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Like many others, I have been a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson since reading her debut young adult novel Speak. Now from Anderson comes another social issue novel that is receiving critical acclaim. The Impossible Knife of Memory is about post-traumatic stress disorder and veterans, a topic close to Anderson’s heart. When Anderson was in middle school, her life changed dramatically due to her father’s battle with PTSD. With The Impossible Knife of Memory, Anderson also for the first time includes a love interest. Although at times the novel fell flat for me, I did over all enjoy this best-selling title from Anderson.

Perhaps because adolescence is the time when the imperfections of adults becomes most notable, if parents make an appearance in young adult realistic fiction, their role seems to be that of the dysfunctional parent. Case in point, both parents in The Impossible Knife of Memory are alcoholics. Initially this turned me off. Anderson ultimately won me over in a couple of ways, one being her gripping portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. To cope with his memories of war Hayley’s dad turns to alcohol and drugs. These addictions might spark his short-temper that results in job losses. However, it’s just as likely that the battlefield memories, many of which are interspersed as stand-alone chapters written in italics, fuel his inabilities to copy with daily responsibilities. Most definitely, the nightmares in his head are what lead to his shooting up appliances, furniture, and eventually the family’s entire living room. Anderson also won me over, because this isn’t just another teen novel about a loser parent. Despite all the grief Hayley’s dad heaps upon the family, it’s clear from Hayley’s actions how much she loves her dad. It’s also clear how much the dad wants to make things right, feels remorse for his actions, and loves his daughter. As for Hayley’s mom, all I’ll say is that relationships are complex. Anderson does a nice job of recognizing that while parents might be flawed, this doesn’t mean teens should discredit them.

No matter the genre, love also seems to typical fare for young adult fiction. Up until now, Anderson was one of the few exceptions one could depend upon to give full attention to other teen matters. While I feel disappointed that Anderson has joined the masses, I do have to give her credit for creating a believable love story. The romance is a little sudden, but is also reasonably justified. Hayley’s best friend introduces her to the newspaper editor, from the mistaken belief that Hayley might want to write for the paper. The romance also develops pretty quickly, but again is reasonably justified. Hayley needs help in math; Finn needs articles to keep the newspaper afloat. I also like that Finn isn’t the stereotypical romantic date. He isn’t a hunky football player. He isn’t even the most popular guy in school. In contrast, he’s kind of skinny, kind of nerdy, while also being cute and sweet. I also appreciate that when the going gets tough, at times Hayley bails and at times Finn bails. Naturally, they never stay completely broken up, but it adds to the realism that they both need time to know how many challenges they’re willing to face together.

As you can see, most everything worked for me. Yet as I said at the start, at times, The Impossible Knife of Memory also fell flat. Is it just the hype surrounding it? Is it that perhaps I wasn’t really in the mood for another teen angst story? Either of those could be true. However, it might also be that I felt a need for a little more positive portrayal of families. Sure, families are flawed. It just seems that those in Anderson’s novel are flawed to the extreme. Not only does Hayley’s parents drink, but her best friend’s parents hate each other so much that they can’t be in the same room without a fight, and her boyfriend’s family is dealing with a drug-addicted daughter. Really? Are there no even semi-happy families?

I also tired of all the negative references to school policies. They fed too much into the angst of the story. Take for example, the fact that Hayley’s boyfriend wants to save the school newspaper, which was due to be cut because of financial constraints. While this is a realistic scenario, the problem I have is that when the paper actually does get cut, Anderson just drops that plot line. This leads me to view it as a contrivance, intended to bring Hayley and Finn together. Alternatively, given all the other school-bashing lines, it seems as times if the references are more that of Anderson’s own opinion than that of her characters and their situations.

When my husband and I were trying this year to decide what young adult book to both read, The Impossible Knife of Memory was a top pick. Minor flaws aside, Anderson remains one of the best for writing about anxiety and depression in adolescents. As such, she remains a vital voice for teens.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

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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!

My review selection for this week was recommended to me by Zin Kenter: “I have two Young Adult books I love very much although…. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is for high school age and has a graphic scene but it is very powerful…. the book is wonderful, it has a voice that I love, very restrained, humorous at times, sad. It also shows how art can help recovery.”

Why? This question ran through my mind as I read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. For example, why did Anderson portray her main character Melinda as a sarcastic and therefore sometimes unlikeable teenager? Or, why did Anderson keep readers in the dark until partway through her novel about the incident that changed Melinda’s life? Now that I’ve finished reading Speak, I agree with Anderson’s choices but have yet another question. How did Anderson write so smartly about teenagers and high school, while also being timeless? Speak was published in 1999, but it pulled me back to the 1980’s. Despite the lack of references to cell phones and IPods, I think my adolescent siblings will also find themselves in its pages. Speak is a problem-centered novel, which contains enough depth to also be simply good fiction.

For about half of Speak, I didn’t know whether to like or dislike Melinda. Near the start of a new school, her only friend announces that the two of them must plan goals. Her friend draws four boxes, one for each marking period, and then writes “Goals” in each box. What is Melinda’s goal? “To go home and take a nap.” As the year progresses, Melinda starts skipping classes and blowing off homework. Even though I quickly realized that Melinda’s misbehaviors were arising from depression, her apathy and bitterness make her sometimes unpleasant. Melinda refers to all of her teachers except her art instructor by labels rather than their names. Despite once being a good student, Melinda makes this quip about social studies: “Who knew there had been a war with the whole world?” In the same vein, while Melinda apparently used to have lots of popular friends, she now has negative things to say about most everyone. At the same time, Melinda is achingly vulnerable; she describes herself as having the wrong hair, wrong clothes, and wrong attitude. It’s difficult to dislike someone who is so insecure. Melinda is starkly honest. She admits that she could better handle Nicole’s popularity if Nicole were a bitch, because then she could hate her. Melinda is also surprisingly perceptive. When Valentine’s Day rolls around, she notes that in middle school it was “easier to floss with barbed wire than admit you like someone” whereas in high school kids kiss right in front of everyone. If I’d been as savvy as her in high school, maybe I’d have gotten hurt less. When Melinda eventually starts tackling her problems, she shows herself capable of helping her parents, taking an interest in school, and even of being thoughtful of her peers. If it weren’t for her depression, perhaps Melinda could be a pretty nice kid.

The problem is that for about half of Speak, I don’t understand how Melinda became this way. She used to have friends, but now for some reason they all hate her. They glare at her, give her the silent treatment, and refuse to sit next to her. When Melinda finds a forgotten janitorial closet that like her has no purpose or name, she decides that it would make the a perfect hiding spot. Melinda even figures her parents would have been divorced by now if she hadn’t been born. After all, she is not pretty, smart, or athletic, but just another “ordinary drone like them dressed in secrets and lies”. All this self-pity could become nauseating, given that we don’t know the reason for it, except there are all of Melinda’s memories about the better times. She describes a previous Halloween when her circle of friends all dressed up as witches. There are even funny moments in the present, such as when her dad talks to a turkey hotline lady, makes a turkey soup, and eventually tosses dumps the failed meal in the trash and orders  pizza. When Melinda lets down her guard, there are also some very sweet moments when she finds she is not completely alone.

Laurie Halse Anderson, Cherokee High School Visit

Image by theunquietlibrarian via Flickr

I was surprised to learn that Speak was Anderson’s first book. In less capable hands, Speak could have mired in negativity. I have seen this happen in far too many other young adult novels. Or it could have turned into a self-help book guised as fiction. I have seen this happen in many television movies. Instead through Melinda’s commentaries on high school life, we see Melinda evolve not just as person dealing with a problem, but also as an adolescent learning the repercussions of speaking up but also of staying silent. In less capable hands, Speak could also have failed to deliver a satisfying end to the mystery running throughout it about what happened to Melinda. Anderson deftly depicts Melinda’s descent into mental hell through her struggles in art class. Melinda’s art teacher Mr. Freeman gives each student a piece of paper with the name of an object, which they’ll spend the rest of the year trying to turn into art. Melinda picks: tree. At first she wants to throw it back, thinking it is too easy. She isn’t allowed. As the year progresses, she finds that expressing her emotions through a tree is incredibly difficult. Through this symbolism, Speak shows the journey that Melinda takes in trying to repress and then later reveal of an event that happened to one night.

Speak is a well-crafted. Anderson undertook the challenge of introducing a disenfranchised teenager and convincing readers to like her. How much easier that challenge would have been if Anderson had revealed from the start what had happened to Melinda. Anderson also undertook the challenge of revealing details about the events of that August night, only as Melinda was ready to deal with them. How much easier Anderson’s challenge would have been if she’d simply told a straightforward story about how Melinda came to terms with the fact that bad things can happen. That she instead took the higher road, readers are blessed with a complex and richly textured story that is still applauded over ten years after its publication. Anderson is still writing problem novels. One day I’ll return with a round-up of them, for Speak is an impressive introduction to her writings.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

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