By L.M. Elliott
It wasn’t just the number of questions the boy asked, but the way he asked them.
I was speaking to a packed auditorium of seventh and eighth graders about my first novel, “Under a War-torn Sky.” I was new to school author visits then, but I’d already grown accustomed to the urgency of book-loving 13-year-old boys, eager to show off their knowledge of the aircrafts referenced in my book. Like so many young people that age, this student’s face was a magical mixture of child and on-the-cusp adult, all earnest, itchy energy.
But this was different — beyond smart-student literary insight. He kept asking about my hero’s father, a prototypical, Great-Depression-era, tough-love farmer. Why was he so harsh? Had my protagonist done something to deserve it? And just like my hero anguishes: did that father really love his son, given how hard he pushed him?
I exchanged a glance with his teacher who nodded a promise she’d follow up. When she did, the student opened up about his dad and what turned out to be a case of PTSD and depression.
Building awareness and understanding of mental health has long been a "mission" of mine, first as a senior writer with the Washingtonian magazine, then as a historical/biographical fiction writer.
As a journalist, I’d had the extraordinarily rewarding and humbling experience of hearing from people who’d sought therapeutic help after reading my articles recounting the struggles of individuals who’d lived the issue and survived.
But that student taught me the power of a well-told novel.
After many years of writing, I’ve learned that that a character’s emotional journey can speak to an unnamed uneasiness within young readers’ hearts. Novels with accurate, sensitive presentations of mental health issues can provide a fictionalized, safe distance for youth to recognize challenges they’re facing themselves and talk about them thematically rather than in a personal or confessional way. This, in turn, allows for a less self-conscious discussion, in addition to providing clear clues to adults that a child might need help.
I wrote my latest work, “Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves,” during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we grappled with its unforeseen, deadly threat. As a historical fiction writer, I’ve learned the power of presenting issues in a past era rather than present day — it removes the heat of immediacy, lowering readers’ defensive, self-protective guardrails.
As I was writing, Nazi U-boats suddenly trolling our coastline became a metaphor for the lightning quick aspect of the terrifying pandemic my readers were experiencing firsthand. Life turns on a dime for my protagonist Louisa June as she faces the out-of-the-blue death of her beloved brother — a devastating loss similar to the unanticipated illness or death of immediate or secondary caregivers (parents, grandparents, extended family) which an estimated 1.5 million children under the age of 18 are currently grappling with because of COVID, according to the NIH.
My hope is that “Louisa June” resonates with readers facing their own loss — that they find hope and reassurance in Louisa June’s strength and journey to healing. Also, that their friends, who were luckier, find sympathy and understanding of the grieving process.
This book carries an additional undercurrent about emotional health and depression in family members — which can be a different thing entirely from grief, of course. Says Louisa June: “My mama has the melancholy. But recently it’s gone from her customary pinkish-gray — like a dawn mist in the marshes, still hopeful and able to clear into bright blue with the right sprinkle of sunshine — to thick, storm-surge purple black.”
An estimated one in five children live with a depressed parent, many of whom, tragically, go untreated. My goal is to have “Louisa June” help tweens in similar situations to feel seen and understood. To be encouraged by the supportive example of LJ’s elderly Cousin Belle to ask adults they trust for help, especially in this time of increased mental health struggles.
In England, bibliotherapy — the process of reading, reflecting on and discussing literature to encourage a cognitive shift — is a respected treatment option akin to music or art therapy. Studies show that people who read regularly are more able to empathize with others, but the effects of a good book are even more wide-reaching. In the mayhem of day-to-day life, we may forget what we felt in English class when reading a novel in which we saw ourselves and therein found a sense of communion. That wonderment Charlie expresses in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”: “It's strange because sometimes, I read a book, and I think I am the people in the book.”
Learning expert Rachael Walker created a discussion guide using “Louisa June” as a springboard for discussing emotional wellness with students. I recommend using this tool to encourage children’s creativity while they process complex feelings. I particularly love the art project playing off the poetic nature of Louisa June’s lost brother, his ability to find uplifting moments of beauty even in life’s darker moments.
Following his example, even though Nazi U-boats lurk in the waves, Louisa June thinks on the stars reflection in the water, a life-preserver reminder that “something beautiful and mystical, something uplifting, floated there, too.” The exercise encourages students to identify what “stars in the waves” elevate them and help them cope, then pin them on posters of turbulent waves.
L. M. Elliott was an award-winning magazine journalist for 20 years before becoming a New York Times best-selling author of historical and biographical fiction. Her novels explore a variety of eras and are written for a variety of ages. Her works have been named NCSS/CBC Notables; Bank Street College Best Books; CBC Best Books about Trauma, Tragedy, and Loss; Jefferson Cup Historical Honor Books; Kirkus Bests; and Grateful American Book Prize winners. Learn more at www.lmelliott.com or follow her on Twitter/Instagram @L_M_Elliott.
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