Guest blogger Rebecca Rabinowitz: Fat-positive children’s books, part two

This is the second section of a two-part post recommending children’s books that have something to offer in terms of fat politics. Section one is picture books; section two is middle grade and young adult books. I wish the list were longer, but these are, sadly, all the fatpol-friendly children’s books I have found so far. (I’m only one person, of course, so there may well be more out there that I don’t know about. Please holler if you know any!) Because fatpol-friendly children’s books are so rare, I’m taking off my regular book-reviewer hat and including some books that are artistically/literarily weaker than I would normally recommend. (Though you’ll probably be able to tell which ones I consider highest quality.)

Parameters: I focused on main characters rather than secondary characters. The characters’ levels of fatness range from slightly fat to very fat — although the status quo narrative definition of “very fat” is problematic, as has been discussed here before. Because defining levels of fatness is so problematic, I decided not to distinguish between levels of fatness in my capsule reviews. I’m frustrated and apologetic not to have found many “supersize” characters, nor many queer characters or characters of color. Although I’m not including any books that are too heinously offensive along general progressive lines, some of these books do include some sexism and racism at times, because they exist in the World, and it’s hard for things that exist in the World to avoid sexism and racism completely.

Please note: while some of these books warrant an unreserved fatpol-friendly rating, many require caveats. The list was tragically short without the mixed-message books, and I wanted y’all to be able to make your own choices. Please don’t take an inclusion on this list to mean that a book is 100% fatpol-friendly and doesn’t warrant a critical eye.

DAY TWO: CHAPTER BOOKS.

Middle grade books:

THE FETCH OF MARDY WATT, by Charles Butler. The single fantasy book on this list! Mardy is fat and hates it. A dark and slightly surreal adventure into a noxious parallel realm takes her energy and almost her soul until the evil force is conquered by an unorthodox (but never twee) group of friends. Intelligent book. On the not-quite-FA side, Mardy never stops hating being fat; but on the plus side, there’s nary a hint of her dieting or trying to lose weight, and her fatness is no hindrance to her success in the plot arc. Another nice quality is that while Mardy herself dislikes her own fatness, the narrative voice doesn’t mind it at all.

RODZINA, by Karen Cushman. Set in 1881 (but written in the 21st century), this solid and tender historical novel features a young girl who happens to be fat. The fatness has no symbolism and no baggage. Rodzina and other orphans ride an orphan train across the country seeking new families. Poverty and sadness, but much strength as well.

THE MISFITS, by James Howe. Four seventh graders try to change the atmosphere of their school by running a political campaign to ban name-calling. Each of the four is an outsider in some way: too tall, too fat, too odd, or just plain gay. Fatpolwise, this book is pretty good. A fat boy narrates in first person, and over the plot arc, he gains a lot of confidence without losing any weight. The girl he likes likes him back even while he’s fat. A few randomly-placed comments undermine the positive fatpol message, but the protagonist doesn’t diet in the course of the book. Caveat: strange, sketchy narrative messages about gender and race.

Young adult books:

THIS BOOK ISN’T FAT, IT’S FABULOUS, by Nina Beck. A fat, rich teen with no desire to lose weight is sent to fat camp by her father and stepmother. Initially spoiled, she becomes likeable almost immediately. Her growth arc is about emotional openness; one major theme is lying versus telling the truth. No weight loss, no negativity associated with fatness, just a fresh and hilarious new voice. I’d give this to fat readers without a single caveat (except maybe the title, which implies that fatness and fabulousness are at odds; luckily, the rest of the text doesn’t think so).

FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, by K.L. Going. A fat teenage boy, emotionally distant from his family, makes friends with a hyper homeless boy who’s on drugs but is a brilliant punk rock musician. I’m including this book because as the protagonist learns to drum, bonds with his family, and makes his first friend, he never loses weight. There’s no implication that he’ll lose weight, or try to, at any point. Caveat: Going objectifies this protagonist’s fat body to an extreme degree. The narration is first-person, but the fat boy is always the FAT boy, never just a plain old human being. Even at the end, when he’s a fuller human being to himself and his family, his body and gait are always, always marked as fat: he lumbers, he waddles, etc. This descriptive repetition, though stylistic, undermines the fatpol-friendliness of the non-weight-loss plot arc.

THE EARTH, MY BUTT, AND OTHER BIG ROUND THINGS, by Carolyn Mackler. I struggled over whether to include this one. It’s 98% wonderful, with a fat teenage protagonist who morphs from an insecure girl who idealizes her problematic family and eats for comfort into a confident, kickboxing website-founder with an eyebrow ring. Caveats: two irksome sentences. One says that the protagonist can “see” her stomach and arms tightening up (from exercising). The fact that she sees it rather than feeling it is rather anti-HAES and implies loss of fat as well as growth of muscle. The second cringeworthy sentence is a comment that her Fat Pants are “feeling a little loose.” These sentences render this book one of the many that equate emotional growth with weight loss. However, they seem unusually brief and unessentialized here; consider using those two sentences as discussion points.

FAT HOOCHIE PROM QUEEN, by Nico Medina. A fat and happy Puerto Rican teen girl, who never minds being fat and is clearly attractive, gets embroiled in a prom queen competition with an old nemesis. There’s girl-on-girl bitchiness and some unsettling classism; however, there’s also a fabulous straight fat girl cheerfully surrounded by queerness. This is (frustratingly) the only book on this list with a protagonist who’s a POC. I heartily recommend this one.

MYRTLE OF WILLENDORF, by Rebecca O’Connell. Myrtle is a college student, though flashbacks show earlier periods of her life. She’s fat and she’s an artist. She’s also a binge-eater, and she lives with a thin and health-snobby roommate. Major themes include “goddess” mythology and menstruation. Caveats: boys are never attracted to Myrtle (though she wishes they were), and her bingeing is certainly a fat stereotype. However, I’m including this book because, despite the fact that it’s a stereotype, some fat people do binge, and O’Connell’s narrative voice is respectful. Also, although the bingeing and lack of boys shows no sign of changing – even at the end, when Myrtle finds public success as an artist – there’s also no implication that Myrtle will lose weight as part of her growth arc. Consider this a BED book as much as a fatness book.

BIG FAT MANIFESTO, by Susan Vaught. Fat power messages overflow – and mix with a few old stereotypes too. This attempt at a direct fatpol novel is romantic, passionate, emotional, and political. Jamie’s a high school senior writing a column called Fat Girl Manifesto for her school newspaper. She’s very active and she has a (hot and fat) boyfriend – who decides to get WLS. Vaught’s groundbreaking messages include assertions that fat people are attractive and that WLS is the only way for a fat person to become thin because dieting doesn’t work. However, Vaught includes so very many messages about fatness that they reach chaos point. You’ll find some offensive old anti-fat chestnuts in this warm and energetic page-turner, but you’ll also find lots of cheer-worthy fat acceptance messages. A great place to start, for young adults who have never encountered fatpol before.

40 thoughts on “Guest blogger Rebecca Rabinowitz: Fat-positive children’s books, part two

  1. Thanks for the list – this is awesome!

    I’ll add the Circle of Magic books by Tamora Pierce. There are four protagonists, one of whom is fat and who doesn’t mind it, except for the ridicule she sometimes gets from other children.

    The same author’s Protector of the Small series has a protagonist who isn’t described as fat but is described as solidly built – taller and more broadly built than most girls – so was another good example of body diversity for me.

  2. I just read “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Round Things” this summer, and overall I liked it. I will say, however, it annoyed me that the teenage protagonist was constantly eating junkfood. There seemed to be the implication that only fat people eat chips and candy bars… and because she had so many troubles with her family, it felt like it was explained as an “emotional” problem.

  3. I LOVED Big Fat Manifesto and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things and Big Fat Manifesto. All of those authors’ books are excellent. I still enjoy YA fiction. I’ll definitely try and get hold of the books on this list that I haven’t read.

  4. I know I bring this book up EVERY time books are mentioned, but it is THE book that got me started in terms of feeling okay with my body, so I’m very loyal to it (I still read it now, it’s like an old friend, even though it’s intended for a far younger demographic).

    Dinah and the Green Fat Kingdom by Isabelle Holland.

    NOT 100% fat positive. BUT. Includes the following traits:

    –the idea that the decision to lose weight or not has to come from YOU, and NOBODY else, not even family or doctors, or capitalism. (“His excellency the ambassador believes that Fat is a Capitalist concept…”)
    –the idea that it’s okay to be fat as long as you have made the choice, and choose also to like yourself regardless of your size.
    –thinking of food and exercise as things you do to nourish and care for yourself, not punishments or things you do to control your body.
    –how freaking awesome dogs are (a plus for dog lovers)
    –a character who is not just a size ten or fourteen, but is truly plus sized, and is possibly one of the most kick-ass, caring, smart, confident mother figures you’ll see in a book.
    –a character with a disability who is portrayed as a person with a disability instead of a disabled person (I tend to see disabilities played for some weird humanitarian factor in youth fiction as opposed to just being people but it’s not so in DatGFK). In fact, he later becomes a love interest, making that, I do believe, the one and only time I’ve ever seen that in a youth fiction book.
    –the magic of imagination
    –the downside of the magic of imagination
    –a really cool tree
    –a really touching and (I thought) very realistically portrayed daddy-daughter relationship

    This book is, despite its flaws, one of my favorites.

    Which, again, explains why I mention it every time books come up. You’re probably all sick of hearing about it. WHICH IS WHY YOU SHOULD GO READ IT! *laugh*

    … of course, now that I’ve hyped it up you’re going to read it, and think it’s silly, and wonder what I was on about. XD

  5. Another one for young adults (with a caveat) might be Sights by Susanna Vance. It’s a coming-of-age story about a white girl in the 1950s, told from her perspective. She is a fat child, and I remember this being described positively when it’s not just incidental to all her other interesting characteristics. I believe she is described as losing weight or at least changing into a more conventionally pretty shape at puberty, but I remember that this was described in a maximally non-fat-hating way.

    I might be wrong about some of that, though, because I read this a few years ago, before I discovered fat activism.

  6. I will echo the PP in that I read this book a while ago before I had totally discovered FA as a movement, but I recall this was absolutely wonderful: Fat Camp Commandos by Daniel Pinkwater. Siblings are sent off to fat camp by parents who have been convinced by others it’s the best thing for them, but they break out and become fat activists in their home town until they are discovered and their parents realize their mistake.

  7. I thought of another – Wobbler in Terry Pratchett’s “Johnny” series is big and likes his food, but this is never presented in a judgemental way. He’s just one of the group of friends. The same group of friends includes Kirsty who is definitely not a stereotypical girl, and Yo-less who is black, so a reasonably diverse group.

  8. Yep, Fat Camp Commandos is awesome, pro-FA, with boy and girl protagonists. The sequel, Fat Camp Commandos Go West is a little more rushed-seeming, but cute illustrations.

  9. I haven’t read it in a while, so I don’t remember if it has anything in it that would put it outside your paramters, but Chris Crutcher’s Saving Sarah Byrnes has a fat male protagonist who is also an athlete, and doesn’t change in his body throughout the story.

  10. I feel compelled to second LilahMorgan’s recommendation of Tamora Pierce’s books. I’ve mentioned them here before, and they’re just so good, I had to do it again. Pierce’s other works aren’t as directly FA-related, but are still awesome, and everyone should go read them. :-)

  11. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes wasn’t exactly fat-friendly. The boy stays fat so that he can still hang out with Sarah, and when he loses weight, she doesn’t want him around because both he and Sarah (who has massive scars on her face) are considered the “others”.

  12. I highly recommend Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher. The narrator is a male fat athlete. Some strong subjects are covered, including child abuse and abortion, but it’s a really good YA book.

  13. Finally emerging from lurkerdom for this one.

    For older teens, I’m particularly fond of Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life, by Maureen McCarthy. (The Carmel of the title is fat.) It’s pretty polemical, but has some very interesting things to say about class as well as size. And I think the character arcs are fairly realistic – things aren’t all OK for everyone at once, even if you want a perfect ending. I can’t remember if there’s anything about Carmel’s eating etc, since plot-wise she’s got bigger problems, which I *think* suggests that there’s not anything too objectionable – but I’m willing to be corrected by other Australians out there. (Er, and anyone else who’s read this.)

    I also appreciated the fact that people of all shapes and sizes have problems in the book, even if they’re a bit cliched, because I hate the idea that fat is the biggest disaster in the world. However, it could be argued that the story in a fairly long book takes a while to get to that point, so a slower reader looking for fat positivity might get a bit discouraged.

  14. Thank you for enthusiasm and participation, everyone!

    I humbly apologize to all the Pinkwater fans for not having read him yet. Clearly I need to. :)

    @ LyL: That title is new to me, thank you.

    @ LilahMorgan: Circle of Magic had been suggested to me for this project but, because I was also busy scribbling it on a reading list for another project, I forgot to read it in time for this. I look forward to it. (I have read Protector of the Small, and I found Kel to be strong and blocky but not fat.)

    @ dollyann: In The Earth, My Butt…, the character was definitely comfort-eating and it was definitely an emotional problem. No book can be every book (no book can show all possibilities), and although comfort-eating is a fat stereotype (especially when the food is junk food) it is also true for some fat people. That’s why I included the book. But I certainly understand you being annoyed with the stereotype.

    @ S.: I don’t know Sights, but if the character loses weight at the end, I’m afraid I wouldn’t consider it an FA book no matter how non-fat-hating the prose was. This is because the book exists in a cultural and literary context where weight loss is almost always portrayed as necessary for happy endings and emotional growth. Sadly, an individual book featuring weight loss at the end taps into that paradigm even if the author doesn’t mean to.

  15. @ Toby (who requested that I expand on my opinion that gender and race are treated in a sketchy way in The Misfits): The gender and race issues are treated quite differently from each other, so I’m going to address them separately.

    Gender: the group of “misfits” is made up of three boys and one girl. The girl starts out sort of running things within the group, and over the plot arc, she loses more and more tasks and power. It’s great that the fat boy gains confidence and authority, but it’s sad for the girl to go in the opposite direction – because the narration doesn’t note that it’s happening, and it goes unacknowledged, as if it’s not happening.

    Also, although all four “misfits” get teased by other kids and sometimes (in a friendly way) by each other, only the girl gets teased by the narrative voice. (When I say “narrative voice,” I don’t mean the protagonist’s voice, although he’s the narrator; I mean an authorial voice that slips out, separate from the protagonist’s first-person narration.) The narrative voice gently implies that the girl deserves a little mocking. It made me uneasy, because this is a book centered on the conviction that teasing is a form of bullying and is emotionally harmful. The narrative voice has this vibe only towards the girl, not towards the fat boy or the gay boy or anyone else who gets teased.

    Race: there are two secondary characters who are African-American, both kids in the same school as the “misfits.” They seem to exist solely for the “misfits” to learn things from. Their roles in the text are almost entirely to represent ideologies to the white kids as the white kids wend their way through seventh grade and learn important lessons. Within that, the boy is idealized and the girl anti-idealized. They’re less like characters and more like narrative tools.

    These are difficult things to explain in a comment format, without textual evidence (which would make this comment the length of a tome). I’m certainly not expecting anyone to adopt my opinion or assume I’m right. I just felt so uncomfortable with Howe’s treatment of race and gender that I was compelled to mention it. I would be interested in hearing opinions from anyone else who’s read the book.

  16. @ raven_grozier and Monster Alice: I have to agree with Fat Angie about Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Fatness is portrayed as an option that’s within the character’s control, and when he starts exercising, he gets thinner. To me it seems like a classic example of a protagonist whose weight loss symbolizes and enables his emotional growth. This boy gets where he needs to go, in life, and part of that journey is becoming thin.

  17. What do you think of Marilyn Sachs’ The fat girl? In some ways I really like the message, that just because you’re fat it doesn’t mean your body and lifestyle and diet and fashion choices are public property. The socially outcast fat girl gains confidence not because of miraculously losing weight, but because she learns to love her body and to be a beautiful fat woman. And when she has that confidence, she is able to take her life into her own hands and not be dependent on the boy who thinks he is rescuing her. But on the negative side, she does lose weight over the course of the book, though it specifies that she is still “plump” by the end.

  18. Great list – may I humbly add my own YA novel, ALL ABOUT VEE, which came out this April? Veronica is a plus-size teen from a small town in Arizona who moves to LA to become an actress. There she must deal with people who can’t see past her size to her enormous talent. My readers have found her to be an especially positive role model because she doesn’t buy into the “skinny is better” philosophy of LA. Thanks!

  19. I have to mention Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s A Fistful of Sky.

    Very positive portrayal of a fat young woman as the protaganist. And, guess what, she doesn’t get skinny to get the guy. Besides, the story is full of magic and interesting ethics.

  20. I just have to add a few. I just finished reading “P.L.A.I.N. Janes” the other day (YA graphic novel) and one of the girls in that was fat, one of those not a plot point, she just was sort of things. Although she’s not the main character.
    In the back of P.L.A.I.N. Janes there were little bits of other YA graphic novels and the main character in “Good As Lily” was drawn as slightly cubby too. Although her fatness seems to vary from panel to panel, but she’s cubby on the cover at least.

  21. @ Loz, Jenna, and Colleen: Thank you for the titles!

    @ Individ-ewe-al: I’ve read some Sachs but I don’t know that one. It’s hard to pull off a book in which the character loses weight by the end without undermining any FA messgaes earlier in the book, so I’m a bit wary, but I’ll check it out.

    @ Leigh: I apologize again that somehow your book fell through a crack and didn’t make it onto my reading list for this post. I’ve now ordered it at the library and look forward to reading it!

  22. Big Fat Manifesto was very good – and I think I sent Kate an email about it :)

    I had Fat Hoochie Prom Queen checked out too, but just couldn’t read it – the way the characters spoke just irritated me – they were way too cool to be believable to me.

    and SugarLeigh – YES! I love Dinah and the Green Fat Kingdom! The final explosion at the dinner table – oh, that felt so good (and hurt so much). I had a paperback copy that got messed up in an apartment flood and ended up getting a hardback through an Amazon reseller – it was one of the books I HAD to replace.

    And more books for my TBR list – umm, yeah? :)

  23. For Sci-Fi readers:

    John Barnes “Thousand Cultures” series. The main character is not fat, but the main character’s girlfriend -> wife -> eventual boss is strong, fat, and not beautiful. The first book of the series has the rather shallow protagonist slowly realizing that he loves this woman, who is seemingly nothing like the women of his own culture, who he believes are beautiful and submissive (although it turns out that he was wrong about the women from his own world as well).

    There are plenty of caveats, but for me the first couple of books of this series were a revelation. The narrative voice quite clearly describes this woman as homely (her skin, her hair, her features in general are described in a non-flattering way) and yet the protagonist falls madly in love with her and becomes his muse. I have frankly never read any other books where an apparently unattractive woman’s appearance does not change, even though the protagonist’s perception of her does (and much for the better). In real life, lots of people love each other for who they are, not what they look like, but I’ve never seen it in a book, movie, or play before or since.

  24. Deanna —

    Thanks for the suggestion! It made me think of Peter S. Beagle’s Folk of the Air, which includes a fat goddess with whom the protagonist falls madly in love. I don’t remember whether she’s described as physically beautiful, but she’s certainly fat, and she’s described as irresistible, holy, the impersonation of all that is worthy of love. (Not a main character, exactly, though.)

    Rebecca —

    Thanks for the fabulous list! I’m going to start pushing these more at my library. Since I teach at a girls’ school, we talk a lot about body image, but the books used to represent that are usually on the anorexia side of things.

  25. I would also recommend ‘Girls Under Pressure’ by Jacqueline Wilson, which I think is probably targetted at early teens. The protagonist, Ellie, is fat, and the book deals with her becoming hugely insecure about her body and going on a self-destructive crash diet. The happy ending involves her realising that dieting is sapping all her individuality and also driving away her friends. Instead, she starts liking her body, exercising in a positive way (because she enjoys it rather than for any effect on her body), enjoying food, and discovering a talent for art. I read it a while ago, so I may be missing things, but I remember it as being totally fat positive, and well-written to boot.

  26. just read “Size 12 is NOT Fat!” by Meg Cabot. LOVED IT!! the protagonist (whose next story is “Size 14 isn’t fat either”) is a former teen pop-star whose waistline has increased as she’s gotten older and who everyone keeps telling she would get her career back if she’d just lose weight. that’s not the whole story, but that’s the fatpol side of it. she’s always talking about how she just doesn’t care to deprive herself just to be like “those girls”. anyways, i liked it. it’s a mystery in chick-lit clothes.

  27. oh, i guess this falls in the YA/adult section. i think high-schoolers would dig it, but it might be a little mature for the middle-school group.

  28. I liked those books, too, infamousqbert. They’re not explicitly FA, and they do involve the insistence that the protagonist isn’t fat, rather that they’re nothing wrong with it if she is, but they’re utterly charming and certainly body positive.

  29. Don’t miss a great one called Artichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee. Great southern charm and humor, with some romance thrown in. Rosemary, the main character, tries to lose weight, and does lose a little, but ultimately comes to accept herself as she is.

  30. Currently reading one of the Traces series – Framed, by Malcolm Rose. British forensic detection set in future in which the northern cities are well developed and the southern (incl. London) are slums.

    Haven’t completed it, so I don’t know how the race and body identity politics play out, but indications are that thin is offensive and brown is normalised, eg: ‘Her skin was slightly paler shade of the normal brown colouring and she was pleasantly plump’ (p.16). There is also (unsupported) racism against ‘whites’ and criticism of being not ‘shapely’ enough.

    Nice to see this in a book that doesn’t have ‘fat’ or ‘size’ or ‘bum’ in the title and is not specifically about body politics.

    Cheers

    Trish

  31. How about Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce? Flora is quite round and doesn’t mind it, quite likes it, in fact, and is more grumpy when she is hungry and food is unavailable than when people tease her for her shape (if they even do), and her friend Udo is much more vain and careful of his looks than she.

  32. I know this thread is an old one, but since it’s still visible and shows up in search, I’m going to add to it.

    The most wonderful fat-positive moment in a children’s book is in the classic “Understood Betsey” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The main character is first introduced as “Elizabeth Ann” – thin, shrinking, frightened of the world. When her guardians (also the thin, nervous type) are struck by illness, she is sent to distant relatives on a farm, where she encounters many oddities and terrors – gruff Cousin Ann and taciturn Uncle Henry; the strange little one-room schoolhouse; the big black farm dog Shep – and Aunt Abigail, the fattest woman she has ever seen. Everything here is strange – even her name has changed; they call her “Betsy” – and nightfall finds Elizabeth Ann shivering in a big old fourposter bed, feeling more alone than she has ever felt and ready to cry in despair – and then Aunt Abigail comes in to bed down with her, and in a moment, everything changes. The language of this scene is gently marvelous. At first, Betsy “felt just as cold inside as out, and never was more utterly miserable than in that strange, ugly little room, with that strange, queer, fat old woman.” But snuggled up to Aunt Abigail, the thin, trembling, frightened child feels suddenly enveloped in warmth and protection. She “began to feel a soft, pervasive warmth. Aunt Abigail’s great body was like a stove.” Betsy turns her head “so that she could see the round, rosy old face, full of soft wrinkles, and the calm, steady old eyes which were fixed on the page. And as she lay there in the warm bed, watching that quiet face… She felt as though a tight knot inside her were slowly being untied.” As Aunt Abigail crosses the room, “The floor shook under her great bulk, and the peak of her nightcap made a long, grotesque shadow. But… Elizabeth Ann saw nothing funny in her looks… She blew the light out and moved over a little closer to Elizabeth Ann, who immediately was enveloped in that delicious warmth… Between her and the terrors of the dark room loomed the rampart of Aunt Abigail’s great body.” This lovely paragraph nearly makes me cry every time I read it. It deserves to be read again and again and again.

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