Joyce Tenneson

Author Profile: Laurie Halse Anderson

November 18, 2009
by Sarah Amandolare
For many, the teenage years are wrought with strife and situations preferably forgotten. But Laurie Halse Anderson relishes the depth of the teenage experience. She is unafraid of judgment, writing books that tackle the most difficult subjects honestly and compassionately. In doing so, she and her readers experience personal growth. 

Living the Writer’s Life in the Country

Halse Anderson resides in northern New York state, in a country haven she shares with her four kids, her dog and her husband Scot. She writes in a cabin built just for her by Scot, according to her biography on Penguin Group. In addition to writing novels for young adults, Halse Anderson plans to write historical fiction, picture books and “a book about the writing process.” She also runs marathons.

Born in Potsdam, N.Y., a chilly town near the border with Canada, Halse Anderson never considered herself a professional writer, but simply loved doing it. She eventually started reporting for newspapers on a freelance basis, and then began to write books. Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, she says, has been crucial to her growth and success as an author.

Her young adult novels, such as “Speak,” about a teenage victim of rape, have made Halse Anderson a well-known writer among teens. According to Penguin, “Speak” was a finalist for a National Book Award and was a Printz Honor book. It was also added to the curriculum at middle schools, high schools and even colleges throughout the U.S., and was made into a film staring Kristen Stewart, of “Twilight” fame. 

Halse Anderson’s Web site,, and her LiveJournal page, Mad Woman in the Forest, inform fans about her appearances at conferences and events, and feature bits and pieces of her life in northern New York. Lists of her novels and children’s books are available on

Getting into the Teenage Mind

Her work is nothing if not brave, but Halse Anderson seems slightly discomfited by the fact that her fictional work is in some ways inspired by her personal experiences.

Interviewed by Carol Fitzgerald and Marisa Emralino for, Halse Anderson conceded, “I’ve had my own troubles.” The author discussed “Speak” and the process of turning it into a film for the Showtime and Lifetime networks. She also talked about why she insists on bringing “serious issues” to light in her books for young adults.

“Being a teenager usually sucks,” she told “It’s hard and confusing and few adults have the guts to talk about it honestly. That’s my job.” Her career choice also comes up in the discussion. Halse Anderson says writing “saves me over and over again,” and that she finds it “much easier” to express herself on paper than out loud. 

She also has an appreciation and respect for teenage minds, even finding them to be “open to the artistic expression” of their age in a way that grown-ups are incapable of, for whatever reason. Halse Anderson tells Bitch Magazine, “so many (adults) close off to how art progresses.”

To begin writing, Halse Anderson seems to try to keep her mind open to the natural progression of a story. She starts by asking “a bunch of questions” and doing a lot of thinking until that magic moment. “[W]hen I can finally hear the voice of the character, that’s when I start to write,” she explained to Bitch.

For “Wintergirls,” her novel covering eating disorders of 18-year-olds Lia and Cassie, Halse Anderson talked to “medical doctors as well as psychiatrists who deal with this day in and day out, and asking them questions from that point of view.” But she also drew from her personal experience. “Although I never was classified as anorexic, I’ve definitely had my own issues with disordered eating and body image,” she told Bitch.

How Halse Anderson Grew as a Writer

Patricia Newman profiled Halse Anderson for California Kids in 2005. Newman says Halse Anderson remembers “feeling confused and overwhelmed most of the time and withdrew into herself for protection” as a teen, calling to mind the main characters in her novels. Halse Anderson never thought of herself as bright, and even “avoided English and language arts classes” because she despised analyzing books.

But Halse Anderson somehow developed her own “sense of story,” Newman writes, and often eavesdropped on her parents and other adults “telling stories” when she was supposed to have been upstairs sleeping. Later, when she had her own children, Halse Anderson became interested in writing for kids, and used library books “as textbooks for studying the craft of writing.”

The Impact of Halse Anderson’s Work

“Speak” clearly struck a chord with readers, so much so that many schools have incorporated it into their curriculum. Grant T. Smith, Ph.D., of Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., posted his lesson plan based on the young adult novel. Students were asked to keep track of what they considered examples of sexual harassment for a full week, among other tasks.

So many readers wrote letters about “Speak” to Halse Anderson that she felt compelled to write a poem capturing their emotional responses. School Library Journal quoted Leslie Prives, a Penguin Young Readers Group school and library marketing coordinator, who said the poem shows “how much teens crave characters to which they can relate and stories which encourage them to find their voices.”

Watch Halse Anderson read the poem “Listen” before a crowd gathered in honor of the 10th anniversary of “Speak” in March 2009, courtesy of Readergirlz.

“Wintergirls” is yet another of Halse Anderson’s intense and affecting novels for young adults. It tells of two friends coping with anorexia, bulimia, cutting and death. In her thoughtful review of “Wintergirls”, Beth Fish writes, “I hope that by creating Lia and Cassie and telling us their stories, Anderson is able to break the cycle of self-hate in at least some of her readers.”

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