A good fantasy novel can transport you to a world completely unlike your own, but it can also thoughtfully explore the real world in surprising ways. Laura E. Weymouth’s debut YA fantasy novel does just that: The Light Between Worlds tells the story of siblings living during World War II who are transported to a fantasy world and then grapple with depression upon their return. Weymouth, a firm believer in the importance of mental health representation in YA literature, rounded up some of her favorite YA fantasy novels that also explore life with mental illness.
As a teen, I had a handful of books I reread almost constantly. They became favorites because they portrayed young people like myself who struggled to cope with their circumstances and surroundings—who dealt with depression and anxiety, but who did so in a fantasy world. Fantasy literature holds a certain power and allure that’s hard to find elsewhere, and the genre can lend itself very well to examining mental health issues if the author is sensitive and adept. Books that did just that were the ones I went back to time and time again as a teen.
Now, fantasy characters are seen dealing with mental health issues more and more often on the page, which is fitting, given the life-altering, often traumatic nature of many fantasy storylines. Here are my recommendations for recent young adult novels that offer realistic mental health representation through a fantasy lens.
First line: “Once there was a little girl who played her music for a little boy in the wood.”
If you love Labyrinth, goblins, dark and dangerous love affairs, and heroines with a creative bent, then these are the books for you. Author S. Jae-Jones weaves a gorgeous romance between talented pianist Liesl and the tortured, Bowie-inspired Goblin King. Lushly told and absorbing, this story also features a bipolar main character—while the diagnosis is never explicitly stated on the page, Jae-Jones has been very forthcoming about how she “was deliberate about allowing elements of mania and melancholy to bleed through” when crafting Liesl’s character.
First line: “When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.”
In the rigid and unforgiving society of Goredd, Tess stands out. The sort of girl who refuses to stay in her place, scandal follows her like a cloud, and Tess’s family consigns her to a nunnery. But rather than resigning herself to her fate, Tess decides to take charge of her own destiny and walk away from everything she’s ever known and towards… something else. Something better. Along the way, she deals with prior trauma, learning to cope with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as she moves on from the violence and despair of her past and towards a more hopeful future.
First line: “The most thrilling moments in life are when everything comes together.”
Jetta’s family has a secret—the success of their traveling troupe’s fabulous puppet shows is due to Jetta’s ability to manipulate the puppets with magic—a magic wrought with dead souls and her own blood. That isn’t Jetta’s family’s only secret, though. They plan to use her skills to secure passage to the kingdom of Aquitan, where a fabled spring may be able to cure Jetta of the highs and lows that accompany her bipolar disorder. But the journey is a long one, and rebellion is in the offing in the lands subjugated by Aquitan.
First line: “Today, for the second time in my life, I killed King Wylding.”
Necromancer Odessa makes her living by returning the souls of departing nobles to their bodies, allowing them to live on, even though technically Dead. But when the Dead begin turning into violent and murderous Shades, Odessa must uncover why it’s happening and who’s behind it, before the magic she herself has wielded so many times proves to be her country’s undoing. Along the way she’ll battle not just Shades, but also the equally haunting specters of loss, grief, and addiction.
First line: “A long time ago, in the spring before the five days of the unspeakable, Finnikin of the Rock dreamed that he was to sacrifice a pound of flesh to save the royal house of Lumatere.”
When disaster strikes the kingdom of Lumatere, half of the population is sealed within the country’s borders, and the other half doomed to roam the continent of Skuldenore, homeless, landless, and acutely vulnerable. Finnikin, apprentice to the former Lumateran king’s First Man, dreams of one day finding a safe place for his exiled people, but has given up hope of returning home. Then the novice Evanjalin appears—a girl with a gift for walking through others’ dreams and a strange connection to Lumatere’s lost prince. This is a beautiful, sensitively-crafted exploration of the refugee experience. Due to the nature of the storyline, multiple characters grapple with PTSD and depression over the course of the series.