Mental Health Themes and the ELA Classroom: A Guide for Your Summer Reading - National Council of Teachers of English
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Mental Health Themes and the ELA Classroom: A Guide for Your Summer Reading

This post was written by NCTE members Brooke Eisenbach and Susan Densmore-James.


Recently, the US Surgeon General issued an advisory regarding an epidemic of loneliness and isolation throughout the country. In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health has acknowledged that nearly half of all adolescents in the United States will experience some form of mental health disorder over the course of their lifetime. There is a current mental health crisis amongst youth taking shape throughout the nation.

As literacy specialists, we understand the value of bringing diverse works of literature into the classroom. As Rudine Sims Bishop shared, books serve as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. And while we often consider the ways in which books offer a glimpse into diverse experiences and identities of others, we must be sure to include literature that speaks to diversity with regard to mental health and mental health challenges.

Teachers can support students’ social and emotional development by providing students access to a wide array of books that not only engage student interests, identities, and experiences, but also invite readers into the interests, identities, and experiences of others. Not only can such works help students to see they are not alone, but they can open the door to an empathetic understanding and battle stigma surrounding mental illness.


Following, we share our recommended “Top 10” adolescent titles featuring mental health themes to jumpstart your summer reading list.

What about Will (Ellen Hopkins)

This lyric novel is perfect for all ages, but we can see it appealing to struggling middle grade readers, as it explores the relationship between a 12-year-old boy (Trace Reynolds) and his older brother, Will. When Will suffers a traumatic brain injury, the family is left with a very different Will (one who is depressed and angry), and it takes all of their strength to make things right by being honest with each other and even themselves.

Four for the Road (K.J. Reilly)

Want a book that rips out your heart and slowly weaves you a new one? This beautiful book has it all: the trauma of loss, the danger of revenge, unexpected friends (even an intergenerational friendship), grief group meetings (many of them), an epic kiss, and a road trip to Elvis’s Graceland.

Trowbridge Road (Marcella Pixley)

Characters have the power to draw us in and make us feel things we may not have felt in some time. June Bug and Ziggy are two such characters. Readers will be drawn in as these thoughtful characters navigate the harsh realities of loss and parental mental health challenges while finding joy in everyday life.

The Silence that Binds Us (Joanna Ho)

Joanna Ho delivers a powerful, hopeful YA debut. Through the narration of May, a Chinese Taiwanese American high schooler, the author explores the possible perils of being silent in the face of significant loss.

The Science of Breakable Things (Tae Keller)

This amazing, uplifting debut novel is filled with humor while also providing readers a glimpse into the mind of a middle school girl as she learns about the complicated science of the brain (mental health) and also the sometimes joyful/sometimes sorrowful matters of the heart. 

A Work in Progress (Jarrett Lerner)

In this lyric novel, Lerner spotlights the all-too-often hidden truths of body image and its impact on male adolescents. Told through the drawings and commentary of a middle school boy’s notebook, the protagonist shares his journey toward self-acceptance.

Ab(solutley) Normal: Short Stories that Smash Mental Health Stereotypes (Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen, Editors)

This anthology, filled with a variety of writing genres crafted by middle and YA authors, is the perfect addition to any classroom library. The best part? Each author shares a hopeful, personal reflection related to their own challenges of living with mental health issues.

The Magical Imperfect (Chris Baron)

Baron’s book will immediately transport readers to the summer of 1989 as 12-year-old Etan navigates his tumultuous life while meeting and befriending Malia, a young girl who also fears sharing her story. This work of magical realism will enchant and encourage readers in understanding that one’s circumstance does not define one’s self.

Good Enough (Jean Petro-Roy)

Told through personal journal entries of 12-year-old Riley as she resides in an eating disorder treatment facility, this narrative has the power to strike a chord for anyone who has ever felt they weren’t quite “good enough.” This is a story that offers hope through ongoing progress, personal strength, and advocacy.

Stuntboy, in the Meantime (Jason Reynolds)

With all the humor and cleverness of Jason Reynolds comes this partly-graphic novel about Portico Reeves, self-proclaimed superhero of keeping those around him safe. Reynolds, as usual, addresses kids’ feelings of being overwhelmed with great care, concern, and a good dose of humor.


Professional text suggestions

Whether you’re just beginning your journey into mental-health-themed YA literature or seeking additional instructional ideas to add to your collection of strategies, we have two suggested professional titles to add to your collection.

Fostering Mental Health Literacy through Adolescent Literature (Brooke Eisenbach and Jason Frydman)

This professional text features chapters coauthored by literacy experts and mental health specialists. Each chapter gives attention to pre-reading, during reading, and after-reading strategies for integrating select middle level and young adult novels into the ELA classroom context. Readers will gain valuable insight into text suggestions for the classroom, as well as instructional strategies that address literacy instruction and mental health literacy education.

Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles through Fictional Characters (Kia Richmond)

This professional text provides readers insight into mental illnesses featured in the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5) alongside a variety of young adult novels that feature the designated mental illness. The provided appendix features suggestions for integrating titles into the classroom space.


A quick word of consideration for the classroom

Despite teachers’ understanding of the value in classroom libraries and diverse books, recent policies and state-wide laws are making it increasingly challenging for teachers to provide access to select titles within the classroom. It may be beneficial to brainstorm means of embedding literature into your curriculum through whole class, small group, or independent reading opportunities, as well as identifying ways of encouraging student reading while being mindful of their reader identities, experiences, and mental health needs. Not every book is the right fit for every reader, and no student owes us their story. Providing student choice and voice in text selection, and maintaining open communication with caregivers can be a powerful tool in developing a curriculum that gives attention to mental health while remaining aware of the needs of our readers.


Dr. Brooke Eisenbach is an associate professor at Lesley University and former middle level teacher of English language arts and young adult literature (YAL). She is a former member of the NCTE Middle Level Section Steering Committee.


Dr. Susan Densmore-James is an associate professor at the University of West Florida and the director of the Emerald Coast National Writing Project at UWF. She is known as The Book Dealer for her work with middle grades and young adult literature (YAL).


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