The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge (9781419734236)
Mona’s best and really only friend is moving to Hawaii and leaving her to face school and life on her own. It’s made even harder by Mona’s Matter. Her Matter is her dark thoughts that tell her she isn’t good enough and her depression that can take control. Mona steadily learns to make new friends, connecting with others in orchestra. She also learns ways to deal with her depression, the Matter, that keeps it under better control. She meditates, uses art to express herself, and leans on those who love her. In a culminating episode, when her depression seems to be causing physical pain, no one can figure out what is wrong. Mona insists that more tests are run and a problem that requires surgery is found. The battle against her Matter may not be fully won, but one victory at a time makes a difference.
Gulledge has written a fictional but very autobiographical graphic novel. Her representation of depression as “Matter” is really well done. It will serve as both a reflection of experience to those who have depression and a way of learning about it to those who don’t. The physicality of depression is captured here, the isolation that is self built, the nastiness of self talk, and the bravery it takes to break free of the cycle.
The art is gorgeous, beautifully showing the darkness of the Matter that lurks in corners only to suddenly surge and take over. That same darkness though is also a canvas for stars, a way of seeing the rays of yellow that promise hope and light through all of the bleak times. Gulledge uses the yellow sparingly, allowing it to pierce and glow at specific times.
A great graphic novel that tackles depression, courage and recovery. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from copy provided by Amulet.
Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern (9780062463357)
When Jamie sees David in the hospital where she volunteers, she is surprised. She knows he won’t have a clue who she is, as she has become almost invisible at school. In a moment where David is curled up in pain, Jamie instinctively reaches out to him. The two of them begin to talk together, sharing texts, emails and IMs as David remains in the hospital. Jamie works out what is wrong with him based on his symptoms and learns that his cystic fibrosis will shorten his life. She shares her own knowledge of hospitals with him, but doesn’t explain her depression following her father’s death. The two of them become friends and soon David is asking Jamie to sneak him out of the hospital so that he can breathe fresh air. As their friendship becomes more intense, David asks her to befriend his sister too and help her find a new path away from destruction. But it may just be Jamie and David who are on the way to destroying their new relationship.
McGovern has written a book about mental health and physical health that doesn’t flinch from discussion suicide openly and also shows the harrowing aspects of having an intensifying physical illness. While their medical diagnoses serve as an important foundation in the novel, it is the interplay between the two main characters that makes this such a compelling read. The two of them are clever, funny and willing to debate their differences with humor and respect.
Readers will come to truly enjoy these two characters, who both struggle with friendship outside of the hospital. Their friendship becomes something precious to them both, building naturally to a romantic level. But it is complicated by health, girlfriends and much more. As the novel builds to its climax, readers will cringe at the inevitable choices that both characters make and wonder if they will ever recover from them.
A surprising and deep novel about health, friendship and breaking the rules. Appropriate for ages 12-16.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.
The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King (9781338236361)
Liberty loves the stars. She creates star maps that allow her to capture what she sees in the stars by drawing her own constellations on the night sky. But when her parents get a divorce, it is like her entire world fell apart. Her father assures her that she will see him often, but they don’t see him for 86 days after the divorce! In the meantime, Lib has witnessed a meteorite fall to earth and recovered the heavy stone. As time goes on, Liberty begins to seethe with rage. It’s an anger that emerges in school sometimes, sometimes at her parents, but mostly sits inside her, red and hot. It’s that anger that made her throw the toaster through the kitchen window, hides a diamond ring from a bully at school, and allows her to tell her father what she really thinks. Liberty worries that she might have depression like her father, and she gradually learns the power of talking about her feelings openly.
Amy Sarig King is the name that the YA author A.S. King writes under for middle-grade books. She does both extremely well. Here King shows the first months of a divorce from the children’s point of view. She steadily reveals what happened in the parent’s marriage, but the real focus is on grief as the two sisters must navigate their way through the pain of losing their family. The emotions run high, from tears to yelling to throwing things. They all feel immensely authentic and real on the page.
Liberty is a great heroine. Far from perfect, particularly at school, she is navigating life by confiding in a meteorite and trying to help everyone else. She is filled with rage much of the time, but also filled with a deep compassion for others, sometimes to her own detriment. King looks frankly at mental health issues here both in parents and in Liberty herself. The use of counselors is spoken of openly and without issue as the family gets the help they need.
A powerful look at divorce, grief and coming to terms with life. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington (9780374308049)
Keda sometimes feels like an outsider in her own family. She is adopted and the only member of her family who is African American. Moving to a new city across the country and to a new school, Keda has to leave behind her best friend who completely understands her. Keda’s parents are both classical musicians, though her mother hasn’t been even practicing her violin lately. She tends to have spells where she can’t get out of bed mixed with other times filled with lots of energy and projects. Keda feels a lot of pressure to take care of her mother, often not sharing the microaggressions she suffers at school or the racist names that others are calling her. When Keda’s mother finds out about the name calling, she pulls Keda and her older sister out of school entirely to be homeschooled. But her mother doesn’t consistently teach them, placing Keda into a girl scout troop for the summer where more racial incidents happen. As her mother’s condition worsens, Keda finds herself often alone with her mother at home trying to figure out how to help and not make things worse.
Lockington vividly tells the story of a tween who struggles to make her personal needs known to a family who doesn’t experience the world in the same way due primarily to race. The book is told from Keda’s perspective which gives it a strong voice and makes the aggression she receives feel very personal to the reader. Just telling the story of an adoptive child who is pre-teen, African-American, and in a loving but struggling home is important. The subjects of microaggressions and racism are told in a straight-forward and unflinching way that will allow readers of all races to understand the impact and pain they cause.
Keda’s character is resilient and smart. She is often struggling with huge issues from racism to mental illness. Yet she doesn’t ever give up. She stands up to bullies and racists, tries to protect her fragile mother from knowing about the hardships happening to her, and then works to care for her mother and protect her father. She is immensely alone in the book and yet always looking for a way forward.
An important and very personal story of adoption, race and strength. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker (9780451479532)
This superb middle-grade novel introduces readers to a young artist who finds herself at the center of a mystery. Ollie’s parents are both artists. Her father and his partner Apollo restore art work and her mother creates sculptures. But then one night, her father leaves for France with his new French girlfriend and her mother won’t get out of bed. Ollie fends for herself, eating apples and peanuts, meeting Apollo for meals out, and protecting the secret of her mother’s depression. She spends time with her two best friends, Richard and Alex, throughout their Soho neighborhood. Ollie discovers that there is more to her father’s disappearance than she thought and is determined to find out what is truly going on.
Filled with compelling characters and a mystery worth sleuthing, this novel is a delight of a read. Tucker uses the setting of New York City as a vivid backdrop to the tale. Soho itself serves as almost another character in the book with its lofts for artists, empty buildings, and occasional illegal poster hanging. When Ollie and Alex head to an island getaway, that setting too is beautifully depicted as a foil to the city and is equally celebrated too. Her writing is deft and nicely keeps the pace brisk and the questions about Ollie’s parents fresh.
All of the young characters in the book are fully realized and each have a distinct personality that makes sense and carries through the title. Apollo, a giant of a man who serves as a rock for Ollie in this tumultuous time, is also a well depicted character. Ollie’s mother is an important character whose depression keeps the reader from knowing her better. The subject of parental mental illness is handled with frankness and the book concludes with a sense of hope.
A fresh mix of mystery, art and secrets, this book is full of vibrant colors and not just Greys. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking.
How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (9780525554295)
Biz can float through her life, realizing that she is part of a larger universe and leaving her current troubles behind. But every time, she is drawn back to her body and back to her life. She does have great people in her life, including her mother and the twins. Plus her best friend Grace. She also has her father, who died when Biz was young, but stays with her, reminding her of his love for her. But when something happens on the beach, things start to spiral out of control. Grace loses her boyfriend over it, and they both lose their larger friend group. When Grace reacts with fury, her family moves her away. Biz’s father disappears and she stops being able to go to school, almost unable to leave her bed. When she eventually does get help via therapy, Biz doesn’t tell the entire truth, figuring out how to build bits of her life back until they tumble over once again.
This is a remarkable debut novel. Set in Australia, the book explores mental illness with a tenderness that is haunting. The beauty of the world Biz’s mind creates for her is a mix of tantalizing promises and real dangers. Even as readers know that Biz is unwell, they too will be caught up in her visions, understand her desire to keep floating, to enter the sea, to find connections. The setting of Australia is just as lovingly depicted with details of the landscape, the stunning coastline and a trip into the heart of the continent.
In Biz, readers will find a very intelligent teen who is struggling as her mental illness continues to impact her life in profound ways. Biz is warm and funny, a person first and her illness second. Her sarcasm draws people to her. After she loses most of the support structure in her life, she meets new people who love her, accepting her as she is, though she continues to search for what she has lost.
Aching and heart wrenching, this teen novel is an honest and profound look at mental illness and being human. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.
Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin (9780062665867)
Della knows what it looks like when her mother gets worse, like when she had to be hospitalized four years ago and Della didn’t see her for months. So when she finds her mother digging every seed out of a watermelon to keep Della and her baby sister safe, Della knows that it’s up to her to help. She tries getting some healing honey from the magical Bee Lady, but the Bee Lady tells her that the fix may be more about Della than her mother’s brain. So Della decides to become the model daughter to give her mother’s brain a rest. That’s hard on their working produce farm where a drought is damaging the crops. Soon Della is struggling with the oppressive heat of the summer, trying to keep her baby sister under control, harvesting produce, manning the farm stall, and helping her mother too. When it all becomes too much, Della decides she has to leave to help her mother, which puts her on the path to realizing that she has to accept her mother and empathize before she can help at all.
This is Baldwin’s debut novel and it’s a great summer read. She has created quite a pressure cooker of a summer for Della where everything seems to be in crisis or falling apart and everything is entirely out of Della’s control. The high heat adds steam, the troublesome but lovable little sister adds humor but problems, and the drought adds financial pressures for the whole family to muddle through. Della throughout is clearly a child who takes responsibility for things, worries a lot and is trying to learn. She is entirely human, making mistakes along the way.
The focus of the book is on Della’s mother and her struggles with schizophrenia. Her refusal to take her medication any longer precipitates her more symptoms worsening. As her father tries to convince her mother to make different choices, Della gets angry with her father for his unwillingness to force her mother to do something. Her father demonstrates exactly what Della needs to learn, empathy and compassion for her mother and allowing her the space to make her own decisions about her life. This perspective is often lost in novels for young people about mental illness and it’s a pleasure to see it so clearly shown here.
A great book about mental health in families, this is a great pick for summer reading. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
(Reviewed from copy provided by HarperCollins.)
The Fall of Innocence by Jenny Torres Sanchez (9781524737757)
When Emilia was eight years old, she was attacked in the woods near her elementary school. After the attack, Emilia identified Jeremy Lance as her attacker, a boy with special needs, who lived at the boy’s home near the school. He was a boy she had seen break a school bus window with his fists as he stared out at her. Emilia’s recovery was slow and painful. At first, she would not speak at all partly because of biting through her own tongue during the attack. She saw crows all around her, watching over her and caring for her. At times, she thought that she was a crow too. Now at age 16, Emilia is a survivor. But all of that will be tested as a man comes forward as her real attacker and Emilia’s fragile world begins to crumble.
This book is not a mystery and readers looking for that sort of survival story will not find it here. Rather this is a delicate and complex look at a girl’s survival of an attack and the way that though she has survived, she has not recovered. It is a look at a family fractured by an attack, a family that has never again found its footing. It’s a look at a brother who has been ignored, his needs set aside for Emilia to be the focus. It’s a look at a father unable to stay, needing to flee his family. It’s a look at a mother who sacrificed herself for her daughter and still things are broken and unable to be repaired.
The book has Emilia at its heart, a girl who has avoided mental health care effectively. Readers will hope that she will find the help that she needs before the darkness becomes too much to bear. Emilia creates her own fantasy world, her own space to live in that gives her room to breathe. She faces her own demons without allowing anyone to help her, isolated though there are so many who would help her.
Delicate yet strong writing allows this book to move with Emilia’s mental state, exploring darkness and mental health. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Philomel Books.
Life Inside My Mind: 31 Authors Share Their Personal Struggles edited by Jessica Burkhart (9781481494649)
This nonfiction book for teens is a brutally honest look at mental illness and how over thirty well-known authors of young adult books have faced their own struggles. It is a book of short personal tales of how mental illness entered their lives, took them over, turned them upside down. It is a book always though about hope, about tools that work sometimes but not always, drugs that help but may not work for everyone, thought processes that offer glimpses of freedom beyond the illness.
This book is profoundly important for teens. It is a book that took such bravery to write. Almost every story has some taut hesitation in it, to reveal something this private. Each one is a testament to the author’s strength, whether they see it themselves or not. Taken together though is when this book really sings. It is a chorus of voices that say strongly that you can survive. You can thrive. We can do this.
Reading this book is an exercise in opening your heart. It belongs in every public library serving teens. It will save lives. Period. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.