Short Stories That Smash Mental Health Stereotypes
A teen activist wrestles with protest-related anxiety and PTSD. A socially anxious vampire learns he has to save his town by (gulp) working with people. As part of her teshuvah, a girl writes letters to the ex-boyfriend she still loves, revealing that her struggle with angry outbursts is related to PMDD. A boy sheds uncontrollable tears but finds that in doing so he’s helping to enable another’s healing. In this inspiring, unflinching, and hope-filled mixed-genre collection, sixteen diverse and notable authors draw on their own lived experiences with mental health conditions to create stunning works of fiction that will uplift and empower you,
A teen activist wrestles with protest-related anxiety and PTSD. A socially anxious vampire learns he has to save his town by (gulp) working with people. As part of her teshuvah, a girl writes letters to the ex-boyfriend she still loves, revealing that her struggle with angry outbursts is related to PMDD. A boy sheds uncontrollable tears but finds that in doing so he’s helping to enable another’s healing. In this inspiring, unflinching, and hope-filled mixed-genre collection, sixteen diverse and notable authors draw on their own lived experiences with mental health conditions to create stunning works of fiction that will uplift and empower you, break your heart and stitch it back together stronger than before. Through powerful prose, verse, and graphics, the characters in this anthology defy stereotypes as they remind readers that living with a mental health condition doesn’t mean that you’re defined by it. Each story is followed by a note from its author to the reader, and comprehensive back matter includes bios for the contributors as well as a collection of relevant resources.
With contributions by:
Mercedes Acosta * Karen Jialu Bao * James Bird * Rocky Callen * Nora Shalaway Carpenter * Alechia Dow * Patrick Downes * Anna Drury * Nikki Grimes * Val Howlett * Jonathan Lenore Kastin * Sonia Patel * Marcella Pixley * Isabel Quintero * Ebony Stewart * Francisco X. Stork
Channeling their own experiences, sixteen exceptional authors subvert mental health stereotypes in a powerful and uplifting collection of fiction.
- Candlewick Press
- April 2023
- 336 Pages
“The collection’s greatest strength is its impressive diversity in contributors and subject matter. . . The book’s main lessons include the messages that you are not alone and should reach out for help. . . necessary.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Covering topics such as anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and PMDD, this sensitive work authentically portrays its teen characters as complex beings whose positive relationships—with friends and family, and with their own mental health—exude hope.” —Publishers Weekly
“Ab(solutely) Normal is a beautiful, funny, honest, heart-aching, heart-affirming read, one I know I’ll go back to again and again. Sixteen extraordinary authors with one powerful message: you are enough, you are seen, you are not alone.” —Jennifer Niven, #1 New York Times best-selling author of All the Bright Places
“ This book should be required reading for all teens and their parents and teachers. Teens with mental health issues will feel seen, while those without them will learn empathy and kindness. Oh, how I wish this book had been around when I was in high school!” —Tanya Guerrero, award-winning author of How to Make Friends with the Sea, All You Knead Is Love, and Adrift
“This is easily the most essential book of the year for teen readers. Don’t miss it!”—Rob Costello, author of The Dancing Bears: Queer Fables for the End Times and contributing editor of Queer Beasties: 15 Weird & Wondrous Monster Tales
“This collection will appeal to readers who are struggling with or interested in mental health, and prefer fiction that is written by someone who has been there. —Booklist
When we first envisioned this anthology, we had no idea that in the not-too-distant future, the US surgeon general would issue a warning about a national youth mental health crisis. Unfortunately, the need for this warning didn’t shock us. Both of our debut novels explore mental health themes, and because of this, we’ve each had numerous readers reach out to us to share their own (often silent) struggles with mental health. The more we talked about our own experiences, it seemed, the more others felt empowered to share theirs.
We weren’t always so comfortable sharing our stories, however. Like many characters in this anthology, because of prevailing stigmas surrounding mental health conditions, we felt isolated, othered, and deeply ashamed that our mental wellness didn’t appear to be as stable as other people’s.
But after each of us found the strength to seek help, we realized we weren’t alone at all. In fact, recent statistics detailing the pervasiveness of mental health struggles are staggering:
- The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an estimated 5 percent of adolescents have had a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.
- According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of ten and thirty-four in the United States in 2019. Furthermore, the risk of suicide quadruples for youth who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual—and the risk is even more signifi cant for transgender teens.
- Even before the pandemic and its tremendous negative impacts on mental health, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that seven in ten teenagers surveyed saw anxiety and depression as “major problems among their peers.”
- ‑ e World Health Organization asserts that half of mental health disorders appear by the age of fourteen. Unfortunately, most of them remain undiagnosed and therefore untreated, “impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfi lling lives as adults.”
The number of books featuring characters with mental health conditions is growing, but there remain a plethora of books and popular media stories in which mental health disorders are stereotyped, idealized, trivialized, or incorporated primarily to give a character a funny or memorable “quirk.” These pop culture and media portrayals too often cast people with mental health conditions as caricatures that serve a story’s plotline. We want to disrupt that trend with this collection.
For these reasons, all contributors to this anthology have lived experiences of the mental health conditions with which their protagonists struggle. They may not have an official diagnosis, but they all identify as members of the mental health community.
Limiting contributors to those who meet this criterion was a difficult decision to make. We want to be clear that lived-experience adjacent stories (for example, stories from the point of view of a family member of someone struggling with mental health) are important. There are places in the world for those stories. But the reason this collection features only stories written by people who possess that lived experience extends beyond authentic representation. This anthology creates space for these unique experiences while honoring the characters and the authors who write them. We wanted readers to receive the unstated message this representation sends: you can struggle daily with a serious mental health condition and still live a good and full life. Still be happy. Still be creative and successful, just like the authors in this book. If our mission is to break the silence and stigma around mental health care, then this is a step in raising our collective voice.
Many stories that come to mind when people think of YA books with mental health representation focus almost exclusively on a character’s identity as having a mental health condition—either realizing it or finally accepting it or learning how to get help. And those stories are powerful and necessary. But this collection isn’t about characters reconciling with their conditions, at least not exclusively. These contributions are simply stories—varying in form (fictional prose, graphic, verse, epistolary, transcript, one-act play) and genre (contemporary, fantasy, science fiction)—whose protagonists just so happen to struggle with mental health.
Furthermore, because so many conversations surrounding mental health come at the topic from a white, male, suburban, middle-class, cisgender perspective, this collection aims to show the importance of intersectionality to an individual’s conception of mental health and that person’s access to resources. We have often discussed on panels how necessary it is to curate collections that show that mental health conditions exist within all communities, and so the authors in this book are diverse in ethnic and cultural background, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious background, age, and socioeconomic status.
The sixteen stories you’re about to read are as diverse as their creators, and run the gamut from whimsical and romantic to speculative and philosophical to raw and gritty with a deep emotional punch.
As much as we hope this anthology provides a mirror for members of the mental health community, this book is as much for people who do not struggle with mental health as it is for those who do. As struggle with mental health as it is for those who do. As the Pew study revealed, even if you don’t have personal experience with a mental health condition, you absolutely know someone who does. And more likely than not, it’s someone close to you.
One of the many incredible things about this anthology is that every single story includes some kind of relationship that makes a crucial difference to the main character. As the COVID-19 pandemic has made abundantly clear, connection matters. Relationships—of all kinds—matter. They can, quite literally, save lives.
In a call to action in December 2021, US surgeon general Vivek Murthy stated: “We’re asking for individuals to take action to change how we think and talk about mental health so people with mental health struggles know that they have nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s okay to ask for help. That stigma is so powerful still around mental health. . . . But we’re also calling for expanded access to mental health care, for increases in mental health counselors in schools and investments in social-emotional learning curricula in schools.”
We hope this book can be a step toward meeting this call. After each story, you’ll find a note from the contributor, and at the end of the book, a detailed resource section. Additionally, you can find professionally produced guides—a Guide for Educators, a Guide for Parents, and a Guide for Mental Health Professionals—on our websites, noracarpenterwrites.com and rockycallen.com. Resources are also available on our publisher’s site, candlewick.com.
Ab(solutely) Normal aims to inspire readers to let go of stigma, aims to inspire readers to let go of stigma, seek help if they need it, and live their truths proudly. These stories will uplift and empower you, break your heart and heal it so it’s stronger than before.
We hope you live your truth, dear reader, and that you recognize and honor others who are living theirs.
Thank you for reading,
Nora Shalaway Carpenter & Rocky Callen