Anxiety, Grief and Other Invisible Illnesses in YA Fiction

Rakeem Sweezy entered my college library with a smile so wide, you might think he’d come to a party. His hug was the brightest part of my day. Sweezy couldn’t walk anywhere without hugging five or six people. He was our football hero, our prom king, and the kindest student on campus.

At the age of twenty, he was found dead in his dorm room from an undiagnosed medical condition.

As an older adult surrounded by young adults, I still wonder what I could have done; I wonder how many people I see have invisible illnesses. The Edge of Anything, a new novel by Nora Shalaway Carpenter, was inspired by her own experiences with invisible illness.

Set in and around Asheville, North Carolina (where Carpenter lives), The Edge of Anything is the story of two high school seniors, Sage and Len, from different worlds who bond through their struggle with mental health.

Sage Zendasky, the star volleyball player, has a life that seems blessed. Her family is loving and successful; she excels at a sport that she loves; her future in college seems secured by a scholarship offer, and she is surrounded by friends.

Lennon Madder’s world is different. Strained by the costs of a nursing home for her grandmother, Len’s family is close but struggling. Her father is an artist existing on commissions and her mother works at the food bank. Yet Len’s family will not give up on their dream for her to go to college.

Len’s college chances hinge on her skills as a photographer. Sage’s father shows up to her games with his phone and his briefcase. Len’s father encourages her to “get a grip” and meditate on the power of positivity. Neither family, high school teachers, nor friends can understand everything Sage and Len face.

In the crowded high school halls, Len spills her pencils on the floor in front of Sage and the connection begins. Sage notices Len’s anxiety and her glove-covered hands with curiosity and concern. Len’s chance for a scholarship in photography is threatened by her anxiety and depression. When an anxiety attack overwhelms Sage, Len supports her by sharing her own experience with panic attacks.

As they build trust, Len slowly begins to share her fear of a spiraling mental dissolve into early dementia. While the concerned families and friends are excluded from their anxiety, the two girls try to find answers together. Their adventures lead them to almost falling from the edge of a mountain, speeding dangerously in a car, and enduring a life-endangering volleyball game.

Not as immersed in the internal voice of an OCD obsession as John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down (2017), The Edge of Anything is a poignant coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains and the rhododendrons of Graveyard Fields. Througe the story of Sage and Len, Carpenter’s own understanding and compassion for mental health conditions and invisible illnesses is a beacon for those needing stories like these.