The term “childhood mental disorder” refers to all mental disorders that can be diagnosed and begin in childhood, for example, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, depression and other mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism spectrum disorders, eating disorders, and schizophrenia. Based on the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report, it is estimated that 13–20 percent of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year.
ADHD, anxiety problems, behavior problems, and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children. Estimates for ever having a diagnosis among children aged 3-17 years, in 2016-19, are given below (CDC).
Given these startling statistics, it is vital that readers read books about the experiences of fictional characters or the authors themselves (through memoirs) about mental health issues and concerns that our readers have personally experienced or have witnessed in their family or friends and that they can read the stories of others whom they may know or may meet. Reading about and discussing a variety of mental health issues supports students in developing mental health literacy.
Book Clubs, which offer are an effective way to facilitate small group discussions that can be deeper, collaborative, and more meaningful about topics related to the sensitive topic of mental health issues. Strategies and lessons for reading these novels in Book Clubs are explained with examples in Talking Texts: A Teachers’ Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum and in Fostering Mental Health Literacy through Adolescent Literature (Chapter 9 “Exploring Mental Health Literacy through Book Clubs”).
I have read and recommend all the titles pictured and listed for Grades 4-12. Any of these could be grouped together into Book Clubs—as well as read as a whole class or for individual reading. Below, I post 22 of my more-recent *Book Reviews.
Upper Elementary/Middle Grade Novels:The Goldfish Boy; Finding Perfect; Perfect; Focused*; Give & Take*; Guts (graphic); What about Will* (verse novel); OCDaniel; The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl*; Forget Me Not (verse/prose novel); The Sea in Winter*
YA Novels:Girl in Pieces; Impulse (verse novel); After the Death of Anna Gonzales (verse novel); Monday’s Not Coming*; My Heart and Other Black Holes; Underwater; The Burn Journals (memoir); The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B; Wintergirls; Forget Me Not (verse novel); Every Last Word; The Visitors*; ADHD & Me; In Sight of Stars*; Turtles All the Way Down*; Memory of Light; Saving Red (verse novel); Scars; Darius the Great is Not Okay*; Words on Bathroom Walls*
Characters with Autism Spectrum Disorder:Marcelo in the Real World; Planet Earth is Blue*; Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen*; Al Capone Does My Shirts (and series); Anybody Here Seen Frenchie?*; Anything But Typical; Same But Different; Mockingbird; Rogue; Rules; The Someday Birds*; M Is for Autism; Rain Reign; Tornado Brain; Counting by 7’s
Family Members with Mental Health Issues:No Fixed Address; The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins*; Small as an Elephant*; Family Game Night*; Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe*; The Impossible Knife of Memory; Everything Everything; Stop Pretending (verse memoir); Jack Kerouac Is Dead to Me*; Waiting for Normal; Each Tiny Spark; Trowbridge Road*; My Life in the Fish Tank*
For Educators:Fostering Mental Health Literacy Through Adolescent Literature ---------- Focused by Alyson Gerber Focused shares the story of Clea Adams, a seventh grader who has ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Clea works as hard as she can on her schoolwork but just cannot seem to complete all the tasks; she doesn’t always follow directions, finish assignments, or remember what she needs to do. She feels that she isn’t trying hard enough or isn’t smart enough to achieve. She is also affected socially as she blurts out whatever she is thinking, interrupting conversations and sharing the secrets of others.
Luckily, on the positive side, she has a best friend Red, a new girlfriend Sanam, a supportive family, and she is really good at chess, which she loves. Chess is the one activity where she seems to be able to focus. But when her lack of focus and impulsivity cause her to lose her friendship with Red and possibly forfeit her chance to remain on the chess team, Clea needs to take action. She is tested for ADHD and learns that it is her condition that controls her actions, rather than lack of intelligence or willingness to support her friends.
Clea learns that she needs to follow the advice of her psychiatrist, parents, and school counselor and to advocate for herself. “I don’t notice if anyone starts whispering about me when I walk back into the room, but I don’t care if they do, because for the first time all year, I got exactly what I needed and I know for sure I did my best.” (262)
According to the American Psychiatric Association, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. As of August 2018, an estimated 10 percent of children (over 6 million school-age children) had been diagnosed with ADHD. And that is why this novel offers not only a good story, but is important for children with ADHD and those who love, live, and work with them to read. Focused will provide not only support for some readers who see their struggles valued in a novel but a map to navigate the difficulties of functioning with ADHD, and for others it will provide understanding of, and empathy for, those friends, family, and peers who may be facing some of Clea’s challenges. ---------- Give and Take by Elly Swartz “My insides are filled with a missing that can’t be fixed with words.” (85) Twelve-year-old Maggie’s world seems to be filled with good-byes. It all began on the first worst day of her life—"Forgot Me Day,” the day her Nana forgot who Maggie was, and then the second worst day, the day Nana died. Maggie becomes anxious that she will forget what is special in her life, and she starts collecting mementoes of small moments. She hides boxes under her bed and in her closet, boxes filled with gifts but also milk cartons and straws from lunches, sticks, rocks, anything that will help her remember. When the family takes in a foster baby, Maggie knows it is temporary to give the baby a good start until she gets her forever family but Maggie hides away baby socks and diaper tabs. “A little something. To remember. So my memories don’t disappear.” (13) Baby Izzie is adopted and Maggie is filled with a “giant missing.”
When her secret is discovered, her parents send her to work with Dr. Sparrow, who helps her work toward “a heart big enough to love a lot and a brain healthy enough to let go.” (267)
During all this, Maggie meets a new friend, Mason, who joins their formerly all-girl trapshooting team; helps her little brother Charlie makes friends; finds—and loses—a pet turtle; and has to decide whether to tell a friend’s secret, a secret that could be hurtful to others, risking the loss of that friendship.
Maggie, who struggles with anxiety manifested through hoarding, joins her author-Elly-Swartz-sisters Frankie, who in Smart Cookie is dealing with the loss of her mother, and Molly who struggles with OCD in Finding Perfect in my heart. Their stories will help some young adolescents see their lives reflected and challenges honored and will give others the empathy to understand their peers. For the adult who read these novels, they may provide a flash of insight into those in our classrooms and families. ---------- What about Will by Ellen Hopkins Twelve-year-old Trace’s world changes when his older brother Will is injured in a high school football accidental collision with another player. Luckily, he was not paralyzed, “But his brain had volleyed Between the sides of his skull So hard it was swollen.” (14)
Will is left with rages, headaches, and a “wrecked” facial nerve leaving him with no expression except for a facial tick. Their mother blames their father for letting Will play football and their already-fragile marriage dissolves when she leaves for a permanent tour with her band. “When you’re scared, blame comes easy.” (13)
Will changes, dumping his loyal girlfriend and hanging out with new friends—a seemingly bad crowd who he sneaks out to join at all hours, and Trace is left without the big brother he remembers. “Probably what I miss most of all, though, is having a big brother to talk to. Some things you can’t tell just anyone. “(18)
Luckily Trace has Bram, his best friend, and a new friend, Cat, the newest member and only girl (and maybe best player) on Trace’s Little League team and his new partner in the Gifted program at school. Cat has a troubled older brother and empathizes with Trace. When Cat’s father, the famous baseball player Victor Sanchez, signs Trace’s glove, Will steals and pawns it. In fact, Will has stolen all of Trace’s saved money, and Trace becomes suspicious of Will’s “activities” but is hesitant to bother his father who works hard and has a new girlfriend.
Also “I keep thinking if I keep his secrets don’t tell Dad don’t bother Mom he’ll trust me enough to tell me why he hardly ever leaves his room, and where he goes when he ducks out the door the minute Dad’s back is turned.
I miss the original Will.” (25)
As things become worse, Trace realizes, “I need someone here for me…” I feel like a kite Come loose from its string And its tail tangled up In a very tall tree. No way to rescue it Unless a perfect w Whisp of wind Plucks it just right, sets it free.” (333)
When Will overdoses (mistake? suicide attempt?), everyone—Dad, Lily, Mom, Mom’s boyfriend, their neighbor, Cat, and Bram—comes together and support not only Will but Trace. ---------- The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty When she was 8, Lucy was struck by lightning. Damaging the left lobe of her brain, the right lobe works overtime, causing acquired savant syndrome. Lucy is a math genius—and has OCD; she makes certain movements 3 times to quiet the numbers of pi in her head and is germ phobic. Homeschooled by her grandmother, she never had to worry about fitting in, except with her fellow math geeks on the Math Whiz site. At age 12 she has her GED and thinks she is ready to begin college classes.
But Nana has other plans, and she enrolls Lucy in 7th grade at the local middle school for one year. There Lucy hides her identity as a “freak” and makes two friends, but when her secret is revealed, she finds out that middle school is where many feel different and anxious, even the popular kids.
Reading this wonderful new book for grade 4-8 readers straight through, I fell in love with Lucy and empathized with her struggles to understand human behavior—the mean girls who bully her, making fun of her differences and excluding her; the boy who cheats off her in math class and is constantly taking photographs; the BFF who betrays her. When she works on a school project and falls in love with a dog at the shelter, she learns to reach out to save him and finds there are people she can depend on, especially Levy, the cheater. Levy grew into my favorite behavior because, an outsider himself, he understood human behavior and was able to capture, appreciate, and share the complexity through his photography.
Middle school is where very few fit in—whether a genius or not. ---------- The Sea In Winter by Christine Day Middle-school student Maisie Cannon is an aspiring ballerina. As she writes in her school free-write journal, “My ballet school has always been my sanctuary.” (3) She has no friends at her middle school; all her friends are from ballet classes and attend different schools. She sees her academic classes, such as Algebra, as pointless for her future, and her grades are slipping. And it has only gotten worse since the day she tore her Achilles tendon. Her goal now through physical therapy is to be able to attend a spring audition for ballet schools that are recruiting for their summer programs across the country.
However, Maisie has begun distancing herself from even her ballet friends, snapping at the family members, and her grades are becoming worse. On her family mid-winter break trip, she realizes that “even though I’m sitting here with my family, with the people I love so much, I feel weird. Disconnected from myself. Like I’m not fully here with them, right now.” (64) Watching her little brother, “He really is the human version of a ray of sunshine. I hope he never changes. I hope he never becomes a human storm cloud. Like me.” (138)
During their trip she re-injures her leg on a hike, tripping over a root. In the hospital, her mother realizes that Maisie might need another type of therapist, “Someone who can help you sort through these feelings, this—this loss you’re going through,” (189) and she contacts the therapist who has helped her since Maisie’s father’s sudden death.
“None of this means that you’ve failed,” Jack tells me. It just means that you’re moving forward. Which is about the bravest thing any of us can do.” (190)
Dr Estrada helps Maisie to realize that her negative thoughts—thoughts of failure and feelings that [her] family doesn’t love her as much as she loves them. Or that [her] friends don’t really want to hear from her (221)—are symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Masie is 100% Native. Her mother is Makah and her father who dies in Afghanistan before she was born, Piscataway from the opposite side of the country. Her stepfather is also from the west coast, “an enrolled citizen of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe” and a geoduck diver. The story is interspersed with Native history and justice issues, much as is Christine Day’s I Can Make This Promise. ---------- Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson ‘Without Monday by my side, I was jumping alone in shark-infested waters…” (10) Claudia sees Monday as her best friend, her sister, her soul-mate. But Monday isn’t there when Claudia returns from her summer visit to Georgia; she’s not there the first day of school, the first week, the first month, and no one else seems to be looking for her but Claudia. She gets evasive, conflicting answers from Monday’s mother, her sister April, and the adults at her school, and the police. Even her parents vacillate between helping her and forbidding her from visiting the dangerous complex where Monday lives.
How will she navigate the school bullies and hide her dyslexia so that she can apply to the top DC high school with Monday without Monday to stand up for her and fix her homework? Who will prepare her for her first dance solo? Who will help her navigate her first romance?
This is another well-crafted Tiffany Jackson novel. The timeline fluctuates so that the reader learns the story in bits and pieces, appreciating this format at the end. Part mystery, part the story of responsibility for others, this is the story of constant friendship and persistent loyalty which begs the question “Who’s really responsible for your well-being—your family, the government, or your community?” (421) ---------- The Visitors by Greg Howard "All I know for sure is that a boy was hurt, and it was my fault. I don’t know exactly how he was hurt or what my part in it was, though. Those memories are gone, and I say good riddance. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to leave. So I try my best to carry on like the other lost souls around here, wishing for the day when we all might find a way to move on. But wishing is easy at Hollow Pines. It’s the being stuck here that’s hard.” (6)
Since his death, a 12-year old boy is stuck trapped in a former South Carolina Plantation with no way to move on. He doesn’t remember who he is or how he died or when he died. His “family” now consists of former inhabitants of the plantation: Retha Mae, the cook; Emma, her assistant; Teacherman, tutor to the owner’s stepchildren; Miss Rebecca, the owner’s grieving wife; Cousin Cornelius; Preacher; and Jackson Culpepper the Third, the evil owner of the plantation, and his malevolent shadow spirits.
When three adolescent visitors—Thomas, twins Mateo and Maya, and dog Goldie—arrive, the boy reveals himself, hoping they can somehow help him to remember and move on. Unfortunately Jackson Culpepper has other ideas for their souls. * * * “The sting of Daddy’s hand on my face. The names I was called at school—"sissy,” “homo,” “queer.” The heaviness in my head and the tightness in my chest. Ronnie. Ronnie’s betrayal—twice. (179)
The dead boy’s story is skillfully interwoven with the story of Will Perkins, a 7th grader who was relentlessly bullied for being gay, constantly abused by his father after his mother abandoned them, and betrayed by his best friend, and who disappeared 50 years previously. Coincidentally, the three visitors are investigating the disappearance of Will Perkins whose body was never discovered.
This is a most beautifully-written story of mystery, suspense, friendship, betrayal, and real history, a story that tackles impactful subjects, such as slavery, trans and gay children, and mental health. I read through in two days, sitting on the edge of my seat, making guesses along with the protagonist.
Not only a riveting story that will engage all readers, even reluctant readers, The Visitors is an essential story to have available to all adolescent readers because
As the author states, “They (LGBTQ youth) need to feel seen and have their experiences, and their stories, validated.” and
“Young non-queer readers can learn empathy by reading stories about queer, othered, and marginalized kids.” (Author’s Note, 247)
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people; and
LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to seriously consider suicide, to make a plan for suicide, and to attempt suicide than their peers (The Trevor Project)
---------- In Sight of Stars by Gae Polisner Researchers at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that “children who lost a parent due to suicide when they were teenagers or young adults had the highest chance of being hospitalized for a suicide attempt in the first 2 years after the parental suicide.” This highlights the vital importance of providing support to children who are grieving.
Klee’s father committed suicide, and Klee was the one who found him. If that weren’t bad enough, his mother moves Klee away from his friends and Manhattan for a senior year in a new high school in the suburbs, away from the museums, art, and parks he loves—the museums, art, and parks where he spent time listening to his father’s stories about Van Gogh and life—and from his friends.
Klee looks for support in Sarah, his one new friend, but he may be demanding more than she can give. When she disappoints him, he cuts himself with a knife and ends up in a psychiatric hospital.
The reader lives through Klee’s hospitalization with him; as does he, we wonder what is real, what is imagined. Who can he trust? He already found that he cannot trust his perfect mother, or can he? Who is real, and whom does he fabricate. How much like his favorite artist, Van Gogh, is he?
Gae Polisner creates a perfect puzzle. I was reminded of the sliding puzzles I played with in childhood. But in sliding puzzles, there always is a piece missing. And Klee finds he does have a piece of the puzzle that is missing and when he finds it, he may be able to build the picture and trust again.
The story is skillfully crafted, as each piece slides into the opening left by the movement of another piece. The characters—Klee, Dr. Alvarez, Sister Agnes Teresa, Martin, Sarah, and even Klee’s mother—are well-developed and are integral parts of the puzzle. There is a transcendental or ethereal quality that reminds me of A.S King’s Still Life with Tornado. There are so many pathways and levels offered by this novel that I know I will read it many more times.
“…the sight of stars is always right there. Right in your line of vision. Even on the cloudiest day.” ---------- Turtles All the Way Down by John Green This novel introduced me to a new favorite character, Aza, whose name takes her through the alphabet and back again. Aza suffers from debilitating anxiety. Green, through Aza, is very effective at describing her condition to the readers, the way it spirals out of control, controlling her life as she tries to figure out who her “self” is. “I was beginning to learn that your life is a story told about you, not one that you tell.”
And as much as Aza tries to control herself and her relationships, her thoughts take over, sometimes rendering her helpless, other times dictating her actions. Her thoughts intrude in her relationship with her new boyfriend Miles and almost derail her relationship with her best friend.
The plot involves a mystery which I perceived more as a vehicle for the characters’ evolving relationships as they all—Aza, Daisy, Miles and his brother Noah—explore the world, face loss, and navigate relationships with parents and friends. “…the world is also the stories we tell about it” and John Green helps readers understand the complexities of life—especially life with loss and mental illness. ---------- Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram “I had never been surrounded by my family before. Not really. “I loved them. “I loved how their eyelashes were long and dark and distinct, just like mine. And how their noses curved around a little bump in the middle, just like mine. And how their hair cow-licked in three separate places, just like mine.”(174)
Darius Kellner just didn’t fit in. He was a Fractional Persian who was a little overweight from his medicines for clinical depression. He didn’t fit in in school where he was one of two Persian students, Javaneh being a True Persian. He didn’t fit in at school where he was bullied by Trent and his Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy. He didn't fit in at work at Tea Haven where they steeped every tea to a full boil despite the advice of Darius who knew teas.
And he didn’t fit in his family: with his mother, a True Persian; and his father, the Ubermensch, a handsome blonde American with Aryan looks; and his little sister, Laleh, who was also a Fractional Persian but was popular at school and spoke fluent Farsi with her Persian relatives and friends.
But when Darius and his family go to Iran to visit his grandmother and dying grandfather, Darius becomes Darioush and is enveloped by his extended family and the Persian culture, makes a new best friend, plays “soccer/non-American football” and finds that he is actually good, and he learns more about his father. “I finally managed to open up the well inside me.”(299) But the most important lesson he learns is that Darius the Great is not okay, and that is okay.
Through Darius’ story, YA readers will learn about tPersian culture and how it feels to stand with one foot in two worlds. ---------- Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton He is very tall, somewhat irreverent, and has schizophrenia, but there was something about Adam that captivated me immediately. I had to keep reading his story. I would be washing dishes and think, “What is Adam doing now? I have to get back to him.” I even was fascinated with his hallucinations, or imaginary friends, especially Rebecca who is almost always with him and the Mob boss who can cause chaos but also can just sit with an espresso and cannoli.
Adam was diagnosed in his mid-teens with schizophrenia and at 16 is starting a new school and is part of a trial for a new drug. He still sees people and hears voices and thinks of himself as “crazy,” but he is now almost sure of what and who are real—most of the time. He won’t talk at his therapy sessions, and so this novel is a compilation of his weekly journals to his therapist.
Adam has a supportive mother and stepfather and during this year he falls in love with Maya, who he is pretty sure is real; makes a best friend, the pale, serious, nerdy Dwight; and gains the wrath of the school bully. He wants to keep his secret from all of them, especially Maya. “I don’t want to lose my secrets, because they keep me safe” (153).
His “corporeally-challenged” friends as he begins to think of them even become supportive and one of the funniest scenes is when his new half-sister is born. “My hallucinations…hung out behind my mom’s bed and made faces at the baby. She couldn’t see them, but I didn’t want to spoil their fun” (277).
When the drug begins to fail and his condition is revealed, Adam learns just how supportive his family and friends can be.
There is a 2020 film adaption of the novel.
Note: A study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found about 1 in 5 teens in the United States suffer from a mental disorder severe enough to their impact daily activities. Schizophrenia is one of the most complex of all mental health disorders. It is a severe, chronic, and disabling disturbance of the brain that causes distorted thinking, strange feelings, and unusual behavior and use of language and words. Statistics indicate that schizophrenia affects approximately 2.4 million Americans. ---------- Neurodiversitiy and Neurodivergence The term “neurodiversity” was coined by Judy Singer, an Autistic Sociologist, in the 1990s. While the term “neurodiversity” encompasses all of the many and varying ways of thinking, learning and processing information that human brains can achieve, neurodivergence describes a brain that differs from the neurotypical norm. The word “neurodivergent” commonly refers to people who are Autistic, have ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia or Tourette’s Syndrome. (Twinkl.com) In 2021, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (CDC.gov)
Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos Nova, an adolescent with nonverbal autism, is locked in her own world with limited communication. She is able to open up this world with the help of her older sister Bridget, the one person who acknowledges her intelligence and takes care of her when their mother can’t. Nova and Bridget share a love for space and space exploration, and their knowledge is vast. As they are taken away from their mother and moved from foster home to foster home, Bridget looks forward to turning eighteen when she promised she will be able to take care of Nova on her own.
When the story begins, Bridget and Nova have run away from their last foster home, and Nova has been placed in a new home with loving foster parents and their older daughter; they all want to get to know Nova, her limitations, but also her capabilities. Meanwhile Nova begins school, repeating sixth grade, experiencing endless testing (her social worker who has classified her as “severely mentally retarded”) and getting to know new peers in her special education room, each with their own challenges and abilities. The classmates bond, but Nova is desperately waiting for the Challenger launch with the first teacher aboard; Bridget has promised to find her so they can watch the launch together.
The story is told in alternating third person, the story of Nova’s life with Francine, Billy, and Joanie and school and first person which the reader views through Nova’s letters to Bridget—which are, in actuality, illegible. I found it very effective to read about people and events and then re-read them from Nova’s perspective.
Having read that the story incorporated the 1986 Challenger space shuttle launch, I began reading this novel with a feeling of trepidation. I assume that this might be experienced in a different way by readers of diverse ages. It is a moving story (have a tissue ready), and Nova becomes a character we can all champion as she experiences the disadvantages and finally the benefits of the foster system. Readers will learn a lot about space and our space program, but they will also learn how many times people are judged on assumptions.
In 2018 the CDC determined that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). According to a study by Boston University, about 30 percent of people diagnosed with ASD "never learn to speak more than a few words." Also, on any given day, there are nearly 428,000 children in foster care in the United States. Today’s children are dealing with multiple challenges, and many are in our classrooms. And that is why novels, such as Nicole Panteleakos' debut novel Planet Earth is Blue, belong in our school or classroom libraries. ---------- Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit Things are changing, and it’s all because of baseball.” (39)
Middle-school student Vivian Jane Cohen loves baseball and wants to be a knuckleball pitcher when she grows up. This has been her goal ever since, three years before, she attended an Autism Foundation “social thingy” and met Major League pitcher VJ Capello who showed her how to pitch a knuckleball. “The problem is, I’ve never pitched in a real game. I don’t play for a team. And I don’t know if I ever will.” (1)
It’s Vivy’s mother who thinks that being the only girl on a baseball team would be too much for Vivy’s challenges. “My challenges. Of course. It always comes back to that, doesn’t it? And I do know I have challenges, but sometimes I feel like Mom doesn’t see all the things I CAN do.” (91) And her supportive father doesn’t speak up. And her big brother Nate, who says she throws a wicked knuckleball, has been MIA from her life lately.
As an assignment for her social skills group, Vivy has to write a letter to someone. She chooses VJ Capello (same initials as hers), and they soon start writing back and forth as Vivy, in letters to and supported by VJ, describes her journey after she finally convinces her mother to let her join the Flying Squirrels: bullying by the coach’s son, support from and friendship with her catcher, and the ups and downs of pitching well [“Could it be true? They weren’t staring at me because I’m weird, but because I can do something really well?” (106)] and pitching not so well.
Then Vivy is hit in the head with a ball and has to convince her mother all over again.
Through all her trials and tribulations, [It’s not like anyone ever told me that I’m brain-damaged or anything. But… normal kids don’t have to go to therapy and social skills group all the time. Normal kids don’t have mothers who worry about every little thing they do…. Normal kids don’t get called monkey girl.” (220)], Vivy is supported by the missives from VJ. “I know you’re facing difficulties that are somewhat unique…I can’t really say what it’s like to be an autistic girl on a baseball team. I’m sure it’s hard. As a Black, Ivy League-educated knuckleballer, I know a few things about being an outsider even on your own team.” (63)
When Vivy finds out why Nate has been so secretive, it is her chance to support him and his new relationship in the same way as VJ tells Vivy, “Just know this: You have another knuckleball pitcher rooting for you.” (50)
Sarah Kapit’s epistolary novel covers a variety of topics: Girls in Sports, Baseball, Autism, LGBTQIA+ character, Jewish Cultural Traditions, and Resilience. ---------- Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? by Leslie Connor “You’re having a new kind of year.” Mr. Menkis says it for me. ”Treat yourself sweetly, Aurora. Change happens. It’s the world’s number one constant.” (66)
Sixth-grader Aurora Petrequin has known Frenchie Livernois since the beginning of third grade when he and his mother rented their next-door house. The best friends are inseparable and opposite. Frenchie has autism and doesn’t speak—at all; Aurora is loud and talks impulsively—all the time. Together they explore nature—Frenchie obsessed with birds, Auruora with rocks, especially finding a tourmaline, a mineral produced in areas of her native Maine.
Aurora has no trouble understanding Frenchie and interpreting his body language, and one goal she has is to help others see him. When Sheree of Troviosity gifts Frenchie with an expensive Audubon print of a nuthatch for his bird print collection, Aurora says, “Thanks for seeing him.” (99)
But then sixth grade arrives, and for the first time Frenchie is in a different class and has a new aide, Mr. Menkis. Aurora panics, “Mom! Pop! Gracia! There’s a mess-up of all mess-ups here! Frenchie and I got put in different classes.” (3) And another change is that two new students move to her school and class and, for the first time, besides Frenchie, Aurora has friends.
When Frenchie disappears one day, Aurora panics and feels guilty for not walking him to his room that morning. While they search for Frenchie, Aurora examines everything she knows about him. As she tells Joanie and Leena, “Frenchie doesn’t get lost.… He gets me unlost. Like a human compass.” (86)
But one day turns into two. “I’m thinking about Frenchie. Best Days. Like, when Cedar came home. And family dinners and pancake Sundays. Bird hounding and rock hounding, and me cheering Frenchie on the day he learned to float. Him going along with me, the times we trailed the piebald deer. And him knowing the way home. Having a true friend—the thing I am aching for this morning. (265)
And this is truly a story about friendship. It is not about neurodiversity; it is not about nature (although nature is a catalyst and a bond between Frenchie and Aurora and between many of the townspeople), it is first and foremost about the power and symbiotic relationship of friendship like no novel I have every read.
As the town gathers and comes together to look for Frenchie, adding more and more people to the search, people who remember meeting Frenchie with Aurora, people begin to see Frenchie, “[Aurora’s] bird-loving, no-talk, very best friend.” (321)
A story told in multiple viewpoints for all upper elementary and middle school readers offering adventure, mystery, nature, characters of all ages from baby Cedar to adults who sometimes surprise us—and heart. ---------- Same But Different: Teen Life on the Autism Expressby Ryan Elizabeth Peete and RJ Peete Ryan Elizabeth Peete and RJ Peete’s novel Same But Different is based on their own lives. Characters Charlie and Callie are twins; Charlie has autism, and Callie feels that she needs to be his guide, support, rule-maker, and the person who is always there to stand up for him against bullies and those who try to take advantage of his naiveté. This year Callie is starting tenth grade, and Charlie is repeating ninth, but she is still there for him.
In alternating chapters Charlie (RJ) and Callie (Ryan) discuss their lives on the “Autism Express.” Charlie takes us into his world where he “may have autism, but autism doesn’t have [him].” Ryan takes us into her world where it seems that autism may have her a little more than she wants. Ryan does focus on how Charlie affects her life and her relationships with family and peers. It is clear that she loves Charlie and willingly takes responsibility for helping him, but she does stress the negative aspects.
Although every child affected by autism is at a different point of the spectrum and is affected in different ways, a book explaining at least one family’s journey is a valuable addition to the classroom library, as a catalyst for generating important discussions among adolescents. Even though the characters are in high school, the book is appropriate for even young adolescents. Parent-author Holly Robinson Peete provides an insightful introduction, “A Letter from Mom,” and conclusion, “A Mother’s Hope,” as well as a valuable Resource Guide. A very important point she makes is her worry how RJ's future may be affected as a man of color with autism, a person who doesn't necessarily read the signals of our world. ---------- The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla Anne Lamott wrote about writing Bird by Bird—and that is exactly what Sally Pla does in this novel. This emotional novel is written bird by bird (literally), character by character, event by event, emotion by emotion.
Charlie’s father was an English teacher and a journalist. On an assignment in Afghanistan, he sustained a brain injury and now he does not appear to be aware of his family. He has been living in a hospital where a mysterious, bossy young woman visits him daily.
Charlie, the narrator of the story, is a neuro-diverse young adolescent; he washes his hands twelve times, is obsessively organized, doesn’t like being touched, tries to distinguish emotions from visual clues, and is fixated with, and passionate about, birds. When his father is transferred from California to a hospital in Virginia for further treatment and his grandmother goes to be with him, Charlie, his younger twin brothers, and his 15-year-old boy-crazy sister, find themselves driving cross country with the stranger from the hospital room, a Bosnian woman named Ludmila.
Charlie decides that if he can find all the birds that he and his father had hoped to see— their Someday Birds—even the extinct ones, his father will be healed. Recognizing that this will at least serve to help Charlie feel better, Ludmila supports his endeavor and plans their trip around the needs of Charlie and the family. Meanwhile along the way they learn her story and her ties to their father.
They have adventures, meet people, find birds that were not even on the list, and Charlie acquires the journal of his hero, ornithologist, artist, and philosopher Tiberius Shaw, PhD, who he hopes to meet when they arrive in Virginia—as well as a dog he names Tiberius. At the end Charlie has redefined the meaning of success and, with the reader, has learned a bit of history and geography, and a lot about birds and human nature. “Bird’s-eye views or close–up human views; the world is confusing and surprising both ways” (323).
Note: The book cover recommended the book for ages 8-12, but the characters of Davis, Charlie’s sister, and Ludmila make this novel appropriate and interesting for adolescents of any age. ---------- Children with Family Members Affected by Mental Health Issues According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 9.8 million Americans aged 18 or older, or 4.2% of the adult population, are living with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder. Other mental illnesses that may affect parenting and child welfare include obsessive-compulsive, paranoid, psychotic, panic, and posttraumatic stress disorders. Because two-thirds of females and one-half of men afflicted with serious mental illnesses are likely to be parents, "There's a significant number of individuals with some level of emotional distress who are raising children," says Joanne Nicholson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center in The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University.
The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd This story of 11-year-old Lyndie Baines covers a lot of territory, but it is primarily about truth and the effect of lies or sometimes just not knowing the truth. The novel also shares the effects of war on those who serve, their families, and their communities.
Lyndie’s father, his friends, and neighbors served in the war in Viet Nam. Some never returned, some returned with physical scars, and others, like Lyndie’s dad, returned with psychological scars, scars which affect their families and lives.
Lyndon Baines (yes, named after that Lyndon Baines), an avid student of history, knows this isn’t particular to the Viet Nam conflict; she has read many letters written by Civil War soldiers. She doesn’t realize just how damaged her father is, but she suspects that he and her mother, a former activist who now stays in her bedroom with constant headaches, are not quite okay. “I don’t think my parents know how to head us in the right direction” (24).
Lyndie struggles in her school, where she doesn’t fit in; she struggles in her new home with her parents, Grandpa Tad, her proper Southern grandmother Lady, to whom keeping family secret private and keeping to schedules is primary, even when the family needs help and even if perpetually-grounded Lyddie needs a normal childhood; and she struggles with the type of person she wants to be—more like her altruistic best friend Dawn. She is a fighter, but she also cares about things deeply. And then D.B. enters the picture, a former foster child released from a juvenile detention center to live with Dawn’s family, at least for the school year. Lyndie decides she needs to save D.B. despite her father’s words, “Take care, what you lend your heart to” (73). Through her relationship with D.B., Lyndie learns that things are not always what they seem—with him, with Pee Wee, with her family. When things come to a crisis on her twelfth birthday, Lyndie has to take steps to expose the truth, “’No,’ I correct myself. We’re not okay. Not really.’” (267) and make things right—for her, her family, and D.B. and put all the scraps together. ---------- Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson Jack’s mother frequently spins out of control. Sometimes she is sad, sometimes she is normal and sorry about her behaviors, but more often she is “spinning”—loud and excited and full of fun, usually inappropriate. She takes Jack out of school to go to amusement parks and makes up games, but she also fights with her mother and takes away Jack’s trust of his grandmother, and Jack wishes his mother would take her medication more regularly.
On a camping trip in Maine, she leaves Jack and disappears. It is up to this 11-year-old boy to find his way back to Massachusetts and, hopefully, his mother. Obsessed with elephants, Jack steals a toy elephant which becomes his good luck charm and battles weather, a broken finger, hunger, fatigue, and evading the police once he is listed as missing, before he learns to trust a new friend who takes him to Lydia, the elephant, and to his grandmother who will help make his life safe and filled with love. Part adventure, part confronting challenges and accepting help, this novel and its resilient character will appeal to many and raise empathy for what too many children face. ---------- Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert Hoarding disorder (HD) affects an estimated 2% to 5% of the general population. HD is unique from other disorders because its symptoms are tangible and entail a large accumulation of objects that prevent the use of space for necessary or usual human functions. This abundance of objects results from a pathological failure to discard objects and not accumulate more. When hoarding is severe, it presents risk of physical and psychological harm to hoarders and their families. Hoarders cannot see that their behavior subjugates the entire family to a life that is permanently altered.
Where severe hoarding exists, families rarely have space for shared activities or they are forced to combine spaces inappropriately. Children often realize if they talk about their family secrets, they could lose their parents and homes.
As I wrote in “Hiding in Plain Sight: A Different Diversity,” “Children and adolescents today face a host of diverse challenges, challenges of which we, as their teachers, may be unaware. These students sit in our classrooms, hidden in plain sight.” And, it appears, one of those challenges may be a parent affected by HD.
I had, of course, heard of hoarders but did not realize the extent of the problem or the effect on the children until I lived through Annabelle’s secret in Mary E. Lambert’s novel Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes. Annabelle’s mother is a hoarder, and almost every room of the house is filled with objects, well-organized objects. Mother lives in muumuus, the colors of which signal her moods, and doesn't leave the house.
One room is the exception. On her tenth birthday, Annabelle tossed everything in her bedroom out the window, clearing the room of anything nonessential; she checks once a week for anything not used within the last week. Her younger sister and older brother are not so lucky and live surrounded by piles of their mother’s purchases, new and used. Leslie collects articles about the dangers of hoards and has nightly nightmares. Chad has checked out from family life.
The day the newspapers, organized by weather report, finally fall off the kitchen shelves onto Leslie, seventh-grader Annabelle was sure things would change. And they did. Their father left home; he knows something has to change, but he doesn’t know how to change it. Their grandmother Nora comes to help, and there is a disastrous Family Game Night.
But as difficult as life is in a house filled to the brim with purchases, Annabelle’s secret is safe from her friends and potential boyfriend. Annabelle has instituted a strict Five- Mile-Radius Rule. No one is invited to meet within a file mile radius of the house. When she first visits a new friend’s house in fifth grade, “I thought families like Rae’s, with houses that perfect, only existed in books or TV shows.” (17) When her secret is discovered, she realizes that her friends do not let it affect their friendships; they are real friends.
This is the story of a strong adolescent who helps her family through a challenge as are many of our students, although the challenges may be diverse. It is a novel for those children who need to see themselves or someone like them in a book and for those adolescents who need to discover empathy for their peers. ---------- Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe by Jo Watson Hackl “Turns out, it’s easier than you might think to sneak out of town smuggling a live cricket, three pocketsful of jerky, and two bags of half-paid-for merchandise from Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry grocery store. The hard part was getting up the guts to go.” (1) As the story begins, Ariana “Cricket” Overland's father and grandmother have died, her mother has left, and she is living with her Aunt Belinda who is secretly planning to pawn her off on Great-Aunt Genevieve. Her mother, a creative artist, has struggled between depression and wild adventures for years and is obsessed with a Bird Room she once saw, a room where “Everything was alive.” Cricket is sure that her mother will return to lay her grandmother’s headstone and, having said she wished her mother could “just be normal” (106) the night before she took off, Cricket wants to find the Bird Room and prove that her mother is not crazy and maybe find a treasure using clues hidden by the mysterious Mr. Bob. “I couldn’t stop Mama from leaving, and I couldn’t stop Daddy from dying, but I could sure do something now. (11) When Aunt Belinda abandons her in Thelma’s Cash ‘n’ Carry, Cricket takes her pet cricket, spends all her money on supplies and food, writing an IOU for what she can’t afford, and takes off for Woods Time, as her father would say. Living in a tree house and following her father’s guidelines for survival, she survives raccoons stealing most of her food and supplies and an ice storm, and explores the ghost town, torn down and abandoned by a lumber company, until clues—and a snake bite—lead her to Miss V, the one person whose house still exists, a woman who helps Cricket discover that not only her mother, but she, “contains multitudes.” “I thought about what Miss V had said about Mama being more than what the neighbors thought…. And it wasn’t who I was, either. I was my own, whole person.…Maybe it was time to start taking chances on me.” (203) Ariana Overland is an adolescent a reader really wants to champion. I found myself cheering her on throughout the book. She joins the ranks of literary strong girls as the resourceful and resilient hero of an adventure story about family and identity. ---------- Jack Kerouac is Dead to Me by Gae Polisner “Everything is screwed up. Even when I’m happy, I feel bad. Nothing is simple. Nothing feels okay. And I can’t remember a time when it did.” (230)
Fifteen year old JL is overwhelmed with every teen challenge there is, and, on top of it all, the ghost of Jack Kerouac is haunting her family: JL’s father left for a 6-month job on the other side of the country for 6 months, then a year, now possibly longer; her mother suffers from dissociative disorder and continually writes letters to Jack Kerouac; her Nana is sure everything is “all right” but she constantly recounts her one kiss with Jack Kerouac when she was a young girl. And is it a coincidence that JL’s name, Jean Louise, is similar to Jack Kerouac’s real name Jean-Louis? What is the power of Jack Kerouac over her family?
In other bad news, her best friend forever (literally), Aubrey, has dropped her for two other friends who don’t appear to like her. Her 19-year old, cool, sweet boyfriend Max is seen as a loser by others and, while not pressuring her into sex, is impatiently waiting until she turns 16; he is a poet at heart (and an ardent reader) but underneath a typical teenage boy. The tropical butterflies she raises do not live very long, which she knows but still makes her sad.
JL is a study in vulnerability and resilience. She has tough choices to make—to choose her boyfriend over her best friend; to have sex with Max even though she has vowed to wait until she is 16; to abandon her mother, betray her father and grandmother, and go to California with Max after his graduation. While it may appear that author has heaped her heroine with more than one teen can expect, the sad truth is that many of our adolescents face some, if not all, of these challenges—family breakups, parental mental illness, sexual pressures, loss and abandonment.
Besides well-developed characters, I appreciate a well-structured plot. JL’s story is told in flashbacks at different times and while this could be annoying, under Polisner’s artful crafting, each flashback adds more complexity and understanding to the present plotline. A letter to JL is writing to Aubrey intersperses chapters and ends the story, letting us even further into the heart of the main character; we have seen where she was and we learn how far she has come. A hero’s journey? A coming of age? As JL realizes “I’m just me, a sixteen-year-old girl.” (270) Maybe things will now feel “okay.” ---------- Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley Since the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States in June 1981, the number of cases and deaths among persons with AIDS increased rapidly during the 1980s. (CDC). By the end of 1983, 2807 cases of AIDS—and 2118 deaths—had been reported. (NYC Aids Memorial).
One of those cases was June’s father.
After June’s father died, her mother, a celloist, shuttered herself up in her house, barely leaving the bedroom, terrified of anything that could possibly cause disease. She wouldn’t go down to the kitchen because of its proximity to the door through which anything could come through, and as a result, June was frequently without food, except when Uncle Toby brought food during the week. Unfortunately, on the visits he was permitted, he missed the signs of his sister-in-law’s mental illness.
When June went out, she was not to play with the other children and she needed to leave any disgustingness behind with endless baths with Clorox bleach. She spent her days in Nana Jean’s copper beech tree watching Trowbridge Road and the world move on without her. “All the comings and goings of life.” (8)
And then Ziggy moved in with Nana Jean. Ziggy’s mother was an addict, abused by her boyfriend. Ziggy had a ferret and a fantastical imagination. And June had a friend who understood her and what she needed.
“[Ziggy’s] heart was beating. It was gentle like my daddy’s heart. It knew what kind of sadness lived inside that house, even before there was such a thing as AIDS. It knew what happens to a person when they hold on to secrets for too long, or what happens to a home when it becomes a holding place for those secrets, It crumbles. It burns.” (288)
As June and Ziggy seek refuge in the magical Majestica where they have control of their lives.
June mother becomes worse until June realizes that she can, or should, no longer cover for her. “When I was alone with her, it was easier to pretend that things made sense. But with Uncle Toby in the kitchen, cringing every time she spoke, I found myself suddenly off balance. It was as though I had been walking on a rope bridge a hundred feet up. The bridge swayed back and forth over a raging river, but I had been keeping myself steady by pretending the bridge was strong.…I suddenly saw that the bridge was made of fayed rope, and with every step I swayed from a dizzying height. That raging water I thought was lovely would actually kill me if I missed a step.” (172-3)
The two children find help though the adults who love them—Nana Jean and Uncle Toby.
This is the story of children and adults dealing with many of the problems faced by today’s families—mental illness, grief, abandonment, abuse, addiction, and bullying. This is a story of the destruction caused by secrets and the healing possible though relationships and those who believe in magic. It is a compassionate story that will break hearts and give hope. ---------- My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee In seventh grade, Zinnia Manning’s life changed dramatically. “Sometimes the bottom step fell out, and everything changed all of a sudden.” (146) That was the year her beloved older brother Gabriel, away at college, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and sent to Redwoods Village, a residential treatment center.
Asked to keep her brother’s condition “private,” Zinny has nowhere to turn. Her mother has quit her teaching job, stopped cooking dinners, forgetting to buy groceries, and spends her days in her bedroom arguing with insurance companies; when anyone asks about Gabriel, she lies. Her father barely comes home for meals. Zinny’s older sister Scarlett cuts off her hair, becomes distant, and refuses to visit Gabriel. Her younger brother Aiden becomes obsessed with turning a school project into a “survival” project but never actually works on it.
However, it appears that everyone in school and town seem to know that there is something wrong with Gabriel, and, when Zinny refuses to talk, she loses her two best friends. An avid science lover, she begins spending lunchtime in the science room with Ms. Molina and is very excited about crayfish they will be observing in their classroom. She also is “invited” to join the school counselor’s weekly Lunch Club where, although reluctant to participate, she meets four 7th and 8th graders who also have home problems and are supportive of each other.
As the year progresses, “It was like after it happened, we were in a different time zone from everybody else. A parallel universe. And we needed some kind of new, not-yet-invented time measurement. Abnormal Standard Time. Also a compass and a map.” (9) Later, when Scarlett admits that the last time she was happy was ‘Definitely before Gabriel,’ Zoe thinks, “She didn’t need to explain; I knew that ‘Definitely before Gabriel’ was a complete sentence.” (177) It is a year of changes. “I guess it would be weird to go through this and not change.” (178), and when her group’s crayfish escapes, Zinny learns, “There’s stuff we can control and stuff we can’t.” (240)
Asked to finally describe her feelings, Zinny admits she is “’Mad. Tired. Worried.’ Then I heard myself say: ‘Ashamed.’” Mr. Patrick, the counselor assures her that all her feelings “all million of them—are completely okay. There’s no right way to feel about it, and no wrong way either.” (258)
The chronological narrative l is interspersed with flashbacks that let Zinny and the reader fill in missing puzzle pieces as a family copes with the challenges of mental illness. This isn’t a novel about mental illness; it is a story of a family affected by mental illness.
Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by dramatic or abnormal mood changes typically fluctuating between major depression and extreme elation, or mania. The estimated number of teenagers with bipolar disorder is currently 2-3%. However, mental illness in general is common in teenagers. Approximately one in five teens (aged 12 to 18) suffer from at least one mental health disorder. (Polaris Teen Center). Because mental illness affects so many families—those of our readers and their classmates, it is crucial that novels on this important topic be available in all libraries and classrooms to generate the important conversations that need to be held.
“But mental health is different [than cancer or heart problems].” “Why?” “It just is. People make fun of it.” “Because they don’t understand.” (259) ---------- Fostering Mental Health Literacy Through Adolescent Literature edited by Brooke Eisenbach and Jason Scott Frydman "Exploring Mental Health Literacy through Book Clubs," Chapter 10, written and contributed by Lesley Roessing and Jessica Traylor, discusses the advantages of employing Book Clubs for generating conversations about sensitive and challenging topics. In this chapter, we outline literacy and mental health strategies and lessons, using as examples five YA novels that present a variety of Mental Health issues: Wintergirlsby Laurie Halse Anderson; A Memory of Light by Francisco Stork; Scars by Cheryl Rainfield; Saving Red by Sonta Sones; and The Unlikely Hero of 13B by Teresa Toten. ------------------ The website BOOK REVIEWS drop down menu includes reviews about novels on other topics.