February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Fearless: An Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson

Date rape. Anorexia. Slavery. Is there a topic that Laurie Halse Anderson won’t tackle?

It’s hard to believe that only 10 years have passed since Speak (Farrar) was published. Laurie Halse Anderson’s edgy first novel for teens was immediately recognized as groundbreaking, and its little-known author was praised for her ability to write artfully about tough topics such as date rape. Since then, the Printz Honor Book has become required reading in many classrooms, and Anderson has written six more works for young adults, including two historical novels, Fever 1793 (2000) and Chains (2008, both S & S), a National Book Award finalist, and most recently Wintergirls (Viking, 2009), a tough-minded account of an 18-year-old’s struggle with anorexia. There’s also a new, 10th-anniversary edition of Speak, which includes a haunting poem that Anderson created from snippets of messages she received from sexually assaulted teens who had found the courage to speak out. Given the impact of Anderson’s works on kids’ lives, it’s not surprising that she’s already received two awards for her contributions to young people’s literature: the 2008 ALAN Award from the Assembly of Literature for Adolescents (a branch of the National Council of Teachers of English) and this year’s Margaret A. Edwards Award, supervised by the Young Adult Library Services Association and sponsored by School Library Journal.

These days Anderson lives in Mexico, NY, a small town minutes away from Lake Ontario, with her husband, Scot Larrabee, her stepson, Christian, and a German shepherd named Kezzie, who, the author says, “excels at barking at chipmunks and laying on my feet.” I talked to the 47-year-old Anderson just before she hit the road to promote her latest best seller.

Photo by Michael J. Okoniewski/Getty Images for Reed Business.

How has Speak changed your life?

Wow! I think it’s easier to ask what hasn’t changed in the past 10 years. That list would be shorter. Particularly with the ALAN Award last year and then being graced with the Margaret A. Edwards Award in January, I’m really taking this as a sign from the universe that it’s time to stop and catch my breath and reflect. None of this is what I ever thought was going to happen. I never thought anybody would publish Speak. I had published a couple of picture books before Speak came out, and I was still slaving away at Fever 1793. My kids were young—they were in middle and elementary school. I was just kind of blundering my way through the world of children’s literature, learning as I went. I had given myself a deadline by which I needed to have some books published. If I didn’t make the deadline, I was going to go to nursing school, because I needed to make some money so I could pay for my kids to go to college. So I really, really never foresaw this day. I guess what has changed the most or that feels the most significant for me is that I finally feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I have permission to do this, and it’s something I can continue to do until my dying day. That’s quite a comforting feeling.

Fever 1793 and Chains both take place around the time of the Revolutionary War. What fascinates you about that era?

It’s when our nation was born. I adore this country. I adore being an American. And the revolution—it’s a Revolution with a capital R. We lose sight of how extraordinary those series of decisions were, how they totally upended the status quo. We look from our perspective today, 200 years hence, and say, “Well, the white guys were still in control.” Oh, absolutely! But they weren’t the white guys who were supposed to be in control. And what the generation of the Revolution started was this incredible process of gradual democratization of a culture that we are still fulfilling today. It saddens me beyond belief that it’s taken us this long to get to the point where pretty much all Americans are considered equal—and we still have a ways to go. But they started it back then. We learn about the leaders—Washington and Jefferson and Franklin—but it was the working men and women who really bought into the concept that people were created with inalienable rights and they are guaranteed freedoms. Those people laid their lives and properties on the line and fought for seven years. That’s an amazing story.

What do 18th-century kids have in common with today’s teens?

They were struggling. It was a different kind of struggle. They weren’t worried about peer pressure or being bullied in the classroom. They were worried about, am I going to be hungry when I go to bed tonight? Or in the case of Isabel in Chains, that woman just stole my sister. Where is my sister? I think that kids are really drawn to those very life-and-death matters, stories set in history. If you wrote about them in today’s world, it might feel a little overblown. But if you set a very serious topic in a historical setting, there’s something about putting it at that remove that makes it more palatable to the reader. One of my favorite letters about Fever 1793 came from a sixth-grade girl in New Jersey, who wrote about how much she enjoyed the book and the reason why was that her father had been in the Twin Towers on 9/11. He had survived, but she identified with those feelings of panic and disaster and being out of control and the world suddenly not being safe. It was comforting to her to identify with somebody else who had had these feelings, and she found that in a work of historical fiction.

When did you start reaching out to readers online?

My Web site was first put up in the year 2000. It was a very basic one with just my books on it. I almost feel it was drawn with a pencil, looking back on it now. I didn’t do much with it for a long time. I started to get very proactive about outreach to readers right around the Prom tour—so that would have been about 2005. That was when I started blogging. It felt like the floodgates opened. I don’t know if it was just me becoming aware of the potential of this, or if I was riding a wave that everybody was riding, including my readers. Now we’ve got all kinds of ways to keep in touch with readers and for readers to communicate back with me, and I love it.

Why do you think kids feel so comfortable writing to you?

A word that often comes up when they write me is they feel that my books are honest. I don’t sugarcoat anything. When they’re reading about an emotional experience in my books, it’s something they identify with. It feels real to them. It doesn’t feel fake. I would say that more than anything that’s what motivates them to open up and email me. The older I get and the more I do this, the more I see how closely we are all connected by our experiences and by the human condition. And story is the traditional vehicle to relate with each other. I see the Internet as having brought me so much closer to my community of readers. It’s an incredible blessing.

What do you hear from them?

There are two types of communication. I consistently get lots of requests for help with homework. There’s a very cranky note posted on my Web site right now that says, “Look, I already went to high school, so do your own homework. Read the book.” It’s a little frustrating to get an email from an 11th-grade reader at 11 on a Sunday night requesting that I explain to this kid who’s got to turn in his essay the next morning all the symbolism in whatever book—fill in the blank. That’s something I didn’t think was going to happen. But I guess maybe it’s a backhanded compliment if readers are feeling that they’re so connected to me, or that it’s OK to reach out and ask the question. The worst I can do is say no.

The other kind of emails I get are usually the kind that tug your heartstrings. Last week, I came back up to my office to shut the computer down before I went to bed and a boy had written to me. He had just spent the previous four hours reading Twisted. He was a high school senior, and it was the first book he could remember reading from cover to cover. There were a lot of elements about the relationship of the main character and his father that reminded him about his own dad. And he was struggling with his own dad. He said, “I don’t even know why I’m writing this to you except that your book helped me make sense of a couple of things. So I guess I’m writing to say thank you.” That’s such an incredible honor that a kid would want to let me know that. Those are the emails that keep me going, keep me inspired to continue to write for these folks.

On your Web site, you’ve written, “The readers of Speak have changed our world.”

Oh, I know they’ve changed our world. The classroom discussions about Speak have changed a generation. Not the book, but the way the kids have brought the story into their hearts and allowed it to inform their experiences and hopefully help them make some better decisions. Teachers are so smart about the opportunities Speak presents to them as educators, and they will often bring in someone from the community—like from the sexual assault crisis center—to talk about the laws regarding sexual assault and what this means. Our kids really need to understand what the laws are and the morality about this. I often hear from girls who write to me: “Now I know why my mom doesn’t like me to go to those kinds of parties.” Those girls just didn’t get it before. They thought their moms were just being a pain in the neck. And now they realize, Oh, there are some things I need to be aware of and careful of.

Have boys bought into the story?

I know they have. So many boys have said to me over the years, “I didn’t know that that would upset a girl so much. I had no idea.” We can be horrified by that, or we can try to hold our judgment at bay and understand where it’s coming from. It’s because boys are inundated with very explicit sexuality in the media and they don’t have enough trusted, loving adults in their lives to explain the emotional side of human sexuality and the consequences of some of these actions. I just have such respect for teenagers, especially the teenagers right now. It’s so much harder than when we were growing up. But what I’m seeing is kids who are coming up with more tolerance, more respect for each other. I’m so in awe of this generation of kids.

For years Speak was one of our nation’s most challenged books, but lately it hasn’t come under as much attack. What do you make of that?

When Speak first came out, it was considered very cutting edge and daring. But since then, there have been books that have taken on equally important and raw topics and have done so in a way that’s a little more explicit than Speak was. So by comparison, maybe what’s happening is that Speak is looking mild to people who are upset by these things. And that’s why I’m not seeing as many challenges. Or it could just be that the book is becoming a standard in curriculums. It’s funny how the things that upset one generation become the standard of the next generation without a second thought.

Your latest novel, Wintergirls, takes on anorexia—an issue that many teens face but rarely discuss. What inspired you to write it?

I was beginning to hear from kids who had either been in the throes of an eating disorder or who wrote to me from clinics where they were. A lot of girls—and some boys—started to talk to me about cutting. They didn’t know how else to deal with the pain that was overwhelming them. So that was the first piece. The second piece is I have a dear friend who is a doctor who had been bothering me for years in a very not subtle way to write about eating disorders, because she saw so much of it in her practice. She felt that there really hadn’t been a good novel written about eating disorders, and she thought that might be helpful. I was really reluctant to do this because I have struggled since about 12 with my own body-image issues. I never could be classified as anorexic, but disordered eating is definitely something that has been a piece of my life more than I probably care to admit. I realized that all of these threads were showing me a clear path, and it was time for me to take my own challenge and dive into something that was difficult and see what I could make of it. So that’s what led to the writing of the book.

Where did you begin?

Before I really started to do the writing, I did a lot of research. I talked to my friend who’s a pediatrician and she referred me to some psychiatrists. I did as much reading as I could in medical journals. I went to pro-ana Web sites [which promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice] to see what these girls—mostly girls—were talking about. Even though 10 percent of people in America with eating disorders are male, the public face of eating disorders continues to be female. So it was a process of gathering crumbs of information and stowing them all away and waiting for the voice to come. And then Lia [the main character] showed up in my head and started talking. It wound up being a much darker book than I thought it would be. It was hard to write this one. It really grabbed me by the throat. I was glad when it was done.

I love how you wove classical mythology into your story.

Last year at ALA, they had a presentation by the Printz reunion class. So I was on a panel with Ellen Wittlinger, David Almond, and Walter Dean Myers. David Almond talked about the need children have for myth. He talked about how sometimes, especially with really hard life issues, kids can see something more clearly in a myth than they can in their own experiences. His words totally triggered my reaching a little bit into magical realism with Wintergirls and leaning heavily on the myth of Persephone to try to tell the story. I love mythology, and I was starting to wonder, what is the larger story about eating disorders? And then I realized that it was Persephone’s story. Persephone goes into hell and the world turns into winter—while her mother is scouring the earth, trying to figure out how to help her daughter. Everything just fit into place for me at that point.

Why do you think you relate so well to kids?

A lot of people—my friends and my beloved husband—will often say that I stopped developing emotionally at 15, which is a real plus in my business. I think I write these books for myself as much as anyone. It’s always so startling to look at myself in the mirror: that’s not who I expect to see looking back.

Kathleen T. Horning (horning@education.wisc.edu) is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.