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Posted in Pitch Wars 2017

#PimpMyBio Post

 

IMG_7847.JPGThis post is going to be a bit of a mess because 1) I’m not really sure what y’all want/need to know and 2) this is my first time doing #PitchWars (and I’m highkey excited about it). Starting with the basics, my name is Taylor, I’m 22 and I live in New Jersey not far from NYC. I’ll be submitting Talk to Me, my YA contemporary romance that features queer, mental illness and disability rep. It tells the story of a socially anxious boy who meets a queer, aphasiac girl who steals his heart, but helps him find his voice. Now let me tell you a bit more about my book and then me! Since I love top ten lists (I have books of them), let’s try that format!

10 Facts About My Story!

1. Talk to Me is a YA contemporary romance about three teens who are all experiencing some kind of identity crisis and it’s only when their lives intersect their senior year of high school that they start to figure out. It’s an atmospheric, neurodivergent love story about art, secrets, pranks and kissing. 🙂

2. My three narrators are Grace, Zach and Mason. Grace is a sassy artist who has expressive aphasia and selective mutism, so she doesn’t speak or write. Zach is a math nerd and baseball player with social anxiety who can’t speak up for himself. Mason is Zach’s best friend; impulsive and brooding, him and Grace share a secret past.

3. My chapters are labeled one-point perspective, two-point perspective and three-point perspective based on how many of my characters narrate in each one. The names come from the systems of ocular perspective and I chose to do this because Grace is an artist!

4. Zach’s social anxiety is #ownvoices. It was interesting to write a character with social anxiety like mine and focus on the subtleties of it and how it affects the decisions he makes and relationships with other people.

5. The story takes place in Western New Jersey and is loosely based off a small town that I visit often because of its independent book store.

6. Grace’s experiences as a painter were very much informed by my own experiences as an artist.

7. Family is a huge part of the book. Grace, Zach and Mason’s families aren’t perfect, but it was interesting to write imperfect parents who really do love their children even if they make stupid or seemingly unfair choices. I wish parents were more present in YA!

8. The easiest part of writing this book was writing Grace’s voice, because her voice is most similar to me as a person, but still different. There are pieces of me in Zach and Mason, too.

9. The hardest part of writing this book was getting the plot down and figuring out the arc of each character. It was a fun challenge, though!

10. This manuscript is the one that made me want to really be a writer. It’s brought me to so many experiences from #CPMatch to #PitMad and now to #PitchWars. I’ll always be so grateful to this story and these characters for helping me evolve as an artist!

10 Facts About Me!

1. I recently graduated Drew University with a B.A. in English and Art History. I also minored in French, received specialized honors in English and graduated with Civic Honors. In September, I’ll be starting an individualized studies graduate program at NYU to study Intersectional Feminism in Contemporary Art and Literature.

2. I’m neurodivergent, which makes it difficult to write sometimes, but I get through it with the help of very patient and understanding friends and fellow writers. I try to bring my experiences of social anxiety, generalized anxiety and depression into my stories because they’re the stories I needed when I was a teen and didn’t always have.

3. I’m aro-spec and ace-spec and try to include LGBTQUPIA+ characters in all of my stories.

4. I love to knit and crochet! I always have waaaaay too many projects I’m working on.

5. I love to paint. Basically, I just love to be creative in as many ways as possible.

6. I’m a huge Broadway nerd. I love seeing musicals and plays in the city. Some of my favorites are Dear Evan HansenSpring Awakening, Rent and If/Then!

7. I’m always listening to music when I’m writing. I need background noise.

8. I’m a night owl, so you’ll usually find me writing at 2 am.

9. If I’m not writing, reading, sleeping, crocheting, knitting or painting, I’m probably riding my bike or down the shore.

10. I have ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) so don’t be offended if I’m kind of pushy about where we go if we ever grab lunch. 😉

That’s all you need to know! If you want to know more or see what I’m up to, you can find me on Twitter @tayberryjelly.

Posted in Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books So Far of 2017

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly book meme run by The Broke and the Bookish. Find out more information about it here.

This week’s topic:

June 27Best Books You’ve Read In 2017 So Far (break it down however you want — by genre, strictly 2017 releases, whatever!)

I’m going to be totally honest. 2017 hasn’t been a huge reading year for me (Honors thesis, graduating, applying for grad school are all kinda massive time sucks). However, I did enjoy some GREAT books so far this year and can’t wait to share them with you!

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1. 27 Hours by Tristina Wright

Queer kids fighting for what’s right in space. I’m not usually a sci fi kinda girl, but you literally cannot miss this one. This is going to make the “Top 3 Books I’ve Read in 2017” list for sure.

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2. Radio Silence by Alice Osman

Great, voicy contemporary about a bisexual WOC and her demisexual best friend who make a podcast about surviving in an unforgiving world: Universe City. This book stole my heart-such a great cast of characters.

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3. Girl Out of Water by Laura Silverman

Fun, heartfelt contemporary about a girl who learns about her family and herself after she must move for the summer from beachy southern California to small town Kansas.

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4. You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

I love, love, love anything with art. This funky contemporary is about a Deaf WOC graffiti artist who must take down a local rival and adjust to life at public high school after she’s expelled. Check out my review here.

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5. A List of Cages by Robin Roe

Written with the perfect amount of empathy and care, this dark contemporary follows the relationship between Adam, a dyslexic boy who wants to do good, and Julien, an orphaned boy harboring dark secrets at home. Check out my review here.

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6. Caraval by Stephanie Garber

This magical high fantasy was one of the most dazzling books I’ve read this year. A tale about sisters, love, and what’s real, this book will steal your heart. Check out my review here.

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7. Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer

I loved this dark contemporary (I tend to love dark stories). Two teens exchange anonymous letters in a cemetery and find comfort in each other’s words, but things get complicated when they discover each other’s real identity. Check out my review here.

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8. Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Speaking of dark books, this psychological novel about a girl who allegedly killed a baby when she was nine-years-old and seeks justice after she learns she is pregnant as a teenager is a wild ride. Beautiful writing and great twists. Check out my review here.

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9. Gem & Dixie by Sara Zarr

Sara’s books never disappoint me and I love her compassionate and unflinching approach to tough issues that teens face! I really enjoyed this story about sisters who start to work out their complicated relationship to each other and their parents during one unpredictable weekend in Seattle.

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10. No Good Deed by Goldy Moldavsky

This dark, satirical novel was fun to read! Lovers of Goldy’s debut Kill the Boy Band will enjoy the appearance of a side character. This book takes a comical take on civic engagement and social justice warriors.

I loved all of these books and can’t wait to read more great books this year. What are some of the best books you’ve all read this year?

Posted in Book Review

Micro-Review Monday: No Good Deed by Goldy Moldavsky

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Book: No Good Deed by Goldy Moldavsky

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

3 Pros: Funny, Great, Diverse Characters, Easy Read

3 Cons: Humor Went Too Far Sometimes, Bit Too Melodramatic, Wish It Had More Substance

Become Best Friends Forever/Punch in the Face/Kiss on the Mouth: I would become best friends with Ashley because she’s weird, but loyal. I would punch Men’s Right because he’s an asshole (name says it all). I would kiss Gregor because he’s sweet but naive and he’s the MC so why not?

Describe this Book in 3 Words: Humorous, weird satire

ONE sentence to convince a total stranger to read/not read this book: If you’re into dark humor and looking for a fun break from the daily news cycle with romance and some soul-searching, this is the book for you!

Posted in Book Review

Review: Vanilla by Billy Merrell

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Vanilla by Billy Merrell, PUSH, 320 pp.

Rating: zero hearts

TW: rape culture, aphobia

I don’t like some books because they’re poorly written. I don’t like others because they are completely insensitive to the point that no amount of description or eleventh-hour redemption in the same of “character development” will save them for me. Billy Merrell’s young adult fiction debut Vanilla is an example of the latter.

The novel, written entirely in verse, is told from the perspectives of three gay boys who go to the same high school: Hunter, Vanilla and Clown/Angel. It centers around the development and destruction of a relationship between the title character and his boyfriend Hunter, who have been dating since middle school.  All three of the boys go by nicknames that attempt to be allegorical, but just come off as stereotypical and mildly offensive. Vanilla is the boy who is uncomfortable with having sex. Hunter is the predatory boy thirsty for a hookup. Clown/Angel is a drag queen struggling with gender identity and unrequited love. The result of never really using their real names was that each character felt like they ultimately lacked a separate identity. It felt like a failed and insincere attempt at allegory.

I was willing to give this book a chance, but was worried about its content from the moment its controversial summary popped up on Goodreads, especially with its indirect mention of an ace main character. When I received an arc at Bookcon, I decided I needed to read this and offer my opinion as an #ownvoices ace reviewer. I went in hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared it might be, but within the opening ten or so pages, my fears were confirmed. My verdict on the book is that it is potentially damaging and dangerous for vulnerable and/or questioning teen readers. I hope that we, as a book community, can agree that ace readers, and gay aces in particular, deserve better representation than this that doesn’t consistently imply that we are lying to ourselves, just afraid or “innocent” without properly countering those dangerous stereotypes in the text.

At best, Vanilla is a misguided attempt by a gay author to understand asexuality. At worst, it’s an internally aphobic “love” story that exposes many aphobic critiques that ace people encounter on a daily basis. Merrell uses the word asexual frequently, especially in the last half of the book, and the representation is handled so recklessly and irresponsibly that it is powerless to mediate the aphobia rampant in the first half of the book.

What is aphobia exactly? It’s anything that expresses hatred, doubt, fear and/or dislike of aro and ace spectrum people.* It’s present throughout the book as a plot point, as a freaking plot point in the relationship between Hunter and Vanilla. Here are some examples from the text:

“I think of Vanilla and how vanilla he is

and I want to hold him and tell him

it’s okay if he says he isn’t ready,

even if I don’t believe him–

Or that if he isn’t ready,

It’s for all the wrong reasons.”

Okay, there is NO WRONG REASON not to want sex. None. Not wanting to have sex is a reason in and of itself. Plus, even if you don’t know a person is ace and the person doesn’t yet know they are ace, it does not erase their asexuality. They are still asexual. So this passage is just a shitload of aphobia and rape culture and the worst part is that Hunter isn’t ever really forced to change or change his beliefs. He kind of accepts Vanilla’s asexuality by the end of the novel, but it doesn’t feel like enough because of passages like this.

“He gets so into it

That pulling him back from the brink

Takes every part of me

And every part of him, it seems,

So we never part

On purely sweet terms anymore.”

Ugh, more rape culture/abusive relationship description that never gets properly dealt with later in the book to qualify as a good story.

“‘It’s the perfect name for him,’ he says,

Winking at me like I’m in on it.

‘Such a sweet thing. So innocent.’

And I know by how Clown says it

That he’s calling me a prude.”

I can’t even believe I have to explain this in a book review, but infantilizing asexuals by calling them sweet and innocent is a dick move. And even though Clown/Angel helps Vanilla realize he’s asexual later in the novel, 1) they could have done it a lot sooner and prevented a lot of damage and made this a better story and 2) it’s still a dick move.

“‘I’m sex-positive, too,’ Vanilla says,

Like he’s chasing me. When all I wanted

Was a boyfriend who wouldn’t need to.

‘You’re sex-phobic,’ I say,

Because it’s what I believe.

What he’s all but called himself,

Claiming not to be ready.

Even though he masturbates.

Even though he knows how he feels.

Even though he loves me.”

Spoiler alert: you can masturbate, love someone and understand your feelings and still be asexual. Again, this is blatant aphobia that is never really dealt with. When Hunter and Vanilla do break up, it comes off as like Hunter is doing a favor for the both of them, like he’s the hero that’s going to save both of them and it literally made me sick.

One last quote:

“It breaks my heart to think he’s as serious

As I am, that he’s so afraid of sex

That he’d toss our love to the wolves.”

This quote makes me so effing angry because I just don’t understand how Hunter can be so freaking hard-headed and how an author could write this book about this shitty, abusive relationship and pass it off as this poignant, heart-wrenching love story. Being who you are isn’t tossing your love to wolves. Hunter being an aphobic and judgy person is what ultimately destroys it, but the text never confirms or validates that.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, some of the worst of the worst that I found. There’s another poem in the book called “Queen of Hearts” that was so aphobic I actually started crying while reading it. This book’s representation of asexuality was handled like we’re some kind of freak show to be observed and helped, that we are an inconvenience in a relationship for the most part. Vanilla thankfully finds someone at the end of the novel who understands him, but it was given so little page time, adding more insult to injury.  

Overall, this book was hard for me to read. The language is so unnecessarily physical and visceral. It felt more nostalgic than immediate. There were some parts that enjoyed, but overall this book is a hard pass for me.

I had other issues with this book. The way that the voice of each poem was separated was frustrating. Each character had poems in a different font. Not only did this strain my eyes while I was reading the book, but I often forgot who was who.

Moving into style, the poems were well written but some of them were so overly poetic and flowery that the characters’ voices got lost in the writing. The author should have spent more attention developing empathy for the orientation of one of his main characters than spending two stanzas developing some allegory or extended metaphor that ultimately didn’t make sense or contribute anything to the plot.

I usually don’t try to actively discourage people from reading a book, but if you are upset by rape culture and/or aphobia then I highly suggest you do not buy, support or pick up this book when it comes out in the fall. Spend your time supporting indie and self published asexual authors who are devoting their time to crafting well-rounded, multi-faceted ace characters with more empathy and compassion. And I know that by reviewing this book, I am largely shouting into the dark. Aces fighting against aphobia is comparable to David facing Goliath, but I will not put down my slingshot.

Regardless, Vanilla is expected to be released October 10, 2017.

*Please note that the use of terms like aphobia is also technically incorrect. While I have left my usage of the word in the review, going forward I am going to try to use the word amisia more, which is more sensitive to people who deal with actual phobias in the mental health sense and not the discrimatory one. 🙂

Posted in Book Review

Review: Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman

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Riptide Summer by Lisa Freeman, Sky Pony Press, 288 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥

In order to fully discuss this book, I had to include some spoilers. You’ve been warned! Also please note that I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 🙂

When I look for the perfect “summer” book, I try and find books with a few recurring motifs on the covers: sunny skies, ocean waves, seashells, footprints in the sand and girls in bathing suits. Lisa Freeman’s latest novel Riptide Summer, the sequel to Honey Girl, fits the bill. I read this sunny story about surfing, friendship and heartbreak and paving your own way on the beach and enjoyed its historical setting, Hawaiian MC and raw setting. I loved Freeman’s first novel, but had some issues with the sequel that I will discuss below.

In Riptide Summer, Nani has become an official member of the Sisters of Sand, a clique of girls who own the State Beach scene in sunny Southern California. However, after Nani’s illicit relationship with fellow Sister of Sand Rox implodes in the wake of a shocking secret, Jean’s alcoholism spirals and

One of the most effective parts of this book was its setting in the 1970s. There aren’t many historical fiction stories in YA that also read like a fresh and relevant summer contemporary novel. I loved Freeman’s descriptions of the clothes that Nani would wear and the general cultural attitudes of the time like women’s liberation. In fact, I wish that Freeman had brought this rich culture more to the forefront of the novel.

I also loved the book’s characters. Riptide Summer features a diverse set of girls with different attitudes and experiences. I liked Nani’s journey through her confusion and insecurities towards taking a step to becoming the girl she was meant to be. Rox wasn’t my favorite character, but she felt real, like girls I’ve known and had falling outs with. I loved Ellie (aka Ms. ERA) and her sassy feminism, and I hope I’m not wrong in her name being a reference to Eleanor Roosevelt. I loved Windy/Wendy and the way she connects to Nani through queer female writing. There were cute book boys too, but they all seemed like caricatures at times. The girls stole the show in this one.

There were parts of the plot that worked for me and part that didn’t. I definitely wish that Nani surfing had been a more major part of the book. I felt like some of the scenes with the girls on the beach were a little repetitive. I would have liked to see Nani’s relationship with Jean fleshed out more and more scenes with her and Windy during the end of the book. Overall, it was a summer book. It was a quick, breezy, drama-packed novel.

My biggest issue with this book is that it didn’t feel at times like it treated serious issues with the gravity and significance that they deserved, particularly domestic violence, abortion and sex. I wish that Freeman had taken a few more paragraphs or sentences to outline what is okay in these situations and what is not. That extra clarity would have been appropriate in a book targeted to young readers, and girls in particular.

I was also really disheartened when, at the end of the novel, it takes Nani losing her virginity to Jerry in order to fully realize that she likes girls. I feel that this scene, while only two pages, presents a dangerous idea that a girl has to have sex with a guy, a major, major emotional event, in order to confirm her sexuality for herself. Girls reading this review. Please know that you NEVER have to do that. What you label yourself as is valid. Your confusion is valid. But you never need to have sex with a guy to “confirm” your sexuality. While I recognize that the novel takes place in the 1970s, the idea that this scene gives young queer girls reading this book for its representation is potentially dangerous.

The scene also omits any mention of protection (again, this book takes place after women’s liberation so I find it unlikely the idea of birth control wouldn’t have at least passed Nani’s mind at some point, especially after her friend gets pregnant). The scene also rests on a very shaky, murky notion of consent. Nani even refers to sex with a guy as being like a riptide, a comparison I found, as someone who has been sexually assaulted in the past, as problematic and potentially harmful for young readers who aren’t getting the significance of this moment from this scene. Young adult authors have a certain level of responsibility when writing about certain issues for their readers, sex being one of them.  

Overall, this novel felt like a transitional one in both content and style for this series. The writing style was choppy at points and beautiful in others. While the ending felt a little rushed and a bit too neatly tied up, I am anxiously waiting to hear if Freeman will be continuing Nani’s story. I would definitely love to where she takes her and the other Sisters of Sand after the end of this book.

Posted in Books

#31DaysOfMHYA Day 3: Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes

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Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, HarperTeen, 382 pp.

This book was a game changer for me. The novel is about Maguire, who believes she is unlucky and thus avoids any situation where she might put other people in danger. She undergoes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help her confront the challenge of flying to Ireland for a family reunion and finds love, friendship and a new sense of life along the way.

Book Twitter is a series of garbage fires, but one that went around in the past year hit me particularly hard. Someone, I don’t know remember who and I don’t really care because they are a jerk as far I’m concerned, said that a mentally ill person could never be the MC in a Chosen One narrative because mentally ill people can’t even function in everyday life. So…yeah. That’s bullshit.

Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes isn’t a chosen one narrative, but it’s a book that falls into another category: the romantic comedy. Through Maguire and Jordy’s romance, Stokes shows that it’s possible for mentally ill (specifically anxious) teens to have healthy relationships and be the star in a romantic comedy. It’s a narrative about teens with mental illness that is ultimately more happy and hopeful than almost any book I’ve read.

I read Girl Against the Universe at a crossroads in my life. I was just beginning to confront the reality of my own mental illness and accept it. I was finding this community of like-minded people on Twitter and then I found this book and devoured it in one sitting. I NEEDED this book and instantly connected with it. It gave me hope about therapy and what therapy could do. This book helped me accept myself and laugh about it along the way. It will always be a book close to my heart. If you’re looking for a cute, therapy positive book about mental illness, this is it.

If you want to know more of my thoughts about Girl Against the Universe, you can read my post here.

Posted in Books

#31DaysOfMHYA Day 2: Libraries and Mental Health

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.