Young Adult fiction–which, naturally, I try to stay on top of, what?–has shifted toward some pretty edgy, dramatic stuff in the last couple of years. It’s a fascinating genre, and I think an important one since some of my most vivid memories are the things I read as an adolescent–when I read constantly, impressionably, and everything I could get my hands on.

My favorites were books about “normal” middle and high schools and kids having experiences that were totally foreign to me. I read a lot of things that didn’t exactly “glorify god” (sorry mom) but did mange to talk about real things and real people and the real crap that goes on in the world every day.

Laurie Halse Anderson is one of those authors–writing about current, uncomfortable, real things–and one of the most talented young adult writers out there. Her first book, Speak, was a finalist for the National Book award and is about the rape of a high school girl and the resulting psychological fallout. Her latest, Wintergirls, deals with some equally tough subject matter–eating disorders and cutting–and is currently getting a lot of mixed attention.

Wintergirls is about Lia, who is struggling with a relapse into anorexia after the death of her best friend. Frankly, reading that sentence, or any other synopsis, is eye-roll inducing. Oh great, another angsty teen book about a Serious Topic. Teenage years aren’t complicated enough, now we’re going to make it worse by publishing self-indulgent melodrama? Also, more cynical commenters point out, how smart is it to praise a book about a dangerous, often deadly condition that’s known to be triggered by books like this? Does the attention help or just contribute to the glamorization of the disease? When Oprah, for instance, did an episode of the rise of the online “pro-ana” movement, she came under a lot of fire for portentially enabling thousands of impressionable minds. Anderson is getting the same flak now from parent groups.

There’s no glamour here, it’s actually a pretty harrowing read. There’s no glossing over the physical consequences of disordered eating (nor are they sensationalized) and the little things Lia does to hide what she’s (not) eating from her family are subtle and frightening. She’s the narrator, and it would be so, so easy for this book to have been just a list of her woes and inner ranting, and for the reader to write her off as a tragic story. This is where the importance of a writer like Anderson comes in since she does two things incredibly well. One, she doesn’t place blame. It would be convenient to make Lia’s parents the cause of her disease, or to blame Lia herself for being weak. But these characters aren’t stereotypes and there is an authenticity in their parent-child relationship that many YA books lack. Yes, Lia’s mom and dad are fighting and divorced and her stepmom is well-meaning but clueless, but their deep love and helplessness in the face of her disease is obvious. Two, she walks a fine line between making Lia a sympathetic character and a clearly unhealthy one. We are in her head and understand how she sees herself and her relationships with family and food without ever being lulled into thinking she is right or even okay. It’s an uncomfortable, powerful book.

I am strongly opposed to censoring literature, especially the YA fiction that was so important to me, but this book really rocked me. I wondered at one point if it was a book I’d let my daughter read (ha. I should know how well a parent “lets” a child read anything).  Well, what’s so terrible about starting a conversation? Books like Wintergirls, indeed, any book worth it’s title page, shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. The best, most affecting and meaningful things I’ve read–many of them during my somewhat isolated teenage years–have been difficult, strange, and wonderful. Books like Wintergirls spur action, empathy, understanding, and I can think of no better reason for a book to exist.