Girl in Motion by Miriam Wenger-Landis
Title: Girl in Motion
Author: Miriam Wenger-Landis
Series: Book #1 in the Behind Barres compilation
Publication Date: 8-9-10
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
At the School of Ballet New York, the most prestigious ballet school in the country, aspiring ballerina Anna works hard to understand her famous teachers and navigate her ups and downs with her friends. Everyone’s goal is a contract with a professional ballet company, and as graduation nears, the pressure intensifies. Falling for one of the cutest guys at the school complicates things, but with the lead in the annual workshop performance, Anna gets one last chance to make her dreams come true.
I am disgusted by this book. And I have something important to say about it.
First of all, before I get into my personal problems with it, this novel is absolutely nothing special. The characters are one dimensional and boring. There is little-to-no character development. It’s just another average YA contemporary, except this one has dancing as the background for the story. The romance is pretty much nonexistent, and none of the male characters have any personality anyway…they’re just random boys that the main characters only likes because they are male ballet dancers that she has easy access to, as she doesn’t get out much.
But the problem that I have with this book occurred about 60% of the way through, at which point I had to stop reading, and almost threw my Kindle across the room.
I’m going to set the scene… One of Anna’s friends confesses to her that she has had trouble with eating disorders and self-harming. Let me show you the direct quotes I’m talking about, which occur right after the secret is spilled (I’ve removed character names to avoid spoilers…because I still somehow have an ounce of decency in me):
[Anna says,] “Look, *FRIEND*, maybe you should talk to someone about this.”
“I’m talking to you,” she says. “Whom else would I talk to? People outside don’t understand.”
I nod, sighing. Anyone who hasn’t been in the dance world wouldn’t understand.
And then, in the next chapter…
“We’re complicit in our silence. *FRIEND* and I have not discussed the eating disorders or the cutting again, not since the day she got into *A RANDOM BALLET COMPANY*. That subject has gone back into the black box.
Now let me discuss why I have such a HUGE issue with what just happened.
Mental illness is an incredibly important, but also very touchy, subject. Any book that makes even a small statement about mental health needs to be extremely aware of how they address it, and what kind of message they’re sending. This is extraordinarily important when you’re dealing with YA literature, as the majority of the readers are going to be young teenagers.
So her friend confesses this giant secret and, instead of reacting in a sympathetic or empathetic manner, Anna does nothing. She even literally says (to the reader) that she “doesn’t want to know,” as soon as this friend opens her mouth. I understand that Anna is a character who may not be emotionally or mentally equipped to handle this situation in any other manner. She has no experience dealing with this kind of situation, so she doesn’t know how to react. I’m not blaming Anna…I’m blaming the author for making her that way. If you’re going to put this incredibly significant and crucial moment in your book, you need to be setting an example for all of your young readers. You need to give your characters the power to handle the situation accordingly, and show how somebody should react to a friend confessing that she has an eating disorder, or self-harms.
I’m pretty sure that the author wasn’t going for this…but if, by chance, the author was trying to make some sort of artsy statement in order to “make us think” about the reality of the situation and how the unprepared character, Anna, would realistically react…this is NOT the time or place to do it. There is almost no circumstance in which you should play with morally ambiguous protagonists in YA literature. Young adult inexperienced readers are highly impressionable. They might not understand that they are being purposefully played with in order to get some sort of emotional reaction. No, you need to be straight-forward. You need to show these kids how to deal with this kind of thing, because it’s something that might actually happen to them in real life. If you give them a good example, maybe they’ll absorb that information and use your character’s good example as a model for how they should react if a friend ever confesses something similar to them. But now, instead of being prepped with this important life lesson, they are still utterly clueless, and probably even confused.
If the author wasn’t going for that kind of Gillian Flynn-type protagonist stuff (which I do actually like, when done well), then she must not understand what a horrible mess she’s made out of her book. Anna has zero reaction when her friend drops this bomb on her, except to half-heartedly suggest that she “talk to someone.” And then she has the nerve to declare (to the reader) that she doesn’t think her friend should tell anyone else or see anybody for professional help, because “nobody would understand who isn’t in the dance world.” On what planet are the only people who have problems dancers? This makes NO sense. You’re telling me that a psychiatrist would have no idea how to help this friend stop throwing up and cutting, just because she dances for a living? That’s an incredibly unhealthy and uneducated state of mind, and literally the WORST advice ever.
I mean, I get that these dancers deal with incredible pressure, especially when they’re only teenagers…but to say that this makes it impossible for anybody to understand is ridiculous and completely untrue. They are not the only people who deal with pressure, and just because a psychiatrist may not be a dancer themselves, doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be able to help her, or at least direct her to somebody who could “understand.”
Anna should’ve insisted that this friend get professional help. Because she doesn’t, she’s an awful friend and a horrible person. Especially when Anna knew that this friend was about to leave to go to a new ballet company, and she wouldn’t be able to help her out personally very much anymore. Even a teenager would know that that is the right thing to do, especially if it’s to the extreme that this chapter makes it out to be.
Even worse, Anna’s only real reaction to her friend’s confession and subsequent departure is to focus solely on how much better a dancer it makes her, since now that her friend is gone, she is no longer afraid to stand out and take up the front spots in class. And then she immediately gets noticed and praised by an important teacher. So, now we’re rewarding the main character’s horrible life decision with something she’s been waiting for the entire book, and therefore showing your teenager readers that the only thing that matters in life is how to get ahead in the professional world. It doesn’t matter how her friend’s mental health is, as long as she’s still able to rise through the ranks at her school.
Maybe this is how real dancers act in real life (and I wouldn’t be shocked)…but this is NOT the kind of world that we should be showcasing and making a model of to those young teenager readers. They really don’t have the capacity to fully understand these difficult adult problems. The author should’ve presented this awful circumstance, which is something that a teenager might realistically go through, and give them an equally realistic example of a good reaction, to show them how to actually deal with this problem, instead of just showing them exactly what NOT to do.
And, side-note, beyond Anna just doing literally anything else besides what she does in the circumstance, this friend’s confession was a valuable plot moment that the author completely wasted. Anna could have grown in this moment, and showed character development that she doesn’t have at all during the entire first half of the novel. She could’ve shown her friend (and the reader) that maybe she has trouble with dealing with her own problems as well. She could’ve opened up and shared her own deep, emotional problem. This would’ve have both been a better reaction, and a way for her to show dimension to the reader. The problem with Anna’s character is that she really doesn’t have any difficulties in her life, besides her constant complaining about her being really short, which isn’t something she can do anything about anyway. That’s not a REAL problem. Main characters should have to overcome something during the novel, otherwise readers (especially young adult readers) have trouble identifying with them.
Anyway…I’m so incredibly offended by this novel, because of how it portrays mental health. I’ve never been this personally upset about a book before, and let me tell you, it’s not a good place to be at. When writing this book, the author had an obvious and blatant disregard for her audience and how it could potentially affect their real-life experiences.
**Special Note: This book is part of the Behind Barres compilation of three ballet novels — Girl in Motion, Codename: Dancer, and The Queen Bee of Bridgeton. I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I got partway through the first novel, Girl in Motion, before deciding to not finish it. Because I am so personally offended by this novel, I chose not to read either of the other novels, because I disagree with the choice to include this offensive novel in a collection of any sort, and don’t want to participate in anything to do with this novel anymore. This may seem like a strong opinion to have, but it’s my right to have this opinion. I have been touched in many ways in my life by the issue of mental health — with family, friends, and even myself — so I have a lot of trouble coming to terms with a novel that goes so against everything I stand for, especially when it comes to the livelihood of teenage readers.**