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Skin and Bones: talking about teens and eating disorders, a guest post by author Sherry Shahan

Years ago I wrote a quirky short story about teens in an Eating Disorders Unit of a metropolitan hospital. Sort of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” meets “Love Story.” 

Fast Facts: 2 out of every 100 students struggles with an eating disorder

My then agent encouraged me to expand the short story (now Skin and Bones, Albert Whitman, 2014) into a novel. I spent months weighing the pros and cons of such a commitment.


  • The short story would serve as an outline since the basic story arc was in place.
  • Each character already had a distinct voice.
  • The hospital setting was firmly fixed in my vision.
  • The subject matter had proven itself to be of interest to readers.
  • Proven ground is attractive to editors and publishers, as long as the topic is approached in a fresh way. 


  • The story would require an additional 60,000 words.
  • I would have to create a cast of new characters.
  • Every character would require a convincing backstory.
  • I would need compelling subplots.
  • Every scene would require richer subtext.
During the first draft I was frustrated by unexpected obstacles. For instance, how could I keep up the idiosyncratic tone without the narrator sounding flippant? Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, compulsive over-eating, etc.) are serious, and in too many instances, life-threatening. It took several drafts before the tone felt balanced.

More than one anorexic in my story figures out how to beat the health care system. After all, they’re experts at manipulating family, friends, and each other, as well their environment. Yet I agonized about Skin and Bones becoming a how-to manual for those still in the throes of the disorder.

Fast Facts:  Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents. (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders)

Still, I knew I had to include information about the potentially grave consequences associated with the illness. But I didn’t want to sound didactic. Sometimes I sprinkled facts into quirky scenes. Other times statistics emerged in dialogue between patients who were arguing. Either way, giving information felt more organic when slipped in sideways instead of straight on.

People have asked why I chose to explore this issue in the first place. The answer is simple: media gives attention to accidents resulting from teens drinking and driving, drug abuse, shootings, suicide, etc. Yet anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents and has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. 

They also express curiosity about the main character being a teen guy. Most people don’t think of males as having this illness. Yet eating disorders affect approximately 25 million Americans, in which 25% are males.

Bio: Sherry Shahan has more than 35 children’s books to her credit, including Alaskan-based adventure novels Ice Island and Frozen Stiff(both Random House/Yearling). Ice Islandfeatures teens and their hard-driving sled dogs, a perfect fit for units about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. Sherry holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches an ongoing writing course for UCLA Extension. 

Visit Sherry at www.SherryShahan.com Or shoot her an email: kidbooks@thegrid.net

Body Image and Eating Disorders at TLT
Top 10 teen titles dealing with body image and eating disorders
The Girl in the Fiberglass Corset; a story about scoliosis and eating disorders
Sex Sells, but what are we selling?
Let’s Hear it for the Boys 
Pop Culture and Body Image Issues for Gay Teens, a guest post 
National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: True confessions from a recovering anorexic
Every Day by David Levithan, a book review
Butter by Erin Jade Lange, a book review
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, a book review
Skinny by Donna Conner, a review
A Second Opinion: Every Day by David Levithan
10 Titles that deal with Obesity and Body Image (with links to some good articles)
Today is Love Your Body Day
The Effects of Pop Culture on the Body Image of GLBT Teens
Body Image and Weight Loss 
Sex Sells, but what are we selling? Pop culture and body image issues in tweens and teens 
Take a Second Look: Books that encourage teens to look beyond body image 
Abercrombie and Fitch, Brave and Body Image: Part 1 and Part 2   

Book Review: A Really Awesome Mess 

Additional Resources
Reading Rants – Bare Bones: Honest Fiction about Weight and Eating Disorders
For another YA Lit title dealing with a teenage boy dealing with an eating disorder, check out A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger  
Kids Health: Eating Disorders
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders 
Eating and Body Dysmorphic Disorders: Crash Course Psychology #33

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