Our April Monthly Meeting featured the topic of mental health themes and representation in writing young adult children’s books. Our speakers were Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen, co-editors of the anthology Ab(solutely) Normal: Short Stories That Smash Mental Health Stereotypes (Candlewick Press, 2023).
Among her other books, Nora is author of Fault Lines, forthcoming from Running Press Teen. Rocky is author of A Breath Too Late (Macmillan, 2021) and a former behavioral coach who founded HoldOn2HopeProject, which unites creatives in suicide prevention and mental heath awareness.
At the meeting, both authors highlighted pertinent statistics to illustrate the importance of access to books that cover a spectrum of mental health experiences. Discussion included how unique each person’s experience is, and how critical it is for everyone to understand that anyone can “struggle mightily” with mental health while simultaneously reaching their goals and enjoying very full, happy, successful lives.
Writing Tips Regarding Mental Health Themes in YA:
—Create characters with mental health challenges who are fully-realized as individuals with dreams and experiences of their own, rather than portrayed as a burden, or used for levity, or simply written as a “sidekick”
—Avoid writing characters who are not based on your own actual lived experience
—Do not to try to “fix” the character in the narrative, since many mental health conditions are lifelong; remember the condition may be there, but the character still lives life fully while managing and living with the condition
—Show characters with varied backgrounds and who have support systems such as health care, family, and community
—Create stories that remind characters and readers to move forward
—Consult sensitivity readers from the start; try to choose sensitivity readers with lived experience of their own
—Consider including backmatter and resources
—Utilize “non-textual” cues; for example, if a character’s thoughts are racing, perhaps all the words on the page are in a string with no spaces in between
—Adjacent characters may be used to show how to be supportive of others
—Consider inclusion of a “guide for this book” section, and/or “opening content notes” to inform readers, so they may decide for themselves if they want to read this material before they read it; and consider “finish notes” to provide context, examples, and further reading lists