Anderson, Laurie Halse. (2009). Wintergirls. New York: Viking.

cover image for Wintergirls
Plot Summary/Critical Evaluation:

“It’s not nice when girls die.”

It’s even less nice when the girl was your best friend and her “body [was] found in a motel room, alone.”

Lia’s story begins not just with the death of her friend, Cassie, but also with Lia’s steadfast avoidance of the topic.  We quickly learn that this is a standard coping mechanism for Lia; even before this new tragedy, she routinely subsumed her anxieties about her future, and her frustrations with her blended family, into an obsessive need to be be thin.

“I take the cup from her.  My throat wants it my brain wants it my blood wants it my hand does not want this my mouth does not want this.”

Much of the brilliance in this book is found in the narrative style; Anderson is not afraid to play with typography, grammar, and punctuation in order to convey Lia’s fractured thoughts.  What could have been a confusing mess in lesser hands becomes a way to skillfully sink us deeper and deeper into Lia’s psyche.

As Lia continues to starve herself, her sorrow and fuel deprived brain work together to create haunting hallucinations of her dead friend.  The farther we fall with Lia into her rabbit hole, the clearer it becomes that she is not only full of despair but also anguish over her own actions – or lack thereof.  There is more here than just standard survivor’s guilt, though.  Even Lia’s constant repetition of the the numbers one through thirty-three – the number of times Cassie called her and only got voicemail that fateful night – is designed to distract her from thinking of other secrets.

…When I was a real girl, my mother fed me her glass dreams one spoonful at a time.”

At one point near the end of the book Cassie tells Lia that she has won, that she has been able to accomplish what Cassie could not.  It is this hollow victory that starts Lia on the road to recovery.  As hard as Lia tries to believe in the possibility of perpetually existing in this limbo state of dying by inches, the death of her friend makes it so that she cannot hide from the truth any longer.  By the end of the book, Lia has decided that she would at least like to try not being a wintergirl, however difficult that may be.

“I take the razor blades out of the bag…inscribe three lines, hush hush hush, into my skin.  Ghosts trickle out.”

It would be rather easy to present Lia as a privileged, middle class teenager whose inability to cope with the pressures of her life are easily dismissed as merely a sign of weakness or immaturity.  Instead Anderson accomplishes the much more difficult task of showing us how young and vulnerable Lia was when the process began, and how this disease in particular creates a dangerous feedback loop that is incredibly difficult to break free from.

Wintergirls is one of the most powerful and unique young adult books I have read, and I strongly recommend it.

Reader’s Annotation:

“It’s not nice when girls die.”  It’s even less nice when the girl was your best friend…and you are in danger of joining her.

About the Author:

Laurie Halse Anderson has an official website, keeps a blog and tumblr, and tweets.  She regularly engages with readers online and frequently travels to signings and conventions that are accessible to teens.  (Although health concerns have curtailed these activities recently.)  While her livejournal and tumblr are meant for friends, fellow writers, and adult fans as well as teen readers, she doesn’t use language or discuss topics that would not also be appropriate for older teens.


Booktalking Ideas:

It’s tempting to talk up the main theme of the book, but that might also come across as making the book sound preachy, which it isn’t.  Unless I know my audience well, I would likely use Cassie’s death and Lia’s guilt as the hook.
Genre:  Realistic Fiction

but with fantasy/science fiction and mystery/suspense elements thrown into the mix.

Reading Level/Target Age:  7th grade/14-19

While Accelerated Reader and Scholastic Reading Counts place this title at fourth grade level, in my opinion this just demonstrates the weakness of such systems.  Wintergirls is most certainly written at a reading level well below the upper limit of its target age and content appropriateness, but it is also a more complex read than the vocabulary alone would suggest.  Understanding and keeping track of the plot, as well as the meaning implied by the shifts in typography, requires analytical skills and foundations in grammar and punctuation that are beyond most fourth graders, but expected for middle school students.

Possible Controversy:

This book includes very frank and detailed discussions about self harm.  Parents and librarians should be aware that Anderson herself strongly suggests caution in recommending this book to teens that are already struggling with anorexia nervosa, as many of the actions that Lia takes in the book can be used as a guide for how to do the same.

However, I would also let anyone who challenged the book’s inclusion in a young adult collection know that the author and editor consulted with doctors and psychologists throughout its creation, and that the overwhelming response was that the horror and danger the story depicts is both realistic and desperately needed in conversations with young people about body image in general and anorexia in particular.

Reason for Reading This Book:

In addition to the fact that I found Speak to be quite brilliant as well, I had a chance to listen to the author talk about Wintergirls shortly after it came out.  Her comments about writing this novel intrigued me enough that I bought a signed copy that day.


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