Moving on

Saturday, January 8, 2011


My book, Crazy, about a teen girl's obsession that she will end up like her bipolar mother, is currently being shopped around by my agent, Julia Kenny of MarksonThoma Literary Agency. While I sit by and wait ever so patiently (smile) for good news, I thought it worthwhile to compile a list of other YA books out there that deal with mental issues that challenge young protagonists either directly, or indirectly (sister, brother, parent, friend, etc.)

Many of these books are widely read by teens.  As a writer I am both concerned and curious about what motivates teens to read accounts of protagonists who sometimes face such challenging, dismal, or frightening circumstances.  Do teens subconsciously want the problems these often troubled characters have, or are they identifying with the protagonist in a quest for self-help?  Are authors who delve into these issues seeking to assist young readers, or creating unhealthy or troubled characters because they sell well, without any regard for the possible negative ramifications?

If you have read any of these books, whether you are a teen or an adult who enjoys YA literature (nothing wrong with that!) I would welcome your thoughts. Why do you gravitate towards such issues/books/protagonists? I realize there is a wide range of circumstances here from disorders such as autism to drug use to psychosis and many in between.  Perhaps they all have the common thread that could be labeled "disturbing."  What do we hope to gain by either writing or reading disturbing books?


After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread My Wings, and Flew Away by Joyce Carol Oates.  A teenage girl, tormented by her mother's death in a car accident that spared her, nearly dies from abuse of Oxycontin before she can face her fears and grief.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.
Told in the voice of a teenage boy with autism who applies his literal-minded observations in trying to disprove a neighbor who falsely accuses him of killing his dog. 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Right before entering ninth grade a girl is raped at a huge party and then calls the police.  When her “friends” ostracize her she becomes depressed and literally stops talking until a second encounter with the “Beast” brings justice to light. 

Winter Girls by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Two teenage girls suffer from eating disorders.  One survives and one doesn’t. 

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.  Before she commits suicide, Hannah Baker records a tape that circulates to classmates after her death, painfully chronicling the reasons why she ended her life and how each of the recipients affected her decision. 

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.  Autobiographical account of Burroughs’ life with his mentally ill mother, alcoholic father, and the psychiatrist he ends up living with. 

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine.  A girl with Asperger’s works with a school counselor to find “empathy” and “closure” by finishing the Eagle Scout project her beloved brother left behind when he was shot to death. 

I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier.  A young boy’s discovery that he and his family have been given entirely new identities through a witness protection program intertwines with the actual death of both parents.  The boy ends up in a psychiatric hospital trying to regain his memory of the tragedies that have swallowed his life.   

Stop Pretending:  What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Jones.  In a sequence of short, intense poems based on the author's own experiences, a 13-year-old girl suffers through her shifting feelings about her sibling's mental illness.

Crank, and Glass by Ellen Hopkins.  A novels written in verse and told in the voice of Kristen, Hopkins’ daughter, as she battled a transforming addiction to crystal meth, even after giving birth to her first child. 

Impulse by Ellen Hopkins.   The stories of three teens who end up at the same psychiatric hospital after attempted suicides. 

Identical by Ellen Hopkins.  16 year old identical twins react in different ways to a dysfunctional family that includes two highly successful and professional parents whose secrets include alcoholism and sexual abuse. 

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.  A 15-year old boy becomes depressed at a high-pressure school and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital where he returns to better health along with a new passion for art. 

Checkers by John Marsden.  A nameless adolescent girl is committed to a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown. 

Cut by Patricia McCormick.  A compelling and compassionate look at a young woman's struggle to overcome the impulses that lead her to inflict harm on herself. 

Damage by A. M. Jenkins.  A realistic portrait of a young man’s descent into the world of depression and suicide. 

Lisa, Bright and Dark by John Neufield.  A somewhat dated (1969) but still relevant account of a sixteen-year old girl’s descent into mental illness, and how her friends tried to help her when her parents missed the warning signs. 

Memories of Summer by Ruth White.  The story of how a teenage girl’s descent into schizophrenia traumatized her family, especially her younger sister. 

Tenderness by Robert Cormier.  The story of a psychopathic teen killer’s involvement with a promiscuous, vulnerable teenage girl. 

Tribute to Another Dead Rock Star by Randy Powell.  Not about mental illness per se, but the protagonist’s mentally challenged brother is a key character and part of the conflict. 

So Much to Tell You by John Marsden.  Based on a true story of a teenage girl who is the unintended victim of a vial of acid thrown by her own father.  She learns how to deal with post-traumatic stress through journaling. 

When She Was Good by Norma Fox Mazer.  After years of abuse from her mentally ill older sister, a girl gingerly takes her first steps toward liberation when her tormentor dies.

Border Crossing by Jessica Anderson. A 15-year-old boy tries to cope with a dysfunctional relationship with his alcoholic mother as he slips into schizophrenia.

Right Behind You by Gail Giles. A nine-year-old boy lights his seven-year-old neighbor on fire and the book deals with the aftermath.    

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott.  The account of a 15-year-old girl who has been abducted by a sexual predator who killed his last abductee when she turned 15.  


  1. Linda,
    As an adult reader of YA and a writer of YA (Just finished my 1st one!) I graviate toward this kind of story. It certainly isn't that I want to live vicariously though these characters, I think I read it for the "WOW" factor. These are the books that keep me thinking long after I've turned the last page. I don't know, maybe they make me realize how blessed I am to live a normal & happy life? Not sure.

    Anyway, I've recently read a few more you can add to your list. RIGHT BEHIND YOU by Gail Giles. A 9 yr old boy lights his 7 Yr old neighbor on fire & the book deals w/ the aftermath. LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott is the account of a 15 yr old girl who has been abducted by a sexual predator who killed his last abductee when she turned 15.

    All I can say is, HOLY COW!

    Good luck with your book!

  2. Hi Niki,

    Thanks for these additions. I can really relate to the feeling of "how blessed I am to live a normal and happy life." Hopefully teens reading these books will have the same reaction.


  3. You ask good questions, Linda. Sometimes the "why I am reading this book" is as simple as "because I found it on the audio book shelf at the library and it looked interesting!" I shy away from ones that are DEEPLy disturbing (like the ones Niki mentioned.) But I did like "After the Wreck" and LOVED "Mockingbird." Hmmmm. I think I like to see books where the protagonist, despite difficult odds, "makes it." But I don't want those odds to be too extreme. Does that make any sense? If not, maybe you need to write a book about mixed-up me!!(You certainly would have enough material!!)

  4. HI Linda,

    I purchased Mockingbird for my 5th grade niece for Christmas. I checked out a copy from the library to read myself. I am looking forward to discussing it with her.

    I'm not sure why I was drawn to it, other than a desire to understand and have compassion for those who are different.

    Linda A.

  5. Linda A-- You won't be dissapointed about Mockingbird. It's a terrific book that you and your niece can share.

  6. Linda A.,

    I always love to hear that an adult chooses to read and discuss a particularly difficult book with a child. I'm sure that is the very best way to read some of these books. Kudos to you, Linda.