There is nothing that sells a book like teen suffering.
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars sold over 23 million copies before its movie adaptation generated $300m worldwide. And the #1 New York Times bestseller, 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, had pop-star Selena Gomez produce its Netflix series adaptation.
The former tells the story of Hazels battle with thyroid cancer and follows her and she falls in love with Augustus, who is suffering from bone cancer.
The latter is about Hannah Baker, who after taking her own life, released a series of tapes. At the start of which, she said: “I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.”
Known as ‘Teen-Sick-Lit’, this genre of young adult fiction fuses illness and romance as Julie Passanante Elman, Women’s & Gender Studies Professor, coins it. Sick-Lit has told the stories of physical and mental illness since the 1970s. They are often chronic conditions, ranging from leukaemia to unheard-of diagnoses.
Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott told the love story of two teenagers with cystic fibrosis. High school student Theodore Finch takes his own life after suffering from bipolar disorder in Jennifer Niven’s, All the Bright Places.
Eighteen-year-old Maddy with severe autoimmune disorder falls in love with the boy-next-door in Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. You see the trend.
So why does literature about teenage trauma, suffering and sickness attract so much attention? And should we really be reading heart-breaking teen tragedies?
“There’s something in the human psyche that wants us to romanticise something that’s not pleasant. The concern is children are reading and romanticising quite horrible things,” said Fiona Hannah, paediatrics and adolescent therapist at Teenage Mental Health.
“Unfortunately, the nature of being a teenager is you’re quite open to suggestion. Transversely, just because someone reads something about someone who’s got poor mental health doesn’t mean they’re going to get poor mental health.”
While the romanticisation of illness and disability as an effect of Sick-Lit’s boom can be troubling, Fiona agrees that it can also have a positive outcome.
“Knowledge is power. The more we know about something, the better we can get to grips with it,” she explained.
“When people say they have got a mental health problem, for some it would help empower and make them feel not alone.
“For another portion of society, they’ll see it as something they want to have so they can be more like the model they worship. I firmly believe in freedom of writing and being able to write whatever we want, but we do also have a social responsibility.”
Sick-Lit allows us to confront the awful reality of illness. Quotes such as “Maybe ‘okay’ will be our always” exchanged between two cancer-diagnosed teenagers falling in love can, by no doubt, pull at our heartstrings.
Responsibility is key in Teen-Sick-Lit, because if we want teenagers to survive their lifetime (unlike within the genre), these stories should have a positive impact and soon. Why? Well as Stella Grant, sick teenager, says:
“It’s just life, Will. It’ll be over before we know it.” – Five Feet Apart
If you liked this post then read “Reading helped me understand my mental illness” – why mental health representation in books matters or CENSORED: The sinister truth behind America’s book banning boom next.
Shruthi is a journalism student with a passion for reading, travel, food and music. She likes to spend her free time at Waterstones or journalling whenever she can. She’s passionate about human connection and relationships in books, so that we can learn to better ourselves and how we communicate with others.
Favourite genre: Contemporary romance.