Peeling the Onion


Jenny rushes in; stops and turns pale at the sight of my scaffolded neck. This isn’t what she expected to see – and for a moment Jenny, sunny, effervescent, ever-optimistic Jenny, stares at me and can’t speak.

‘They made a mistake – I broke my neck after all.’

Jenny begins to cry. And I think that maybe this is what best friends are for, not to be brave for you, but to tell you this is real, and it stinks.

Anna is used to being athletic, popular, ‘normal’. Now she feels the layers of her familiar self being peeled away; nothing is normal or easy. Can she pick up the pieces of her life? What part will Hayden and Luke play? And who, now, is Anna Duncan?



A star of shattered glass, cold against my temple.


I want to claw my way out but can’t move, want to scream but don’t know how. The blackness is swallowing me and I know that if I can’t fight it the me will be gone and the blackness will go on without end.


Background to writing the novel

I had a car accident in 1991, and after a couple of years decided that as a writer, I needed to tell the truth about what it was like to go through something like that. Eventually I decided to use my own accident and injuries (it seemed a shame to waste all that research!) I’m not Anna – I was 20 years older, for one thing, so my needs, problems and solutions were quite different, even though the injuries and some of the medical treatments were the same.  However, emotions are often quite similar, no matter what age we are and often no matter what the actual trauma or grief is, and it was these emotions that I felt most books did not tell the truth about.  I felt quite angry about books that gave people unlikely miracles, or suggested that will power will conquer anything (you need willpower, but it has limits). I have personally been very lucky in finding good therapists and new treatments, and am continually getting stronger, so that my life is quite close to normal now. However, even if I had known that when I finished the book, I would have left Anna’s future open, as there is no guarantee that she would have the same luck. The good thing is that she’s going to be okay in herself.



Honour Book, Children’s Book Council Australia, 1997 
Highly Commended, Australian Family Association, 1997 
An American Library Association best book for young adults, 1998 
A New York Public Library Book for the Teenage, 1998 
Shortlisted for the South Carolina Best Book for Young Adults, 1999-2000 
Shortlisted for the Virginia Young Readers, High School, 1999-2000 
Shortlisted for the Evergreen Awards (USA), 2000 
Shortlisted for the NASEN Special Educational Needs Book Awards (UK – as Fighting Back) 
Shortlisted for the Bilby Awards (Queensland, Australia), 2000 
Shortlisted for the Utah Young Adult Book Award, 2000-2001

Editions and Translations:

Published in the USA by Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1999
Published in Italy in ITALIAN as La mia vita fatta di strati by Edizioni EL, 1997, 
Published in the UKas Fighting Back by Orchard Books, 1998, 
Published in Belgium and the Netherlands in DUTCH as Van uien schillen moet je huilen by Houtekiet/Fontein, 1998, 
Published in Germany and Switzerland in GERMAN as Der Ernstfall – oder Fang an zu leben by AARE Verlag, 1998, Published in Denmark in DANISH as Smertens Tunnel by Gyldendal, 1998 
Published in the USA by Holiday House, 1997, ISBN 0-8234-1289-X 
and issued in audio book format by Bolinda Audio Books, ISBN 1-876584-66-1 
and by Louis Braille Books, 1997, ISBN 0-73202-068-9


Q & A For Peeling the Onion: 

How did you come up with the title? What is the significance of the onion?

I don’t know exactly how I came up with the title; it just came to me: fairly early on, about the third draft, although I hadn’t thought of writing the poems and didn’t have any references to onions, peeling, or layers of any type! However, recently I happened to be sorting through all my old manuscripts, and discovered some references to stripping back layers in notes I did before I started the book, so it must have been at the back of my mind even though I’d forgotten about it while I was writing.

The point of the title is that we have many layers of our personality and ourselves, just as we have many different roles that we play in life – you’re a daughter, a friend, a grandaughter, a student, maybe a sister, a cousin, a sportsplayer, a bookworm, a Friends addict… and you act slightly differently in all those roles – that’s not being two faced, it’s just that we use different parts of ourselves according to the situation. There are also the roles that you play in your head, the future you think about – going to uni, getting a job, whatever -and those selves are part of you even if nobody else knows about them. Anna feels that she’s lost all of those layers, or life roles; even though she’s still a daughter, she’s no longer treated like a nearly-adult daughter; she seems to be a little sister instead of a big sister, etc.

The good thing about the onion simile, though, apart from the fact that onions make you cry, so you automatically think of tears when you hear the phrase, is that an onion is a bulb, so a new shoot grows from inside all those layers, as we see that Anna is starting to do by the end of the book.

Why did you make Anna do karate?

I wanted to Anna to have a sport that showed her strength and individuality, so a martial art seemed the best way to demonstrate this. I chose karate because my son did it, so I could easily ask him and check I was getting things right. (I do tai chi now, because I got interested in it while I was writing the book!)

Why did you make her 17 instead of writing about yourself?

I wrote the book from the viewpoint of a 17 year old partly because it gave her a completely different set of problems from my own – and I wanted to explore it from someone else’s point of view. I also thought  that the last year of school would be the most difficult year to lose your independence in this way, and when you are writing fiction, you often want to give your characters the most difficult problems you can (even though you feel sorry for them!)

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio