In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Edgy issues

Dear Annie,

Of your Margaret Atwood list, Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye are the only ones I've read.  I like the idea of having them on a high school-and-up shelf.  I vividly remember reading her first novel, 
The Edible Woman
, pretty close to its release in 1969. It's about a young woman who finds herself in a suffocating engagement. Gradually, she finds there are fewer and fewer foods she can face eating. It starts with meat, then eggs, and her appetite keeps getting narrower and narrower.  She feels she's being consumed by expectations of those around her, but she herself consumes less and less.  Back then, the term eating disorder wasn't in wide circulation.

I carry a number of young adult books with edgy themes, but I tend to shy away from two particular issues: eating disorders and suicide.  I don't know enough about teenage psychology to feel confident about selling books detailing how a character does it.  Laurie Hals Anderson, the author of Speak, recently wrote 
, about a high school girl lost in the world of anorexia.  The character has already gone through one hospitalization, and a friend with whom she had a pact to avoid eating has died.  There's a lot of detail on how to get around adult supervision and demands to eat.  It's fascinating and feels very realistic -- I learned a lot, although the ending is slightly unconvincingly optimistic.  It feels like a book that needs your community of readers, rather than becoming a lone reading experience.  I don't carry it.

I was equally unenthusiastic about
Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher.  It's a novel in which a high school girl records audiotapes detailing 13 reasons why she's committing suicide -- each reason is associated with someone she knows.   That description was enough for me to decide I didn't want to bring it into the store.  Then it got lots of very positive reviews, a few customers talked to me about it, and I finally read it.  The book tells the experience of one of the 13 students who receives the tapes after Hannah dies.  He had a crush on her when she arrived as a new student, but real connection between them didn't quite happen.  The tapes detail a downward spiral of Hannah trying to overcome her outsider status; she's bruised by a mean-spirited social group; and labels that get unfairly attached to her lead to her being increasingly abused.  In her depression she sees no way out, but as a final act she leaves the tapes to show 13 people how each of them -- even ones who seemed unconnected to her victimization -- contributed to her despair.  "Everything affects everything," she says.  It gives a reader plenty to think about the social interactions of high school, and a push to examine one's own complicity in actions that could create someone else's misery.  There's something weirdly hopeful in it, even though it's about Hannah's tragedy.  A sense that some people can learn from their mistakes.  So I've broken my own embargo on the subject and am carrying this one.




  1. I also recommend the book "Willow" by Julia Hoban about a girl whose parents die in a car crash when she is driving. She is miserable, of course, and ends up cutting herself on purpose. It sounds creepy, but it's not. It's beautifully written, and makes you understand the psychology of why someone would do that, and by extension, why someone would do anything else self-harming and self-hating. And it has a good ending, when a boy who is attracted by her smarts discovers her and slowly realizes her secret and ultimately gets her to stop.

  2. I remember reading Nell's Quilt when I was in middle school. It's about a girl in the 1800s with what we thnk of as a modern disease, anorexia. I enjoyed reading it, but remember feeling uncomfortable with it, too. Sometimes those are the books that stick with you.