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Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson

11 Apr

2009, Penguin, ISBN 978-00-14-241557-3

Plot Summary: Wintergirls is the story of a teenage girl’s struggle to overcome an eating disorder as she also deals with the death of her best friend.

Lia and Cassie were best friends with a deadly competition:  who could be thinner. Their parents separated the two after a near-fatal accident; months later, Lia learns that Cassie’s body has been discovered, alone, in a hotel room; she also discovers that Cassie called her cell phone 33 times on the night she died. Already fighting her inner demons, Cassie’s death haunts Lia.

Lia lives with her father, stepmother and stepsister because she cannot get along with her mother. She distances herself from her parents, referring to them as Dr. Marrigan and Professor Overbrook. While her parents love her and appear concerned about Lia, they also appear detached from her. Lia’s stepmother, Jennifer, seems to bear the burden of Lia’s care. Jennifer’s daughter, Emma, is one of the only people Lia has genuine feelings for.

Cassie’s death upsets Lia’s already tenuous hold on good health and she begins a downward spiral. She becomes obsessed with Cassie’s final hours and visits the hotel, meeting Elijah, who works there and spent some time with Cassie; she avoids food and lies to her family, and cuts herself. Bent on self-destruction, it seems like only a matter of time before Lia joins Cassie.

Critical Evaluation: Wintergirrls is more than a story about eating disorders; it is a story about dysfunctional families, friendship, and the crisis of self-image. So consumed with their own lives, Lia’s family is unable to reach her; something she interprets this as their being disappointed in her. As a result, she holds them at arm’s length, refusing to refer to them as “mom” or “dad” for most of the story. She constructs a relationship with the reader by looking back on when she was a “real girl”, living her parents’ miserable marriage and divorce and the feelings of disappointing her family – readers see Lia’s path.

Lia’s messy internal dialgoue – rambling, run-on sentences and use of strike-out text to illustrate how she censors even her own thoughts – further allows the reader into her conflicted mind. The characters are well-developed and draw the reader in – maybe one of us knows a Cassie or a Lia? No eating disorders are necessary to create a relationship with the characters here; a day of just not liking oneself is enough to understand what’s going on. Wintergirls is a powerful book that carries multiple messages; it is an important read for teen girls and boys alike, and any parents that want to understand what goes on in the teen mindset will certainly benefit from sitting down with this book.

Reviews: School Library Journal (starred review): “A startingly crisp and pitch-perfect first-person narrrative.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review): “As difficult as reading this novel can be, it is even more difficult to put down.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review): “Anderson perfectly captures the isolation and motivations of the anorexic.”

Awards: Junior Library Guild Selection; New York Times Bestseller List; American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults; ALA Quick Pick for Young Adults; Amelia Bloomer Project; New York Public Library’s 2010 Stuff for the Teen Age; School Library Media Association Young Book Award Nominee 2011; numerous state awards

Reader’s Annotation: When Lia’s estranged friend Cassie is discovered dead in a hotel room, Lia learns that Cassie’s long-standing struggle with bulimia has finally taken its toll – will she finally be able to seek help for her own eating disorder, or will she experience the same fate?

Author Information: Author Laurie Halse Anderson writes realistic fiction for teens. Her website offers links to her blog, media, She also provides book club information for teachers and students interested in discussing her books event information, in addition to advice on addressing book challenges, research, and the writing process. She has a discussion board where teachers can collaborate and talk with the author. She also has a Facebook page. 

Genre: Realistic fiction. Subgenres: eating disorders, dysfunctional families.

Booktalking Ideas: Lia and Cassie are “wintergirls” – not fully dead, not fully alive. What do you think Lia means by that? How is she not alive? Do you think the “wintergirl” label also feeds in to her being cold all of the time due to her eating disorder? What do you think would have happened if Lia had picked up the phone when Cassie had called?

Reading Level/Interest Age: 14+

Challenge Issues/Defense: Depiction of eating disorders, mental illness. Defense: Books like these not only reach out to teens who may be struggling with these issues or know someone who is, but they provide positive self-talk for teens who need to feel like someone understands what it may be like to have a low self-esteem or parents who do not understand them. These books are not a primer; they provide understanding and hope.

Why did you include this book in the titles you selected?

I have wanted to read Ms. Anderson’s books for quite some time, as I have heard great things about them, particularly her dialogue and pacing. I was not disappointed.

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