Roundup: Three Novels That Address Mental Illness

Three recent novels for middle-grade through YA feature characters with schizophrenia or depression.

Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin.  HarperCollins, 2018, 245 pages.

Reading Level:  Middle grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for:
ages 10-15

Della Kelly thought her mother was on the way to recovery until that night she caught Mama up late, sitting at the dining table, scooping watermelon seeds and flipping them to the ceiling.  This is all too reminiscent of the time Mama ended up in the hospital after Della’s little sister was born.  During that time she didn’t even recognize her own family, and the bad time lasted for weeks.  Mama’s problem has a name: schizophrenia.  Della can’t face losing her mother again—there has to be something she can do to prevent it.  And if she can’t, it’s her fault.  Della is believable as an immature 12-year-old with limited knowledge but an excess of emotions: anger, helplessness, irrational hope.  Her baby sister Mylie is also believable as a high-strung, difficult toddler who has her own baby issues to deal with.  God is invoked in prayer but doesn’t seem to affect the situation much.  However, church is a factor in their lives, and the value—the necessity—of community for getting through difficult times is clear.

Overall Rating: 3.75 (out of

Worldview/moral value: 3.5Artistic value: 4Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman.  HarperTeen, 2015, 306 pages

Reading Level: Teen,
ages 12-15

Recommended for: ages 15-up

Caden Bosch lives two lives simultaneously: in one he’s a high school student with a stellar academic record, friends, and intact family.  In the other he’s a crewman on a ship headed for the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot on earth’s surface.  Lately the worlds are beginning to seep into each other—in school, he suspects certain people are plotting to kill him.  On the ship, the captain’s parrot is talking like a therapist.  In the disjointed, stream-of-consciousness narrative, the reader goes deeper and deeper into the mind of a schizophrenic teen—and it’s not entirely fiction.  In his afterward, Neal Schusterman explains that Challenger Deep is an attempt to capture the thought processes of his own son Brendan, who experienced the same descent into paranoia and depression as Caden (Brendan also drew the illustrations).  Simonetta Carr recommends this novel in the resource section of Broken Pieces andthe God Who Mends Them: “It provides readers the comfort of knowing that others have walked the same path and found some form of healing.  It’s also a good way to introduce serous mental illness to others who might feel puzzled and confused.”   Not a typical novel by any means, and sometimes a difficult read, but still a useful one.

Overall rating: 4.25 (out of 5)

Worldview/moral value: 3.5Artistic value: 4.75

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram.  Dial, 3028, 314 pages

Reading Level:
Teens, 12-15

Recommended for:
ages 13-16

Being half-Persian, half-Anglo in Portland, Oregon, isn’t a burden in itself.  Darius’s little sister Lalah manages just fine–as fluent in Farsi as she is in English.  Darius isn’t fluent in anything except tea, his one specialty.  The only thing he shares with his father is anti-depression meds.  Being diagnosed with clinical depression at 13 stinks in a very conventional, boring way—bullies at school, monosyllables with dad, hiding behind a wall of snarky cynicism, gray days with no direction or progress.  When Babou, Darius’s Persian grandpa, reveals his terminal illness, the whole family travels to Yazd, Iran, for a three-week visit.  There Darius will make a friend and gain an understanding of his family heritage.  Though his voice gets a bit repetitious and tiresome, the author knows what clinical juvenile depression is like: covering the same ground over and over, feeling the same anxieties and doubts.  A big positive is the genuine love Darius develops for his Persian family and growing sympathy with his Anglo father.  Though there’s no swearing, parents should be advised of some frank locker-room talk about circumcision and a couple of obscure references to masturbation.

Overall Rating: 3.75 (out of 5)

Worldview/moral value: 3.5Artistic value: 4Also: the YA novel Calvin features a sympathetic, relatable schizophrenic teen.

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