The librarians in my district and I are auditing our collections. We have looked for diverse characters, stories, authors, and illustrators as we go through this process for the first time. Most of our search for diversity revolved around identifying people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ. One area that we did not initially explore, but are beginning to, are characters who are identified as having mental health challenges.
The term "mental health" can hold many different meanings to different people. For clarification, I turned to Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles through Fictional Characters by Kia Jane Richmond (2019). In the book, Richmond explains specific medical criteria for attention-deficient/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and other mental health issues. Not only does she discuss diagnoses and common treatments, she takes a deep dive into specific YA titles that incorporate mental illness in their storylines and characters. Richmond looks at how mental illness is portrayed in each YA book. She explores how it impacts the characters in the story, including the protagonist, their family and friends, and others. Richmond does an excellent job of taking any stigma out of the mental illnesses focused on in her book and explores how specific YA titles can do the same for students who read them.
Engaging with Richmond's book immediately caused me to return to my middle grade collection and my school library's diversity audit. There certainly are students in my school who are coping with different challenges that are labeled as disorders and explored in Richmond's book. Where were my students seeing themselves and their classmates in our collection when it came to those struggles? How was I promoting those titles so that the students who might benefit from those stories could connect with them? Was I building my collection with issues of mental health in mind? I think answering these questions will be an ongoing effort as I continue to understand elements around students' dealing with mental health issues and how my school's library collection reflects those students.
Reflecting on my library's collection, the first book I thought of was Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz. In the story, Molly, the main character, begins to exhibit tendencies associated with OCD. My own experience shone a light on how reading about Molly could positively impact a relationship in my life. A member of my family has been diagnosed with OCD and receives treatments for it. While the subject is not a closed one, it is not something that I have spoken with her about. Reading this book gave me a new perspective on her life and makes it more likely that I will talk to her about her experience and ask her the questions I have, as well as share the book with her to ask her opinion of how the disorder is portrayed.
Sometimes it is not the main character with the mental health disorder. As I began reading Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin, I suspected Della's mother might have a mental health issue. Later, not only did I find that Della's mother struggled with schizophrenia, I also found that Della wanted to help her mother more than anything. Pairing this story with Richmond's book gave me a better understanding of schizophrenia and helped me better empathize with the characters and understand how I could introduce this book to students.
I continued to see where my middle grade collection represented people dealing struggling with mental health conditions. The Joey Pigza series by Jack Gantos has a main character with ADHD. The mother of Natalie, the main character in The Science of Breakable Things, experiences depression. A favorite middle grade story of mine, Lily and Dunkin, has a character who is bipolar.
As I identify more titles, I know that I want to look more closely at how these books represent mental health issues and the people impacted by them. Again, I will refer to Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature. Richmond gives wonderful examples of reflecting on YA titles that I can emulate with my middle grade collection as I continue on this journey.
Richmond, Kia Jane. Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles through Fictional Characters. Libraries Unlimited, 2019.