Wintergirls–Young Adult “Issue” Fiction

I finished a book this weekend.  No, it was not Sunnyside, that 650 page behemouth (although I’m still working on that and loving it).  Instead it was Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls.  Anderson, author one of the most critically acclaimed young adult books Speak, is one of my favorite young adult authors.  In grad school, I did an “author study” on Anderson, which means I read all of her books.  And I loved most of them (I wasn’t crazy about Prom, if you were curious), so I was excited to borrow her newest book Wintergirls from the high school’s library.

I love Young Adult Fiction, although I didn’t read much of it as an actual young adult.  It serves the same function for me that chick lit serves for most people my age.  The books are quickly paced, they usually have fairly likable characters and there’s nothing challenging at all about the language.

But I was disappointed in Wintergirls, especially considering how much I loved Speak and, more recently, Twisted (also by Anderson).  Most YA books are “issues based,” and I get that.  Speak was about rape.  Wintergirls is about anorexia/bulimia/suicide/mental illness/divorce.  And that was my issue with it.  Was the main character’s (Lia’s) anorexia because of her parents’ divorce?  Was it because of her schizophrenia?  Was that schizophrenia anyway?  The book was a mess.  YA fiction is at its worst when it is a melodramatic mess, which is what much of Wintergirls was.  I don’t mind reading an “issues” book like Speak, but Wintergirls couldn’t figured out what its issue was.  Because of that, none of the issues was dealt with fully.  On top of that, I didn’t really like the narrator.  Probably because I didn’t understand her motivations.  Because there was too much going on.

But Wintergirls did make me think about the role of YA fiction.  This article, and the subsequent English teacher discussion of it, highlight a lot of the debate about the YA genre.  It’s certainly brain candy, but is it something we should encourage our students (or children) to read?  Is it over their heads thematically?  Is the language too simplistic?  Are we depriving the next generation of a meaningful reading experience?

I think there’s got to be a happy medium.  Thematically, our students are being exposed to this stuff in other places.  If they don’t read about violence in The Hunger Games (which was AMAZING.  Read it.  Seriously.), then they’re watching it on TV or in movies.  Or they’re playing video games with it.  If they don’t read about sex in Pretty Little Liars or, in a whitewashed version,  Twilight, then they’re…watching it in Pretty Little Liars or Twilight (or, if Sixteen and Pregnant is any indication, having it).  And sure, the language is simplistic, but I think anyone who picks up a Dan Brown or Emily Giffen novel isn’t reading anything more difficult. Heck, even the Times is written on an 8th grade reading level!

So the question is: does it belong in the classroom?  I think it does.  I think, when mixed with “the canon,” YA provides an important entryway into those “big ideas” that traditional, classic literature does.  I am a big proponent of the classics.  I didn’t read much YA as an actual young adult because I was too busy during my Hemingway Summer (1998), Fitzgerald summer (1999) or Austen summer (2000) to read much else.  But for many reluctant readers, thematic connection to YA can and does promote the reading of “classics.”

So I spent my weekend doing a lot of light reading (and a lot of grading, but no one’s interested in reading a blog about that!).  And it was fun.  I turned off my brain for a bit, and it was nice.  And now I’ll go back to reading Sunnyside and the dystopian novels I’m assigning this week refreshed and reminded of how much fun reading (even disappointing reading) can be.



Filed under Books

3 responses to “Wintergirls–Young Adult “Issue” Fiction

  1. Georg

    Oy the things I read when I was 16. I borrowed “Perks of being a Wall flower”(which was lent to me by a mutual “friend” Ill call Tommy) and although Guare said it better- Catcher in the Rye should not be read by pubescent boys.

    I read Palhunik before it was cool and Bret Easton Elis before I was crazy. Or at least aware of my crazy enough to know not to read books like that.

    **Tangent alert**
    I just realized that RL Stein brought me to reading. (Another moment of insight brought to you by!)
    **End Tangent**

    In short I never read AY. For this precocious (see: offputting) “young adult” the entire premise was beneath me…which I regret because I’m sure that if I would have read some Anderson and a little less Elison my life may not have resembled The Informants to the degree that it has.

    I think for the mass of potential readers out there we should not play personal shopper to their early reading forays. If a kid under 18 so much as picks up a book we should pay for his first semester in college. I hate to be an old man about it-no, actually…I love to be-but a wild young mind can inflict more sustaining trauma to itself in 7 stream of conciousness minutes on google than a 15 year old girl taking the time to read about anorexia/bulimia/suicide/mental illness/divorce. That what thinking did for me then…and still very much so does…it quiets the mind while engaging it. Should kids be reading about all the terrible outcomes that potentially lay before them? Should we say they can’t? What would it feel like for those kids who are considering EVERYTHING and not be able to find a quiet compatriot on the pages of some book? 9 out of 10 kids would rather read New Moon than Choke and if that one kid turns out to be somewhat mal-adjusted I say que sera sera!

    Love the blog!

    Oh ps shameless plug: According to the Lo Down blog at The Imperfectionists is my favorite book published in 2010…author Tom Rachman is on the show tomorrow at 1p on 93.9 or online…to discuss the book! Tune in.

  2. Ryan

    1998 , 99, 2000? Hmm, I played baseball those summers. Sorry I missed you at the library 🙂

  3. I’m so glad to hear that there’s another person in this world who is not completely impressed by Wintergirls. I have really hated to learn that so many girls use it as kind of a bible to stay anorexic. You’re right, there was constantly too much going on with it.

    I did my own review at:

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