Eating Disorders in YA Fiction

BookendsLynn: Jo Knowles’ new book, Still a Work in Progress (2016) opens with narrator Noah’s relatable reflections on a typical day at his typical middle school, wherein the seventh-grader and his friends negotiate the minefields of boy/girl relationships while avoiding bullies and toxic lockers with forgotten tuna sandwiches.  Meanwhile, Noah’s family life seems pretty typical, too: he has nice, working parents, a smart and beautiful older sister on whom his friends have crushes, and an old dog with truly stinky farts.

At second glance, however, it becomes apparent that bad things are happening: The family has acquiesced to Emma’s militant veganism, meals are a tense mess, and the family tiptoes around Emma’s burgeoning eating disorder, known as “The Thing They Don’t Talk About.”

KnowlesDesperate to avoid anything that may cause Emma to lose her appetite, the family spurns meat and any conversation about food, while trying not to monitor the (too-small) number of bites Emma takes. This is a clear, heartbreaking portrayal of a terrible disease and the secondary focus of Knowles’ story. Knowles’ primary concern is the impact Emma’s disorder has on her family, especially Noah. As the healthy child, Noah must remain dependable and compliant, even though his parents have sidelined his needs to cater to his sister’s issues.

After Emma has a crisis, Noah’s mother tells him:

“It’s not fair for me to say this, but I’m going to anyway. I can’t be worried about you on top of everything going on with Emma. I just don’t know if this heart of mine can take any more worry.”

Not only does Noah struggle with fear for his sister,  but he is weighed down by an exhausting mix of confusion, anger, resentment, and guilt—a terrible burden to someone in the process of finding out who he is. Out in the real world, many issues that fall under “The Thing We Don’t Talk About,” and this sensitive, deft portrayal will speak to many young readers.

Cindy: Skin (2006) by Adrienne Vrettos also features a brother’s view of his sister’s eating disorder. I booktalk it once in the fall, and my seventh- and eighth-graders hand it off to each other the rest of the school year. Same goes for Patricia McCormick’s Cut (2000), a novel about self-harm. I’m eager to let my students know about Knowles’ new book.

For some students, these stories connect to their lives, whether they know someone who needs help or need it themselves. I’m grateful for well-written novels that provide awareness for these serious issues.

For more eating-disorder titles and a link to a protest over a photo-shopped advertising campaign, check out this post.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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