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Am I Thin Enough, Olsen? Young Adults and their Little Books on Eating Disorder

We live in a world essentially wrought with political upheavals and distraught by a bleak technological future. So, it is not surprising that an incredible number of Young Adult fictions are constructed in a dark, hopeless world where youngsters must fight for their survival. Popular Young Adult novels like the Hunger Games and the Divergent series ring true because it’s not hard to imagine a future where parents will become powerless to protect their children against a murderous, authoritarian government.

However, an often overlooked sub-genre, the Young Adult Eating Disorder fiction, deals with a more contemporary affliction of society. These fictions highlight a very real problem where children grow up surrounded by media portraits of unhealthy and unattainable standards of beauty and perfection. Goaded on by pro-ana (in favour of anorexia) websites and forums that feature ‘thinspirational’ images of waif-like women such as Kate Moss and Mary-Kate Olsen, eating disorder is a lived reality of young adults today.

These books highlight the grim outcome of eating disorder among pre-teens and adolescents and tend to illustrate that the road to recovery is often fraught with failures and frustrations. As with most YA fictions, novels about eating disorder are often inhabited by parents who are incapacitated to help their children due to their own shortcomings. Raw and gloomy, yet hopeful and uplifting, this list is a must-read for anyone who has been affected by eating disorder in any way. 

Second Star to the Right

Writing down one’s traumatic experiences often tend to be cathartic – not only for the author, but also for the readers. In her novel Second Star to the Right, Deborah Hautzig fictionalises the story of her own battle with anorexia and provides a grippingly real account of what goes on in the mind of a young girl obsessed with the idea of losing weight. This edition features an afterword by Hautizig where she speaks about her own struggles with anorexia, the difficult road to recovery, and the lasting effect of her condition in her life.

An early example of Young Adult Eating Disorder fiction, this novel tells the story of an upper-class, 14-year old girl Leslie Hiller, whose desire to lose weight gains traction following a bout of stomach flu. Though the language may seem slightly dated to today’s young adults, the novel is nevertheless an important contribution to the genre and paints a real picture of how a self-imposed and self-controlled weight loss programme can very swiftly turn uncontrolled and self-destructive.

The Peter Pan references woven into the novel make for an interesting read, not least because a key component of this novel harps on Leslie’s inability to express whether her self-starvation is intended to please herself or her mother. This problematic relationship between parents and their eating disordered children is an oft-repeated motif in YA fictions. 

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Just Listen

Penned by the well-known Young Adult author Sarah Dessen, Just Listen follows Dessen’s familiar themes of isolation, loss and bleak family disengagement. While the story explores several other themes, including high school drama, teen romance and anger management, eating disorder forms a focal point of the narrative.

Annabel Greene, the protagonist of the novel is a model and former ‘popular girl.’ She is hiding a terrible secret that she won't even admit to herself, and she is unable to communicate her fears to her family. The readers are invited into the precariously balanced lives of Annabel’s family who quite literally live in a glass house.

Annabel has two sisters, one of whom, Whitney, suffers from anorexia. The story displays the complex effects that eating disorder can have on a home and the family. Whitney’s condition becomes the centre of an ever-widening gyre of hopelessness and Annabel’s life begins to fall apart around it. It opens a crack in the family’s façade and plunges the them into silence.

This is an important book about eating disorder because the story is narrated by a family member of the person with anorexia, and therefore quite accurately reflects the havoc that the condition can wreck on everyone around the sufferer. 

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Skin

This is a story about two disappearing kids and one dysfunctional family. Donnie, the narrator is a 14-year-old boy whose older sister Karen is in the hospital because she refuses to eat. While Karen is trying to disappear, Donnie has begun to become invisible. He needs to share his story, because if he does not, he will “choke on it.” Ironic, considering Karen’s condition.

Donnie floats through the halls like a ghost, sits at the back of his class, and wants to go through the day at school without speaking to anyone. He has become silent and turned inward, unable to deal with his sister’s illness and his family’s reaction to it.

As with many Young Adult Eating Disorder fiction, Donnie’s parents seem ill-equipped to handle the crisis. While Karen’s story ends in tragedy, Donnie makes a choice between disappearing forever and staking claim over his life.

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Skin and Bones

A must-read Young Adult fiction about eating disorders, Skin and Bones talks about a severely under-represented group in this genre. About 70 million people worldwide suffer from eating disorders, and it is estimated that 10-15% of them are male. Yet, media representation will often convince us that it is something that only happens to females and adolescent girls.

In Skin and Bones, Sherry Shahan takes up the story of a boy with eating disorder. Initially written as a short story, the novel’s action takes place in an eating disorder unit of an LA hospital.

Nicknamed as “Bones”, Jack is obsessed with losing weight and exercising. He has been made to check into the centre for a 6-week recovery programme. Just as he begins to come to grips with the programme, along with his roommate “Lard” Kowlesky, the waif-thin ballerina Alice walks into his life. Alice is a dab hand at self-starvation, and is full of tips and tricks on how to avoid eating. Jack is soon drawn into a whirlwind of romance with Alice, and she becomes an enabler to Jack’s disorder. The story, while not without flaws, has a surprise ending and a quick pace, which makes it a wonderful addition to the Young Adult fiction.

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If you or one of your family members are affected by any eating disorder, remember that the road to recovery is less about gaining or losing weight, but more about dealing with the obsessive, addictive and harmful behaviours that accompany it.

The novels in this list provide readers with a sense of surviving in solidarity, and make an honest effort to grapple with and accurately reflect the harrowing effects of eating disorders in younger people. Yet, it’s important to remember that no work of fiction can replace the help and guidance of a professional. 

Displaced Indian living in Dublin. Entertains a morbid attraction to the macabre and the saturnine. Dog whisper and non-human animal adulator. Can share a list of secret Dublin pubs, in ... Show More