Thursday, January 15, 2015

New YA Novels Dealing with Mental Illness: Belzhar, I Was Here, and All the Bright Places

Young adult novels can help teens dealing with mental health issues in several ways. First, they can help readers understand that they are not alone. The novels can present realistic portrayals of mental illness and offer helpful ways of dealing with it. A common theme in YA literature is searching for a sense of identity, which mental illness tends to derail. Reading about characters wrestling with this issue can help not only teens with mental illness, but also their friends and family who search for ways to be supportive.  This month I would like to recommend three novels that explore these issues in thoughtful and compelling reads. Meg Wolitzer's Belzhar chronicles the story of mentally unstable teens who attend a therapeutic boarding school. Gayle Forman's new novel, I Was Here explores the feelings of guilt and grief experienced by a girl whose best friend commits suicide. Finally, Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places follows two teens who are wondering "Should I stay or should I go?"

In Belzhar Jam Gallahue is sent to a therapeutic boarding school, after a trauma with a high school relationship, because she is unable to deal with her grief. She finds herself in a mysterious class called Special Topics in English, where she and four other traumatized students are reading works by Sylvia Plath.  The students are given special red leather journals in which to record their reactions to the assigned readings.  When she and her classmates, all of whom have endured debilitating losses, begin writing in their pages, they are transported to their former lives where they can each inhabit the past and work through their problems.  The teens bond over their experiences in what they call Belzhar and are able to share their stories and look out for and protect one another.  As the semester progresses and the notebooks begin to fill up, they must each confront some inner struggles and make some tough choices about their future paths. Adult author Meg Wolitzer's (The Interestings) debut YA novel is terrific and could be paired with readings from Sylvia Plath for a poignant thought-provoking reading experience.

I Was Here introduces Cody and Meg, who have been best friends since childhood, but are separated when Meg gets a full scholarship to a small college in Tacoma and Cody is left behind to clean houses and attend community college.  When Cody gets news of Meg's suicide, she is understandably confused and upset.  Why hadn't she seen the warning signs?  She travels to Tacoma to collect Meg's belongings and finds there are many things she didn't know about her friend with whom she thought she shared everything.  Determined to get to the bottom of her suicide, Cody searches Meg's laptop and finds she was involved with a suicide website and in particular a Pied Piper type character who encourages suicide as a way out.  With the help of Ben McAllister, one of Meg's friends with an agenda of his own, Cody searches for a way to come to terms with her friend's death. Gayle Forman's latest novel is sure to be a hit, not only with fans of If I Stay, but also with any readers looking for a suspenseful eye-opening investigation into teen suicide.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet when they are on the bell tower at school, each contemplating suicide.  After saving each other's lives, they pair up for a social studies project where they have to discover the Natural Wonders of Indiana. Although from different social strata, she is a popular cheerleader and he is a manic outsider, they challenge each other in ways that soon blossom into love. As they spend more and more time together, they find that it's only with each other that they can be themselves.  But will that be enough to save them from their demons?  All the Bright Places, soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning, will appeal to fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell or anyone looking for a quirky compelling story.

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