Mind your own delusions: YA Fiction mixing mental health and fantasy themes…


I am not abashed to admit that I spend a reasonable amount of time reading in the arena of Young Adult fiction.  This is a metaphorical arena, by the way, not a literal one. Just in case you were picturing my stony folds perched brightly on a stadium seat, clutching light refreshments, while adolescents, and authors catering to the same, fought it out in gladiator garb with paperbacks of varying thickness.  Not that such a spectacle would be necessarily negative, of course…it just wouldn’t be my scene.  But I digress.

Recently crossing my path have been a number of YA titles that combine main characters struggling with issues of mental health (or illness, depending on your viewpoint), with elements of fantasy or science fiction, with varying degrees of sucess.  I would now like to present three of these novels to you for your consideration.  Each offers something to engage those of you who, on seeing one more teen novel with a vampire/angel/demon/werewolf love story, would be prepared to enter the YA arena and fight to the death.

Ultraviolet by R.J. Anderson centres around Alison, who has been placed into a psychiatric facility in connection with the disappearance of a school-mate.  The story initially follows Alison as she comes to terms with her current predicament and attempts to make sense of her partial memory loss, and the strange and overwhelming sensations flooding her brain. Consultation with the young, handsome Dr Faraday reveals Alison to be experiencing synesthesia – a neurological condition in which multiple senses are stimulated for single sensory input – and this has contributed to her recent difficulties.

The element of science fiction that is thrust into this story happens so unexpectedly that on first reading I felt as if the publisher had somehow mistakenly printed halves of two different books into the one binding.  I won’t give any clues here as to the nature of the fantastical element that is injected into the story because while it was a surprise to me, I felt the sudden change of direction enhanced the overall narrative.  Thus, revealing it may take away from the experience of first-time readers.

Anderson has created here a very different and engaging novel that combines well-drawn characters with a sufficiently intriguing setting.  The unexpected twist in the tale happens late enough in the piece to ensure that readers have cast their lot in with the main characters and will happily suspend disbelief for the ride to the finish.  I highly recommend this novel for teens (anyone, really) looking for something a bit different.

The Shiny Guys by Doug MacLeod centres around Colin, a young person who also finds himself in a psychiatric facility due to his admission that he can see creatures resembling giant, upright cockroaches at the periphery of his vision.  These are the “shiny guys” of the title.  During his treatment, Colin gets the chance to meet the shiny guys and finds that they are real and in need of his assistance.  The story follows Colin’s journey as he attempts to carry out the instructions given to him by the shiny guys.

By the end of the novel, the reader is left to decide how real Colin’s shiny guys are and this could leave some readers feeling uneasy about the character they have come to know.  However, this story, while presenting a dark and ultimately ambiguous ending, is enfused with a gentle humour throughout that endears the reader to Colin and the other young people sharing Ward 44.

Admittedly, of the three books presented here, this was far and away my favourite.  It is definitely worth a look as it presents a realistic look (despite the giant insects) at the experiences of young people dealing with mental illness. Extra points for an Australian author also.

 Shift by Em Bailey relates the story of Olive, a teen returning to school after spending some time in a mental health clinic, and her self-imposed exile from her old, popular friends.  She now spends school days with new friend Ami, avoiding the malicious intentions of her ex-best friend, and the friendly advances of the new boy.  Enter Miranda, another new student, who Olive and Ami believe is a shapeshifter, slowly stealing the personality and position of her victim until she is the most popular girl in school.

This story is easily the weakest of the three presented here – it is Bailey’s first novel for the teen market and she may have been somewhat overambitious in what she was trying to achieve here.  This story did not have the genuine feel needed to provide an anchor for the reader when casting off their disbelief.  The characters seemed two-dimensional and some elements of the plot – including the death of one of the featured characters – seemed glossed over, without the emotional impact that one would expect for such events.

Despite this, Shift provides plenty of elements that would be attractive to the early teen reader – friendship dramas, the difficulties of establishing one’s identity in front of peers, tentative young love.  The fantasy elements also, while mostly overshadowed by normal human dramas, and at times unwieldy, give this novel its point of difference.  For that reason alone, I recommend it as a breath of fresh air for those tired of the standard boy meets “girl/boy turns out to be undead/girl meets similarly undead, but hotter boy etc” fare.

So, launch yourself into the arena if you haven’t already – and be armed with these recommendations…for it is dangerous to go alone….I’ve heard.

Until next time,