If you’ve ever wanted to get inside the head of a teenager, read author Laurie Halse Anderson’s novels. She received the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association in 2009 for her contribution to young adult literature because of her willingness to deal with the tough issues teenagers often encounter – rape, alcohol, bulimia, fitting in – with honesty and humor. Just don’t call her young-adult titles “problem” novels.
“Because all novels revolve around solving a problem, or else you’ve written a phone book right?” she says during a recent phone interview. Instead, she prefers a title an English teacher recently shared. “She calls my work ‘resilience’ stories, because they give us insight into our own heart or a better understanding of situations outside ourselves.” And that, in her mind, is what good literature is supposed do.
At a book signing in January for her latest YA novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory (Viking Juvenile), Anderson spoke at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, holding her largely teenaged fans in rapt attention as she talked about her work, which includes picture books and historical fiction. In her latest novel, we enter Hayley Kincaid’s world, a 17-year-old whose father’s inability to deal with his memories of war in Iraq leaves her hobbled, too, stifling feelings about her own jumbled upbringing.
Hayley wrestles with memories of her mother who died too young and a grandmother and stepmother who leave too soon, while her father hides from his demons in a haze of booze, weed, and dead-end jobs. After five years on the road, high school feels weird, populated by “zombies and freaks” and teachers who can’t possibly understand her mixed-up world. And even though Hayley and her dad, Andy, love each other, living with post-traumatic stress is a dance that leaves them both wary and weary.
“I’m fond of these characters,” says Anderson. “They love each other, even with their family issues. They love each other but they don’t know how to fix what’s broken.” Sound’s familiar, doesn’t it?
The novel is colored by Anderson’s own upbringing. Her father served in Germany during World War II, as the Dachau concentration camps opened, and returned home with harrowing memories that effected family life. Then she witnessed her nephew’s struggle with his re-entry after military service in Iraq, a journey slowed by a backlog of applications that make getting help a protracted process.
“The system isn’t working the way we would want it to work,” Anderson observes. Old enough to remember the bitter reception Vietnam veterans experienced, “I thought we were doing a better job with our returning vets. I thought we’d learned something. Now, there’s not aggressive disregard but rather benign neglect. When you take an oath to survive and protect our country — I feel we owe them.” She hopes her voice “can be a small contribution to this conversation.”
Fans asked whether Anderson planned to write a sequel to her most popular novel, Speak. While she says she feels that story is complete, a graphic novel is in the works for 2016. With her four children now grown, Anderson spends much of her day (6 am. to 3 p.m.) writing in a small cottage behind her home in upstate New York. But it turns out she doesn’t read much YA, “because I don’t want other people’s voices in my head,” she says with a laugh. She’s got enough to do to manage those characters, like Hayley, who are often whispering in her ear.
• To read more about Anderson, go to madwomanintheforest.com