Body Language in Middle Grade Lit

By Lisa Fipps

By Yehudi Mercado

By Alyson Gerber

When I was a middle school student in the 1980s, a girl in my class presented a book report on Judy Blume’s “Blubber.” As the only fat kid in my class, I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading a book with that title. Yet that day I had to sit and listen to my classmate discuss the torment of poor Linda, the chubby girl terrorized by the rest of her fifth-grade class. Not surprisingly, Linda begins dieting in a desperate bid to make the bullying stop.

There’s no good reason I should remember a classmate’s book report from more than 30 years ago, but I can recall parts of it quite vividly. I don’t think I’d ever encountered a book that dealt with body size in any explicit way, and the message I received that day was that the bullies were right about Linda — she was disgusting and needed to change. I feared, of course, that the same was true of me.

The stories we tell about weight and body image have improved since I was in middle school, but not nearly enough. While “Blubber” attempts to make the larger point that bullying can affect anyone, the novel is rooted in the pain of the big girl.

Nearly 50 years after the novel was originally published, this is still the most common type of story about a fat character: one of pain and trauma.

Still, three new middle grade books reflect some of the positive changes that have occurred over the past decade. While authors today are still writing about painful experiences related to weight and body image, these new stories are influenced by the work fat activists have done, and they show us a glimmer of hope and liberation.

In her debut novel, “Starfish,” Lisa Fipps confronts diet culture and fat phobia head-on. Ellie, the 11-year-old Texan narrator of this novel in free verse, doesn’t have a problem with her plus-size figure — but everyone else does. Though Ellie comes from a comfortably middle-class family, and enjoys a swimming pool and many material comforts, her life can nevertheless be described as hellish. At school she’s bullied; at home her two older siblings viciously tease her, and her mother behaves like a warden in a prison for fat children.

In the three books under review, none of the mothers come off particularly well, but in “Starfish” mom is a villain. Ellie describes her as “my worst bully.” In an act of outright abuse, she threatens Ellie with bariatric surgery, the same procedure that almost killed an aunt.

This can make for difficult reading, but it never becomes unbearably bleak thanks to Ellie’s humor (there are some laugh-out-loud moments), as well as the power of her voice, which manages to convey many different feelings, often at once: sass and rage, innocence and cynicism, and, most of all, heartbreak. The book reads as if Ellie herself is writing these poems, which are accessible and engaging.

Ellie loves to swim, which makes her feel weightless, and in the water she becomes a starfish — she can spread her arms and legs and take up space. With the help of a therapist, Ellie begins to feel comfortable starfishing outside the pool. She learns how to talk back to bullies and resist absorbing their taunts, and she finally confronts her mother. There are limits to what a child in these circumstances can do, but what makes Ellie so endearing is how she fights for herself, even when it feels as if no one else will.

In “Chunky,” the writer-artist-animator and former Disney art director Yehudi Mercado turns to graphic memoir, and like Fipps he writes in a funny and endearing way about being a fat kid in Texas. The story is brought to life with illustrations that are vivid and often poignant.

Hudi, from a working-class Mexican-Jewish family, faces many challenges in life, including asthma and living with only one lung. He’s also husky and clumsy, unlike his dad, who’s buff and great at sports. An aspiring comedian who dreams of being on “Saturday Night Live,” Hudi tends to laugh off the indignities he suffers because of his size and awkwardness.

When Hudi’s doctor wants him to lose weight, his parents push him into sports. Even though Hudi would rather try out for theater, he goes along with the plan. Each chapter focuses on a different activity he gets involved in, from his first choice of baseball (“Babe Ruth was pretty fat”) to soccer, swimming and tennis. It comes as no surprise that he is picked on, injured and humiliated during these pursuits.

To help him along the way, Hudi dreams up an imaginary friend, his own mascot that will cheer him on from the sidelines. The adorable, bright pink Chunky offers the moral support he needs. Although Hudi minimizes the traumas he endures with humor, his creation of Chunky to be his mascot and friend shows how desperately he needs a buddy to be there for him.

“Chunky” also explores how Hudi’s parents, while pushing their son to slim down, unintentionally push him to assimilate in other, unexpected ways. Sweet, artistic Hudi begins to change. His large size makes him ideal for football; pressured by his macho coach and new friends, he begins to embrace their nickname for him: Monster Mercado. His parents, horrified by how their son is transforming, realize that Hudi needs to be allowed to embrace who he truly is.

Unlike Hudi, the protagonist of Alyson Gerber’s third novel, “Taking Up Space,” is average-sized and sporty. Twelve-year-old Sarah Weber is a star player on her school’s basketball team. She’s athletic and strong and seems confident in herself. When she’s on the court, she knows what the rules are and finds that comforting.

Sarah has a healthy appetite, scarfing Doritos and pizza with her friends, none of whom give a thought to calories. At home, however, her mother obsesses over food. Sarah is frustrated by how her mom’s food issues affect her; meanwhile her dad, busy with work, isn’t much help.

Basketball means everything to Sarah, but during practice and games she begins to notice that her body feels different. Her clothes are a little tighter, she’s frequently out of breath and she moves differently. Though her coach assures her that bodies change during puberty and it takes time to adjust, Sarah is panicked that her hopes of college basketball and the W.N.B.A. might be slipping away. In a desperate attempt to fix her body and exert control, she alters her eating habits.

In a thoughtful and powerful way, Gerber explores how quickly Sarah falls into a pattern of disordered eating. The seemingly benign packet of nutrition plans that Sarah receives in health class begins an obsession with which foods are good and which are bad — an obsession her mother encourages. Luckily for Sarah, once it becomes clear she’s in trouble a support network of friends and school staff kicks into gear, including her school counselor, who teaches her about diet culture and how to confront it.

I can only hope Judy Blume’s Linda, who would now be close to 60, has also received these enlightened messages. I like to imagine she’s out there somewhere, driving around with a Riots Not Diets bumper sticker on her car.

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