Family

Alone in the Dark

Why we need more children’s books about suicide and severe depression.

In the dark, a child reads a book that shows her reflection.
Doris Liou

With the news of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths, along with the revelation that these two famous people were among the approximately 861 Americans who die by suicide every week, a national conversation began about things we should be doing to help prevent this. Many of these things, thankfully, are already being done to some extent: identifying those at risk and working to improve mental health services. What are we not doing? Talking to kids about suicide.

I’m a children’s-book author, so it is my job to talk—in person as well as on paper—with kids. My most recent middle-grade novel is All Three Stooges, which is about two comedy-obsessed 12-year-old boys whose friendship falls apart in the aftermath of a parent’s suicide. It was inspired, in part, by the suicide of my friend Dave, who was also my younger daughter’s best friend’s dad. Writing the book involved interviewing teens and tweens who had lost parents and caregivers to suicide, volunteering at a grief camp for kids, and soliciting feedback on drafts from colleagues and kids. When All Three Stooges came out, many librarians and educators told me how much they loved it, but few invited me to speak to their students about it.

Whenever I delivered the novel’s elevator pitch, audiences that would smile as I mentioned the book’s focus on friendship, faith, and funny business would wince when I hit the word suicide. The final blow came when a philanthropic organization that had sponsored the distribution of copies of my previous novels passed on All Three Stooges. They apologized, explaining that they did not feel comfortable sending it home with 11-year-olds, whose families might not be ready to discuss the subject of suicide.

I get it. When Dave died, my husband and I definitely didn’t want to explain to our kids why their friend’s dad, the guy who’d made them s’mores on camping trips, was suddenly gone. Did we have to? we wondered. After all, the kids were young. The situation was jarring and felt surreal—our first and last window into Dave’s scrupulously well-concealed battle with severe depression. We also worried about making things worse. What if, in our bumbling attempts to offer clarity, we inadvertently planted a fear that one of us might be next? When Dave’s widow informed us that she’d told their daughter it was a heart attack instead of a suicide, relief washed over us. We didn’t have to tell our kids the truth. In fact, we couldn’t—out of respect for Dave’s family (and concern that our kids might blurt something out and reveal the ruse).

What neither of us realized at the time was that this cover story would eventually fester and implode, as lies so often do. When the real cause of Dave’s death was shared with his daughter— by the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong way—her distress was compounded by the realization that she had been deceived for years. My husband and I then tried to set the record straight with our own kids. It wasn’t a fun conversation. We struggled to answer the “Why?” part. We had even more trouble with the “How?” part. And, of course, there was the “Why did you say heart attack?” part, with dismay expressed for not just the fact that this fiction was created for Dave’s daughter “but that you guys went along with it.” We had to admit that, in hindsight, it sure didn’t look like our finest parenting moment.

Why should you talk to your kids about suicide, especially if there is no Dave in your life? Of course, these are kids—10-, 11-, 12-year-olds—and you might hope that suicide is a topic they won’t encounter until they’re much older. You might even have the morbid worry that the more you say on the subject, the more likely they’ll be to harm themselves (a franchise of the fine family of myths that keep parents tap dancing around subjects like sex and drugs, especially if we have our own baggage). Maybe you’ve read the recent articles about suicide clusters and the “copycat” effect. Maybe you binge-watched—or boycotted13 Reasons Why.

The impulse to protect kids from subject matter that we deem too dangerous, upsetting, or “adult” is, needless to say, a common one. When Kate Messner took on the subject of opioid addiction in her middle-grade novel The Seventh Wish, she found resistance from those who felt this was not an appropriate topic for fourth- and fifth-graders. This included an email from a librarian who told her, “I just need the 10 and 11-year-olds’ biggest worry to be about friendships, summer camps, and maybe their first pimple or two.” “Kids want this too, but that’s not always their reality,” Messner told me recently. “Not talking about these issues doesn’t mean kids don’t think about them. It just leaves them alone in the dark.”

One answer to this problem, some might suggest, is setting these books aside for just those kids who need them. A bookseller I know proudly reported giving a copy of my book All Three Stooges to a social worker who counsels grieving kids. But I also get concerned about books being placed on a high shelf and reserved for Kids Experiencing This Specific Issue. Many kids suffer in silence with issues at home that are not on the radar of their teachers or peers. Seeing themselves and their struggles in print validates their experiences and helps them feel less alone. And books about parental suicide and mental illness are not just potentially helpful to kids who are struggling with those issues; these books can be helpful to all kids in fourth or fifth grade, if not earlier.

Historically, with a few notable exceptions—Ruth White’s Newbery Honor book, Belle Prater’s Boy, and Nora Raleigh Baskin’s What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows come to mind—the subject of parents’ severe depression and suicide has been addressed not in middle-grade novels but in young adult literature. (Two recent YA standouts are Allison McGhee’s What I Leave Behind and Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After.) But the landscape is finally changing.

One book that led the way was Nest, by Esther Ehrlich, in which the protagonist’s mother, a former dancer now struggling with multiple sclerosis, is severely depressed, in and out of hospitals, and ultimately suicidal. Ehrlich carefully avoids writing an overblown “issue book” (the literary equivalent of an After School Special), instead capturing subtle details: the ways kids walk on eggshells to maintain the fragile status quo, the extent to which they often turn their pain inward when disaster strikes. Another strength of this novel is the sensitive way it shows that even loving your children and wanting to protect them from harm do not insulate you from severe depression’s gravitational pull. On our last multifamily camping trip, days before he ended his life, no one was more attentive to his kid’s sunscreen-reapplication needs than Dave.

Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin offers an incredibly well-drawn portrait of Lily, a transgender girl. But it’s also worth reading for its attention to the plight of Dunkin, who struggles with bipolar disorder while coming to terms with his father’s suicide. Although often shelved with books for teens, this is really a novel for kids 10 and up. Dunkin is a bighearted kid who is so happily distracted by the attention he receives from the basketball team that he stops taking his medicine and ignores signs that the lack of medication is activating his mental illness. When everything falls apart, Dunkin is hospitalized and has to confront the real thing he’s trying not to think about: his dad. Gephart has a keen ear for this age group; at this stage, kids like to have their feelings taken seriously and can navigate challenging emotional terrain if given a good map. Lily and Dunkin is that map.

Some authors avoid being didactic by having the parent’s mental illness be a concern of the protagonist without being the primary plot driver. For example, in Tae Keller’s The Science of Breakable Things, Natalie believes that if she wins an “egg drop” contest, her mom’s severe depression will be cured. This approach promotes empathy, helps normalize the experience of having a mentally ill parent, and shows kids that they aren’t defined by their parents’ disease. In Michelle Cuevas’ The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, a character’s intense grief after her father’s death soon acquires both a form (a pet black hole that follows her home from a visit to NASA) and a name (Larry). Stella develops deep affection for Larry, while coming to realize that the best thing she can do for him may be to set him free.

Another benefit of taking younger readers to black-hole-dark places is providing them with the tools they need to get through painful times. In The Stars Beneath Our Feet, David Barclay Moore showcases the power of processing loss through creative expression. Lolly, a 12-year-old boy who has lost his older brother to gang violence, and his new friend Rose, who has lost her mother to suicide, find hope and community by making art out of Lego bricks. Harmonee, the imagined city they create, in some ways evokes the Terabithia of Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Like that novel, The Stars Beneath Our Feet is particularly effective at showing kids dealing with their emotional responses—to mundane circumstances as well as traumatic experiences—like kids.

It goes without saying that books are not substitutes for actual conversations between adults and kids. But books can and should be catalysts for, and important components of, these conversations. I say conversations because talking about something as complex and confounding as suicide is never a single conversation. Dave died in 2009; we told our kids about his suicide in 2011 (when the kids were 8 and 11). And now, seven years later, we’re still talking about it.

These conversations have actually evolved over time from the awkward and apologetic initial one to some surprisingly forthright and positive recent talks. They’ve allowed us to own what we know about the disease while admitting all that we still don’t—and may never—understand. They’ve given us opportunities to share our outrage at the silence and stigma around suicide, as well as the opportunity to listen. And they’ve helped us to celebrate the many good things that are still here—including our friendship with Dave’s family and his beloved, now elderly, Boston terrier, Mathilda—even though Dave is not.