A Variety of Brains: Books with Anxious Main Characters

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Welcome to A Variety of Brains. Are you looking for a neurodiverse book? I’ve got it listed for you. This week, I’m spotlighting anxious main characters.

A lot of these may not be good representation. It could even be most of them, but that’s not my call to make. On my last few major lists like this for YA Interrobang, I pulled any books I knew were problematic, but I hesitate to do that with this one, simply because neurodiversity in itself is incredibly diverse. Take, for example, the way that anxiety manifests itself varies from person to person.

Some experiences will feel true to some readers, but those same experiences could be triggering for others. I don’t want to deny anyone the chance to find themselves in the pages. Before picking up any of these books, please look at reviews, ask friends, make sure that what’s in these pages won’t harm you. I can’t tell you what won’t work for you, what will hurt you, and I can’t vet all of these books. Please, please be careful.

10 things i can see from here carrie mac cover10 Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release date: February 28 2017
Maeve has heard it all before. She’s been struggling with severe anxiety for a long time, and as much as she wishes it was something she could just talk herself out of, it’s not. To add to her troubles, her mom—the only one who really gets what Maeve goes through—is leaving for six months, so Maeve will be sent to live with her dad in Vancouver. Vancouver brings a slew of new worries, but Maeve finds brief moments of calm with Salix, a local girl who doesn’t seem to worry about anything. Between her dad’s wavering sobriety, her very pregnant stepmom insisting on a home birth, and her bumbling courtship with Salix, this summer brings more catastrophes than even Maeve could have foreseen

the avery shaw experiment kelly oram coverThe Avery Shaw Experiment by Kelly Oram
Publisher: Bluefields
Release date: May 4 2013
The state science fair is coming up and Avery decides to use her broken heart as the topic of her experiment. She’s going to find the cure. By forcing herself to experience the seven stages of grief through a series of social tests, she believes she will be able to get over Aiden Kennedy and make herself ready to love again. But she can’t do this experiment alone, and her ex-partner is the one who broke her heart. Avery finds the solution to her troubles in the form of Aiden’s older brother, Grayson. He’s in need of a good tutor and some serious extra credit. But when Avery recruits the lovable Grayson to be her “objective outside observer,” she gets a whole lot more than she bargained for, because Grayson has a theory of his own: Avery needs to live. And if there’s one thing Grayson Kennedy is good at, it’s living life to the fullest.

before she ignites jodi meadows coverBefore She Ignites by Jodi Meadows
Publisher: Katherine Tegen
Release date: September 12 2017
Since the day Mira Minkoba was born, she’s been told she’s special. Important. Perfect. She’s known across the Fallen Isles not just for her beauty, but for the Mira Treaty named after her, a peace agreement which united the seven islands against their enemies on the mainland. But Mira has never felt as perfect as everyone says. She counts compulsively. She struggles with crippling anxiety. And she’s far too interested in dragons for a girl of her station. Then Mira discovers an explosive secret that challenges everything she and the Treaty stand for. Betrayed by the very people she spent her life serving, Mira is sentenced to the Pit – the deadliest prison in the Fallen Isles.

the boyfriend list e lockhart coverThe Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release date: March 22 2005
Ruby Oliver is 15 and has a shrink. She knows it’s unusual, but give her a break—she’s had a rough 10 days. In the past 10 days she: lost her boyfriend, lost her best friend,lost all her other friends, did something suspicious with a boy, did something advanced with a boy, had an argument with a boy, drank her first beer, got caught by her mom, had a panic attack), lost a lacrosse game, failed a math test), hurt Meghan’s feelings, became a social outcast and had graffiti written about her in the girls’ bathroom. But don’t worry—Ruby lives to tell the tale. And make more lists.

don't touch rachel m wilson coverDon’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: September 2 2014
Caddie has a history of playing games in her head to cope with her surroundings—but it’s never been this bad before. When her parents split up, don’t touch becomes Caddie’s mantra. She knows it doesn’t make sense, but her games have never been logical. Soon, despite Alabama’s humidity, she’s covering every inch of her skin and wearing evening gloves to school. And that’s where things get tricky. Even though Caddie’s the new girl, it’s hard to pass off her compulsions as artistic quirks. Her drama class is all about interacting with her scene partners, especially Peter, who’s auditioning for the role of Hamlet. Caddie desperately wants to play Ophelia, but if she does, she’ll have to touch Peter . . . and kiss him. Part of Caddie would love nothing more than to kiss Peter—but the other part isn’t sure she’s brave enough to let herself fall.

dr bird's advice for sad poets evan roskos coverDr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release date: March 5 2013
Sixteen-year-old James Whitman has been yawping (à la Whitman) at his abusive father ever since he kicked his beloved older sister, Jorie, out of the house. James’s painful struggle with anxiety and depression—along with his ongoing quest to understand what led to his self-destructive sister’s exile—make for a heart-rending read, but his wild, exuberant Whitmanization of the world and keen sense of humor keep this emotionally charged debut novel buoyant.

every exquisite thing matthew quick coverEvery Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release date: May 31 2016
Star athlete and straight-A student Nanette O’Hare has played the role of dutiful daughter for as long as she can remember. But one day, a beloved teacher gives her his worn copy of The Bubblegum Reaper and the rebel within Nanette awakens. As the new and outspoken Nanette attempts to insert her true self into the world with wild abandon, she befriends the reclusive author and falls in love with a young, troubled poet. Forced to make some hard choices that bring devastating consequences, Nanette learns the hard way that rebellion can sometimes come at a high price.

fangirl rainbow rowell original coverFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release date: September 10 2013
For Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate and she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s never really been alone. For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

finding audrey sophie kinsella paperback coverFinding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release date: June 9 2015
An anxiety disorder disrupts fourteen-year-old Audrey’s daily life. She has been making slow but steady progress with Dr. Sarah, but when Audrey meets Linus, her brother’s gaming teammate, she is energized. She connects with him. Audrey can talk through her fears with Linus in a way she’s never been able to do with anyone before. As their friendship deepens and her recovery gains momentum, a sweet romantic connection develops, one that helps not just Audrey but also her entire family.

harmonic feedback tara kelly coverHarmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co
Release date: May 25 2010
Sixteen-year-old, music-obsessed Drea doesn’t have friends. Having just moved to the latest in a string of new towns, Drea meets two other outsiders. And Naomi and Justin seem to actually like Drea. Justin, against all odds, may even like like Drea. It’s obvious that Drea can’t hide behind her sound equipment anymore. But just when she’s found not one but two true friends, can she stand to lose one of them?

how i made it to eighteen tracy white coverHow I Made it to Eighteen by Tracy White
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release date: June 8 2010
How do you know if you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown? For seventeen-year-old Stacy Black, it all begins with the smashing of a window. After putting her fist through the glass, she checks into a mental hospital. Stacy hates it there but despite herself slowly realizes she has to face the reasons for her depression to stop from self-destructing. How I Made it to Eighteen is a frank portrait of what it’s like to struggle with self-esteem, body image issues, drug addiction, and anxiety.

how it feels to fly kathryn holmes coverHow It Feels to Fly by Kathryn Holmes
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: June 14 2016
For as long as Samantha can remember, she’s wanted to be a professional ballerina. Then her body betrayed her. The result: crippling anxiety about her appearance. On her dance teacher’s recommendation, Sam is sent to a summer treatment camp for teens who are struggling with mental and emotional obstacles. If she can make progress, she’ll be allowed to attend a crucial ballet intensive. But when asked to open up to complete strangers, Sam can’t cope. With her future uncertain and her body against her, will Sam give in to the anxiety that imprisons her?

i don't want to be crazy samatha schutz coverI Don’t Want to Be Crazy by Samantha Schutz
Publisher: Push
Release date: July 1 2006
When Samantha Schutz first left home for college, she was excited by the possibilities — freedom from parents, freedom from a boyfriend who was reckless with her affections, freedom from the person she was supposed to be. At first, she reveled in the independence … but as pressures increased, she began to suffer anxiety attacks that would leave her mentally shaken and physically incapacitated. Thus, began a hard road of discovery and coping, powerfully rendered in this poetry memoir.

isla and the happily ever after stephanie perkins coverIsla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins
Publisher: Dutton
Release date: August 14 2014
Hopeless romantic Isla has had a crush on introspective cartoonist Josh since their first year at the School of America in Paris. And after a chance encounter in Manhattan over the summer, romance might be closer than Isla imagined. But as they begin their senior year back in France, Isla and Josh are forced to confront the challenges every young couple must face, including family drama, uncertainty about their college futures, and the very real possibility of being apart.

it's all your fault paul rudnick coverIt’s All Your Fault by Paul Rudnick
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release date: January 26 2016
My name is Caitlin and up until forty-eight hours ago I had never: Tasted alcohol, kissed a boy, sang in public at the top of my lungs, kidnapped anyone or stolen a convertible. Now I’m in jail and I have no idea what I’m going to tell: The police, my parents, the mayor, all of those camera crews and everyone on Twitter. I have just noticed that: My nose is pierced and I have—WAIT? IS THAT A TATTOO? I blame one person for this entire insane weekend: My famous cousin. Who is also my former best friend. Who I have HATED for the past four years. Who I miss like crazy.

the nature of jade deb caletti coverThe Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release date: February 27 2007
Jade DeLuna is too young to die. She knows this, and yet she can’t quite believe it. Since being diagnosed with Panic Disorder, she’s trying her best to stay calm, and visiting the elephants at the nearby zoo seems to help. That’s why Jade keeps the live zoo webcam on in her room, and that’s where she first sees the boy in the red jacket. A boy carrying a baby. His name is Sebastian, and he is raising his son alone. Jade is drawn into Sebastian’s cozy life with his son and his activist grandmother on their Seattle houseboat, and before she knows it, she’s in love. Jade knows the situation is beyond complicated, but she hasn’t felt this safe in a long time. She owes it all to Sebastian, her boy with the great heart. Her boy who is hiding a terrible secret. A secret that will force Jade to decide between what is right, and what feels right.

the rest of us just live here patrick ness us coverThe Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release date: October 6 2015
What if you aren’t the Chosen One? What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life. Even if your best friend is worshipped by mountain lions.

shackled tom leveen coverShackled by Tom Leveen
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: August 18 2015
After years of therapy, medication, and even a stint in a mental hospital, Pell’s finally ready to re-enter the world of the living. Pelly has been suffering from severe panic attacks ever since her best friend, Tara, disappeared six years ago. And her plan seems to be working, until an unkempt girl accompanied by an older man walks into the coffee shop where she works. Pelly thinks she’s seen a ghost, until the girl mouths “help me” on the way out, and Pelly knows she’s just seen Tara.

the smaller evil stephanie kuehn coverThe Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Release date: August 2 2016
Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says. Beau is complicated, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless. Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees and then, in an instant, Beau is gone.

under rose tainted skies louise gornall coverUnder Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release date: January 3 2017
At seventeen, Norah has accepted that the four walls of her house delineate her life. She knows that fearing everything from inland tsunamis to odd numbers is irrational, but her mind insists the world outside is too big, too dangerous. So she stays safe inside, watching others’ lives through her windows and social media feed. But when Luke arrives on her doorstep, he doesn’t see a girl defined by medical terms and mental health. Instead, he sees a girl who is funny, smart, and brave. And Norah likes what he sees. Their friendship turns deeper, but Norah knows Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can walk beneath the open sky. One who is unafraid of kissing. One who isn’t so screwed up. Can she let him go for his own good—or can Norah learn to see herself through Luke’s eyes?

underwater marisa reichardt us coverUnderwater by Marisa Reichardt
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux Books for Young Readers
Release date: January 12 2016
Morgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. Morgan must learn to forgive—first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then herself. But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside.

the upside of unrequited becky albertalli coverThe Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release date: April 11 2017
Molly Peskin-Suso’s crushed on twenty-six guys…but has kissed exactly none. Her twin sister Cassie’s advice isn’t that helpful. It’s easy for her to say: she’s had flings with lots of girls. She’s fearless and effortlessly svelte, while Molly is introverted and what their grandma calls zaftig. Then Cassie meets Mina, and for the first time ever, Cassie is falling in love. While Molly is happy for her, she can’t help but feel lonelier than ever. But Cassie and Mina are determined to end Molly’s string of unrequited crushes once and for all. They decide to set her up with Mina’s friend Will, who is ridiculously good-looking, flirty, and seems to be into Molly. Perfect, right? But as Molly spends more time with Reid, her cute, nerdy co-worker, her feelings get all kinds of complicated. Now she has to decide whether to follow everyone’s advice…or follow her own heart.

virtuosity jessica martinez coverVirtuosity by Jessica Martinez
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: October 18 2011
Now is not the time for Carmen to fall in love. And Jeremy is hands-down the wrong guy for her to fall for. He is infuriating, arrogant, and the only person who can stand in the way of Carmen getting the one thing she wants most: to win the prestigious Guarneri competition. Carmen’s whole life is violin, and until she met Jeremy, her whole focus was winning. But nobody else understands her–and riles her up–like he does. Still, she can’t trust him with her biggest secret: She is so desperate to win she takes anti-anxiety drugs to perform, and what started as an easy fix has become a hungry addiction. Sometimes, being on top just means you have a long way to fall

will and whit laura lee gulledge coverWill & Whit by Laura Lee Gulledge
Publisher: Amulet
Release date: May 7 2013
Wilhelmina “Will” Huckstep is a creative soul struggling to come to terms with a family tragedy. She crafts whimsical lamps, in part to deal with her fear of the dark. As she wraps up another summer in her mountain town, she longs for unplugged adventures with her fellow creative friends. Little does she know that she will get her wish in the form of an arts carnival and a blackout, courtesy of a hurricane named Whitney, which forces Will to face her fear of darkness.

See our list of characters dealing with addiction.

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About Author

Julie Daly

Julie Daly is sometimes known as Julianne. A recent college grad, when not job hunting, Julie is watching Netflix, talking about YA on twitter, or trying to make her cats play. In 2009, Julie joined a group blog called Bloggers[Heart]Books and her obsession with all things YA has grown exponentially. Though she no longer blogs, she did create #quietYA and is a cofounder of Blogbound Con. Julie has also interned at several publishers and sometimes plays bookseller. Follow her on Twitter at @DailyJulianne.

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