Tag Archives: fat-friendly fiction

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.

The Challenge of Writing Fat-Friendly Fiction

Lynne Murray says:

I have a new novel called Bride of the Living Dead coming out from Pearlsong Press. Although this is a romantic comedy rather than a mystery like my Josephine Fuller, Sleuth of Size series, it led me to once again examine all the issues about writing fat friendly fiction.

The main thing I have found is that, as a category, fat friendly fiction doesn’t exist. The reason for that is plain and simple–books centering on fat, self-accepting characters have not (yet!) generated the kind of sales that make mainstream publishers sit up and take notice.

If an author’s aim is to solely to get books into the hands of those who already want fat heroes and heroines, then it’s important to face the reality that such a target audience has not yet become even a small niche market. Sadly, it’s more like a few ledges at the back of a couple of established niches such as cozy mysteries, romance, and humor.

Even publishers who offer novels (usually chick lit or romance) specifically aimed at plus-sized readers often do so with books that feature self-bashing women on perpetual diets and novels where the fat heroine must lose weight to get the guy, win the job or fit into the dress.

Genuinely fat-positive novels do pop up from time to time, and reading them is a rare pleasure. Writing them is still a radical act.

Stereotypes about fat characters arise because authors keep giving them limited roles to play. We all know the roles and the plots: The evil fat mastermind, whose craving for power is only exceeded by his craving for food. The miserable fat slob who is the butt of everyone’s jokes. The out-of-control glutton whose appetites can only be controlled with tranquilizer darts. The fat friend of the hero/heroine who only exists as a sidekick. The miserable fat loser who diets, becomes thin and finds happiness. That’s pretty much it. Let me know if I’ve missed any.

[Note from Debbie: Here is a superb post on fat stereotypes, and Lynne gave me a great moment to link to it.]

There is no reason why fat characters can’t inhabit any sort of story and play any kind of part and there are some stories that can only be told about fat heroines and heroes. These plotlines popped up when I started writing this stuff in the early 1990s. Some examples of stories that never get told because they didn’t match into the above stereotypes: One family member gets off the diet bandwagon and must stand up to those who remain true believers. A fat, female evil mastermind whom no one suspects because fat women are so uniformly ignored. Fat friend of hero/heroine whose story is so much more interesting that we move over and follow it instead.

Getting rid of the illusion that an eager market already exists for fat fiction is important to writers (such as myself) who are going to write about fat-positive characters anyway, goddammit. I firmly believe that that there are many readers who might be interested in such stories who don’t even know it yet, but there has to be a compelling reason to pick up the book–the story.

If the goal is to reach a broader audience it becomes doubly important for writers to think carefully about what kind of fiction they are writing aside from the fat positive aspect.

One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever received on novel writing was from long-dead writer, Jack Woodford, whose 1943 book Why Write a Novel? offered reams of obsolete advice and a couple of gems, such as: “Write what you read.”

Or to be even more brutally honest, “Don’t waste your time trying to write the sort of thing you never read.” This happens amazingly often when writers, in our innocent arrogance, pick up something in a genre we don’t know at all, and proclaim, “This is crap, I could do better than this.” Possibly so, but you’ll have a much easier time of it if it’s something you enjoy reading to begin with. In other words if all you ever read is science fiction, you’re probably not going to succeed writing romances, and vice versa. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many people waste years they could have saved if they followed Woodford’s advice.

For those of us who must dance on the edge of the cliff writing positive fat characters, it pays to know as much as possible about the sort of story they will be inhabiting and what other books in that genre can serve as inspiration.

I was reading 80% mysteries when I decided to write about a sleuth of size who doesn’t apologize. My role model in exploding stereotypes was the late, great Joseph Hansen. His 1970 detective novel Fade Out introduced Dave Brandstetter, a death claims investigator in a Los Angeles that Raymond Chandler would recognize. Surviving partner of a 20-year gay relationship, and as decent, capable and honorable as any detective who walked Chandler’s mean streets, Brandstetter is fully formed character. This article compares Hansen’s accomplishment to Michael Nava’s equally brilliant novels, but Hansen was the trailblazer.

In a wonderful essay in Dilys Winn’s collection Murder Ink (out of print but cheaply available used and well worth the purchase simply to read Hansen’s “Homosexuals: Universal Scapegoats” piece) Hansen describes how he set about to explode the stereotypes and what some reactions have been. He concludes:

I have changed a few hearts and minds.
When writers fall back on ugly stereotypes, they betray their trust and make an already tough life tougher still. Whether mysteries or not, honest novels allow us for an hour or two to escape the confines of our familiar selves and, in effect, become someone else. Rarely in life can we know a real human being as completely as we come to know good fictional characters. When a writer scrupulously models his characters on the way men and women really are, he opens to his readers the opportunity to widen and deepen their understanding of others and themselves, and this can only make the world a gentler place for us all.

Finding fat-positive fiction to read can be a challenge. At this point it’s essentially word of mouth. As I mentioned earlier, most books publishers don’t want to lose the dieting readers by emphasizing self-acceptance too loudly, so very often truly fat positive fiction comes from smaller presses, such as Pearlsong, which specializes in Health at Every Size literature. Other examples are Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Odelia Gray series from Midnight Ink and Andrew Fox’s work. Fox’s Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of Fat White Vampire were from Ballantine, and his latest, Good Humor Man is from Tachyon Publications.

Readers get the word out that book X, Y, or Z has a size-positive character. Readers share information on Amazon’s “listmania,” and on blog sites such as

Dangerously Curvy Novels: Abundant Heroines, All About Romance: Plus-Sized Heroines , and Paperback Diva: Plus-Sized Heroines

My own experience listening to readers of the Josephine Fuller series has ranged from touching reactions when people enjoyed the books to people being puzzled or disbelieving that such things as fat acceptance can even exist.

One woman at a readers’ group told me my Josephine Fuller character was “conceited” because she imagined that several men in Larger Than Death found her attractive. Clearly this was impossible, so it must be an arrogant delusion on her part.

But my favorite reaction was from a woman who told me, “I disagree with the idea that it’s okay to be fat, but I enjoyed the story anyway.” It’s a start.

Some people are still learning that positive stories about fat characters can be fun. As a writer it’s my goal to write such stories, as a reader, I’m always on the prowl for more of them to read.