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Books Outside the Box

2013 June 17
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Young adulthood is the time when most people learn who they really are and to like who they find. This post is about books that are not the traditional YA, but instead are books that show the difference between packaging and content.

For many young people, myself included, the world sent us a host of messages telling us we were out of step, that something was wrong with us. That is especially true for kids who are overweight. In today’s world, a retail store’s recent decision to feature a size 12 swimsuit model prominently on their website without labeling her as “plus size” provoked pages of commentary and even criticism from numerous news outlets.

No wonder so many teens have trouble looking at themselves in a mirror.

I was one of those overweight teens, and I know that diversity is about more than just race, religion, or locale. During my all-important teen years I never found any books that featured a protagonist like myself dealing with the issues of being bigger than the other kids. Oh, books often featured an overweight sidekick to provide a little comic relief while the lithe and winsome protagonist fulfilled his or her destiny. But the overweight kid never took center stage. Their pains and issues were not the spotlight.

Things have changed, both in real life and in fiction.

truthNot every book is about the beautiful people. Dara, the protagonist in Secrets of Truth and Beauty by Megan Frazer (2009), is a former child beauty pageant star turned overweight teen. Her story is not about a girl deciding to diet or about parents and friends realizing they are wrong about her. She is a “fat girl,” but that is not her whole identity. She uncovers a past her parents have kept hidden from her, including an older sister who left home before she was born. She does not decide to diet to fix her problems and earn the love of others. Nor do her parents undergo a miraculous change of heart and learn to accept their children as they are. Instead, this is a true coming-of-age story where Dara learns to accept herself as she is, as well as to accept her elder sister’s sexual orientation and the idea that her parents will probably never change their attitudes toward either of their daughters.

Unfortunately, the publisher chose not to portray an overweight teen on the cover. Still, this book will appeal to people who seldom see their issues in print. It will also reach out to anyone who wants to see the world through the eyes of someone bigger than average. As one reader said about the book: I’m a 25 year old guy, and I still found myself relating to the main character in a lot of ways.

ButterButter by Erin Jade Lange (2013) takes things in a different direction. Butter is truly larger than average — over four hundred pounds large. The morbidly obese protagonist is tired of being rejected and declares his intention to eat himself to death on a live webcast. But as the date draws closer, Butter begins to find himself surrounded by members of the popular crowd. He even gets a girlfriend. Now he has something to live for, but only if he goes through with his plans. His newfound popularity comes with an expiration date. His new friends are really waiting to see him die. Some have even made bets on his last meal.

The book leaves readers questioning and taking a second look at themselves and the people around them. All the characters have shades of good and bad. Butter in particular is a nice kid: funny, musical, intelligent. It makes you look around; it makes you wonder.

If a kid really decided to kill himself on streaming video — would you watch?

Fat AngieFat Angie by E.E. Charlton Trujillo (2013) hides herself under a mountain of junk food. None of that dulls the pain or the ridicule of other students who shout “crazy mad cow!” when they see her. She also tried — and failed — to kill herself in front of a gym full of kids. Now she just tries to live each day.

Until the new girl arrives.

One person, aptly named K.C. Romance, sees under the surface masks into Angie’s true essence and makes a difference in her present and her future.

— Barbara Binns, currently reading Lexapos and Cons by Aaron Karo

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11 Responses
  1. Molly Wetta permalink*
    June 17, 2013

    I love seeing more diverse–in every sense of the word, not just race/ethnicity/religion/sexual orientation–characters in YA lit. It’s so nice to see them outside of “issue” books as well. For example, I loved Eleanor from Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell because she was an overweight, not conventionally attractive girl who still got to have a wonderful romance.

    • Barbara Binns permalink
      June 18, 2013

      Thanks for commenting. I am going to take a look at Eleanor & Park. I am really interested in these kinds of “different” books. I am an author, and my second novel, Being God, features a fourteen year old girl, six feet tall and a size fourteen. I made her comfortable with her own weight, although she admits that life is easier if you are slim and short and beautiful. Nevertheless, she ends up with the hot jock who finally learns to admit he likes a girl with curves. I want to see more books with the be comfortable with yourself message. I also hope to see you back in July, when Books Outside the Box will take a look at books about kids with brain issues, including OCD and Asperger’s.

  2. June 19, 2013

    Great post! I remember reading about Nancy Drew’s “pleasantly plump” friend Bess, and thinking less of Bess for her inability to be slim like Nancy and George. Those messages are dangerous. I’m happy to see that current YA has changed/is changing. Artichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee featured *gasp* a romance for a not-slim teen. And Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher included a male who dropped weight but didn’t want it to affect his friendship so kept trying to pack it back on. There’s more to the book than that, but it was a refreshing change of pace from the usual magical makeover.

  3. June 19, 2013

    I just finished reading Skinny by Donna Cooner. It’s about a teenager who opts for bariatric surgery. The story encompasses the changes she goes through emotionally and in her perceptions of the world as she loses weight. It’s very realistic and quite an eye-opener. The author also went through the same surgery, so many of the details are inspired by her own experiences. This is a terrific book and I’m going to be recommending it to my students.

    • B. A. Binns permalink
      June 19, 2013

      Now I have to add Skinny to my to read list. I too underwent bariatric surgery, although as an adult, so I will be interested in reading about this teen’s experience.

  4. July 10, 2013

    Great article.

  5. July 11, 2013

    I have one coming that is SOOOO up your alley, but it won’t be ready until spring of next year at the earliest. Supernova (coming in October) will also feature a plus size lead…. I get so tired of the media slamming girls with teh idea that they have to be perfect — skinny, hair never out of place, makeup impecable and fitting to their role — to be a woman.

  6. July 11, 2013

    Hi there,
    I just heard about your “outside the box” theme and love it. I was on a panel for UTOPYAcon about issues in books, and having overweight protagonists was the number one thing our panel agreed was often missing.
    All the best!
    Amy Evans

  7. Alissa permalink
    July 18, 2013

    Wonderful article! And wonderful observation! You’re 100% correct that more YA books need to feature overweight (i.e. not model thin) protagonists and paint them in a more positive, more well-rounded, more well-adjusted light. I would further expand that observation to include other physical aspects that would declare a teen unfit to grace the cover of their favorite magazine: too short, too tall, glasses, strange feet, less than perfect hair/skin/etc… I could go on. Very, very few teens (and people in general) fit that “model” mold, and if teens can read books featuring characters more like them, more like their friends, it would save them a world of grief, insecurity, and body drama.

    Another issue I have is this: Often times books that DO have protagonists who are not physically perfect are hidden beneath covers featuring, you guessed it, gorgeous models. Although these covers are pretty, what sort of message are they sending?

    • July 18, 2013

      I agree. Look at Butter’s cover – you can’t see the protagonist. I was told Megan Frazer almost cried when the publisher refused to put an overweight girl on her cover. Too many publisher’s feel that unless you put a gorgeous, physically fit Caucasian girl on the cover of a YA, it will not sell. And all too often the numbers back them up. I have seen covers that have NOTHING to do with the subject matter, even cautioned some librarians to cover the cover of one book because it sent a message opposite of the books message. But, books with those covers sell, and until we start looking beyond the cover and buying books with less than perfect cover models, publishing houses will continue to use them. We need to get out there and seek the books on topics we want, even if it means a less than pretty face on the cover.

      • Alissa permalink
        July 19, 2013

        Hi B.A. You make an excellent point about covers featuring Caucasian models. I find this to be the case even when the book’s characters are of another race. I’d really love to see more ethnic diversity in cover models. Granted, there ARE some gorgeous covers out there featuring ethnic models (Sara Beth Durst’s “Vessel” is one of my favorites), but I’m speaking of the majority. It’s not fair. Thank you for bringing this up.

        Also, I want to note that my favorite YA book has a positively hideous cover (no pretty or hunky models here). It even won a Printz a few years ago. And every single person I’ve ever recommended it to has loved it–despite the cover. So sometimes content does trump appearance. This makes me feel there’s hope.

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