Bookbag: Young adult authors tackle anxiety in moving stories

Author John Green’s meteoric rise in Young Adult literature has come despite his ofttimes debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a topic he has been openly discussing since the release of his 2017 novel entitled, “Turtles All the Way Down” (2017, Dutton, $19.99, ages 14 and up).

After Green’s huge success of “Fault in Our Stars” in 2014, writing the next novel proved difficult. He abandoned several starts, then relapsed into a monthslong OCD bout. Green found that the only thing he could write about was OCD and, thus, the protagonist of “Turtles,” Aza, also an OCD sufferer, was born.

Those unfamiliar with OCD might only associate it with compulsive hand washing or being a “neat freak,” but as in Green’s case and the case of his protagonist, Aza, it is usually manifested as a combination of obsessive thoughts, along with repeated compulsive behaviors.

In “Turtles All the Way Down,” 16-year-old Aza Holmes, dubbed “Holmesy” by her best friend, Daisy, is consumed with obsessive thoughts of bacteria entering her body that will lead to her death, yet ironically, for years she has been reopening a self-inflicted wound on her finger. This habit feeds her anxiety, forming a vicious loop. Her thought-spirals coincide with intense grief from the death of her father and begin to affect her friendship with Daisy, as well as a budding romantic relationship with Davis, a boy she went to camp with many years ago whose wealthy father has just gone missing the night before he was to be arrested for bribery. With a reward of $100,000 for the missing Mr. Pickett, Aza and Daisy fashion themselves as detectives.

Green does an excellent job conveying the imprisoned echoes in the mind of an obsessive-compulsive person through story, showing us how alienating, lonely, and painful it can be and how the intense self-focus interferes with being a good friend to others. Yet Green himself remains a positive example that an afflicted person can still achieve success and happiness, despite occasional relapses, thereby further endearing him to millions of readers as genuinely human.

The Weight of Our Sky

There are books with tongue-in-cheek warnings, but rarely does the author strike a plea to the reader that her novel is not an “easy read,” and that its contents could be an anxiety trigger for someone with OCD. In Hanna Alkaf’s debut novel, “The Weight of Our Sky” (2019, Salaam Reads, $18.99, ages 14 and up), she says, “If this will hurt you, please don’t read my book.”

This historical novel, set around the events of May 13, 1969, when Malay and Chinese residents clashed in the streets of Alkaf’s hometown of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, up to 600 residents were killed in a racially-fueled civil war.

The protagonist, 16-year-old Melati who is a Malay Muslim, also suffers from obsessive-compulsive thoughts. Her thoughts stem from the loss of her father. She believes her mind is controlled by a djinn, a genie-like creature.


The djinn lurks within her mind as a negative, taunting force that is cruel, critical and paralysis-inducing.

On this May day, Melati and her best friend, Saf, are at the movies when the civil war erupts. Had it not been for a kind and brave Chinese “auntie,” who notices Melati’s skin tone and insists that she is an Indian and not Malay, thus saving her life, Melati would’ve suffered the same fate as her best friend, Saf, who is killed.

Amid the warlike chaos, Auntie Bee takes her home and takes in many neighbors whether they be Malay, Chinese, or Indian. Worrying about the fate of her mother, Melati is compelled to do her “magic” via the complex counting rituals designed to keep her mother safe. Eventually, Auntie Bee’s kind son, Vincent, notices and, for the first time, she admits her illness to someone besides her mother. With help from Indian and Chinese alike, Melati finds a way to stave off her mental anguish by helping others.

This suspenseful novel, written with a sophistication not always seen in Young Adult literature, is worth reading and provides valuable insight into the struggles one with OCD bears.

Wendy Henrichs is a children’s author living in Iowa City.