I like to imagine that if you compiled the main characters of every fantasy and science fiction series, the proportion with at least one deceased parent would be at least seventy percent. Likewise, if you compiled the main characters of every YA novel, the proportion with a mental illness would exceed sixty percent. While I have no evidence to support these claims, they acknowledge an unfortunate pattern within young adult literature: the use of mental illness as a device for progressing plot. Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, for example, attempts to portray the devastating consequences of bullying, but instead connotes that suicidal individuals have a thirst for revenge. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places presents two main characters—one with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and the other reeling from sudden grief—but their mental struggles take backstage in the context of the (obviously more pressing) romantic arc.
While I won’t delve extensively into the harmful tropes currently pervading the YA landscape (for those interested, more can be read in Usraat Fahmidah’s article, “The fault in YA books: why mental health in YA fiction needs to be better”), I do want to highlight the power of realistic portrayals of mental illness. As someone in fervent denial of her quickly approaching adulthood, young adult literature holds a special nook in my heart; the feeling of discovering relatable characters has and always will profoundly impact my growth as an individual. With this in mind, I offer three novels that, from my perspective, honestly capture the mental health experience. This is in no way a comprehensive list—however, I specifically chose works that not only avoid traditional YA standards, but gripped me enough to compel a second read. At the very least, I’d argue they deserve a first.
Note: Major spoilers avoided, although be wary of minor spoilers that come up while discussing the handling of mental health topics. Trigger warnings for each novel provided.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
TW: mental illness, off-page suicide attempt
As an English major, I’m often asked about my favorite book. While this earns a rightful place in my list of unanswerable questions (alongside: how is the Kung Fu Panda 2 soundtrack so godly?), I normally default to Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. The story follows Caden Bosch, a typical high school student who finds himself aboard a ship headed toward the Marianas Trench. Throughout the journey, Caden is torn between his varying allegiances to the captain and the parrot, both of which ooze trickery and impossible expectations in their own right. What begins as an initially bizarre story reveals itself as an intricate portrayal of mental illness, complete with its various disorienting and, at times, debilitating symptoms. I’m being deliberately vague; part of what makes Caden’s journey so powerful is the way Shusterman unfolds it—slowly yet brutally, with unmistakable intention.
In addition to the primary conflict, Shusterman introduces a vivid cast of characters, each with their own function. Caden’s parents embody the well-intentioned loved ones who desperately want to, but can’t understand the first-hand experience of having a mental illness. The friends Caden makes aboard the ship represent the connection between individuals who do share those experiences, and the costs of supporting each other’s healing processes. Even the captain and the parrot, by the end, achieve brilliant purposes as metaphors for therapy. Again, intentionally vague; however, I will note one of my greatest peeves is the tendency of YA novels to mock and/or discredit the value of therapy. Challenger Deep avoids this, acknowledging both its frustrations and triumphs, momentary as they are.
At the heart of the novel, however, is Caden himself. Literally and figuratively, we are placed in Caden’s mind more than any other setting, and his sharp, flawed, and yet ultimately endearing voice is the driving force behind Challenger Deep. Not only does it fully open readers to Caden’s experiences, it serves continuously as a brutal commentary of the side-effects of medication, the stigma surrounding mental health, and the institutionalization and treatment of individuals with mental illnesses: “Sometimes I think it would be easier to die … because ‘what could have been’ is much more highly regarded than ‘what should have been.’ Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.”
In the Author’s Note, Shusterman makes it clear that Challenger Deep is a personal project. The novel itself is interspersed with drawings by his son, created during his own hospitalization. Shusterman writes, “Challenger Deep is by no means a work of fiction. The places Caden goes are all too real,” a statement I find intensely powerful. In many ways, Caden is a beacon for those struggling and an anthem against a corrupt system, calling for change. Change, charge, charred, chart. Caden charts a path toward understanding—a ship we could all benefit profoundly by boarding.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
TW: bipolar disorder, discussion of suicide
Of the three novels on this list, Little & Lion presents itself as the most traditionally YA. The story follows Suzette as she adjusts back to Los Angeles after a year in a New England boarding school. Initially, the transition serves as a relief from a complicated relationship, but back at home Suzette finds herself grappling with new emotions and the responsibility of supporting her brother Lionel, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As Suzette and Lionel find themselves falling for the same girl, and Lionel’s disorder begins to spiral, Suzette must determine how to best support him while preserving his trust and valuing her own journey toward self-exploration.
The main reason I included Little & Lion is for the perspective it offers. Unlike the other two novels, the narrator is not the individual directly struggling with a mental illness, instead, it is someone hovering within their closest inner circle. Because of this, Little & Lion raises questions the other novels don’t: where is the line between supporting a loved one’s struggles and valuing one’s own needs? Is it betrayal to act against a loved one’s wishes, when you know that it’s best for them? Suzette herself is a fiercely devoted, loving character, and her flawed decisions are understandable, especially in the context of her age and the fact that she faces choices no one should have to make. However, that is the reality of supporting an individual with mental illness; it’s gritty, frustrating, and requires immense self-care in its own right.
Little & Lion also offers an incredibly diverse cast of characters far beyond the token representation of many YA novels. Suzette is black, Jewish, and throughout the novel, exploring her bisexuality. Lionel is Jewish and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Emil is mixed and hard of hearing. Rafaela is Latina and pansexual. Throughout the novel, Colbert deftly weaves discussions of microaggressions and sexuality into the lives of her characters, achieving a level of intersectionality I’ve rarely seen. This places mental illness within the wider scope of equally important conversations, making Little & Lion a relevant read for our day and age.
Beyond this, the relationships between the characters feel, simply, real. Colbert has a way of writing that achieves an aching sense of honesty and love, allowing the characters to nestle quietly into your chest and tug those heartstrings. If you’re looking for a quick read that realistically portrays mental illness, touches upon modern social issues, and still breathes characters worth rooting for, Little & Lion should find its way to the top of your to-read pile.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
TW: suicidal thoughts and actions, violence, rape/sexual assault, parental neglect
Matthew Quick and I have a hit or miss relationship. I enjoyed the existential angst of Every Exquisite Thing, but never brought myself to finish Sorta Like a Rock Star. The Reason You’re Alive made me empathize with an evidently racist, homophobic patriot (and question my morals), while The Silver Linings Playbook entertained yet failed to astound me. However, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock was my first taste of Quick’s work, and it remains my firm favorite.
Arguably the darkest of Quick’s novels (although each one drives a high bar), Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock follows Leonard Peacock as, on his eighteenth birthday, he plots to kill himself and his former best friend. Clearly, mental illness is no backdrop here; it takes front and center stage under Quick’s unflinching direction. Unlike so many YA authors, Quick refuses to romanticize the circumstances; Leonard is a deeply flawed, clearly unhinged narrator who, in the beginning, is difficult to empathize with. However, as the novel progresses and Leonard discloses the shards of his past, he illuminates a universal truth: don’t we all, on some level, want to be saved?
It’s impossible to go into further detail without spoiling the novel’s most hard-hitting moments—and trust me, they hit hard—but let me say this. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock poses one of the most heartstopping climaxes I’ve ever read, and to absolutely devastating effect. The quiet brutality with which Quick executes it—syntax, voice, all of it—encapsulates the crushing desperation of an individual contemplating taking their own life, and is so so refreshing compared to the countless YA novels that use suicide as a quirk or a mere blip to overcome. Mental illness is all-consuming, and Leonard exudes that. However, within that bottomless well, Quick manages to conjure a glimmer of hope. As cliché as that sounds, there are no cheap escapes here. Only honesty. Only the strength to move forward, against impossible odds. Only what we need.