The best novels for young readers that deal with mental illness

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,

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.”

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Fighting Words

Ann Jacobus Why did I love 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.

By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fighting Words as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

*Newbery Honor Book*
*Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor*
 
A candid and fierce middle grade novel about sisterhood and sexual abuse, by two-time Newbery Honor winner and #1 New York Times best seller Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, author of The War that Saved My Life

Kirkus Prize Finalist
Boston Globe Best Book of the Year
Horn Book Fanfare Best Book of the Year
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
Booklist Best Book of the Year
Kirkus Best Book of the Year
BookPage Best Book of the Year
New York Public Library Best Book of the Year
Chicago Public Library Best Book…


Book cover of Challenger Deep

Ann Jacobus Why did I love 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.

By Neal Shusterman, Brendan Shusterman (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Challenger Deep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

National Book Award and Golden Kite Award Winner A captivating novel about mental illness that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman. Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior. Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence to document the journey with images. Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track…


Book cover of It's Kind of a Funny Story

Ann Jacobus Why did I love 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.

By Ned Vizzini,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked It's Kind of a Funny Story as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?


Like many ambitious New York City teenagers, Craig Gilner sees entry into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School as the ticket to his future. Determined to succeed at life—which means getting into the right high school to get into the right college to get the right job—Craig studies night and day to ace the entrance exam, and does.  That’s when things start to get crazy.

At his new school, Craig realizes that he isn't brilliant compared to the other kids; he’s just average, and maybe not even that. He soon sees his once-perfect future crumbling away. The stress becomes unbearable and…


Book cover of Calvin

Ann Jacobus Why did I love 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.

By Martine Leavitt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Calvin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

Just because you see something doesn't mean it's really there.

Seventeen-year-old Calvin has always known his fate is linked to the comic book character from Calvin & Hobbes.

He was born on the day the last strip was published. His grandpa put a stuffed tiger named Hobbes in his crib. And he even had a best friend named Susie.

Then Calvin’s mom washed Hobbes to death. Susie grew up beautiful and stopped talking to him. And Calvin pretty much forgot about the strip―until now.

Now he is seventeen years old and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Hobbes is back, as…


Book cover of Wintergirls

Ann Jacobus Why did I love 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.)

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Wintergirls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

"Dead girl walking," the boys say in the halls.
"Tell us your secret," the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.

Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend's restless spirit.

In her most emotionally wrenching,…


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Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

By Antonieta Contreras,

Book cover of Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

Antonieta Contreras Author Of Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

New book alert!

Who am I?

As a trauma therapist and dedicated researcher, I love uncovering valuable insights within lesser-known books. There are hidden gems, free from the pressure of commercial success, crafted by authors deeply committed to research, understanding, and the art of writing itself. Their dedication resonates with me, as I believe in the profound value of information and the power of critical thinking. Through my own book, Traumatization and Its Aftermath, I aim to emphasize that psychological concepts often lose their depth in translation and my mission is spreading awareness and fostering a deeper understanding of trauma and its intricate facets. With that idea in mind, I chose these five titles. 

Antonieta's book list on uncovering the human experience and exploring the depths of trauma

What is my book about?

A fresh take on the difference between trauma and hardship in order to help accurately spot the difference and avoid over-generalizations.

The book integrates the latest findings in brain science, child development, psycho-social context, theory, and clinical experiences to make the case that trauma is much more than a cluster of symptoms to be tamed, but instead best understood as development gone off course, away from growth and towards (only) survival.

This book prompts a profound shift in perception, inviting to view trauma as an intricate and diverse experience, a point of view that ultimately leads to sharper treatment and, hopefully, more healing. It encourages a transition from asking, "What happened to you?" to the deeper question, "What is your relationship with what happened to you?"

Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

By Antonieta Contreras,

What is this book about?

The book is comprehensive, bold, and practical-a much-needed resource for the assessment and treatment of trauma. Instead of the traditional focus on the overall importance of healing, Traumatization and its Aftermath decodes why some people don't heal as easily as others, analyzes the various failures of diagnosis, and explains how to make therapeutic interventions truly effective.

This book offers a systemic deep dive into traumatization that clarifies myths and misinformation about the entire spectrum of trauma and provides both clinicians and non-clinicians with the right level of validation, preventive measures, conceptualization methodology, assessment tools, and healing facts that have not…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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