Interview with Natalie Lund, author of The Sky Above Us; Ronni Davis, author of When the Stars Lead to You, and Hanna C. Howard, author of Ignite the Sun
Tonight (May 3) at 6pm Central, join three Young Adult authors (who have brand new novels) for a virtual conversation about Writing Mental Health in YA Novels, featuring Natalie Lund, author of The Sky Above Us; Ronni Davis, author of When the Stars Lead to You, and Hanna C. Howard, author of Ignite the Sun. The conversation will be hosted byTulsa bookshop Magic City Books and it's free and open to the public.
Also be sure to check out our interview below!
For each of you, what is your name, preferred pronouns, website, and most recent book?
Ronni: Ronni Davis, she/her, ronnidavis.com, When the Stars Lead to You
Hanna C. Howard, she/her, hannachoward.com, Ignite the Sun
Natalie: Natalie Lund, she/her, natalielund.com, The Sky Above Us
What’s a short synopsis of your most recent book?
Ronni: Eighteen-year-old Devon longs for two things.
And the boy she fell in love with one unforgettable summer.
When Ashton broke Devon’s heart at the end of the most romantic and magical summer of her life, she thought she’d never heal. But over the course of the following year, Devon slowly managed to put the pieces back together for the sake of her dream to become an astrophysicist.
Now it’s senior year, and she’s determined to enjoy every moment as she prepares for a future of studying the galaxies. That is, until Ashton shows up on the first day of school.
Their chemistry is undeniable, but something feels different. As the spark in his eyes grows dimmer, Devon discovers parts of Ashton he’s been hiding. Is he the same person she fell in love with that summer? And will her feelings for him eclipse her love of the stars?
Natalie: The morning after their senior year beach party, Izzy, Cass, and Janie are woken by a thundering overhead. Then they and their classmates watch in shock as a plane crashes into the water. When the passengers are finally recovered, they are identified as Izzy’s twin brother, Israel, Cass’s ex-boyfriend, Shane, and Janie’s best friend, Nate. But Izzy can feel when her brother is in pain, and she knows he’s not really dead. So she, Cass, and Janie set out to discover what actually happened that day–and why the boys were on the plane.
Told in alternating timelines and points of view, this powerful and captivating novel follows the three boys in the weeks leading up to that fateful flight, and the girls they left behind as they try to piece together the truth about the boys they loved and thought they knew. A spellbinding story about the ripple effects of tragedy, the questions we leave unanswered, and the enduring power of friendship.
Hanna: Sixteen year-old Siria Nightingale has never seen the sun. The light is dangerous, according to Queen Iyzabel, an evil witch who has shrouded the kingdom in shadow.
Siria has always hated the darkness and revels in the stories of the light-filled old days that she hears from her best friend and his grandfather. Besides them, nobody else understands her fascination with the sun, especially not her strict and demanding parents. Siria’s need to please them is greater even than her fear of the dark. So she heads to the royal city—the very center of the darkness—for a chance at a place in Queen Iyzabel’s court.
But what Siria discovers at the Choosing Ball sends her on a quest toward the last vestiges of the sun with a ragtag group of rebels who could help her bring back the Light … or doom the kingdom to shadow forever.
What is one/are some of the mental health challenges you explore in your newest book?
Ronni: Devon, my main character, loves her boyfriend Ashton deeply, but she starts to lose track of herself and her wants/needs when she becomes consumed in his mental illness. Ashton has severe depression and suicidal ideation, while Devon becomes quite codependent.
Hanna: My book is fantasy, so the mental health challenges I explore are all given new form and shape within the context of my world, but they are essentially anxiety, panic attacks, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. My protagonist, Siria, experiences all of these to varying degrees at points in the course of the book.
Natalie: One of my characters, Nate, suffers from depression after an ACL injury that takes away his college prospects. He begins to experience a lot of self-hatred and feels that the only way to silence those thoughts are through self-harm.
Is there a personal connection to one of these topics that you’d like to share?
Ronni: I have depression (and anxiety) myself, and I also have had suicidal ideation. I know what it’s like to feel like it would be better if I just… wasn’t. And one of the main reasons I felt like that was because depression makes me feel so very unloveable. I wanted to show someone with depression being deeply loved.
Hanna: When I was first drafting Ignite, I was deep in my first ever haze of General Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (with some splashes of Depression thrown in for good measure). I used the fantasy world I was building to explore and project some of the oppression I was feeling, by making the world as dark as I felt on the inside, and then I gave it a protagonist who could fight it. She was called a sunchild, and she was a being who had a powerful magical connection to the sun, though she, too, was trapped in darkness. Through Siria, I explored both my own experiences with anxiety, and my fragile hope that one day I would step out into the light once again.
Natalie: When I was writing this novel, I found out that my mom’s cancer had returned, and I was also going through a lot of transition in my life. I began to experience depression and anxiety that manifested in a few panic attacks. While our experiences are quite different, I know that Nate’s story was shaped by this period in my life.
What first brought your attention to why you feel it’s important to discuss mental health in YA novels?
Ronni: When I was younger, I was having these feelings, but I had no words for them. Hardly anyone would talk about them with me, and if they did, it was to tell me, “Suck it up. People have it way worse than you do.” It wasn’t until I was an adult, married, and with a child, that I was properly diagnosed and medicated.
But the medicine, and therapy—it’s not a magic bullet, and I still get frustrated when the depression breaks through despite all the “work” I was doing.
It wasn’t until very recently that I learned it’s OK not to be OK all the time. That meds and therapy aren’t a miracle cure. And that this is a path that I’ll be traveling.
I don’t want another young person to feel what I felt when it came to depression and anxiety. I want them to read my work and know that this is not a weird thing, nor a bad thing, that they are not alone, and that there is help.
Hanna: For me, story--and especially fantasy--has always been the lens through which I process reality, and I think anything we need to work through in reality should have a place in story. I am also a reader who needs the distance facilitated by the fantastical to approach and engage with hard topics, so for me, putting mental health into a fantasy context makes it much easier to interact with and understand. If I need that myself, I can only assume other people need it, too. In my experience working with teenagers, I have seen an overwhelming amount of anxiety and depression, so I think YA readers probably need that safe processing space even more than adults.
Natalie: I struggled to find a therapist that was covered by my insurance. While making a lot of frustrating phone calls, I remember being aware of my privilege--that my insurance covered therapy at all and that I knew how to navigate the system. Everyone should have easy access to mental health care. Full stop. That experience made me want to collect a list of resources for my author’s note so that teens who felt the way Nate felt knew where to turn.
How do you feel that mental health conversations have shifted in the last 10 years (or 20 years or whatever time period you feel is most relevant)?
Ronni: I think the internet has offered a BIG shift in the discussion around depression. There is less of a stigma—if one can find the right community. Now there are people who share experiences and people learn they are not alone. There is so much more information out there as well, and so many more resources. When I was younger, the internet wasn’t a thing that everyone had. It was a luxury. I had to go to computer labs, or borrow my friend’s machines to look stuff up. We had dial up. Information was hard to come by. It’s so much easier now, and there are people like me and Natalie and Hanna writing books with characters who feel these things deeply, without it being sensationalized or romanticized, and even for my sake, it’s great to know all of this is available and fairly easy for me to access.
Hanna: Tons! When I was a teenager, I didn’t know anyone who talked about mental health--except in hushed voices and with a fatalistic, doomsday sort of tone. If you had a mental health challenge, you were too ashamed to mention it, lest people should think you were unstable or unfit for normal life. Now, while I think there are still some vestiges of that attitude lingering here and there, it feels so much more safe to talk about, and therapy is championed even by those who have no mental health challenges. I’m sure this is a result of a lot of different kinds of effort, but I think a main part of it has to be due to individual willingness to talk about and normalize the struggle with mental health.
Natalie: I think social media has made a huge impact on mental health conversations. I have observed an openness and willingness to discuss personal mental health, which helps to destigmatize experiences and shows people they are not alone. Social media has also been part of the movement to make mental health care more accessible. For example, the Loveland Therapy Fund, which provides financial assistance for Black women and girls seeking therapy, grew out of Rachel Cargle’s birthday wish fundraiser.
What’s one topic you’re excited about discussing during the Books Are Magic conversation?
Ronni: How seeing yourself in a story can make all the difference!
Hanna: The transformative, healing power of stories!
Natalie: Research! While personal experiences helped shape Nate’s story, I also spoke to several mental health professionals and asked a lot of questions.