(EDITED TO ADD: Responsibility in these kinds of topics is of the utmost importance. There are many books that do NOT handle issues like these appropriately–and some that increase stigmas rather than assuage them–so please make certain that books are informed whenever they assert any kind of mental illness. Familiarize yourself with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, build relationships with professionals, and be careful that books you recommend are supportive and empowering rather than detrimental.
It is important to represent these children in the fiction they read, but it is essential that they be represented well.)
So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental health and neurodivergence in children’s literature.
As a bit of background, I’ve worked with teens and tweens in various capacities for most of my adult life, providing mentorship and guidance to kids from all sorts of backgrounds. And I’ve seen all types; enough to know that neurodiversity—that idea that everyone’s brain works differently—is the order of the day. Every child is different.
But in those differences, I’ve also seen a lot of hurt. Social structures come easy for some kids, but not for others. Some excel at math, while others look at numbers and see Greek. Many, many struggle with deep insecurities when they see the difference between themselves and those kids who are celebrated by the culture at large. And sometimes those differences in cognitive function provide enough pain and disruption to a kid’s life that they leave any sense of normalcy behind.
That’s a painful place to be. Students who find themselves on the margins of what we call “mental health” often experience an overwhelming sense of confusion and sadness as a result. They feel lost, adrift, and often, alone.
It’s part of our nature, I think, to believe that when hard times come, we are the only ones facing them. And when a child’s daily experience consists of a consistent string of hard times and marginalization—of any type—that sense of loneliness and hopelessness can grow even greater. As those feelings grow, so too does the gulf that these kids experience between them and the world at large.
This isn’t just something to only consider once a kid gets older and their “brain has developed,” as some might say. Statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness say that half of all mental health conditions begin by the time a child turns fourteen. Half. That means half of all people with these mental health issues are first experiencing these issues when they are readers of middle grade literature.
And yet, when I start seeking out books for this age group that feature these kinds of kids, the pickings are often slim. This is the time in these kids’ lives when they’re discovering what their life is going to be like—what they are going to be like—and they (and the adults in their lives) have to work hard to find examples of other kids coping with these experiences.
I’ve overheard parents say that they don’t want their kids reading “books like that,”—referring to those books that address mental health issues—because they don’t want their kids “exposed to that sort of thing.” This is exactly the problem, though. The kids whose parents want to shelter them from neurodiversity and neurodivergence often end up with distorted understanding of kids in their own schools who experience life differently from them. And a child who’s experiencing these feelings of differentness and otherness needs to know that their experience isn’t something to just discount. Their life has infinite value, even if they don’t realize or believe it yet.
That’s where the educators, librarians, and authors of middle grade come in. It’s our responsibility to give these kids access to books they can see themselves and learn that they fit in the world, just like anyone else. They need to know that it’s okay to claim a spot on the map and make it their own.
And I have been grateful to find more books and authors doing this lately. Books like the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look and Kenneth Oppel’s psychological horror The Nest give us a look at kids exhibiting some OCD tendencies. Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus centers on a girl with physical challenges, but her close friend deals with his Tourette’s throughout the book in a very positive way. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, and Claire Legrand’s Some Kind of Happiness all give heartfelt portrayals of depression. Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin provides a deep rendition of a boy dealing with bipolar disorder. And Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy puts a beautiful fantasy twist on neurodiversity.
These are still only the tip of the iceberg. It’s important that kids with cognitive differences be normalized because—in reality—the existence of these kinds of differences IS normal. These kids are all around us. They are us. Librarians and teachers know how common those differences are, and often do a wonderful job of celebrating those books that will reach these kids where they’re at. And putting those books in the hands of kids who don’t have those cognitive “differences” will go a long way to building compassion, understanding, and acceptance of kids who feel unloved, confused, and unaccepted.
What books have you loved or recommended because they gave honest, normalizing portrayals of neurodivergence? Add your suggestions in the comments below!