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Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

I try not to stray too far into the realm of YA* on The Blogulator (Twilight aside), because I'm not quite sure that's what you guys want to read, but this week there was an interesting Internet conversation surrounding a YA book I recently read, and I thought I would bless the world with my thoughts, insofar as they contribute to the discussion.

Laurie Halse Anderson is considered one of the most formidable talents in children's literature. Popular with teens, teachers, librarians, and booksellers (and, one would imagine, her publisher), Anderson debuted with Speak, a grim, sad, but redemptive novel about a young woman who is slowly coming to terms with having been raped. Speak won the Michael L. Printz award, a coveted YA prize, and was a New York Times bestseller (speaking of Twilight, Kristen Stewart starred in the 2004 indie film based on the novel). Naturally Speak garnered negative attention as well, from potentially well-meaning but ultimately misguided folks who, confusing "protecting the children" with "censorship", tried to have the book removed from public libraries, especially those in schools.

I don't know a single author who can abide censorship. Anderson herself wrote, "[C]ensoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them." Holla, LHA. Holla.

Anderson, of course, as all good, controversial authors do, went on to write more brilliant novels that address, without condescension, the trials and tribulations of adolescence, but it wasn't until this year--only a few months ago, in fact--that one of her books came under the same damned scrutiny from the moral majority. It's called Wintergirls, and it's about anorexia.

Actually, that's not true. It's about a girl who is anorexic--Lia, a ninety-pound waif whose eating disorder has been a huge problem for years. Lia's family situation is rough--at the beginning of the book she lives with her father, his new wife (the woman he left Lia's mother for), and his stepdaughter, who worships Lia. Lia's father is well-meaning but useless--Lia has been hospitalized for her disease before, her best friend (bulimic) has just died, and she's still very sick, but he blinds himself to it as a coping mechanism. Lia's mother, a cardiologist, is the only person who really recognizes Lia's situation for what it is--a death wish--but the cold, clinical woman, though she loves her daughter, handles the situation in exactly the wrong way, by trying to force Lia to get well instead of understanding and healing her. Jennifer, Lia's stepmother, is probably the adult who tries hardest with Lia in the best way, although she, too, allows herself to be fooled by Lia's tricks--sewing quarters into the hem of her robe to create the illusion of higher weight on the scale, for instance--and eventually expels Lia from her house out of fear for her influence on Lia's stepsister.

Lia is consumed by both her obsession with her weight and the death of her estranged best friend, Cassie, who died alone and helpless in a motel room as a result of her bulimia (Lia's mother's grisly explanation of the eighteen-year-old's death is particularly haunting). Making matters worse, Cassie attempted to call Lia for help at the last minute but was ignored because the two had been fighting. The rest of the novel details Lia's extremely convincing death spiral and the fall-out of her psychological damage, as voiced by frequent hallucination of Cassie, who tugs Lia towards death with encouragements to eat less and become nothing.

In her New York Times review of Wintergirls, Barbara Feinberg asks, "Can a novel convey, however inadvertently, an allure to anorexic behavior?" The question is addressed, as is the way of the interwebs, by almost 100 loud-mouthed commenters on the NYT's Well Blog, and again by the women of Jezebel. The answer? We're not quite sure.

My thoughts are these: Yes, there will probably be some girls out there who get pro-ana tips from this book. Wintergirls confronts in a very direct way the realities of anorexia, and by doing so opens a Pandora's box of details that could look more like solutions than symptoms to an already sick girl. But will it make healthy young women anorexic? No. Will it help some anorexic girls find a little peace with their bodies now that they know that someone understands them, someone who recovered, and maybe seek recovery for themselves? Probably. Will it fix anorexia? No. It's a really, really, really good book, but, then again, it's just a book.

But as my friend Mary says, whether or not it will give girls anorexia isn't the issue. The real issue is whether or not the book should be banned from school and local libraries because of the chance that it will encourage eating disorders. That is, of course, completely debatable, but I always come down on the side of the book. Always. It's in my DNA. I believe that libraries should be democratic insofar as they serve their main purpose, which is to provide access to books and to educate.

Should a high school library contain copies of Ron Jeremy's personal memoir? Probably not. Not because it shouldn't be read (although no one who's ever read David Foster Wallace's essay on the porn industry, "Big Red Son," would ever want to read it), but because it doesn't really service the main purpose of a high school library and isn't relevant to the community. Not so with YA literature--which, remember, is written for teens. Anderson has been very clear that she wrote Wintergirls in the service of young women, inspired by letters she's been receiving for years from girls struggling with ED. With knowledge comes choice, as the Bible teaches us, but should ignorance be the price we pay for the potential of choosing wrong? I emphatically do not think so.

I'd especially love to hear from some of the teachers in the crowd about this.

*For those still unfamiliar with the term, YA is publishing speak for "Young Adult", i.e. books written for a 12- to 18-year-old readership, more or less.

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  1. Blogger chris | 2:15 PM |  

    Hell yes this book should be in school libraries. I haven't read it (adding it to the summer list), but if I like it (Speak is great, so I assume this is, too), I would go so far as to say it should be taught in school.

    Then again, I teach violent and morally questionable books such as Othello and Dracula, so maybe I'm biased.

  2. Anonymous OHD | 11:02 PM |  

    Violent and morally questionable books are the best kind!

    If you liked Speak, you'll love Wintergirls. I promise!

  3. Blogger PLJCS Staff | 1:46 PM |  

    We should arm them with the knowledge to make the most educated and responsible choices they can. Anything else is a disservice to them, their future, and their intelligence.

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