#MHYALit: Agoraphobia in YA Lit, THE OUTLIERS by Kimberly McCreight and HIGHLY ILLOGICAL BEHAVIOR by John Corey Whaley
Agoraphobia is an extreme type of anxiety that can result in panic attacks. It can become so extreme that people become unable to leave their houses and they stick to strict routines hoping to avoid triggering these panic attacks. Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, for example, suffered from depression and agoraphobia. Towards the end of his life his agoraphobia became so extreme that he built an ice skating rink near his home to write and he would walk the same, familiar path every day to this rink to write. The life of someone with agoraphobia can be very difficult to navigate and there are two recent YA titles that have recently been released dealing with this topic; I recently read them both.
The first is The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight. The Outliers is first and foremost a thriller with some sci fi overtones, and you should know that it has already been optioned for a movie production deal.
Although she hasn’t left her home in a few weeks now, Wylie receives a text from her friend, “Please Wylie, I need your help.” Then Cassie’s mom shows up asking if she knows where Cassie is. Soon Wylie and Cassie’s boyfriend are on the road trying to track Cassie down and save her from a terrifying fate. It is an edge of your seat thriller; I started reading it at around 9 o’clock one evening and didn’t stop until I put it down until about 1 the next morning when I had finished. It was an interesting premise with some unpredictable twists and turns (and a couple that I clearly saw coming). Though I’m not sure how I feel about it as an entry into the #MHYALit discussion.
In the beginning, I was very excited about the way Wylie’s mental health issues were discussed in The Outliers. For one, she clearly uses the word anxiety to discuss her anxiety and agoraphobia. When we were trying to come up with titles for our various #MHYALit book lists, which are currently in process, we noted that there weren’t many titles that actually used the word anxiety – and here was one that did, bonus! And I felt it was a pretty good description and representation of what anxiety can look and feel like. But as the mystery of what is happening begins to unfold, the mental health issue gets kind of clouded. Let me explain, and there will be spoilers here: it turns out that a small percentage of people have some special abilities – “heightened perceptive abilities” – and Wylie is perhaps one of these people (which is super convenient because her scientist father is the one who discovers the outliers and it is his research that puts her in jeopardy). It is also suggested that her anxiety issues may be tied in with this special ability. So here we’ve taken a character with complex and well developed mental health issues and suggested that they may somehow be tied in with these other special abilities which are clearly in the speculative fiction realm and does nothing to normalize mental health issues. If anything, it kind of romanticizes them by suggesting that they are an indicator that she has some special abilities.
The other quibble that I had with The Outliers is that after McCreight establishes that Wylie hasn’t left the house in quite a while because of her anxiety/agoraphobia issues, she then leaves the house. It’s not easy for her to leave the house, but it is much easier than I have seen it portrayed in other media and it didn’t seem to fit in with what had already been established about Wylie’s struggles. But, this is not a realistic title dealing realistically with real life issues, it’s a science fiction thriller and on that level, it undoubtedly succeeds.
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corely Whaley handles the topic of agoraphobia much more successfully in my opinion, but then it is also a contemporary fiction title. This title is arguably one of the best titles of 2016 and it is something every single person should read just for the end discussion about mental health issues. But let me start at the beginning.
Lisa is a high school student who wants desperately to get into a prestigious psychology program, which is why she has decided she will “befriend” the extremely agoraphobic Solomon and write about her experience for her entrance essay. Worst. Plan. Ever.
Solomon hasn’t left his house in three years. He lives with supportive but obviously deeply concerned parents and they are all trying to figure out how to not only deal with but how to help Solomon with his crippling mental health issues.
So Lisa and eventually her boyfriend Clark befriend Solomon, determined to “fix” him so that she can write her precious essay and get accepted into the school of her dreams. This is, as you can imagine, a very bad plan. Lisa and Clark are in no way equipped to help Solomon. And when Solomon learns the truth, it has devastating consequences for everyone.
There is a scene in which a beloved family member is hospitalized and Solomon tries to leave his house to visit her in the hospital. This scene was heartbreaking in every way and seemed a much more realistic depiction of what it is like for someone with extreme agoraphobia to try and leave their house. In fact, I have a family member with agoraphobia and I felt this was a pretty realistic and accurate depiction. Readers will leave this book having a better understanding of how limiting and devastating agoraphobia can be.
I was pretty angry with everything about this book for the first three-fourths of it. Lisa is a selfish young lady who is way in over her head and is clearly engaging in unethical behavior in the interest of reaching her personal goals. To say that I hated her would be an understatement, I loathed and detested her and wished bad things would happen to her. But as she immerses herself into Solomon’s world she comes to truly like him, she does in fact learn a lot about him and what it’s like to struggle with a mental health issue, and she does indeed write that psychology program entrance essay. This essay is everything. I want every teen, every adult, every person to read Lisa’ essay. What she says about how we as a culture treat and regard people with mental health issues is profound. I like what she says so much I screen capped the pages and texted them immediately to Ally and Amanda, my #MHYALit discussion partners. And their response to me was simply: Whoa.
I recommend both of these books, though for very different reasons. The Outliers is an engaging thriller, teens will read and enjoy it. Highly Illogical Behavior is a moving, compassionate story about a teen’s struggles with mental health issues and it challenges us all to think deeply about how we view mental illness, how we treat those who struggle with mental illness, and how we as a culture try to silence the discussion of mental health issues because they make us uncomfortable.
Publisher’s Book Descriptions
The Outliers by Kimbery McCreight
It all starts with a text: Please, Wylie, I need your help.
Wylie hasn’t heard from Cassie in over a week, not since their last fight. But that doesn’t matter. Cassie’s in trouble, so Wylie decides to do what she has done so many times before: save her best friend from herself.
This time it’s different, though. Instead of telling Wylie where she is, Cassie sends cryptic clues. And instead of having Wylie come by herself, Jasper shows up saying Cassie sent him to help. Trusting the guy who sent Cassie off the rails doesn’t feel right, but Wylie has no choice: she has to ignore her gut instinct and go with him.
But figuring out where Cassie is goes from difficult to dangerous, fast. As Wylie and Jasper head farther and farther north into the dense woods of Maine, Wylie struggles to control her growing sense that something is really wrong. What isn’t Cassie telling them? And could finding her be only the beginning? (HarperCollins, May 3)
Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
Sixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn’t left the house in three years, which is fine by him.
Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she’s being realistic). But how can she prove she deserves a spot there?
Solomon is the answer.
Determined to “fix” Sol, Lisa thrusts herself into his life, introducing him to her charming boyfriend Clark and confiding her fears in him. Soon, all three teens are far closer than they thought they’d be, and when their facades fall down, their friendships threaten to collapse, as well. (Dial Books, May 10)
Filed under: #MHYALit
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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