Childhood mental illness seems to be having a moment in children’s literature. Hopefully it’s not just a moment, of course. Hopefully it involves accurate portrayals and information. And hopefully it includes more works that go beyond topics like anxiety and depression and takes us into diagnoses and symptoms for severe mental illness, such as psychotic disorders.
Childhood mental illness can be uncomfortable ground for children and adults, to read about and in real life. Severe mental illness often remains misunderstood and mistreated. And it can be extra complicated when symptoms surface in childhood. Are those voices the young child is describing auditory hallucinations or an developmentally appropriate active imagination?
And yet, consider that:
- 17 million children in the U.S. alone have diagnosed mental illness (one in five kids).
- These can be the beginnings of a chronic, lifelong health condition.
- Isolation, bullying and acts of violence are common issues that children with mental illness face.
My lived experience comes from parenting a child with a severe mental illness condition, as well as other family history. I could write thousands of words trying to bring sense and order to what life can be like when this is your reality. As one aspect of this, I am incorporating childhood mental illness in some of my children’s works. It can be challenging to figure out appropriate approaches, whether for fiction or nonfiction. It also can feel challenging to find receptivity for such works. Based on hearing from other children’s authors, it sounds like more agents and editors are getting in tune with the need for this representation. Hooray for that, but I have no doubt we have a long way to go.
As one small example, I remember feeling so dejected last year when an agent said no to a lyrical picture book poem of support and encouragement I’ve written for children with mental illness. Okay. Rejection is common. But her remark that she wasn’t up for something “grim” stung extra hard. For one, I shared in my query why this is a deeply personal piece. I’ve also worked to balance the book’s tone between acknowledging realities and being uplifting. But most importantly, it symbolized the exclusion that still happens for children living with these realities. Would this agent have made the same insensitive “grim” comment if my picture book poem was about children facing cancer? Diabetes? Or another physically disabling condition? I’m guessing not.
If you have someone in your life dealing with childhood mental illness and/or want to help build empathy and understanding about this topic among the kids in your life, resources to find suitable children’s books include:
- A Novel Mind is a website that highlights works about neurodiversity and/or mental health that the team finds valuable. You can search the database by a variety of factors.
- Children’s author Nancy Bo Flood’s website has a list of children’s books including mental health topics that she maintains with children’s author Ann Jacobus. They both write and present about childhood mental illness. Ann’s website also includes an FAQ on the topic.
- The Child Mind Institute has a list of children’s books including mental health topics (although not all diagnoses)
- Here’s the Publisher Weekly’s 2022 list of children’s books on mental health
I plan to keep up with my own learning to represent childhood mental illness appropriately in some of my work. And to be an advocate for representation, including about early signs of severe mental illness in younger children. We need books that provide mirrors for children to see themselves and windows for other children to learn and build empathy.
To this end, I’m preparing to lead a craft discussion with fellow kidlit creators about childhood mental illness through The Writing Barn in January. If this is a topic close to your heart, drop me a line to share what you would like those who write and illustrate children’s books to know. For example:
- What types of books have you seen be most helpful to children with a mental health condition?
- Are there certain conditions or realities missing? Or misrepresented? This could be about age groups, language used, how characters are portrayed with the condition, overall tone, or what are presented as facts.
Thanks for reading this post and I hope to hear from some of you!