Book Recs: Mental Health Representation

Hi everyone! Today’s book recommendation list is for a topic close to my heart: mental health representation in fiction. Destigmatising discussions of mental health, and accurate representations of this in literature, is a topic that I’ve long been passionate about — having studied Psychology as a major during my Arts undergrad. I’ve particularly always wanted to see more intersectionality, considering the specific challenges that cultural issues can raise.

It’s incredible to me that there are now such a variety of books which offer such explorations, and I thought I’d share some of my favourites here today! This isn’t meant to be any kind of comprehensive post, and there are certain types of mental health issues that you may notice recurring more than others on this list; other books resonated with me because of the specific cultural or diasporic experiences depicted. I’m hoping to share more recommendations on this topic in the future! (And when you get to the end, I also have a bonus film recommendation)

When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert

About the Book:

All Beth wants is for her tight-knit circle of friends—Grace Nakamura, Brandon Lin, Sunny Chen, and Jason Tsou—to stay together. With her family splintered and her future a question mark, these friends are all she has—even if she sometimes wonders if she truly fits in with them. Besides, she’s certain she’ll never be able to tell Jason how she really feels about him, so friendship will have to be enough.

Then Beth witnesses a private act of violence in Jason’s home, and the whole group is shaken. Beth and her friends make a pact to do whatever it takes to protect Jason, no matter the sacrifice. But when even their fierce loyalty isn’t enough to stop Jason from making a life-altering choice, Beth must decide how far she’s willing to go for him—and how much of herself she’s willing to give up.

My thoughts:

  • It’s spoilery to spell out everything, but at the start the protagonist, Beth, appears to be struggling with depression and severe social anxiety; there are also depictions of panic attacks (additional content warnings appear at the front of the hard copy of the book)
  • What I found so powerful about this book is the unflinching way that it was willing to go to dark, raw places with the characters, and then leave the reader with a profoundly hopeful message of resilience and survival. That no matter what happens, it is still possible to find the strength to go on. And the growth that Beth underwent felt so well-earned after her struggles — the final chapter of this book will stay with me forever
  • This book is also a powerful exploration of friendship (I loved the entirely East Asian friendship group with their relatable experiences, and particularly Sunny) and found/chosen family, and the difference that this can make to Beth as someone who feels deeply alone and doesn’t have the kind of family support network she needs
  • It’s also fairly unique to see a character like Beth who is incredibly selfless and also makes various messy choices at times, while grappling with her underlying anger and self-worth, and it’s a story I really appreciated

Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman

About the Book:

Harley Milano has dreamed of being a trapeze artist for as long as she can remember. With parents who run a famous circus in Las Vegas, she spends almost every night in the big top watching their lead aerialist perform, wishing with all her soul that she could be up there herself one day.

After a huge fight with her parents, who continue to insist she go to school instead, Harley leaves home, betrays her family and joins the rival traveling circus Maison du Mystère. There, she is thrust into a world that is both brutal and beautiful, where she learns the value of hard work, passion and collaboration. But at the same time, Harley must come to terms with the truth of her family and her past—and reckon with the sacrifices she made and the people she hurt in order to follow her dreams.  

My thoughts:

  • The entire point of the representation in this book, which the author discussed here, is that the protagonist, Harley has undiagnosed mental health issues — something reflective of the experience of many teens, who do not have the privilege of getting full support that they need. (What we are told is that Harley had undergone periods of depression)
  • Harley made a lot of highly, highly flawed choices in betraying her family, but (although this doesn’t excuse what she did), those choices were, in a way, necessary for her to grow and undertake a journey of her own. It’s a very relevant topic to YA, and I found the way this book depicted it particularly refreshing (rival circuses! training and stardom!)
  • Harley also hurts her best friend and various other people, and there’s a poignant moment when she questions everything about herself and considers the ways she’s ruined her relationships with others. I loved the realistic messiness of this and, again, the growth she goes through
  • As with all of Akemi Dawn Bowman’s previous books, the protagonist is mixed-race, and there are some wonderful moments right from the start as she learns more about her extended family (through her Popo) and she reflects on the sometimes-incongruent parts that make up her identity

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

Melati Ahmad looks like your typical movie-going, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.

But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in  her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.

With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.

My thoughts:

  • Stories about lesser-known historical events outside of the US, and Western countries, are so, so needed — and this was an incredibly written story about the May 13th incident and Chinese and Malay riots, a key event in Malaysia’s history. (Whilst I don’t have any personal connection to this, I did learn a bit about it as background when I was studying global Chinese-language writers in a literature unit at university, so I really appreciated seeing those facts and detached reports of the incidents being brought to life so vividly in the book)
  • The protagonist, Melati, struggles with anxiety and specifically OCD — but being set in the 1960s when people didn’t have the same understanding of mental health that we do now, her perception is that a djinn has possessed her. The book involved a really thoughtful interweaving of historical attitudes, mental health representation, and religious beliefs
  • A resonant depiction of the dangers of racial division, as well as the kindness that people can show each other in overcoming this — I loved Vince and Aunt Bee and the bond that Melati forms with them
  • For those who aren’t aware, there’s a Webtoon adaptation that is complete and freely available online!

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.

But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.

A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family.

  • I’m 100% incapable of being unbiased about this book, as I am friends with the author, read an early version and am in the acknowledgements, but yes it’s wonderful and I really recommend it! It explores some of the stigmas around mental illness through the eyes of a Chinese-Australian family. Specifically, the teenage daughter, Anna, struggles with her caretaker role, her responsibility over her siblings and how much she has to hide from the outside world, and starts off with a limited understanding of what her mother is going through
  • This book also doesn’t give a specific diagnosis to Anna’s mother, but there are depictions of psychosis and depressive episodes, as well as discussions around potential diagnoses
  • There’s also a subplot exploring Rory, the love interest, who has experienced depression, and there are poignant reflections on the impact this had on him as well
  • The food theme throughout the book was also really fun and thoughtfully written, and you’re going to want dumplings after reading!

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.

Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.

When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.

  • I already did a full review of this book here, so I’ll keep it short, but Picture Us in the Light made me feel seen in ways I really needed as a teenager
  • It’s also a spoiler to directly spell out the major past event in this book, but what I found unique about it was the way it explored the interaction between mental health issues and the dynamics in a very specific, high-pressure Asian-dominant diaspora community (reminiscent of the Chinese-dominant one I grew up in)
  • Aside from this, there are depictions of panic attacks and the impact of devastating choices and intergenerational trauma — all of which are very relevant to teenagers from Asian migrant families

Girls of Paper and Fire, Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

  • I had to make sure to include fantasy book/series as well as contemporaries! Girls of Paper and Fire is probably my number one most admired book in terms of Asian-inspired fantasy worldbuilding, and it does so much more incredibly well too
  • A powerful depiction of the horrors of sexual violence, and specifically the second book depicts PTSD-like symptoms and the long-term impacts of trauma. Interwoven through all this is a message of resistance and hope.
  • I adored the romantic relationship between Lei and Wren, the touching moments of them falling in love in the first book, and how realistic tensions arise when more about Wren is unveiled in the sequel
  • The first book in particular also had some incredible supporting characters, and great build-up of tension
  • Looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy, to be released in November!

The Memory of Light by Francisco X Stork

Vicky Cruz shouldn’t be alive.

That’s what she thinks, anyway—and why she tried to kill herself. But then she arrives at Lakeview Hospital, where she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and kindness, honesty and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

  • Depicts grief, depression, and the struggles and non-linear trajectory of healing after surviving attempted suicide, as well as various additional mental health issues in the supporting characters
  • This book released back in 2016; I finally got around to it in 2019, and loved every word of its emapthy and honesty
  • I loved Dr Desai and the positive portrayal of therapy in this book — it’s beautiful and affirming, but also done with nuance
  • In contrast, the misunderstanding which Vicky faces in her family was heartbreaking, and it was an honest portrayal of how dangerous excessive pressures can be especially for young people

The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

A world split between day and night. Two sisters who must unite it. The author of The Bone Witch kicks off an epic YA fantasy duology perfect for fans of Furyborn.

Generations of twin goddesses have long ruled Aeon—until one sister’s betrayal split their world in two. A Great Abyss now divides two realms: one cloaked in eternal night, the other scorched beneath an ever-burning sun.

While one sister rules the frozen fortress of Aranth, her twin rules the sand-locked Golden City—each with a daughter by their side. Now those young goddesses must set out on separate, equally dangerous journeys in hopes of healing their broken world. No matter the sacrifice it demands.

Told from four interweaving perspectives, this sweeping duology packs elemental magic, star-crossed romance, and incredible landscapes into a spectacular fantasy adventure that’s equal parts Frozen and Mad Max: Fury Road.

  • One of the POV characters, Tianlan (‘Lan’), has PTSD. Her poignant struggles are revealed in flashbacks, and I loved the realism of this and her trajectory towards healing.
  • This book had a pretty fascinating premise and worldbuilding — both Aranth and the Golden City were so atmospheric — and it was interesting to see how the highly-relevant climate change commentary was woven into the fantasy world with mythological elements
  • The slow revelations of the lore and backstory caught me by surprise in the best way at times, and again, felt very unique
  • There are some great romantic elements and progressive build-up of this throughout the book, and I loved Odessa and Lan’s relationship

BONUS: Film recommendation for When Marnie Was There

  • This Studio Ghibli film is actually based on a 1950s book by Joan G. Robinson, which I’ve read and did enjoy as well, but I’d personally direct you to the film for the subtle ways it evoked emotions and its more streamlined adapation of the storyline
  • The 12-year-old protagonist, Anna, appears to be struggling with social anxiety and low self-esteem, and symptoms of depression; I appreciated how honest the story was about the dark emotions that children can face at that age
  • A wonderful portrayal of how friendship/platonic love, and connections with your family’s past, can be transformative and healing

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any other recommendations for books with mental health representation?

3 thoughts on “Book Recs: Mental Health Representation

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