It's my philosophy that YA literature is a safe way to allow students to experience the hardest parts of life before they encounter them, or conversely, to know that they're not alone as they are going through the toughest of times. Many teachers and students still disagree, as evidenced by the recent ban on Kate Messner's middle grades book about children coping with drug addicted family members.
As a teacher of 8th graders, my students' mental health is a daily concern. When a student puts his or her head down, cries in the bathroom, wears long sleeves in summer, or keeps a straight face when I make a corny joke, I have to analyze the situation and determine if it's average drama, growing pains, or if it's something more. It's a time when students are stuck between childhood and the impending stress of the real world. When I was in 8th grade, this could not have been more true.
Even in the simpler times of the late 1990's, as an 8th grader I was a chubby kid with low self esteem who just wanted to be popular and liked by boys. I thought these were my biggest problems, but then someone close to my family was rendered comatose by a heroin overdose. I'll never forget going to the hospital to visit him, crying in my room, praying that he would be okay. Later, I found out that his drug addiction stemmed from feelings of not belonging in our small town, an LGBT youth who felt alone, with no freedom to just be. He needed escape, and found that in heroin.
As much as we think that kids shouldn't have to deal with these issues, they do. And if they haven't yet, they will. My own experience growing up instilled in me a healthy fear of drugs. I didn't understand the mental health aspect of the situation until I was much older. I can't help but think that if I had had books with characters going through similar situations, I wouldn't have felt so alone, and so afraid to talk to anyone about what I was going through.
Perhaps this is why I've been devouring YA literature centering around mental health and drugs recently. I'm going to include a series of book reviews on this topic, and here's the first.
All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
I knew a kid in high school who was charming, incredibly brilliant, handsome, and bipolar. When I was reading All the Bright Places, I couldn’t help but picture him as Theo Finch, one of the two main characters in this novel. Like my friend, Theo is confusing and loveable. Violet, the novel's other protagonist, is dealing with the death of her sister, and when Theo Finch barges into her life at the most unexpected moment, despite his own inner darkness, he brings light back to her life.
Spoiler alert, both the book, and my friend’s story, ended too soon, and both left me in tears. Books like this one are important. Kids need to know the signs of mental illness, what to do to help, and also that sometimes nothing can be done. You can’t love someone into wellness, as much as we might wish we could.