Worry, Worry: Teen Books about Anxiety

Lynn: My husband once said that if worrying was an Olympic sport, I could medal for America. Sadly, he is right: I am a champion worrier! Quite naturally, I was attracted to two new books for teens on the subject.

Diana Harmon Asher’s Side Tracked (2017) introduces Joseph Friedman, a middle-schooler with ADD, an overactive imagination, and big worries. He’s afraid of the balls thrown at him, green olives with pimento, stewed prunes, vampire bats, street sweepers, goose poop, and Charlie Kastner, his bully. Joseph even has his own rule, the Friedman Law of Worry, which dictates, “There will always be something you don’t think of. And that’s what will get you.” But things are changing for Joseph. His teacher gets the entire class to go out for cross country, a new girl—and maybe-friend—starts school, and his Grandpa moves in after fleeing his senior residence.

Joseph and his endearing classmates stole my heart. I loved this sweet, funny story!  Worriers and everyone else will run in Joseph’s shoes and cheer his victory. This book is a reassuring, age-appropriate introduction to the subject of anxiety.

Meanwhile, Krystal Sutherland’s A Semi-Definitive List of Worst Nightmares (2017) gives teen readers a look at a family in which anxiety has reached crippling levels. Esther Solar’s grandpa Reg has met Death, who cursed the family to be killed by the things they fear most. Esther’s twin Ethan is terrified of the dark, her father hasn’t left the basement in six years, and her mother goes to absurd lengths to avoid bad luck. Esther herself staves off identifying her greatest fear by keeping a “semi-definitive list” of things she is afraid of. The list is lengthy, ever-growing, and includes cornfields, elevators, heights, lobsters, moths, geese, tunnels, and making phone calls.

A chance meeting with a friend from elementary school begins badly when he picks Esther’s pocket, taking the list as well as her phone. But Jonah Smallwood turns out to be just what Esther needs. He hatches a plan for her to confront all 50 fears on her list, one per week, and films her efforts. As the weeks pass, Esther begins to wonder if conquering her fears will save her and the people she loves—including Jonah—from their own demons.

Sutherland pulls off something extremely difficult: exploring painful subjects with a light touch while providing readers with an omniscient perspective of the issues and a vivid sense of each character’s experiences. The quirky plot and wry dialogue complement the storytelling cadence and a narrative with magical realist touches. Center stage are sympathetic and compelling characters and a truly sweet romance.

This is as clear-eyed a picture of the deep and paralyzing pain of anxiety and depression as I have seen. The book offers real hope, as well as strong, practical advice—including resources for suffering teens. Compassionate, absorbing and unforgettable.


Cindy: Lynn and I both count worrying among our hobbies, so I had to jump into this post. Just this morning, I finished listening to Kate Rudd‘s expert narration of John Green’s new book, Turtles All the Way Down.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Aza Holmes is a teen who suffers from OCD and worries obsessively about contracting a deadly disease from exposure to bacteria. She can’t even let herself enjoy kissing her friend Davis for fear of the 80,000 microbes exchanged during an average, intimate kiss that might infect her body and live inside of her forever.

Green gives readers a clear look into the spiraling thoughts of someone with OCD in a work that may become as important to teens and adults as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Both tell a great story—Turtles has the mystery of Davis’s missing billionaire father—lighten the serious sections with dark humor, and offer a sense of hope to teens that they are not alone and that there is help. Like previous Green titles, there are quotable lines, a strong friendship that suffers some rough patches, and his obvious concern and respect for his teen audience. The Indianapolis setting is well realized and the story is infused with poetry and art. I’ve moved on to listening to Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, but Aza and her struggles will linger in my brain for a long time. Some readers will probably just flip back to the beginning and read it all over again…obsessively.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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