Young Adult Novels That Don’t Suck: Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory and Speak

Books by Laurie Halse Anderson

My purchases from Laurie Halse Anderson’s appearance at Georgia Center for the Book on January 17, 2014.

Novelist Laurie Halse Anderson has a theory–no, make that a strong conviction–about young adult book sales. When told by her publisher that they didn’t expect too many sales of her book Speak “because teenagers didn’t like to read,” Anderson countered, “It’s not that teens don’t want to read; they don’t want to read books that suck.” Fifteen years later, Speak is sporting a silver foil anniversary book cover and celebrating more than three million copies sold. Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux recently announced that the National Book Award finalist will be adapted into a graphic novel.

“The groundbreaking novel that changed everything,” Speak deals candidly with the topic of date rape. Anderson says the protagonist Melinda and what she goes through are based on her own experience of not telling what happened to her just before she entered ninth grade. And while Anderson’s subsequent young adult books deal with equally serious subjects like death and loss and eating disorders, the author wasn’t able to really mine her own personal history again until writing her latest YA novel.

Laurie Halse Anderson, author of The Impossible Knife of Memory

Photo credit: Joyce Tenneson

For The Impossible Knife of Memory, Anderson revisited her own childhood experience of growing up with a parent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, better known by the acronym PTSD. Her father, who left high school shortly before graduation to enlist in the U.S. Army, buried the dead at the Dachau concentration camp at the end of World War II. Anderson says her father is 86 years old now and still wakes up screaming from what he saw during the war. When Anderson was in middle school, her father started drinking heavily, lost his job, and their family lost their home. She remembers being sad and confused because she loved her dad, but she never knew which dad she was going to encounter from day to day as he tried to numb his pain. 

In the last decade, as soldiers began returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Anderson knew she wanted to write about PTSD as a legacy of war. In The Impossible Knife of Memory, she details PTSD’s effects on veterans and their families from a teen’s point of view. Protagonist Hayley worries about her father, Andy, who struggles with PTSD after returning from Iraq.

Anderson, a prolific writer whose body of work also includes children’s fiction, historical thrillers and nonfiction, says adolescent readers respond to books (presumably ones that don’t suck) in deeply profound ways. Their demand for books that accurately depict their lives and stimulate their imagination is responsible for what Anderson calls a “seismic shift” in the publishing of children’s and young adult books. As an example, Anderson says kids respond well to historical fiction because it creates new worlds for kids to explore, just like the Harry Potter series and other books in the fantasy genre.

I saw Anderson speak at the Decatur Library on a Friday night, thanks to the bookstore Little Shop of Stories and Georgia Center for the Book. She’s on tour right now to promote The Impossible Knife of Memory, which has garnered positive reviews from a number of publications, including the New York Times and Kirkus. I also look forward to reading Speak, a book my friend who teaches high school English recommends and uses in his classroom. Anderson is a wonderful speaker and offers teacher discussion guidelines for her books on her website, madwomanintheforest.com. You can also follow her #lhatour adventures on Twitter.

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