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Troubling tale could help teens

Laurie Halse Anderson's new book, Wintergirls (Viking, $17.99, ages 12-up) just may be the scariest book you will ever read as a parent.

But for a teenage girl, Wintergirls could be a life-saver.

"It's a painfully beautiful story that not everyone will be able to handle,'' said Lorena Lopez, 16, a junior at Kendall's School for Advanced Studies. But she recommends it ... "to anyone who's been in such a low state that they felt they'd never make it out.''

Anderson's narrative pulls readers deep inside the troubled head of Lia, a high school senior who lives with her father, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and the woman he married after Lia's mother, a heart surgeon, threw him out for repeated infidelity.

That happened the year Lia turned 12, at the same time she was morphing from a string-bean kid into curvy teen, a transformation met with concern at the ballet studio. Feeling like she had "failed adolescence'' and become a disappointment to her mother, Lia began cutting herself.

Her partner in self-destruction is Cassie, whose body image problems began in fifth grade when "the boob fairy arrived with her wand and smacked Cassie wicked hard.''

Together, the two vow to be the skinniest girls in school.

Six years later, Cassie is found dead in a motel room. Lia doesn't know the details but can guess it had something to do with chronic bulimia. What she knows for sure is that Cassie called her 33 times the day she died, the first time in the six months since Cassie's parents insisted she end her friendship with Lia. Lia sees Cassie's number on her cell but doesn't pick up.

Could she have saved her friend? Or would she have died with her? Most hauntingly, Lia asks herself: Would that have been a bad thing?

Neither of these girls is from what normally constitutes our idea of an abusive home.

Cassie's father is the elementary school principal, her mother the one who chaperones field trips, bakes cookies and leads the Girl Scout troop.

But Lia's translation of that involvement is that Cassie's parents "tried to stuff her into a mannequin shell that didn't fit,'' while her own "branded their war on (their) tiny skin-bag of a daughter.''

"We tend to think of eating disorders as something that predominantly afflicts upper-class families but that may be because those are the people who have health insurance,'' Anderson said. "It can happen in extremely loving families for a lot of complicated reasons. Girls go over to the dark side, and it's so hard to get them back.''

The critical praise for Wintergirls -- a starred review, connoting excellence in the genre, from every major review journal -- caps what has been an extraordinary few months for Anderson, whose first novel, Speak, was released 10 years ago.

In October, Chains (Simon & Schuster, $16.99, ages 9 to 12), her novel about a slave seeking her freedom in New York City at the time the colonists were fighting Britain for theirs, was named a finalist for the National Book Award. In January, Anderson won the Margaret Edwards Award for excellence in young adult literature, a sort of lifetime achievement honor presented by a division of the American Library Association. She is 47.

"It's so nice it's all happened just as Speak is having its 10th anniversary because it's given me a moment to step back and reflect on how far I've come and what I want to do for the next decade,'' she said.