Saturday, May 23, 2009

YA Life immitating Art

So has anyone read Wintergirls yet, by Laurie Halse Anderson? I read it as soon as I could get my hands on a copy, and thought that it was beautifully written, completely sucked me into the story, the voice, the well-rounded characters... Yet when I was done reading it, for the first time in maybe ever, I felt hestitation about reccomending it to teens. Something about the powerful first-person narrative of a young anorexic girl who is so singlemindedly focused on her weight and food made me fear that this book could be dangerous. I couldn't even articulate why, exactly. Then in the past weeks articles have begun appearing addressing the issue of this book as a "trigger" for teens who may potentially suffer from anorexia, and a lot of my partially-formed qualms were addressed. In particular this from the New York Times I found helpful in speaking to me about how I felt about this compelling book, even just because it was nice to know others had had similar reactions. And by "others" I mean people who, like myself, are not in the position of censoring books or information but rather making it as available as possible. Why had I felt tentative about placing this book in teens' hands? As I reflected on the book itself, and the articles I had read, I also started to wonder about the influence all teen literature has on its readers, and asking myself what YA literaure isn't a trigger of some sort? I remember in my tween years beginning to read The Babysitter's Club series; suddenly my mother noticed that I was starting to have a lot more attitude. I may have forgotten about this completely had not a patron's mother recently voiced the same concern about her daughter (in fact, she used the exact same word to describe her daughter's recent behaviour as my mom had mine: snotty).
One of the reasons I love young adult literature so much and find it so vital for adolescent development is that it presents readers with scenarios that help them to make difficult decisions. It gives them a set of life experiences, even if they are varied, fantastical, and fictional, that adults usually have accumulated through learning the hard way. The same way we hope that books will trigger confidence, tolerance, self-respect, or any of the other attributes teen literature positively instills, can I wonder why I feared the power of a book as well written as Anderson's Wintergirls to trigger dangerous behaviour? I must of course stress that I understand the substantial difference between a psychological trigger impacting a disease like anorexia and the influence or "trigger" of a book that speaks to other, perhaps more universal, teen development.
One of the greatest arguments for Wintergirls' power is that it speaks honestly to consequences, doesn't glorify the disease, and concludes with Lia seeking help of her own accord.
I'm anxious to hear from others who have read this book, or any books they may have felt similarly about. Have you ever noticed a direct relation between what a teen is reading and a sudden shift in behavior? Have you ever recognized this in yourself as a reader? And is there ever a justification for wanting to withold powerful and influential works from impressionable minds both young and old?


Sharon said...

I had a similar reaction to this book. It was so incredibly powerful... almost to the point of being dangerous.

I actually gave an ARC to a therapist who works with teens to see what she thought. Her reaction was that the book was incredibly well written and powerful and that someone who had a history of eating issues might be triggered to start restricting food again after reading it. She was concerned that Lia was SO GOOD at being anorexic. She described her as a professional, a master.

On one hand, that means that the characters are very well researched and realistic. On the other hand, maybe she's too real.

I really like that the book is so realistic and raw and I think it's a really important perspective for adults and for kids who want to learn about a different perspective.

What kids of kids do you think are drawn to this story?

mia c said...

I've found that the kids who are drawn to this story (so far) at my library are universally girls, and the kind of girls who are really into reading smartly written but v. dramatic stuff. The fans of Ellen Hopkins' writing, fans of award-winners like Jellicoe Road, and the classic A-Child- Called-It type. So far the ones I have recommended it to I have all but demanded that we chat about it when we are done; not in a lecture way, but because it made ME a little uncomfortable, I wanted their takes. Very interesting book, I won't be surprised it it is getting mentioned a lot around awards time.

Sharon Colvin said...

i don't know, I think everyone has their trigger points and I think it's impossible to protect kids from everything. I think it's a much stronger message to trust kids with the tough topics and then to be available if they want to talk. I mean, I warn teachers about Thirteen Reasons Why because it upset me as an adult, but I wouldn't presume to know what their own reaction might be.