Book Recs: You’re Portraying It Right – Mental Illnesses in YA

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I am a big advocate for positive representation of mental health and mental illnesses. People who have mental illnesses, and the mental illnesses themselves, are often misunderstood and misportrayed in the media. One of my very wise Psychology lecturers, who was a very esteemed clinical psychologist, said something that has stuck with me ever since: Sometimes the stigma of mental illnesses can be more debilitating than the mental illnesses themselves.

Today, I want to share with you some fantastic books that have positive portrayals of mental illness. For me, the good books are the ones that:

  • portray mental illness in a sensitive manner
  • encompasses the emotions, struggles, and difficulties that come with mental illness
  • are well-researched and are not based on stereotypes or sensationalism
  • provide a holistic picture of the individual’s life
  • the mental illness is not ‘fixed’ by a romance

Without further ado, here are my top four books that portray mental illness right.

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challenger

1. CHALLENGER DEEP BY NEAL SHUSTERMAN

I love Challenger Deep, friends. Not only was it compelling and so fantastically written, but it was an excellent portrayal of schizophrenia. Move over Made You Up – let Challenger Deep take the wheel.

Why you should read Challenger Deep:

  • Features an unreliable narrator with one of the most compelling voices I have read to date and has a very important story to tell.
  • Challenger Deep has a protagonist that has schizophrenia, and the way schizophrenia is portrayed is humanizing, sensitive, and well-researched.
  • Explores how his mental illness gradually takes over his life, and how he learns to cope and live with it.
  • The narrative pulls you in head-first so that you experience the protagonist’s confusion and fear and uncertainty alongside his delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia.
  • It has an ultimately hopeful message despite the raw honesty of its portrayal of mental illness.

Find Challenger Deep in:
Goodreads | My review on Goodreads

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charm

2. CHARM & STRANGE BY STEPHANIE KUEHN

Charm & Strange was a book I picked up on a whim, and I have loved every book by Kuehn ever since.

Why you should read Charm & Strange:

  • It has an unreliable narrator – one with a terrible secret that is tearing him from inside and out.
  • Has the tone of a dark, psychological thriller, but underneath it is a very raw and emotional portrayal of a boy who is suffering from a mental disorder.
  • The narrative is incredible – all at once heartbreaking, mysterious and deep, but sensitive and thoughtful.
  • Bonus: Stephanie Kuehn has a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Find Charm & Strange in:
Goodreads | My reviewMy review on Goodreads

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morehappy

3. MORE HAPPY THAN NOT BY ADAM SILVERA 

Reading More Happy Than Not may break your heart, but it’s also a breath of fresh air. And I loved this book, friends, and I hope all of you will read it and find out why this book is incredible. (Also, Adam Silvera is a fantastic writer.)

Why you should read More Happy Than Not:

  • Depression and suicide are explored in a meaningful and honest way – with the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  • It also explores poverty, family, friendship, and how they can affect and shape mental health.
  • As above, the topics explored in More Happy Than Not are dark, painful, and very sad, but Silvera handles them flawlessly.
  • The book also offers a cultural analysis of happiness, and why it matters.

Find More Happy Than Not in:
Goodreads | My reviewMy review on Goodreads

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highly illogical

4. HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOUR BY JOHN COREY WHALEY

Jenna recommended me this book – and with good reason. So I hope you guys will read and love this gem too.

Why you should read Highly Illogical Behaviour:

  • It has one of the most endearing and lovable protagonists, ever. You’ll fall in love with Sol!
  • The protagonist also has agoraphobia, which is portrayed with sincerity and in a way that is down-to-earth.
  • Even with its lighthearted and humorous tone, Highly Illogical Behaviour is a thoughtful examination on friendship and having a mental illness.
  • Also raises (and answers) the question of who saves who when dealing with mental illness.

Find More Highly Illogical Behaviour in:
Goodreads | My review on Goodreads

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Looking over the books I have read, it’s clear that I need to actively search and read even more books that explore mental illness. I still have a lot to learn, and I hope I’ll be able to find some new fantastic books so I can share another round of books about mental health and mental illness!

So friends, tell me:

  • What are some of your favourite books about mental health and mental illness?
  • Do you have any recommendations?
  • Why do you think it’s important to portray mental illness realistically?
  • Is there even a ‘right’ way to portray mental illnesses?

Let me know in the comments below!

Have a wonderful day everyone – and happy reading!

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79 thoughts on “Book Recs: You’re Portraying It Right – Mental Illnesses in YA

  1. Don’t know if there’s ever a right way to portray mental illness but I really enjoyed Furiouslt Happy. It sort of made me feel like “hey, maybe it’s not so bad” and that was better than anything else. Great list.

  2. Highly Illogical Behaviour has been on my radar for a while! I think that might be the next one that I’m going to read.

    So it’s coming at the thing from a different perspective, but for me, one the books featuring mental illness I have really loved was Fangirl. Cather and Wren’s dad has bi-polar, and figuring out how to look out for him while starting their adult(ish) college lives was a big part of the book. My situation is very different, but before Fangirl I hadn’t read anything about young people with caring responsibilities, and actually seeing that aspect of my life reflected in fiction made me feel… a lot. I come back to that book often for that reason. I don’t know where it fits in the whole representation conversation. Because obviously it is important to hear from people from marginalised groups, like people with mental illness. Obviously. But at the same time being a carer for a person with a mental illness, disability, etc can also be a very isolating thing. Especially when you’re young, and none of your friends have the life experience to understand what that feels like yet. So for me, hearing from those voices is important.

    As usual, I have taken the question waaay too personally.

    A really tough book that looks at mental illness that I can also recommend is Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. It’s about a suicidal kid planning his final day. It is kind of a rough read, honestly, but I did it in one sitting because it’s that sort of book.

    • These are fantastic recommendations, thank you so, so much for writing these :) I really loved Highly Illogical Behaviour, it just felt, REAL and accurate, especially when talking about panic attacks -having experienced these, I can relate. Anyway that’s not the point here.
      I have been meaning to read More Happy Than Not for a while now, and I am so happy you recommend it, and enjoyed it so much. It’s definitely going on my to-buy-right-now list :D

      • Hi Marie, and thank you too!
        Right? I loved it too – it was both cute but realistic. A guilt-free feel-good, hahaha. I’m glad that HIB was a book that you could relate to – I think we all need to find books that have a piece of ourselves in them.

        More Happy Than Not is excellent – a bit sad though, so if you’re a crier (like me), bring the tissues!!

    • Hi Lydia! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. As always, I love your comments and they always make me think and reflect.

      I haven’t read Fangirl, but now I am intrigued to read it. Thank you for sharing your experience with me – I’ll be sure to think about that and engage with that part of the story when I read the book. I can imagine caring being a very isolating experience – but heck, people who do it, like you, are everyday heroes. But, I am glad Fangirl could be a book that gave you and your experiences some voice.

      I like it when you take the question beyond the question!! It makes reading and responding to your comments more interesting and fun. And I enjoy hearing what you have to say!

      Oh wow, that sounds profound. Someone else in the comments recommended this too – if two people recommend it, it must be good. I shall look for it and read it – I am curious to read this book.

      As always, thank you Lydia! <3

  3. Definitely seconding Highly Illogical Behaviour and More Happy Than Not! I liked the former a bit more than the latter just because it was SO CUTE (and actually quite a happy book, despite the themes), but I pretty much agree with everything you said about why those books should be read. :)

    I really gotta check out your other recs! Neal Shusterman has been on my radar for a while but I’ve never read anything he wrote. I might start with Unwind, although I think that’s more thrillery than anything else. Great post, CW. <3

    • Hi Reg! Yasss, someone else who has read HIB! It WAS so cute, and I really liked Lisa’s character (even though she made some terrible choices).
      Challenger Deep is incredible – perhaps the best book I have read about schizophrenia. It’s raw and provides a holistic picture of the mental illness (how it affects friendships, family, etc.)

      I haven’t heard of Unwind, but I think I’ll check it out myself too! Thank you for bringing the book to my attention! :D

      • I really liked Lisa as well! Terrible choices don’t equate a terrible character, and I love, love, love the way she developed, especially towards the end of the book.

        Oooh, that’s good to hear. I recently read a book that features schizophrenia but it ended up falling short, so it’d be good to read one with a better portrayal. :)

        No worries! I think Unwind is more YA sci-fi than realistic, though.

        • Yes, me too! And tbh, I think a lot of psychology/med students will relate to her growth, and why she had the beliefs that she did.
          Oh, out of curiosity, which book was it?

          Ah okay, no problemo! That’s even better for me – I need to read more books that have mental illness but are not limited to contemporary. Thank you Reg!

          • It was The Movie Version by Emma Wunsch – not yet published, I think, but I had an ARC for it that I will review. It’s not that the portrayal is bad, exactly – it’s just… somewhat lacking? Like the schizophrenia was touched upon but not explored as fully as it could’ve been, although to be fair I feel this way about most of the other themes in the book as well, haha.

  4. Wonderful list, CW! I’ve read Made You Up by Francesca Zappia and I absolutely love the representation of Schizophrenia. I am sort of looking for a book similar to this and I’m going to keep Challenger Deep in my mind. Thank you for the recommendations! :)

    • Hiya Bea!
      Personally, I think Challenger Deep is much better than Made You Up in every way in its portrayal of schizophrenia. I talked about why I didn’t like Made You Up’s portrayal of schizophrenia in a review I wrote a long time ago, so I do hope that you pick up Challenger Deep and see the differences! c:
      You’re very welcome, and thank you too! <3

  5. I still have to read most of the books in this list. But I would recommend Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick as a somehow twisted version of a kid who needs help. Although I have a question, CW. And it’s a bit personal and just a sheer observation that I have been wanting to call out on for a little while now. Why on earth are guys more heavily focused when it comes to mental illness? Or is it just me because I don’t read books with female characters that often? It was just an oservation considering that the main characters on your lovely list are all male. Not that there’s anything wrong with it (because I just love guys in ya so much 😂).

    I have actually read More Happy Than Not and it is the best book ever. Beautifully written in every way. I’m bookmarking your lovely list because I need to read these books asap. ❤

    • Hi Bianca!
      Thank you for recommending me Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock! I haven’t heard of it before, so I’ll check it out and it’ll go straight to my tbr!

      That’s not a personal question at all, and that’s a very good observation. I went through my GR list of books on mental illness that I’ve read, and you’re right – a majority of characters are boys! (I didn’t even think about it.) The only other YA book that explores mental illness but had a female protagonist was Made You Up, but I thought it was a very sensationalist representation of schizophrenia, even with its good intentions. (I wrote about it in my review for it.)

      When writing this list, the forefront of my mind was choosing books that had well-written representations of mental illness, and I didn’t even think about the gender of the characters! But I do appreciate that you pointed it out.
      I don’t have the answers to your questions, but I think I need to read more books that have female protagonists with a mental illness, just so I have a balance.

      I’m glad you enjoyed More Happy Than Not! It is a beautifully written book – sad too, but that made it meaningful.

      Yay! Let me know if you read any books from the list, and let me know what you think! <3

  6. I definitely need to read more books from this topic. I’ve only read More Happy Than Not (I actually posted my review today) and I totally agree with your assessment. I have both Challenger Deep and Highly Illogical Behavior on my TBR and now I feel like I should bump them up! Great post! 😄

    • Oooh!! Thank you for telling me! I’ll go read your review now!

      Both Challenger Deep and Highly Illogical Behaviour are wonderful books and you can’t go wrong with them. I hope that, when you read them, you’ll enjoy them!! c: Thank you, Sara! <3

  7. I completely agree with Challenger Deep – it had such an honest and realistic portrayal of mental illness and I am glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about More Happy Than Not and Highly Illogical Behavior so I’m definitely going to have to give those a try. :) Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous post! <3

    • Hi Zoe!
      Absolutely! It may be one of my favourite books about mental illness that I’ve read so far. It’s just so raw and explores mental illness, but is very emotional too.
      More Happy Than Not is REALLY good — but also very sad too. But it’s worth every ounce of pain you feel while reading the book. It’s so profound!

      Ah, thank you for the kind words! It’s my pleasure. <3

  8. More Happy Than Not and Challenger Deep were both some of my favorite reads over the last year! I loved what you had to say about them. I’ve also heard good things about Highly Illogical Behavior, but knowing that it portrays mental illness well gives me hope that I’ll like it more. Thanks for sharing!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the two, Heather! They are fantastic books, and they’re my favourites too. c:
      Highly Illogical Behaviour is wonderful – it knows when to be lighthearted and fun, and knows when to be serious. I hope you enjoy it when you read it. <3

  9. Thank you for putting these important books on my radar :D I recently read The Pause by John Larkin and I’m divided on it. It won in the older readers category of the 2015 Queensland Literary Awards and was shortlisted for Children’s Book Week. I like that Larkin is attempting to make depression easier for boys to talk about, but the plot has some unbelievable twists in it. I want to like it, but maybe I should just move on and read more on this topic.

    • You’re welcome, Paige!
      I hadn’t heard of The Pause – thank you for telling me about it and sharing your thoughts on it. What is the romance like in The Pause? I’m a little… skeptical(?) of reading books that address mental illness that contain romance too.

      • The main character becomes depressed after his girlfriend leaves Australia under the finger of an abusive parent. Now that I think about it, it reminds me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower a bit too. Quite melodramatic and sketchily plotted :(

  10. Thanks for listing some of the books that portrays mental illness right! I think YA in general are guilty of using romance to fix it, which isn’t right, its not realistic. More Happy Than Not has been on my tbr radar for so long, I need to get on that bandwagon and finally read it lol. Heard great things about Highly Illogical Behaviour. Great recommendations! ;)

    • Hi Thuong! You’re right – it happens more than it should and it’s so harmful, especially when people romanticize it.

      Yes, you must read MHTN! It’s good – sad, heavy, but very good. I hope you enjoy it when you read it. <3

      • All the Bright Places is a perfect example but ironically… I loved that book! I thought I’d dislike it. No one’s more surprised than me! Oddly, I felt like I understood Finch. I understand why its often criticised and I see why people have disliked it.
        Yes definitely. I think because its ‘contemporary’ this genre usually has some form of romance in it when its not exactly necessary.
        In that case MHTN will be my next purchase! :)

  11. Thanks for sharing this list! I think it’s incredibly important for books (and other forms of media) to share the truth about mental health issues. So many people are under the misconception that anxiety and other issues are simple to get through or a plea for attention. I feel like so many people don’t understand mental health issues!

    • Hello there!
      Thank you so much for sharing my post! I am very grateful.
      I agree – and it’s so harmful and detrimental to people’s recovery. I agree, they don’t! They rely on the media to shape their understanding, and more often than not, those media portrayals are based on terrible stereotypes.

      Thank you for your work on anxiety. Your blog is a fantastic resource!

  12. I love reading books that discuss or show important issues such as mental health. I’m so glad you added some books that not only contain these issues but portray them correctly, I think that’s the most important thing when it comes to mental illness in the media, whether it be books, tv shows or movies. I’ve heard that Every Last Word by Tamra Ireland Stone has a very good portrayal of mental illness in it, I haven’t read the book myself but someone who has and still is struggling with mental illness said that it was.
    – Yasmin

    • Hi Yasmin!

      I agree! I think it’s almost our duty as readers and for authors to do their best to portray something realistically. I hadn’t heard of Every Last Word – but thank you! I’ll add it to my tbr. <3

      • Exactly, I think the whole “love can cure everything” is fake and actually quite annoying. mental illness can’t be fixed with love, yeah it could help but it doesn’t magically cure you. I’m planning on reading Every Last Word soon, so I’ll tell you what I thought about it once I’m done.
        – Yasmin

        • I agree! And it’s so unrealistic – being with someone (be it romance or any close relationship) with a mental illness is a very complex experience, and it does a great disservice to people who go through bad times.

          Oh yes please! I’d love to hear your thoughts. <3 Thanks Yasmin!

          • I haven’t personally dealt with mental illness but I know people who do and I can’t begin to imagine what it is like to have what you’re going through made out to be something so easy and fixed so easily. I can’t wait to read it
            – Yasmin

  13. I don’t think there is a correct way to reflect or represent mental illness but I do think it is important to not romanticize it. Most books make it seem like it’s a good thing to have…. All The Bright Places by Jeniffer Niven is a book would reccommend, they capture mental illness really well.

  14. Oh! I loved Highly Illogical Behavior. I honestly don’t read much in contemporary, but this was such an intriguing read and very well done. I was hoping you’d put it on your list because I feel it covers a phobia that isn’t often discussed or brought up: agoraphobia. I thought that particular phobia was so interesting to choose and read about and it really enhanced the plot. I’ll have to take a look at a couple other books you suggested. Though, I want to know, are any of them non-contemporary? I mean, are any mental illnesses represented in scifi or fantasy or horror or other genres? I find it interesting that it’s so isolated within contemporary, but correct me if I’m wrong. ^.^

    • Hi Melanie!

      You’re so right – we don’t see a lot of narratives on phobias, but they’re so commonplace and need more books about them.

      I wouldn’t classify Challenger Deep as ‘contemporary’, but in a way, it is! I’m not sure how I would classify it, other than a book on schizophrenia. Some books that address mental illness but aren’t contemporary are:
      – A Court of Mist and Fury (PTSD, but it isn’t the focal theme of the book)
      – Mockingjay (PTSD as well)
      … and I’m all out. But my poor and limited reading is to blame!

      You’re not wrong at all; I think it is pretty limited to contemporary. I’d love to see more books that are fantasy, sci-fi, etc. that also explore mental illness too. That would be very interesting and would make great reads!

      • I think we definitely need more rep in scif/fantasy. Though, the two you listed would be classified as one of those two. The problem is, they’re both PTSD. It’s a very limited representation of the vast number of mental illnesses in the world. PTSD exists, but so do others. Not to mention PTSD is kind becoming too… (I apologize for my wording) boring nowadays. At least in the literature aspect. We’ve seen it. We ‘kind of’ understand it and it’s almost predictable. :/ I dunno. Does that make any sense?

        • I absolutely agree. There definitely isn’t enough, and I’d love to see more.
          That’s okay! I understand what you mean. There’s definitely more out there, and I’d like to – need to – see more mental illnesses. But, I’m optimistic, and I do think we’ll see more of such books in the future. <3

          • I think this is a time of change for literature and I think we’re going to start seeing a lot of new things: personality varieties, diverse characters (not diverse books :p), more religions, mental illnesses. We, as readers, are more active than we’ve ever been before. Writers have to listen.

  15. I absolutely loved all of these, especially Challenger Deep. A few of my other favorites include Every Exquisite Thing, This Song Will Save Your Life, and It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

    Most of my favorite books include some form of mental illness – as that is a subject I’m really interested in – so thank you so much for this post! I’m always looking for new recommendations regarding this subject matter. :)

    • Hi Paige, and thank you!
      I’m so glad you loved Challenger Deep! It’s one of my favourites this year.
      I’ve heard of the books you’ve mentioned but if they’re your favourites – straight to the tbr! Thank you so much for recommending these books! <3

  16. I am going to read Highly Illogical Behavior next week hopefully if I can finish (I’ll Give You The Sun this week) and I am really excited for it! I have never read a book about agoraphobia before, but what’s even more disappointing is that I haven’t even heard of the books you mentioned in this list! *hides face in shame* But I am so glad you wrote this post–books like these need to be read more.

    I don’t see any Laurie Halse Anderson books here, so I assume you haven’t read her works? Or have you? GAH I need to compare books with you on GR. Anyway, Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is a BRILLIANT portrayal of anorexia, so I highly recommend it to you if you have not read it already. The writing itself is a work of art, but the portrayal of mental illness is so real and true. Hope you get around to reading it someday!

    • AHH I’m so excited for you! It’s such a gorgeous book and I love it.
      Aw, that’s ok! I’ve chosen books that aren’t as ‘popular'(? that’s a terrible word, but I hope you know what I mean).

      I’ve only ever read Speak, but I haven’t heard of Wintergirls before!! I’ll make a note of it and try my best to find a copy. I haven’t read any books on eating disorders *hide MY face in shame!!* so I need to get on it. Thank you for recommending, Tanaz!

  17. I’ve read More Happy Than Not, and it absolutely BROKE MY HEART. IN A HUGE WAY. I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO TELL YOU. BUT YOU DON’T NEED TO BE TOLD, BECAUSE YOU UNDERSTAND MY FEELS.
    As for the other three, I haven’t read them yet, but they’ve been on my TBR for a long time and I cannot WAIT to get around to reading them! I’ve heard so many good things, and they just look so interesting. :-)
    -Amy

  18. So many people have been raving about Challenger Deep and More Happy Than Not, idk why I haven’t read it yet! My favorite books are My Heart and Other Blackholes and Every Last Word. Both are pretty romanticised, but they have a really heartfelt and (I think) accurate potrayal of depression and OCD. For Every Last Word, it definitely sheds the misconseption that OCD is a neat freak, and told us that there are different forms of OCD. The main character also has a really supportive family and friends, and actually seek help to a psychiatrist. Thank you for the recs, CW! :)

    • Hi Tasya!
      Girl, you gotta read them! They’re amazing – both are my all-time faves!

      Ooh thanks for the rec! I’ll add them to my tbr; I’m always interested in reading more books about mental illnesses. c:

      Thank you too! For the comment and recs. <3 I'll let you know when I read them! :D

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  20. Hi CW, I know I commented on this discussion earlier but I haven’t been able to get it out of my head! I have a question for you. I never read much YA growing up and it’s probably one of the genres I currently read the least. But I feel as though it might be important for me to go back and read more books with protagonists closer to my own age dealing with more topical, relatable issues. I’m specifically hoping to read a book that deals with depression. Can you name any others besides More Happy Than Not?

    • Hi Paige! You’re always welcome to post as many times as you like on my blog. c:

      Some books that spring to mind:
      – All The Bright Places (I didn’t really LIKE this book, but a lot of people do, so for the latter, it may be worth giving it a go. I have written a review on it though, addressing why I didn’t like it for your interest: https://readthinkponder.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/all-the-bright-places-by-jennifer-niven/)
      – Falling into Place by Amy Zhang (I quite liked this, but it leans more onto suicide rather than depression)
      – It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (I haven’t read it, but it’s on my tbr and apparently it’s quite good?)
      – Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn (it’s not *about* depression, per se, but the main character does have symptoms of it)
      – William Grayson, William Grayson by John Green (haven’t read this either, but the main character has depression)

      I notice that most books that address depression also address suicide – which, I think, is quite problematic. Unfortunately I can’t think of any others – but if you’d like more recs, let me know and I’ll do some digging! <3

      • Thanks so much CW. I’ll research those recommendations more and start from there :)

        I strongly agree with your point. I’m not really interested in reading a suicide narrative, that simply wouldn’t be authentic to my own experience. I would love the opportunity to delve into someone else’s mind and see how depression affects their self worth and identity and especially their relationships with others, without it being dominated by self harm. I’m really grateful for your help, thanks again <3

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  22. I didn’t know you studied psychology, but I did too! :D I have a bachelor’s degree in it and still haven’t decided what I want to study in grad school :P I agree with all your requirements for a great mental illness book! I also love books that portray a realistic role of psychologist and psychiatrist because they are often misunderstood </3 I love Made You Up and I have Challenger Deep on my kindle. Going to read it as soon as I'm done with my current read :D BIG YES to Highly Illogical Behavior and More Happy Than Not <3 Never heard about Charm & Strange before but going to look it up soon!

    Aside from the books on this list, I love Whisper to Me, It's Kind of A Funny Story, and I'll Meet You There :D

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