Faculty Advisor

Irvin, Darcy

Area of Study

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Publication Date

Summer 2018


In John Green’s 2017 novel Turtles All The Way Down, the protagonist muses, “illness is a story told in the past tense” (85). There is truth to the character’s statement—many illness narratives, both fiction and nonfiction, follow an archetype that positions illness as something that characters can overcome and put behind them, even when the illness is chronic. This project focuses on young adult (YA) novels about mental illness through the lens of romantic relationships and how these relationships disrupt this archetype. This study includes the following six books:

  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
  • It’s Kind of A Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (2007)
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (2007)
  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009)
  • My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga (2015)
  • Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (2017)

Ultimately, this project examines how YA novels in this sub-genre of YA of mental illness depict teenage life. Many YA novels display intention of providing a message to its readers, and it is essential to consider what kind of messages these books actually relay when it comes to mental illness. Some novels depict romantic feelings and mental illnesses as similar factors in teenagers’ lives. This particular narrative can be dangerous because it normalizes mental illness as either an acceptable aspect of or a result of adolescence. Although online conversations about the Netflix series based on Thirteen Reasons Why suggest that it is popular, it is a novel that succumbs to this kind of messaging. However, many novels resist this narrative in various ways. In some, such as It’s Kind of a Funny Story and My Heart and Other Black Holes, the clinicalization of the illness itself helps to separate it from standard teenage experience. In others, such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Wintergirls, and Turtles All the Way Down, the character’s illness is so impactful that it affects the character’s ability to engage in relationships. The narrative interactions between relationships and mental illness reach a complexity in some novels that has consequence not only for portrayals of mental illness and teenage life, but also for the YA genre, as these novels reflect trends toward more sophisticated topics than those associated with the genre in the past.


University of Puget Sound