Top Ten YA Books That Address Teenage Suicide by Michele L. Haiken, Ed.D.
Disclaimer – This article addresses the topic of teen suicide and includes some sensitive information.
Evan was the class president of his high school. He was a solid student with lots of friends. He started an initiative in elementary school called “Cupcakes for a Cause” to raise awareness and money for hospice care after his father had passed away from brain cancer. He liked to go hiking and was active in his Temple Youth Group.
But on January 31, 2016, Evan committed suicide. He left no note and no signs that he was putting this thought into action.
Over 1,000 people attended his funeral in shock, despair, awe, grief, that this sixteen year old took his own life.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined as reported by the Jason Foundation, a nonprofit organization for the awareness and prevention of youth suicide. The organization also reports that four of five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs.
But what about the one who shows no clear warning signs? The one who was seemingly happy, gregarious, friendly, caring, family-oriented and then hanged himself in his bedroom.
I recently read All the Bright Places, a young adult novel by Jennifer Niven (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015) about two teens who develop a friendship over suicidal thoughts. Both characters are battling inner demons and throughout the story the warning signs were like bread crumbs dropped along the pages insinuating what is to come. Yet, in the book there were no adults, parents, siblings, friends, teachers who were keen enough to help these two teens. The book ends tragically.
In a twitter book chat with the author I asked Ms. Niven why she did not have anyone help these two teens when it was clear that they were struggling with suicidal thoughts from the beginning of the novel. Her response to me was she receives hundreds of tweets and letters from teenagers telling her that they do not have an adult who cares or they can turn to. I was shocked by her response. I thought how can that be possible.
And two weeks later the news that Evan committed suicide rocked my community. I thought it was an accident. I told everyone there had to be a sign. Or it was a mistake. Why would this seemingly smart, popular, and all around good kid do something like this? How could no one not notice anything. His friends were as dumbfounded as I was, maybe even more so, compounded by heartbreak and mourning.
The Youth Suicide Prevention Program lists the following signs that may indicate that someone is thinking of suicide:
- Talking or joking about suicide
- Current talk of suicide or making a plan
- Strong wish to die or a preoccupation with or romanticizing death
- Writing stories or poems about death, dying, or suicide
- Engaging in reckless behavior or having a lot of accidents resulting in injury
- Saying things like, “I’d be better off dead,” “I wish I could disappear forever,” or “There’s no way out.”
- Giving away prized possessions
- Signs of depression, such as moodiness, hopelessness, withdrawal
- Increased alcohol and/or other drug use
- Hinting at not being around in the future or saying good-bye
- Seeking out pills, firearms, or other ways to kill themselves
So, if a friend or child or sibling or student mentions suicide or shows one (even many) of the warning signs take it seriously. Get help immediately. Do not leave the person alone. At the same time, show the person you care by sharing your concerns and listening carefully to their feelings.
Maybe Evan’s suicide could have been prevented. Maybe there were signs that people missed or he hid his pain. We will never know. What we do know is the hole that he has left in so many by ending his life so unexpectedly is deep.
Books are often a mechanism to let people know they are not alone and to validate their questions and emotions. Below are 10 Young Adult novels that address suicide and can been used to help cope, and even be a catalyst for a community discussion.
13 Reasons by Jay Asher
Two weeks after Hannah commits suicide, the boy who had a crush on her, Clay Jenson, receives cassette tapes detailing the events and circumstances that led Hannahs to take her own life.
Love Letters to the Dead by Lea Dellaira
After an English assignment to write a letter to someone who is dead, Laurel begins writing to Kurt Cobain, then Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, River Phoenix, and others who died young. Through her letter writing the reader learns about Laurel’s older sister and the circumstances that lead to May’s death.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Although there is some debate on GoodReads.com whether Alaska committed suicide or if her death was an accident, this book centers around a suicide among friends and the pressures of growing up. The book also addresses how the friends band together after the tragic event.
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
This book addresses anorexia and self destruction. Lia’s internal struggles deter her from accepting help and send her on a tragic path.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Both Theodore Finch and Violet Markey have suicidal thoughts, they support each other through the emotional roller coaster they experience. Some demons are too much and one of them takes their own life.
By the Time Your Read This, I’ll Be Dead by Julie Ann Peters
Daelyn has been bullied all her life and turns to a Web site for “suicide completers” where she meets other people with her same intentions. Daelyn questions her own existence as she decides what to do with the last remaining days of her life.
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
On many high school required reading lists, this classic play addresses teen suicide for two young lovers who feels as if the entire world is conspiring against them.
Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman
Obsessive Compulsive, emotionally disturbed, schizophrenic. This book puts the reader in the mind of protagonist Caden Bosch as he falls victim to the demons and struggles with mental illness.
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
Months after his father’s suicide, 16 year old Aaron struggles with his own identity afraid he will end up like his father. His friendship with Thomas helps him find the positives despite the struggles he has been through.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vinizzi
The only book on this list that offers a “positive” ending. Craig’s suicidal thoughts land him in a mental hospital where he learns to cope with his depression.
Michele L. Haiken, Ed.D. (@teachingfactor) is a middle school English teacher at Rye Middle School in Rye, New York and an adjunct professor in the Literacy Department at Manhattanville College. To find out what she is currently reading and the books she has piled high on her nightstand, you can visit her blog http://TheTeachingFactor.com where she shares highlights about literacy and learning in her classroom.