Mental Illness Narrative in YA Lit

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!

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

Article citation:

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/

Social Emotional Learning

YALSA

Young Adult Library Services Winter 2019 focuses on social emotional learning (SEL) and has several great articles. If you aren’t as familiar with SEL, “Reading Between the Lines of Social and Emotional Learning,” by Jessica Newman and Deborah Moroney, is the a good place to start (pages 16-21).

“5 Ways to Incorporate SEL at Your Library: Supporting Multi-dimensional Learning,” by Kathleen Houlihan (pages 22-25), provides some practical suggestions–most are free/low-cost and relatively easy to implement. Additionally, two of the five ways to incorporate SEL align with the research on effective communication about teen services discussed on this blog last month.

  1. Describe program outcomes to adults using SEL
    • Adult stakeholders need to understand the value of your program in terms of teen development, including social emotional development.
    • A handy chart connecting library programs to SEL facets is included in the article.
  2. Describe program outcomes to teens using SEL
    • Idea: Create and distribute certificates for teen who complete programs at your library that list the skills they learned.
    • Telling teens explicitly what they learn helps them identify and communicate their strengths and skills.
    • It also “empowers teens to explain the value of their participation in activities to parents who may see it as just something ‘fun’ to do.”
  3. Talk about failure (yours, not theirs)
    • “If you’ve been reading the news lately, you’ll know that youth in the United States have a serious lack of confidence in their abilities.”
    • Teens need adults to talk about their own failures and model failure–what happened when we failed, what did we do about it, how did we feel about it, and what did we learn.
  4. Why you are awesome
    • Give kids specific compliments to help them identify their strengths.
    • No: You’re awesome.
    • Yes: Wow, you’re tenacious! You stuck with the activity, trying several different approaches until you found one that worked.
  5. Create space for teen leaders at your library
    • Teen Library Council
    • Teen volunteer programs

How to Communicate More Effectively About Teen Development

Busso, D., O’Neil, M., Down, L., & Gibbons, C. (2018). Amplifying positive frames: The shape of organizational discourse on adolescent development. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.

New research from FrameWorks Institute indicates that organizations “working on and communicating about adolescent issues” produce informational materials that “rarely mention adolescent development.” These are missed opportunities to educate the public about teen development, thus perpetuating “unproductive patterns in public thinking” about teens and their behavior.

While there isn’t a lot of research on this topic and this study was fairly small, it still makes me wonder… How effectively are public libraries communicating about teens and the services we provide them?

The following are a few of the recommendations from the article that we may want to consider in library communications about our work with teens:

  • Include a brief explanation about part of the teen development process that is relevant to the library program/service/material you are communicating about
  • Emphasize how teen development, in the context of the library program/service/material, benefits the broader community
  • “Balance discussions between risk and opportunity;” mention both the positive influence of the library program/service/material and how they may reduce harm to some teens
  • “Amplify productive communications pattern;” when you provide information created by other organizations about teens make sure they are following these recommendations

As you think about applying these recommendations, I highly recommend reading pages 23-28 of Amplifying Positive Frames because they provide great examples of better, more effective communications about teen issues. For example:

“Adolescence is a time of significant, at times, rapid change in physical, neurobiological, and psychological development. Many of the changes that take place during this period of life, such as increases in risk-taking behavior or heightened sensitivity to social status and rewards, are adaptive parts of the development process; they are vital for the learning and change that takes place during this time of life. These features of adolescence are not and should not be viewed as inherently problematic.”

Perhaps you want to try a teen program like Will it Waffle, and you anticipate push-back from co-works and patron complaints of rowdy teens. You might consider providing information to co-workers, parents, and patrons  like:

Will it Waffle provides teens an opportunity to take risks and reap the rewards with their peers! Risk taking and socializing are important parts of teen development, vital to learning and becoming self-reliant. The library strives to be a positive influence that supports teens as they develop and become capable adults in our community.

Note: I am not suggesting that your or the library should promote the program to teens in this way!

 

Superpower Girls

Superpower Girls: Female Representation in the Sci-fi/Superhero Genre

A study by Women’s Media Center and BBC, October 2018

SuperheroStudy

Key take-aways:

  • “Every demographic group we spoke to expressed a strong desire for more female superheroes…”
  • “Female sci-fi/superheroes are more impactful sources of inspiration for girls than male heroes are for boys, empowering girls—and especially girls of color—to believe they can achieve anything they put their mind to.”
  • “Teen girls are significantly less likely than teen boys to describe themselves as confident, brave, and heard. And these challenges are even more pronounced for girls of color.”
  • “Despite notable campaigns to boost women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), we still see a 23-point gender gap between teen boys and girls with regards to interest in STEM careers.”
  • “1 in 3 teens [including boys] agree that girls have fewer opportunities than boys to be leaders.”
  • “If you can’t see her, you can’t be her,” BBC America President Sarah Barnett

Library considerations:

  • How many sci-fi/superhero movies for teens does my library show featuring strong female leads?
  • How many strong female leads does my library emphasize when we have sci-fi/superhero fandom events?
  • Looking at displays of TV and movies for teens in my library and at my library’s online presence, how many items feature a strong female lead?
  • What percentage of my library’s teen advisory council (or similar) are girls? Is this representative of the percentage of regulars who are teen girls?
  • Looking at the leadership opportunities my library offers teens, what percentage are offered to teen girls? Is this representative of the percentage of regulars who are teen girls?