Trigger warning: This review contains spoilers which include discussions of severe eating disorders and self harm.

I just finished reading Wintergirls and I’m feeling that relief that comes from no longer hitting yourself in the head with a hammer—and that’s actually a compliment to the power of the book. It’s a terrifying and very effective trip into the mind of Lia, a girl with severe anorexia. It opens as Lia learns about the death of her long time best friend, Cassie, who died alone in a motel room from bulimia.

I’d like to think that there’s no way any middle school kid should be reading this book, but I also know that my daughter, currently a 12 year old 6th grader, has had peers with eating disorders since she was about 8. Yes, 2nd graders with eating disorders. And we hear about more every year. In the novel, Lia and Cassie started acting on their issues during middle school. That said, this might be a bit much for most middle school kids.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but I’m glad I worked my way through it. It’s an issue I have to be concerned about and aware of, because it’s already touched my daughter’s life. And many of my friends struggled with bulimia, though not to such a degree.

Aside from how graphic it is and how intense, I wonder how Wintergirls might be read by someone who can identify with where Lia is coming from. I was horrified, but because we’re in Lia’s head, to her it makes sense. Those who try to help her are, in her mind, against her. They have to be subverted and worked around. Would this book be helpful or detrimental to someone actually dealing with an eating disorder?

The book takes Lia to the brink—she’s already been through failed treatment twice before the book opens. She has to go to incredibly dark places before she’s really ready to commit herself to getting better. But she’s unwilling to die, and so in the end she comes back. It’s not easy, and there’s no miraculous happy ending. But she’s finally on the path toward healing at the end.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

This is an intense and difficult book. The whole thing is disturbing. I’ll touch on some of the categories, but know that from beginning to end this is full of tough and graphic stuff.

Family Issues

Lia’s parents are divorced. They got married because they were pregnant with Lia. Her mother is a heart surgeon, incredibly involved with her work, and a perfectionist. Lia has always felt pushed way too hard by her mother. They fight a lot and Lia decided she couldn’t live with her anymore. Her father is a history professor, also pretty obsessed with his work, but he’s much more laid back. He wants to imagine that everything is fine.

Her parents divorced because of her father’s infidelity. He’s now remarried to Jennifer and has a 9 year old stepdaughter, Emma. Lia adores Emma. Jennifer pushes Emma pretty hard, but she’s trying to be a good mom. Lia feels ignored by her dad. Jennifer is trying to be a good mom to Lia, too, but isn’t sure how to handle all her issues. She has to pick up a lot of the slack, though, like the weekly weigh-ins and driving Lia to appointments and so on.

Cassie had similar issues with her parents. All of the parents are too blind, too self-absorbed, and they expect too much of their kids. And, for an adult reader, they’re all too easy to identify with.


Cassie and Lia were best friends for years. In some ways they were wonderful for each other. In others, they were toxic. They shared their deepest secrets, but also encouraged each other’s darkest tendencies. They had a falling out before Cassie’s death, but then in her last weekend of life, Cassie called Lia 33 times and Lia ignored them all. Of course she had no way of knowing why her estranged friend was calling, but that doesn’t stop the guilt. I could really feel for Lia’s mom—what do you do when your kid’s best friend seems to turn into a bad influence?


A lot of the book deals with the aftermath of Cassie’s death—the viewing, the funeral, how classmates and parents deal with it, and of course how Lia attempts to escape from it all.

Lia’s parents also deal with a kind of grief as they struggle with what their daughter is going through.

Underage Drinking

There’s lots of it, and it’s not really viewed as bad, from Lia’s point of view. It’s part of life. It started at least as early as 8th grade, when she snuck a small bottle of vodka to spike drinks for her and Cassie at New Year’s.

Nightmare Fuel

As she’s starving herself to death, Lia has lots of hallucinations. She frequently imagines spiders. She wonders if she hit someone on the drive home that she doesn’t remember—she imagines the possible scene vividly, and checks the front of the car to make sure there’s no body mashed into the front. She imagines creatures living in her body, trying to claw their way out. She imagines fat and pus trying to bubble out through her skin. Lia lives in a very disturbing world, and it’s described in detail.


Cassie is a character throughout the book. She appears to Lia repeatedly, trying to convince her to join Cassie in death. Is she really a ghost or just a hallucination? The book doesn’t really answer that—it’s left up to the reader. But even after Lia is starting to get healthy, Cassie continues to appear to her, though more peacefully. Lia certainly thinks she’s real.

Lia remembers going to her grandmother’s funeral. It was there that she first felt the spirits, the creatures, enter into her. She compares treatment to an exorcism.

Other Kinds of Self-Harm

Lia cuts herself, and has for years. After Cassie’s death, she reverts to doing it again. In a particularly horrific scene, she cuts herself so blood flows over the bathroom. Her 9 year old step sister walks in on her and is forever scarred—this is the first time Lia starts to realize that this has an effect on other people. It takes 33 stitches to close her up.

Lia also chooses food that will hurt her when she eats it, like lots of hot sauce on a rice cake. She takes showers so hot that the water burns her. She leans into her cuts to make them hurt and bleed again.


Lia goes to extremes to hide what she’s doing. She messes with the scale and sews quarters into the robe she wears for her weekly weigh-ins so that they won’t realize her weight is dropping. She goes to elaborate lengths to make it look like she’s eaten something.

Emma is described as plump, and it’s clear that Jennifer is concerned about this—she tries to cut back on the junk food and she puts Emma in lots of sports that she isn’t good at and that she doesn’t like. Lia takes Emma out for junk food but makes her promise not to tell her mom.

Effects of Eating Disorders

Cassie died of complications of bulimia, and that’s recounted in some pretty graphic detail. As Lia’s body deteriorates, she gets incredibly cold and her body starts to grow fuzz to keep her warm. She blacks out, passes out, zones out—she’s no longer really a participant in the world around her. She is very aware of her body and what it’s doing, because this is pretty much her whole world. So we get all the details as things continue falling apart. The author worked with doctors to ensure that these details are accurate.

The first time Lia was admitted to a clinic, it was because she passed out and crashed the car, injuring Cassie.

Other Contributors

A good bit of the book is told in little snippets of flashback, so we see how Cassie and Lia encouraged and enabled each other. Lia visits pro-ana websites where she connects with other girls trying to find the strength to make themselves “pure.” She remembers her growth spurt when she put on some weight and lost her solo in ballet—her teacher told her to lay off the ice cream. She talks about the time before her anorexia as when she was “a real girl.”


Lia sees food as numbers of calories, exercise as numbers of calories worked off. She knows exactly how much she’s eaten and how much she’s burned off. Her sense of self is a number on the scale. Everything is about the numbers.


In middle school, Cassie was called a “dyke lesbo.” Lia didn’t know what that was, but it didn’t sound good. Nevertheless, she decided she needed to stand by her friend.

When she’s finally starting to come back from the brink of death, Lia starts thinking about her future. When she considers falling in love, she thinks it could be with either a man or a woman. No big deal is made of this, but it’s mentioned in passing twice.


Even though this is an issue that my daughter already knows something about, this book is WAY too intense for my kid right now. Lia is 18, Cassie was 19, and I think it’s probably best for older readers—maybe 14 or 15 and up. And I don’t know if it would be a good or a bad book for a kid currently personally dealing with eating or cutting issues.

But if you’re the parent of a middle schooler, Wintergirls may offer some valuable insight into a really tough issue that your kid is probably at least already aware of. I certainly found it thought-provoking.


Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published in 2009 by Viking
Read on my Kindle




  1. Thoughtful analysis again of a very difficult book! It really helps as a parent to know when you might need to talk to your kid about a book they bring home from the library. I think it’s an interesting thought that this book might be of most help in trying to understand someone with an eating disorder, which is a very real and prevalent problem.

    I found the note about ballet interesting. Both of my girls are in dance but we’re not “hyper” into it; the comment you noted in the book is one reason why. We’ve still had discussions about it; particularly when skinny jeans first came into fashion a few years ago and my daughters didn’t fit into them (and they weren’t fat or even chubby). My daughter’s dance teacher at school also recently had a body image discussion with them and showed them the Dove Real Beauty Sketches video. It is quite surprising and enlightening; well worth a 3 minute look.

    The said irony of the obesity epidemic vs. eating disorders is baffling.

    • ayvalentine says:

      My daughter is in her 10th year of ballet. Part of why we love her school is because they have programs about nutrition, they accept different kinds of bodies, and they feed their dancers during long rehearsals.

      But still – this means my girl spends a lot of time in a room full of mirrors wearing an unforgiving leotard. She’s slender and small for her age, and yet since she was 10 she was too big for the kids’ leotards – she now wears an adult small, and she’s quite petite. How intimidating is it to buy dancewear if you aren’t incredibly petite?

      At least I feel I can count on her school to be partners with us in making sure our daughter is healthy and fit. That’s very reassuring.

      I have half-formed theories about how the prevalence of eating disorders and the prevalence of obesity are, in part, symptoms of the same inherent problem with unrealistic body issues. One way to respond is to starve/purge yourself. Another is to say “I can’t ever look like that” and drown your sorrows in unhealthy foods and habits, because why even try?

      • I have had the exact same thought that the two extremes are related in some cases!

        I think the Dove campaign goes a long way to showing how extreme the images are that we are seeing in the media; I have found their information really enlightening. I also noticed an interesting shift in my own perspective when I took a trip to France and was immersed in a lot of classic art in museums.

        For my girls, I have found American Girl (books, magazines and dolls) to have useful information. Discovery Girls magazine has great articles too; it’s where my girls first saw how models are digitally enhanced.

        • ayvalentine says:

          Oh, I’ll have to look into Discovery Girls! I do like the Dove campaigns – they have some pretty powerful pieces on self perception and on air brushing.

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