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.


Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson

Burger WussReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 420
Genre: Realistic fiction, general fiction
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: High school, (middle school okay)

Goodreads summary:

Anthony has never been able to stand up for himself —- that is, not until his girlfriend is in someone else’s arms. Then Anthony vows revenge and devises the Plan. It begins with getting a job at the fast-food restaurant where his nemesis happens to be a star employee. But when the Plan is finally in place, will Anthony’s hunger for revenge be satisfied? Will he prove he’s not a wuss?

I bought Burger Wuss when I realized I needed some “boy books,” and the cover looks like it’ll appeal to boys, right? I think I was right. The main character Anthony is a boy, and he struggles with a bully and girl problems. Typical boy stuff. It’s a light, quick read and is pretty funny if you get the satire.  And honestly, M.T. Anderson’s writing bugs me, but the plot was engaging enough that I actually enjoyed the story.

Burger Wuss is a good example of an engaging book where you want to punch the main character in the face. He’s kind of immature, not to mention awkward and annoying. He goes on and on about how Turner stole his girlfriend, as if the girl had no say in the situation. Fortunately, the girl sets Anthony right and explains it was her choice, too, and that she doesn’t belong to anybody. Okay, come to think of it, there were no characters I actually liked. I’m sure Anderson did that on purpose as some statement about the idiocy of America’s youth or something. He’s into that sort of thing.

I really enjoyed the message of the story: an eye for an eye doesn’t make you feel good; stooping to your enemy’s level to beat him does not make you brave. Anthony might still be a dweeb by the end of the book, but at least he understands who he is a little better and embraces his niceness, even if it makes him a “wuss.”

Scholastic claims that the interest level is 6th grade. I could see that, but this book needs a pg-14 sticker. There’s a good amount of swearing, Anthony and his friend talk about sex (but nothing graphic or in-depth), there are references to drinking and smoking week, and there are several recounts of the scene where Anthony’s “nemesis” is found laying half-naked on top of a girl. I have few qualms about putting it in a middle school library, but I could see it making pre-pubescent readers uncomfortable – hence the pg-14 rating.

It’s not particularly ELL-friendly due to frequent colloquialisms and sentence fragments. The writing in general is choppy, which is undoubtedly another statement about how youth think and speak. I think that if ELLs have a decent command of conversational speech (BICS), then they’ll be okay, though.

Burger Wuss is my twenty-fourth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Life is Funny by E.R. Frank

Life is FunnyReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 830
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

From the outside, they’re simply a group of urban teenagers. But from the inside, they’re some of the most complex people you’ll ever meet. There’s Eric, fiercely protective of his brother Mickey-but he has a secret that holds together his past and future. Sonia, struggling to live the life of a good Muslim girl in a foreign America. Gingerbread and Keisha, who fall in love despite themselves. Life Is Funny strips away the defenses of one group of teenagers living today, right now-and shows their unbearably real lives.

Life is Funny gives a glimpse into the lives of 11 urban teens living in New York. Each of them face serious, realistic obstacles, making it a heart-wrenching and engaging book because real teens face these problems every day. It was a bit of a depressing read, but each story contains hope.

There is a lot to love about Life is Funny. All the characters have likeable, even loveable, qualities, and you can’t help but root for them. While the organization of the book was a bit confusing (time passing, new characters introduced all the time), the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives. And just when you’re getting attached to a character and have high hopes for their future, their chapter ends. The characters in this story are a reminder that people are facing all sorts of struggles and that the least we can do is not judge one another.

Here’s the problem for me as an educator, though. Think of all the topics in teen literature that people freak out about. ALL of those topics show up in these stories. It’s definitely a book for high schoolers (Scholastic says the interest level is 9th grade), and, because I’m paranoid, I wouldn’t put it in a high school library, either. I even contemplated donating the book because I won’t use it in class or read it again, but then I read some more reviews and remembered it’s won some awards. This book can reach kiddos who face hardships like the characters in the book do. When I was in high school, my band director held onto a clarinet for years, just waiting for the right student to come along to whom he could give it. I’ll hang onto Life is Funny in case I find the right reader.

Some of the characters’ voices use colloquialisms, slang, and Ebonics, making it a tricky read for ELLs. While these varied narrations help define our 11 characters, Monique and Eric in particular have distinct dialects that are tricky for me to read fluently and quickly.

Life is Funny is my twelfth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.