It can be hard to open up about how we feel.

In St. Paul, that conversation starts this month by opening up a good book.

It's time to Read Brave. Every year, the St. Paul Public Library encourages the community to read about the things that are hard to talk about.

This year, the library staff chose the timely topic of mental health.

Minnesotans are stressed, anxious and beaten down by the past three years. In the 2022 Minnesota Student Survey, a heartbreaking 29% of youngsters who responded said they were suffering long-term mental, behavioral or emotional health problems.

That's a hard thing to read. But this is the home of the brave readers.

For those ready to read more, the library staff selected five age-appropriate books — from picture books to young-adult fiction to adult nonfiction. The Read Brave program, now in its 10th year, will host two weeks of community discussions, author talks, healing events and book giveaways.

"We really see this program as an opportunity to share different lived experiences and build empathy for others," said Gao Yang, the library's community partnerships and programs coordinator who oversees Read Brave.

There will be books about trauma, anxiety, depression, bullying. And books — the same books — about hope and healing and love.

One book the library selected for young readers is "My Footprints," by Minnesota author and poet Bao Phi. The story begins with a hurting little girl named Thuy, walking home from school with bullies' taunts ringing in her ears. It ends with Thuy smiling and strong; and surrounded by the love of her mothers, who helped her work through her sadness with play.

"One of the things I really appreciate about books for young people is that they are so subtle and so multilayered," said Kelsey Johnson-Kaiser, the library system's youth and family services manager.

"It's a really lovely story," she added. "You're not going to open it up and say, 'Now today, class, we're going to talk about mental health and how it feels when bullies talk about the fact that you have two moms.' Instead it's a very playful approach."

Rosena Fung's graphic novel, "Living with Viola" is the funny, fearless story of a youngster navigating anxiety, panic attacks and middle school.

There's "The Rabbit Listened," a picture book by Minneapolis author Cori Doerrfeld that helps small readers deal with big feelings. If you've ever searched for the right words to say to someone who's sad, let this be your handbook.

The grown-ups, meanwhile, will be reading "My Grandmother's Hands," by therapist and anti-racism educator Resmaa Menakem. The book explores the toll that generations of white supremacy has taken on the minds and bodies of all Americans, and how to heal.

This year's featured book for young adults is "Darius the Great Is Not Okay," by Adib Khorram. A story about a half-Iranian, half-white teen who speaks better Klingon than Farsi and is living with depression.

"The idea that we are not OK is going to resonate with a lot of people," said Read Brave's Yang. Khorram will talk with local students and join a panel discussion with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on March 9.

There weren't a lot of stories about mixed-race teens dealing with depression on the library shelves when Khorram was a mixed-race teen dealing with depression.

"If there were, we didn't read them at school," he said. "We read books like 'The Outsiders' and 'A Separate Peace.' "

Books that did tackle issues such as mental health weren't likely to make it onto a school reading list. And, Khorram pointed out, if you had a friend who was struggling with depression, you weren't likely to toss them a copy of "The Bell Jar" as a lifeline.

In "Darius the Great," Khorram created a protagonist whose depression is just one part of who he is; on a journey to the other side of the world, to meet family and make his first real friend.

When he talks to young readers, he said, "sometimes they are really thankful that I've written about what it feels like to be mixed-race. Sometimes they're really thankful that I've written about what it feels like to be depressed.

"Sometimes, they've said how good it feels to see someone with depression whose parents seem to support him."

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