Barbara Dee Doesn't like "Issue Books" | Middle Grade and Mental Health

While writing stories involving mental illness, the author of My Life in the Fish Tank strives to "still create fun, complex characters and entertaining plots that keep readers turning the pages." 

Hven Jacobs Saves the Planet (cover), Barbara Dee portrait,and childhood pic.

Barbara Dee's novels include My Life in the Fish Tank, Violets Are Blue, and the forthcoming Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet. She was profiled in the SLJ article "Not OK? That's OK: Middle Grade Authors Provide Compassionate Portrayals of Mental Health." 

What drew you to writing about mental health?
These are overwhelming times. Do you know anyone, any family, that hasn’t been upended by the pandemic? That isn’t struggling with mental health? I sure don’t. And if we assume that kids haven’t been affected by mental illness, either their own or a family member’s, we’re denying reality. How can we keep handing kids books that we call “realistic fiction” that don’t reflect their lived experiences?

I think it’s possible to write about mental illness in a middle-grade-friendly way, without it being a one-note, heavy-handed “issue book.” The challenge is to do justice to a complicated subject like mental illness—and still create fun, complex characters and entertaining plots that keep middle grade readers turning the pages.

What kinds of treatments, supports, and therapies take place in your books?
In My Life in the Fish Tank,  Gabriel is hospitalized, prescribed medication, and sent to a residential treatment center for seven months. At the treatment center, he has individual therapy. When the family visits, they do family therapy. At home, Mom and Scarlet do talk therapy. Zinny joins a counseling group at school.

In Violets Are Blue, Wren’s mom does detox at the hospital where she works as an ER nurse, then goes into an inpatient rehab facility, where she has talk therapy. At home, Wren begins talk therapy.

Tell me about the effects mental health has on your main characters, their families, and those around them.
In My Life as a Fish Tank, the family goes into a kind of suspended animation when the oldest kid, Gabriel, is diagnosed as bipolar after a self-destructive incident in college. The parents focus exclusively on Gabriel’s treatment, shutting out the three other kids. Scarlet blames herself and withdraws, Aidan’s schoolwork suffers, and Zinny becomes isolated from her peers as she tries to obey her parent’s instruction to keep Gabriel’s situation “private.”

In Violets Are Blue,  Wren’s mom tells her not to “talk behind her back” to anyone, including Wren’s dad. This inability to talk freely about her mom’s condition drives a wedge between Wren and her dad. It also makes Wren feel powerless, on edge about Mom’s unpredictable behavior, and anxious about her own social life.

What is the most challenging part of writing about these topics for middle grade readers?
Keeping it balanced. You can’t baby your middle grade reader; if you’re writing about challenging topics like mental illness, authenticity is everything. But at the same time, you can’t be heavy, didactic, or one-note. I try to give middle grade readers a varied experience, tackling the subject honestly, without condescension, and weaving in kid-friendly subplots about friendships, crushes, and school. I also try to use as much humor as possible. 

How did you balance depicting the reality of living with mental illness with the important message of hope?
You can’t write middle grade without a dash of hope; it would be like trying to cook without salt! The challenge is keeping the hopefulness to just the right amount. If you overdo it by one granule, you risk losing your reader, even on the last page.

At the end of My Life in the Fish Tank, Gabriel tells Zinny that he knows he’ll be dealing with his mental illness for the rest of his life, but also that if he stays on top of his meds, sees his doctors, and takes care of himself, he thinks he’ll be okay. I never want to give readers the impression that recovery from mental illness or addiction is a quick, easy, fix. 

What do you hope readers take away from your books?
I hope readers of Fish Tank see that even “nice, normal” families can have mental illness. And I hope they feel that their own experience is validbecause the truth is, a family member’s mental illness deeply affects every single person in the family.

Did you draw from any personal experiences or have connections to any of the issues explored?
When I was turning 17, my 19-year-old sister died by suicide. She’d just broken up with her boyfriend and had probably been depressed even before that, although she was undiagnosed and untreated.

Afterward, in addition to my shock and grief, I remember feeling like I was on a different planet from my peers. Some kids pried, some ghosted me, most just avoided the subject, and I was convinced that none of them could understand what I was going through. I drew on this memory of isolation and disconnection when I was writing about Zinny and Wren.

Anything else you’d like to share?
My next middle grade novel, Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet (Aladdin/S&S, Fall 2022) is about a seventh grader with eco-anxiety—anxiety centered around climate change, which is becoming increasingly common among middle school-age kids. Eventually, she channels her eco-anxiety into a mission to save a local polluted river.

Any recommendations for books with good mental health representation?
Sally Pla’s Stanley Will Probably Be Fine.

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