bodies are brilliant…body positivity in kidlit

Today I’m offering some books that speak to something really important in our wounding world —
the deep down, heartfelt assurance that your body is good and lovable and wondrous, exactly as it is.

For many, many, many of us — from young children to the aged — our bodies bring us a sense of shame, embarrassment, and self-reproach. Hurtful words and actions from others amplify the humiliation. We have been hoodwinked by media images and our society, convinced that an extremely narrow range of body types are unobjectionable or comely.

This, to put it in a nutshell, stinks.

My focus today is on body positivity in respect to weight. We, as a society, can be ruthless towards those whose bodies are big.
Although I haven’t addressed this before, it’s something I have long had on my radar as I choose books to recommend. Not only has this led me to take a pass on some novels that include fat-shaming remarks and stereotypes,
but I am mindful of how children’s bodies are rendered in picture book illustrations.

It’s why even for very young readers,
I prefer the nice, comfy bodies drawn by Helen Oxenbury:
or Phoebe Wahl:

these appealing families as drawn by Juana Martinez-Neal:

and Nneka Myers:

I love that Molly Idle’s Flora is also a gal with a nice li’l tummy on her:

Representation matters. I wish more children on the big-bodied side of the spectrum would see their likenesses in their storybooks. This is one aspect of diversity I still do not see enough of.

Today I’ve got a picture book celebrating all sorts of bodies,
and three middle grade novels that dive right into honest, painful accounts of the bullying kids face, as well as the daunting world of eating disorders which can be triggered in part by the
hyperfocus on thinness in our society.
I hope these titles are helpful to all sorts of children and grown-ups, that some children feel seen, valued, and represented by these books, and that others develop more understanding, consideration, and kindness for their peers.

Bodies Are Cool, written and illustrated by Tyler Feder
published in 2021 by Dial Books

This book bustles on in with a bold, fresh attitude, bringing us face to face with an incredibly diverse selection of bodies and celebrating every one of them.

Page after page of bodies dance by without a snitch of cautiousness or embarrassment. A lively, rhythmic, upbeat verse extols every sort of body.  Meanwhile Feder has illustrated an astonishing array of folks, not only of different ages, shapes, and sizes, but inhabiting other particulars. I spotted colostomy bags, hearing aids, eye patches, respiratory aids, freckles, vitiligo, port wine stains, albinism, monogolian blue spots, scars, limb and mobility differences, people with dwarfism and Down’s syndrome…and that’s just the start of the list! All these bodies are cool!

Unabashedly upbeat. Unapologetically forthright. Uniquely lauding uniqueness. That’s this book, a brave new gem for ages 2 and up!

Starfish, by Lisa Fipps
published in 2021 by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House

At 11 years old, Ellie is used to being bullied about her weight.  Kids at school, her siblings, and most painfully perhaps, her mom, have all been cruelly deriding her since she was 4 years old.
Ellie has learned to cope with this by codifying what she calls Fat Girl Rules — a list of do’s and don’ts to stay as hidden and protected from taunts as possible.
She has found a safe space in the pool as well, where she feels weightless and free.
Powerful sources of true healing, though, come from her friends — Viv, who just moved away; Catalina, who just moved in next door; and Dr. Wood, a new therapist who helps her believe that she, like all of us, deserves to take up space in the world, to be loved just as she is.

This novel-in-verse is an honest, painful story based on the author’s difficult experiences growing up.  It is tough to see such a great girl like Ellie be treated so poorly, but her road to self-love and confidence will be a lifebuoy for many and a means of developing insight and empathy for many others.
The starfish pose that Ellie takes in the pool is a powerful yoga pose as well.
For many of us — women, people of color, those with various differences in their bodies — a message of shame, insignificance, inferiority, and enforced submission has created a mindset of powerlessness, smallness, even invisibility.
Using our bodies in ways that literally take up space can be a paradigm-shifting experience. For that reason, this story will resonate deeply with many who feel compelled to stay hidden.  I found this book deeply impacting. Suggested for ages 10 and up.

Good Enough, by Jen Petro-Roy
published in 2019 by Feiwel and Friends
267 pages

This novel opens with Riley, a 12-year-old girl, having just been admitted to the eating disorder unit of a hospital.  The novel is written in the format of her journal, and spans her 53 days in the treatment program. At the outset, Riley is angry, resentful, and although she is critically underweight, in denial about her eating disorder, unable to see the flaws in her perception or reasoning.  Like a cornered wild cat, therefore, she lashes out at anyone nearby.

Riley’s obsession with weight loss is triggered when the school nurse pronounces her “overweight” in the hearing of some cruel classmates who proceed to taunt and harass her mercilessly.  From there, the only voices she can hear are critical ones, and there are plenty to be had — her classmates’, her parents’, and the loud ones in her own head.

Although Riley’s eating disorder causes her to be, at times, an unreliable narrator, her honesty in journaling about internal struggles, the powerful voice of the eating disorder itself, and the therapeutic practices and principles she learns, all reveal important truths about healthy human bodies, the insidious nature of eating disorders, and the grave challenges to recovery. There are girls in the unit recovering from bulimia and binge eating, but the vast majority of the story focuses on Riley’s anorexia.  The novel does not romanticize this illness, but clearly, painfully, demonstrates the way it harms bodies and robs people of joy and fullness of life.

I am glad that the author has chosen to honestly, realistically portray the gravity of these illnesses and the hard road to recovery. I have to say, though, that I could have done with a shade more optimism for these young girls. None feels assured of success and I’m afraid this could cause some readers to lose hope. That is certainly not the aim of the author who overcame an eating disorder herself.  Riley and the other girls in this unit also all have very poor relationships with their hypercritical parents.  This is certainly a factor in many instances of eating disorders, but not nearly all of them. These are incredibly complex illnesses triggered by numerous factors, something that is pointed out in the book.  If guilt or fear of being blamed keeps a parent from getting a child the help he or she needs, that would be a great misfortune. All in all, this book is a vivid, forthright, clear window into both eating disorders and recovery that could serve as a lifeline for kids experiencing disordered eating as well as an enormous aid to understanding for those near to them. Ages 12 and up.

Garvey’s Choice, by Nikki Grimes
published in 2016 by Wordsong
108 pages

Garvey is a boy who loves books, chess, Star Trek, music, and a good joke.

That’s not what his dad has in mind for him, though. Sports — that’s what a boy ought to be interested in.  Garvey’s mom and best bud, Joe, love him for all of who he is, but he’s bullied about his weight in school and his dad, unintentionally, contributes to his self-doubt and shame about his body.

Then Garvey makes a new friend, Manny, a boy with albinism.  He learns from Manny a new, body-positive way of seeing himself and more honest responses to the humiliating voices around him. Riding on that new wave of self-love, Garvey is able to rely less on food as a means of comfort and is brave enough to take a risk on a new activity that suits him perfectly. The early death of his favorite singer, Luther Vandross, also motivates Garvey to ditch fad diets and embrace elements in his life that make him a happier person.

Written in bite-sized tanka poems, this is a short, fast read, jammed with heart, acknowledging honestly Garvey’s pain but accenting the positive.  I love that in this story, unlike the other two novels on today’s list, Garvey has a sweet relationship with his mom and sister, and that deep healing transpires in his relationship with his dad. It’s a far more joy-filled narrative and is accessible to younger readers, ages 9 and up.

I hope these books find their way to audiences and tender hearts that will benefit.

Coming up in the next number of weeks on Orange Marmalade: another yard restoration update, an entire week of picture book biographies of cool people, another installment of Black history reads for teens and adults, a slew of juicy new picture books, and of course some autumn reads for those longed-for cooler days!

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