Young Adult Authors on How Writing about Mental Health Saves Lives

By Rebecca Kirshenbaum

I spent an informative and inspiring hour talking with authors A.S. (Amy) King, Jason Reynolds, Francisco X. Stork, Bill Konigsberg (not pictured), and Cory McCarthy about mental health. In the course of our conversation, we covered our own mental health, stigmas around mental health, writing about tough topics, and why they agree that no topic is too tough for kids to handle.

Content Warning: This post references grief, loss, suicide and attempted suicide, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder as well as internalized self-hatred and the stigma surrounding mental health.

A Note from Cyn: This is a long post. It’s well worth the time it’ll take you to read it. You can always bookmark it and take breaks.

Rebecca: Welcome! This panel came to me from a conversation between Amy and Jason when Amy was promoting Amy’s newest novel, Switch (Dutton, 2021). They had a frank conversation about their anxiety, and I was struck by how brave that was. So began the idea for this panel, because we all know we need to have these conversations about how we talk and write about how we feel.

It’s especially timely given what we’ve been through this past year and a half when so many more people are grappling with their mental health as a result of isolation and the pandemic.

Let’s start the same way Amy and Jason did: How do you feel today? What do you bring to this conversation today as your baseline?

Francisco: I have bipolar disorder, and I’ve had it all my life (diagnosed 15 years ago). One of the things that has surprised me is that as you get older is that your illness becomes a little bit of your friend, in a way. You kind of accept it. You wake up some days and realize where you are and your mood spectrum, and you say okay, it’s going to be that kind of a day.

The hardest thing is keeping a balance between accepting it and it’s there and I’m going to have it the rest of my life, but also the courage to keep fighting it. Antithetical forces all the time.

My wife says you have to check the boxes: Did you shave? Did you do what needs to get done? I’m lucky I have someone there to make sure I don’t slide. You have this acceptance and also this willingness to not let it get to you.

Francisco with grandson, Willem.

Amy: The biggest thing I walk with every day is grief. Everyone has lost someone. It’s not new. We lose people, it’s like Francisco says, you get used to it. Gracie wasn’t the first person I’ve loved who I’ve lost to suicide. But she’s my daughter, so I had to deal with the complications of blame and guilt and all of that as well as just being stunned. That’s really the most complicated thing I’m walking with these days, but how am I? I’m kind of on fire! I just escaped an incredibly controlling and unhealthy relationship that I had for 34 years. I’m 51, and I’m finally free from something I dove into when I was 17. What I’m really doing these days is looking into my healing, delving into why was I primed at 17 to dive into that pool, and man, am I finding cool stuff and writing cool poems about it. And just accepting it. I can’t turn back time or do anything about it, so I’m trying to enjoy who I am now.

I don’t have the fear and anxiety that I used to. I’m happy to report that I’m doing okay.

Amy with daughter Gracie

Cory: I feel a lot right now. I feel what I’ve been categorizing as too much. That doesn’t mean it’s a lot of bad things. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of anxiety, but like Amy, there’s a lot of new growth that’s come through. I had a really, really tough year. I had a sort of emergency brush, a major surgery in February and that sounds really dramatic except what happened was I filled my incredibly large deductible right away quickly, and then I found an awesome therapist and now for the first time in life I am having weekly therapy that I can afford. And that has brought me to a new place: I feel acceptance. I feel new emotions at the age of 38. I have acceptance of the way I grew up with internalized homophobia. It feels freeing. Amy got me on this horoscope app—it’s half mean and half brilliant.

Amy: Jason knows this app!

Cory: The other day on this app I got this incredibly callous horoscope: it said, “It’s a mistake to think that what your mind needs is a lack of tension.” And I was like, well, that’s what I long for. For things to be simpler, for emotions to be less. And I’ve been thinking about that all the time. I wrote it on a Post-it Note, and I keep thinking to myself, well, maybe I shouldn’t be trying to escape this. Maybe I should be trying to successfully walk through it. And that’s what I’m working on right now.

Rebecca: That’s very true. That tension that we feel, that need to be its friend and also that we are humans who feel all of these very complicated feelings, which is so important to acknowledge in how we translate these feelings to kids. That we do it in a way that lets them know it’s okay to feel them, and to even feel them as adults. They don’t go away, and that’s okay. It’s a lifelong dance.

Jason: Today, there’s anxiety, but there’s always anxiety. Lately, it’s been interesting, because I’m two years from 40. That excites me. It makes me feel like, who do I want to be?

I can feel a new transition is coming, and I need to figure out what I want as I enter this next decade. I’m in talks with a new therapist, and hopefully that will start up soon. I had a therapist before, but sometimes you outgrow your therapist, and she could no longer serve me. I’m looking for someone to be a little tougher⁠—I need a therapist who is tough like my mother. I come from a long line of women who are pretty straight-shooters, who are challenging in the best ways and willing to tell you the truth, and will assign you homework. I need that in a therapist. I only like to be helped by Black women, it’s a thing, probably because I feel safest there.

I’m also wildly overwhelmed, which is also a baseline for me. I’ve grown accustomed to the overwhelm of my life, and balancing it has never been something I’m good at. I’m a tunnel vision kind of person. I can get a bit obsessive about the work I do. The excitement around it, I can get wound up. It’s a lot. But I’m also so happy! Every day I get up and I look around, and I’m filled with a sublime gratitude. My old man is dead, and I miss him, but that doesn’t make me sad either. So that’s where I’m at.

Young Jason and his parents.

Rebecca: I just lost my mom, and I’m feeling grief, all the time. But also, she was very sick, and she was suffering and so I have this sadness that I’m carrying that I’m feeling guilt for carrying, because she was suffering.

Jason: Complex emotions.

Bill with his husband, Chuck and their two Australian Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford.

Bill: Oh, man. I’m right there with you. My mother was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and it’s brought up a lot of grief, but it’s also brought a lot of acceptance. I think as soon as I heard the diagnosis, every bit of anger and resentment I ever had toward my mother went away. I just feel a ton of empathy and that’s new, that’s new for me in that relationship. There is still grief, as I said, and I just started seeing a counselor to deal with it. Because I know, based on the diagnosis, that this is just the beginning of a hard journey.

Rebecca: Let’s take that and talk about the writing and how we bring this complexity to our work. You step into the shoes of this imaginary person who is also part you, always, and part the lens through which you see the world, and in our cases, it’s a mental health lens… how do you put your complex feelings on the page? How do you respect your readers feelings as well and give them the space to process them and to borrow from your experiences?

Amy: I put it straight on the page. Straight up. Like I’ll get an email from someone, and it will piss me off, and I’ll take that pissed-off-ness, and I’ll run it through whatever I’m writing. It becomes a part of what I’m writing. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but a lot of the time it does, and so then it is being experienced through a 15-year-old’s eyes, though it’s really a 51-year-old’s eyes.

It’s how I started writing: I was 24 years old and my arm was in a cast so I couldn’t write by hand so I was typing, and I literally started typing, and writing to escape then what I just escaped from now. Everything goes on the page.

Francisco: One of the most beautiful things that I’m very proud of is that my attitude towards writing has changed so that I’m having a lot of delight in the process of writing. I’m not so worried about where it’s going or the end product or what happens to it after. You think that’s an easy thing but it’s not. I hate to use the word “hobby,” but lately my writing has that flavor to it.

I take care of my grandkids in the morning, take a nap, and then I work for a few hours in the afternoon, and if it takes a year or two to get it done, I think that’s okay. It’s a good place to get to, and what happens when you do that is that you become more selfless. And when you become more selfless, the more you can give to the young person, where you don’t even intend to, but you can become more true and more genuine to what you’re doing.

Like the Bhagavas Gita: the idea that you’re entitled to the work but you’re not entitled to the fruits of your labor. That’s one of the wisest things that was ever said. It’s one of the hardest things to get to, where it’s intense but it’s also fun. It’s a good place to get to, and what happens when you do that is that you become more selfless. And when you become more selfless, the more you can give to the young person, where you don’t even intend to, but you can become more true and more genuine to what you’re doing.

Jason: I’m trying to get there, brother!

Rebecca: It’s funny, it’s almost like you’re back to that place. Because when you start writing, that’s how it is: it’s fun and you do it because you have to and because you feel that passion. And then you get into the business of writing, which can be demoralizing and also exciting. I’m learning that the best way to ruin the joy of writing is to worry too much about the fruits of that labor instead of focusing on the joy of the labor itself. Francisco, I’m glad to hear that you’ve gotten back there, because that’s a great place to be.

Francisco: Well, maybe I didn’t have a choice.

Rebecca: Yes, you did. You’ve made the choice.

Francisco: When you first start writing, you’re responding to an urge, an impulse. Something happens to that urge and impulse as we publish, and you lose it a little bit. But it’s a purpose. It’s always been that but sometimes you lose track of that.

Jason: When I was younger I wrote to survive. And then I got older, and I still write to survive. Though that survival is very different. It changes: Now I have to pay the mortgage. You have to fight for the relationship with the work in a different way. I still make the work I want to make, I’m very fortunate with that, but the overwhelm is a very different thing, and still it’s very real.

It’s tricky. You know, about mental health, I have this thing I’ve been tinkering with for a long time about how we put it on the page for the kids. There’s an engineering principle called “resonant frequency.” It’s the very thing that causes the operatic singer to break the glass. She’s been able to resonate at the exact frequency that the glass becomes so malleable that it starts to waver and breaks. But you have to know what the glass is made of, and then match that frequency. If you pluck a glass, that clinging sound is the note that the singer has to match and sustain it long enough to break the glass.

To translate that to children, if I’m made up of the very same things that the kids are made up of, because we are both human, then I have to know myself well enough and then sustain that, and it will cause a child to become malleable. Because I resonate at the exact same frequency. We are made up of the same things. So all I have to do is get to know myself, and then sustain that truth for long enough to ‘break that class’ of the child.

So what I think about is how I want to translate that to kids. Most of my time is spent trying to understand things, so if my stomach is hurting, what does it actually feel like? So when I put it on the page, it’s so me, and it’s so honest, and it’s so full of my own discoveries and curiosities, that it resonates with some young person who might be full of the same things.

Bill: I started writing to survive, too. Like Jason. It was the 1980s, and I was figuring out that I was gay. There was just nothing. No internet to give me information. No TV or movies with characters like me. No books that I knew of. So I was writing my feelings of being utterly alone and the writing became like a friend, and like a lifeline. I was also dealing with depression, though I didn’t know that at the time. I thought everybody must feel things really strongly like I did, that life must be a rollercoaster for everyone. Anyway, when I got older and started to write YA, I picked up that same voice that I was using as a teenager and it still felt very authentic to me. It allowed me to take what was in some ways a selfish impulse—writing to make myself feel less alone—and turn it into something that resonated for other people, too.

Now, more recently, I have begun to write about mental health. This was another coming out for me. I had written many stories about being gay, about the LGBTQIA+ experience, but I hadn’t dealt with my own chronic depression on the page. I hadn’t dealt with my suicide attempt at age 27 in writing yet. So I wrote The Bridge (Scholastic, 2020), which is the most intense writing I’ve ever done. And I did my best to put those feelings in the body so that all readers—those depressed and those who are not—could feel some of what that feels like. It’s a hard read, but I’m very glad I wrote it.

Cory: Very similar story actually. I started writing when I was 13 when I was so deep in the closet that it wasn’t a closet, but a basement without windows. I knew that I was not allowed to voice anything inside of me. So I started writing poetry. I know now why I was writing poems so dark and messed up. I realized I was trans at the age of 30. People told me I had to write about being trans and I was like, “I don’t know what that means yet, please give me some time.” They were less patient than I would like, but when it came down to it, I realized that I did want to write a book about what it was like to be me.

I wish I had learned this about myself in high school. I sat down and I made myself write it and I broke my own heart, and it needed to be broken. And that’s the book, Man o’ War (Dutton, 2022) I’ve been working on for a year. To me, In the end I’m talking to that person who is in the basement closet. I’m talking to that person who did not feel like they could even process their feelings. All they could do was dump them into a ball. There are poems about feeling battered, and I didn’t know why I felt that way. I’m very excited about how much growth I was able to experience by making myself imagine myself younger and going through this, feeling this, experiencing this. I thought it would be less painful and I think it was actually more painful.

Rebecca: Was it healing as well?

Cory: Very healing. Very, very healing. I shocked myself by how differently I could feel to come out on the other side of this. And it’s like what Jason was saying with the frequency, I broke my own glass. That is one of the ways I always know when my writing is circling in towards the emotional truth, is when I hurt my own feelings. I write an idea and I write about emotions and when I get to where it cracks to the point where what you’ve just admitted is something you don’t even want to think about–that’s what kids need. I try to push myself to that breaking point, and it is healing and it is hard. The other day I said I have a lot of happiness, and I have a lot of helplessness right now, which is a product of this time.

Rebecca: It’s so vulnerable to examine yourself in a way that you know you’re going to share with the world. It’s empowering and it’s also vulnerable, because you put it out there, and then people know you. And it’s something to be known, right? I read that excerpt of the book [that you put on IG] and I can’t wait to read the rest. I’m so glad you got to the place where you felt it was both joyous and empowering to tell your story.

Amy: It’s phenomenal. It’s a phenomenal novel.

Cory: Thank you, Amy helped a lot.

Rebecca: As Amy does. Okay, so let’s talk about vulnerability. So after we get it on the page, how do we talk to kids and get it to kids and have them talk about it in a way that it’s not too much, or is that not even a thing—scaring them away?

Jason: It’s not a thing. Nope, not a thing.

Amy: I want to scare them. If I scare them, then I did something right. I read something once, a John Updike book, and it was about violence, and it was unknown to me then. It horrified me so much that I threw it, I think I threw it away. It was awful. But I cried for three days. But that’s the point, because you’re supposed to scare them until they relate so that’s how they grow to the point where they might find, well, find themselves, like everyone here has talked about.

Jason: There are so many kids who are waiting for someone to say “The Thing.” There is a radical honesty that people are dying for. And I mean literally dying for. Because they are waiting for an adult to tell them that the way they are feeling is true.

I used to do a card trick at the beginning of school visits, the reason I did a magic trick, and the reason those tricks have been around for so long and will never ever, ever go away, is that everyone wants to desperately believe that someone else knows what is going on in their minds. For someone to put words to what is in here [points to head]. And that’s why magic tricks will always be around. They are waiting for someone to whisper the words. And books can whisper the words. I always say that you know, this is where you can trap your secrets, in the pages of the book. And I think there are kids who are dying for someone to say, “I know your secrets.” For me, I’m going to shoot it straight, the best I can. And I’m going to fight for that. Kids will tell me they appreciate me just for talking to them like a person. It’s a big deal.

Bill: Yes! In The Bridge (Scholastic, 2020), I want young readers to come away knowing that they are not alone. That any feelings they feel have been felt before. Because being alone in that pain is so much worse than feeling it but at the same time feeling connected, to an author, to a book, to an experience. People sometimes ask me if I think my book is triggering. I certainly hope not, and I countered that by telling a story that has a lot of hope in it, that gives options for when we feel so low. But I do hope that my book triggers in them a reaction, and hopefully that reaction allows them to connect what they’re feeling to a world in which it’s okay to feel those things.

Rebecca: There are parents who don’t want their kids to have to think about and deal with really hard things. But how are you ever going to be able to deal with hard things if you’ve never been exposed to them?

Amy: You’ve just asked the question of American society. We don’t talk about death, for example. When we look at privilege and we look at who is dying and who isn’t, and where then justice is and it isn’t. We can’t address who is dying and why they’re dying or being murdered.

If we can’t talk about death, we can’t even say the word. You get into more complicated things like death by mental illness, and people can’t address it at all.

You say, “my daughter died from the number one illness affecting teens,” and people are like, I can’t even talk about that. And they don’t.

People won’t talk to me about death. We don’t deal with death or anything that has to do with death. Look at the things we don’t deal with. I have a student talking about sexual assault in her thesis, and the statistics are shocking. One in three. And that’s before high school. And we’re not allowed to talk about it. I get letters that are like, “I can’t believe there’s rape in your book,” and I’m like, “why can’t you believe it? 33% of people have already experienced this—before high school.”

Jason: And if boys would report, the numbers would be even higher.

Bill: Yes. Which is why I wrote about that in The Music of What Happens (Scholastic, 2020).

Amy: Absolutely. Most male survivors go to the grave with that secret. It’s bizarre that we can’t talk about hard things. Here, we’re “fun and dumb.” That’s the term I used in Switch, and I mean it. Like here we just walk around pretending everything is fun and wonderful.

Jason: I didn’t know many privileged kids growing up, but the ones I did know, they were the ones who were on meds. And it was a normal thing for them to be on meds. And we didn’t understand it, because we didn’t even acknowledge mental health in my community until much later. When I got to college, it was only the rich kids who had the meds.

The funny thing is they’re saying we don’t want you to teach the hard stuff, to write about the hard stuff, but the hard stuff is already happening. It’s happening in here [touches heart] and here [touches head]. It’s happening already. You’re not impervious to this because you have money. It’s the great equalizer.

Rebecca: My children are both on medications to manage their mental health, and I always think about how lucky they are that we’ve been able to get them the help they need. Jason, you’re saying the rich kids have the meds. My kids have the meds, and I’ll shout it from the rooftops because I’m so grateful. I’ve sat in waiting rooms over the years just relieved that I’ve had the healthcare and the ability to get them what they need, talking to lots of other parents who haven’t had that luxury. So that’s a gift that I never take for granted.

We’re talking about the socioeconomic factors that affect our access to mental health and how much worse it’s gotten, more the need is since the beginning of the pandemic. No one is getting what they need—if you can even ask for it. And it’s hard for some communities to ask for it, more than others, for a variety of reasons. What do you do when you can’t ask for it, when you don’t have language for it? Like Cory writing poems and not understanding at all what they were feeling?

Jason: Francisco, can I ask you something? I have a buddy with Bipolar II, and I always wonder, was it frightening? You lived with it for so long, in your body and in your brain, and was it frightening to do so?

Francisco: There’s a point in mania, at the manic side of it, where you are stepping into schizophrenia, but just below that, there’s craziness and you don’t even know it. You don’t know you’re manic. I used to work as a lawyer, and there was a time where I’d go to a bar at 11:45 in the morning and drink for two hours and then go back and work. And for the longest time I thought maybe that was depression, that I was trying to overcome/ medicate myself, you know, with drink. But it turns out it was really the excitement of being in a bar and talking to people, that’s what I was after. But not knowing what is happening to you, what you’re doing and why, is frightening.

Also, it’s scary to think about the potential to hurt other people. Obviously when you are depressed you can hurt yourself and also the feelings of other people. But when you have the manic side there’s really big potential for hurting others—physically, financially, emotionally—so that part is really, really scary. To think you can’t control yourself.

That’s what mental illness is, right? That lack of control. We’re lucky that most of us can, more or less, direct our thoughts in a particular direction, but when you’re in that state, it feels scary to have these thoughts that can be negative and self-harming that just come to you and come to you. You just can’t get out of that loop that’s inside of you and the thoughts keep coming and coming. There’s no way you can get out of that by yourself.

Cory: I had a pretty good therapist in college who explained it to me in words I wish I’d had many years earlier: we fall in mental holes all the time as humans, inside of our brains. Sometimes we can climb back out, and sometimes we can’t. Being able to know when you’re at the bottom of a hole that is deep enough that you need someone else to bring you a ladder, that part gets easier.

What I try to tell kids, to talk to teens about and to put into my stories, is that every time that happens to you, you are actually getting stronger, not weaker. When you are facing your feelings and thinking them through, there’s an ability to create plans, to create your own ladders. That’s what my therapist is teaching me right now. I remember a few years ago at a VCFA residency, I was having a hard time and I sent a text to Amy, who told me to go outside and put my feet in the grass and look at the sky and feel grounded—and I did, and then I thought okay, I’m still here.

Even something so simple as that, when you’re a kid that kind of thing is hard to reach for. My son has these stones he keeps in his pocket, for when he feels overwhelmed…to keep him grounded. He knows that just holding the stone will help him. So he can feel it. So these things aren’t wearing you down, though of course they can. We’ve all been there. They wear you down to the point where you don’t know if you can keep doing it. But you keep going through it and you keep getting stronger, and your weaknesses, they don’t go away, but your strengths improve.

College Hall, Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Amy: When I go into schools, I talk about trauma. And I have to be vague about it because that way it reaches more people. What I say is that I’ve worked with a great many survivors of a great many things, and I am a survivor of a great many things. I explain to them that it doesn’t have to be today, but at some point, you are going to have to release their trauma. I say, “do you know how many people in their forties and fifties are just releasing their trauma now? I’m watching them get tripped up. They are divorcing their spouses, leaving their children, fired from their jobs, really losing themselves. I want you to be able to realize that adults, too, they’re making it up as they go along, just like you are.” The more young people I say that to, I mean, I remember saying that to my own kid: “you think I have it all figured out? I don’t. We’re in this together. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

The idea is that they are taught and they totally believe from everything they see, that adults are authority figures who know everything and have it all together. That’s why I always try to have adults in my books who are screwed up, because most of us are! We have bad days and good days. I mean sometimes we have it together, but sometimes we lose it in the supermarket, and that’s okay.

I want to remind them that the idea of perfection, it’s something we have going on, and I like to try and steer them away from that

Cory and their son.

Rebecca: I know Bill really wanted to talk about suicide, specifically and how we write about it and talk about it without glorifying it.  I mean, Amy, you’re talking about how people run away from you rather than talking about suicide.

Amy: Or they hire me! They hire me to talk about it, because they can’t, or they don’t know what to do. I replied to someone’s email the other day and told her that “suicide is fascinating, scientifically, if you really look at it” and she hasn’t written me back–I think I freaked her out. She must think I’m so unfeeling, but otherwise how would I wake up everyday? I have to be able to look at it like a scientist. And you know how I love the work of Robert Pluchick–in his later years his expertise was the connection between anger and suicidality.

One thing I want to talk to kids about is the stuff their parents should know: stop gossiping about suicide. Stop trying to guess why. Stop using the word “psycho”—can we stop using that word? Because my daughter had psychosis. Stop casually and incorrectly using bipolar and OCD—start understanding mental health. I live in a conservative place, a religious place, and I have people on my block who haven’t talked to me in two years, because they believe suicide is a sin. People don’t talk about it and they should. 70% of teen mental illness goes undiagnosed and untreated. Period.

I’m a member of a group of mothers who have lost their children to suicide—so that’s a very specific group—and there are several women of color who tell stories of their communities—talk about running away, talk about people running away from them, so they get the message that suicide simply doesn’t happen in their communities. In these women’s lives, their community runs from them because they won’t even acknowledge that that happens in their communities. It’s interesting how the world looks at it.

Bill: I’m so with Amy about the whole ‘stop gossiping about it’ thing. It’s what made 13 Reasons Why both so compelling and so toxic, in a way. We simply cannot afford to turn death by suicide into some sort of “event” that comes with its own compelling story. I don’t know if that makes sense the way I said it. But basically I want to talk about suicide by talking about the entirety of the experience in a very real way. About how it feels to feel suicidal. About the way our brains lie to us when we are depressed and tell us that our lives don’t matter, that it wouldn’t matter to anyone if we weren’t here. About the impact on survivors. When we talk about suicide in that way, in a real way, when we talk about the options we have even when it feels like there are no options, I think that’s very healthy and potentially life-saving.

Jason: The Black community is interesting. Culturally, we have so much pride because we’ve survived so much. The issue with survival is that we believe we are impenetrable, or that we are supposed to be. For so long, so many of us felt that mental illness is a sign of weakness. Genetically, we survived slavery. As a community we survived the most mentally, physically, and emotionally egregious thing that could happen to a people, and we went through it for centuries. And then we had to walk the land where it happened and try to build a life for ourselves, and it still happens, is still happening. We believe that if we are going to die, we are going to die at the hands of the police. That’s what we think: if you’re going to die, it’s not going to be from your own brain, something that’s happening in your brain, even though our brains have every reason to have chemical imbalances. Every reason.

The last two generations have been pushing forward. My father was a psychiatrist, and now younger people are like, yeah, I want to see a therapist. But if you talk to your average 40-year-old Black person, especially Black men, they’ll tell you that therapy isn’t something that we do. We’re just starting to get into it. One because we couldn’t afford it, and two because we don’t trust anybody with intimate information, and three because we have every reason not to trust anybody with intimate information, because every time we have in the past it has been used to find a way to oppress and belittle us. So we just suffer alone. We always have.

I’m really proud of the young people today because for them it’s no longer a taboo. And by the way, all of this, what it does is the same thing it’s always been doing, which is to send the message that Black people aren’t human. And eventually Black people start to believe it themselves.

Langston Hughes had this famous quote: “Black people deserve to be beautiful and ugly.” Because Black people are human. I’m a person. I’m a person whose ancestors have been through extraordinary things, and lots of people’s ancestors have too–it is what it is. At the end of the day we’re all just blood and guts. I’m blood and guts, and this brain works the same way as everyone else’s brain.

We don’t know yet if epigenetics [the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work] is real. They’re doing research now, and if it is, then all the more reason for Black people to start going to therapy and getting some medicine.

Rebecca: I love the notion of that gigantic humanity that we’re all talking about. That there’s intersectionality in mental health. Everybody is affected.

Jason: A while ago I was talking to my mother. I was a young guy, dating a girl, and making a mess of it, as I did often. And my mother said, “are you mad that she has an attitude?” And I said something like, “she always has an attitude!” And she said, “let’s say you turn 12, and from 12 to like, 50, every time you leave the house, there’s a man, who looks just like you, who is touching you, commenting on you, commenting on the way your dress, commenting on your biology, the way your natural body developed through no choice of your own… imagine you had to live with that for 30 years, every single day. You don’t think she deserves to have an attitude?” It can’t not affect your mental health.

Jason and his mother at WNDB Walter Awards Ceremony, photo by Kathie Weinberg.

Amy: You also have the situation where women aren’t believed. And girls. And teens. And children. Turns out there’s only one type of person who is believed, right?

The fact is, most people grow up thinking that everything bad that happened to them is their fault. I know I did, because someone in my family was telling me that. I didn’t realize until I was 51 years old, just the other day. So, when I experienced childhood trauma, this was the reason I didn’t tell anyone about it.

One of my catchphrases with my ex-husband was, “just tell everyone it’s my fault.” I didn’t care because I thought everyone thought everything was my fault. And then when Gracie died, the same people, those people who had been telling me that everything was my fault since I was three, that’s what those people wanted to say to me that day. That it was my fault. That’s when I got to the place where I was finally able to think, who are the people who should be in my life?

My mother once gave me great advice. She told me, “If someone is gossiping to you about someone else, then someone is gossiping about you to someone else.” And I tell kids that all the time, and I watch them in an assembly look around uncomfortably because they realize that’s who they’re sitting next to. It turns out most of the people they hang out with are those people.

Rebecca: And it takes courage to walk away from those people. Any last things anyone wants to throw out there?

Jason: I just want to leave us with this: everybody’s got something. There’s nothing wrong with you. That’s all. Maybe that’s why I and so many of us can speak about mental health so frankly, because I don’t think anything’s wrong with me. I can talk openly with Francisco, and we both know that there’s nothing wrong with us. That allows me to be clear about it, and talk about it, because I don’t feel insufficient in any way. I feel like my brain just does different things. There’s something in my brain that makes me excel at writing. And for someone else, their brain might make them excel at mathematics. It’s a matter of making sure we can manage the things that have the potential to harm us. Which, by the way, is everything. Everything has the potential to harm us. Writing can be harmful. Mathematics can be harmful. Think of Einstein—he was a genius at mathematics, but he also had a hand in creating the thing, unbeknownst to him, that killed many, many people.

The key is to learn to manage the things our brains do. But know that there’s nothing wrong with us. We just got different calculus in what that management looks like.

Francisco: Amen.

Bill: I’ll second that! Amen.

Rebecca: That’s a powerful message. Amen indeed.

Amy: Preach!

Rebecca: Thank you all so much. Thank you for your time, your honesty, and your creativity. Thank you for creating stories that build ladders that allow kids to climb up out of their holes, their dark places. I’m in awe of all of you.

Cynsational Notes

If you need emotional support or are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity and length.

A.S. King is 2020 Michael L. Printz Award winner and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Dig (Penguin, 2020), 2016’s Still Life with Tornado (Penguin, 2017), I Crawl Through It (Little, Brown, 2015), Reality Boy (Little, Brown 2014), the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown, 2013), Everybody Sees the Ants, (Little, Brown, 2012),and the Michael L. Printz Honor Book Please Ignore Vera Dietz (Ember, 2012). She also writes middle grade fiction as Amy Sarig King, including Me and Marvin Gardens (Arthur A. Levine, 2017) and The Year We Fell from Space (Arthur A. Levine, 2021). She is a faculty member of the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts travels the country speaking to high school and university students, educators, and humans who care about the mental health of young people.

Bill Konigsberg is the award-winning author of six young adult novels, Out of the Pocket (Sutton, 2008) The Porcupine of Truth (Scholastic, 2015), Honestly Ben (Scholastic, 2018), Openly Straight (Arthur A. Levine, 2015), The Music of What Happens (Scholastic, 2020), and The Bridge (Scholastic, 2020).  In 2018, The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)’s Assembly on Literature for Adolescents (ALAN) established the Bill Konigsberg Award for Acts and Activism for Equity and Inclusion through Young Adult Literature. Bill lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his husband, Chuck, and their Australian Labradoodles, Mabel and Buford.

Cory McCarthy is the bestselling author of many books for middle grade and young adult readers, including Now a Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2018), The Once and Future (with A.R. Capetta  (Jimmy Patterson, 2019), Ace Takes Flight (Clarion, 2021), and the forthcoming Man-o-War (Dutton, 2022). They teach at Vermont College of Fine Arts and, like many of their characters, are a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Jason Reynolds is the bestselling author of more than a dozen books for young people, including the Track Series (Caitlin Dlouhy, 2019), Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks (Caitllyn Dlouhy, 2020) All American Boys with Brendan Kiely (Caitlin Dlouhy, 2017) Long Way Down (Caitlin Dlouhy, 2019), and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You with Ibram X. Kendi (Little, Brown, 2020), and Stuntboy, in the Meantime (Caitlin Dlouhy, 2021). The recipient of a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, an NAACP Image Award, and multiple Coretta Scott King honors, Reynolds is also the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He lives in Washington, DC.

Francisco X. Stork is the author of nine young adult novels, including Marcelo in the Real World (Arthur A. Levine, 2009) , Disappeared (Arthur A. Levine, 2017), The Memory of Light (Arthur A. Levine, 2016), Illegal (Scholastic 2020) and most recently, On the Hook (Scholastic, 2021). He lives outside Boston with his family.

Rebecca Kirshenbaum has an MFA in WCYA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and MA in Children’s Literature from Simmons University, and an MA in English literature from Columbia. She really, really likes being a student. She grew up in Cleveland and roots for Cleveland sports teams even though she now lives in Boston.

She lives with her husband Mark, her teenage sons, Caleb and Eli, plus a lot of animals–guinea pig Sprinkles, a bunch of fish, and her family’s therapy dog Quimby. (All of you kidlit people should get the Ramona reference!) When not reading and writing, she teaches fourth and fifth grade writing and organizes her bookshelves in rainbow order.