Interested in reading stories with nuanced portrayals of mental health? Morgan Parker, author of the upcoming YA novel Who Put This Song On?, outlines her top picks for female characters who own their mental health in books.
As we all know, representation in media matters. The more we see of something, the more normalized it becomes in our society.
Though discussions and portrayals of mental health are becoming more commonplace, you can still be pretty hard-pressed to find good ones in books and poetry. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some that are already out there in the world.
Author Morgan Parker, whose upcoming YA novel Who Put This Song On? deals very directly with mental health and all of the different ways it can make us feel from moment to moment, has a few recommendations on the portrayals of mental health in books front.
Not only has she put together a list of books for us that highlight the triumphs and struggles of people who work to improve their mental health, but she has specifically rounded up titles that feature fierce female characters who completely own their mental health. You’re definitely going to want to add all of these to your to-read list (and maybe even create a “mental health in books” shelf on your Goodreads account), we promise.
Without further ado, take it away Morgan Parker!
Fierce female characters who own their mental health in books
‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf’ by Ntozake Shange
I love a long title, and I love how this title is an offering, a loving acknowledgment—it announces itself with all the heart and poetry that makes this book Ntozake Shange’s masterwork.
The heart of the story is poetry—using words to make something ugly sound beautiful, even hopeful. A book-length choreopoem, For Colored Girls was written to be performed by a chorus of seven women, each named for a color of the rainbow. Through their stories, we experience and witness these women’s heartaches and hardships, often at the hands of American racism, and often at the hands of men.
I love the way this book looks at how societal and interpersonal aggressions and injustices contribute to symptoms of depression—something I think is always worth discussing.
‘I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter’ by Erika L. Sánchez
Julia, the protagonist of this spectacular YA novel, is a badass. She’s smart as hell, hilarious, adventurous, and creative—it’s a treat to tag along with her around Chicago, in bookstores and at parties and nervously sitting on park benches with cute boys. And as we follow her, darkness also follows; this book does such a great job of realistically capturing the descent into depression and mental illness—how it feels, how it can sneak up on you, how it can seem like you’re alone in it.
Erika Sánchez, who’s also a poet, not only writes gorgeous sentences but does so with a rare authenticity. When her strict Catholic mother makes Julia kneel on rice as a punishment, I feel the hard kernels digging into my own knees. I also love how art (and poetry) is a safe haven for Julia amid both pithy and powerful moments, and how it’s one of the only ways she is able to see beauty for herself and in herself.
Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and the poems of Anne Sexton
I’ve often said that Anne Sexton is my favorite sad white lady, inching out Sylvia Plath by a hair. If you’re reading a list like this one, you’ve probably already heard of The Bell Jar, Plath’s iconic 1963 novel about a young Boston woman’s battle with severe depression. It’s not much in the way of representation, but it’s the O.G. depression memoir. I highly recommend Plath’s poems as well—they are dark but also lovely and aching and full of metaphors for everything humans feel.
Sylvia’s friend Anne Sexton was another white woman from New England with wealth and suicidal depression, and the two often wrote poems to each other, witnessed each other’s manic episodes, and safely confided in each other about suicidal thoughts and past attempts. Anne’s poems come from the same confessional school as Plath’s and are similarly dark and affecting.
Both poets were epically skilled at sound and rhyme — I often find myself missing the rhymes in Sexton’s poems; that’s how natural they are. Her poems aren’t necessarily uplifting, but they are in a way spiritual, reminding the reader of everything just on the other side of a troubled mind. Her observances of daily life—flower gardens, honeybees, fog rolling over the Cape—are as sharp as the stories she tells about her ongoing battle with depression and multiple suicide attempts.
These poems are complicated—she wants to die, and she wants to live. She wants to hide in bed, and she wants to watch her daughter running in the yard. Even the good stuff of life—marriage and motherhood and gardens and shorelines and love—can be so painful and harrowing if you have depression.
In volumes like “All My Pretty Ones” and Live or Die, Anne Sexton holds nothing back in showing herself. She broods, she laughs, she’s irreverent, she’s weird, she’s the kind of sad that commiserates, no matter how sad you are. I love her.
‘Odes to Lithium’ by Shira Erlichman
On sale in October, Odes to Lithium is Erlichman’s debut poetry collection—though she’s also a children’s book author, a musician, and a visual artist (some of her amazing artworks appear in this book). I could praise Odes to Lithium all day, but suffice it to say that it’s unlike any book I’ve ever read, and Shira is a champion for writing it.
The title says it all: the poems tenderly and fiercely capture the author’s experience with bipolar disorder and the journey toward recovery, toward understanding her illness, how it can be treated, and how to reclaim her power, agency, and thoughts.
Medication is extremely difficult to talk about, and a touchy subject that can often invite judgment and dramatics. Lithium, especially. But this is an ode—a celebration—not just of medication but also of the woman who has endeavored to treat her illness and save herself.
Reading these poems—so exciting and fresh, so soulful and abundant and naked—I’m astounded by Shira’s use of language and her generosity in telling her truth—no, sharing it with us.
‘Every Last Word’ by Tamara Ireland Stone
Two things I cheer for in young adult books: mental illness and poetry. Imagine my thrill at discovering the incredible story in Every Last Word!
Samantha is a popular teenager secretly struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder. She joins a poetry club at school, and it transforms her life.
I love that there are therapy scenes in this book. I love the underground beatnik vibe of the poetry club. And I especially love the active way Stone shows OCD symptoms in real time, when we don’t expect it—while cutting out paper hearts and talking about crushes with your friends on the carpet in someone’s bedroom or deciding where to sit at lunch—just how it sneaks up in life.
Samantha’s uncertainty and shame is truly felt, bubbling under the surface of the story, giving readers honest insight into the stream of anxious thoughts she carries in her mind. When, encouraged by fellow emo poets, she takes the stage with her original poem, ready to open her mouth and speak for herself, finding her footing not just in high school but in her life—well, you can’t resist applauding.
‘Mostly Dead Things’ by Kristen Arnett
Jessa, the protagonist and narrator of this novel, is a messed-up, repressed, angry, funny, bold lady, and I love it. This novel tackles so much—queerness, sticky Florida summers, suicide, horrifying embarrassment, animal carcasses.
Jessa’s recently taken over for her dad at the family taxidermy business. (There are detailed and almost poetic descriptions of skinning roadkill and absolutely no apologies.) Otherwise, she’s floating through adulthood with only grief, resentment, beer, and the distraction of delicate, precise work. Over the course of the story, we learn about Jessa’s relationship with her now-deceased father, and the childhood best friend and love her life, Brynn, who awakened her sexuality but went on to marry Jessa’s older brother. Jessa is filled with regrets and anxieties, and we are next to her as she spirals, as she realizes she can’t go on in the same way.
Maybe my favorite part of how this novel depicts depression is that it’s intergenerational. There’s a difficult but beautiful scene when both Jessa and her mother are deeply depressed, and they find themselves taking care of each other, even in the midst of their personal crises. It was reassuring and rewarding to see these two very strong women at different places in their lives experiencing real moments of dark vulnerability.
There is a tight focus on each character, giving the reader a sense of each of their struggles and the tactics—both destructive and creative—they use to cope. Mostly, it’s secrets, leaving things between them unsaid but sadly understood. The push and pull of what is confessed and what is kept secret is the momentum carrying this book along. Ultimately, this is a novel about family and about the fear of being loved for who you are.
About ‘Who Put This Song On?’ by Morgan Parker
Trapped in sunny, stifling, small-town suburbia, seventeen-year-old Morgan knows why she’s in therapy. She can’t count the number of times she’s been the only non-white person at the sleepover, been teased for her “weird” outfits, and been told she’s not “really” black. Also, she’s spent most of her summer crying in bed. So there’s that, too.
Lately, it feels like the whole world is listening to the same terrible track on repeat—and it’s telling them how to feel, who to vote for, what to believe. Morgan wonders, when can she turn this song off and begin living for herself?
Life may be a never-ending hamster wheel of agony, but Morgan finds her crew of fellow outcasts, blasts music like there’s no tomorrow, discovers what being black means to her, and finally puts her mental health first. She decides that, no matter what, she will always be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious. After all, darkness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Darkness is just real.
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker will be available on September 24, 2019, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, or your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list!