I didn't get to attend as much of the RILA conference as I wanted to, because my car got sick. But I did get to attend the Fat Lit workshop Thursday AM, and I've been thinking about it ever since. Lisa Pazer is going to present a complete version of her "Fat Lit" research at the Young Adult Literature Symposium, so I'm not going to steal her thunder (or her intellectual property). However, I do have some thoughts of my own.
Pazer, co-author of forthcoming Teenage Waistland, analyzed the plots of a number of books with overweight protagonists, from Precious to The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, and measured how "fat-accepting" the narratives were. But then she took it in a direction I hadn't expected. She asked whether librarians had an obligation to seek out books that model healthy habits, as well as books that encourage a positive body image no matter what your weight. This is in light of the disturbing trend in obesity.
It was obvious she'd hit on a hot topic, and the discussion following her powerpoint ranged from rewarding children with cookies to hiding a body-image obsession behind a commitment to whole foods. Which brings me to revisit a book I reviewed on Good Reads a little while ago: Fat Cat by Robin Brande.
In Fat Cat, protagonist Cat decides to do her senior year science project on herself. She's going to swap her typical teenage diet of sugar and artificial hormones for "hominid food." She's loosely studying the role of diet in evolution, and she wonders if giving up fake food for veggies and whole grains will make her body run more efficiently. This also leads to weight loss and getting the guy, so you can see why I was conflicted about the novel. I feel like healthy eating is always linked to weight loss, and I think it's important in its own right.
The author does briefly talk about, first of all, Cat's sugar withdrawal, and then has her meet with a nutritionist, giving her opportunities to discuss the effects of dairy on her digestive tract, etc. And actually, the narrative spirals out into such diverse topics as first dates, swim team, and saving a local restaurant. So it's not like it's only about weight-loss. But I still think that girls will read it and think, if I lose weight, I can change my life. But after the workshop, I think: is that such a bad thing?
I guess Fat Cat was confusing to me, because it went back and forth between being an issue book and a literary novel. The research notes at the heading of each chapter and the resources in the back gave it the feel of a "how to" book on eating healthfully. But the divergent plot points and the protagonist's own reflection on her weight loss made the conclusion seem very personal, and not something you could "apply" to your own life. And further, the author seemed to want to make it about healthy eating rather than weight-loss, but then why call it "Fat Cat"?
Obviously, I have two sets of standards in my head: one for issue books and one for literary novels. And the names I'm giving those two categories come with value judgments that I'm not unaware of. But can a novel about weight-loss be anything but an issue book in a society that is totally obsessed with body-image? In this case, maybe I as the reader have the "issue." I want books about healthy eating that aren't also about weight-loss. But who would read a book about a thin person eating healthy and then feeling better? I admit that not even I would read that book.
But I did read Fat Cat, and I bet the teens will go for it, too--if the condition of Life in the Fat Lane is any indicator of their interest in "Fat Lit." And if the numbers of overweight and obese adolescents are as high as some say, then a collection that reflects the population we serve should have many more titles about teens who aren't size 2.