Unpacking Mental Health Issues in Middle Grade and Young Adult Literature


(Left to Right: Kristina McBride, Jody Casella, and Liz Coley)

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(Natalie D. Richards)

Have you ever been in a situation when you felt that a child was in need of assistance? Did you have difficulty deciding why you felt they needed assistance? Sometimes our intuition tells us something is wrong. Then there are other times when we find a child that is:

  • Sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Engaging in behavior that is risky to themselves or others
  • Suddenly experiencing overwhelming fear
  • Experiencing severe mood swings that effect their relationships with others
  • Exhibiting extreme difficulty with concentrating that impacts their school work

These are just a few symptoms of mental illness that are listed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (2015). Yet connecting them with mental illness in a child is something that adults frequently have difficulty doing. While many cases go undiagnosed, mental illness is still prevalent among youth. If youth have not experienced some type of disorder, they are likely to know someone that has exhibited signs. In 2015, the NAMI reported that:

  • 20% of youth between the ages of 13 and 18 have or will develop mental illness
  • 11% of youth suffer from a mood disorder
  • 8% of youth have lived with an anxiety disorder
  • 70% of incarcerated youth have a mental illness

Mental illness is life threatening and can dramatically affect the quality of life that one can lead. For instance, suicide is the second most prevalent reason for death among youth ages 10-24. Half of the students 14 and older that have a mental illness will drop out of school.

These facts are the reason why the “Beyond “Issue” Books–Unpacking Mental Health Issues in Middle Grade and Young Adult Literature” session presented by Kristina McBride, Jody Casella, Liz Coley, and Natalie D. Richards provided insight on a topic that should not be ignored by any educator. As the session began, McBride noted that, “We don’t have the answers. We are just here to start the dialogue.” During the session, it was explained that students often want help, but do not know how to reach out or explain their needs. They can be quite secretive. Most students will not tell what their problems are. In fact, they may know that they have a problem. Although counselors can help, school librarians can be essential in helping students to heal through bibliotherapy by connecting them with books that are related to their issues.

The presenters challenged attendees to distinguish between Issue Books and Books with Issues. Issue Books have plots that revolve around a particular topic and how a character deals with the circumstances presented by the “issue” or problem. On the contrary, Books with Issues focus on a topic, and a character may just have an “issue” inside the story. The entire storyline will not revolve around the issue. For example, in Thin Space by Jodi Casella, the main character is grieving over the death of his brother. The main character in I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is also grieving. Still, this grief is only mentioned briefly well into the book.

The presenters explained that sometimes it is more appropriate to give a student that is experiencing or knows someone experiencing a mentor health issue a Book with an Issue rather than an Issue Book because the Issue Book may present the topic in a manner that is too aggressive for the student. Issue Books are best presented after students are able to cope with the problem. Books with an Issue enable students to address issues with a “window into the problem” rather than “mirroring” issues that they currently do not desire to cope with.

There was so much presented during the session. I have only provided a brief summary. (Please excuse my typos.) I admire the presenters for addressing the topic of mental illness because there is not enough awareness about how mental health is affecting youth. Each of the presenters write stories that included characters that are experiencing mental illness. They asserted that there are many lists of books that are about issues. Yet it is difficult to identify the books that include the issues in subplots.

School librarians need to be able to identify both Issue Books and Books with Issues. If we are able to address mental health openly, then we as a society can begin to stop the marginalization of the youth that so desperately need our help. You can view a list of books compiled by the presenters by going to the following document: http://tinyurl.com/mentalhealthresourcelist .


National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2015). Mental health facts: Children & teens. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/ChildrenMHFacts10-26-15.pdf


Author: Daniella Smith

Daniella Smith, PhD. is a former school and public librarian. She is currently the Hazel Harvey Peace Professor in Children’s Library Services at the University of North Texas.

Categories: AASL National Conference, Community

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