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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All of The Above by Juno Dawson

Juno is probably one of the most criminally underrated authors in the country. Despite her brilliant, often tongue in cheek, and often downright terrifying horror novels (Say Her Name, Under My Skin), not to mention her brilliantly important non-fiction work of gender and sexuality (How To Be a Boy, This Book Is Gay), I never quite feel she gets the praise she deserves for the huge amount of work she does. Well, I’m going to try! All Of The Above is her latest YA novel, and unlike her previous offerings, this one is strictly contemporary – no witches, no spirits and no murderous tattoos. It’s also probably her best novel to date. Here’s why…

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Toria is the new girl in the sleepy, dilapidated seaside town of Brompton-on-Sea, and being the new girl in a small town is a big deal. She’s concerned by all the same things that bother most new teenagers at a new school – making friends, passing A-Levels and getting to finally leave home. When she meets the bright, pixie-ish Daisy, the outspoken and chaotic Polly and their gang of misfits and freaks, she finds a group of fun, vibrant friends that make her online contacts overseas drop straight off her agenda. Toria is fascinated by the explosively chaotic Polly, and the two girls soon become best friends. Toria even meets a boy at one of the gang’s late night meetings at the seafront’s Crazy Golf Course – Nico is the most beautiful boy she’s ever seen, and there’s some serious biology at work driving the two of them together. It might not be love, but it’s inescapable and it’s the most grown up Toria’s ever felt in a relationship. Everything seems perfect, the Summer days stretching out forever, laughing on the beach with cheap wine fuelling them – this is everything TV has told Toria that teenage life with best friends should be like! But she’d be naïve to think that this is all there is to life, and slotting into a complex friendship group is never straightforward… Especially one as complicated as this one.

The full cover creates the tone of the book PERFECTLY.

The full cover creates the tone of the book PERFECTLY.

Why is All Of The Above Juno’s best novel to date? Because of all the reasons – that’s why. These are her most wonderfully messy and complex characters yet, and I love each one in very different ways, which I’m going to attempt to sum up in words now. Toria, our narrator, is a confused but determined main character, filled with a brilliant mix of bubbling emotions are feelings, and her worldview is forever shifting as she grows throughout the story. I love her fierce loyalty to her friends, as well as her vulnerability when it comes to being desperate for Polly to like her – friend crushes are a real thing and desperately wanting someone to be your friend is awful. Polly is something else entirely, a pure force of nature that often contradicts herself, but who never stops or looks back. She stands larger than life in Toria’s eyes, but gradually her layers are unraveled to reveal a diverse, eclectic and above all scared young woman. Her protectiveness over her friends is absolutely beautiful, and her gut instinct way of life balances Toria’s anxious overthinking superbly. But that’s not the end of it! ALL of this book’s characters are brilliant, and Daisy and Beasley are both wonderful – I love Daisy with all my heart, her gentle, peaceful and bright outlook fill the story with light and a gentle Summerness that helps tone down Polly’s whirlwind personality. Beasley is effortlessly sweet and flawed, but full of passion and love, and I found myself connecting with his desperate need for attention really well. Everyone is so distinctive and well written that they play across the page together so vividly that it’s impossible to not want to be part of their group.

I asked James to sign a special page in the book instead of the title page. Heartbroken.

I asked Juno to sign a special page in the book instead of the title page. Heartbroken.

As with Dawson’s previous books, her work as a teacher clearly shines through in her dialogue, which is downright hilarious, and effortlessly realistic and on point – she writes in the throwaway, snappy style that teenagers talk, complete with excessive swearing and pop-culture references. What makes All Of The Above stand so triumphantly above the crowd though is Juno’s dedication to diversity. She’s always been a champion of representation, but this new book really effortlessly pulls in some of the aspects of everyday human beings that are still so worryingly lacking in everyday fiction. It examines sexuality in an honest and open way, shunning simplistic stereotypes and instead looking at real, genuine people and their complex (and often messy) emotions and feelings, and it touches upon mental health in a subtle, heartbreaking way. Self-harm and eating disorders are touched upon throughout the story, and are thankfully un-romanticised and quite painfully honest and blunt.

Ultimately, what I think Juno has achieved with All Of The Above is a rare accurate glimpse into the painful, beautiful and messily confusing experience of growing up and finding out who you are. And by that I mean that the characters have about as much idea at the end as they did to start with – it understands that there is no universal teenage experience, and it isn’t afraid to look at the darkness that comes in adolescence (one that most grownups would like to pass off as “a phase”). But it also isn’t afraid to look at vibrant joy and love and friendship that comes with the intensity of being a teenager. The whole book filled me with hope and melancholy, and it’s one of the most powerful and adorable books to come out of the UKYA scene.

Thanks for Reading,

D

P.S. – You can buy All of The Above HERE

P.P.S. – You can follow Juno Dawson on Twitter HERE

P.P.P.S – Obviously, the book does cover some darker themes, and as such contains triggers for self harm and eating disorders.

When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan

An eclectic, emotional, heartfelt & amazingly down-to-earth novel, When Mr Dog Bites was recommended to me by Phil “Being Billy” Earle, & it’s very much a close to home examination of mental health, managing to view it with a sense of wit, humour & gentle understanding.

The Young Adult/Teen Edition is really striking.

The Young Adult/Teen Edition is really striking.

Dylan Mint is dying. He knows it. See, he overheard the doctor telling his Mum that something would be happening in a few months time, and what else could it be? He’s going to cack it – His Tourette’s is finally going to fry his brain & leave him six feet under. But rather than be scared, he makes a list of things he wants to do before he cacks it. It’s not a particularly long list, but it sure will be problematic:

Number One: Have real sexual intercourse with a girl (preferably Michelle Malloy and definitely NOT on a train or any other mode of transport …if it’s possible at her house).

Number Two: Fight heaven and earth, tooth and nail, dungeons and dragons that people stop slagging my mate Amir because he smells like a big pot of curry. And, help him find a new best bud.

Number Three: Get dad back from the war before …you-know-what …happens.

Armed with his list, his best bud Amir & his unique outlook on the world, Dylan sets out to take Scotland, if not the WORLD & make it his own… But in doing so, he soon starts to find out the world isn’t quite how he thought – And nor are the people in it.

The Adult Edition, with a more sombre jacket.

The Adult Edition, with a more sombre jacket.

When Mr Dog Bites is an emotional rollercoaster, dealing with some really tense, heart-tugging issues but in a strangely light-hearted way that keeps it from being the wrong side of dark & emotionally draining. Dylan is a powerfully complex character, whose outlook on the world around him is a disjointed, but also brutally honest & full of sharp, clever use of slang & language that makes his dialogue practically sing across the page, like reading some strange, stream of consciousness poetry. Despite this though, he can be sweet & naive, & although he thinks of himself as the big man, he’s really a scared, lost young teenager thrown into a scenario he can’t understand. The way his inner monologue is written, with sudden jumps & font size changes, really brings his Tourette’s to the front of his thought process, & helps the reader to lock in with the way his brain works when it’s in overdrive. It also allows the author to emphasise the emotional impact of certain sections of the story, & that helps make us sympathise with Dylan’s pain & distress. Amir is another complex character, timid & passionate, caring & sensitive all at the same time & Michelle Malloy is a layered, unusual girl too – She starts out brilliantly spiky, but soon blossoms into a defensive but soft character, who is slow to trust, but fiercely loyal to those she does. I think one of the stand out characters in the novel though, is Tony the Taxi Driver, an old school friend of Dylan’s mum, & someone Dylan is instantly hostile towards – as he sees him stepping on his dad’s territory. However, despite the tirade of abuse he receives at young Dylan’s hands, Tony remains understanding, upbeat & resolute, which casts him as a real hero with no end of patience. Ultimately, he’s exactly the sort of guiding light Dylan needs.

Like I said earlier, the style of writing in When Mr Dog Bites is an odd mix of sudden, jarring font changes & spacing, all designed to simulate the racing mind of its Tourette’s suffering narrator. It actually makes it easier to read though, I found – A lot of Dylan’s manic outbursts would lose their impact if they were just committed to the page as any other dialogue. The way Mental Health is handled is understanding, but also bleakly honest, & it shows the darkness you would expect, but it also doesn’t why away from the humour that comes along with it. Also, Brian Conaghan weaves in the personality of a hormonal teenage boy to make Dylan an even bigger, excitable rocket of emotions, & creating a hilarious & relatable character, who never feels larger than life no matter how ridiculous his behaviour might be. On top of all that though, this novel is touching, sweet & a coming of age without the sentimental “You Can Change the World” attitude. Dylan’s life starts to gradually unravel as the book progresses, & the way his family & friends crowd round him in support is incredibly heart warming, especially given some of the outbursts & mood swings he exhibits towards them. The ultimate revelation & final letter to his father away at war, is heartbreakingly mature & inspiringly bold – Which sums up this books perfectly.

Intelligent, soft & gentle, but equally harsh & abrasive, When Mr Dog Bites is as complex as its characters, & is a joy to read every step of the way.

Hope you’ve enjoyed!

D

P.S. Obviously, language is an issue with this one, & some of it is very strong – I’d recommend for 16 upwards.

Hello Darkness by Anthony McGowan

The padded envelope fell to the floor with the intensity of a coffin lid closing for the last time. I was used to getting books in the post, in a town like this; everyone wanted their book reviewed, but something about this felt different. I tore into the envelope like a starving street urchin, relishing the familiar sent of newly pressed paper, & gazed down at the latest offering. Hello Darkness, the name already had me hooked, mysterious & inquisitive. The author, Anthony McGowan was one I knew already. He had a reputation for tough, powerful novels. I was curious to say the least, & the first clue grabbed on the first page like an amorous dame & refused to let go…

OKAY, I like the noir style, alright?! I promise I’ll be a normal reviewer from here on out, but I had to get that off my chest.

The brilliant cover for Hello Darkness - Distinctive Stuff.

The brilliant cover for Hello Darkness – Distinctive Stuff.

Johnny Middleton is a loner, a high school student with a troubled past, & a sarcastic streak a mile wide. Ever since his “incident” required him to be on medication to deal with hallucinations, he’s known throughout the school as the Psycho Kid. When he winds up as Mr. Wrong-Place-Wrong-Time, overhearing the murder of the school’s stick insect collection, he’s the obvious first suspect – with his mental health history, animal cruelty doesn’t seem far behind. He’s innocent, though, & he manages to beg the tyrannical deputy head The Shank (Aka Mr. Shankley) to give him four days to find the real culprit, or he’s nailing the crime on Johnny, & cancelling the school play because of it. And that won’t make Johnny Middleton a popular boy. As other members of the school pet pool start turning up murdered, Johnny is sure he’s being set up, he’s the fall guy for someone else’s wicked plan, but who? What does anyone have to gain by murdering insects & rodents? Johnny doesn’t know, but he’s determined to get to the core of this mystery, & blow the whole thing wide open, but the clues are muddled, & he can’t tell friend from foe… And he’s not taking his medication anymore.

I genuinely went into Hello Darkness totally unprepared, with no idea what I was expecting. From the title, & the description of brutal murder, I expected some kind of Teen horror novel, something in the vein of Darren Shan. However, I was delighted as the narrative unfolded to make way for a proper 40’s style noir detective thriller. It’s a really rare style of writing that I absolutely adore, & I could definitely do with reading more of it in the Teen/Young Adult market. It’s a genre that lends itself to fast, paced writing, with twists & turns, as well as a good sense of wit & dry humour about it.

Our protagonist in the book, Johnny Middleton, is a classic a classic noir anti-hero, & brilliantly written by someone who clearly loves the Detective style. His inner monologue is rife with brilliant metaphors & similes, each one successful in putting a wry smile on my face, & his self-deprecating, sarcasm is the perfect sense of black humour for the murderous plotline of the novel. The other characters follow similarly perfectly observed noir stereotypes, from the spurned lover of Ling Mei to the mysterious Femme Fatale Zofia, they’re all brilliantly sympathetic, or antagonistic to Johnny’s mission, throwing out red herrings & twisted crossword clues. The School is as much a character in the story as its inhabitants too, & it’s a smoky, mysterious & dilapidated setting that yawns around the character’s actions, uncaring but threatening to swallow them into oblivion. The descriptions of the settings & the lurking dangers throughout create a great sense of unease & tension wherever our lead character goes. The final big character point I really loved about the book was Johnny’s mysterious mental health issues. They’re never quite touched upon, but add a sense of concern & urgency to his investigation, as well as an uneasy sense that it could all be just a manifestation of his mind, that none of it is really happening the way he sees it. It gives the whole novel a feeling of duality, that maybe… Just maybe, there are two stories being told simultaneously here, but we’re only getting Middleton’s perspective.

The plot itself is a gripping whodunit, & as I said, the writing style is a fantastic collection of hilarious similes & unique metaphors that showcase Anthony’s skilful wit & skilful wordplay. The way the story is narrated is delightful, really keeping the reader guessing until the very last page. AND WHAT A LAST PAGE! A brilliantly abrupt, touching ending that really had my heart pounding in my chest with the tension.

A really unique book, with a truly fun style, Hello Darkness is due out on the 5th of September, & I urge you to pick it up at your local bookshop!

D