Fillyjonk says: Hi guys, remember me? I’ve been planning a wedding, which I realize is not as good of an excuse as when SM wasn’t blogging because she was studying for her orals, but it’s the best I’ve got. To make up for my absence, here’s a guest post I requested a few months ago when children’s literature expert Rebecca Rabinowitz did a guest post on The Rotund. Loads of people had been asking Aunt Fattie for fat-positive books they could give their kids or other people’s kids, so I asked Rebecca to make a few recommendations. Little did I realize that she would put in months of work (well, she also has that whole job thing) and give us not one but two guest posts on fat-positive books for kids and teens. Here’s part one.
This is the first 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 ONE: PICTURE BOOKS.
Picture books that blatantly address fatpol:
STARRING HILLARY, by Kathy Caple. This is a strong HAES picture book. Hillary is a young girl character (a cat, anthropomorphized) who aspires to be on stage. Hillary is “a little on the round side.” Her wise mother says “’I wouldn’t worry about it….We come in all shapes and sizes. You are just right the way you are.’” But older sister Felice imposes dieting pressure, insisting, “You’ll never make it, as round as you are.’” Felice takes charge of restricting Hillary’s food and enforcing weight-loss-specific exercise. Hillary loses sleep and becomes newly anxious (calorie-deprived) until she sees a glamorous famous actress – a “round” adult cat. Hillary abandons the diet, eats food again, and sails through a theater audition the next day. Her conclusion: “’If I eat normally from now on, I’ll be just right.’” Victorious! (NOTE: because this is a picture book, be aware of the “don’t put beans in your ears” phenomenon. A very young child who’d not thought of dieting before could get the idea here, despite the adamantly anti-diet narrative message.)
I LIKE ME, by Nancy Carlson. This is an energetic and unabashedly didactic salute to self-esteem. A fat young girl character reads, skates, draws, dances, eats, bathes, rides a bike, and rows a boat. She likes her “round tummy” and says so. Caveats: although secondary child characters exist in the background, the protagonist seems to have no friends and to exist distinctly alone (with the exception of a mother that shows up late in the book). Her solitary self-sufficiency sometimes sounds defensive and reactive: “When I feel bad, / I cheer myself up” and “I have a best friend. / That best friend is me!” Also, despite the long literary tradition of anthropomorphized animals in picture books, Carlson’s choice to make this protagonist an anthropomorphized pig may trouble seasoned activists or readers who’ve been called pig-related names. (Reclaiming fat pride is key, but I’m not convinced that we need to reclaim a connection with actual pigs.) Absolutely HAES-friendly.
Picture books that don’t mention fatness but portray fat characters going about their regular lives unhindered by being fat (to find more on your own, simply look for fat characters who aren’t symbolically bad and whose fatness doesn’t hamper them):
HOTTER THAN A HOT DOG, by Stephanie Calmenson, illus. by Elivia. A young girl and her grandmother, sweltering in the city heat, escape to the beach for a day. They stay through the sizzling afternoon and past sunset. They splash in the ocean, dig in the sand, and eat ice cream. Elivia’s spirited and lively watercolors are occasionally slightly inconsistent such that the girl looks fatter on some pages than on others; however, the grandmother is always fat, and fatness means nothing here. Nothing bad, nothing symbolic, nothing at all. Full of joy.
THE UNBEATABLE BREAD, by Lyn Littlefield Hoopes, illus. by Brad Sneed. An uncle pops out of bed one morning with a burning inspiration to bake an unbeatable bread. His wife objects because they’re snowed in tight with no one to eat it, but his passion wins out. The bread’s fragrance while baking travels out of the house and pulls in animals from their dens and nieces and nephews from afar. It wakes people up and may even start spring. Illustrated in gorgeous paintings and written in odd but wonderful rhythm and rhyme, this features a main character (Uncle John) who is fat for no symbolic reason except maybe (if you’re really reaching for symbolism) the fact that he’s a creator/baker figure who nourishes and brings bliss.
BEA & MR. JONES, by Amy Schwartz. Kindergartener Bea has “’had it’” with kindergarten – the beanbag games, the clothespin games, the colored lollipop game. Her father is tired of running for the morning train and sitting in an office all day. A swap is in order! Both are thrilled in their new positions and, unlike in traditional picture book structure, they don’t trade back at the end. Bea and Mr. Jones are both fat, but not for any particular reason. One of my favorites.
BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING, by Amy Schwartz. [MEGA-NOTE: WARNING: This book was later re-illustrated and republished by the same author/artist. For fatpol purposes, you want the 1983 black-and-white version – check your library or do an out-of-print book search. The 2005 version has color illustrations and a thin protagonist.] Sara arrives home from school with an assignment to paint a ”wonderful” (ital. orig.) picture for the art show. She has an idea for a subject but worries that it’s too insignificant. This is a classic artist’s struggle, both conceptual and philosophical, and totally accessible to very young readers. Sara and her whole family are fat, but the fatness has no symbolism and causes no hindrance.