Just a handful of the Y.A. and middle-grade books I read while growing up in the '80s featured overweight or obese characters. Usually they weren't the protagonists. There's Blubber, of course, in which the plot-driving victim, Linda, is overweight and mocked for being so—she won't laugh at herself, which makes things worse. But that book, an indisputably great one by Judy Blume, is less about weight and more about bullying, as the book's anti-heroine, Tracy, figures out where she stands and what she will do, particularly when the bullying turns on her. I remember, also, Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade, by Barthe DeClements, featuring the overweight Elsie Edwards, and Me and Fat Glenda, by Lila Perl. In each of those cases, the main characters don't struggle with weight themselves but instead confront their feelings and behaviors in light of an overweight classmate or friend. Then there's Paula Danziger's The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, in which the main character, Marcy Lewis, is a self-described "baby blimp" who doesn't want to undress in front of her gym class and is full of sass and personality and opinions—the book is more about her growth as a character, and, in general, the discomfort and awkwardness of being in high school, than it is about weight loss.
In a 2008 ALAN article, Catherine S. Quick addressed some of the newer entries in the realm, including K.L. Going's Fat Kid Rules the World. She explained, reflecting on a 1998 piece by Rachel Beineke that discussed the lack of realistic portrayals of overweight teens in Y.A., that in a decade, things have changed: "Obesity is now a hot topic for young adult problem novels," with some books "providing positive role models of overweight teenagers and adults who are happy, self-accepting, and have many friends." Sometimes, she continues, "the fat character does indeed lose weight, which may lead to self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. But weight loss does not always have positive results and is not always the catalyst for a change in perspective on the part of the overweight protagonist." Still, there's usually a positive ending. "Whether the character loses weight or not, the fat character moves from a position of self-loathing or doubt to self-acceptance," she writes, pointing out that "it is rare for a young adult novel to portray fat, or even a little extra weight, as beautiful—or even as an alternative standard of beauty.... Thin is still represented as the absolute ideal for body image, and the fat person, although willing to accept fat as integral to identity, undoubtedly prefers thin. Fat is still viewed a decidedly negative body type."
On the other side of that coin, a year later, Francine Morrissette wrote of "the latest big trend in teen fiction," explaining that "publishers have been releasing dozens of novels aimed at plus-sized teens—and these books are being met with mixed reviews. One of the main objections to featuring plus sized heros in teen books is that these heroes may be validating obesity as an acceptable lifestyle choice." Of course, teen obesity in America is at an all-time high, creating an atmosphere in which portrayals of overweight teens may be one of the more germane aspects of any Y.A. novel. But how best to do this, given the myriad concerns ranging from health to realism to relatability to, not least, good writing?
Skinny, a book by debut Y.A. novelist Donna Cooner, is out this month from Scholastic, and it promises to bring some new conversations to the category. The novel, which garnered a lot of early talk at BEA (we included it as one to watch for in our fall reading list), tells the story of 15-year-old, 300-plus-pound Ever Davies, a high school girl plagued with a voice in her head that she calls Skinny. "Skinny," that negative, vicious internal monologue, is the quintessential meanest of mean girls in our own minds. She calls Ever an array of negative adjectives: "hopeless," a "freak," "pitiful," "huge," an "elephant," and so on, words that Ever, who's also mourning the death of her mom, believes her classmates and family feel about her, too. The message of "Skinny" is paralyzing, preventing Ever from accomplishing what she wants to achieve: She's a gifted singer who wishes she could try out for the school musical, but also, she wants to have friends, date the boy she has a crush on, and enjoy life, just like any other teen, or adult for that matter. The modern twist: In order to get to where she wants to be, she decides to undergo gastric bypass surgery. Cooner herself had the surgery as an adult, and brings her own knowledge of the process and what ensued physically and emotionally to the story. Another modern twist: The surgery doesn't magically solve all of Ever's problems.
When I spoke to Cooner about her book recently, she revealed that the turning point in the novel in which Ever decides to have the surgery was something that had happened to her as an administrator at the University of Colorado. "There's an incident when she falls on the floor at the graduation ceremony—I had that very incident happen to me. The chair broke. It was horrifying," she told me. Her own "Skinny" kicked in, she said, and suddenly, "I'm 15 years old, I'm overweight, it didn't matter how far I'd come, it's still in my head. It was so powerful at that moment, I thought, there's something here I need to write about."
Cooner, who's 5'2", weighed more than 300 pounds when she had gastric bypass surgery about 10 years ago. She writes on her website, "I lost over a hundred pounds, and it was a good decision for me, but it wasn't a magic wand. I'll never be considered skinny, but I'm happy and healthy in the skin I'm living and that's part of the story I wanted to tell." The book "really evolved from personal writing about how I felt in my journey," she told me. "Everyone in my family has the same body shape, and it's been a part of my life. I'm still not skinny and Ever isn't, either. It's about feeling better about yourself and giving people a chance, not about being skinny. It was realizing that even as adults, we can all hear that inner critic. It comes back."
Those criticisms are not just about weight loss: Another key character faces insecurities about her intelligence, for instance. Cooner believes there are many connecting points for readers, regardless of what they look like, through the story. "It could be, I'm not good at math, about external appearances, about internal things," she says. "We all face that negativity in our heads. It's about overcoming that voice and becoming what we want to be."
It's interesting to look at Skinny with regard to what Quick criticized as a common problem with the available Y.A. on the subject—that writers have not portrayed excess weight as beautiful or possibly beautiful; instead, the message has been that characters have to learn to love themselves despite the weight. Ever seems to portray a new kind of character, though, who sees the surgery as a way for her to regain her confidence and voice (and health) and to do what she wants to do, to be happy and beautiful, even if she's never skinny. The learning to love yourself portion of the book is clear, but it's not something necessarily tied to weight loss—it also can't be separated from it completely. Our physical and internal selves are, after all, forever connected, even as they change. At first, in writing the book, Cooner says, "I didn't realize how much Ever was pushing people away. It wasn't about others discounting her [a theme we see in earlier books on the topic], she was ruling people out and being her own worst enemy." When she stops doing that, regardless of weight, her life improves drastically.
Cooner expects to see more books featuring obese teens and dealing with the topic in new ways to enter the arena (see a list of 10 recent titles here). "There's Fat Kid Rules the World, and another one that just came out called Butter," she says, though hers is the first, she believes, to deal with gastric bypass surgery. "I think authors are taking note of the statistics in the U.S., the number of overweight and morbidly obese teens, and it's becoming a topic. We're asking, 'How are we going to work with this societal issue?'"
While the book may be considered controversial by people who think it will be seen as a recommendation of surgery as a one-stop solution for teen obesity, Cooner says she's not trying to promote surgery, and is upfront about the complications involved, painting the step as a difficult decision for Ever. She adds that gastric bypass and other surgical methods are, in fact, being offered to more and more young people. At the same time, she worries that these conversations about weight are still tinged with a lot of shame, even with regard to the covers of the books we read: "If I'm seen reading a 'fat' book, how's that going to look?" she asks. "I think teens are struggling to embrace the subject, but I don't know if they want to make it public. It was the thing I tried not to talk about for most of my life; it was very hard to put it out there."
Like anything heartfelt and honest (not to mention well-plotted and paced; I sped through the book in a night to find out what happens), it's sure to resonate with many. Our main character is not always likable, necessarily, but she's entirely authentic and her experience relatable beyond the discussion of weight that structures the book. The genuineness is, I think, largely due to Cooner's ability to bring her own experience to the page. "There were so many moments I went through," she says. "How it felt the first time I had to eat after surgery, and reliving those moments of being as overweight as I was. I think there was an element of trying to forget it, and writing this book opened it all up again. It was definitely a cathartic experience. It was painful at times, but really good."
Cooner's now at work on a second book, a companion to Skinny that will bring Ever and her best friend Rat to readers again. This time the author is "looking at grief in the public arena," she says. That one is scheduled for a release date next fall.