In this week's douchey children's lit news, Aloha Publishers is catching heat for a picture book they'll be releasing in October called Maggie Goes on a Diet, written by Paul Kramer. Here's what the publisher tells us of the book's content, which is targeted at young children:
Maggie has so much potential that has been hiding under her extra weight. This inspiring story about a 14 year old who goes on a diet and is transformed from being overweight and insecure to a normal sized teen who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self image.
Where do you begin to unpack the problems with a book like this? Let's start with the cover, which shows a fat Maggie holding a too-small-for-her dress up to herself while she looks into a mirror at a skinnier Maggie. This image perpetuates the idea that hidden inside of every fat person is a skinny person waiting to get out (Tasha Fierce writes more on the "skinny girl in a fat body" trope here). The message behind this book is clearly telling young girls that they'll only be happy and "normal" if they're thin, AS IF THEY AREN'T FED THAT MESSAGE OFTEN ENOUGH ALREADY.
Shame on you, Paul Kramer. As someone who also wrote a children's book that takes on childhood bullying, you should know that the last thing any child who is already at risk of being teased needs is to be told that they're too fat to be "normal".
This book is unfortunate, and made more so by the fact that there are very few children's books that encourage fat-positivity. When I sat down to write this post, I wanted to create a list of books that counter the message presented in Maggie Goes on a Diet (cause rather than a diet, I'm pretty sure what Maggie could use a healthy dose of children's books that promote fat-positivity). I was sure that there would be plenty fat-friendly kids' books. Boy, was I wrong. Fat-positivity has yet to make a lot of headway in children's literature. Too often, fat characters that manage to make their way into children's books are demonized or seen as being lazy and obsessed with food.
Like I said, they're few and far between, but a few do exist. Rebecca Rabinowitz created a list of fat-positive children's books for Shapely Prose in 2008. Rabinowitz wrote, "I wish the list were longer, but these are, sadly, all the fatpol-friendly children's books I have found so far." Her list includes books like Hotter than a Hot Dog by Stephanie Calmenson, Begin at the Beginning by Amy Schwartz, and I Like Me by Nancy Carlson. Unfortunately, Begin at the Beginning, originally published in 1983, was re-illustrated and published in 2005 with a skinny character in place of the original main character, a fat girl artist. And then there's I Like Me, a super cute book about a young fat girl who likes her "round tummy," but, as Rabinowitz points out, "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.)" So even the too-short list of books that made Rabinowitz's list are potentially problematic.
But here's a fat-friendly book that was released after Rabinowitz put her list together: My Great Big Mamma by Olivier Ka (2009). This book tells the story of a young boy who doesn't like the fact that his big mamma is going on a diet: "She wouldn't be prettier. She'd be thinner, that's all. And less cuddly, and less soft." While there aren't any fat children for fat kids to identify with in this book, the child loves and sees absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that his mother is fat, which counters messages that children are given by reading books like Maggie Goes on a Diet.
Are there fat-friendly children's books that I missed? Please, let me know in the comment's section!
Speaking of fat acceptance, our Portland-based book club is going to spend this fall discussing books that take on fatphobia. We'll be reading Losing It: America's Obsession With Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It by Laura Fraser in September, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body by Susan Bordo in October, and in November we'll be discussing Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body by Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby. Find out more about our book clubs here.