Young adult literature facilitates an ideal opportunity to examine ourselves in context of our interests, issues and global challenges reflecting contemporary fears and future concern. That is to say, books serve as mirror when readers find them familiar to the world they have experienced. Readers identify themselves as not being isolated in their lived experience. However, novels unlike readers experiences are termed as windows in which there is an opportunity to look through other people’s life with an understanding what it is like to be someone else. Windows and mirrors create ways for readers of all levels of mental health to either acknowledge their experience or to be aware of people’s life in an abusive environment or with mental pathology.
The growing number of novels being published that portray mental disability protagonists highlight an existing interest and demand for a discussion about mental disability, offering a large platform with diverse perspectives.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and When We Collided by Emery Lord have been selected to consider the emerging themes of mental disability along the lines of parental relationships and/or friendships. These themes offer substantial areas and motivate a reader to develop an insight about how efficiently issues are depicted in a novel. Recently, several young adult literatures have been adapted on electronic media increasing its accessibility, availability and preference.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
All the Bright Places touches upon neglected parenting and how the complete absence of parenting causes distorted image-of-self. Throughout the novel, Finch suffers from Bipolar Disorder, yet is given no help from his divorced parents.
Finch conceives in his mind that his father wants nothing to do with him and has already replaced his children with his second wife’s kids. Finch creates an identity of being replaceable based on his relationship and interactions with his father. When Finch kills himself, his father acts completely shocked, showing how far removed he is from Finch’s life and feelings. He allows his identity to be shaped by his father instead of turning to other relationships to see how he could mold his identity based on interactions with people who truly care about him, like Violet. This shows the power of parental interactions and how characters take their parental figure’s views of them seriously and form their identity based on their interactions with these figures, either positively or negatively. In Finch’s case it was definitely negative.
Violet in All the Bright Places also recognizes the importance of parental guidance and supervision. After losing her sister in a car accident, Violet is lost in life and only goes through the motion’s day by day. Her parents’ sense these directionless and hopeless attributes because Violet used to be optimistic, was involved in many extra-curricular activities and spent time with her friends. Violet feels like she lives in a different world from her parents until Finch helps her realize what her parents’ love actually means.
For most of the novel, Violet cannot understand why her parents are so obsessed with her well-being and wanting to make sure she leaves the house and starts writing again like she used to. How invested her parents are in making Violet happy again is apparent to Violet by the end of the novel and she begins to mold her sense-of-self off of her parents once Finch has died. By understanding how to love unconditionally, even in desperate situations when no amount of help seems to be the answer, Violet sees how the parental role creates an identity in her and the children of other parents.
Violet places herself in the shoes of her parents and creates a sympathetic identity that contrasts her initial belief that no one could help her or understand her sadness in the loss of her sister. She can now comprehend what it means to be a parent and love so selflessly, even in the midst of tragedy and when that love is not reciprocated. Even in seemingly hopeless situations, Violet still conveys love because of the love she is shown by her parents.
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Parental interactions and family are pivotal in an adolescent’s life because every character has parents, whether present or not. Parental interactions can be easily understood by the reader because of the universal notion that everyone has parents. The failure of parents to attend their children are not only limited to the aspect of understanding them but are also tied to the economic challenges that plagues the middle-class family described in 13 Reasons Why.
In the book 13 Reasons Why, Hannah Baker is a white middle class high school student who commits suicide. She as one half of novel’s two voiced narrative explains her reason for suicide and possible role people played in the suicide through cassette tapes she had mailed before her suicide.
Clay who is the first recipient of the tapes are confused because he believes he has always been a good friend to Hannah. As Clay looks for answers for her suicide, Hannah’s story of bullying behaviour and exclusion raises questions about complicity and the consequences of cruelty.
In her taped-retelling of her decision to commit suicide, Hannah also mentions the financial pressure her parents face when their business begins to fail. Though her tapes make clear that many factors, and people, led her to suicide. The distance with her parents makes such issues all that much harder to bear. When her mother fails to notice the haircut, she connects this with other examples in the novel where people have failed to see her, see her pain or offer help.
Parent-child relationships in all the novels reflect contrasting intentions: these young protagonists crave parental love, devotion, involvement, and admit they need it. Whereas they also push parents away to figure life out on their own while also believing that parents are misfit in their social worlds, “the real world” that they reside in is far from the love and protection of parents and home.
Adolescence is a period of human life when the brain, still more intensively than before, learns to recognize and attribute mental states to ourselves as well as other people. The unpredictability of the adolescent stage in life is very much a product of how we are raised and the society that brought us up. Parents contribute to this atmosphere immensely with their interactions or lack of interactions. Attributing mental states deals with identity in that image-of-self is formed by how these interactions with parental figures either build up or destroy self-image.
The growing number of novels being published that portray mental disability protagonists highlights an existing interest and demand for a discussion about mental disability.
When We Collided by Emery Lord
The books When We Collided features one of the dynamic characters of young adult literature: Vivi Alexander who in her own words is described as, “full of fight and art and entire swirling galaxies”. Her empowering quotes throughout the novel promote a positive self-love. She is also wonderfully unapologetic about both her personality and her disability.
Vivi had been diagnosed with bipolar II disorder before the events of the story took place, though readers do not know this until after several chapters. Visiting Verona Cove for the summer, she meets Jonah Daniels, and the two quickly fall in love. It certainly begins with the rather typical summer love story, complete with an instant connection, dramatic gestures of love to celebrate Vivi’s birthday. Yet the novel also goes deeper into an exploration of mental health that takes precedence over the admittedly addictive love story. In fact, Vivi is not the only one with a disability.
Jonah’s large family is recovering from the loss of his father, and his mother has had a particularly difficult time dealing with it. Throughout the story, Jonah worries that her grief has turned into clinical depression since she has seldom left her room in the past six months, while responsibility for running the home and family restaurant shifts to Jonah and his older siblings.
As Vivi and Jonah begin dating, her energetic personality wins the hearts of his siblings, and the two explore their relationship, Jonah’s grief, and various family struggles. Vivi’s more obvious mania begins after she decides to find and contact her father, whom she has never met before. When she realizes that he has had an entire life—complete with wife and children—without ever trying to get to know her, she understandably struggles to come to terms with her discovery. This encounter is not necessarily the cause of Vivi’s mania, as she had suddenly bought a Vespa a few days before. This spontaneous decision is another suggestion of mania, but it does contribute to the extremes of Vivi’s emotions, resulting in a few days of sadness followed by another mood shift. She ends up crashing her Vespa, resulting in an emergency trip to the hospital, where her mood is stabilized, and her broken arm and ribs are treated. By the end, Vivi and her doctor can loosely recreate the timeline as events which occur before the summer “depression, hypomanic episode in March, depression after the hypomanic episode,”— and events during her time in Verona Cove— “then new medicine and manic again”
Jonah for the most part accepts Vivi for who she is, without trying to change her, although he does argue with her over some of her more over-enthusiastic actions. However, it effectively reveals the romanticized trope before showing a more empowering alternative, one which does not erase disabled uniqueness but rather supports it.
Vivi also directly addresses an instance when Jonah misunderstands the depression of his mother. Recognizing that Jonah views his mother as disempowered because of her illness, Vivi points out his biasness by emphasizing how important it is to listen to disabled people. Though the two ultimately break up when Vivi moves back to Seattle after the summer, neither of them regrets their relationship. Vivi decides it must end both because of the distance and because she knows that as she continues to adjust to her bipolar disorder, she cannot be affected by someone else’s life. Though heart-breaking to read, Lord positions the reader to respect and embrace Vivi’s decision to place her mental health over a relationship.
These characters have thus achieved balance: without forgetting that hard challenges will always exist, they can still move forward towards making their lives and their world a better place. These characters do not hide behind the presentable or normative moments of their daily lives but are empowered by the entirety of the disabled experience.
Keeping mental disability or social distress a stigmatized and a taboo topic, discouraging its discussion at an institutional level (family, schools) would not lessen its reading but instead it will be read and not addressed or supervised. Discussions over social distress through these books will be an excellent way to help address adolescents and young adult issues which otherwise are difficult to speak about when it comes to our society.
While all readers should be aware of empowering themes in young adult disability novels, students and educators in particular can create more inclusive classrooms by addressing disabilities and associated challenges. One of the concerns for educators, scholars, and authors is their own disability status, particularly if they hope to include a disability perspective but feel unsure about their ability to approach it effectively. The subject of disability is thus an important topic for all students who have encountered societal norms. Literature is also a powerful social force and conversation starter about mental health and distress awareness. Dealing with challenges to one’s mental health should not be an occasional experience, and educators have a responsibility to include such perspectives in curriculum. It is important to recognize that educators play a key role in the empowerment and appreciation for disability which has been the central idea of this article.