Wintergirls – Teacher’s Section

Discussion Questions

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Read the two epigraphs printed at the front of the book. How do you think each relates to Lia and her situation?

What do the crossed-out words and phrases reveal about Lia? Why can’t she allow herself to say or think some things? What is she afraid will happen if she does?

Define “wintergirl.” In what ways are Lia and Cassie frozen? Discuss the symbolism of winter and cold found throughout the story and the role it plays in building the main themes of the novel.

Does Lia want to lose weight so she will look thin and pretty? What does her thinness mean to her? How does she think it gives her power?

Does Cassie’s death trigger Lia’s restrictive eating patterns to reemerge? Why or why not?

“Empty” becomes synonymous with “strong” for Lia throughout most of the story. How does Lia justify this comparison? Do her feelings ever change?

Lia repeats the phrase “When I was a real girl . . .” If she’s not real now, what is she? When did she stop being real? Will she ever be real again?

The night Cassie dies, whey does she call Lia? Would it have made a difference if Lia had answered? Why or why not? Could anything have saved Cassie?

In the newspaper article about Cassie’s death, the superintendent of schools says, “Most teens today struggle with something.” Do you agree? Explain your opinion.

What is friendship? Describe the important elements of Lia and Cassie’s relationship. Are they really friends?

Describe Lia’s relationships with her mother, father, Jennifer, and Emma. How is Lia different with each of them? What do they each contribute to her situation? How do they each influence her?

Lia is particular about the names she calls her family members (i.e. “Jennifer” instead of Stepmother, “Dr. Marrigan” instead of Mom, “Professor Overbrook” instead of Dad). What does this reveal about what Lia thinks of her family members?

Discuss they line: “I pretend to be a fat, healthy teenager. They pretend to be my parents.” What does this line expose about Lia’s feelings for her parents? What does Lia’s frequent use of the word “pretend” throughout the book tell you about the way she views others? Why does Lia feel she and others must pretend?

What does Lia think makes her strong? What do you think of as Lia’s strengths? Would Lia agree with you? How does Lia’s perception of strength change toward the end of the story?

What do we learn from Cassie’s ghost? Does her presence help or hinder Lia on her path to recovery? What does Cassie’s ghost come to symbolize by the end of the novel?

Discuss Lia’s relationship with Elijah. When she first meets him and lies about her identity, why do you think she chooses to give her stepsister’s name as her own? What is Elijah able to give Lia that the other people in her life cannot? What do you think about the way their relationship ends?

What role does Lia’s knitting play in the novel? What does it come to symbolize?

Elijah calls himself “a wanderer in search of truth.” Does he find truth by the end of the story? Does Lia? Are any of the other characters able to do so? Explain.

Lia’s mother tells her: “Cassie had everything: a family who loved her, friends, activities. Her mother wants to know why she threw it all away.” According to Lia, asking “why” Cassie died is the wrong question. She says to ask “why not.” What do you think she means by this? Which do you think is the right question to ask? Is there an answer to either?

Why do you think Lia and Cassie took their eighth grade New Year’s resolutions so seriously? How do these promises play into the rest of the story?

Lia’s dad says to her: “I wish I understood what goes on inside you . . . why you’re so afraid.” Is fear part of Lia’s problem? What is she afraid of?

What is Lia using her thinness to communicate to her parents? What is her body saying that her voice cannot?

Why do you think Lia finally opens up to Dr. Parker? What do you think of what she chooses to tell her? How does the conversation change Lia’s situation?

Dr. Parker tells Lia: “In one aspect, yes, I believe in ghosts, but we create them.” Do you agree with her? How much of what happens to Lia is a result of her own doing? How much of it is caused by others?

What does the “see-glass” mean to Lia? What does she think she needs it for? Does this end up being true?

What ultimately changes for Lia by the end of the story? Why does she survive when Cassis didn’t?


The number of people struggling with eating disorders is staggering. An estimated 8 million Americans battle with eating disorders; 7 million women and 1 million men.

Nearly half of all American know someone with an eating disorder.

A study by ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders) showed that eating disorders are nearly as widespread as alcohol and drug abuse in middle and high school girls.

Eating disorders have the highest premature death rate of any mental illness.

The average American woman is 5′ 4" tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average American female model is 5′ 11" tall and weighs 117 pounds.

Most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women.

80% of American women are unhappy with their appearance. (Source: Smolak, Linda (1996): Next Door Neighbors/Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention)

Audiofile Interview

AudioFile: I’m assuming the cross-outs will be in the final book? What a great way to create voice! How did you come up with that idea? How do you see this working in audio?

LHA: Yes, the cross-outs (strike-throughs) are very deliberate; in fact, they are a critical clue to understanding the main character’s struggles. I decided that strike-throughs gave a stronger visual impact than the typical narrative devices. (I wonder if this could be considered a palimpsest? I’ll have to ask one of my smart English teacher friends.) I first saw them used on blogs and realized they were the perfect device for an unreliable narrator who cannot be honest with herself.

While I was writing, I must confess that I did not consider the challenge the strike-throughs would create for the audio version. I think the best approach will be to speak the strike-through words softly. But I’ll leave that decision up to the experts!

AudioFile: One of your gifts is creating books with voice…from picture books like Thank You Sarah The Woman who Saved Thanksgiving to Wintergirls. Do you hear your characters speak in your mind? Are you an auditory person?

LHA: I am a very auditory person. I was a language & linguistics major in college and I pick up accents and new languages quickly. There is something about the shape of a spoken word that resonates within me. Storytelling is traditionally an experience shared by the speaker of the tale and the listener. Written text is a relatively modern construct that doesn’t always carry the same impact of the spoken story.

I can make a lot of notes about a book but until I can hear the character talking in my head, I can’t write it. You could say that my books are audiobooks first, which I then translate into visual text. I think that’s why I am so particular when it comes to listening to audiobooks. If the narrator’s voice doesn’t ring comfortably inside my skull, I can’t listen to the book.

AudioFile: Do you listen to audio? Any favorites? Have you heard audios of your books? What are your thoughts about how audios translate, or transform your books?

LHA: I like to listen to books when I’m gardening, particularly weeding or plucking nasty insects off my tomatoes. I adore the recordings of Geraldine James. In fact, I prefer readers who don’t have American accents. I’m not sure why. I never read my own books after they are published, though I have listened to snippets of each of the audiobook versions. So far, Madisun Leigh’s recoding of Chains (Brilliance Audio) is my favorite. Brilliance is recording Wintergirls, too. I’m very excited to hear what they do with it!

AudioFile: It’s almost as readers become your characters, and maybe that’s because you do. Is that true? What was your teen life like? Was there anything in your teen life that motivated your writing in this way?

LHA: I was a confused and depressed teenager. My family went through a very rough patch during those years and nobody would talk about what was happening to us. I completely understand the struggles so many teens have to cope with. I hope my books accurately reflect their pain and their path to uncover their strength.

AudioFile: All your books have a driving force. They can’t be put down! To be honest, I hated reading on computer, didn’t want to print out the whole book. When I complained my husband said…”just don’t read it” and I told him “I can’t stop!” Do you have a sense of creating this, or does it just come?

LHA: That is such a huge compliment – thank you! I’m not quite sure how to analyze it….. a lot of my writing process is a complete mystery to me.

AudioFile: Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

Step into a tanning booth and fry yourself for two or three days. After your skin bubbles and peels off, roll in coarse salt, then pull on long underwear woven from spun glass and razor wire. Over that goes your regular clothes, as long as they are tight.

Smoke gunpowder and go to school to jump through hoops, sit up and beg, and roll over on command. Listen to the whispers that curl into your head at night, calling you ugly and fat and stupid and bitch and whore and worst of all: “a disappointment.” So painful, so cruel

You are so in Lia’s mind and heart. Can you tell me about how you got there?

LHA: Honestly? I didn’t get there. She got into me. There is some of me in Lia’s character, no doubt. I’ve fought a bad body image most of my life, though I was never as close to the edge of death as Lia is. But her voice in my head is very distinct from my own. By the end of the book, I felt like Lia was haunting me, much as Cassie haunts Lia in the story. It was a little unnerving.

AudioFile: What are you working on now?

LHA: I am writing Forge, the historical novel that follows Chains. That will be followed by a third historical that finishes the adventures of the characters from the first two books. It is tentatively called Ashes. I’m also working on a picture book about Abigail Adams, and exploring new characters and stories for my next YA novel.

AudioFile: What’s it like to go back and forth from YA to picture book, from historical like Chains to contemporary like Wintergirl? Is it easy to choose book forms? How do they come to you? What does the variety give you as a writer.

LHA: I love jumping back and forth between the forms. I think it keeps each book fresh and exciting for me because I don’t have to grind out the same-old, same-old all the time. I think that the best parts of my stories are written in my sub-conscious brain, anyway. My sub-conscious prefers to play in a different pasture than my conscious self. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Hands-on Activities and Social Action Projects

Use the resources at The Body Project to create awareness of unrealistic body images and standards.

Follow the guidelines at Edutopia to help teens reexamine body image concepts by creating avatars.

Lobby your state government to change insurance guidelines for the treatment of eating disorders patients.

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