Readability Age Range



Year Published

Book Review

This fiction book by Laurie Halse Anderson is published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). Wintergirls is written for kids ages 12 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Plot Summary

Lia is a high school senior with divorced but independently successful parents, a caring stepmom and a little stepsister who adores her. Lia suffers from anorexia nervosa. She feels trapped between life and death, torn between the desire to eat and the power she feels when starving herself. But she can’t starve herself forever.

Cassie, Lia’s best friend, dies. Lia feels her life spiraling out of control, and her weight continues to drop. She lies about what she’s eating, skips school to cut herself with razor blades in dark movie theatres and travels alone to meet Elijah — a guy she’s never met who works at the seedy Gateway Motel where Cassie died. Lia feels responsible for Cassie’s death. Not only did she and Cassie swear a blood oath to be the skinniest girls in their school, but she deliberately sabotaged Cassie’s attempts to recover from bulimia. On the night she died, Lia received 33 calls from Cassie’s cellphone. She didn’t answer one.

Then Cassie’s ghost appears. At first, the visits happen only at night. Lia can escape them by sleeping with her stepsister, Emma, taking sleeping pills or exercising until she collapses from exhaustion. But soon her visions become more intense. At Cassie’s funeral service, Lia sees the dead Cassie sit up in her casket and eat a piece of green see-glass — which is supposed to tell the future.

Lia and Elijah develop a friendship of sorts. She buys him food, and he doesn’t judge her. He accompanies her to Cassie’s burial. Lia hopes that the haunting will stop after Cassie is interred. It doesn’t.

Because of her refusal to eat, life becomes increasingly tense at her father and stepmother’s home. Lia tries to maintain a facade of normalcy for Emma’s sake. Jennifer, Lia’s stepmother, encourages her to visit her mother, Chloe, who is a cardiologist. Lia agrees, even though their interactions usually disintegrate into yelling matches. Her mother tells Lia that Cassie died, drunk and alone, from a ruptured esophagus. It was a slow, painful death. Chloe convinces Lia to visit her again after Christmas. Before leaving her mother’s home, Lia steals a special bone-handled knife that used to belong to her grandmother.

Back at Jennifer’s house, Emma has broken her arm playing basketball. Jennifer sends Lia to the drugstore to pick up Emma’s prescription. Cassie waits for her in the aisles. She tells Lia that it won’t be long before Lia joins her in the land of the undead. While Emma plays the triangle at the winter concert, Lia gorges on bake-sale cupcakes. Then she takes laxatives to purge her body and is sick all night long.

The next day, Lia fights with her father about whether she should be admitted for treatment. She’s already gone twice and refuses to go again. Her father tells her it won’t work anyway. Lia is going to stay sick until she decides to get better. She calls Elijah, who plans to travel south in a couple of days. He tells Lia the message Cassie left for her on the night she died — that Lia won. Lia is the skinniest. But Lia isn’t happy.

She decides to end it all by cutting her chest open with her grandmother’s knife. Lia makes four deep cuts before Emma walks in on her.

Weak with blood loss, Lia is taken to the hospital by ambulance. Cassie’s ghost travels with her. She says that it’s almost time and that Lia and Cassie might spend Christmas together. A few days later, Lia is temporarily released into the care of her mother, who has cobbled together a schedule so Lia will never be alone. But a snowstorm makes Jennifer late picking her up from her psychiatrist — who has just told her that she is going to recommend that Lia be placed in a psychiatric-care facility. Lia takes a cab to the deserted Gateway Motel to convince Elijah to take her with him when he leaves.

At first, Elijah agrees. But when Lia wakes up the next morning, he is gone. He’s taken all her money, leaving her only enough cash to take a taxi home. While still in the hotel, starving and perilously close to a sleeping pill overdose, Lia fades in and out of consciousness. She toys with thoughts of suicide. Finally, she musters the willpower to live. Emma needs her.

But Cassie’s ghost is waiting in the room where Cassie died. She tells Lia that her heart is about to stop and that it’s too late. But Lia grabs the see-glass out of Cassie’s mouth and licks it. It’s not glass at all, but a dirty green lollipop. The sugar makes her stronger, and she can picture her future. Lia apologizes for not answering Cassie’s phone calls and phones her mother to tell her where she is. An ambulance is called for Lia; her heart stops in the ambulance, but she survives.

Lia is admitted for treatment again. This time, she wants to recover, and she works to slowly rebuild her fractured relationship with her family. She treasures each baby step she makes toward recovery. She still sees Cassie’s ghost, but it doesn’t try to talk to her anymore, and Emma wants her to come back home.

Christian Beliefs

The pastor at Cassie’s internment quotes from the Bible. Emma asks if Jesus is Santa’s cousin. Lia recites part of the Lord’s Prayer at an impromptu funeral for Cassie’s pet mouse, Pinky. Lia compares her recovery to a nun pledging herself to a convent.

Cassie thought heaven was a fairytale that only stupid people believed. Lia believes that Cassie won’t be able to get into heaven.

When Emma tells her coach that Lia has cancer, Lia believes she (Lia) will burn in hell for wishing that were true.

Other Belief Systems

References to Greek and Roman mythology are scattered throughout the book. Most center on the story of Persephone and Pluto — the goddess of spring kidnapped by the god of the underworld and forced to be his bride. Lia and Cassie make a blood oath to be the skinniest girls at school.

Elijah has a tattoo of a half-bull, half-man that he claims he saw (among other visions). He believes it is the god of bike messengers. Lia reads a Harry Potter book to Emma. Cassie repeatedly chants Ommmm during her pet mouse’s funeral. Lia and Cassie make voodoo cookies of each other and smash them.

Lia tells her psychiatrist that she has been able to see ghosts since her grandmother died. Most are friendly. Cassie’s is not, although it becomes more benign as Lia enters the recovery phase of her illness. Cassie tells her that she will always be a ghost — trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead. It isn’t clear why she can’t move on, although as a ghost she can choose what to dwell on — the good or the bad parts of life. Lia’s psychologist believes that Lia’s mind created Cassie’s ghost because she was depressed. She offers a rational explanation for events that occurred. Lia continues to believe that she is haunted.

Cassie has a piece of see-glass, purportedly birthed in a volcano and capable of telling the future if the stars line up correctly. It turns out to be a green lollipop. Lia wishes the moon would give babies only to couples who pray long and hard for one. She reads parts of the Bible and several Eastern religious texts while in rehab.

Authority Roles

There is no shortage of concerned and caring adults in Lia’s life, but she holds them all at arm’s length. She uses distancing language, referring to both parents by their professional titles: Dr. Marrigan (her mom) and Professor Overbrook (her dad). According to Lia, the school nurse is a guard dog and a crafty witch; workers at the treatment center are sweaty and whale-sized; Jennifer is a scale Nazi, and her psychiatrist is Dr. Stupid. Lia constantly battles for control with the adults around her, and when Elijah suggests that they are just looking out for her well-being, she disagrees.

Lia’s parents care for her. Her father, David, cries on her mattress when he visits her every day at the hospital. Her mother, Chloe, shares how difficult it was for her when Lia moved out, and Lia notices that she clear-coated her growth chart so it couldn’t be erased from the door jamb. However, neither adult is a model parent. They married because Chloe was pregnant and divorced because David was repeatedly unfaithful. Both parents had high expectations for Lia but focused more time and energy on developing their careers than on raising their child. Chloe is strict, and David is lenient, but neither takes the time to really get to know their daughter. Lia shuts them out whenever they attempt to reach out. After the divorce, Lia can barely speak to her mother without fighting. Her father promises to spend time with her but never does.

Jennifer, Lia’s stepmother, is a more family-focused parent and keeps the household running smoothly while David works long hours. She is concerned about appearances and has high expectations for her own daughter, Emma. She hopes that Emma’s accomplishments will reflect positively on her parenting skills. While she loves Lia and tries to keep her accountable, it is clear that Emma’s safety is her top priority.

Lia’s psychiatrist takes a passive role in her recovery. She does not have permission to report her findings to Lia’s parents. When Lia finally opens up to her about seeing Cassie’s ghost, she recommends that Lia be placed in a psychiatric-care facility.

Background authority figures such as teachers, nurses and Cassie’s parents are viewed negatively by Lia. They always demand something and give little in return. It is implied that Cassie’s parents’ high expectations contributed to her eating disorder. Lia traces the beginning of her disorder to a ballet teacher who told her to eat less ice cream.

Lia enjoyed a close relationship with both of her grandmothers, but they passed away long before Cassie’s death.

Profanity & Violence

Uses of h—, b–ch, d–n, p—, and a– are scattered throughout the book. The name of God and Christ are taken in vain. Lia calls a male bully a weenie just before he punches her. Various crude terms used to describe the female anatomy are mentioned, and crude words are substituted for the word lesbian.

Most of the violence in Wintergirls is self-perpetrated. Lia and Cassie abuse their bodies as they attempt to shape themselves into a form humans were never meant to assume. They abuse alcohol, laxatives and diuretics. They starve themselves almost to death. They cut their bodies again and again and sometimes lick the blood from their fingers. Lia brushes her teeth until blood runs down her chin. Both girls contemplate suicide. Cassie finally dies — alone, afraid and in pain — from a ruptured esophagus caused by her constant vomiting.

The surface violence is eclipsed by the dark world of Lia’s own thoughts. The imagery she uses to describe her feelings is often disturbing. She thinks in pictures: knives and cages and ghosts vomiting blood down her throat. She is a zombie, a vampire, a frightened girl with spiders crawling out of her belly button. Her best friend is a fresh-caught fish with fluid draining out of a slit in her stomach, and all Lia wants to do is open her up and peek inside.

She hides under layers of clothes and prepares food for her family without ever tasting a bite. She worries that she will kill someone while she is driving and not know it because she is in a starvation-induced trance. She feels like she is wearing underwear made from razor blades, hidden under tight jeans, while bugs eat her from the inside out. When there is no fat left to burn, Lia wants to break open her bones and empty them of marrow so that the numbers on the scale will continue to drop. She dreams about crows eating her body and thinks about stabbing herself with a knitting needle and bleeding out in the snow. She calls herself stupid, fat, ugly and loathsome.

Elijah reveals that his father beat him.

Sexual Content

It is implied that an inappropriate relationship with a boy was the reason Cassie moved to Lia’s neighborhood when she was still in elementary school. On the road to recovery, Lia thinks she would like to kiss a boy — or maybe a girl. Lia speculates that her psychiatrist might be a lesbian.

Lia shows Elijah her naked torso. Her body is so scarred and emaciated that he doesn’t see her sexually, although he asks if he can put his fingers around her bicep, which is smaller than the circle of his index finger and thumb. Her body is described in detail throughout the book, although the effect is increasingly horrific, not sexual.

Lia’s parents marry when David gets Chloe pregnant. Lia speculates that she might be anorexic because her dad’s sperm was affected by an experimental chemical or because her mom drank too much coffee. David is repeatedly unfaithful to Chloe, and Lia suggests that he might be cheating on Jennifer, too.

In happier days, Lia and Cassie have crushes, flirt with boys and take pictures comparing the size of their buttocks. Cassie matures early and is relentlessly taunted by her classmates until Lia stands up for her.

Neck-sucking boys and magazine photographs are mentioned as influences that may have contributed to Cassie’s eating disorder. Broken condoms and boyfriend-girlfriend “juice” are mentioned. Cassie’s boyfriend cheats on her. High school couples retreat to couches in empty basements. Elijah offers to show Lia a tattoo on his backside.

By looking in Cassie’s casket, Lia feels she is visually raping her dead body. Lia describes her and Cassie’s descent into starvation as dancing with witches and kissing monsters. Body image is always at the forefront of Lia’s mind, and she comments negatively on the size and shape of her body and the bodies of those around her.

Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • Why does Lia starve herself? How is being thin different from what she expected?
  • How do you see your body?
  • What do you do to take care of it?

  • Why isn’t Lia happy when she reaches goal No. 3: 89 pounds?

  • Why wouldn’t she be happy at 75 pounds?
  • How is Lia’s desire to lose weight related to the belief that she takes up too much space?
  • How would you try to help Lia if she were your friend?

  • Why does Lia start cutting herself?

  • Why does she continue?
  • What circumstances in Lia’s life contribute to her feeling this way?
  • What choices could she have made differently?
  • Have you ever felt so emotionally numb that you just wanted to feel something, even if it was painful?

  • Lia uses the word canvas to describe her body.

  • What does she mean?
  • What words does the Bible use to describe the human body?
  • What responsibilities do we have relating to the care of our bodies?

  • Lia is fixated on her body and the bodies of those around her.

  • Does the shape of a person’s body tell you anything about their personality?

  • Lia thinks that she is fat, but she also thinks that chubby little Emma could be a model.

  • Why does Lia think Emma is beautiful?
  • What role does Emma play in Lia’s recovery?
  • Is there anyone in your life who gives you this sense of purpose?

Additional Comments

Deception: Lia tries to appear normal to hide the extent of her problems from her peers and family. Jennifer stresses the need for trust but practices small acts of deception regularly. She doesn’t tell Emma that the reason she is the starting center on the basketball team is because Jennifer has threatened to stop sponsoring the team if Emma doesn’t get enough playing time.

Anorexia/Bulimia: While Wintergirls doesn’t glamorize eating disorders, Laurie Halse Anderson paints a clear picture of the attention Lia receives and the heady feelings of power she experiences because of her anorexia. She also describes the various procedures Lia and Cassie use to purge, limit their calorie intake and hide their disorder from people around them.

Drugs/Alcohol: Various characters use or abuse drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book’s inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can’t find at [email protected].

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