Shining a light on mental illness

shining a light on mental illnessSometimes things are not always rosy for our middle-grade heroes. Real life tweens may have to deal with issues that would leave a grown person running for cover. In the following books, the hero or heroine deals with some form of mental illness, either their own or that of a close family member. As a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) working with the St. Louis Family Court system, I have witnessed first hand what happens to children when their caregivers are not able to function fully because of medical issues. The children I see end up in foster care because they have no other option.

People still tend to shy away from mental illness in their friends and acquaintances. Individuals afflicted with these hidden illnesses not only have to deal with the devastation of the disease, but with the social stigma still clinging to such diagnoses. The following books look at these issues with a thoughtful and caring eye.

HECK Superhero by Martine Leavitt
Thirteen-year-old Heck is a pretty normal kid with some artistic talent and a distinctive, hyperactive imagination. Life with his mother has been hand-to-mouth but not catastrophic. When he and his mother are evicted, she carelessly assumes he’s staying with his friend. Heck, confident in his own ability to get by and wanting to protect his mother from any criticism, decides not to ask for help. For the next few days he experiences a harsher reality than he anticipated — he’s hungry, has no money, and doesn’t have a home. At first he spends his time in a relatively safe public place, the mall. There he does a very stupid thing: he accepts a drug from a girl. Eventually Heck encounters Marion, a homeless man. Heck is aware that Marion is definitely on the other side of sane but can’t help himself from getting involved. Heck unwisely participates in Marion’s lunatic fantasy, even to the extent of assuring him that he will protect him. Heck sustains himself (and the reader) with his wit, imagination, and optimism as he navigates through many risky encounters, while ultimately realizing he’s not a real superhero, but a kid.

A Finders-Keepers Place by Ann Haywood Leal
From Booklist: The first riveting pages let readers know that some fifth-graders have worries beyond homework and mean classmates. Eleven-year-old Esther awakens one morning to find her eight-year-old sister Ruth’s bed untouched and Valley, their mother, deep in a medication-induced slumber. Esther knows that it’s up to her to figure out where Valley left Ruth, find her, and bring her home. When she’s not tying herself in knots to hold her family together, Esther is trying to find the father she barely remembers, hoping that he can save them before their many secrets are discovered and their fragile home life falls apart. Esther responds to nearly insurmountable family problems with determination, resilience, and wily intelligence. The author of Also Known as Harper (2009), Leal creates strong, individual characters and a convincing narrative of a family in disarray. A good choice for readers drawn to Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal (2008) or Rose Kent’s Rocky Road (2010). Grades 4-6. –Carolyn Phelan

Hugging the Rock (ALA Notable Book) Susan Taylor Brown
Before her mom leaves, she tells Rachel that her dad is a rock, the good kind you can always count on. Now, left alone with her emotionally distant father, Rachel has more questions than answers. Over time she learns the truth about her mom. But it’s only when she learns the truth about her dad–the rock–that she can move toward understanding. This bittersweet story of loss and revelation reveals the powerful and complex bond between fathers and daughters.

I'm Not Who You Think I Am by Peg Kehret
Who is the strange woman in the white car watching Ginger? She appears at Ginger’s birthday party, at her school, and in front of her house, but Ginger has never met her before. When she confronts Ginger, she reveals a secret that will change Ginger’s life. And when the woman’s confrontations become threatening, Ginger is forced into a crisis of loyalty and honor—a crisis from which her family might never recover.

How to Be a Real Person In Just One Day by Sally Warner
Twelve-year-old Kara Biggs is a list-maker: how to get up and go to school, how to get out of doing an oral book report, how to avoid having a teacher-parent conference. And how to be a real person–especially when part of her life doesn’t feel all that real anymore. Through the course of one day, Kara’s life gradually reveals itself: her father has moved a few hours away for a job, and Kara is left at home with a mother who is spending more and more time in bed and less time taking care of herself or of Kara. But no one knows just how sick her mother has become, not her father, her teacher, or her best friend, and Kara is determined to keep it that way. She can take care of her mother herself, and be as real a person as she can–until her two desires collide in a painful yet hopeful finale.

Waiting For Normal by Leslie Connor
Addie is waiting for normal. But Addie’s mom has an all-or-nothing approach to life: a food fiesta or an empty pantry, jubilation or gloom, her way or no way. All or nothing never adds up to normal. All or nothing can’t bring you all to home, which is exactly where Addie longs to be, with her half sisters, every day. In spite of life’s twists and turns, Addie remains optimistic. Someday, maybe, she’ll find normal.

So B. It by Sarah Weeks
You couldn′t really tell about Mama′s brain just from looking at her, but it was obvious as soon as she spoke. She had a high voice, like a little girl′s, and she only knew 23 words. I know this for a fact, because we kept a list of the things Mama said tacked to the inside of the kitchen cabinet. Most of the words were common ones, like good and more and hot, but there was one word only my mother said: soof.

Although she lives an unconventional lifestyle with her mentally disabled mother and their doting neighbour, Bernadette, Heidi has a lucky streak that has a way of pointing her in the right direction. When a mysterious word in her mother′s vocabulary begins to haunt her, Heidi′s thirst for the truth leads her on a cross-country journey in search of the secrets of her past.

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin
The summer Hattie turns 12, her predictable small town life is turned on end when her uncle Adam returns home for the first time in over ten years. Hattie has never met him, never known about him. He’s been institutionalized; his condition involves schizophrenia and autism.Hattie, a shy girl who prefers the company of adults, takes immediately to her excitable uncle, even when the rest of the family — her parents and grandparents — have trouble dealing with his intense way of seeing the world. And Adam, too, sees that Hattie is special, that her quiet, shy ways are not a disability,

Hattie On Her Way by Clara Gillow Clark
From School Library Journal: Set in 1883 in Kingston, NY. Hattie’s father, a logger and recent widower, takes her to live with her maternal grandmother to get a proper education. The intimidating “Hortensia the Unkind” and Rose, the “thorny old buzzard” who cooks for her, provide a less-than-inviting welcome committee. Still mourning, the 11-year-old is sad and lonely in her new home. Having spent the past few months dressed in overalls and working with her father, Hattie looks nothing like her delicate, demure mother, and appears to be a big disappointment when she arrives. Almost immediately, the child is aware that something is not right in the house. Then the prissy girl next door tells her that Hattie’s grandmother is rumored to have killed her husband. Most of the story revolves around this mystery. Could this woman, whom her own mother had so dearly loved, actually have done something that horrible? Madame Blatzinsky, a spiritualist who makes regular house calls next door, adds to the spooky mood. Horace Bottle, the tutor, provides some comic relief as well as friendship for his frightened charge. Over time, Hattie grows closer to her grandmother and eventually learns the family secret that explains both her grandfather’s disappearance and her mother’s demise. Strong characters make this dark mystery an engaging read.–Barbara Auerbach, New York City Public Schools

Helicopter Man by Elizabeth Fensham
Pete’s dad is being pursued by a secret organization and both their lives are in danger. That’s why they never stay in the same place long, and always stay out of sight. Pete knows he leads an unusual life for a twelve year old boy, but he’s never dared to ask questions before. Now he needs some answers. He’s clever, he starts to piece the scraps of information together, but he isn’t prepared for the truth.

(All book blurbs come from product descriptions unless otherwise noted.)

Wendy Martin spends her days drawing fantastical worlds. In the evenings she writes about them, then she visits them at night during her dreams. Visit her universe at her web site


Wendy Martin
  1. Thanks so much for including my Hattie on Her Way on this list of fabulous books!

  2. Wendy, what a wonderful list. And just have to say Waiting For Normal is one of my all time favorite reads. So. Powerful.

  3. Thank you for sharing these titles. Mental illness seems like such a “taboo” in today’s society and as someone who has a mental health issue (I don’t consider it really an “illness” because I don’t believe I need to be “cured”), it’s nice to see that there ARE books out there that cover this subject!

    I look forward to reading these titles. Thank you!

  4. I’m looking forward to reading and recommending these titles!

  5. Thanks for shining a light on this tough topic, Wendy. Great post that will touch many.

  6. Thank you for these great book suggestions. I wanted to add Rocky Road by Rose Kent (mother is bi-polar and little brother is deaf), and Rules by Cynthia Lord (little brother is severely autistic), and Introducing … Sasha Abramowitz by Sue Halpern (older brother has Asperbergers).

    Those books are all great too.

  7. Wow fantastic list, Wendy! A hard topic to tackle – so glad so many books are doing so sensitively…

  8. Wow, great list. I’m glad to see tough issues taken on – I’m adding them to my ever-growing list.

  9. I’m so glad Hugging The Rock and So B. It made your list. I have Waiting For Normal sitting on my shelf.

    Another book that deals with a parent’s depression is Love, Aubrey.

  10. Thanks for writing this post. It is an important, but overlooked topic.

  11. A fascinating and important topic. Thanks for the list!

  12. Great list! I would also recommend Sara Lewis Holmes’ Letters from Rapunzel, where the main character is dealing with what she calls “The Evil Spell” — her dad’s severe depression.