You can read this and other thoughts on teaching books to tumultuous teenagers on my blog
Reading another best seller by Laurie Halse Anderson (“the reigning queen of teen tumult” according to Newsday) prompted a lot of those thoughts. As my students read Anderson’s most famous novel Speak, I read the more recent but equally affecting novel Wintergirls. And as my students mulled the weighty “what-if”s of how they would live with the traumatic experience of personal abuse, I wondered just how many of them were living with other secrets.
Anderson has a great sense of how silent and secretive teenagers can be, how they occasionally isolate themselves as they start to work their way–independently–through life, and just how often they are dragged through an uncaring, dismissive and apathetic adult world. And so it goes with Wintergirls.
Lia and Cassie, young, successful and capable of more are driven to greater and greater levels of altering their appearance through eating disorders. They do this not out of vanity or ego, but because of their social circumstances and (especially) their relationship. In her most compelling choice, Anderson lets her narrator [Lia] offer a voice for both her genuine pleas to change and her intense determination to get thinner, and thinner.
As effective as this narrative choice is, it also minimizes the sympathy that a reader might feel for Lia. Whereas the hero of the Speak, Melinda, seems to be a distraught victim, Lia is a willing accomplice to her own pain. To those unfamiliar with eating disorders or depression, Lia’s insistence that she continue destroying herself might seem intensely aggravating. To those who recognize peers, friends or students in the plot, it becomes deeply demoralizing. The emotional reaction for all readers makes the book powerful, moving and deeply engaging–even if it’s not the most appealing topic to spend your free-time with.