Young Adult literature is often overlooked in our quest to both read and be inspired by the written word. The truth is many YA novels delve deeply into illness and its impact both on young adults and the people they love. Several of our staff members are passionate about YA literature and its ability to break the silence and stigma of illness. That’s why we’ve compiled a selection of eight titles whose messages we’ll never forget. If you think we’ve left a title out that belongs without question or would like to add to the list, please comment or message us. Given enough replies, we’d love to compile a list of reader suggestions!
*Trigger warning: Themes of mental illness, eating disorders, sexual assault, self-injury, suicide, grief
8 Must-Read YA Books About Illness
1. It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Ned Vizzini
Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story based on his own experience in a psychiatric hospital. This could be why main character Craig Gilner is so very real and painful to read. Craig puts an immense amount of pressure on himself to get into the best high school possible. Once there, he works day and night until stress completely overtakes him. Ensuing depression, lack of appetite, and vomiting lead him in a spiral to the night he no longer wants to live. He is admitted to a psychiatric ward, and the story unfolds in a moving, somehow hilarious tone.
We particularly recommend this read to honor the late Vizzini, who lost his battle with mental illness in 2013.
2. A Monster Calls: Patrick Ness
Based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls follows Conor O’Malley’s life in graphic novel form. Each night, a monster visits Conor at his window following intense nightmares. He takes up his perch and tells Conor a series of different stories. By day, the monster disappears, and we are left with Conor’s sadness as his mother fights terminal cancer. Jim Kay provides haunting black and white illustrations as we tumble through an uncertain time in the O’Malley house. The result is a window into a 13-year-old’s views on illness and the deep fears it creates.
We once again make this recommendation in honor of Siobhan Dowd’s life. She lost her battle with cancer in 2007.
3. Wintergirls: Laurie Halse Anderson
Wintergirls begins in utter darkness as we meet Lia, an 18-year-old being informed that her best friend, Cassie, has died. From there, Anderson steeps us in a torrent of pain: Lia suffers from anorexia, the illness that ended Cassie’s life. Lia also self-injures and lives in a precarious state of pretending to be “okay.” As the novel progresses, Lia’s reality begins to shatter, and we watch the façade she’s crafted with her family crumble.
4. Everything, Everything: Nicola Yoon
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) is an illness we first learned reading Everything, Everything. Maddy Whittier tells us this means she is basically allergic to everything. She does not leave her house, and her sole contact is with her mother and nurse. However, when Olly moves in next door, Maddy feels an immediate pull to him. We learn through her interactions with Olly and her desire to explore the outside world that her illness is not quite what it seems. Enhanced with illustrations from Yoon’s husband, we root for Maddy as she uncovers secrets about her illness and lives her life with renewed vigor.
5. Saving Francesca: Melina Marchetta
Francesca Spinelli is in the throes of young adulthood: attending a boys’ school with limited co-ed efforts; trying desperately to make some normal friends; and shrugging off nearly every immature boy in her path. In the midst of her daily battles, Francesca’s intelligent, driven mother stops getting out of bed. As her mother suffers from depression, Francesca wonders if she will be stricken with the same illness. Saving Francesca captures the strength of families in times of illness and reminds us that everyone—even the strongest people—can suffer.
6. The Sky is Everywhere: Jandy Nelson
Lennie Walker’s life has never gone smoothly. She was abandoned by her mother at a young age. She was raised by her grandmother and uncle, who are wildly eccentric. She also just lost her twin sister, Bailey, to arrhythmia. Bailey’s death plunges Lennie and her family into a dark period of grief, one Lennie finds difficult to escape. As Lennie rediscovers her passions for music, writing, and nature, we walk through the journey of losing a loved one to find life on the other side of tragedy. The Sky is Everywhere reminds us to grieve openly and deeply while taking care of ourselves in the process.
7. Cut: Patricia McCormick
Callie McPherson will not speak—not to her family, not to her visitors, and certainly not to the other girls at her residential treatment facility. She doesn’t want to talk about her self-injury, and she doesn’t want to confront the trauma lurking beneath her injuries. Through treatment and the patience her therapist demonstrates, Callie finally reveals the reasons behind her pain. Cut tackles mental illness through internal monologue, and the result is a close, aching relationship with Callie as she starts her journey to healing.
8. Impulse & Perfect: Ellen Hopkins
Impulse and Perfect are companion novels told in verse format. Vanessa, Tony, and Conner lead very different lives aside from the one strong thread that connects them: attempted suicide. Impulse follows their individual and connected healing processes at Aspen Springs as they wonder if they will ever truly heal. Perfect introduces a new set of characters: Cara, Kendra, Sean, and Andre. As they all grapple with their own pain, their ties to the events in Impulse become more striking and terrible. Hopkins reminds us that the external lives we lead rarely, if ever, reflect the turmoil we feel on the inside.