Children’s Literature and Mental Illness: A Conversation with Author Julie Halpern

July 7, 2016

Something that’s occurred to us is that we haven’t really spoken a lot about children and mental illness. It feels like a bit of a taboo subject, a conversation that might be best sparked by a good book. If you’re in the market for such a tome, we have just the author for you. Her name is Julie Halpern, and her book Get Well Soon, a book about a young girl who is sent to a mental hospital for three weeks, is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

We were so struck by the honesty and hilarity of Julie’s books (there’s a sequel to Get Well Soon called Have a Nice Day, and four other novels for you to enjoy) that we wanted to have her tell you a little bit about the writing process for this amazing Young Adult novel, and a little bit about how the lead character, Anna Bloom, came to be. Hope and Grace Community, this is Julie Halpern:

“I took a lot of writing classes growing in high school and in college. I’d always enjoyed writing, but I was never a person who sat around writing books, and I wasn’t a huge reader. I know I read all of Roald Dahl’s books in high school and Ray Bradbury, but that was it outside of comic books and magazines. I was also a Film major in college, so I’ve always enjoyed writing stories, but that was mostly for school assignments.

Actually, that’s not true. At the end of junior high school, my friends and I used to do these fake pen pal letters, and we would each pretend we were involved with a different rock star. This was back in 1988. Mine was Bono. We would write these letters to each other as if we were traveling the world with these rock stars as our boyfriends, and we would even send ‘souvenirs’ we’d picked up along our travels. I think I still have a necklace my friend made me out of a bunch of little buttons that she ‘picked up’ while she was on her imaginary travels with Michael Hutchence, the then-lead singer of the band INXS. We had a big computer at our house, and I used to write stories on it for my friends in that vein, but all of this is to say that I did a lot of random writing, but none of it was necessarily book material.

I was a zine writer after college. My friend, Liz, was writing about things she enjoyed, and we wound up writing our own zine called Cul-de-Sac, and we produced seven issues. It did really well for a zine, got written up in some zine review guides, etc. I actually met my husband through the zine. We just celebrated our thirteenth wedding anniversary.

During this time, I became a school librarian, and was around a lot of young adult books at the time. I loved them but they were so dark. I was thinking there should be some lighter, funnier, young adult books out there.

As the zine I was writing started getting some attention and people were writing me letters telling me I was funny, it that encouraged me to write a novel. I had been hospitalized for depression when I was a senior in high school, right at the beginning of my senior year, and I had remembered the experience down to the last detail: the characters, the smells, everything. I was only there for three weeks, but there’s nothing to do when you’re in a place like that; everything just becomes ingrained in your brain. I thought it would make an interesting story I’d always wanted to tell. But because I’d never written a novel, I thought I would write it in letter format. That felt more natural to me since I’d always written letters to my friends. I would write the book while I commuted on the train. I hand-wrote it in notebooks, and those notebooks became my first novel, Get Well Soon. I sold it as a book about a girl in a mental hospital, but funny.  I’d really wanted to write about depression, but from the angle of how I usually deal with it, which is through humor, particularly around other people. My editor, who is still my editor now, said she was absolutely interested in it, and it got published

I was an immature high school student by the time I was hospitalized when I was 16. I skipped a grade and was always the youngest in my class. I applied that to how Anna was so inexperienced and socially awkward, which turned her into a middle schooler. I felt like that was the right age for her. I wanted the character and the voice to have a bit of naiveté. Also, being younger, there’s this total lack of control over your life, and even more so when you’re hospitalized. When you’re under 18, you can’t sign yourself out of a hospital; it’s pretty much people telling you what to do, where to go, and what’s going to make you better. You just have to go along with it. I think a lot of Young Adult readers can relate to that feeling of helplessness.

I have to say, I do look back fondly on the impact Get Well Soon has had on the readers. I’m on my seventh novel as we speak, and so I’ve had other books come out, but it is the one book where I’ve received the most letters from readers. I have received several letters where people have told me that the book saved their lives. I had an email interaction for a while with a girl who was cutting, and after a period of time I convinced her to talk to her mom, which she had never really felt okay about doing. It started a great transition in her life where she stopped cutting and found more and more success within herself, and somehow that came out of me speaking at a book festival. I don’t know why me or why her, but it was really powerful. Another letter I received was from a young girl whose sister had been hospitalized. She wrote to tell me that she thought her sister had been faking it to get attention, that she didn’t believe her until she’d read Get Well Soon and realized what her sister had been going through all that time. That was neat to hear from someone whose understanding had been changed because of the book. It’s really awesome to see how my story — as told through Anna — has really had an impact on the lives of young people. It’s been really special.

When it comes to why other writers or people in general don’t want to cover the subject of childhood mental illness, I think as an adult it might cut a little too close to your own experience, the question of, “Was that me? Was I going through all that as a kid, too, and I never realized it?” It’s hard. It’s hard to watch my own kids figure things out, deal with anxiety. It’s frightening as a parent to think that it’s starting so early, that you hope your kids never have to deal with something like that. You hope it’ll go away, that it’ll pass. Being a parent is so hard that seeing your child struggle with something like this adds to the parent’s plate, and you just want your kid to be okay.

It’s really strange to live in an age where we can’t really share stories or experiences about the mental health of our children. I’m surrounded by other moms in multiple situations where you can talk about your kid’s learning disabilities, but it becomes questionable to talk about your child’s anxiety. That lack of receptiveness creates a fear that people who want to talk about such things might be causing people to look at their child differently, that you’re somehow tainting the child by bringing up such things when all you want to do is help your children feel happy and ‘normal’ about things. We went to a children’s event last week, and my daughter got really worked up about it, and frankly, that’s how I was in high school. So, I can’t say that I deal with it in the best way because I feel like I have to remember what it was like and I should figure out the best way to deal with it, on top of feeling like maybe I did this to her because she’s my child. Also, I never really learned how to deal with it really well from anyone, so now I’m supposed to take care of someone and teach them how to live a healthy life, and I don’t really know if I’m dealing with it in a healthy way. Maybe the books I’ve created are a means of having the conversations about mental health that I’ve always wanted to have.

I will say this: starting in zines and realizing that I could write personal stories, true personal stories, and other people would relate to them, was a huge game-changer for my writing: for knowing what to write and not being afraid to write. Because, if somebody could relate to the funniest, stupid, embarrassing high school story, it means the world to me. The zines freed me to then write novels and include all sorts of things that people might feel embarrassed to talk about, but then they get the “me too” feeling. Feeling nerdy, not knowing where your place is in the world — all of that is important to me, and I’m happy other people can relate.

If Anna Bloom, the main character in Get Well Soon, were able to give advice to kids her age about dealing with a mental health diagnosis, I think she’d first say that you are not alone. Find the thing that helps relieve the pain that isn’t going to hurt you; for me, it was watching bad TV or listening to music. Also, find someone — whether it’s a friend, someone at school, a counselor, someone you can really trust — that you can tell what’s going on, and that you’re not going to be awesome to be around for a bit, but that it will pass. That’s the big thing: it will pass. It might come back, but it does pass. When you’re in it, you can’t necessarily see it ending. But the truth is, the cycles of depression have come to an end at some point. There are moments of beauty and happiness. Focus on those moments in the harder times. They’re worth it.”