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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Overweight and Invisible

Since I don’t do much with YA on a regular basis I don’t read the blog of The Book Smugglers as often as I would like, even though they’re some of the best in the biz.  Love their reviews.  Really top notch stuff.

Anyway, they recently reviewed a book called The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson and they got to talking about plus sized folks on covers.  The initial galley for Carson’s book featured a waiflike slip of a white girl when the character is supposed to be plus sized and dark-skinned.  Necessary changes were made to the final cover, but you still wouldn’t be able to tell the girth of the heroine from either of them.  The Book Smugglers end their review with, “Something we haven’t talked much about, however, is this concept of slenderizing a plus-sized character for a cover. We’ve seen it before in books like Everything Beautiful. Have you noticed any of this in your reading?”  Elizabeth Fama recommended a great Stacked piece on the subject from 2009 which I remember seeing some years ago that discussed this very thing.

I’ve been wondering about portrayals of overweight children in books for kids myself.  With obesity rates the highest they have ever been amongst our nation’s youth, ours is a country that doesn’t know how to deal with its large children.  Their portrayal in literature, therefore, is something to think about.  Usually, if you’re a kid and fat in a book then you’re a villain of sorts.  A Dudley Dursley or Augustus Gloop.  If, by some miracle, you’re the hero of the book that’s fine, but you’d better be prepared to disappear from your own cover.

So I tried to find representation of fat children on middle grade book covers.  Alas, these are the only books I was able to come up with, and as you can see they’re hardly ideal.  Let’s look at what book jackets tend to do to large kids.  As far as I can tell, these fall into three distinct categories: Inanimate Objects, Taking Advantage of Momentary Slimming, or Part of the Body.

Inanimate Objects

By far the most popular solution.  On the YA end of things it’s almost de rigueur.  On the children’s side it’s less common but not entirely unheard of.

Larger Than Life Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall

Here we had a book about a confident, well-adjusted girl who was also fat.  And here we have a book cover of a dress, with no girl in sight.  Yes, it refers to the plot, but still . . .

LargerLifeLara Overweight and Invisible

Slob by Ellen Potter

Owen, the hero of this book, is a big guy but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the cover of the book.

Slob Overweight and Invisible

Taking Advantage of Momentary Slimming

In fantasy novels you’ll sometimes have a main character attain their heart’s desire through magic.  Other times, they just lose weight over the course of the novel and are thinner at the end.  No surprise that this is when the jacket designers pounce . . .

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I remember that there was a fair amount of discussion about this cover when it came out.  Now it’s true that by the end of the book Benevolence (Ben) has lost some weight, but this costume is clearly meant to obscure her body.  The face was called zaftig by some, but I think that can be attributed to her full cheekbones more than anything else.

PrincessBen Overweight and Invisible

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Sort of ironic that a book about looking past appearances would fail to put its heroine, Aza, on its cover in her natural, larger state.  This is a good example of a jacket taking advantage of a momentary plot element.

Fairest Overweight and Invisible

Part of the Body

Is it cheating if only a small portion of the child is shown?  Probably.  But with that in mind . . .

Small Persons With Wings by Ellen Booraem

Since placing feet on covers is a trend to begin with (See: Sock Related Covers Reach Dangerous Levels), how much more work was it to turn the large heroine of Booraem’s book into her tootsies alone?

SmallPersonsWithWings Overweight and Invisible

I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President by Josh Lieb

Interesting.  This is our overweight antihero Oliver, and unlike most books we do get to see at least a portion of him.  We may have to declare this the closest yet.  The question is, did they allow us to see some of his face because he was the bad guy of the book?

iamageniusofunspeakableevil1 Overweight and Invisible

Of course even that cover got a little mucked with over time . . .

geniusevil2 Overweight and Invisible

Clearly there must be more middle grade books for kids that star oversized heroes and heroines.  Can you find any on their book jackets for me?  How, for example, do we feel about Karen Cushman’s Rodzina?

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. tanita says:

    Ironically, once you mentioned the piece in Tablet Sunday before last, things about size and covers and fiction have all collided coincidentally in my head. I remember reading Tucker Shaw’s Flavor of the Week, and sort of marveling in my head that it was the first book where the male character was outside of the cultural norm in size, and he was in love… but the cover copped out and showed a chocolate dipped strawberry, even though a great deal of the plot hinged on him being overweight.

    I was – and have been, repeatedly, disappointed…

  2. Rebecca says:

    Check out the evolution of the cover for Paula Danziger’s THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT.

    My own beloved copy from the 70s had the top cover seen here: http://jezebel.com/359726/the-cat-ate-my-gymsuit-a-pocket-full-of-orange-pits. The current cover, I believe, is a drawing of a cat.

    Interestingly, this 2008 article explains that Danziger was opposed to having her MC on the cover: http://www.printmag.com/Article/Cover_Girls.

  3. The really depressing part is that it seems like half the time the representative object in question is going to be food. Even when that food hasn’t got much to do with the story itself. It’s like someone skims through the book’s description and decide between “Oh well, let’s just put a skinny model on the cover anyway” or “Hmm, what can I use as cover art. Obviously since this character is overweight, the ONLY POSSIBLE OPTION is ice cream.” Either way it’s marginalizing.

  4. Erica Perl says:

    Interesting topic! I love the cover that my YA novel, VINTAGE VERONICA, received when it came out last year (and which is the same on the about-to-be-released paperback edition), but it is definitely in the inanimate object camp (a drawing of a dress, based on the fact that the plus-sized heroine is obsessed with vintage clothing and draws pictures of her favorite pieces).

    With the exception of HUGE by Sasha Paley (which now has a cover featuring the actress from the short-lived TV show), I can’t think of a book that has dared to break this particular taboo. Carolyn Mackler’s THE EARTH, MY BUTT AND OTHER BIG ROUND THINGS had the title embroidered on the back pocket of a decidedly petite pair of jeans (a good book and a cute cover, but still…).

    Even Judy Blume’s BLUBBER, I seem to recall, has never featured a truly fat girl on it (feel free to tell me I’m wrong). The one I remember best had a round-faced girl at the blackboard in a loosefitting dress with her classmates laughing at her… the current cover has a tiny whale motif that looks like in belongs on a polo shirt.

  5. HOLES pops to mind, too. Not just because the cover doesn’t show much of Stanley (only his head, on the hardcover), but because they didn’t even attempt to make Shia Labeouf appear heavier at the beginning of the movie! I feel like it’s key to Stanley’s character that digging the holes, and suffering for it, made him fit enough and determined enough to carry Zero up the mountain.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m a writer and a teacher, and I once read a draft of a story to a group of fourth and fifth grade girls. The protagonist in the story (which a friendship/mystery story; the character’s weight was not part of the plot) was described as being “a little bit fat and very pretty, with wide green eyes and wavy hair”. Though the girls loved the story, they told me that I should change the description, because nobody would want to read about a fat girl. One of the most outspoken of the readers was herself, “a little bit fat”. I was trying to write about someone who looked like her–but she was emphatic about not wanting to read about a fat girl.

    Another time, after reading about about the Japanese pearl divers, I tried to explain that one of the reason why the deep sea divers of Japan were often women was because women had more body fat than men, and the extra fat helped them cope with the extreme cold of deep water. The children were visibly embarrassed, and one child told me I was being sexist, to say that women were fatter than men. It was clear to me that “fat” did not mean, “more flesh” or even “extra flesh” to them. It had powerful negative connotations–it meant ugly or even obscene.

    I’m not saying that publishers are right to “correct” or obscure the figures of heavier protagonists. What they are doing is part of the problem. But the prejudice against fat in this country is all pervasive, and has grown much stronger during my lifetime. I have no doubt that publishers sell more books when they don’t put fat characters on the cover.

  7. Laura Wadley says:

    Same problem with the cover of Kurtis Scaletta’s The Tanglewood Terror. Two diminutive kids are shown on the admittedly terrific cover, though the narrator describes himself as fat, a big kid, one who has “filled out” enough to play 8th grade football as a 7th grader. He’s a terrific kid but apparently can’t be terrific and big at the same time.

  8. marjorie says:

    Nice post, Betsy. I think I told you I recently had an essay on fat kids in kidlit killed. I think whenever you say that anti-chunk bias is harmful to kids, you wind up freaking people out. The “fat is bad” meme is so ingrained that merely pointing out that fat kids experience a ton of bias puts you in perceived advocacy territory.

    I’m going to rework it as a reported piece and try again to place it.

    Thanks, Anonymous, for your experience from the trenches. I wish I were surprised at your students’ “no one wants to read about a fat girl” feelings. While there are positive portrayals of kids who are fat in YA (tho they’re rare) and cute images of chubby cartoony kids (and badgers, lemurs and infinite other cute visual stand-ins for kids) in picture books, middle grade books seem MUCH more likely to demonize fat kids. And when fat teenagers appear in YA, they DO often — not always, but often — wind up losing weight when they gain control over their lives or get happier. Real life doesn’t tend to work that way.

    Erica, as a fat devotee of vintage, I’m very much looking forward to reading Vintage Veronica! I’ve had it for a year but since I always have to prioritize explicitly Jewish books for work, I haven’t gotten around to it. (I did just read When Life Gives You OJ with my kids — no fat, but lots of Jewy — and we all really enjoyed it!)

  9. Meredith says:

    I’m somewhat torn about this, because I actually really hate covers with pictures of people on them. So I prefer the object covers to the people ones. But if there is going to be a person on my book, I want the person to look like they’re supposed to.

  10. Dan Santat says:

    The title of your blog post will most likely be the words written on my tombstone

  11. Monica says:

    Quite honestly, as someone who was a fat girl in school (and still am, really), I always always preferred inanimate objects on the cover. The skinny girl model as fat girl annoyed me (as did any cover that didn’t represent the book), but I would have been uncomfortable with a fat- looking girl on the cover. It’s for the same reason I never read Blubber anywhere except in an empty library: I felt safer. I didn’t want to draw attention to my weight and went out of my way to walk lightly and not be seen eating outside of meals. (Really, watch the fat people you see on tv or in movies and see what greedy slobs they are, I refused to live up to that stereotype) The sad thing is that most of the girls who could relate to these characters probably feel the same way I did. I push Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Fat Things all the time b/c I would have loved it as a girl (what, no miraculous weight loss and she’s only working out to be healthier? Awesome!), but I know full well that there are many who either see the title and snicker or see it and look away in shame, wanting to read it but afraid to be seen reading a book about being fat.

  12. Leah says:

    I remember reading Robert Kimmel Smith’s JELLY BELLY as a kid. The cover that I grew up with isn’t an ideal representation of fat kids, though it is true to the plot–two boys are scrambling out of their cabin at “fat camp,” carrying armfuls of sugary contraband. The more recent cover isn’t quite so over-the-top, and shows the full figure of a young boy and his beleaguered expression as he contemplates a carrot.

  13. Christine Bird says:

    “Slenderizing a plus size character for a cover” happened to the truly slender Kate Middleton in real life. Her tiny waist was photoshopped to be even smaller when she appeared on magazine covers.

    Slender is the new normal Microscopic is the new slender. As for actual fat people (who become more numerous every day in real life,) they have entirely disappeared from cover art.

  14. Adam says:

    When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. Not exactly the main character. And nothing but a trailer on the book jacket. But certainly features an overweight kid.

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