Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

wintergirlsReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 730
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school

Lia and her friend Cassie are wintergirls: skinny, frail, and ill due to their eating disorders. When Cassie leaves dozens of ignored voicemails on Lia’s phone before Cassie is found dead, Lia is haunted by her best friend’s ghost that encourages her to eat less and lose more weight until bulimia begins to kill her, too. All the while, Lia is burdened by those voicemails that may have saved Cassie’s life if she had picked up the phone.

As you might expect from the brief synopsis, Wintergirls is a haunting story. Laurie Halse Anderson does an excellent job portraying what goes through Lia’s head and how she is convinced by her own thoughts, message boards, and Cassie’s ghost to continue starving herself even through she knows she is hurting her body. It’s easy for so many of us to just say that Lia is a stupid teenage girl caught up in her appearance, but bulimia is a disorder for a reason. It’s all-consuming,  ever-present, and, as we see through the strike-through text, Lia is in constant battle with herself.

Lia as a character is not a girl I particularly like, maybe because I can’t identify with her much, and maybe because so much of her identity, thoughts, and actions are about eating, not eating,and losing weight. It seems to me like Anderson focused more on the issue rather than the character, which I don’t see as a criticism at all, because I don’t think Lia liked herself very much, so it’s difficult for the reader to like her either.

Talking about having this book in the classroom is tricky. It’s got some foul language as well as graphic images and descriptions throughout, which makes the book realistic and powerful but also not necessarily appropriate for all students. I wouldn’t have Wintergirls in my classroom library for any ages younger than 7th grade, for one. If I teach 7th grade and up, I’d put a pg-14 sticker on it. While some parents might be mad that their child read the book, every one of my students will know that graphic books have warning stickers, just like mature video games and movies. They should only read books their parents would let them read. I would also argue that most if not all girls struggle with their body image even if they don’t have an eating disorder or know someone who does. Wintergirls does not encourage girls to starve themselves. Rather, it explains the horrors that encompass people who have bulimia and anorexia. More than anything, this book made me want to not be hard on myself for having my pants fit a bit tighter than they should or for eating a cookie or two. Wintergirls made me want to exercise and eat healthy foods but not worry so much, because the last person I want to turn into is Lia.

Of course, Wintergirls may also be a powerful book for girls (or boys) who struggle with bulimia or other body image issues or know someone who is struggling themselves. The low reading level makes it ELL-friendly, although there are some message board posts written with incorrect grammar and without punctuation, but most kids these days are whizzes at interpreting and writing this type of internet-speak.

 

Fever 1793 – Laurie Halse Anderson

FeverReading level: 7.6
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

I have fond memories of reading Fever 1793 as a middle schooler, thinking I was so smart and sophisticated reading something historical, especially since my grandfather was a doctor. While I didn’t get the same thrill reading the book as a 20-something-year-old, I was able to appreciate it all the same.

I loved the historical aspects. There is a great deal of fact from the characters to the actual epidemic. Further facts are explained in the back of the book, at least in my old copy.

The character of Mattie Cook is pretty impressive. She fights Yellow Fever and wins, cares for her grandfather and an orphaned girl, fights off robbers, helps run a coffee shop, and doesn’t lose her cool while her world is falling apart. In my eyes, she’s right up there with Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, two of my favorite heroines.

I took particular interest in the Free African Society and the character of Eliza, a free African American woman. I wasn’t sure until half way through the book if Eliza was African American or a white indentured servant because the dialogue didn’t reveal a different dialect as it usually does. Near the end, one African American man mentions that people don’t look very kindly on African people. The notes in the back of the book even explain that despite all the charity the Free African Society did for fever victims, people still spread slander against their work. That was the only hint of racism I saw, even though I’m sure it was a big part of life back then. I did, however, appreciate the love between Eliza and Mattie. I wonder if this would have been an exceptional relationship back in 1793.

There are a handful of words used throughout the book that are pretty specific to that time period, especially in relation to clothing, which may be confusing for students, especially ELLs. The context clues make it clear enough, though. All in all, it’s a good book for ELLs if they can get past a small bit of strange vocabulary. It’s definitely a middle school book and probably just fine for grades below 7th grade, despite the reading level being 7.6.

Censorship Resources & Laurie Halse Anderson

I stumbled upon Laurie Halse Anderson’s website and found some wonderful resources, mostly about censorship. The only banned/censored book she has written that I have read is Speak, and she offers reasons for why it is important that young adults read it. There are also other resources for combating censorship in your school in general.

In addition, she’s got some links about researching and writing advice that will hopefully have content coming soon.

Is she not the coolest lady?!

Homeless – Laurie Halse Anderson

HomelessReading level: 4.1
Series: Wild at Heart/Vet Volunteers book 2
Genre: General fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

I have fond memories of reading these Wild at Heart books in middle school. These, along with James Herriot’s books, inspired me to be a vet-author…which lasted several years until I realized I wanted to teach. While Homeless is part of a series, each book can stand alone. All of these books are about 6th graders who are vet volunteers, and I could see animal-loving middle schoolers devouring this series.

It’s got a pretty straight-forward lesson: listen to the adults (i.e. don’t stick your hand in a cage that has a feral cat), and don’t give up on your dream. Sunita, the main character, and I share the same dream: to have a cat of our own. Some day, Sunita. Some day.

As you may have guessed, Sunita is Indian. It doesn’t play into this book at all, except when her mother cooks and Indian meal for Sunita and her friends. As far as I know, the other kid volunteers and narrators of other books in this series are all white. But they could still be diverse in other ways. To quote Kevin Malone from The Office, “We see. Weeee seeee,” aka I’ll get back to you when I read other books in the series.

This book has some academic language having to deal with medical concepts and veterinarian dealings, but most unfamiliar words are explained. Therefore, I think it’s perfectly ELL-friendly. It’s definitely a middle school book, but a beginner ELL in 9-10th grade may find it useful, especially if they’re interested in the subject.

And yes, ladies and gentlemen, this Laurie Halse Anderson is the very same lady who wrote Speak. I’m impressed with her ability to write such different types of stories.

I really want a cat now. And this is post #100! Wooo!

Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak_1st_Edition_Cover

Reading level: 7.1

Genre: Realistic fiction

ELL-Friendly: Yes

Library recommendation: High school

Rarely do I finish a book and want the story to keep going. I admit to enjoying ambiguous endings, but I really wanted to know what happened to Melinda after the story ended. I suppose that shows how much I grew to like her. <– That right there is a controversial statement I just made. More on that in a bit.

Part of me was frustrated with Melinda for not speaking the truth and standing up for herself. In that way, I sided with her mother. At the same time, I understood why Melinda chose to be mute – speaking is difficult and and creates all sorts of problems. As she found, though, remaining quiet causes problems too. I sympathize with Melinda (sometimes I forget book characters aren’t real people) and didn’t find her annoying or self-centered like some goodreads reviewers did.

What I did find annoying was the way teachers were portrayed. The only “good” teacher Melinda liked or who stopped to listen to her was described as sort of odd. However, he was an art teacher with a slashed budget and a grudge against the school board, which seems pretty realistic to me. But he still came off as a little bonkers.

Because most of the setting was at school, I was left thinking what I would do with a Melinda in my classroom. There’s no good answer, really. The book is a reminder to not assume students are silent or acting out because they’re “bad” or don’t care. There could be a lot of deep thoughts going on in students’ minds even if they don’t speak. We must remember to give them support and different ways to communicate (through writing, music, drawing, etc.).

Several goodreads reviewers complained that Melinda got over her trauma too soon, so the story wasn’t realistic enough. I actually thought everything was quite realistic. It took her almost one year to find her voice and come to terms with what happened – that doesn’t seem quick to me. And the turnaround from Melinda being depressed to not depressed (or at least less depressed) was sudden, which is realistic too. I’ve been in slumps (depressions, even) for weeks and was suddenly able to bounce out of it very quickly.  Of course, it wasn’t trauma, so I can’t really say much.

I wouldn’t be comfortable putting this book in a middle school classroom because of the rape content. It’s not incredibly graphic, but it’s talked about and described. Perhaps reading it as a class with parent permission would be okay. It’s just got some heavy content.

Some random comments:

  • There’s a movie of Speak! But Melinda is played by Kirsten Stewart. 😦
  • I loved the audiobook narrator Mandy Siegfried. I thought her voice was perfect for Melinda.