CW: books with and discussions of eating disorders, suicide, self harm, depression and anxiety
Libraries, and more specifically the books on their shelves, have had a profoundly positive effect on my mental health. This isn’t to say that libraries were the magic bullet for me when I was growing up. I was the kid with perpetual late fees and I grew up in a small town, so going to the library inevitably meant running into someone who I didn’t want to see. However, the book’s inside them were magical.
I recognize that I’m privileged. I grew up in a small, predominantly white and affluent town in the New York City suburbs of Northern New Jersey. We had more resources and funding than most. It is my hope that one day all libraries will have the resources, facilities, funding, staffing and anything else they need to make sure that every child and teen that walks through their doors can find stories and programming that truly help them like my library did in the ways I am about to tell you guys.
I grew up in the library. When I was a child, our library was dark and small. I remember my favorite part being the chance to play with the foam bricks in the children’s area. I also loved the colorful books I could take out there. Taking out David McKee’s Elmer the Elephant books and reading them over and over again are still some of my fondest memories.
When I was around nine years old, they started renovating the library and when I was eleven, I was introduced to the brand new teen librarians Kate and Sandy (this was before middle grade was really a thing and YA was just starting to really explode). All of sudden, there was this new room of books in my world. Two people who seemed friendly enough to help me find the books I needed. A brand new room that was all for US…with couches, computers and a fish tank. I remember my first meet and greet with them when this was all happening. I was SO there for it.
I should also mention that around the same time, my grandfather passed away. I didn’t talk at all for a while after it happened so books became my world. Books didn’t need me to be normal or okay. They just needed me to read them (although I should mention as an aside, at the expense of dating myself, that I was also SUPER into Nintendogs on my new Nintendo DS at the same time). I also went through a crappy sexual assault when I was in seventh grade and guys, books that I read in the library literally saved my life.
It was there in the library (or my eighth grade classroom library which was equally important and funded by a grant my phenomenal teacher Ms. Ohle got but either way it still counts) that I began to fall in love with the writing of the YA authors I still love today. Laurie Halse Anderson. David Levithan. Libba Bray. Ned Vizzini. Stephen Chbosky. Sara Zarr. The library introduced me to ALL of them. I can still remember exactly where their books were in the shelves (I logged hundreds hours of community service in the library from middle school to high school so I was around the shelves A LOT. I folded a lot of pamphlets and shelved a lot of books, guys. My folding skills are still on point).
It was also in the library that I started to learn about mental health and other wellness issues. Kate always kept these really corny pamphlets on top of the new non-fiction cart that I actually read and brought home. The non-fiction books about sex and identify were in the YA room and it was a safe space. It was in that room that I started to develop the vocabulary to question my identity (I totally glossed over the few and far between parts about asexuality though, but it was there nonetheless, even if it didn’t quite sink in). It was also where I learned about mental health. I read Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson on that couch and I cried my eyes out. I read Sonja Sones’ books and cried my eyes out. I read I Don’t Want to Be Crazy by Samantha Schutz and cried my eyes out, even though it would be years still before I learned what anxiety actually was and another few beyond that before I walked into the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services in college and said, I quote, “Hi, I need help. Can you just give me the forms to fill out or whatever?”
I also found Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story in that room. I found it because I went to the space between the last shelf and the window because I wanted to hide from everyone that day and I saw the cover on a display and instantly connected with it. It sounds so serendipitous but I swear it’s true. I brought that one home and devoured it after sitting on the floor and reading half right there and then. That book legitimately saved my life. I’d just stopped self harming and was very quickly spiraling. That book gave me hope and I only knew it existed because Kate the librarian made sure it was available and had it on display.
And here’s where I get to my real connection between libraries and mental health. Libraries, if run by kind, compassionate and open-minded librarians, can be a safe haven for teens to find themselves in books. For confused and mentally ill teens like I was this, this was crucial. The Internet is helpful too and so much more prevalent now than I was a teen to find books, but I still would have gone to the library to check them out or request them from another library.
As a librarian, you almost definitely do not know who all of your teen patrons are. I didn’t check out all of the books that I read. I would slink by the reference desk and into the YA room to read books while I waited for a ride. Some of them I was too paranoid to bring home. But the point is, please be open minded. You don’t know whose life you might be affecting by what books you select. Please be committed to ensuring that, within the resources you have available, there are a wide variety of diverse voices for teen readers to find themselves and learn about and empathize with others. About neurodiverse teens. About queer teens. About disabled teens. About teens of color. About teens of all cultures.