By Kasey Short
With the unprecedented stressors faced by students over the past year—from the COVID-19 pandemic to the police violence perpetrated against members of the Black community—it’s no wonder that many teachers are looking to raise greater awareness of mental hygiene among their students. The more students read books that address mental health, the more we can reduce the stigma that surrounds suffering from and seeking help for mental illnesses. The below books provide examples of characters that experience complex feelings, counter stereotypes surrounding mental illness, show the humanity behind a diagnosis, and provide concrete examples of children who are navigating their own mental health or the mental health of someone they love.
After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat
This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of what happens after Humpty Dumpty’s fall from the wall. Readers learn that he has developed a fear of heights that causes him to miss out on things he loves to do. The ending shows young readers the benefits of getting back up after a literal or figurative fall.
Find Your Calm: A Mindful Approach to Relieve Anxiety and Grow Your Bravery by Gabi Garcia; illustrated by Marta Pineda
This story shows young readers that though anxiety can feel overwhelming, specific grounding activities can help them to be mindful of their body and “find their calm” when they are feeling anxious. The author is a licensed professional counselor and has a website with free downloadable resources to use with the book.
I Am Enough by Grace Byers; illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo
This empowering picture book shows young readers the importance of loving and respecting oneself. It is filled with powerful messages about self-confidence, body positivity, acceptance, and is a perfect jumping off point for children to think about what makes them unique.
Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
This thoughtful picture book tells the story of a crayon who is labeled as red but, no matter how hard it tries, always colors blue. The crayon is sad and frustrated as everyone pressures it to be red. Finally, the crayon realizes and accepts that it is actually a blue crayon; it is then happy, relieved, and excited to be who it was meant to be. This story shows the value of being who you are and accepting others for who they are.
Pockets Full of Rocks: Daddy Talks about Depression by Yair Engelberg; illustrated by MacKenzie Haley
This book shows a young girl asking her father questions about his depression, and through his answers the reader learns about depression in language that young children can understand. It provides a great example of openly discussing mental health. This book would be helpful for any child who has a loved one who is suffering from depression or any mental illness.
What Do You Do with a Problem by Kobi Yamada; illustrated by Mae Besom
This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of a child who is struggling with one particular problem that is causing him great anxiety. Ignoring the problem does not help; in fact, it is not until he finally faces the problem that he finds a solution. This book encourages readers to examine problems closely rather than running away from them—because with problems come opportunities for growth!
A Little Spot of Feelings: Emotion Detective by Diane Alber
This adorable book helps the reader identify and name their feelings and the feelings of others. It teaches about facial expressions and encourages young readers to name and better understand their feelings by providing easy-to-understand examples. It also includes a feelings chart in the book that would be a great reference for the classroom.
Middle Grade Books
My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee
This novel skillfully addresses mental illness and the impact it has on families through the story of one middle school girl, Zinny. Throughout the novel, Zinny grapples with the new information that her brother has bipolar disorder and navigates how to face her feelings while he is at a treatment facility.
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
This novel tells the story of a middle school girl, Bea, who is dealing with complex feelings about her parents’ divorce and her father’s upcoming marriage. Bea’s relationship with her therapist normalizes therapy as a standard part of someone’s routine and shows the benefits of implementing strategies from therapy to improve mental health.
As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds
In this novel, a young boy, Genie, goes to spend the summer with his grandparents and discovers that his grandfather is both blind and suffers from PTSD. Through his summer adventures and spending time with his grandfather, Genie discovers things are not always what they seem and that there are many ways to be brave.
Everything Else in the Universe by Tracy Holczer
This novel tells the story of Lucy, whose father returns home from the Vietnam War injured and struggling both physically and emotionally. The book addresses loss, grief, and shows the complex reality for veterans and their families through the eyes of a young girl who just wants her father to finally be home.
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart
This book follows the friendship between Lily, who is experiencing the challenges of being a girl who was born a boy, and Dunkin, who just moved to a new town and struggles with bipolar disorder. It addresses gender identity, mental illness, grief, bullying, and friendship in an accessible and engaging story.
The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson
Matthew, a boy diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, spends a lot of time looking out his bedroom window, and does not often leave his house. Then one day he must decide if he will risk leaving his house to help save a toddler and solve a mystery. This book employs a highly engaging mystery to address the feelings, fear, and loneliness of someone who has obsessive compulsive disorder.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier
Guts is a graphic memoir about 5th-grader Raina, whose crippling anxiety and phobia of vomiting causes stomach aches, panic attacks, and negatively impacts her friendships. The book normalizes therapy and illustrates that not only is therapy nothing to be ashamed of but provides treatment for mental illness in the same way medicine provides treatment for physical illnesses.
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
This magical book tells the story of a young girl, Finley, who is navigating her own depression and anxiety while exploring a magical forest behind her grandparents’ house. It weaves magic into the complex reality of mental illness in an adolescent, shows the benefits of seeking treatment, and leaves the reader hopeful of the possibility of recovery.
Young Adult Books
Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro
In this powerful novel, high school student Moss suffers from panic attacks and works to control his anger following his father’s murder at the hands of police officers. His anxiety begins to increase due to the amplified police presence at his school, but eventually, Moss finds a way to join with his community and channel his anger into advocating for positive change.
Brave Face: A Memoir by Shaun David Hutchinson
This memoir tells the story of Shaun’s journey as a teen who struggled with depression. Throughout the book, Shaun is honest about his experiences with searching for a place where he belongs, his mental health, coming out as gay, and attempting suicide. The nonfiction nature of this book makes it even more powerful and shows the reader that even in the depths of depression, there is hope.
The New David Espinoza by Fred Aceves
High school student David desperately wants to be physically stronger and bigger in order to command the respect of his peers and avoid being bullied. He turns to steroids to achieve his goals and ends up addicted, pushes away his friends and family and suffers from body dysmorphia. After witnessing his mentor die from steroid use, he begins to doubt his recent choices and, luckily, has supportive family and friends who help him begin to battle his addiction.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
A bisexual high school student, Suzette, comes home from boarding school to find that her stepbrother needs her support in dealing with his bipolar disorder as he struggles to manage his medication and avoid being defined by his diagnosis. This book tackles divorce, diversity, LGBTQ challenges, mental illness, bullying, and complex family situations.
The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork
This powerful novel tells the story of Vicky, a teen who suffers from depression and wakes up in a mental hospital after attempting suicide. The book does not glorify suicide but instead shows warning signs for depression and demonstrates to the reader that recovery may be difficult, but it is possible.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Darius, a high school student suffering from clinical depression, is traveling to Iran for the first time to meet his grandparents. This book skillfully depicts the thoughts and feelings of someone with clinical depression, while also addressing bullying, cultural identity, body image, loneliness, and antidepression medication.
Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel by Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
This novel is written by the creators of the popular Broadway musical and tells the story of Evan Hansen: a boy whose entire life is changed when he tells one small lie about a classmate who has just committed suicide. The book shows the potential impact of media culture on young people today and tackles social anxiety, depression, suicide, grief, isolation, identity, belonging, and the power of the truth.
Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder
This graphic memoir captures the authentic feelings that surround various stages of grief as it details the author’s experience with losing her mother to cancer as a young adult. The graphic novel format makes it engaging and accessible and the author uses humor to lighten the book’s heavier moments. This book would be an excellent recommendation for anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one.
As an 8th grade English teacher and English department chair at Charlotte Country Day School, I consistently recommend the middle grade books listed here to students for their free choice books. Many of these books are also helpful to have on hand to recommend to students who are having similar experiences to the characters. Additionally, these picture books are some of my favorites to read aloud in advisory period and serve as an approachable way to discuss mental health with students.
This year I have also realized the importance of addressing mental health and specifically suicide and depression when teaching Romeo and Juliet. Next year, I will incorporate some of these books as part of an independent reading book study in connection with Romeo and Juliet to facilitate a more complete dialogue around mental health with students.
Kasey Short attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She then went on to earn a master’s of education in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently an 8th grade English teacher as well as English Department chair at Charlotte Country Day School.