Check It Out: Books provide comfort for YA readers

Three recently published young adult novels tell stories of teenagers in crisis and their struggle with mental illness: "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock" by Matthew Quick, "Reality Boy" by A.S. King and "Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets" by Evan Roskos.

These books tell powerful stories. The protagonists grapple with depression, anger and anxiety. They tell their stories in first person, in vivid language and with sometimes raw emotion. Despite their potentially bleak situations, these engaging stories of emotional and mental turmoil are really stories of hope.

In "Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock," the main character is smart and observant, a connoisseur of classic Hollywood movies, with a quick wit and academic brilliance when a subject captures his imagination. But he's a young man swamped by depression and carrying a destructive secret. Sometimes Leonard is frightened by the extreme nature of his emotional shifts: explosive one day and unconcerned the next.

On the morning of his 18th birthday, Leonard decides to get revenge and then to end his own life. "Forgive Me" is the story of this one crucial day. Quick's plotting slowly ratchets up the suspense as we wonder whether Leonard will survive. The book is peppered with footnotes and wry comments that help to relieve the tension of Leonard's story. When the ending arrives, it is the opposite of bleak. While avoiding simplistic resolutions, Quick leaves us with the possibility of better things to come.

Another character in search of a break from his past is Gerald Faust in "Reality Boy." A critically acclaimed author, King has a gift for writing distinct, realistic voices. In "Reality Boy," Gerald is a 17-year-old with major anger issues. A former reality TV star, Gerald is part of a highly dysfunctional family that once appeared on a show called "Network Nanny," where Gerald was presented as the problem child. But the problems in his family run much deeper and involve frightening behavior by his older sister. Twelve years later, Gerald has spent years in anger management therapy, has no friends, and is surviving, instead of living, life.

As the novel unfolds, it becomes harder for Gerald to escape into the soothing fantasy world he's created. He begins to realize that he does have the strength to engage with reality without it destroying him, that the people around him have their own issues, and that he has a right to a happier, saner existence.

The sense of doubt that Gerald and Leonard know intimately also haunts James Whitman in Roskos' debut novel, "Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets." James is intelligent and funny and quick to see the joy in life. But he's coping with abusive parents, a sister mysteriously absent, and the daily unpredictability of life in high school.

Most mornings James yawps — like Walt Whitman — to irritate his father (The Brute) but also in emulation of Whitman's bravado. Additionally, James talks to a therapist, Dr. Bird. The passages where James seeks and receives advice from Dr. Bird are some of the wittiest in this clever novel that balances between the serious and the comic. James is trying to figure out how to stare life in the face and not flinch. As readers, we root for him every time.

Mental health conditions are often difficult to discuss. But these issues are more common than many people might think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that as many as one out of five young people "experience[s] a mental disorder in a given year." There is a wealth of research in this field and many educational resources. The library has links, at its Teens site, to adolescent health and developmental information. Visit and click on the "Parents & Educators" menu option. This site links to the National Institute of Health (NIH), which has many resources, about a variety of conditions and ways to help.

CHECK IT OUT is written by the staff of the Newport Beach Public Library. All titles may be reserved from home or office computers by accessing the catalog at For more information on the Central Library or any of the branches, please contact the Newport Beach Public Library at (949) 717-3800, option 2.

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