The best novels for young readers that deal with mental illness

Ann Jacobus Kordahl Author Of The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent
By Ann Jacobus Kordahl

Who am I?

I’m an American author of young adult novel Romancing the Dark in the City of Light and other fiction for younger readers as well as a trained suicide prevention counselor and mental health advocate. I have long been pulled by the subject of suicide since struggling with depression as an adolescent. Along with my pal, author and psychologist Nancy Bo Flood, we read and keep track of exceptional, traditionally-published books dealing with mental illness—that of the main character or of someone they love—that avoid tropes and stereotypes, model characters seeking and receiving help and support and ultimately coping, all while pursuing their goals and dreams like any other fictional people. 


I wrote...

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent

By Ann Jacobus Kordahl,

Book cover of The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent

What is my book about?

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent is about 18-year-old Delilah who is finally feeling stable after getting help for her depression, anxiety, and alcohol addiction, and she finds a sense of purpose volunteering at a suicide crisis line. But her world shifts again when her beloved, terminally-ill aunt asks her to help her “die with dignity.”

The books I picked & why

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Fighting Words

By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley,

Book cover of Fighting Words

Why this book?

Mental illness can be so serious and depressing, even striking fear in some people’s hearts. Here are five of my favorite titles for young and old readers alike—award winners, all, that use excellent storytelling and beautiful writing, draw freely on humor (or at least irony), and responsibly, hopefully, honestly, sometimes disturbingly, demystify mental illness for readers wishing to walk a mile in these shoes. If you or your teen reader like your novels real and edifying, you’re sincerely welcome.

This story gently exposes the mental health fallout from long-term sexual abuse, including depression and a suicide attempt, but it’s told through the point of view of foster kid ten-year-old Della whose laugh-out-loud humor will have you snorting coffee out your nose. Della only slowly comes to realize what her beloved sixteen-year-old sister Suki has suffered and the novel contains nothing graphic. Best of all, these characters speak up, get help and support, and triumph. This won a Newbery Honor so I’m not the only one who thinks well of it.


Challenger Deep

By Neal Shusterman, Brendan Shusterman (illustrator),

Book cover of Challenger Deep

Why this book?

A fascinating, revealing, and sometimes difficult trip into the mind of Caden Bosch, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, and his wildly creative and disconcerting forays into an alternate reality while suffering an episode. As if trying to navigate high school and family life weren’t hard enough. Co-written with the author’s son who suffers from this mental illness, the novel won the U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It captures the fear and confusion as well as the beauty and ineffable nature of a mind perceiving the world differently than most of ours do.


It's Kind of a Funny Story

By Ned Vizzini,

Book cover of It's Kind of a Funny Story

Why this book?

Just like the title says, a YA novel that draws freely on humor while dealing responsibly with the serious subjects of suicidality and psychiatric hospitalization. Craig Gilner unravels under the pressure of a high-intensity NYC private high school and almost attempts suicide. He checks into the psychiatric ward of the local hospital where instead he comes to terms with his mental health with the help of other patients and staff. The quick turn-around is arguably a little unrealistic, but the story is undeniably told from the point-of-view of someone who knows it firsthand.


Calvin

By Martine Leavitt,

Book cover of Calvin

Why this book?

This concise, beautifully-written gem of a novel features seventeen-year-old Calvin, diagnosed with schizophrenia, who makes a delusional and ill-advised trek across frozen Lake Erie to visit cartoonist Bill Waterson. Fortunately, his best friend Suzie, more firmly grounded in our collective reality, goes along. It’s a fascinating walk in the shoes of a young protagonist suffering serious mental illness that makes us question the very nature of reality in the first place.


Wintergirls

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Book cover of Wintergirls

Why this book?

This novel is one of the first, and still best books to explore serious eating disorders. While not humorous, it is powerful, poetic, and disturbing. The story features high school students Lia and Cassie, both of whom suffer from debilitating anorexia and bulimia respectively, with tragic consequences. Probably a better read for those trying to understand the mindset of someone struggling with these illnesses, rather than for someone who is. If you haven’t read something by Anderson, it’s time to correct that. Try the iconic Speak, which deals with the long-term effects of trauma after sexual assault. (I know, not cheery, either.)


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in mental disorders, best friends, and middle school?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about mental disorders, best friends, and middle school.

Mental Disorders Explore 97 books about mental disorders
Best Friends Explore 49 books about best friends
Middle School Explore 17 books about middle school

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Animal Farm, Watch Over Me, and Turtles All the Way Down if you like this list.