & with a real message to get across, a must read.

3. Follow Me Down by Tanya Byrne

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A dark, beautiful story of friendship, young love & loss, Follow Me Down is surprisingly witty & even brings up a several chuckles despite the bleak tale of murder that weaves its way through this classic English boarding school tale. Tanya has a beautiful way with words, & her passages almost slide into your brain like poetry, creating a melancholy beauty to her writing that haunts your very core, yet makes you smile all the while. A rare talent to make something so horrifying still be so life-affirming.

2. Every Day by David Levithan

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Possibly the most unique book I’ve read in my life, David Levithan’s Every Day is a superb examination of life & humanity, a window into understanding the struggles & troubles that make us all different. From another superb YA publisher (Electric Monkey), Levithan brings his quirky style of modern language & pop-culture knowledge with an emotional punch & a dark, realistic & heart-wrenchingly bleak conclusion. With his examination of our differences & similarities, Every Day is one of the most important novels in years for promoting acceptance & understanding, & is perfect for fans of bittersweet romance.

1. More Than This by Patrick Ness 

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Beautiful, compelling, shocking & lingering. Patrick Ness is possibly the best writer working in Teen fiction today, & More Than This is a true testament to that fact. Dark & thoughtful, the plot is constantly shifting, keeping the reader on edge throughout, with each chapter dropping a cliffhanger onto your head & blowing your mind. It examines life, death, survival, love & friendship with a soft eye, before ramping up the action & tension, turning a haunting mystery into a full blown thriller in the second half. This book left me unable to read anything for a week afterwards, & still makes me think about its themes even now.

That’s the lot! Well, the top ten anyway. There’s been dozens of fantastic books published in 2013, which is truly inspiring, flying in the face of people who say books are struggling. They’re not. You just need to know where to look.

Here’s to many more in 2014!

Thanks for Reading!

D

Heroic by Phil Earle

I’m a bad person. I know, you wouldn’t think it if you knew me, but honest I am a fair bit rubbish, & I’m going to tell you why. I am lucky enough to have met Phil Earle on two occasions, & let me tell you I will be hard pressed to find another person with such a ready, welcoming warm smile, & such powerful tenacity & passion for Children’s books. He’s friendly, genuine & always ready to make you feel more comfortable (or refill your wine). The first time I met him, he introduced me to another author… Who was it now…? OH YEAH NEIL GAIMAN!! So he’s ace for that. Why am I a bad person? Well, the second time I met Phil was at the announcement for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2013, where he kindly gave a bunch of us a copy of his new upcoming book, Heroic. Having no bag on me at the time, I left it on a nearby table, sure that I’d pick it up before we left. Then there was FREE WINE. Lots of it. I’m not proud to say it, but I wandered off into the London streets without my generously free copy of Phil’s new novel… I’m sorry Phil. I got a new one though! So you can’t hate me! So there. He probably still hates me.

He looks much too lovely to hate me, let's be honest.

He looks much too lovely to hate me, let’s be honest.

Heroic is a Young Adult drama novel examining the difficulties of life in poverty, coping with mental illness & ultimately of the love & support we can find in life if we try hard enough. The book follows the story of two brothers, both from below the breadline in a sprawling estate of tower blocks known affectionately as “The Ghost”. Sonny McGann, 16 years old, lives his day to day life with his mates on the estate, The Originals, stealing what he can to get by & support him & his mum. He’s a bright kid with a clever mouth on him, but him & his Originals live by a strict code of ethics: You don’t steal from your own. You don’t sell on your own patch. You don’t mess around with each other’s sister. These rules had been set down long before, by Sonny’s older brother: James “Jammy” McGann. Jammy, at 18, along with fellow Original Tommo, signed up with the army, & their perspective of the story is told from the dusty war-torn landscape of Afghanistan. Sonny misses his brother, but he also feels the pressure of being expected to keep the crew in line, the constant expectations to be like the brave, strong Jammy. When things start to develop between him & Tommo’s sister Cam, Sonny starts to break rules… Sick of being forced to be like his brother, he’s going to make his own world. But Jammy won’t be gone forever…

I’ve seen Phil joke on Twitter before (@philearle), that he is incapable of writing anything other than gritty, hard hitting YA. After his phenomenal & critically acclaimed Being Billy, I would’ve believed that, but after Heroic, I’m not sure I want him to. He has a great ability to capture the dark, harsh sides of life in such a way that it makes the brighter, more positive glimpses we see stand out so strongly.

Heroic's brilliantly stoic jacket.

Heroic’s brilliantly stoic jacket.

Characters is where I normally like to start. Sonny took some getting used to for me, he’s unlike any character I’ve ever associated with before, but his honourable intentions & heart of gold helped me connect with him before long. His inner turmoil, his desire to be his own man, but still do the right thing, struck a chord with me. He wants to keep everything together, wants to make everyone he knows smile, & I can appreciate that. I can also appreciate the pressure it puts on him, & it makes him a noble, if conflicted character. He often acts & talks before his brain can catch up, & he’s got a serious attitude that sometimes bypasses his need to do good. All this adds up to a wonderfully flawed character who has the best of intentions, but struggles with his own teenage nature. Jammy… Now Jammy is a powerful, complex character. Returning from Afghanistan a changed man, having seen far too much for his just 18 years, Jammy is multiple layers of angst, conflicted personality & guilt. Phil does a fantastic job at examining the ravaging psychological effects of Post-Traumatic stress, demonstrating how sometimes the damage of combat on a young person’s fragile psychology is just as damaging as the gunshot wounds & shrapnel damage. Jammy’s flashbacks are haunting, pulling no punches on the horrors of war, the twitching unease that constantly surrounds soldiers in enemy territory. It’s this constant focus that often causes young soldiers to snap, & this book understands that, making a point to illustrate every darkened doorway & looming window in the tense fire fights that overwhelm the brains of many troops. His coping strategy on the return to the Ghost is painfully gripping & tense, & I found myself unable to put the book down after that point, horrified by what he might do next, but so invested in the character that I couldn’t stop reading. That’s the talent of Phil Earle, he can make you gripped by the suffering of others is such a compelling way. His supporting characters are great too, each fully fleshed out, different & clearly defined as individuals. Hitch was a favourite of mine… His confrontation outside the lift was tense, psychologically draining, & reminiscent of something from an Irvine Welsh novel, all dirty & taught with the threat of approaching chaos. Cam was a fantastic character too, a rare case of a strong female character who exists as more than just a romantic interest. She’s compassionate, level headed & her dialogue is always delightfully witty or painfully honest.

Phil's début novel, Being Billy, is also a must read examination of the darker sides of life.

Phil’s début novel, Being Billy, is also a must read examination of the darker sides of life.

So, basically Heroic is great. It’s a tough read, with some incredibly hard hitting moments (Little Wayne in the marketplace, the confrontation on the rooftop, Hitch’s flat to name a few), but the compelling struggles of each character really pull you through these with wide, unblinking eyes. The themes of brotherhood, friendship & family are strong & uplifting, & it sends an amazingly positive message that sometimes it’s all right to not be OK, & that no one person has all the answers. We all need each other to get by in the world, & there’s no harm in leaning on someone from time to time.

Thanks, I need to read something funny now!

D