The March 2019 issue of The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults includes an article about the representation of mental illness in young adult fiction by Diane Scrofano. I’m at the beginning of my learning on mental illness representation in literature. I understand that this article is not the only perspective and the suggested theory for reviewing mental illness in YA lit may not be the best theory. For me, it is a starting point and it may be for others too.
After reading the article, I had a couple of concerns. Trying to sort the plethora of YA novels of mental illness into only three story types seems like over simplifying something that is extremely complex and personal. I wonder if this degree of simplification could be emotionally harmful to folks experiencing mental illness and misleading to those who are not?
When Wonder by R.J. Palacio was published, I remember reading about the author’s story and concerns from readers that the main character’s role was to educate others about disfigurement, help others see people with disfigurements as “normal,” and make people without disfigurements feel comfortable. Whether or not we agree on this critique of Wonder specifically, it illustrates an important type of story that is by and/or for people not experiencing disfigurement, disability, or mental illness. Diane Scrofano doesn’t discuss this type of story in her article, and just touches on #OwnVoices a little bit. How are authors’ backgrounds taken into consideration in this theory? How are stereotypes and harmful tropes taken into consideration? Scrofano’s doesn’t explain her thinking enough for me to understand how she took these issues into consideration and how that thinking informed her theory.
On the other hand, I found learning about the three story types very helpful!
- Type 1 Novels: Restitution and Attempted Restitution
These types of stories focus on finding a cure, or figuring out how the character can get back to living how they did before the onset of mental illness. “While many novels feature characters in different stages of denial, other stories make a shift from denying the illness (or the need for help) into admitting but hiding the illness.”
- Type 2 Novels: Chaos
These types of stories focus on uncontrolled symptoms that can seem chaotic, typically before diagnosis. “While books about the onset and diagnosis of a mental illness are important, in reality life with mental illness plays out in a more complicated way than it would in a simple problem novel.”
- Type 3 Novels: Quest and Problematic Quest
These types of stories typically start with diagnosis and explore the journey to incorporation, emancipation, or recovery. “Novels that fall into this category will emphasize how characters rebuild their lives after the chaos and crisis stage”
Additionally, the author explored how all the types of novels may be helpful and harmful to teen readers. I recommend reading the article in full to get a broader and deeper understanding of disability narrative theory and how the Scrofano applies it to YA novels that include characters with mental illness. At least look at the chart on pages 10-12 that categorize about 50 YA novels of mental illness and the chart on page 6 that attempts to align a few disability narrative theories that may of particular interest.
Scrofano, D. (2019, March). Disability Narrative Theory and Young Adult Fiction of Mental Illness. The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, 10(1), Retrieved from http://www.yalsa.ala.org/jrlya/