While Laurie Halse Anderson has written numerous books, the following four for teens are among her most critically acclaimed, and showcase her writing style and the themes she’s most passionate about.
Shout, which chronicles Anderson’s childhood and adolescence, is meant to shed light on the writer’s background and offer a fiery, inspiring commentary on modern rape culture. Through her poetry, Anderson speaks of her alcoholic and sometimes dysfunctional parents, her rape at age 13, the decline in her mental health in her teen years, and her time spent abroad in Denmark. Readers experience her anguish, disinterest in life, anger, sadness, and curiosity, and her changed self as she begins to heal. The book shifts to discussing Speak and how she was inspired to write it, and her feelings on the rape culture. She writes about consent and how boys struggle to understand it; yet she also acknowledges the boys who have been victims of abuse, too. Anderson shares her passion for intellectual freedom and her feelings about censorship in this latter section of the book, as well as her call for change and for more advocacy for survivors of abuse and harassment.
While some its content may not be suitable for all teens, Anderson’s book manages to comfort survivors, educate potential perpetrators, and call for a change to this culture. The poetry is accessible to teens and easy to understand; yet it is not shallow or cheap. Teens and adults alike will savor lines like “Censorship is the child of fear/the father of ignorance/and the desperate weapon of fascists everywhere,” and “we should teach our girls that snapping is OK, instead of waiting for someone else to break them",” and “feel the contractions of another truth ready to be born: shame turned inside out is rage” (Anderson, 2019, pp. 191, 215, 227). While readers will benefit from reading Speak for some of the discussion, it is not required to appreciate this text. The content manages to hit on current issues — #MeToo — without becoming inextricably tied to the moment; it is easy to see this in collections for years to come.
Speak (1999; 2019)
Speak tells the story of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman who is already jaded with the entire high school experience. While she once had friends, including a best friend, she finds herself alone save for a new girl who just doesn’t get it — all because she called the cops during a party and got it shut down. Unmotivated by her classes, except for art, her grades slip as the school year goes on. Her parents don’t understand, and they’re dysfunctional themselves, so Melinda slowly withers away, and stops talking to most people around her. As the year ends, she notices that her ex-best friend is getting close to someone dangerous — someone Melinda knows a little too much about. In her effort to protect her friend, and others in her school, Melinda begins to reclaim her voice and speak her truth.
There is a reason that this story has continued to be popular (the 20th edition was recently released) and that stems from the voice of Melinda and the powerful story Anderson tells. Although written in the late 90s, Melinda feels very much like a teen today; her narrative still resonates. Teens still feel alone in high school, and struggle with who they want to be, even without the trauma that Melinda has undergone. Melinda’s parents aren’t abusive or horrible, but distant and preoccupied with adult troubles as many parents are. The cliques and high school social hierarchy Melinda describes feel not like a description from a 90s teen movie, but something that a teen could translate to their own high school experience — everyone knows the group of overachievers, the kids who pretend to be intellectuals or cultured, and the athletes that seem to get away with everything. Melinda continues to guide teen readers of today through high school, providing a humorous commentary on what it feels like to be outside of the popular group.
Melinda’s story also continues to be impactful because of the way it is told: Anderson hints at what happened to Melinda, but doesn’t spill everything at once. Readers find out that Melinda effectively ended the party, see that she tries to make herself invisible and disappear, and can feel her depression and disinterest in life, but do not know what exactly happened. Survivors will relate to the way in which Melinda deals with her trauma, and readers without these experiences will be able to feel for her and the mistakes she makes. As Melinda begins to speak, and hold “IT” accountable for what he did, the story becomes one of change and healing. There is no happy ending or neat, tied conclusion, but instead a hint that Melinda will be able to share her story and bloom.
In Twisted, Tyler Miller is a high school senior recovering from a not-so-little mistake he made: vandalizing school property. After a summer of punishment and work in construction, Tyler finds that his long-time crush is finally noticing him and his newfound physique. Problem? Bethany, his crush, is the sister of his long-time enemy, and the daughter of his father’s boss. As their not-quite relationship starts to blossom, Tyler struggles with his family. His younger sister has begun dating his best friend, his overworked-father is emotionally unavailable and controls the family, and his mother sometimes drinks to forget, and constantly excuses her husband’s behavior. When Tyler attends a party with hopes of finally being with Bethany, he makes a choice that will have lasting consequences. How will Tyler move forward when it seems like the world is against him? Will he choose to “be a man,” and what does that mean, anyway?
Across interviews, Anderson has shared that one reason she wrote Twisted is that so many boys, after hearing her talk about Speak, were confused about why Melinda was so upset about being raped. Beyond being shocked, she was upset that so many couldn’t understand consent. In this novel, she explores consent and masculinity, and emotional and physical violence. Tyler doesn’t take advantage of Bethany when she’s inebriated, but when she drunkenly insults him for “blowing her off,” and kisses a guy he hates, his response reflects his feelings of entitlement. When, after photos of Bethany from that night (taken without consent) are shared throughout the school and Tyler is accused, Tyler lashes out at Bethany for her drunken behavior — “I mean, what was it you loved the most? Was it drinking yourself blind or throwing yourself on every guy there?” (Anderson, 2007, p. 137). While Tyler never apologizes to Bethany, we see him mature and grow as the novel concludes. He has directed his anger toward his father, and actually communicated his feelings instead of bottling them up. He stands up for himself and tries to mend relationships, and seems to have hope for his future. As he says to his enemy after confronting him, “A real man faces his conflicts” (Anderson, 2007, p. 225).
Anderson describes the dangers of toxic masculinity: the entitlement to female “objects,” the isolation, and the emotional upheavals of constantly having to be tough and reserved. Tyler is a flawed character, but he provides hope to other boys and men that they can heal. Anderson also addresses the mental health and suicide epidemic with young men, and guides these troubled teens to better options without making Tyler or his friends preachy. Tyler’s narrative, much like Melinda’s in Speak, is humorous and true to teens. The characterization is well-executed, and the story is fast-paced, interesting, and packs a punch in the section where it seems as if Tyler might commit suicide. The reader is invested in Tyler’s survival and growth, much as we are with Melinda, even if their stories are very different.
Lia lives in the borders of dead and alive, as a real girl and wintergirl, whose strength is measured by how small she can get. When she hears that her former best friend, Cassie, was found dead and alone in a motel room, she begins to unravel even more. Cassie was Lia’s partner in the goal to be empty and brave, and even after she’s passed, Lia can still see Cassie as a ghost. Cassie taunts her and beckons her to the other side — all she has to do is embrace the emptiness of not eating, and she, too, can finally be victorious. While Lia’s doctor, mother, father, and stepmother all try to reach her, Lia struggles to stay afloat. Will Lia join Cassie as a perpetual wintergirl, or will she find a way to the land of the living?
Unlike Speak and Twisted, the tone of the book is rarely humorous — it’s much darker inside Lia’s head. Lia is a depressed girl whose ideas don’t always correspond with her reality; Anderson gives her fantastical thoughts and figurative language in the first-person narrative that hint that her anorexia might not be her only problem, aside from seeing Cassie as a ghost. Lia is a believable and realistic character; much like Melinda and Tyler, she hides her turmoil from those around her and lets it fester. She is a passive actor in her own life, until she finally is able to wrest control away from her disease and seek help. Her family are believable characters as well; her stepmother is caring, but wants to protect her own daughter from Lia, and her father means well but can’t seem to take her problems seriously and is preoccupied by his own career, as is her mother. The mood of the novel is dark and atmospheric — even as the temperature heats up for this reader in real life, it is easy to feel cold, distant, and on edge.
Anderson does not give Lia a perfect ending; we do not know if she will fully recover and move forward with her life. But we see growth in Lia and have hope that she will bloom and choose life. Teens with anorexia and other experiences with disordered eating will relate to Lia’s troubles and constant preoccupation with food and control, and will find a caring author in Anderson, who does not exploit Lia’s struggles for shock value. Anderson conveys just how deadly this disease is without delivering a book with a message or agenda; instead, it’s a well-told tale about mental illness and the hope of recovery, set as a young girl grieves her best friend and comes into her own.
Anderson, L.H. (2007). Twisted. New York: Viking.
Anderson, L.H. (2009). Wintergirls. New York: Penguin.
Anderson, L.H. (2019). Shout. New York: Viking.
Anderson, L.H. (2019). Speak. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.