Today for Mental Illness in YA Month, I have YA author of The Girl and the Grove, Eric Smith, stopping by to talk about his latest novel, and how his protagonist, Leila, has seasonal affective disorder.
Can you tell us a little about The Girl and the Grove?
Sure! It’s a novel about a recently-adopted teen who discovers that the voices she’s heard her whole life might be connected to who she really is, and follows them into a city park in the heart of Philadelphia. It could be that her biological origins hold some kind of magical secret, and that the answers lie in the natural world.
It’s sort of my issue book? I’m an adoptee, and always struggled to find stories that left me feeling represented well growing up. And there was always this lingering question in the back of my head, wondering about my background, who the people were, where they came from, what they were like... it’s that question that’s at the heart of the book. And whether or not the answer to that question, shapes who we are.
It’s also something of a love letter to Philadelphia, where I lived for nearly ten years. That city holds a huge piece of my heart. It’s where I went to grad school, started my career, met my wife and some of my dearest friends… I miss it something fierce.
Leila has seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Yours is the first YA novel I’ve come across to feature a character with SAD. Can you tell us a little about what SAD is?
That surprises me! And yes. Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that occurs with changes in the seasons. So, those living with it can have depressive episodes tied to the winter and the summer. It can be treated with light therapy (which is featured in the book), medication, therapy, and even vitamins.
How does SAD affect Leila’s day-to-day life?
In The Girl and the Grove, Leila uses a SAD lamp. So, light therapy, every morning. It’s a condition she’s carried with her through her childhood, that’s gone misunderstood in a lot of her interactions with people. And isn’t that the case with depression? People assume much. “Have you tried not being sad?” Like it works that way.
SAD is something I’ve come across only once before, outside of books. It seems to be a lesser known mental illness. Was this part of why you chose to write a protagonist who lives with it?
I’d met a few people with it, but SAD really came into my life in a big way after meeting my wife. It was a little after we moved in together, and she was ordering a new SAD lamp. Every morning, she would take it out, using it while sitting on the couch. Something we talked about often was representation in the books I read and subsequently work on in my literary agent career, and SAD never really showed up in what she read. I wanted this for teen Nena, and other readers out there.
Leila has recently been adopted by Liz and Jon, but previously, she had been in and out of a group home, after things didn’t work out with various foster parents, partly because she has SAD. How does this affect how Leila sees herself, and her relationship with her parents?
It comes up a little bit, in some of the earlier interactions with Jon and Liz. She’s happy, with how they don’t dote and fuss over every little thing. How they give her room to just live with it. That’s a lesson I had to learn, with my wife. I wanted to fuss. She needed the space. And I think that’s an important thing to recognize. You can’t fix everything. Overbearing good intentions can be a problem.
I loved how The Girl and the Grove has a protagonist with a mental illness, but the story itself isn’t about mental illness. Was this a deliberate decision?
It was. If it was about mental illness, I think it would have to be something I live with personally. And that’s just not my story to tell. Adoption though, wrestling with identity, having questions about your past, being the product of a transracial adoption… that was something I could touch on personally.
This isn’t to say that people who don’t live with mental illness can’t write about it well. Do the work, do the research and get the readers… it can be done. That’s just not for me though.
Are there any YA novels featuring mental illness that you would recommend?
Oooh, good question. Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall, Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley, A World Without You by Beth Revis, My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga, Challenge Deep by Neal Schusterman, Pointe by Brandy Colbert (one of the greatest YA novels of all time in my opinion)… and I’d also look out for my dear friend Kelly Jensen’s upcoming anthology, (Don’t) Call Me Crazy, which is a collection of non-fiction essays from a wide array of YA authors and more, talking about mental illness.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for having me!
Thank you, Eric, for stopping by and answering my questions! Be sure to check out Eric's website, follow him on Twitter, and The Girl and the Grove - and read my review.
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