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Teen lit with plus-size characters takes off

September 04, 2009|Leanne Italie | Leanne Italie writes for the Associated Press

Like never before, teen lit is alive with plus-size characters who take on their school tormentors and get the guy, soaking up self-esteem as football heroes and big-girl models.

While fat may not be the new vampire, the uptick comes at just the right time for young readers. Childhood obesity is epic while a large, loud and proud fat-acceptance movement advocates good health at any size over doomed diets, food obsessions and body shame.

In titles that include "Looks," "Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies" and "This Book Isn't Fat, It's Fabulous," young people with meat on their bones are front and center in at least two dozen new books out since last year, rather than the usual ugly-duckling best friend or neighbor. Many of the stories conclude without significant weight loss, a huge breakthrough for some young fans.

"There weren't many characters I could relate to when I was younger," said Elizabeth Sterling, an 18-year-old nursing student who writes a blog called Diary of a Fat Teenager. "The message that would come across to my young insecure brain would be, 'In order to do what they do, you need to look like them.' "

Allen Zadoff's September release "Food, Girls and Other Things I Can't Have" relies on wit and cutting dialogue to tell the story of a rare overweight boy protagonist. Zadoff, 42, said he was obese growing up like his character 15-year-old Andrew Zansky.

"I was not just overweight. I was struggling with an eating disorder. I got larger and larger over time. No amount of dieting would fix the problem for me. I would lose weight and then gain it all back," Zadoff said. Out of his struggle came his acclaimed adult memoir in 2007, "Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin."

The upcoming book, his first for young readers, features Andrew, a high school sophomore who weighs 306.4 pounds. He dreads squeezing into his classroom desk and rubs off the very public size 48 lettering on the outer waist of Levi's he can barely zip. He lusts for an insider's life and makes it as a jock, only to readjust his priorities.

"When I was in my sophomore year in high school, the coach came up to me and asked me if I had ever considered playing football," Zadoff said. "At the time I was insulted. I knew he was just asking me because I was big, so I said no. Andrew says yes. As a result, his life path takes a radical turn. I wrote the book to kind of explore how would my life had been different if I had said yes instead of no."

In C. Leigh Purtill's "All About Vee," bold and bright 18-year-old Veronica May also says yes -- to life, love and adventure.

Veronica is a big (217 pounds) and talented star in the community theater scene in her tiny border town of Chester, Ariz., where she grows frustrated with the life path of her equally large father. Then she heads to Hollywood to make it as an actor, contending for the first time with competition from the size zeros.

After some ups and downs, she gets the hunk while staying true to herself.

"Too many books have the girls as overweight, then they go to fat camp or they become the beautiful person by dieting, by losing weight," Purtill said. "There always seemed to be this losing weight element that was key to their happiness. I just wanted my characters to be representative of a lot of people out there."

Skyanne Fisher, a book blogger and 14-year-old of size in the small northeastern Pennsylvania town of Wyalusing, said she's a Vee fan for precisely those reasons.

"It was one of the books that I really connected to -- I loved how she made her own way, had friends and got the boy without forcing herself to lose weight," she said. "It IS possible to be happy as you are."

In addition to Vee, there's eighth-grader Celeste Harris, happy living in oversized hoodies under her middle school's social radar until a meddling aunt enters her in the Miss HuskyPeach Modeling Challenge in Erin Dionne's "Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies."

Since February, when the book came out, Dionne said she has received five or six letters a week from mostly girl readers who connected with Celeste.

"Average-looking kids who don't have a weight problem can hide their issues behind a facade that is normal, whereas an overweight heroine is already dealing with other people's perception of her, whether that's the focus of a book or not," Dionne said. "It's something that the character has to deal with in some way."

To some in publishing, such books for young people feel risky, but definitely worthwhile.

"I've never done a fat kid book before, but I never got one that was this good, either, and from a boy's point of view," said Elizabeth Law, publisher of Egmont USA and Zadoff's editor for "Food, Girls and Other Things I Can't Have."

"We're beginning to realize there's more to life than weight loss," Law said. "There just seems to be a little more acknowledgment in our culture now that everybody just can't go on Slim-Fast and get it taken care of."

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