Allison's Book Bag

Mad Woman in the Forest

Posted on: February 5, 2015

Why do I call myself Mad Woman in the Forest. First of all, these woods have a a lot to do with who I am and why I became a writer. I’ve been camping here since I was three years old. When I was a kid, my parents would come here and turn me lose….”

–Laurie Halse Anderson, Mad Woman in the Forest

Laurie Halse Anderson is a New York Times-bestselling author who writes for young people of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous state and national awards, as well as international recognition. In 2009, Halse was honored with the Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature”.


Born in 1961, Anderson grew up liking animals, reading books, and writing stories. All of these, she talks about at length with Reading Rockets. For her love of words, she credits first her father. He was a minister. He’d talk to the family about the roots of words in different languages and about language is connected. Thanks to his influence, Anderson studied linguistics in college. He was also a poet. When Anderson was a child growing up, her father was always writing poetry, crumpling it, and then rewriting poetry. He was also a natural-born storyteller. He’d tell gossipy stories about the family at night, but also told tales from the pulpit every Sunday morning. Those stories would have a theme, examples, subtext. They’d also make people laugh, cry, and think. Anderson says that she would not be a writer, if she were not his daughter.

Her mom, on the other hand, was not so much into the book world. In fact, on rough days, her mom would suggest that Anderson consider nursing school. Yet Anderson’s mom has also impacted her career choice. Her mother would send Anderson to her room to clean it, but instead Anderson would take out a book and read. When her mother discovered her reading, she’d hem and haw, but eventually tell Anderson to finish the chapter and then clean up. The room rarely got cleaned, but Anderson grew up loving books.

Despite all these literary influences, when Anderson was growing up, no one believed that she would become a writer. Her earliest teachers knew her only as a struggling reader. She also went to speech therapy. Anderson says that when she did crack the reading code, she became that kid who was always in the library. Yet being a voracious reader didn’t turn her into a good student. She wasn’t great at paying attention in class. She also wasn’t fond of grammar, spelling, or literature analysis.

Anderson jokes, “…. that’s when God laughed, I think, and decided to make me into an author. I was the kid who actually did question a teacher about symbolism and claimed that it didn’t exist. So this is my penance.”

More seriously, Anderson credits a second-grade teacher who taught the class how to write haiku. Anderson liked haiku, because the format was short enough that she could grasp its structure and even spell her words right. This teacher explained to Anderson that if she write down how she was feeling in this structured poem, then the person who would read it would understand what she felt. Anderson still remembers sitting in class when she experienced the A-HA moment. She’d written a poem about her cat. And suddenly she realized she could write!

As for her relationship with animals, Anderson says that it’s been a conflicted one. As a teenager in the 1970s, she was a tree-hugging type of girl whom you’d expect to also be vegetarian. Then she got sent to a pig farm. She got an eye-opening look into what farmers do for a living and what real work is. She also had a wonderful time.

The farm had geese. And it had ducks. Both were slaughtered at Christmastime to make money for the farm. Anderson never anticipated that she would come away with from Denmark was a real fondness for meat. And, hence, an inability to become a vegetarian.

Her relationship with animals is also a conflicted one because she has allergies, but at the same time loves animals. They have always been a part of her life, especially German Shepherds. When people ask her to talk about her pets, Anderson says she has to stop and think: “Do I have pets? Because they don’t feel like pets. They really are… it’s a cliché, but it’s a really accurate cliché. That’s part of my family.”


Since second-grade, Anderson has loved to write. She discusses her growth as a writer in the Official Biography of Laurie Halse Anderson. When an adult, she began her writing career as a freelance reporter for newspapers and magazines, but she had a lot to learn about the field. When Anderson started submitting her books to publishers, she earned hundreds of discouraging rejections letters. Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and finding a supportive critique group made all the difference.

Her first published book was a picture book. Indido Runs came out in 1996. It’s a story about a Bantu girl from Kenya. In it, Anderson explored what is it about folks from Kenya that makes them into such tremendous athletes and world quality marathoners? She interviewed a lot of people and learned a lot. The book was translated into four different South African languages, remains popular in South Africa and Kenya, but didn’t sell well in America. Since then, Anderson’s picture books have fall into two categories: exaggerated stories and historical fiction.

Her newest picture book, The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School, became a New York Times bestseller. Anderson dedicated this book to her daughter, who became a teacher that year.

Anderson is probably best known for her Young Adult novels, all of which are talked about at GoodReads: Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson. Her debut novel, Speak, was a National Book Award Finalist, Printz Honor book, and New York Times bestseller. The book was also quickly placed into curriculum at hundreds of schools around the country. The film version features Twilight star, Kristen Stewart.

Some of Anderson’s books draw on research. For example, to write Wintergirls, Anderson had to get into the head of an anorexic. She found this a painful experience, requiring her to take plenty of walks and to fill her non-writing time with happy activities.

Some of her books draw on her passions. For example, Anderson feels society has a lot of educating to do when it comes to rape, the topic of Speak. When she hears people making rape jokes, she asks them, kindly and sincerely, why they think it’s funny. When someone is forced to explain the joke, it sometimes gets through that there is nothing funny about rape. As another example, while writing Chains, Anderson was inspired by the poetry of Maya Angelou. She thought that including it in the story might help add another dimension.

Others draw on personal experience. For example, a few weeks before ninth grade, Anderson was raped. She became isolated and very depressed, just as Melinda did in Speak.

LaurieHalseAndersonHer latest book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, brings readers into the chaotic life of a high school student whose father is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Again, the situation is familiar to Laurie from her own childhood. “I was a shy, happy little girl, but things became complicated and sad when I was in middle school. That was when my father’s PTSD grabbed him by the throat. My family’s life changed dramatically—we moved a lot, were broke, and worst of all, my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about what was going on.”

I’ll review The Impossible Knife of Memory tomorrow. Save the date: February 6!

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