Virginia Shreves is the protagonist of Carolyn Mackler’s Printz Honor Book The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (Bloomsbury 2003) and its excellent sequel, The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I (Bloomsbury May 2018). If you don’t know Virginia, you should. She’s awesome.
The sequel begins right where the original left off: Virginia has developed the beginnings of self-confidence despite her body-size. The first book concludes with believable steps toward her own agency, including a moment where that makes you want to stand up and cheer. The second book begins there, with baby steps toward self-acceptance in the midst of a family
crisis. One of the best things about this book — and makes it not solely an “issue book” is that there’s a real plot besides Virginia’s body image; every character has their own story, and her sense of identity and self-worth is wrapped up in navigating her place in all that’s going on around her. It’s also about family loyalty, secrets, and parental pressure for perfection. And first love. It’s swoony, really. Read it.
There are a lot of middle grade and young adult books out there that feature characters who are overweight. Remember Judy Blume’s classic, Blubber? Originally published in 1974, I very clearly remember reading Blubber. Quite a few times, in fact. I recently re-read it and was appalled. Seriously. Now, no disrespect to Judy Blume, who can do no wrong, but it was one of those moments where you encounter something from your childhood and realize that by today’s standards it’s JUST PLAIN WRONG.
OK, a reminder: Follower Jill and Classic Mean Girl Caroline are best friends. Inspired by chubby Linda’s science report on whales, Caroline starts calling her “Blubber,” and it sticks. The bullying gets pretty ugly as Jill watches on, doing nothing. I suspect the book intends to be more about bullying than weight, but as a kid I definitely empathized with Linda and rooted for her as she lost weight so the bullying would stop. There are moments I remember very clearly: a gym teacher telling her that the rest would “come off like skimming grease off a frying pan,” the compliments she got from other adults as the weight started to drop off, and a moment where she looks down and happily realizes that for the first time, she can see her feet. I used to stand in the shower and look down, making sure that I could always see my toes. I also remember the cover, which I studied, examining the curves and ripples of Linda’s body. A physical, tangible picture of fat to which I could favorably or unfavorably compare my own blubber, depending on the day. Note the new and improved cover above that changes that message. Thank God for reprinted editions. I also remember a Halloween scene in some kind of chicken costume, but I digress…
Recently, I re-read Blubber and I was, in a word, horrified. Linda must some lose weight to be accepted by her peers, and neither Caroline nor Jill learn much from the whole experience. In fact, Jill only stops to think about her behavior when, as the tide of cruelty changes as it usually does, Caroline herself becomes the class’s target. Her self-reflection can pretty much be summed up as, “I better get my shit together before they turn on me!”
There are good things to say about Blubber too, and I feel the need to reiterate, all hail Judy Blume. She understands childhood and growing up like absolutely no one else, and more than once the characters she created saved me. And every voracious reader I know.
But that shit would never fly in 2018. Thank goodness.
Virginia Shreves, on the other hand, stands in the elevator in her NYC building and contemplates telling an elderly, intrusive neighbor to fuck off when the woman incessantly feels the need to comment on Virginia’s physical appearance. She doesn’t; instead she gives herself permission to ignore the woman and not take her unkind, thoughtless words to heart. She grabs a highly caloric vitamin water from the fridge after a walk in front of the eagle eye of her calorie counting mother because she is thirsty, goddamit, and water isn’t going to cut it. She realizes she doesn’t have to settle for a boy she doesn’t really like, because really, they both deserve better. She allows herself to believe that a new boy likes her and does indeed find her attractive for real, and not because he’s a “chubby chaser.”
Like most of us, she takes tiny steps, both forward and backward, toward self-acceptance. She does not try to lose weight or agree to wear the burlap sacs her gym-rat mother wants to hide her body in. And most importantly, she puts her body’s importance in perspective, slowly realizing that it is just a tiny part of all that she is.
Like I said, Virginia Shreves is awesome.
Here’s some other YA reads that deal with overweight teens and their myriad struggles with their bodies. Their journeys toward self-acceptance aren’t perfect– of course not, because that wouldn’t be believable. But it’s fantastic to see so much body positivity in recent books. Though I know we’re still a long way off and that media imagery is even more powerful today than it was when I was a kid (and the actresses and models are much thinner now, aren’t they? Ever watch reruns of 80s movies and shows? There is some roundness that is notably absent in today’s media), there’s a part of me that reads and cheers for these characters and their private quests. And the chubby girl still inside of me hopes hard that there’s not some little girl or boy standing in the shower, looking down to make sure they can always see their toes.
In Kelly Barton’s 45 Pounds (More or Less) – 16 year-old (and size 17) Ann vows to lose 45 pounds for her aunt’s upcoming wedding. What’s most interesting about Ann’s struggle with food and her body is the way it ties into her mother’s own struggles with anorexia. I’m fascinated by the way parents (mostly mothers, but not exclusively) pass down their own body dysmorphia and self-acceptance (or lack thereof) to their daughters (and sons). It shows up in so many ways in children’s fiction.
Beth Felhbaum – Big Fat Disaster – Okay, be warned: Colby’s mother is a truly horrible, self-centered person. She fat-shames her daughter so cruelly that Colby eventually tries to commit suicide (There’s more to it than just the fat shaming, but that’s a huge part of it. Her entire family turns against her when she accidentally sabotages her father’s political career). This is a powerful and original story about family, self-hatred and shame. And more fascinating, heart-breaking mother/daughter dynamics.
Dumplin‘ – Julie Murphy’s YA is a love letter to Dolly Parton, Texas, and bodypositivity,and there’s a decent chance you’ll wish protagonist Willow Dean was your own best friend. She’s plus-sized and mostly okay with it, but first love makes her doubt herself. So she enters a beauty pageant to get her mojo back. She’s brave and fearless and totally human. The audiobook to this is especially good. Read it before the movie comes out!
The Upside of Unrequited –IMHO Becky Albertelli‘s depictions of about characters who feel like outsiders are incredibly compelling. (Did you see Love, Simon? It’s adapted from her first novel, Simon vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda, which as always, is better than the movie). I love protagonist Molly, her twin sister, and her two moms, so, so much. But my favorite thing about Molly is that her quest for identity is about something other than her size.
K.L. Going’s Fat Kid Rules the World – This book is so incredible. First, it is about an overweight boy, Troy, which is something we don’t see as much. Second, Troy’s journey is unique in that his own fat body becomes a site of empowerment rather than a site of humiliation. In other words, his fatness helps him in his journey — it’s a huge part of it. And not only does he somewhat passively not change, like some of the characters above, he actively learns to use his fat, flawed body as an embodiment of his own power. It’s pretty ground-breaking.
Oh my God, I have so many more books to write about. But this is already too long and it’s possible that you are not as drawn to subversion of the ugly duckling paradigm as I am. But in case you are, here are few other titles featuring unique, flawed characters who struggle with their bodies in various ways. If you want more, contact me!
The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles) – Amy Spalding – trust me you will LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH!
Fat Angie – e.E. Charlton-Trujillo – not a personal favorite, but it’s worth reading, and Angie’s self-hatred and disbelief that new girl KC could possibly find her attractive is rather harrowing
You, Me, and Him – Kris Dinnison – fresh and funny romantic comedy
The Art of Starving – Sam J. Miller – Matt’s not fat– he has anorexia, and the portrayal of an eating disorder in a male is stellar.
Finally, a disclaimer for my very sensitive mother:
THIS BLOG POST IS NOT ABOUT YOU. I PROMISE.