Mental Health Representation in YA Literarture: Interview with Emma Giordano
Photo courtesy of Emma Giordano
These topics are not plot twists, we don’t experience these negative parts of life to forward a story, and I feel they should not be used as such in literature.
With the recent release of the popular Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why (Interview with Ajiona Alexus, Sheri on 13 Reasons Why: coming soon), I started thinking about how important mental health representation is in both TV and literature, the representation on these media platforms spark a conversation about heavy topics that are barely talked about but should be. I soon came to realize that Thirteen Reasons Why was the first book that dealt with mental health that I had ever read, and although this book was released in 2007 I didn’t read it until 2013. I have found that the amount of books that I’ve read dealing with mental health are very limited and looking for recommendations I came across a youtube video by Emma Giordano titled 2017 YA Mental Health Fiction Releases, where I learned about the term ‘own voices novel’ (a concept I had never heard of before) which refers to, according to Emma Giordano, “an author of a marginalized population that writes about a topic or a character with the same marginalization (i.e. authors of color writing about characters of color, LGBT+ authors writing about LGBT+ characters, disabled authors writing about disabled characters, etc.)” Emma on her youtube channel, emmmabooks, regularly talks about mental illness and mental health YA novels. We had the incredible opportunity to talk to Emma about her view of mental health representation in YA literature.
Why is it so important for you to talk about books that focus on mental health or books that feature characters with a mental illness on your YouTube channel?
Emma: Firstly, it’s an important topic for me personally! Mental illness has been a massive part of my life and the fact that I can find stories about people like me makes me want to talk about these types of books more! Regarding my audience, I think it’s important to keep the discussion about mental illness awareness open so that those who may be afflicted by these illnesses know they are not alone.
What is a YA book (or books) you felt were insensitive with the topic of mental health?
Emma: I’m happy to say the majority of mental health books I’ve read have proved to have great representation in my opinion! The one I can think of that did not fulfill my expectations was All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. Personally, I felt the characters were more “personified illnesses” than real people with a mental health condition and the depression/suicide ideation in the book bordered on romanticization for me. But, I know this is a book that has helped many people come to terms with their own depression/other MI’s, so that just proves how these books can be interpreted differently to others. Just because it wasn’t accurate or positive for me does not mean that it can’t be a work of comfort and identity for another!
Do you think there’s a reason as to why we see mental health be more represented in contemporary novels rather than fantasy or dystopian? Would that be something you’d like to see?
Emma: I think in general, marginalized characters are often ignored in non-modern books, and I have no idea why. Fantasy, despite being my favorite genre, often trades off diverse characters for magic and mythical creatures (as if we cannot have both!) I’m not a writer by any means, but ultimately, it seems like it may be 1. Easier to write in-depth stories of people coping with their inner demons in a real-world situation as opposed to fighting ACTUAL demons (not to say that there are not authors who have accomplished both), and 2. I think contemporary novels may be perceived to be more “relatable” to readers as they are reading about characters who are dealing with problems similar to them while also coping with their mental illness.
How do you feel about books like Thirteen Reasons Why and The Perks of Being a Wallflower being banned?
Emma: I think banning books that deal with sensitive, real adolescent issues are so pointless and counterproductive. You are restricting someone from reading a story that may very well change their life just because you are afraid of exposing them to issues they may already be experiencing! Are issues like suicide, assault, abuse and bullying negative? YES. That does not mean that these stories are not important or that they bring more harm than good. Sometimes the best ways to learn are by pushing through topics that may make you uncomfortable, and I think that’s the real reason why books like this are banned. Parents, teachers, figures of authority are intimidated by answering questions about sensitive issues, so they assume the best way to avoid discussion is by removing it entirely. All those actions do is further shield our youth from becoming more compassionate, empathetic, and understanding individuals while potentially blocking them from using works of literature as a basis for personal growth.
Photo by Bronte Huskinson
What type of trigger warnings or ‘reader discretion advised’ warnings would you like to see in YA novels?
Emma: If you are writing about a topic that we would consider “sensitive”, something that may potentially hurt your reader due to bringing up their own experiences, it deserves a trigger warning. If a book features a mental illness, it should be disclosed. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, self-harm, suicide, all of these topics and more have the potential to either really help a reader or further harm them. These topics are not plot twists, we don’t experience these negative parts of life to forward a story, and I feel they should not be used as such in literature. Every reader deserves the chance to go into a story being prepared for a topic they may not want to read about at this point in their life. All it requires is a little “trigger warning” section below the synopsis to respect your readers and give them a safe, comfortable space.
I hadn’t heard of the term ‘own voices novel’ until recently on your channel, what do you think is so important about the own voices movement?
Emma: The reason own voices books are so important is because #1. You’re lifting up marginalized authors who often are discriminated against in the publishing industry. 2. You’re supporting books with diverse themes and inevitably, telling publishers “We want more of these!” 3. An own voices book has an advantage over books written by authors not within that marginalized population: The author has lived through it. Authors can do endless amounts of research, but it’s somewhat unanimous in the book community that those who are writing stories they themselves have experienced are usually more authentic, more sensitive to a variety of readers in a similar situation, and provide better representation for those individuals. The movement to support own voices books is one I am very proud to have found and I think it offers so much positivity to marginalized readers!
What is an aspect of mental health that you would like to see represented in YA that you haven’t seen so far be represented (or something that you’d like to see more of)?
Emma: I think we have A LOT more stories to be written. YA mental health fiction tends to focus on a certain number of illnesses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. which is still a really great thing! But there are so many types of mental disorders that barely get any representation. Personality disorders are often looked down upon in society, which has found it’s way into YA lit considering we only rarely get books about this class of disorders, despite the fact that millions of people are affected by them. Psychotic disorders and dissociative disorders are also not talked about as often, let alone receive attention in fiction, but schizophrenia is often the only one that sees some light of representation, but still nowhere near as much as others. There are so many different variations of mental illness and it’s a shame only a handful are written over and over again when there are so many more stories to tell.
What character from a book that deals with mental health have you been able to relate to the most?
Emma: Paperweight by Meg Haston was one of the first mental illness books I’ve ever read and Stevie’s eating disorder basically mirrored mine at age 15. Made You Up by Francesca Zaapia is a novel about a girl named Alex with early-onset schizophrenia who deals with visual hallucinations. Although I was never officially diagnosed with schizophrenia, my psychosis was very similar to the diagnosis and as I suffered from visual hallucinations as well, it was AMAZING to find a story about a teenager who understood the confusion and fear that came from that time. I also felt that while Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is not necessarily labeled a “mental illness novel,” the portrayal of Cath’s anxiety was nearly identical to mine, and still is relevant to my life today. There’s honestly too many to choose!
Photo by Jessica Lewis
What books that focus on mental health (or feature a character that suffers from a mental illness) will you always recommend?
Emma: History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera: Own Voices for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder & LGBT rep, Under Rose Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall: Own Voices for Agoraphobia, OCD, and Anxiety, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini: Own Voices for Depression and suicide ideation, A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom: Bipolar Disorder, Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone: Purely-Obsessional (“Pure O”) OCD, and so so so so many more! All of these characters and stories have made huge impacts on my heart and I’ll always remember the way they’ve touched my heart.
In what ways do you think mental health representation in YA can improve?
Emma: Like the previous question, I think incorporating a variety of mental illnesses would be a huge step. By widening the range of stories we tell, the more opportunities we have to give readers something to identify with! I also think that within books about a particular disorder, it’s important to not write the same experiences over and over. Not everyone who is depressed feels the same sort of depression, or has it manifest in similar ways, so it’s important that within each illness lies a range of stories for each reader to relate to. I also believe we need a heavier focus on the *positive* elements related to mental health, like recovery! In YA, I’d say at least 60-70% of mental illness stories end when a character is just deciding to get help, or makes a decision to work towards their recovery they weren’t trying for throughout the novel. It’s important we don’t just cater to those who are at one specific stage of their illness; we need to show that recovery and getting better is possible! Those of us in treatment are not automatically better, we sometimes still suffer and it can be hard to continue relating to books if they are only showing the part of our journey we went through years ago. Therapy, medication, hospitalization, etc. all should be shown in a positive light so that readers know that these options can be beneficial to them if they are experiencing something similar!