The Ideology Of Persistence In Children’s Literature

persistence

If you work hard you will find success. Persistence leads to success is a comforting truism, because we feel the future is under our own control. Work hard, you win.

An episode of a Freakonomics podcast provides a strong, economically sound argument for sometimes giving up.  But you’ll be hard pressed to find a book for which encourages quitting. When a child character quits a sports team or skips out on piano, it will probably be because they’ve replaced their parents’ dream with another hobby of their own. Quitting to hang out on the corner? Hard to find that in a non-tragic story.

This is a ‘truism’ because it contains an element of truth. Modern parenting and teaching gurus have spread the message that we should praise children not for being smart but for trying hard, moving away from ‘talent’ mindset into ‘growth’ mindset. Becky is good at math because she worked hard. Johnny knows all the characters of Harry Potter not because he has a superlative memory but because he’s read the complete series three times.  That’s ‘growth mindset’.

This generation of parents has also been exposed to Malcolm Gladwell’s principle: 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to mastery. According to this theory, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Though the number 10,000 has since been shown to be limited to certain skills with stable structures, the thinking behind it rings true; you, too, can master a complex skill if you put in sufficient time and effort.

This ideology is especially strong in Japanese narrative. In the Hayao Miyazaki animated film Spirited Away, the child hero Chihiro gets locked inside a fantasy theme park world and must save her parents from ending their days as bacon by… you guessed it: working hard.

In the West there is no shortage of gritty fictional kids.

PERSISTENCE IN PICTURE BOOKS
  • The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper   This is the ultimate persistence picture book, known to many of us. It has even entered popular vernacular as a shorthand trope for believing in yourself:
    So how do you overcome the parasympathetic nervous system? Is it as simple as just being like the Little Engine and saying, “I think I can”? No, although that doesn’t hurt. Saying something doesn’t mean you believe it, and frankly, your brain has no reason to trust you. You need to convince your brain that it is safe.
    The Science Behind Why “I Think I Can” Actually Works This from a Goodreads reviewer: “The lesson of this book isn’t perseverance, it’s that 3/4 of people you meet will leave you to die on the side of the road. An important lesson, sure, but I think I’d rather wait until at least kindergarten before I start teaching my son that.”
Little Engine That Could persistence
“I am a persistent person,” says man, citing evidence.
  • The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss A boy plants a carrot seed. Throughout the story various people tell him the seed won’t grow, but the boy never gives up. Another picture book using a garden as a metaphor for patience is The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. A little boy works hard to grow a lush, green garden only to find out the winter snow has ruined most of it. But he doesn’t get discouraged and, together with some neighbors, works hard to make it green again.
  • Brave Irene by William Steig This is basically a mythological hero(ine) in picture book format Irene Bobbin has to brave snowy, stormy weather to deliver a ballgown. She meets lots of obstacles on the way but doesn’t give up. She is rewarded at the end with kindness, a hot meal and personal satisfaction.
  • Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems  Elephant and Piggie meet a new friend, Snake, who wants to play catch with them. Snake has no arms. The characters never give up on trying to find a solution to include Snake.
  • How To Catch A Star by Oliver Jeffers A boy really wants to catch a (highly metaphorical) star. He comes up with all kinds of ways to try to catch one, but none of the ideas seem to work. He doesn’t give up. The message is pretty clear with the text: “But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” He gets his star, though in a humorous, ironic twist, it might just be a washed-up dead starfish. This saves the story from being 100 per cent sap.
  •  Stuck by the same author is also a story about persistence. Oliver Jeffers’ persistent boys are a running theme in his picture books.
  • This Moose Belongs To Me could be the ultimate anti-rape culture book in the right hands.
  • Ruby’s Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges  Ruby, the main character, is determined to go to college when she’s older instead of getting married and staying home as is the normal tradition of her family.
  • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires  A girl sets out to make the most magnificent thing, assuming it will be easy. She knows exactly how it will work; all she has to do is make it. But making this most magnificent thing turns out to be anything but easy and she tries and fails repeatedly. Eventually, she gets really mad and decides to quit. But after her dog convinces her to take a walk, the girl comes back to her project with a new perspective and manages to get it just right. We have the full range of emotions in here. The journey towards death is perhaps overkill when it comes to picture books, but in storytelling speak, the near death experience is ‘almost gave up’.
  • Salt In His Shoes by Deloris Jordan & Roslyn M. Jordan A biography of Michael Jordan, as written by his mother and sister. Message being: Never give up and you too can be a great athlete. Though you’ll find this on lists of ‘picturebooks about perseverance’, there’s a hefty dose of magical thinking in there, too. Michael feels the reason he isn’t very good at basketball is because he’s short. His mother suggests he put salt in his shoes and say a prayer to help him grow. This is apparently why he grew. (Around age 8 I prayed every night to become tall, too. Didn’t work for me.)
  • Luigi and the Barefoot Races by Dan Paley Another story about sport and perseverance, though this one is fictional. This is not about an underdog trying to beat the fast kid but about the fast kid being pressured from below by a contender. Kids who are great at sport are thereby catered for in picture book world.
  • Matthew’s Dream by Leo Lionni A mouse dreams of becoming an artist when he grows up. He works hard to fulfil his dream and ends up displaying a painting in a museum.
  • A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams Rosa, her mother, and her grandmother save up coins to buy a chair after their furniture is destroyed in a fire.
  • Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats A boy really wants to whistle. He tries really hard and eventually whistles to his dog.
  • Ready, Set, Skip! by Jane O’Connor is another book about mastering a particular skill.
  • Froggy Rides a Bike by Jonathan London Whistling, skipping, riding bikes… these are all childhood skills where parents first realise whether they’ve got a naturally persevering child or not.
  • Betty Bunny Wants A Goal by Michael Kaplan When kids get a bit older, sports is a good way to learn perseverance, so long as the child is the competitive type.
  • Stickley Sticks To It! A Frog’s Guide To Getting Things Done by Brenda S. Miles A picture book with an overt didactic purpose in the title, probably purchased by parents who know their kids need to hear the lesson.
  • The Pout-Pout Fish Goes To School by Deborah Diesen This going-to-school book underscores the message that school requires hard work you won’t necessarily magically learn how to read. (Though some kids seem to.)
  • Flight School by Lita Judge It’s easy to exhaust the skills that need to be mastered by toddlers and young kids (at least, the interesting ones) but there’s a whole other list of skills to be mastered once we turn to the animal kingdom. In this story a little penguin is determined to fly. The bird-literature reader knows that penguins can’t actually fly. The ending is similar to what Oliver Jeffers did in How To Catch A Star when the dream is impossible, the writer can modify the ending so the kid character still gets what they want, albeit modified. This penguin learns to fly with a little help from technology. The front cover shows him with feathers tied onto his little wings, somewhat ruining the denouement. You Can Do It, Bert is a similar book but features a nervous bird who can actually fly. He’s just a little anxious.

A commonality in the best of these picture books is that the main character goes through a range of emotions: disappointment, fear, frustration and satisfaction. Sometimes elation. The model children manage their emotions, keeping them in check at all times. Comedic characters might have a hissy fit at some point. Comedic characters are relatable, and they’re funny because of that.

A lot of these main characters are anxious types. According to my kid’s paediatrician, ten per cent of children fit the criteria for anxiety, and it’s worth pointing out that ‘reluctance to try something’ or ‘reluctance to try again’ correlates with anxiety.

The most contemporary of these books sometimes star highly imperfect child characters. Older style stories seem more likely to set these kids on a character arc where they turn out better at the end. This makes the older books seem more didactic. There is a movement against overt didacticism at the moment, though I do notice that didacticism is just fine if the book is also very funny.

PERSEVERANCE AND MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS

By the time readers are into middle grade books, there isn’t much difference between middle grade and adult character arc in any good story the main character needs to be one of the following:

  1. Active
  2. Actively Passive

What does it mean to be ‘actively passive’? This is when the character has received the Call To Adventure but goes out of their way to avoid getting involved. That in itself is doing something.

A typical pattern involves:

  1. a reluctant main character who wants things to stay basically the same
  2. something happens a problem, a spanner in the works
  3. character resists change but is forced to get involved anyway
  4. at some point in the story (often around the mid point) the character buckles down, deciding that this journey they’re on needs to be seen through to the end.

If that’s not a ‘perseverance’ character arc, I don’t know what is. Perseverance ‘perseveres’ throughout stories for all ages.

PERSEVERANCE AND YOUNG ADULT BOOKS

“There’s a lesson in real-life stalking cases that young women can benefit from learning: persistence only proves persistence—it does not prove love. The fact that a romantic pursuer is relentless doesn’t mean you are special—it means he is troubled.” 

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
PERSISTENCE AS PROBLEMATIC ROMANCE TROPE

In Hollywood films for adults there is a recent history of stories which rewards men for persistence in the pursuit of romance:

If a man in a movie researches a woman’s schedule, finds out where she lives and works, even goes to her work uninvited, it shows his commitment, proves his love. When Robert Redford does this to Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, it’s adorable. But when she shows up at his work unannounced, interrupting a business lunch, it’s alarming and disruptive.

If a man in the movies wants a sexual encounter or applies persistence, he’s a regular, everyday guy, but if a woman does the same thing, she’s a maniac or a killer. Just recall Fatal Attraction. The King of Comedy, Single White Female, Play Misty for Me, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and Basic Instinct. When the men pursue, they usually get the girl. When the women pursue, they usually get killed.

Popular movies may be reflections of society or designers of society depending on whom you ask, but either way, they model behaviour for us. During the early stages of pursuit situations in movies and too often in life the woman is watching and waiting, fitting in to the expectations of an overly invested man. She isn’t heard or recognized; she is the screen upon which the man projects his needs and his idea of what she should be [I call this the Pygmalion Principle of storytelling, in which a woman is moulded into a full human being only by [her relationship with] a man).

The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker

The films listed by de Becker are well-known problematic storylines but we see it too in more recent stories. When a woman stalks a man, she is rarely rewarded for it.

Ghost World is a 2001 film based on a graphic novel. But our main female character is pretty far from ‘adorable’. Enid is snarky, sarcastic and self-destructive. Every time someone offers her an opportunity to succeed, she sabotages it. In a Pigman type storyline (harking back to the Paul Zindel novel from the 1970s), Enid and her friend start stalking a vulnerable man for kicks. While she ‘gets the guy’, suggesting her stalking persistence has paid off, the viewer can see that playing wifey to this much older loser is not in Enid’s best interests. She ends up leaving town. In his review, Roger Ebert nevertheless calls this a happy ending:

The movie sidesteps the happy ending Hollywood executives think lobotomized audiences need as an all-clear to leave the theater. Clowes and Zwigoff find an ending that is more poetic, more true to the tradition of the classic short story, in which a minor character finds closure that symbolizes the next step for everyone. “Ghost World” is smart enough to know that Enid and Seymour can’t solve their lives in a week or two. But their meeting has blasted them out of lethargy, and now movement is possible. Who says that isn’t a happy ending?

Roger Ebert
The Notebook

The Notebook based on a Nicholas Sparks ‘love tragedy’ is a classic example of a man who won’t take no for an answer. It is so irritating to watch his obsession rewarded as the film progresses. Bear in mind that Noah has already asked Allie, “Do you wanna dance with me?” “No,” she says. “Why not?” The boy with Allie with steps in and says, “She’s with us,” (because he knows that other men only listen to men), but still Noah won’t take Allie’s clear no for an answer. Noah has been taught that persistence pays off, even if it means ignoring a woman’s feelings altogether. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8ldUWIruvs

Even people who dissect romantic stories pointing out all their plot problems tend to skip over the biggest problem  of all.

TURNING 20: HOW AN ICONIC ’90S FILM NORMALIZED STALKING regarding There’s Something About Mary, from Bitch Media.

Groundhog Day

Pop Culture Detective pinpoints Groundhog Day as the ultimate example of creepy stalking and also uses a bunch of other Hollywood movies as examples. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=185&v=rZ1MPc5HG_I

Ratatouille

Showing men kissing women against their will hurts kids and leads to date rape. Folks, in Ratatouille, there are THREE females – two characters and one bridal caketopper – that are kissed against their will. Each of these is presented as humorous or romantic.  Are you kidding me? When kids see these images, 1) they learn that when girls say no, it is romantic or funny to kiss them anyway, which can lead directly to date rape. 2) Girls learn that what they want or say is not important, and that what a guy really wants is for them to put up a half-hearted fight and then submit.  Is this really what you want to be teaching? I fervently hope that Ratatouille is the last time we will ever see that kind of thing in a Pixar movie.

Bitch Flicks
Twilight

Famously in Twilight, Edward Cullen is so persistent he ends up creepily stalking Bella in her actual bedroom, watching her as she sleeps. This is nothing if not persistence. According to the setting, Edward has some kind of animal instinct and can’t help himself. (Plain old persistence by another explanation.)
 

Ready Player One

I’ve noticed Ready Player One called out for problematic stalky tropes on Twitter.
 

Bollywood Films In General

College student Shakti Singh, 20, said he would like a girlfriend but has no clue how to get one.

With little help from their conservative parents but with easy access to the Internet, he and his friends model their behaviour on the swains in Bollywood romance movies. The genre — often with a hero who breaks down a woman’s reluctance — has been criticized for glorifying stalking and rape.

“There is a lot of effect from movies,” Singh said. “Even though the girl says no he continues chasing her, and she still says no. But in the end he gets the girl.”

Now multiply that impression by the several million unattached young men watching these movies nationwide. The state recently launched a program to curtail these misguided “Romeos,” with special police squads to patrol shopping malls, college campuses and bus stands where chronic harassers gather.

“I won’t tease in the village. I will get beaten up. But outside I do,” boasted Lal Singh, a field worker, 31.

Too Many Men, Washington Post

PERSISTENCE CALLED OUT

Disney/Pixar really does have a speckled history of getting things really right and other things spectacularly wrong. That’s because although the funding all comes from the same corporation, the ideologies of writers differ quite a lot.
 
Sometimes Disney writers are able to see through the persistence-as-romance bullshit. The writers of Disney’s Hercules (1997) did a great job with Megara’s dialogue in this scene:
 

Megara Rape Culture Hercules

 
Writers Ron Clements and John Musker were making a parody of a Greek tragedy, and to modernise it without the film being completely misogynistic and violent and so on they had no choice but to make the characters more modern and woke. This is how the film begins:

Long ago, in the faraway land of ancient Greece…
there was a golden age of powerful gods…
and extraordinary heroes.
And the greatest and strongest of all these heroes…
was the mighty Hercules.
But what is the measure of a true hero?
Ah, that is what our story is…
Will you listen to him?
He’s makin’ the story sound like some Greek tragedy.
Lighten up, dude.
We’ll take it from here, darling.
You go, girl.
We are the muses…
goddesses of the arts and proclaimers of heroes.
Heroes like Hercules.

Norsemen (2016)

Norsemen is a Netflix series for adults.

The tides may be turning on the ideology of persistence in fiction, at least in certain genres. The pilot (“Homecoming”) episode of this Norwegian comedy features a great scene in which a man clearly about to die (it’s no real spoiler to say that he does die) is told by his nonchalant wife that if he only thinks outside the box and tries his best he will survive.

For an alternative take on the persevere at all costs mentality, take a look at discussions in AD/HD world: The Empowering Effect Of No Longer Denying Your Limitations.

WHY DARCY IS SUCH A SWOONWORTHY CHARACTER

Persistence in Pride and Prejudice

Ideology Of Psychotropic Drugs In Children’s Literature

What are psychotropic drugs?

Psychotropic drugs include:

  • Antipsychotics (used in the treatment of schizophrenia and mania)
  • Anti-depressants (tricyclics, SSRIs, MAOIs etc.)
  • Anti-obsessive Agents
  • Anti-anxiety Agents
  • Anti-panic Agents
  • Stimulants (used in the treatment of AD/HD)

Mental health remains highly stigmatized. While adults who need blood thinners, cholesterol-lowering medication and insulin can take their drugs without fear of judgement, making the decision to drug your child with psychotropic drugs is considered controversial.

What does this all have to do with children’s literature? Surely writers are steering clear of the topic. When was the last time you read a best-seller that said anything at all about your child’s AD/HD medication, for instance.

The Incorrect, Dominant Ideology Of AD/HD Drugs In Children’s Literature

Goes something like this:

When children are given AD/HD drugs they lose their creativity along with the very thing that makes them kids. ADHD drugs, if anything, *enhance* creativity by allowing the child some much-wanted brakes on the frontal cortex. The mistaken idea that ADHD drugs take away the wonderful things about ADHD kids mean that, especially in this country (Australia), ADHD drugs are less likely to end up where they’re needed.

There’s also this idea that AD/HD is what can happen to any of us if we’re not careful to exercise our brains, for example by reading long books. Here’s an example of that assumption, this time from an interview (with Ray Bradbury) in The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think you prefer short stories to novels? Is it an issue of patience? They call it attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder these days.

The Paris Review

In fact AD/HD is a matter of different brain wiring. No one is correctly calling ‘short attention span’ attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. This idea goes completely unchallenged in The Paris Review literary magazine.

When it comes to children’s literature, there is also a fetishization of The Natural. This is seen in ‘country kids are  more wholesome than city kids’, and extends (of course) to what adults are putting into their children’s bodies:

The wholesome fictional child eats natural, home-cooked, home-grown food, with eggs collected by hand-raised hens. The wholesome fictional child is naturally exuberant and energetic and should never be given chemicals in a capsule to dampen their wonderfully childlike spirit.

Related to that:

Children are naturally energetic. Many AD/HD children move a lot. Therefore, AD/HD children are the epitome of childlike and should be allowed to continue as they are.

An unchallenged assumption:

AD/HD children are always happy to be AD/HD and would not change a single thing about themselves, including the option to put some chemically induced brakes on their oftentimes embarrassing and humiliating impulsivity.

Commentary On Psychotropic Drugs In Dog Man by Dav Pilkey (2016)

Dog Man includes commentary on psychotropic drugs



Dog Man is a comic by Dav Pilkey (of Captain Underpants fame) who is now writing and illustrating a comic series ostensibly created by his young heroes of Captain Underpants.

Even fun books like this can’t avoid serious ideas at their core. Jokers have to make fun of something, in other words. Who’s going to be the butt? Mostly it’s actual butts, and a whole bunch of dog related jokes, which are safe.

On one page there is a note home from Ms Construde, to Mr and Mrs Beard informing George’s parents of his disruptive behaviour in class. Inspired by Dav Pilkey’s own experience of school, these boy characters are constantly in trouble for drawing comics in class when they should be working on assigned projects. Near the end of this letter it says:

We … believe that you should consider psychological counselling for your son, or at the very least some kind of behaviour modification drug to cure his ‘creative streak’.

By making this joke the teacher obviously oversteps her boundaries. Teachers should not be asking parents to put their children on drugs. This encourages us to dislike Ms Construde. This is evidence of how much this teacher dislikes creative children. She prefers conformist kids.

More problematically: the reader is at no point encouraged to criticise the teacher’s understanding of the drugs themselves. This spreads a widely misunderstood idea about what stimulant medication does for a child with genuine AD/HD. (A separate issue entirely: in some parts of the world children are being misdiagnosed and wrongly medicated.)

The AD/HD Calvin And Hobbes Meme

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon which shows the same ideology. Watterson himself did not draw it, but the ‘fake ending’ is widely known across the Internet and is as influential as any of Watterson’s own strips.

Because this cartoon punctuates the end of an era, it really does feel like the saddest thing ever. The ideology is clear: When Calvin is given drugs (a clear reference to AD/HD medication):

  • He loses his imagination.
  • The world seems less colourful.
  • Calvin, as well as his toy, is now less of a human being and more robotic.

This is simply not how AD/HD drugs work. AD/HD medications stimulate an underactive part of the brain. They take nothing away from the person taking them.

Let’s say Calvin is AD/HD. He’s been through an extensive battery of tests conducted by numerous professionals, he’s had a psychologist come to his classroom to observe his behaviour, and he has his medication adjusted every six months by an experienced pediatrician to check he’s still on the best dose for him. This is the reality of AD/HD medication, at least in Austrlia.

Here’s the first thing that would happen: He would indeed be less interesting as a fictional character, mostly because he’d avoid trouble with authority figures. Less conflict means less drama.

If Calvin were a real boy, however, he would also:

  • Be more likely to continue his schooling, and his level of education would more closely match his innate abilities
  • Be less likely to take street drugs in his teen years
  • Be less likely to attempt suicide
  • Be less likelihood of depression
  • Have more real world friends
  • Have higher self-esteem

He may replace his imaginary tiger with a real world friend, but his power of imagination would remain intact. Instead of quitting his most imaginative projects before he’s seen them through, he would be more likely to produce something of value in the world, gaining intrinsic rewards from doing something the neurotypical population takes for granted — finishing something hard and frustrating.

psychotropic drugs calvin and hobbes

AD/HD Characters Here, There And Everywhere

Children’s literature is chock full of potential AD/HD heroes and heroines. Very few of them are drugged, and rightly so.

I believe Anne Shirley can be read as AD/HD, for example. Anne Shirley is older than the medications themselves.

In modern stories, with Anne Shirley as the grandmother, AD/HD type behaviours are seen more frequently in children’s book protagonists than in the real population. AD/HD is great for storytelling:

  1. AD/HD kids are proactive. They’re never passive. They will be the kid to get the party started (or the house fire). They aren’t sitting around waiting to be Called To Adventure.
  2. AD/HD kids are in constant conflict, not only with authority figures but also with peers and siblings. You know the only thing that benefits hugely from plenty of conflict? Popular fiction.
  3. AD/HD kids are often very smart, articulate and quirky. This makes for great dialogue and also means that however much of a problem they are for ‘bad’ teachers, they tend to be beloved by ‘good’ teachers, who can see beyond their impulsivity and hyperactivity to the smart kid they are. There’s nothing like an AD/HD student to sort out the Trunchbulls from the Miss Honeys. AD/HD kids therefore allow a writer to write in a more black and white fashion.
  4. AD/HD kids cycle quickly between highs and lows, making for quick and interesting changes in emotional tone.

Without wanting to spread the idea that normal childlike behaviour must be AD/HD, good candidates for different brain wiring include a lot of the girls from chapter books and middle grade series, including:

The same behaviours in boys are often read as ‘typically boyish’ and we’re also in the age of the ‘white every boy’ insofar as middle grade boy heroes go. However, my AD/HD daughter is a huge fan of Diary of a Wimpy Kid* and she says Fregley and Rowley may be AD/HD. (I say ASD for Fregley — it’s impossible to draw a line sometimes, and very common to be both.)

*Without her life-changing AD/HD medications, my daughter may not sat still long enough to read a single book let alone an entire series. There’s a very good reason why these fictional children are not given drugs. Indeed, drugs are not even mentioned. They make for more interesting fictional characters when their young lives are in turmoil.

The Modern Challenge For Authors And Publishers Of Children’s Literature

  • AD/HD children who themselves take medications need to see themselves reflected in the stories they read. It seems as though no one else out there in children’s book world takes drugs. The diversity movement needs to include on-the-page neurodiversity and on-the-page drug taking.
  • Young AD/HD readers are also entitled to an accurate depiction of their very real-world drugs. We are not seeing that.

The Ideology Of Fatness In Children’s Stories

Here’s a list of all the times I have felt like a fat female character was depicted + portrayed accurately in three decades of watching:

HAIRSPRAY
MY MAD FAT DIARY
YOU’RE THE WORST
SHRILL …this show is A LOT for me, pals!!!

Kate Hagen

FATPHOBIA AND THE DEPICTION OF FAT KIDS AS BULLIES

A fat bully character in a book implies that fatness is connected to bullying—because our culture already has that stereotype entrenched. A fat bully character in an individual book invokes the culture in which it exists, and brings all that to bear. Can’t help but.

diceytillerman
fatness blubber fatphobia

FATNESS AS CODE FOR GREEDY AND LAZY AND MORALLY CORRUPT

Rebecca Rabinowitz recently wrote a wonderful piece called, “Who’s that Fat Kid? Fat Politics and Children’s Literature” for the Children’s Book Council Diversity Blog. In it, she critiques the stereotypes and tropes of fat children in children’s literature: as either bully (ie. Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter Books) or a victim of bullying (ie. Judy Blume’s classic Blubber). Fatness often becomes code in children’s literature for gluttony, greed or other moral failings — just consider Augustus Gloop from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the Oompa-Loompa song says it all: “Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop! The great big greedy nincompoop! Augustus Gloop! So Big and Vile! So greedy, foul, and infantile.”

From the Mixed Up Files

FATPHOBIA AND CONCERN TROLLING ABOUT HEALTH

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy by Bil Wright  is one example.

FATPHOBIA AND GENDER

Here’s a question for writers: How are you introducing your characters? Do you introduce female characters differently from how you introduce male characters?

Here’s an example from a New Zealand author from the 1980s and 90s — one of the main authors studied  in schools during that era. It’s from My Summer of The Lions by William Taylor. Our 13-year-old male protagonist meets his Samoan friend’s parents.  First, the mother:

Mrs Tulisi sailed towards me […] She did sail. She wore a long frock and seemed about fifteen feet tall with all her hair piled up in something like a crown on top of her.

Next, the father appears.

Mr Tulisi, the Reverend, appeared from behind his wife. It would be nice to say they made a good pair but they didn’t. He was as little as she was big. I had sometimes thought that there would be a horrible mess if she mistook him for a cushion, shook him, planted him down and then sat on him.

Later on, a female peer (later on, a love interest) is introduced. She has brought round a tin of baking.

‘Anyone ever tell you you’re a right pain, Sharon-Mary? I said. ‘Sit down if you want to.’ […] Sharon-Mary looked at me for a moment. She had brown eyes, a load of freckles and nearly as much dark red hair as Mrs Tulisi had black. She was short, sort of roundish and not quite plump. Very busy was Sharon-Mary. All the time. She had a face that laughed and smiled a lot. It wasn’t laughing or smiling now […] “make my coffee. One spoon of sugar and a drop, no more, of milk. I’m training to have it black.” She settled into her chair in a way that told me she was there to stay.

I knew I was about to hear something about myself and while I was all ears I was a bit scared, too. I gave her the coffee and cut the cake. She waved the cake away.

“It’s for you. Mum never knows when to stop baking at Christmas and with my weight problem…”

“You’re not that fat,” I said, nicely.

“You’re not that fat” is hardly reassurance to someone who clearly is. By denying the obvious, such reassurance only underscores the idea that being fat is terrible. The above is an example from the 1990s but hasn’t changed. Take the song “I like em big, I like em chunky!”, ostensibly a celebration of thicc. This doesn’t stop the female object of the singer’s attention from exclaiming in mortification when the singer suggests she is big and that he likes it. The gag in the line of this comedic song is that he then changes his line to “I like your big ole heart”, when he clearly meant to refer to the size of her body. (He then gaslights her by calling her crazy, but that’s a different story.)

I like them witty, I like them smart
(With brains)
Girl, I like your big
(What you say?)
Your big ol’ heart, what?
Girl, you’re crazy, she drive me crazy
(Crazy)

ACCEPTABLE WAYS OF BEING FAT

This piece — and other praises of Dumplin’ that I’ve seen — talk about the book as if it’s entirely fat positive. It’s not. The main character’s dearly beloved late aunt died of fatness. Really, of fatness. She died of deathfat. Watching TV. Alone. The book doesn’t imply that Aunt Lucy was unloveable, but it absolutely uses her to embody the equation of fatness with tragedy. If you’re deathfat, you’ll die, you’ll die alone, you’ll die watching tv, and your low income family won’t be able to afford a coffin to fit you in. Plain tragedy.

In addition to Aunt Lucy, there’s another secondary character, Millie, who waddles:

“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse. I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way”.

In Millie, fatness is pathetic. The phrase “Millie’s the type of fat that…” specifically calls her a “type.”Stereotype, archetype, not a full human. Readers are expected to recognize the type. Millie’s the icky “type” of fat, present for contrast, present so that Will, the protagonist, can be fat in a different way — a way that readers can like or feel fine about.

Why do we need to throw some fat characters to the wolves in order to offer a loveable fat protagonist? Is it a plea to the wolves? Is it bargaining? If we offer Aunt Lucy and Millie as sacrifice, can we be allowed to love the fat protagonist?

For Will, the protagonist, Dumplin’s message is mostly fat positive. But even for her, there’s this sentence: “For the first time in my life, I feel tiny. I feel small. And not in the shrinking flower kind of way. This feeling: it empowers me”. Why is power be symbolized as smallness? Why employ the equation of smallness with power? How does this not reinscribe hegemonic fatphobia?

Do pick up Dumplin’. Do read it. Do give it to teens. But this is a great chance to have analytical conversations about literary portrayal of fatness. Dissect it. We can praise and relish exciting aspects of fat positivity without ignoring hegemonic, fatphobic aspects from the same source. We must.

diceytillerman

IT STARTS WITH PICTURE BOOKS

Children’s stories are full of weird food messages, but perhaps the weirdest to me is the idea that a preschool market can — and should be able to — get jokes about dieting.

song-of-the-zubble-wump-dieting_800x600
from The Song of the Zubble-wump written in Dr Seuss style by children’s TV writer Tish Rabe

The obvious answer is that these jokes aren’t really meant for kids — they’re meant for the adult co-reader.

You’ll probably only find them in relation to anthropomorphized animals. Large animals such as elephants and mammoths are most likely to be the butt of this joke. Being built that way by nature, dieting simply won’t work, and that’s the root of the humour. In one of the later Ice Age movies Manny tells Ellie (both mammoths) that her butt is big. The joke is that Ellie doesn’t realise at first that he means this as a compliment. She takes offence, as all female characters must, because being fat is the absolute worst.

And that’s the message here, right? That being big is unacceptable, even if you’re naturally so.

It doesn’t take any experience with dieting to get that. Young readers get that.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda and David Armitage is another picture book example written around diet culture.

Every day, Mr Grinling the lighthouse keeper cleans & polishes his light to make sure it shines brightly at night. At lunchtime he tucks into a delicious lunch, prepared by his wife. But Mr Grinling isn’t the only one who enjoys it. Can Mrs Grinling stop the greedy seagulls stealing the lighthouse keeper’s lunch?

Though it’s not evident in the marketing copy above, Mr Grinling’s wife makes him row his boat from the lighthouse to shore as part of her weight loss plan for him. This book was first published in 1977. Diet culture was yet to really ramp up. Connection was yet to be made between diet culture and eating disorders.

IT GETS WORSE IN MIDDLE GRADE

There needn’t be fat characters in a book for the book to be saying something about body size. When a character is constantly described as slim/slender/size six etc for no good reason in the story, the ideology is that body size is important outside every other achievement.

If you read the Sweet Valley High series, you can probably tell me off the top of the head that the twins were ‘perfect size sixes’, because it was mentioned a lot.

Those who read the Babysitters Club series will remember that Claudia is always described as thin with good skin — all this even though she eats lots of forbidden junk food, like the Gilmore girls.

 NORMALISATION OF EATING DISORDERS, OR A HOW-TO GUIDE?

Gossip Girl Take A Chance On Me

A series of Gossip Girl novels by Cecily von Ziegesar has recently appeared in stores. These stories feature a group of girls from New York City who live a pampered lifestyle and whose concerns revolve around fashion, friendships, and boys. Bulimia is framed as just part of the lifestyle:

Fudge-frosted brownies on little white plates sat temptingly on a shelf at eye-level. [Blair] picked one up, examined it for any defects, and then put it on her tray. Even if she actually decided to eat it, she could always throw it up later.

It wasn’t much, but at least she had that much control over her life.

For girls who are unhappy about their body image, this normalization of a symptom of a psychiatric illness is surely dangerous. This narrative privileges disordered eating as an expression of control and offers bulimia as as sort of twisted recompense for disappointment.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

FAT AS A SHORTCUT FOR BAD CHARACTER

YA fiction often positions fat as shorthand for countless negative qualities the writer is too unmotivated to develop – like presenting bullies as fat kids, which reinforces fatness as something sinister and deserving of scorn – or as the genesis of a butterfly story, which reinforces fat as a quality one must jettison to uncover the true self (which naturally is thin and beautiful). Of course there are other ways in which fatness is portrayed, but those two immediately came to mind.

Shapley Prose

If you’re fat, you’re the ugly friend. You’re the villain. You try too hard, and people pity you. You’re jealous of all the “pretty” girls. You’re the sassy best friend with a brain full of quips and no character depth. You don’t get the guy unless he’s also been presented as equally undesirable, and then you’re a loser couple to laugh at.

Adventures in Storyland

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)

captain pirate parrot spatula

The Pirate Captain has the obligatory parrot on his shoulder, standing in as his ‘trophy wife’. The running joke is that the parrot is bigger than it should be. “She’s not fat — she’s just big-boned”, exclaims the captain defensively. This has the entire ship in fits of laughter, and is the turning event when the captain decides he must prove his worth as their true leader.

This joke wouldn’t work, of course, if there were not the cultural assumption that powerful men must have beautiful women on their arms — or in this case, beautiful parrots on their shoulders. A man whose woman (or his female parrot companion) can’t possibly be fit to be leader unless he finds himself a female who fits the narrow constraints of acceptable body shape. A man’s status must match his woman’s beauty. Stereotype thusly reinforced.

Pirates Misfits Queen Victoria

Later, when Queen Victoria enters a room on a horse, the queen is exaggeratedly large (as she is always depicted) and the horse is ridiculously small: a visual joke about size which is as powerful as anything voiced. In another scene someone says, “A minute on the hips, a lifetime on the hips.” A ridiculous axiom in the first place. All it does is bring unhealthy messages about food guilt into a comedy designed for kids, who shouldn’t have to have to hear such rubbish.

THE FAT MAN BY MAURICE GEE

The Fat Man cover

This book is widely studied in Year 9 throughout New Zealand high schools.

Maurice Gee’s description of Muskie’s obese body in The Fat Man evokes disgust and abjection. His gross rolls of fat seem to provide evidence of contamination by the (unhealthy, fat-laden) foods he has eaten. He embodies excess; his body shows that he has consumed more than his fair share, suggesting that somewhere, someone has gone without. Obesity is, in Western culture, indicative of excessive appetite, of a lack of self-control, of laziness, and of an unwillingness to conform to accepted paradigms of beauty. Arguably it also signifies a lack of morality. Susan Bordo argues that the firm, developed body has become a symbol of “correct attitude;” that one “cares” about oneself and how one appears to others. While muscles express sexuality, it is a controlled, managed sexuality that is “not about to erupt in unwanted and embarrassing display.” In contrast, the obese body signifies the wrong attitude and a lack of care about body image. It connotes voracious and uncontrolled (sexual) appetite.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

FAT PHOBIA IN THE WORK OF ROALD DAHL

Fantastic Mr Fox (film adaptation)

Roald Dahl did not like fat people. (I wonder what he made of his granddaughter becoming a plus-size model.) The man himself was ‘rakish’. I mean, he looked like a rake, which is what ‘rakish’ should probably mean. In fact it means: Having or displaying a dashing, jaunty, or slightly disreputable quality or appearance. But I’m not going to let common definitions stand in my way here.

One could argue that Roald Dahl didn’t much care for little people either, or any kind of person at all, really, especially short men (‘You might say he’s kind of a pot-bellied dwarf of some kind’), but Dahl makes sure to specify that Walter Boggis is fat because he eats three chickens at every meal, perpetuating the erroneous message that fat people are fat because they eat a lot. (The descriptions of the farmers are what makes Fantastic Mr Fox what it is, and Dahl’s descriptions are quoted verbatim in the film.)

The science behind weight-gain is complicated, this simplistic view of overweight and obesity — the view that fat people get fat because they eat a lot — is simplistic and flat out unhelpful. Robert Lustig, who knows a lot more than most people about this topic, being an endocrinologist, takes a far more modern approach toward cause and effect when it comes to obesity: fat people eat a lot because they’re growing. If this is true, then blaming fat people for eating too much is like blaming a strapping teenage boy for eating too much.

Back to the film, Badger’s voice over explains: ‘He’s unbelievably fat — which may be genetic — but he also eats three boiled chickens smothered with dumplings every day for breakfast, lunch, supper, and dinner. That’s twelve in total, per diem’. The phrase ‘which may be genetic’ smacks to me of self-consciousness, since the filmmakers understand full well that this is not a very nice thing for Badger to point out. These filmmakers steamroll right over the complexities, however, and sure enough, Boggis is a greedy, unpleasant man. His overweight body correlates with general slovenliness: ‘never takes a bath’. The audience sees him picking his ear.

But then of course we have Farmer Bean, who provides comic effect by being the opposite. So are Dahl and the filmmakers really poking fun at fat people, if they’re equally willing to have a go at skinny ones?

Well, I don’t know if they’re having a go at skinny ones, or at the eating disordered. Badger’s voice over explains: ‘He’s probably anorexic, because he never eats anything. He’s on a liquid diet of strong, alcoholic cider, which he makes from his apples’.

Sure, ‘not eating’  is technically the definition of ‘anorexic’ (babies are ‘anorexic’ when they fail to drink milk), so Farmer Bean is unquestionably anorexic, but I squirm a little at this, because the popular interpretation of ‘anorexic’ is of ‘anorexia nervosa’, a serious mental health disorder which is more deadly than any other mental health disorder. Especially for young women.

So was that line really necessary? Really? When food related disorders are at an historic high? And if it’s really a case of sticking to the original story without politically correct modifications, is this really the sort of story that we need to bring back to life from 1970? As it turns out, I’m a big fan of modernising classic tales. Politically correct re-written versions of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five? Gimme that any day. I loved those tales, but I don’t want my daughter to think that boys and ‘tomboys’ have all the fun.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book)

Charlie wins the golden ticket

Roald Dahl believed that adults have a relentless need to civilize “this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” His story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factor, drives home his views. Charlie is a polite, passive child. He respects his elders, is hard working, unselfish, thoughtful, and he knows how to control his appetite. Every year on his birthday, Charlie receives from his poverty-stricken family “one small chocolate bar to eat all by himself”.

He would place it carefully in a small wooden box that he owned, and treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold; and for the next few days, he would allow himself only to look at it, but never to touch it. Then at last, when he could stand it no longer, he would peel back a tiny bit of the paper wrapping at one corner to expose a tiny bit of chocolate, and then he would take a tiny nibble — just enough to allow the lovely sweet taste to spread out slowly over his tongue. The next day, he would take another tiny nibble, and so on, and so on. And in this way, Charlie would make his sixpenny bar of birthday chocolate last him for more than a month.

This passage exemplifies the qualities Dahl apparently appreciates in a child: civilized manners, frugality, and, most importantly, restraint and control. It is interesting to note, however, that Charlie finds his golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory through an act which is ostensibly transgressive. When Charlie’s father loses his job the food situation at home becomes “desperate. Breakfast was a single slice of bread for each person now, and lunch was maybe half a boiled potato. Slowly but surely, everyone in the house began to starve.” “Every day Charlie Bucket grew thinner and thinner…The skin was drawn so tightly over the cheeks that you could see the shapes of the bones underneath. It seemed doubtful whether he could go on much longer like this without becoming dangerously ill”. Charlie finds a fifty pence coin in the snow and, instead of taking it to his parents so that they can buy food for whole family, he goes straight to the nearest shop and buys a bar of chocolate. (Incidentally, the shopkeeper strikes Charlie as being particularly “fat and well-fed”. Charlie “crams large pieces” of the chocolate bar into his mouth. Significantly, he is described as “wolfing” it down. “In less than half a minute, the whole thing had disappeared down his throat”. Charlie buys a second bar, reinforcing his transgression, and it is under the wrapper of this Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight that he discovers the Golden ticket. Roni Natov points out that questing heroes often have to “break some taboo” and “revolt” against the familial/social structure in order to create change. Tradition must be subverted so that evolution can occur. This, she reveals, is at the heart of the hero’s quest. It is significant that Dahl carefully constructs Charlie as being in extremis before his transgressive act takes place.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Charlieandchocholatefactory

In contrast, all the other children in the story who find golden tickets, have excessive appetites and desires, and show the deleterious influences of consumer-media culture. Veruca Salt is an acquisitive, impulsive and selfish consumer of material goods. She is acquisitive, impulsive and selfish consumer of material goods. She screams at her father, lying on the floor for hours, “kicking and yelling in the most disturbing way” until she gets what she wants, producing the ultimate display of “pester power.” Nine-year-old Mike Teavee, on the other hand, is described by Dahl as a “television fiend”. He is an avid consumer of gangster films, the more violent the better. He wears “no less than eighteen toy pistols of various sizes hanging from belts around his body” and indignantly resists being deprived of the TV even for a short time. He thinks that gangster movies are “terrific… especially when they start pumping each other full of lead, or flashing the old stilettos, or giving each other the one-two-three with their knuckledusters! Gosh, what wouldn’t I give to be doing that myself! I’ts the life, I tell you! It’s terrific!” The Oompa-Loompas’ song provides the vehicle for Dahl’s critique: television is a “monster”; children should be kept away from “the idiotic thing”. It hypnotizes them, making them lethargic and mindless to the point of being “absolutely drunk”.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniel points out that Dahl was an early writer to hold this view, which has since become a lot more common. Though Mike Teavee is an example of an over-consumer of media, it is Augustus Gloop of course who is an overconsumer in the most literal sense — he eats too much.

Gloop’s body, and his face in particular, seem to embody the food which produced it. His head is a currant bun! Furthermore, reference to Claude Levi-Strauss’s raw-cooked dualism, which he aligns with nature/culture, suggests that Augustus’s doughy face evolkes notions of precultural primitivism and irrational mindlessness.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Also of note: Dahl blames Gloop’s mother for overfeeding her child and making him fat.

In psychoanalytic terms, it could be argued that Augustus has failed to properly separate from his mother, signified by his insatiable and transgressive desire for food. He is stuck in the oral phase, the phase of maternal influence. Food is the wrong object for his deire; he ought to have turned to the father/phallus in order too achieve proper masculine subjectivity. Augustus is connoted as monstrous and denied agency by his inappropriately directed and excessive desire.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The more modern version of Augustus Gloop is of course Dursley from Harry Potter.

Issues of Class

With regard to Dahl’s construction of these characters…notions of class and race are also implicated. Although Charlie has middle-class manners and mores, he is an idealistic representation of the British working class. Veruca Salt belongs decidedly within the despised nouveau riche category and is presumably American, since her father is “in the peanut business”. Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee are also affiliated with America; Violet by her incessant gum-chewing and Mike by his penchant for American Westerns and gangster movies. Augustus’s last name suggests he might be German. The class and race issues implied here are significant in relation to the nuances of excessive and vulgar appetite and childish monstrousness. There are marked differences between historical notions of childrearing in britian and America. The austere diet of British children was deemed to have character building properties while, in contrast, American childrearing methods were seen to be vulgar and overindulgent and associated with the nouveau riche. Dahl’s cultural conservatism marries with Dick Hebdige’s claims that populist discourses about culture and taste in Britain in the 1930s-60s tended to focus on the “leveling down” of moral and aesthetic standards and the erosion of fundamentally British values and attitudes. This perceived decline in standards was believed to stem from “American ization” (an influx of American mass culture encompassing good,s production techniques, music, etc.), and reflected fears of the homgenization of British society.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The modern reader can even make the link between the hammering down of Gloop’s body in the story and the American trend for plastic surgery, which has also crossed the Atlantic.

FAT PHOBIA IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION

Sometimes the dis/approval of body type is quite subtle. It can be achieved in a single word. In the young adult novel Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan (2011), the main female character is described as ‘slender’ in the introductory thumbnail description. When the mother is introduced, we are told that mother and daughter look similar, but the mother is ‘not as slender’. Then again, at the beginning of chapter five we’re told:

One moment Kieran had been staring at Waverly’s slender back, imploring silently, Don’t go. Get off the shuttle.

Not only is the ‘slender’ thing mentioned again for no good reason to the plot, the reader is treated to yet another vision of a girl through the pervasive male gaze. Even in fiction — stories set in wholly imagined futuristic worlds, no less — girls can’t escape this constant judgement on their bodies.

THE MAKEOVER TROPE

At TV Tropes you’ll find a breakdown of various types of makeover scenes which are very common in ‘ugly duckling’ stories. Many of these are coming-of-age stories.

[Many narratives feature] the transformation or makeover of children’s bodies so that they comply with accepted paradigms of beauty or, in the case of the younger children, properly controlled childhood. John Stephens has shown that, semiotically, the trope of the makeover, so often used in contemporary teen fiction, is frequently framed as a central metonym of growth and a movement toward subjectivity and maturation. It supposedly demonstrates to the character concerned that “she can transform her life and thus realize her full potential.” On the one hand, such discourses reiterate the notion that bodies, especially female bodies, are transformable, and on the other, they act to endorse cultural beauty paradigms and the imperative that female bodies should be transformed. … The changes… reflect the individual’s movement toward a more mature self. Thus “what appears inscribed on the body’s surface [is seen to] function as a pointer to the depths within. In countless movies, magazines, and teen (or young adult) novels, aimed at girls, the make over is shown to be the way to transform the self and notably, to achieve agency and happiness through social acceptance. Most significantly, even when a range of body morphologies is confirmed as “natural”, it is always the slimmest body types that are valorized.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

HAVE THINGS CHANGED LATELY, THOUGH?

Not a lot.

fat phobia gilmore girls
Rory and Lorelai are disgusted by a fat man i the Gilmore girls reboot.
  • Logan (2017) — the script forces Hugh Jackman to call a woman a “fatass”
  • Bill Burr routine (2017) — he rants for 7 minutes about fat people

The Modern Taboo

Anorexia seems to be considered an acceptable topic for young readers. Obese children, on the other hand, are rarely featured in contemporary children’s literature and are unlikely to be explicitly condemned as they often are in the classics. …Dudley Dursely…proves to be an unusual exception.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Voracious Children was published 10 years ago, and in good news, the fat acceptance movement and some exciting new authors seem to have had a positive impact on the young adult landscape in particular. Until recently the standout examples of fat characters in children’s literature were:

  • Blubber by Judy Blume — fat bodies used as learning tools for others
  • The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger — but the sequel completely undoes any fat-positive messages
  • When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
  • Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade by Barthe DeClements
  • The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Madeleine L’Engle only ever has fat characters in her books who are morally bad

Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is the best YA novel I have had starring a fat main character* because:

  • Eleanor is still fat even when she doesn’t get enough to eat, which to me reads as a sign of poverty, which it is in the real world, rather than a symptom of greed or bad character
  • Eleanor is not depicted as a ‘beautiful girl’ but in a fat body and there is never any ‘If only she lost weight she’d be hot’ sentiment
  • She ends up in a romantic relationship with someone who does not have body image issues. It’s not a Shrek-like ‘Know your level’ sort of message.
  • Eleanor has a fulfilling teenage sex life and her overweight is a non-issue when it come to that.
  • Rainbow Rowell also avoids that thing where every fat girl has to find her true love by giving us a bittersweet ending.
*It is never actually clear in the story whether Eleanor is genuinely fat or if she just thinks she is, which might be seen as problematic.

Eleanor & Park is a part of a new wave of YA novels written by (mostly female) authors who have a much better handle on fat politics than authors who came before. Some examples from around the Internet (which is probably mostly to thank for fat acceptance in the first place):

  • Sweet by Emily Laybourne
  • Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
  • Looks by Madeline George
  • Earthly Delights by Kerry Greenwood
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
  • My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
  • Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell
  • Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have by Allen Zadoff (about a boy rather than a girl)
  • Nimona, a graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson
  • Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
  • Hungry, Crystal Renn’s memoir
  • This Book Isn’t Fat Its Fabulous by Nina Beck
  • All About Vee by C. Leigh Purtell
  • Fat Hoochie Prom Queen by Nico Medina

One of the problems with the marketing and packaging of books about fat girls, though, is that the book covers often depict food, whereas almost every YA novel with a beautiful protagonist shows the protagonist, or at least a part of her body on at least one of the cover versions. (Often headless, admittedly.) Where are all the headless fat girls on book covers?

Modern Books To Avoid (due to problematic/conflicting messages)

I have not read many of these. Some I have tried reading and given up partway through. Others I do appreciate as stories, but when I look more closely at the fat politics I definitely know what people are talking about. If you’re looking quickly for a book a fat kid might love, perhaps make use of this list as a rough shorthand?

  • Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky
  • Everyday by David Levithan
  • Sugar by Deidre Riordan Hall
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Huge by Sasha Paley
  • Artichokes Heart by Suzanne Supplee
  • Looks by Madeleine George
  • The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
  • Shrink to Fit by Doner Sarkar
  • Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green

IS IT POSSIBLE TO WRITE A FUNNY FAT JOKE?

There are some guidelines. I personally steer clear of reference to body size, as does Daniel Handler on principle — and did anyone even notice that he leaves physical description right out?

Would this be funny if the character wasn’t fat?

Incorrect response: I also laugh at skinny people so I can’t be fat phobic.

A comedy which does fat jokes well is Roseanne. The age of that show is telling — good fat jokes are rare as truffles.

Just Friends is also apparently a healthy representation of a fat character because the characters’s fatness is a part of their backstory and character arc. We can’t steer completely clear of depicting fat characters either, because that would be ‘symbolic annihilation’.

RELATED

If you’re au fait with the film of Tim Burton, check out: 10 Examples Of Tim Burton Hating On Fat People from Film School Rejects

They say one of the gifts of getting older is you don’t care as much what other people think of you. And as I come to the end of my 30s this does seem true, with one notable exception. All the women I know, and I include myself, still spend far too much time engaging in ”confessional” food talk.

SMH, Would You Like Some Stigma With That?

Calling Melissa McCarthy a “Female Hippo” isn’t being a critic; it’s being a bully, from Hello Giggles

Where Are All The Fat Female [American] Politicians? from Jezebel

Fat Jokes & Chris Christie: What If He Were a Woman? from The Broad Side

James Gandolfini: An “Unlikely” Sex Symbol? Yup; Men Get Fat-Shamed, Too from Bust Magazine

Self-acceptance has become a new form of defiance on television, especially among younger female comedians. Partly that’s because it’s refreshingly unusual. From Women on TV Step Off The Scales

FAT BODY POLITICS: THIN PRIVILEGE VS. “THIN SHAMING from Fuck Yeah Feminists

Are Thin Women The Enemy? from BBC News

Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity, an abstract from PLOS One

Fat from The Rumpus is a long read written about the experiences of being a lifelong overweight male.

Danielle Perez – Just say fat! Just say disabled! Just say black!, a podcast from Made of Human

Obesity Campaigns: The Fine Line Between Educating and Shaming from The Atlantic

The truth about fat women and self control from Live Science

The Privilege Of Assuming It’s Not About You from Sociological Images

Where disordered eating and poverty intersect: Very little is known about people experiencing food insecurity and eating disorders, but research is starting to come out about that. Anorexia is not just a white, middle-class, female issue.

The Ideology Of Work Ethic In Children’s Literature

The Bee Who Would Not Work

Good children work hard.

Lazy children lose out.

This view of work ethic is so ingrained throughout children’s stories that it’s hardly noticed. However, there is speculation these days (in fact since the 1970s) that humanity may be facing a post-work future. Some argue that no human job is ‘safe’ from robots and apps — the caring and creative professions will be last to go, but go they will.

What if our children, or our children’s grandchildren, are born into a world where most of them never work because robots — or a robot spin-off, yet to be invented — are the new slaves? The Romans and the Greeks managed to contribute so much to the world only because their slavery system allowed a well-educated gentry to dedicate themselves to art and ideas.

What if everyone was in that position? Our children’s grandchildren may look back on literature of the modern era — the literature our children are reading right now — and the work ethic may well stick out as an outdated feature of our age.

Some of our oldest stories are popular in part because of their strong work ethic. While Robinson Crusoe (and all of its descendants) is set on an island and is therefore partly escapist, characters don’t actually get to escape work. It’s hard work actually, living on an island. No matter the setting, we love characters who work. If they are lazy, or somehow manage to avoid work through sheer cunning (or even through pragmatism), we generally don’t want to see them get what they want.

Examples Of Strong Work Ethic In Children’s Literature

The Little Red Hen

This is still a popular tale and conveys the clear message that if you want to enjoy something you must work to produce it. You may not jump in at the last minute to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labour. In Robinson Crusoe, too, Crusoe takes great pleasure in baking his own bread.

The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Blyton’s children were afforded plenty of time to explore the low fantasy worlds right under the adults’ noses, or even to solve crime, but Blyton made sure young readers knew they weren’t off in the woods picnicking until after their household tasks had been completed.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

At Mrs Coulter’s house Lyra is mostly decorative and although she is surrounded by beautiful, feminine things and dressed up like a doll, she has no sense of fulfilment until she runs away and is taken in by the gyptian boat people who give her plenty of chores to keep her occupied:

Now that Lyra had a task in mind, she felt all very well, but Pantalaimon was right: she wasn’t really doing any work there, she was just a pretty pet. On the gyptian boat, there was real work to do, and Ma Costa made sure she did it. She cleaned and swept, she peeled potatoes and made tea, she greased the propellor-shaft bearings, she kept the weed-trap clear over the propellor, she washed dishes, she opened lock gates, she tied the boat up at mooring-posts, and within a couple of day she was as much at home with this new life as if she’d been born gyptian.

Spirited Away

Work Ethic in Spirited Away
Work Ethic in Spirited Away

This is an anime for children created by Hayao Miyazaki of the Studio Ghibli studio. Japanese culture is well-known for promoting a strong work ethic, linking work closely to a sense of self. In Spirited Away Chihiro has her name taken away — it is shortened to ‘Sen’. In order to get her full name back (her sense of self), as well as rescue her parents, she must go to work in the fantasy realm. Through pure hard work she somehow saves the day.

Hayao Miyazaki himself was notorious for his strong work ethic and he prioritised work over family, not atypically for a Japanese man of his age. He seems to have retired now, though came back from supposed retirement at least once. Oh, and now he’s back again.

Tar Baby

“The most perplexing aspect of this folk tale is that in many variants the rabbit is portrayed as a free-rider. Asked to help dig a community well, he says he prefers to live off the dew on the grass – and then proceeds to steal water from the well. Asked to till the soil, he refuses, but then proceeds to steal a cabbage here and a turnip there. If the rabbit represents the underdog, how is he also, to use Wagner’s phrase, “a selfish hustler”? Even more curiously, why is he so likeable?”

NPR