This past spring, I joined with six other writers, librarians, and activists to create the 2015 We’re the People Summer Reading List. The most recently published book on that list is Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Reason Breaks, the debut novel of an important new voice in young adult literature. Set in the present, this story is about two girls with the initials E.D., and their English teacher with the same monogram, each of whom grapples with suicide and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Emily Delgado is the compliant daughter of a conservative Latino politician and a member of a close-knit social circle. Elizabeth Davis is a defiant goth whose anger and previous suicide attempt has led her to become isolated and labeled. At the beginning of the novel, one of the girls attempts suicide and the other one along with Ms. Emilia Diaz tries to save her. But we don’t know which teenager sought to take her life on that Saturday morning in March. Rodriguez keeps us guessing until the very end, and in doing so, she explores the pressures the girls face and how depression works independently of how the girls may be treated by others.
Within this thoughtful and compelling story are a full cast of secondary characters, among them Emily’s boyfriend, Kevin, whose parents are two dads. Kevin’s parents are not an “issue” of this novel but rather part of the community just like everyone else.
Secondary characters have played an important role in many YA novels that explore suicide, as they are the ones left behind to ask “why?” A number of novels, most notably Jay Asher’s best-selling Thirteen Reasons Why, place at least some blame on those secondary characters. And while bullying and other forms of abuse and cruelty can contribute to a young person’s decision to commit suicide, many people who commit suicide are loved and treated well, but they suffer from depression. Teens and the adults in their lives must learn to recognize the signs of depression and know how they can help their family member or friend.
This is a novel that builds awareness by creating characters—both main and secondary characters—about whom the reader cares. And through her complex, realistic, and sympathetic characters, Rodriguez addresses another prejudice that needs to be overcome—that of mental illness, so people young and old who experience depression can come forward and be assured of the understanding and support of family, friends, and neighbors.