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A 40-ish publisher (editor, project manager, etc.), husband, and father of an even number of offspring, I grew up, or failed to, reading fantasy and sci-fi. I still enjoy reading, and now am trying to write. My favorite books include YA fantasy, manga, biography, and advice to authors. I'm also a former history major/grad student/high school teacher and assessment writer. Now I work for a school supplement publisher, specializing in high-low chapter books. I spend a lot of my time controlling reading levels. At night, I cut loose and use long words. W00t!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Do you have any more words like “searing"?

In Wintertgirls, Laurie Halse Anderson disassembles a very troubled teenager. It’s almost a therapy session, but one page into it, we can’t help but like and almost admire her protagonist, Lia. And soon, very soon, be terribly afraid of her.

Lia’s very good at convincing herself that she’s wrong. Her interior battles take place in interior monologues with strikeout text, bursts of self-loathing, and very bad decisions. Her outward impulses are generous and thoughtful. However, she is trapped in an echo chamber that is coming to light more these days.

She is dying from words.

The brilliance of the book is that it makes for a great read. I’m resisting any adjectives like “searing” because they fall short, and are overused. There is a fishhook quality to this book. I flinched on every page, and couldn’t escape needing to know the outcome. The bait was constantly replenished, too – deft characterization (I knew who Elijah was the moment he appeared), hard scenery (every place is a place we’ve seen, often in pain), and high tension.

Anderson’s book is more than brilliant. It’s also good. It’s part of what should be a national conversation about the terrifying new stresses our social and media environment puts on teens. Maybe we shouldn’t complain so much. Our distant ancestors lived, if they were fortunate, to the ripe, old age of 25 or 30. Kids today (don’t read this in a “get off my lawn” voice), at least in most of the developed world, do not want for physical comfort, food, educational opportunities. The disparities of wealth and access to power that do exist are even highlighted by some as examples of how wealthy we are.

So why should we be concerned with girls who have negative self-images? what is the difference between body image issues and self-esteem?

Low self-esteem weeds the winners from the losers. This is very useful if you need to cull the children in order to have enough food for adults, and if the adults all have to be hard as nails. We have drifted from that – well, for some, it’s an ideal – to the principle that happiness is a human’s right, at least to pursue, if not obtain. And if we’re all equal (again with the Enlightenment ideals), then we should stop culling ther children, and let them develop in their happy differences.

In so many respects, this works. We have consumer-protection laws that reduce the incidence of lead in children’s toys because it’s bad for them. We stopped accepting child labor (onshore) because we felt bad for the kids. There are foundations today focused on evening out the opportunities in schools, because we feel bad for the kids.

And bullying is making the news increasingly as a threat to our kids. It has always existed. It’s long been a concern of parents, more recently one of politicans, to restrict it, or to ignore it as natural, a way of sorting out the bosses from the followers.

One strain of bullying affects teenage girls’ self-image. And it’s not only bullying by kids against kids. It’s bullying by our entire society against kids. The reason, I think, lies in the use of concept marketing instead of product marketing.

Do you ever see a fat person drinking soda in a commercial? Do you ever see sick people going to the beach in paradise on an airline commercial? How about car ads? Drug rehab center ads on late-night tv?

We ingest a steady diet of these images, and tney become us. We are what we eat. And the difference between the ideal and the real causes pain to some, and is a stick others (bullies) use against them.

Anderson’s Lia is that girl. She’s trapped. She doesn’t need the bikini models to tormet her anymore. She is so far past them, she can taunt them instead.

If you can face Lia’s demons, you ought to give this book a read.

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