Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Book Review Club - Speak vs. Wintergirls

Laurie Halse Anderson
Young Adult


Laurie Halse Anderson
Young Adult

I read both of these books back to back and did not give up on life entirely, which speaks highly to Anderson's talent as a writer. These are not easy reads. Speak, celebrating its 10th anniversary in print, is about rape. Think that's edgy? Wintergirls is about bulimia and anorexia. This is tough stuff. Anderson does a fabulous job with protraying real, troubled teens. For any girl who has been through rape or is battling an eating disorder, these pieces must feel empowering because they let the individual know, you are not alone.

The reason I review them together is because, despite Anderson's skill at real, gritty portrayal of these issues through a teen character, after finishing the books, I was left feeling much like I had after a spree of John Irving books in my early twenties, i.e. like the main characters were the same person over and over. Lia of Wintergirls, birthed ten years after Melinda of Speak, nonetheless feels like the same teen. Anderson's writing chops are much improved, although the symbolism in Speak is incredible, the writing in Wintergirls will leave you rereading again and again to pick up craft points, turns of phrase, ideas on how to take mental illness and make it real for readers. Still, Melinda and Lia are interchangeable.


Their voice feels very similar. Their reactions, similar. Lia feels like a more mature Melinda, going further in her personal psychosis, more unstable, more suicidal, more detached. Yet still, Melinda.

Which leads me to ask the following questions: What results in similar characters across novels by the same author? Can we authors only get so far from our own perception? Are we slaves to our own hermeneutics? Or do similar driving motives across different stories nevertheless lead to similar characters?

I am not sure what the answers are, but I would like to know more because I find myself falling into that pattern in a present novel. Certain secondary characters feel similar to ones in an earlier novel I wrote. How do I avoid that? Should I? Or does such similarity define an author much as a defining brushstroke can define a painter?

Food for thought.

For more great reads, hop over to our fearless leader, Barrie Summy's blog.  And for those of you in the Kansas area, if you get a chance, stop by the Kansas School Librarians Conference Thursday and Friday of this week. Barrie Summy, P.J. Hoover, Zu Vincent, Suzanne Morgan Williams, and I are the guest speakers for lunch on Thursday. It's a whole panel of characters just waiting to share!


Sarah Laurence said...

Wow, really interesting reviews! I hadn’t noticed the similarities since I read the books years apart, but I can see your point. I agree that the writing was better in Speak, but that would be a hard act to follow since it was brilliant. She purposely wrote a book about rape for ages 12-15 because that is the age in which many girls are raped. I felt the material was handled appropriately and it was one of the best books I’ve read. It made me want to try writing YA. I felt like anorexia was the protagonist of Wintergirls, not the character.

I have noticed in YA a similar set of stock characters at a suburban public school or an elite private school. Sarah Dessen’s characters and even some of her plots are quite similar, but her audience seems to like that. She has her own distinct style as does Meg Cabot. Others knock them off. Perhaps publishers feel safe with more of the same that sells.

I guess I’ve avoided that repeat character trap by choosing fresh settings with a new population. My first YA was set mostly in NYC with a bit in Maine. My current WIP is set in England with an American protagonist, and I’m working hard with language choice, character traits and values to distinguish these teens as British. Dialogue can showcase regional differences.

I’m really interested in your character problem and how you resolved it (another post?). If you are drawn to repeat characters, maybe they are trying to tell you something. You might be great at writing series.

Barrie said...

Stacy, I'm leaving this comment while in kansas with you! :) I read Speak and Wintergirls years apart. I wonder if there are similarities with any of the characters in the books in between these two?

Stacy Nyikos said...

I have never thought of myself as a series writer, but you might be on to something. Still, in this instance, I am not sure that's what's going on. The character problem I've been having is a secondary character. I had a salty one in Pelorus Jack, set in New Zealand, and now in my futuristic novel, I've got a miner, whose voice came out very similarly. It surprised me and left me thinking, especially after I read Wintergirls and Speak. All of the other characters are vastly different, I think, but these two repeated themselves. I have to get behind why and see if I can't tease out some nuance.