Category Archives: Op-Ed

Dealing with Mental Health Issues in Middle Grade Literature

Mental Health in Middle Grade Literature

(EDITED TO ADD: Responsibility in these kinds of topics is of the utmost importance. There are many books that do NOT handle issues like these appropriately–and some that increase stigmas rather than assuage them–so please make certain that books are informed whenever they assert any kind of mental illness. Familiarize yourself with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, build relationships with professionals, and be careful that books you recommend are supportive and empowering rather than detrimental. 

It is important to represent these children in the fiction they read, but it is essential that they be represented well.)

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental health and neurodivergence in children’s literature.

As a bit of background, I’ve worked with teens and tweens in various capacities for most of my adult life, providing mentorship and guidance to kids from all sorts of backgrounds. And I’ve seen all types; enough to know that neurodiversity—that idea that everyone’s brain works differently—is the order of the day. Every child is different.

But in those differences, I’ve also seen a lot of hurt. Social structures come easy for some kids, but not for others. Some excel at math, while others look at numbers and see Greek. Many, many struggle with deep insecurities when they see the difference between themselves and those kids who are celebrated by the culture at large. And sometimes those differences in cognitive function provide enough pain and disruption to a kid’s life that they leave any sense of normalcy behind.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (image by Sean Easley)

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (image by Sean Easley)

That’s a painful place to be. Students who find themselves on the margins of what we call “mental health” often experience an overwhelming sense of confusion and sadness as a result. They feel lost, adrift, and often, alone.

It’s part of our nature, I think, to believe that when hard times come, we are the only ones facing them. And when a child’s daily experience consists of a consistent string of hard times and marginalization—of any type—that sense of loneliness and hopelessness can grow even greater. As those feelings grow, so too does the gulf that these kids experience between them and the world at large.

This isn’t just something to only consider once a kid gets older and their “brain has developed,” as some might say. Statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness say that half of all mental health conditions begin by the time a child turns fourteen. Half. That means half of all people with these mental health issues are first experiencing these issues when they are readers of middle grade literature.

And yet, when I start seeking out books for this age group that feature these kinds of kids, the pickings are often slim. This is the time in these kids’ lives when they’re discovering what their life is going to be like—what they are going to be like—and they (and the adults in their lives) have to work hard to find examples of other kids coping with these experiences.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (image by Sean Easley)

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (image by Sean Easley)

I’ve overheard parents say that they don’t want their kids reading “books like that,”—referring to those books that address mental health issues—because they don’t want their kids “exposed to that sort of thing.” This is exactly the problem, though. The kids whose parents want to shelter them from neurodiversity and neurodivergence often end up with distorted understanding of kids in their own schools who experience life differently from them. And a child who’s experiencing these feelings of differentness and otherness needs to know that their experience isn’t something to just discount. Their life has infinite value, even if they don’t realize or believe it yet.

That’s where the educators, librarians, and authors of middle grade come in. It’s our responsibility to give these kids access to books they can see themselves and learn that they fit in the world, just like anyone else. They need to know that it’s okay to claim a spot on the map and make it their own.

And I have been grateful to find more books and authors doing this lately. Books like the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look and Kenneth Oppel’s psychological horror The Nest give us a look at kids exhibiting some OCD tendencies. Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus centers on a girl with physical challenges, but her close friend deals with his Tourette’s throughout the book in a very positive way. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, and Claire Legrand’s Some Kind of Happiness all give heartfelt portrayals of depression. Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin provides a deep rendition of a boy dealing with bipolar disorder. And Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy puts a beautiful fantasy twist on neurodiversity.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (image by Sean Easley)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (image by Sean Easley)

These are still only the tip of the iceberg. It’s important that kids with cognitive differences be normalized because—in reality—the existence of these kinds of differences IS normal. These kids are all around us. They are us. Librarians and teachers know how common those differences are, and often do a wonderful job of celebrating those books that will reach these kids where they’re at. And putting those books in the hands of kids who don’t have those cognitive “differences” will go a long way to building compassion, understanding, and acceptance of kids who feel unloved, confused, and unaccepted.

What books have you loved or recommended because they gave honest, normalizing portrayals of neurodivergence? Add your suggestions in the comments below!

Hurray for Book Conversations!

Retiring from my school’s library after 10 years meant many things: freedom from lesson plans and the frantic pace of the school year with all its events and deadlines, freedom to write, to publish, and also to garden and bake.

It also meant solitary time with books I love. Alone time with books is great, but there is a downside…No sharing a favorite title face to face with an eager reader or finding just the right read for a less than eager one. I missed this part so very much the past 3 years.

I am back in the library a few hours a week this year (you can check out what I’m doing there HERE). Now I have the best of both worlds.

While I’m not delivering instruction in library classes anymore, I am a fellow book lover in the room sometimes when kids – and teachers- come to visit.

Over the summer, I tried to think of a way to jump start these conversations even with my limited time on campus.

Enter the whiteboard prompt.

I made a loose promise to myself that I will erase and replace these about once a week. For each one, I just write a question/invitation or a finish-the-sentence kind of prompt, then walk away. If I want to share, I don’t do that until there are comments up already.

The first prompt I wrote didn’t get any love at all. I try snap a photo to capture each one, but I missed the first one. I just wrote a question/invitation, or a finish-the-sentence kind of prompt, then walked away. I’ve made a loose promise to myself that I’ll erase and replace about once a week.

 A favorite book you read recently was:

Maddi’s Fridge

The Fallout

The Queen of the Tearling

Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes

The Kane Chronicles: The Serpent’s Shadow

Book Scavenger

The Dark Tower

House of Hades

All Things Wise and Wonderful

All the Light We Cannot See

Percy Jackson

 Look at this list and you won’t be surprised at the YA books that these middle school kids shared, but they are passionate consumers of other books as well, both picture book and middle grade novels. A seventh grader who shares that they just read a picture book about hunger and food insecurity? That’s a conversation that I am excited to have.

 The next prompt was a book you would recommend to your teacher:

Clockwork Scarab #supergood

All Creatures Great and Small

The Golden Compass

All the Light We Cannot See

The Giver

Little Brother

Robert Heinlein (various)

 I see some great MG titles here, don’t you?

The next was during a busy week, but what a fun list it produced.

My Favorite Re-read is…

Airborn

The Sandwich Swap

The Horse & His Boy

 The board stayed blank for several days, and then  a fascinating list came from the next prompt!

A book that blew my mind:

Godel, Escher, Bach

The Fault in Our Stars

The Kane Chronicles (The Red Pyramid)

The Golden Compass

Bone Clocks

Danny, the Champion of the World

 I wasn’t sure what to write this week, but a first grader who came to the library reluctantly with an assigned group chose not to check out. Instead, he spent time with a non-circulating pop-up book.  All at once, a discovery inside prompted him to ask me this question: “…Who knew that books could have such secrets within?”

Even though I’m only there for a short time each week, I feel that I am part of the conversation again.  I’ve seen parents and teachers add their picks to the board.

This is what I missed: not being part of a community of readers. You’re part of my community, too. Maybe you can answer the question I posed after my first grader’s quote. What have you discovered about books lately?  

 

 

 

The Heart of Middle Grade Adventure

The Heart of Middle Grade Adventure with Sean EasleyI recently went on an impromptu trip to Colorado that changed the way I think of the word “adventure.”

You’d think I would already have learned all I need to know about adventure. After all, middle grade adventures make up the core of my writing. But that’s the thing about this journey of life, and about story itself: it’s often surprising. It takes you to new places where you don’t know what’s coming. It leads you to lands where you can explore who you are and see your life, even your identity, in a different light. And it often does so through the people you encounter, and the bonds you build.

A buddy of mine has had a rough summer full of the kind of life that starts to get to you after a while, and really wanted to head out to the mountains and spend a few days recuperating in the great outdoors. So we packed up a couple tents, a few sleeping bags, and headed out. And while we were out there hiking backwoods and swinging in hammocks and sitting around campfires, I started thinking about the whole genre of middle grade adventure. How it’s like that unplanned, unexpected trip into the unknown, and what makes that special. Why the books I remember so fondly from my youth books contained stories of expansive journeys and daring-dos, and why, after all these years, I came back to take kids on similar adventures.

Adventures Are Born of the Unexpected

We all know the tropes of this kind of fiction. Sometimes new threat is dropped in a character’s lap. Something out of the ordinary shakes the protagonist’s life, and whisks our hero away to a new and unfamiliar world. A friend calls and says, “Hey, wanna go on a trip?”

In the writing business we often call this the “inciting incident”—the inception of events that are beyond the protagonist’s everyday experience. This is where adventures begin.

In other genres, the call that sets the events of the story in motion can be emotional or close to home—the interest of a potential relationship, the solving of a mystery, the thwarting of a villain—but a call to adventure takes the hero away from home in a literal sense, setting them on a path they haven’t trod before. Our protagonist must actually leave home to find their destination. They leave to find themselves.

Adventures Contain Uncertainty

As I gathered my camping gear (what little I own) and climbed into the car we’d take on our journey, none of us knew where it would take us. We had an general idea—a trajectory—but anything could have happened to derail our plans. And it did.

At one point on our journey, we ended up at a mall, where I regaled my friend with stories of the mythical corn dog place I loved growing up. As I’m about to name the place—a chain I haven’t seen anywhere in ages and thought had gone completely out of business—we rounded the corner to find that exact restaurant. The angels sang the Hallelujah Chorus. Light shone down from heaven, and I was able to share a deep-fried goodness I haven’t had in years with my buddy.

It seems that uncertainty is an essential component in any adventure. If the stories we read were all laid out from the beginning and our protagonist never strayed from the plan, what would be the point? The characters would be simply going through the motions, and the reader would end up just flipping pages out of boredom.

Adventure requires those little uncertainties, because that’s what breathes life into the experience.

Adventures Are Personal

Stories matter to readers because they matter to the characters taking us with them. Those journeys aren’t just from one geographical location to another—they have to move from one emotional place to another, as well.

As readers, our brains are always working, always struggling to reconcile what we know with what we see in the world around us. This is especially true of young readers, who haven’t settled on which lenses they’ll use to look at the world when they grow up. Stories offer new lenses, new perspectives.

On our little excursion, I too had some things niggling at the back of my mind, coloring the world around me. Questions about how to handle things of life, worries about what to do in situations that were waiting for me back home. But it was the color of those lenses that affected my thinking, my experience. This was true of my friend, as well. The new experiences of our short adventure—though far more limited in scope than the stories of, say, Fablehaven, Keeper of the Lost Cities, or Peasprout Chen—helped me process and make decisions I was avoiding. It was clarifying, and made our trip all the sweeter.

We didn’t leave who we were behind when we went on the trip. We carried it all with us. Just like the characters in a book see their world through the lens of how it’s changing them, specifically. And that gives meaning to the journey.

Adventures Are Relational

None of that would have happened, however, without people to go on the journey with. Few of us go through life fully alone. It’s the relationships we make—the people we meet along the way, the side characters and opposing forces and allies—who take a hike in the woods and turn it into a true adventure.

If you think about your favorite sprawling stories, I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusion. The journey is better with friends. Harry Potter’s story is nothing without Hermione, and Fred and George, Neville and Luna. What would Howl’s Moving Castle have been without Calcifer, or the scarecrow, or even Howl himself?

Characters—people—populate the words on our pages, and they can’t be neglected. It’s those characters who provide the unexpected. They set us on our paths and share wise truths and give us the input we need to become better people.

Sean Easley looking out over mountainsThis is the power of fiction: to take us on an unexpected, uncertain journey, to change our hearts and introduce us to new friends. Kids need those adventures. And middle grade fiction is specially positioned to impact who those kids are going to be in the long run. To teach them who to be. To empower them to grow, and envision the mountains beyond what they can see.

It’s a unique gift, and a unique responsibility.

For examples of some middle grade adventure stories that do a great job of incorporating these elements, you can check out another post I wrote, Upper-MG Authors to Adventure With.

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