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Mental Health Awareness Month

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Mental Health Awareness Month

One of the best things about the modern young adult literature scene is the increasingly diverse set of characters and stories. Yes, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but more than ever before, you can find protagonists who fall in all points on the LGBTQ spectrum; who come from a variety of ethnic, racial, religious and familial backgrounds; and who might have a physical disability or disease.

Or, as in the case of Fig in FIG by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz and Adam in THE UNLIKELY HERO OF ROOM 13B by Teresa Toten, have personal experience with mental disorders. Fig worries that she’ll develop schizophrenia just like her mother and begins to engage in various forms of self-harm, and Adam has OCD and joins a support group to learn to control it.

In honor of Mental Health Month, we did a candid joint interview with Sarah and Teresa where we asked them about the reasons they wrote their books, what they learned about mental health in the process and their advice for teens going through difficult issues of their own. On a lighter note, we also learned about their favorite characters, their writing routines and their writing advice (which, you’ll find, is shockingly similar!).

So read below, and afterwards, be sure to check out their books! For other recent books revolving around mental health, check out ONE THING STOLEN by Beth Kephart, SCHIZO by Nic Sheff, THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY by Laurie Halse Anderson and CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman. If you want to learn more about Mental Health Month, see the official site, here. What inspired you to write your book?

Sarah Elizabeth Schantz: My house. I started writing about Fig right after we moved in about seven years ago. It’s an old farmhouse on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado and if I don’t look west where the Rockies stand, I might as well be in Kansas. There are these gigantic, century-old cottonwoods on the property, as well as a towering catalpa right outside my office, and then pasture, and more farms and a creek. While the city leases our backyard out to ranchers for grazing cattle, there are some nearby farms who raise sheep and pigs like the Johnsons do.

I’m aware of how isolated my daughters sometimes feel because of how far away we are from town. Our oldest has moved out, but our youngest is starting high school next year and she relies on us to take her to town when she wants to hang out with her friends. We do our best to make this happen, but it’s not always possible. Besides, it’s not all bad to grow up out here. She gets to hang out with the cows. Take long walks. See hawks, eagles and owls. Wade in the creek. Listen to the coyotes at night. Explore the ponds. Engage in make believe. Daydream.

I think Fig came from watching both my girls exist on this property, but she also came from the house itself, which is similar to the house in Kansas where she lives. That said, Fig’s house is much better than ours because it has window seats, French doors, a claw-foot bathtub, a front porch, a fireplace and hardwood floors that haven’t been smothered to death by carpets. And, because the Johnsons don’t rent like we do, they can have pets. While ownership has its own set of problems, their house really is their home.

Teresa Toten:I wanted to write about a boy. It was time. For months I was walking around with this image of a boy in a room and then a girl walks in and the boy becomes enthralled. Okay, so what kind of room? What kind of boy? Who else is in the room? And that’s where the young people who so inspire me took over. I’ve watched many young people who are close to me struggle valiantly and sometimes in secret with mental illness. A few of them were suffering from severe anxiety and in particular from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Voila, the room became a room that held a support group and the story found its wings.


TRC: What was the most difficult part of writing your book?

SES: While I love coming-of-age stories, they’re difficult to write because the only real tool you have to keep the reader interested is to make them fall in love with your characters. Furthermore, FIG is told over the course of 13 years, in first person present tense with only an itty-bitty frame at the beginning. That was really hard. Fig is not only an unreliable narrator, she’s one I had to show growing up, chapter by chapter, from age 6 to 19. In this way, FIG is a countdown book, as Fig’s greatest fear (other than losing her mother to schizophrenia) is losing herself to the disease. Because Mama was 19 when she first exhibited symptoms, Fig comes to believe 19 is when the disease will either present itself to her or not.

TT: Well, the research took well over a year and I had to talk all sorts of therapists and psychiatrists into seeing me and trusting me but, that wasn’t it. I was absolutely the most nervous about getting “the boy voice” right. I have two daughters (no help there) so I had to scrounge around and find some young men who would be willing to talk candidly to me about their perspective on things, their preoccupations, their, uh, urges. And then I had some of them read an early draft. And wow, did they ever set me straight. If Adam rings true at all, it’s because of the honesty and advice I received from some stellar guys!


TRC: Did you have to do any research while writing your book? What was the most interesting thing you learned?

SES: My undergraduate critical thesis on the evolution of “Little Red Riding Hood” from oral folktale to modern day retellings like Freeway and Hard Candy helped shape the plot of FIG. Then I wrote my graduate critical thesis on the evolution of L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and how it has always been retold in a way that concerns the American dream and specifically the minorities chasing after it.

You can see “Little Red Riding Hood” in FIG through details like the emergency C-section to the wild dog roaming the periphery to the female trinity that Fig, Mama and Gran create. THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ shows up as the setting --- both Kansas and fairyland --- but also in the message about home and the particular dream Mama and Daddy wanted. What attracts me to these fairytales is the fact neither one is marriage-centric. The only love I wanted to address in FIG was familial love. I also wanted Fig to save herself. Aside from digging deep into the roots of these fairytales, I researched Kansas, farming (specifically sheep and pigs), wildflowers, electric fences, Victorian floriography, the etymology of certain words, Chinese footbinding and much, much more.

For example, I did extensive research around schizophrenia, OCD, magical thinking and skin picking. I read memoirs written by those who’d grown up around schizophrenia --- books like MY MOTHER’S KEEPER, THE MEMORY PALACE and THE GLASS CASTLE. I also read clinical studies and books like SURVIVING SCHIZOPHRENIA. I conducted interviews with friends who’d grown up under the shadow of the disease, and for skin picking, I read FOREVER MARKED:A Dermatillomania Diary by Angela Hartlin and online forums hosted by And I took a workshop on writing madness taught by Brian Evenson at Naropa’s SWP.

I studied different versions of the DSM [the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] as well, and I think one of the more interesting bits of information I discovered was about magical thinking. First of all, if a person older than the age of six partakes in magical thinking, it’s considered a disorder. Magical thinking includes behavior like knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. However, if a person’s magical thinking is linked to being religious, then it’s not a problem. I struggle with the rationale of this, but then again, I struggle with the concept that magical thinking is a supposed disorder. That is why I named my blog after the condition. After all, without magical thinking, I don’t think I’d be able to write.

TT:I started by reading a ton of books and articles. Then I convinced a wonderful psychiatrist who specializes in OCD to see me and she directed me to many, many more books and articles. Then I approached the young people I know who are suffering with OCD and got them to talk to me. Then I talked my way into a few “Group Therapy” sessions. Then I went to an International Conference on OCD and met dozens of therapists and sufferers alike. I can honestly say that every single step was fascinating and inspiring. Despite how heavy the subject matter was at times, writing and researching THE UNLIKELY HERO was a joy from the first word to the last. The courage, intelligence, humour and talent of all of the people I met will stay with me and my words forever!


TRC: Do you have any writing routines --- do you only write in a certain place, or in a certain time of day?

SES: I write immediately after I wake up. The only thing I do between getting out of bed and sitting down to work is to use the bathroom and make coffee. I don’t even change. I only sleep in Edwardian-style nightgowns and these are what I write in as well. I try to stay in the land of dreams as much as possible. I write at my computer in my office, wired on coffee, but if I get stuck, I sometimes go downstairs or outside and write by hand. When I do this, I only use Pilot Precise pens with extra fine tips and black ink, just as I only write in moleskin notebooks. I try to write for at least two hours, if not four, every single day, and then I go take a bath. After soaking for about 15 minutes, my brain switches gear, drifting back into the space of the daydream, and this is where I work out the knots in my writing or discover what I’ll write about the next day. I keep my phone nearby so I can record any thoughts I have using the voice memo app. I also get a lot of my ideas in my sleep, in the dreams that come from that particular mode and space. The only problem is insomnia. Because of my chronic pain, I can’t write at night like I used to. If I do, I run the risk of having a flare-up and flare-ups are no good because then I can’t write at all until I’m better.

TT: These days when I am at home, I start writing from about 8:30 am to at least 8:30 pm. I know --- sounds intense doesn’t it? Thing is, there’s a lot of meandering in there. I have real trouble sitting still, which is a pesky problem for a writer to have. So, there is a lot of me wandering throughout the house, talking out potential dialogue, reciting recent passages and arguing with myself in between the writing bits. Needless to say, other than my dog, I can’t write with other people in the house!


TRC: Your book deals with a fairly heavy topic. Is there something that you hope teens will take away from the reading experience?

SES: I want my readers to get what I get from books --- what I’ve always gotten from reading, which is to know that I’m not alone. Obviously, I hope they can relate to Fig herself, but I also hope the Candace Shermans of the world will read FIG. Someone once asked me why I didn’t write under a pen name and I realized I wanted all the kids who’d made fun of me in elementary school to see who I’d become. I should feel silly for wanting this, but I don’t.

TT:It’s the inscription to the book: You Are Not Alone. Yes, every teen is unique and singular but not hopelessly alone. If you are suffering in silence, or worried about a particular set of behaviours, you are not alone in that pain. There are many of us who share every possible variation of shame, guilt and secrets. All you have to do is reach out and then reach out some more. Hold fast, it will get better.

TRC: Which character in your book is your favorite, and why?

SES: Gran is my favorite because she is the one who grows the most (aside from Fig herself). As a reader, I tend to like “becoming-narratives” and I love what Gran becomes. She is a complicated character, molded by her generation --- she is rigid and proper, definitely cold at times, but she really does try to help her granddaughter. Eventually her efforts become authentic, eventually she reaches out and actually touches Fig in a real way. I think Gran’s ability to soften and change shows Fig that she too can become a better version of herself, as the becoming narrative isn’t about becoming someone else, but rather becoming the truest and best version of yourself.

TT: Aside from Adam (who I definitely adored), it would have to be Thor. The poor guy only has a half dozen lines of dialogue in the whole book but I fell in love with him from the moment he came on the page. Large, slightly terrifying, near mute and growly, Thor to me is the personification of a true superhero. His heart was larger than his pain.


TRC: What advice do you have for teens who might be dealing with some issues similar to those discussed in your book?

SES: In many ways Fig is modeled on myself and my own experiences growing up. While my mother was not schizophrenic, there was a generation gap between us that was not the norm back in the 1980s/1990s, and I think it affected the way we interacted. As an adult, we became quite close, but when I was younger it was as if we lived in two entirely different worlds.

As I mentioned earlier, I was bullied a lot in grade school. It got so bad I’d often just sit in class and cry, and sometimes I cried so hard I’d pee my pants, and this was when I started picking. I figured my teacher talked to my parents about my behavior, but I was wrong. I later learned my parents had no idea just how bad it was at school. People didn’t know as much as they do now about panic attacks, or the fact kids get them too, which is what I was experiencing, so they didn’t know how to help. The same goes for self-harm. No one was talking about cutting, let alone dermatillomania. If you don’t have the language needed to talk about it, there is no way to have the conversation.

I guess what I’m saying is this: don’t suffer alone. Don’t assume people know how sad you are. Humans are naturally selfish people --- we’re designed this way to survive, but we are also (mostly) compassionate when given the chance. Talk to your parents, and if you can’t (because unfortunately this too happens), go to a professional at your school or call a hotline or partake in a website like Or write me and I’ll see what I can do. Gran is based on real people I’ve known like the parents of gay friends who have gone from being homophobes to learning to accept and love their children for who they are. It takes time and a lot of work, but for the most part, the elders in your life really do love you --- they just don’t always know how (often because their own parents didn’t know how). Sometimes you have to show them.

TT: Step One, especially if you’re too nervous about talking to a trusted friend, teacher or family member, is to go online. I’ve researched a few excellent websites that talk about all sorts of mental disorders in a clear non-jargony way. They’re listed on my website under the “You Are Not Alone” category. There are dozens of other great sites too. Research them. Does any of it sound familiar to you? They also give good advice about next steps, who to contact, what to read, where to go. It’s a start and it’s a completely private one, but the important thing is that it’s a start! There is no need to suffer in confusion and silence --- just start.


TRC: Do you have any advice for teens who want to be writers?

SES: READ! Read everything. Read the labels on shampoo bottles (especially the shampoo bottles in other people’s bathrooms); read books by your favorite writers, but also books you’ve never heard of. Go to the library and choose a book for no other reason than it caught your eye. Read all the classics, especially Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN and Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE. Read more books by women than by men. But read the men as well. Then read poetry. Read dictionaries and encyclopedias. Read books about gardening or cooking. Read car manuals. Read fairytales and myths. Read philosophy and dime store romance novels. Then read some more.

Then WRITE. And don’t be afraid to write badly. In fact, write as badly as you can. Get all the bad writing out of your system so the good writing can come. Write what you know. Then write what you don’t know. Make stuff up. Have fun. Don’t stop. Copy the writing style of the writers you love until your own voice comes out and then start a workshop group. Critique other people more than they critique you (it will make you a better writer) and once you’re ready, submit your work. Celebrate all the rejections you get (you will get a lot), and then celebrate the publications you will also get (I promise). Then write and read some more; then repeat, read, write, read, write, read, write, read, write, again and again.

TT: Read! And then read some more! And then read stuff you’re just not that into and try to figure out why everyone likes it. That includes great poetry, mystery, historical fiction and the books that you have to write essays about for class. Then write and write some more. You probably already have a favourite way of writing; try other styles, other genres. Make yourself uncomfortable, make yourself learn. And get very used to feeling uncomfortable and full of self-doubt, but if you have to write, you gotta write. Don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way!