Mental Illness and the Young Adult Novel

it's kind of a funny story cover

Have you ever been reading a book, and had a narrator or a character describe yourself to yourself?

I don’t believe that, for a book to be good and worth reading, it must have characters that you can relate to, that you can see yourself directly reflected in. Arguably, fiction’s greatest gift – both to people individually, and to people (or society) as a whole – is the access it can grant us to thoughts, feelings, and experiences – to lives, essentially – that are utterly alien to our own.

But still. When you find a narrator or a character that seems to be reaching into your brain and slapping your thoughts down on the pages, when you see your feelings and experiences mirrored so truthfully in a book, it’s an amazing, magical thing.

I recently experienced this while reading Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story. But before I get into that, I feel like I should say something about why I’m only reading this book – often lauded as one of the best young adult novels of all time – now.

For years, all I knew about this book was that it was about a boy’s troubles with anxiety and depression, and this much I’d only gleaned from a preview I once saw for the movie adaptation. Now, there are lots of books that fit this description (minus the movie part), and I have read a lot of them. Such books make up a substantial subgenre of the YA book world. There’s even a section on Amazon dedicated to it – it’s called “Depression & Mental Illness,” and currently, at 9:21 a.m. on Thursday, February 25th, 2016, there are 487 titles listed. (There are separate sections for “Emotions & Feelings,” with 939 titles; “Physical & Emotional Abuse,” with 489 titles; “Self Esteem & Reliance,” with 1,293 titles; “Self Mutilation,” with 55 titles; “Sexual Abuse,” with 258 titles; and “Suicide,” with 252 titles.)

Don’t get me wrong – I am thrilled such books exist. They can provide solace and understanding, can foster discussion, honesty, hope, and resilience. They can even, in certain cases, save lives. And many of these books, separate from the good they do by tackling difficult issues and situations, are simply exquisitely crafted works of art, and worth reading for this alone.

But some of them . . . well, they’re bad. And those ones upset me. Those ones scare me. Because as much good as a good book can do – the solace, the understanding, the hope – not-so-good ones can do not-so-good things. Someone looking for understanding can end up even more confused, someone searching for solace can be left feeling more isolated than ever. This, of course, is all subjective. A novel I call “bad” might be somebody else’s all-time favorite. But having been a teen and then young adult who struggled with anxiety and depression, and now being an adult who writes for teens and young adults and who, also, still deals with anxiety and depression (though now much more capably), I take these sorts of books fairly seriously. Novels don’t have a duty to do anything but tell a good story. But if the novelist is going to write a story about something like depression or suicide or abuse, they have a duty to do their darnedest to get it right, and frankly, it sometimes seems that authors simply choose “hot” or “controversial” topics and blast off a few hundred pages without putting in the necessary time and effort to do their story the justice it deserves.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story isn’t like that at all. For me, it does everything right. This is, at least in part, due to the fact that the novel was written in a month-long burst immediately after Ned Vizzini had a set of experiences very similar to the ones his narrator/protagonist endures. But just as much, if not more so, the book’s greatness comes from Vizzini’s writing.

In terms of form, the story’s structure and shape, the novel isn’t exactly revolutionary. For me, the greatness comes from Vizzini’s painstakingly honest and vivid depiction of anxiety and depression, especially the varieties that commonly assail teens and young adults.

Like I said above, this is all subjective. Someone else – and perhaps someone suffering from anxiety and depression – may read this book and think it terrible. But I defy anyone who’s read it to claim that Vizzini didn’t sit there and do his darnedest to get it right, to articulate his character’s thoughts and feelings and capture his experiences as accurately as he possibly could.

All of which is to say that I understand now why this book is lauded like it is, I know why, when you visit that “Depression & Mental Illness” section on Amazon, it’s the second title to appear. And I know, too, that while I still believe my past behavior justified, there was really no reason for me avoid the novel for fear of it being one of the “bad,” or not right, ones.

Ned Vizzini spent only 32 years on this planet, but in that time, he left us several little gifts, It’s Kind of a Funny Story included. Whether you yourself suffer from anxiety and depression, know someone who does, or know absolutely nothing about either, it’s a book worth reading. It’s one of those novels that does what, in many ways, only novels can. In giving us such immersive access to a life other than our own, we leave the book changed, and so return to our own lives both thinking and feeling in broader, sharper, truer ways.

. . .

Below are a handful of those breath-snatching passages from It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the ones that made me feel like I was reading about myself. The first comes during a conversation between Craig, our narrator/protagonist, and one of the nurses at the psychiatric care facility he kind of accidentally checks himself into . . .

“As you know, we have certain activities on the floor.”

“Right.”

“On your first day you are excused from activities, but after that you are expected to attend on a daily basis.”

“Okay.”

“That means you start today. This is an opportunity for you to explore your interests. So I ask you: what are your hobbies?”

Bad question, Monica.

“I don’t have any.”

“Aha. None at all?”

“No.”

I work, Monica, and I think about work, and I freak out about work, and I think about how much I think about work, and I freak out about how much I think about how much I think about work, and I think about how freaked out I get about how much I think about how much I think about work. Does that count as a hobby?

. . .

The next passage comes during a discussion between Craig and his therapist, Dr. Minerva, who he saw before entering the psychiatric care facility and who visits him while he’s there . . .

“How anxious would you say you are about all of this, Craig?”

I think back to what Bobby said, about anxiety being a medical thing. The e-mail has been in the back of my mind since I got here, the nagging knowledge that when I get out I’ll have to sit on the computer for five or six hours going through everything I’ve missed, answering it in reverse order because that’s the way it comes in and therefore taking the longest time to respond to the people who e-mailed me in the most distant past. And then as I’m answering them more will come in, and they’ll sit on top of my stack and mock me, dare me to answer them before digging down, telling me that I need them, as opposed to the one or two e-mails that are actually about something I care about. Those will get saved to the end, and by the time I have the time to deal with them, they’ll be so out of date that I’ll just have to apologize: Sorry, man. I haven’t been able to answer my e-mail. No, I’m not important, just incapable.

“Craig?”

“Very anxious,” I answer.

. . .

This one comes immediately after Craig shares some of his drawings with Dr. Minerva (the bit about peeing will make sense within a few minutes of your picking up the book and reading) . . .

“Craig, these are wonderful.”

“Thanks.” I sit down. We were both standing. I didn’t even notice.

“You started these because you used to do them when you were four?”

“Right. Well. Something like them.”

“And how do they make you feel?”

I look at the pile. “Awesome.”

She leans in. “Why?”

I have to think about that one, and when Dr. Minerva makes me think, I don’t get embarrassed and try to skip it. I look to the left and stroke my chin.

“Because I do them,” I say. “I do them and they’re done. It’s almost like, you know, peeing?”

“Yes . . . ” Dr. Minerva nods. “Something you enjoy.”

“Right. I do it; it’s successful; it feels good; and I know it’s good. When I finish one of these up I feel like I’ve actually done something and like the rest of my day can be spent doing whatever, stupid crap, e-mail, phone calls, all the rest of it.”

“Craig, have you ever considered the fact that you might be an artist?”

. . .

This one comes after Dr. Minerva suggests that perhaps Craig transfer schools, from the one that is, in large part, responsible for his anxiety and depression, to one that he might actually enjoy being at . . .

I stare ahead.

I hadn’t. I honestly hadn’t.

Not once, not in my whole life, not since I started there. That’s my school. I worked harder to get in than I did for anything else, ever. I went there because, coming out of it, I’d be able to be President. Or a lawyer. Rich, that’s the point. Rich and successful.

And look where it got me. One stupid year – not even one, like three quarters of one –and here I am with not one, but two bracelets on my wrist, next to a shrink in a room adjacent to a hall where there’s a guy named Human Being walking around. If I keep doing this for three more years, where will I be? I’ll be a complete loser. And what if I keep on? What if I do okay, live with the depression, get into College, do College, go to Grad School, get the Job, get the Money, get Kids and a Wife and a Nice Car? What kind of crap will I be in then? I’ll be completely crazy.

I don’t want to be completely crazy. I don’t like being here that much. I like being a little crazy: enough to volunteer here, not enough to ever, ever, ever come back.

. . .

Our Future in Space

space

I remember, vividly, a night when I was eight or nine years old. I was having a sleepover with my friend Bobby, and though we’d long ago turned off the lights, neither of us were asleep, or even all that tired.

We spent some time discussing the sorts of things that eight- or nine-year-old boys discuss, and then, after a stretch of silence, Bobby asked me, “Do you even think about space?”

“Space?” I said.

“Yeah,” Bobby told me. “Just . . . space.”

I knew he meant outer space, and not, say, my bedroom, the rectangular hunk of space we were just then occupying. Still, I didn’t quite understand him.

“Just think about it,” Bobby explained. “It’s infinite, you know? It goes on, forever and ever. And it’s always getting bigger. It goes on, in all directions, and it never stops.”

I knew these facts. I’d learned them in school, and before that had been introduced to them by my father. But maybe I was still too young back then. Maybe I needed to turn eight first. Or maybe it was the darkness of my bedroom that night. Maybe it was Bobby’s hushed voice, the awe apparent in it.

I don’t know. But that night, reconsidering these facts, I saw them for the first time in their proper majesty. For the first time, I experienced that rushing sensation in my brain, that dizzy, weightless feeling you get whenever your thoughts approach something too vast to squeeze into your mind.

It was intoxicating, and wonderful, and I’m pretty sure Bobby and I spent the next thirty minutes or so repeating those phrases over and over – infinite, forever and ever, always getting bigger, in all directions, never stops – chasing that feeling, thinking about the world and the universe and our place in it in a brand-new way.

I still get that feeling when I read about outer space – about the increasingly ambitious missions of our astronauts and entrepreneurs, about the increasingly sophisticated technology launched into orbit and the distant reaches of the void, about the increasingly thorough and yet, at the very same time, increasingly incomplete theories cooked up to account for what we’re seeing (and now hearing) out there. And that feeling – it’s just as intoxicating and profound today as it was on that long ago night, in the darkness of my bedroom, speaking in hushed tones with my buddy Bobby.

I was recently reminded of that night, and the way in which it seemed to actually physically expand and open my mind, while reading an interview with President Obama in the most recent issue of Popular Science.

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When asked about his vision for the future of space exploration (and space commercialization, the latter having become an integral part of the former), he said:

I’ve laid out a vision for space exploration where our astronauts travel out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay. To build a sustainable human presence in space, we’ll need a thriving private-sector space economy. I see the expanding space industry as an addition to, not a replacement for, the extraordinary work of NASA. With industry taking over tasks like ferrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station, NASA can focus even more intensely on the most challenging exploration missions, like landing astronauts on Mars or learning more about Earth and the rest of our solar system.

It’s a bold, ambitious vision, and a properly outward-looking one, too. It was, in my opinion, about as good of an answer as a sitting president could give.

However, Obama won’t be sitting for all that much longer. Less than a year from now, someone else will be occupying the chair in the oval office.

Space, and the exploration and commercialization of it, is not something that comes up much during presidential debates, stump speeches, or on political talk shows. But as pressing as the problems are here on Earth – and I am not in any way trying to deny or diminish their importance – I would find it extremely difficult to vote for a candidate who didn’t have as bold, ambitious, and outward-looking a vision of our future in space as Obama does.

Looking up and out into the universe does something profound and essential and, perhaps most importantly, something that cannot be replicated anywhere else or by anything else. It opens our minds to new and seemingly impossible possibilities, and paradoxically, in emphasizing the tininess of our lives in something so vast that it’s infinite, we become bigger. Bigger-hearted. Bigger-minded. In looking up and out, we become better equipped to look back down and deal with those pressing problems and issues here on Earth.

Let’s hope our next president knows that, and doesn’t ever forget it.

It’s Valentine’s Day, so Here’s a List of Lovable, Huggable, Eminently Readable BOOKS

This year, same as last year, Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend. Even better, it falls on a Sunday, the one day of the week when it’s considered socially acceptable to never get out of your pajamas and lay on the couch with a jar of peanut butter and a spoon and devour a book from cover to cover. Well, okay – maybe the jar-of-peanut-butter-and-spoon thing isn’t something I should be sharing. But anyway. Sunday. Meaning even if you and your valentine have evening plans, you’ve got all day to sit down and read a good book. Do it with coffee. Do it with a jar of peanut butter. I don’t care. I won’t judge. But if you need some recommendations for what to read, here are a handful of suggestions – the books, in no particular order, that I’ve loved most this past year.

. . .

Borgel; Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars; The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror; Slaves of Spiegel; Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario; The Worms of Kukumlima – Daniel Pinkwater

vday_pinkwater

I only first discovered Daniel Pinkwater about a year ago, and the discovery was both joyful and very, very sad. It was joyful because, as I quickly found out, nobody writes quite like Pinkwater, and he has written a lot. In other words, I had loads of glorious catching up to do, and every additional book I read helped fill a Pinkwater-sized hole I’d never even knew existed in my reading life.

The sadness of the discovery had to do with the fact that I’d only discovered Pinkwater in 2015, when I was well past childhood and adolescence. Because as a kid, I would’ve been downright obsessed with books like Borgel and Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars and The Snarkout Boys and Slaves of Spiegel. I just can’t help but think about just how blown my mind and expanded my imagination would’ve been had I, at the ripe of old age of ten or twelve or fourteen, encountered Pinkwater’s odd and utterly unique blend of humor and heart, his sheer zaniness and big, brain-bending concepts. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it would’ve changed my life.

In any case, I’m glad he’s blowing my mind and expanding my imagination now. Since my discovery (which happened, actually, right around Valentine’s Day last year), I have been eagerly working my way through Pinkwater’s books. And if you enjoy going for wild, hilarious, and often surprisingly heartfelt rides – whether they take you through Space and Time, into the hot desert of Africa or the murky deep of Lake Ontario or strange coffee houses and diners and theaters and bookshops – you should probably do the same.

(As a quick and parenthetical postscript, I can’t help but add that one of the handful of publishers smart enough to have published some of Pinwater’s work – Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin imprint – recently decided to publish some of mine!)

Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature – Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta

wild things

This behind-the-scenes history of children’s literature is written with irreverence, wit, and enormous affection – the same recipe behind many of children’s literatures greatest works. These three authors – two of them librarians, and all of them writers and reviewers – also happen to know what they’re talking about. With great taste and loads of knowledge, they are the perfect tour guides for anyone looking to learn about children’s literature, whether you don’t know a thing about it or think you already know everything there is to know.

The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

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When I was younger and thought that maybe, just maybe, if I did nothing but read and read and read, I could get through all the world’s worthwhile books before I shuffled off this mortal coil, I somehow bypassed Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (in addition, it should go without saying, to hundreds and hundreds of other great reads). This past year, though, I went back and read it, and quickly came to see why it’s considered a classic. The book does all the things that a “classic” novel is supposed to do, vividly capturing the world it sets out to depict and populating the place with a series of representative characters while also providing a commentary on the author’s own world and offering insights into the human condition that, for centuries to come, people will be able to sympathize with and understand.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah. It’s also fun. And funny. My copy was over 700 pages long, and it went by fast. And I guess that’s another, and maybe just as important, mark of a “classic” – a book that’s so well crafted and rich that a reader of any kind, no matter what they’re looking for, can find something in it that makes the reading of it worthwhile.

Absolutely Almost – Lisa Graff

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I just can’t get enough of Lisa Graff. Whenever I step into the bookstore and see a new book of hers on display, I grab it and buy it. I don’t even pause to read the descriptive flap in front or the blurbs of praise on back. She could write about paint drying or picking lint out of the bottoms of her pockets, and I promise you, it’d be riveting.

In Absolutely Almost, however, Graff does something much more exciting than write about paint or lint. She writes about a boy named Albie, who seems destined for nothing but mediocrity. And brilliantly, even bravely, Graff dodged all the clichés and worn-thin plots that books with such premises often run into. She didn’t write a book about Albie discovering a hidden talent for some yet-to-be-tried activity, and didn’t write a book in which he can huddle all his hurts and fears and doubts under the umbrella of a diagnosis, either. Graff forces Albie to face the harsh, messy difficulties that kids like him have to face every single day.

Most stories can be grouped (very broadly) into one of two categories: those that deal with ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and those that deal with extraordinary people in ordinary situations. With Absolutely Almost, Graff has written a book about an ordinary boy in a fairly ordinary situation, and has made it an affecting, delightful read. It’s a serious accomplishment, and writing about it right now is making me want to pull it down off my shelf and start reading it again. I probably will. And will, as well, be eagerly waiting to read whatever Graff comes out with next.

The Literary Conference – Cesar Aira

literary conference

Cesar Aira is a strange and fantastically inconsistent writer. He purposely writes himself into corners, forcing himself to slip out of them with increasingly inventive means. I could’ve chosen any one of the books by Aira I’ve read this past year, but I chose The Literary Conference because, for an author pretty much impossible to introduce, I think it serves as a fairly solid introduction. The novel begins as a piece of unassuming literary fiction, detours into a discussion of mad scientists, and ends with an pulse-quickening action sequence that involves the slaying of countless giant, bright blue worms.

If this book doesn’t shake up your reading life, I doubt anything can.

Hokey Pokey – Jerry Spinelli

hokey pokey

Jerry Spinelli has always had a vision, and has always had a unique voice in which to share it. From his first book on, you can hear that voice, and can see that vision expressed in his characters, the circumstances and situations they find themselves in, and the ways in which they behave in them.

But Hokey Pokey, Spinelli’s latest novel, is the clearest expression of the author’s thoughts and feelings about childhood and growing up, about how to leave the one behind – but maybe also take a little bit of it with you – when it’s time to do the other. The novel also contains some of Spinelli’s most gorgeous bursts of lyrical prose. You could pick up the book and open it to a page at random, and you’d be sure to find some little delectable gem that would burrow itself into your brain and follow you around all day.

Fantastic, fun, perfectly paced and wonderfully quirky, Hokey Pokey will, I believe, one day be seen as one of this great author’s greatest works.

Lulu Walks the Dogs – Judith Viorst (Author) and Lane Smith (Illustrator)

lulu cover

Both Judith Viorst and Lane Smith are powerhouses in their own right, and when they get together, amazing things happen. The Lulu books are unlike any I’ve ever read. The narrative voice that Viorst has cooked up for this series is refreshing and unique. It’s snarky and postmodern, with plenty of elbow nudges and winks to the reader, and even a handful of wry, all-in-good-fun attacks on its characters.

Smith’s illustrations play off Viorst’s language, and amplify her effects. He has an uncanny way of providing the images you want to see before you’ve even realized you want to see them, and of giving characters faces and expressions that exactly match the ones being formed in your imagination.

As a team, Viorst and Smith give the greatest duos a run for their money. They’re like Batman and Robin. Like Oprah and Gayle. Like peanut butter and jelly or spaghetti and meatballs. Here’s hoping they work together again soon.

The Fourteenth Goldfish – Jennifer L. Holm

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If you’ve ever read this blog (or even just this post), you’ll know that I like my books with equal doses of humor and heart, with every bit of wonkiness balanced out by a bit of warmth, and every moment of sentimentality leavened with one of silliness. No book I’ve read this past year has so perfectly hit that sweet spot than Jenni Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish. Within two pages, I was in love. I wanted to gobble the book up all at once, but also linger over every paragraph, admiring the way Holm had perfectly captured a realistic eleven-year-old voice – and then used it to talk about her mad scientist, immortality-obsessed grandfather.

It’s a short book, too. Meaning you can probably read it in a single sitting. But if you’re anything like me, you won’t want the book to end, and will find yourself missing its language and characters long after it does.

. . .

Agree? Disagree? Thinking about a book you loved this past year? Comment below and let me know!