Fat-Friendly Books for Children and Young Adults

Lynne Murray says:

The topic of fat friendly books for children came up about halfway through a recent (August 12th) call-in conversation with several Pearlsong Press authors. A reader, Ivan from New York, brought up the question, it’s at 33:18 on the mp3 recording at this link.

We all thought it was a great idea, although some of us knew more about the subject than others. My own conclusion was “someone (not me) should do this!” Children’s books require a particularly strong connection with one’s inner child. I think of Patricia Elmore, who has written several mysteries for children, when she spoke to our Mystery Writers of America chapter on this topic. She said that one of her books had a scene where a boy ate too much Halloween candy and threw up. Her editor wanted the episode removed, but she insisted on leaving it in and many young readers have since told her, “My favorite part was where he barfed.” Pat said that many of the things she loves in books are things grownups don’t get, but kids will love.

Fat friendly books for kids face special obstacles. Charlie Lovett,, who is both a teacher and a father, pointed out that children’s book buying is controlled by parents who usually drive the kids to the store and pay for the books. Young adults have their own money and more freedom to buy what they want when they want.

I started my search with a book that was fondly mentioned as a fat positive book for kids. National Public Radio commentator Daniel Pinkwater‘s Fat Camp Commandos.

In this book, the kids are forced to go to a fat camp and they break out of their summer diet prison and refuse to play the shaming game.

That was where I started the search and it ended pretty quickly, one book later with the sequel Fat Camp Commandos Go West. That was all I could initially find.

The fat camp subject brought home how, from a parent’s point of view, a child who is fat can be viewed as a problem to be solved. Also the most common method of dealing with a child is being teased or harassed is to urge weight loss. A fat child who tries to be okay with being fat, may be coerced by their parents into going to fat camp (as in the Pinkwater books) in a desperate attempt to protect their child by “fixing” the kid’s “weight problem.”

Unfortunately, providing another yo-yo diet experience, and in some cases even a chance for kids to learn bulimia and anorexia from fellow campers, solves no problems. No wonder people feel such affection for Pinkwater’s rebellious campers.

This Big Fat Blog post and the comments that follow provide an insight I hadn’t known–that fat camps can provide a kind of a refuge to escape from hazing and harassment and allow some space for recreation and hanging out with fat other kids.

But I digress.

Considering Charlie Lovett’s comment that parents are in charge of children’s book purchases, and that fat is such a source of pain for parents and children alike, it shouldn’t be surprising to find so little fat positive literature.

Teenaged readers have a little more control over their own reading material, and many if not most are looking for ways to cope with the deluge of media aimed at promoting only a certain kind of body as the ticket to social success.

A fat positive book for teens that came up in our Pearlsong Conversation was Cherie Bennett’s Life in the Fat Lane. Aimed at “grades 8 and up” it addresses teenaged readers.

As described on Bennett’s website:

Lara Ardeche has it all. Homecoming queen as a junior, great looks, and awesome boyfriend, and you can’t even hate her because she’s so…nice. Then, she starts gaining weight. A lot of weight. Uncontrollably. And soon, [she] is living life in the fat lane.

Bennett’s heroine finds her way to accepting a new identity, not as “Miss Perfect” but as herself without any magical weight loss.

Also fondly remembered was Susan Stinson‘s Fat Girl Dances with Rocks a 1994 book with a teenaged heroine.

The Booklist review stretches to describe Stinson’s poetical creation:

Fat 17-year-old Char gropes her way to happiness and self-identity via diets, pop rock, complicated dance moves, and pot while deciding whether she’s animal, vegetable, or mineral. Her long-standing best friend, Felice Ventura, a former fat girl herself, now studies Vogue and Cosmo with an attention she gives no academic subject, save geology. Char looks up to Felice, who has a flair for cosmetics, hairdos, and shoplifting, but is confused when her friend kisses her on the lips, then abruptly leaves town until fall. As Char spends her seventeenth summer working in a nursing home, her perceptions broaden to take in beauty’s myriad forms and manifestations–the meditative stride of an elderly inpatient, the convolutions of a wrinkled hand, folds of swollen flesh, an eagerly awaited letter. When she visits Felice in the desert, the inevitable coupling finally takes place. Shortly after, the earth really does move, but it’s the result of secret underground bomb tests rather than a pledge of undying love. A bittersweet story of teen love. Whitney Scott

Neither of these books aimed at teens gathered any, “If you liked this fat-friendly book, you’ll love this other book” recommendations that I could find, yet word of mouth is still the most reliable way to find these books.

Fortunately, one children’s book reviewer, Rebecca Rabinowitz,
posted a review on The Rotund blog on May 27, 2008 about fatphobia in children’s books, which led to a wonderful two-part guest post on the Shapely Prose blog about fat positive books she has found–starting on September 3 and concluding September 4, 2008.

The way that Rabinowitz breaks down the categories of what she calls fat politics-friendly books: (1) picture books; and (2) middle grade and young adult books, gives you a sense of the scarcity of such positive 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.

The comments are also useful because readers suggest some of their own favorites.

Finding body positive books for children and young adults seems to be very much like panning for gold. The nuggets are far and few between, but worth the search when you find them.

18 thoughts on “Fat-Friendly Books for Children and Young Adults

  1. My Great Big Mamma by Oliver Ka is a new picture book that seems pretty positive. A child talks about how much they enjoy cuddling with their mom and objects to her idea of going on a diet.

  2. Thanks for the work and research. I am seeing an increase of pings on the internet radar of positive HAES friendly stuff targeted at kids. I am actually feeling a little hopeful about smart responsible adults recognizing the soul crushing aspects of fat hate speech and its effects on kids. I was challenged on the call to think about writing something and have been walking around brainstorming stories that would have made me feel good when I was a fat kid. ( I kinda still am one)



  3. I read the excerpt from Fat Camp Commandoes and I discovered that shredded carrots with raisins is a diet food. Oh no! I like shredded carrots with raisins. But I guess they don’t count if they have oil-and-vinegar salad dressing on them.

  4. Also by Daniel M. Pinkwater is “Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars”

    Main character is a boy who describes himself as “portly” and who has adventures with the title character that empower him to stand up to the bullies.

  5. Daniel Pinkwater himself weighs around 400 pounds & has been fat his entire life, & many of us book feature some very positive fat characters. In most of them, these characters are just kids with lives, friends, families, adventures (though, since they are Pinkwater kids, they are likely to be unique, quirky, & often have some rather strange, different families) who happen to be fat. Not all of his books feature fat kids…or even specifically say a lot about the body sizes of his protagonists, but he has written well over 80 books for young people, & probably the majority of them have some fat characters, who are always portrayed as normal, fully-developed human beings. It is part of why Pinkwater is among my favorite writers. I was in touch with Pinkwater by email, btw, about the Fat Camp Commando books & asked him if there would be any more in the series; he said that he originally intended for there to be, but there was too much hassle getting them published.

    For little people, I bought my granddaughter a lovely little book called “I Like Me’ by Nancy Carlson, which features a round little girl pig talking about all the reasons why she loves & appreciates herself, including her round body. It is aimed at children between 3 & 8 or so, but it is very body positive & affirming.

    I love children’s books & read more of them than adult novels, aside from some mysteries & the Terry Pratchett Discworld series. I wish that I could find more books with good fat characters. I love the gothic mystery/thrillers which were written first by John Bellairs, & have been continued by Brad Strickland. I love the characters of Lewis Barnavelt & his Uncle Jonathan, both of whom are fat & very loveable, positive characters. Unfortunately, some stereotypes are still in force here…that Lewis gets out of breath easily, is no good at sports, etc., even though the books show him & his uncle walking all over town, including up the steep hill where they live, & Lewis takes long bike rides with his best friend, a skinny, geeky girl with glasses who IS good at sports. Lewis loves to read & loves to eat, but so does his skinny friend, Rose Rita. And these characters (Jonathan & his best friend, an old woman named Florence Zimmerman, are witches/wizards), all four of them together, face evil forces, bad wizards & demons, & save the world over & over again. The books are excellent, the characters are wonderful, but I do wish that there were a more enlightened attitude about fat people/food/fitness, etc.

  6. As soon as I read the intro to this post I was going to mention Life in the Fat Lane. I picked it up in Melbourne a few years back at a book store sale and LOVED it.

    I love books aimed at teens, and I wish there were more fat positive ones. I remember reading “Jeanne Up and Down.” and being HORRIFIED. The heroine had an obvious eating disorder, and loses loads of weight befor eher body gives her a hearty “Fuck you” and stops losing. But then she has real acceptance! All of her problems are solved because she is SKINNY now. Maybe not as skinny as she wanted to be, but now she’s not binging anymore! Those wacky binges, where she would eat, get this, a SANDWICH.

    Sorry, mini rant there. That book really upset me.

  7. Wow this is a great article. When I search for fat friendly books I have never really considered books for children for many of the reasons listed in this article. Having been a big girl all my life I would have loved to read books like these and probably would have read more as a child with books that realted to me.

  8. Hi everyone.
    I’ve been doing my best to grow a list of stereotype free children’s books at http://betterstories.wikidot.com/ . I’ve taken a very definite line on what I’m looking for here – which is books in which stereotype doesn’t feature or books in which (even better) stereotype is challenged – but avoiding books *about* stereotype (reasons explained on the site). I’d wanted this to become something that lots of people contributed to, but never managed to get this off the ground (still hoping). Therefore it’s a pretty short list – although I’d like to think valuable nonetheless. It would make me very happy if any of you who know of ‘fat friendly’ children’s books could review these and add them on the site (it’s a wiki – you can edit it directly – it might be good to read the FAQ first). Please also let me have comments about whether the site does something useful (or not) – there’s a forum on the site for this purpose.

  9. Angela, thanks for mentioning My Great Big Mamma, I’ll have to check that one out.

    nycivan, thanks for bringing up the question that started this discussion–which has been surprising and fascinating. It reminded me about my own inner fat kid! I hope you do write those stories!

    meerkat, liz and Patsy, the more I hear about Pinkwater, the more I want to read all his stuff. Someone sent me some of his essays including a wonderful one he wrote about how his huge Maine Coon cat is a force of nature–funny and yet accurate! Re Terry Pratchett, Patsy, you’re right, everything he writes has characters of all sizes and is body positive. Some is aimed at younger readers, but all the books he’s written (most of which I own already) would work for kids or adults!

    Anna, I hear you. Life in the Fat Lane was great, especially (I hope) for fat teens. And ranting when you encounter a book pretending to promote HAES by showing how the heroine’s problems are resolved by losing only SOME weight, as opposed to her target, are froth-at-the-mouth-appropriate rant material in my humble opinion! I particularly hate spreading such a poisonous message to teenagers as a sort of welcome to a life of yo-yo dieting. I share your horrification!

    Dee Dee, thanks for the kind words. Like a lot of kids growing up fat I just skated over body descriptions in books I read so as to put myself into the story, but I think there was a lot less overt fat bashing in kids’ books when I was growing up in the 1950s.

    Robert, that’s a good resource you’ve put together. I hope you get more additions and I’ll link to it when the subject comes up again–which I suspect it will!

    @terryvanhorn, thanks for the twitter link–still learning about twitter–LOL!

    Cereus Sphinx, thanks for letting us know about A Fistful of Sky, I love books where the heroine or hero is fat, young readers need those books–we all do!

  10. P.S. I just found this link to recent books for teens with plus-sized heroines and heroes

    I didn’t follow all the links off the page, but, Good Morning Baltimore, this one was cool!

  11. WOW…. I think this is just amazing that we can have a earnest discussion and in just a few weeks the internet delivers all this amazing information.. Now, the LA Times!!! How great. Even though the fat hating administrators would oppose it, wouldn’t it be great if we can get the guidance counselors, librarians and the english teachers to see the incredible value of bringing this inclusive diversity into the classrooms. We might be able to make a significant impact on the self image of our little fat brothers and sisters who desperately need to hear these voices.

  12. What’s even better is that article you found in the latimes has been picked up by papers all over the country. Which means more see read and begin to think. I even shared the article on twitter and facebooks gotta spread the word.

  13. nycivan and Dee-Dee, I totally agree!

    Ivan, reaching the adults who work with kids can make a tremendous positive impact. I’ve heard from therapists that when a child is suffering and isolated, sometimes just one adult validating that child can make a difference, sending the message, “You are valuable, and you can get through this and things will get better.” The more buzz about books like these, the more people read them, buy them, and librarians, counselors and educators use them as resources–the more publishers will make them available.

    Sometimes it seems like an overwhelming task, waking up one person at a time to the idea of respecting and valuing fat kids and adults JUST AS THEY ARE–with no shaming, put-downs or demands to lose weight in order to be accepted or loved. I know that getting the word out on the net offers a resource to help people who are searching for size-positive books.

    Dee-Dee, thanks for twittering! That is so cool about the LATimes article picked up by other newspapers! Getting the word out is the name of the game.

  14. I’m late to the conversation, but wanted to say how delighted it makes me to have Fat Girl Dances With Rocks showing up in this post. It’s a book that came out of life experience, fat politics and feminism, and so warms my heart to think of it speaking to teenagers.

  15. Hi Susan, I’m a major fan of all your work! One thing I noticed about Fat Girl Dances With Rocks is how many people remember it fondly as empowering when they first read it, and now how many others are just discovering it! When a book is still going strong inspiring and comforting people, it is truly wonderful. Lynne

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