The best YA books that shed a light on mental illness

Who am I?

One of the reasons I wanted to write about and explore mental health was because I was always fascinated by how the mind works and how it can turn on you without provocation. How and why some people can power through dark times, while others struggle is a topic that, within the African American community, isn't frequently discussed.  Often the advice given to someone about how to get through depression or anxiety is to pray or just dig deep and power through. It is the idea that because our ancestors suffered so much, those of us living in "easier" times should have nothing to be sad about that seems to prevent us from asking for help or getting therapy. 

I wrote...

Silhouetted by the Blue

By Traci L. Jones,

Book cover of Silhouetted by the Blue

What is my book about?

With the lead in the school musical, Serena should have it all. If only her dad’s depression wasn’t keeping him in bed, unable to care for her little brother. Living with someone with mental illness can be a challenge if you are an adult, Silhouetted explores what happens when your caretakers suffer from depression so badly that they can no longer take care of themselves or their children.

I wrote Silhouetted by the Blue about depression because I wanted to explore how living with someone with mental illness can color the lives of everyone in the household.

The books I picked & why

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Darius the Great Is Not Okay

By Adib Khorram,

Book cover of Darius the Great Is Not Okay

Why this book?

Khorram deftly takes two serious subjects in Darius the Great, coming out to parents and teen depression. It is rare to find books that tackle mental illness with a POC main character. I also loved how Khorram has created a book that is a love story – love of family, love of friendship, and most importantly, the importance of loving oneself. I loved the look into a culture I knew little about. 

When Elephants Fly

By Nancy Richardson Fischer,

Book cover of When Elephants Fly

Why this book?

Lily’s mom has schizophrenia and Lily is terrified that she might get it too. Lily gets personally involved in a story at her newspaper internship about an abandoned elephant calf. Feeling a kinship with the elephant, Lily goes through extraordinary lengths to make sure the calf finds a safe home, while at the same time, realizing that she has begun to show signs of mental illness. Fischer combines mental illness, family, friendship, and animal welfare into a riveting, thought-provoking book. I loved how she showed the reader how a character can live with the early stages of schizophrenia without losing her sense of self and purpose. 


By Jacqueline Woodson,

Book cover of Hush

Why this book?

Evie Thomas and her family are forced to move away from her childhood home, leaving behind family and friends to protect her father from his fellow officers. Evie has to get used to a new name, life without her older sister, and most importantly, life with her father, whose deep depression has transformed him from a lively, protector to a sad man who sits by the window, gazing at nothing. Tackling depression using an African American protagonist, Woodson has written a moving coming of age novel that shines the light on what it means to live with someone suffering from mental illness. I felt a kinship with Woodson because both of our characters have fathers whose mental health deeply affects how they move about in the world. 

All the Bright Places

By Jennifer Niven,

Book cover of All the Bright Places

Why this book?

Two teens find each other through the darkness of their depressive states. While Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, Violet tries to keep her eye on the future, after her sister’s death. Together they work to create new meaning in life. Niven has written a heartbreaking love story that is complex and moving. I love the braveness of Niven not caving to the desire to give her story a bright and happy conclusion. Often authors want to end their books with a "happily ever after” ending. Niven has the courage to break our hearts. 


By Donna Cooner,

Book cover of Skinny

Why this book?

Cooner takes on body dysmorphia in a new and unusual way. Ever once weighed over three hundred pounds but even after gastric bypass surgery she continues to hear the voice in her head, Skinny. Skinny constantly tells Ever that she’s still fat, and therefore unworthy. Even with her continuing weight loss, Skinny tells Ever she’s worthless, unwanted, and disposable. It’s not until Ever confronts her self-doubt that she begins to truly heal mentally. I liked how Cooner gave Ever’s body dysmorphia a literal voice. I feel like many girls with eating disorders would relate to having such a toxic voice in their heads. 

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