Book Chat: Trauma Narratives in YA

I have a lot of issues with YA. There are the harmful romance tropes, and the love triangles, and the instalove, and then there are more harmful romance tropes… okay, I complain about this a lot. That’s a different post. But right now, I want to address something different. Let’s talk about tragedy and trauma as they’re used in YA, because this is probably my biggest issue with current YA and NA books. We’ve all talked the topic of romanticizing mental illness to death, but here’s the question: how do you treat mental illness or trauma right?

THIS POST IS GOING TO BE REALLY LONG. I’m sorry, I had a lot to say. Feel free to just read my bolded points.

As someone who has depression herself, I find it hard to see myself in many of YA’s “depressed” characters. As YA books go, I have two major issues with books focusing on mental illness. Obviously, every depressed person has a different experience, but it’s not the portrayal of depression itself; it’s the portrayal of recovery that bothers me so. Because so many books choose to use romance as a method of recovery.

As a side note before I begin: romance as a method of recovery is an issue with disabled characters too. This post is focusing more on mental health issues, but I’d suggest checking out Disability In Kid Lit for more info.

There are several books I’ve read which use this trope. Impulse by Ellen Hopkins is a standout example, with the quote “I’ll never stop cutting; only love can make me stop.” Which is completely fucked up and I really think I shouldn’t have to explain why it’s fucked up, but I WILL DO IT ANYWAY. The idea that mental illness or trauma can be cured by love is so messed up. As a depressed teenager reading books like this, I interalized the idea of some great love to solve my problems. Obviously, love is a good thing, and your partner & you should have a beneficial relationship. But love is not the solution to depression. It can’t save anyone from depression, it can’t save anyone from rape trauma, it can’t save anyone from their mental problems. It’s fucked up to say otherwise. I’d recommend reading this post about the trope as well.

Even when this trope isn’t explicitly used, and love doesn’t explicitly cure trauma, many books have characters begin to work through mental illness only once they’re in a relationship. This applies to a few books I’ve genuinely loved as portrayals of their respective mental illnesses. Examples include History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, All The Rage by Courtney Summers, Ten Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac, The Foxhole Court by Nora Sacavick, The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch, and The One Memory Of Flora Banks by Emily Barr. Even Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, which is my literal favorite book and contains a fabulous portrayal of trauma and mental illness, even comes close to this with one of the characters. Let me be clear: I’m not calling any of these books problematic, because most of them are fucking fantastic. I would recommend almost all of these for mental illness / trauma rep! In fact, some of these are ownvoices mental illness rep! It’s the trend that bothers me. The connotation here becomes that love is required for healing. One way to avoid this is to have relationships happen after the character has already begun / come a long way in recovery, as in The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater.

A related trope is the idea that all mental health problems or trauma must go away by the end of the book. Spoiler alert: ALL YOUR ISSUES WILL NOT GO AWAY. You learn to cope with your mental illness, not get over it. The idea that trauma and mental illness will just disappear into the wind someday is so, so toxic. It sends the message that mental illness is a temporary struggle. I prefer for characters to cope with their issues, but still have those issues. Possibly the only book I think does this perfectly is Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, and wow, I’m going to mention this book’s every sentence, huh? This trope occurs in almost all the “cure” books, as well as many issue books. This thread by DisabilityInKidsLit contains a great comment made by contributor S. Jae-Jones, author of Wintersong; mental illness is cured in issue books because the major conflict is the mental illness itself. Issues books try to solve problems, and unfortunately, this often leads to solving the mental illness itself.

But on the flip side: books shouldn’t always end in tragedy for abuse and trauma survivors. Honestly, just finding a book where the abuse survivor doesn’t die is ridiculously hard, especially if the character is lgbt or non-white. There’s this odd trend of abused characters and traumatized characters being villains, or being narratively punished despite being protagonists. Honestly, name a couple abuse survivors who aren’t super morally ambiguous or, at the very least, don’t begin the story as terrible people. (To be fair, I do love my abuse-survivors-getting-a-chance narratives, and will recommend them constantly. It’s just the trend of ALL ABUSE SURVIVORS BEING TERRIBLE that bugs me.) I honestly almost cried of happiness when I realized Adam Parrish survived the Raven Cycle – my impulse that he was going to die was so ingrained in me. That’s how bad this trend is. This leads us to believe that being an abuse victim makes you a bad person. I don’t even know how to explain how much this trend fucked me, personally, up. We really need to start talking about this more, NOW.

  • Half Bad by Sally Green. Bi abuse survivor dies at the end. This one’s especially gross because the author apparently promised happy endings.
  • This is the entire plot of the ridiculously popular movie Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. Good movie, shitty narrative.
  • The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma portrays a teen as a villain for killing an abusive parent, which I… understand somewhat? But he physically beat her constantly. I almost feel like she didn’t deserve to die as a punishment.
  • Not even going to go through the list of villains with abuse as a backstory. It’s not even worth it. It’s one thing if these characters get redeemed, but using it as plot device is just… gross.

As another example, there’s the of the depressed-person-dies-but-teaches-their-partner-a-lesson trope. There’s a great discussion here. Again, this trope isn’t necessarily terrible on its own (well… it kinda is), but it’s such a pattern. Mentally ill people are not a plot device. Let’s do some examples. While I have not read this book, in contrast to almost every book on this list, I’ve read enough about it that I think it bears mentioning – All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven absolutely uses this trope. You can’t even argue it doesn’t; it’s literally a plot point. 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher also qualifies. Plus every single novel about that friend who committed suicide, like I Was Here by Gayle Forman. Related is the “mentally ill sibling” trope, which is almost always used for the protagonist’s sadness. Again, trend is the problem, not the fact that we have stories about sibling bonds. It’s just that as many books focus on siblings than on the mentally ill people themselves. Maybe In Paris by Rebecca Christiansen a good example.

Related, although less egregious, is the dreaded “mental illness is quirky” trope. This trope is just terrible and needs to go away. This fits Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Impulse by Ellen Hopkins, and from what I’ve heard, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.

There’s the flat-out misinterpretation too. There are the anti-medication books, like Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (a book which I otherwise love). Disabilities In Kid Lit has a fantastic post about the topic. And of course, there are all the many books that portray mental illness badly, like The Program by Suzanne Young. Another example is one I have mixed feelings on – in fact, for a few years it was one of my all-time favorites – but 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher should qualify just for the sheer amount of people who have been harmed by the rep. Again, this is one we can disagree on. Also, having all mental health hospitals or therapy sessions portrayed as terrible torture machines leads us to fear places that should help us heal. Don’t even know how to list examples for this – The Murmurings by Carly Anne West I remember pretty well although I don’t have a review, and I’ve read things about Splintered by A.G Howard as well.

Oh, and of course, there’s mental health being used as a plot device for psychological thrillersThe Murmurings by Carly Anne West and If You’re Lucky by Yvonne Prinz and though it somewhat sidesteps this trope, The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr. Again, it’s more the trend of this happening that annoys me. I get that it makes books more thrilling and is an easy way to make unreliable narrator happen – I just don’t like it much. What about Dangerous Boys by Abigail Haas? That has an unreliable narrator and is fantastic, but has no bad mental illness rep. Hell, now that I think about it, most of my fave psychological novels have unreliable narrator without mental health issues.

Obviously, there are just my opinions, and I’d recommend looking at a few different people’s opinions on mental illness romanticization and trauma portrayal. Let me know any thoughts you have on these tropes and any others. Feel free to question me or disagree on anything – just be polite, and understand that I am talking from experience here. Empathy goes a long way!!

AND BEFORE WE GO: some positive recs for books about depression, mental illness, or chronic pain that DON’T kill off the trauma survivors OR use romance to cure mental illness!! Obviously, this is somewhat subjective, but these are some books that personally worked for me.

  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, for a fabulous narrative around two character’s sexual / otherwise trauma, a great narrative around abuse, a major ownvoices disabled character who is an absolute badass but still realistically disabled, a character with dyslexia, and a character with ADHD. None of these characters are cured of any of their issues at any point :’)
  • The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, for one fantastically portrayed abuse survivor and a suicide attempt survivor with a fantastic arc around depression. Neither of these arcs are tied to relationships.
  • Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore – pretty much every main character has well-handled depression and trauma, but the best treatment is pertaining to the main character. She has a beautiful arc surrounding trauma and depression. This is part of a companion trio, and it’s better with books one and two, but it can definitely be read as a standalone. Definitely does not use love as a cure.
  • The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky – I really connected to this character and his arc. He’s fabulous.
  • Both A Monster Calls and More Than This by Patrick Ness – I’m pretty sure Patrick Ness has depression himself, given his excellent portrayals of the issues with it in his books. Both these books explore depression in a very real and tangible way. Also heard good things about Release, but haven’t read it quite yet. Can’t wait, though!
  • Far From You by Tess Sharpe – the main character is a drug addict and works through it herself. Also, suspense with lgbt rep. Yeah, the mystery isn’t great, but I love Sophie more than my own life. This book deserves more attention.
  • Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman – A book about schizophrenia with no romance and a focus on recovery and a collaboration with Neal’s son, making the book ownvoices? Sign me up. And yes, it was just as good as expected.
  • Exit Pursued By A Bear by E.K. Johnston – This book manages to be quite optimistic despite being about the aftermath of rape. There’s no romance, there’s a real focus on friendship… it’s awesome. Definitely worth the read.
  • Run by Kody Keplinger – Character and friendship driven! Follows a bi abuse survivor and a blind character as they run from their old life. No romance!! Ownvoices for blind rep!! Really good!!
  • Perfect by Natasha Friend – Follows eating disorders. Again, no romance and focus on friendship. It’s more middle-grade. Whatever. This book is positive and emotionally real and fabulous.
  • A couple other books recommended by DisabilityInKidsLit include When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez and This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers. I haven’t read either but definitely intend to!

That’s it, guys. Bye!!

15 thoughts on “Book Chat: Trauma Narratives in YA

  1. Love this post Elise. As a person living with bipolar disorder I find a lot of reps to be off-putting. I do have to say that I love it when a book ends and the person is not cured. Let’s face it … it’s a condition that you live with and manage … not something that can even BE cured. And certainly not by love either. If anything a relationship can add to the stress of the illness and make it more difficult to manage. I use SOC as a shining example of how to end with characters still realistically coping too!
    Again, great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Frankie!! Yeah, I hate the idea that you can cure it. It just trivializes our struggles. And I love how Six of Crows does trauma so much, and honestly I think its handling of mental illness / trauma is why it’s my fave series ever.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post Elise, with a really important message. I wish more authors could be exposed to this sort of sensitivity information before they start writing. I get pretty uncomfortable with suspense/thrillers for this reason, as many of them seem to make light of mentally ill characters, turning them into horror cliche villains, which is so far from the truth. I wish that less authors would go for the easy route out by creating a bad guy who is mentally ill. I need a better motive than that.


    1. Thanks for commenting, Bentley! Definitely agree. I also think that suspense trope often doesn’t work?? I mean, “villains who are scary bc mental illness” are never actually compelling. Evil is so human, and giving it to “those scary mentally ill people” 1) dehumanizes mentally ill people and 2) makes evil this weird “not people” thing. Abigail Haas and Gillian Flynn are both really good at writing thrillers without using mental illness as a plot device.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was a great post! I have talked A LOT about Impulse and how atrocious it was, I AM STILL SO MAD ABOUT IT. And I am so hyper sensitive to the portrayal of mental health since I am a psychology major and THAT BOOK got every single thimg wrong. I read a book a while ago (there’s a review up for it somewhere on the blog) called Hello Me, It’s You and it’s young people writing to their future self and it’s all centered around mental health. And it’s actual, real people, and it was quite refreshing. But yeah, awesome post!


  4. I know this post is older, but I stumbled on your blog via goodreads and I just want to say thanks for linking to my Maybe In Paris review! I TOTALLY agree with your post and, as someone who deals with mental health myself, I also get really frustrated with how it can be portrayed in books. The whole “I love you but not your illness” is really sick and frustrating and I feel like people mean well when they say that, but they’re so wrong. I’m really glad you wrote this and linked to so many resources and gave recs. It’s really terrific.

    Hope you have a good day. 💕 (And sorry I’m such a random commenter!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww thank you so much, Cait! You’re one of my favorite reviewers and I love how you talk about mental health – it’s so fantastic.

      And yes, god that trope is so terrible. It’s totally a well-meaning thing but it absolutely sucks to hear – you shouldn’t love someone in spite of their illnesses, you should love them WITH their illnesses. It’s like some people think they can take you, but skip an important aspect of you.


  5. I’m a little late but…
    *Shouts*: the abused killing their abusers is self defense, if the abuser was physically violent in their abuse, because chance are, the abused will live life on edge for the rest of their life if their abusers is out there. The abuser will always be a risk to the abused’s life.
    This is a hill I choose to die on without a second thought.
    Yeah, yeah, murder is bad, sure. But when the choice is between that and living a life of physical abuse, which IS torture, because you know if you leave, they will kill you, 100% you have every right to protect yourself. No one questions people who are held captive and tortured in war, so how the hell is it any different if an abused person kills their abuser? It’s the same bloody thing, only the abused knows the abuser which could make it, arguably, worse.

    Also, on the whole love fixing mental illness subject, I’m a pretty sole believer in dealing with your own shit first, before getting into a relationship. I don’t think you have to be ‘healed’ or ‘fixed’ just like, the stuff that’s going to heavily affect a relationship, you should probably try and get help with those things, at the very least have tools to help deal with them when in a relationship. I know far too many people who jump into relationships thinking that love will fix them, but often, all it does is break the other person because neither of them has the tools to deal with the problems they face. I don’t know, that’s just me though speaking as someone who has watched their family members do the same shit while expecting different results.

    Liked by 1 person

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