Photo credit: Jennifer Brister
My new book takes an honest and open look at mental health. The last word is key: health. (Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health
features the insights and experiences of life with a brain from a wide array of writers, athletes, artists, actors, and celebrities. Some speak to living with illnesses like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. Others write about being neurodivergent and navigating a world that overlooks those who think differently. Still others take on alcoholism and recovery, confidence, plastic surgery addiction, and grappling with life after surviving a school shooting. Each voice is raw and vulnerable, sharing some of the lowest of lows alongside some of the brightest glimmers of light.
It was my first anthology, Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World
, which made me realize how sorely needed a frank discussion of mental health was for teen readers. Mental health is not only a health issue and a feminist issue, it’s an issue that today’s young people confront directly and yearn to talk about. They want to be seen, want to be heard, and want to be able to share the things they’re experiencing and can often feel they’re grappling with alone.
I started my career as a young adult librarian. I worked across a variety of libraries, each with their joys and challenges, and I made it my goal to serve the teens in each of those places with respect, dignity, and a sense of humor. Too often, it’s the young adult librarian alone who is their advocate and who appreciates their fluctuating hormones, interests, and behavior in the library.
One of the aspects of my job that I was particularly good at was connecting teens with books they’d love. But it wasn’t always easy — there have always been strong, compelling narrative voices in the books for teenagers, but they've been primarily limited to fiction. It was no problem putting adult nonfiction into the hands of teens, but I could never understand why the YA nonfiction shelves didn’t thrive.
Teen nonfiction has, for too long, been seen as a category not for teens to read for pleasure, but instead for teens to read to meet curricular requirements. In the library world, I often referred to them as the 200-page report books, which were usually exactly what a parent dragging their teen into the library needed for a report, and needed fast. The pair would peruse the meager offerings of library-bound biographies and histories — titles that were pricey for the library to purchase and rarely available for purchase in bookstores — ensure it met the page requirements, then leave without any sense of joy or discovery. The assignment was just one in a long line of things on a to-do list, and bare-bones teen nonfiction fulfilled the requirements.
Something happens between the ages of “need to check out every single dinosaur book you have” and “displays and tables full of thoughtful current affairs, insight, memoirs by celebrities and politicians, and essay collections on race, feminism, class, and humor.” Teen readers are forgotten as a class of readers.
Too many writers have bemoaned the darkness that is YA literature, and too many places that claim to reach YA readers forget that, in addition to the richness and wealth that is YA fiction, there is a whole nonfiction side to the YA world. This is, of course, in part because YA has been so heavily marketed and sold to adult readers (myself included!). YA nonfiction, still relegated to the margins of YA literature, maintains a reputation for being “school books.”
Teens are finally seeing memoirs, histories, politics, and social science books written for them.
But it’s here, right here, where YA nonfiction reaches those teen readers. It’s an opportunity. It’s an obligation. And it’s a privilege.
It wasn’t until the last five years or so that teen nonfiction has started to grow and evolve from a collection of dusty report books to books that take on interesting, engaging topics with potent, teen-friendly narrative voices. For many years, Young Reader Editions of popular adult nonfiction titles were among the saddest of sad books hanging out on shelves for teen readers. They were dumbed-down versions of adult titles, rather than intellectually stimulating, curiosity-heightening reads. This has changed as more attention has been given to the desires teens have in their own reading, and today’s Young Reader Editions are utilizing established YA writers’ talent to craft these titles for young audiences in a way that encourages pleasure reading.
Contemporary YA nonfiction authors are blazing new paths and helping to redefine this class of literature. Steve Sheinkin
has numerous accolades to his name, writing about history with a flair and passion that is impossible for teen readers to ignore. Deborah Heiligman’s
books about Darwin and the Van Gogh brothers dig deep into the lesser-known parts of their famous lives and welcome teens to reexamine what they thought they knew about these historical figures. Sara Saedi’s
tells readers about her experience being an undocumented Iranian immigrant in America and how that impacted her teen years.
It doesn’t end there.
Books like #NotYourPrincess
, edited by Mary Beth Leatherdale and Lisa Charleyboy, showcase a wide range of Native and First Nations voices, while Linda Barrett Osborne’s This Land Is Our Land
digs deep into the history of immigration in America. Becoming Maria
by Sonia Manzano is a memoir that offers up what it’s like to grow up Latina and become an iconic member of a much-beloved children’s television show. Dashka Slater gives teen readers an account of a true crime and a nuanced look at the juvenile justice system in her much-lauded The 57 Bus
, and Congressman John Lewis recounts his extraordinary life in politics and civil rights work in the graphic nonfiction March
series. All of these books meet teens right where they are, without patronizing them or assuming that they aren’t ready or eager to grapple with big, heavy, contemporary topics in thoughtful ways. Teens are finally seeing memoirs, histories, politics, and social science books written for them.
These books may appeal to adult readers, but it’s teen readers who are the core audience, and this shows in the writing, the formatting, the approach, and, most importantly, the voice. The narrative voice reaches out to teen readers on their level. It welcomes them to dig in and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. To walk away with more questions than answers. These authors don’t assume their readership isn’t as intellectually capable as adult readers or that they need to brush over hard truths.
Instead, they grab teen readers by the hand and walk alongside them through the dark and hard parts.
This idea of meeting teenagers where they are and offering them the tools to ask questions, to seek more information, and to find themselves on the page is what drives me to write and edit essay collections on meaty, contentious topics that impact them every day. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly as I brainstorm the voices and perspectives I’d like to include. I think about the teen dragged to the library to get a book which meets the page requirements for a report who sees one of my titles on the shelf — packaged in an appealing way, on a topic they’ve heard about or discussed with friends and peers, with contributors they know from reading or watching television — and who suddenly finds they want to remember the name of the book to pick up when they finish the report. I envision that same teen grabbing my books in addition to the report book, especially when they discover the essays are short and easy to read in bits and pieces and that there’s art peppered throughout. Maybe that teen even chooses to set aside the report book and choose one of my books instead to complete the assignment, then returns to it over and over because it’s made such an impact.
I also like to think that teens find my books when they are looking for pleasure reading. Because teens deserve more than just fiction to read for enjoyment. They deserve nonfiction as well. It is part of what makes YA literature what it is: a whole, with plenty of fiction and nonfiction choices that reach a vast swath of teen readers.
Narrative voice is what propels my collections, but it’s not my voice. It’s something bigger. It’s the combined power of 30+ writers and artists telling their stories, in their own words, in a variety of mediums, that gives rise to the collection’s voice. That voice is inclusive.
Of the 42 million adolescents aged 10–19 in the U.S., nearly half are youth of color
. One in five live in households below the poverty line. Further, only 48% of today’s teens identify as “exclusively heterosexual
.” Knowing this, I’m able to keep in perspective the power of books to reach readers from a wide array of backgrounds. Teens are always at the forefront of my work, and their voices are what help craft the direction of the collection’s voice as it explores the intersections of diverse lived experiences.
Teens deserve nonfiction that reaches them, that speaks to them, and that understands who they are. They deserve books that challenge them and encourage them to offer up their own challenges to the text. They deserve books written for them, with their interests and passions taking center stage.
Writing nonfiction for teens is an opportunity that marries so well with my own experience working with teens in the library: it’s a roller coaster of emotions, an inexplicable privilege, and a responsibility I take on with the hope that it helps at least one teenager find their own voice and speak their own truth.
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A former librarian, Kelly
has found passion in writing to teen audiences, as well as those who work with them. She works as an editor for Book Riot
, where she runs the weekly "What's Up in YA?" young adult newsletter, the biweekly "Check Your Shelf" newsletter for librarians, cohosts the "Hey YA" podcast about young adult literature, and writes weekly columns and other features. Her books include (Don't) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation about Mental Health
and Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World
, both from Algonquin Young Readers. She's also a well-known and longtime coblogger at STACKED
When not writing or reading, Kelly teaches classical vinyasa-style yoga and practices photography. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, three cats, and a rabbit. She is on Twitter and Instagram as @veronikellymars.