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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
Of course even that cover got a little mucked with over time . . .
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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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. 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 EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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