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A tale of 'losing it' for middle readers

September 14, 2012|By Nick Owchar
  • In "Losing It," Erin Fry describes a youth who battles obesity by becoming a runner.
In "Losing It," Erin Fry describes a youth who battles obesity… (Amazon Children's Publishing )

When conversations about obesity come up, aren't they usually about adults? That does seem to be changing, however, since it's a condition that can affect anyone, especially someone like Bennett Robinson, the eighth-grader at the center of "Losing It" by Erin Fry.

In "Losing It," her debut novel for middle readers, Fry looks at a young character -- brace yourself -- who actually ISN'T involved in a death duel in a post-apocalyptic world or making a hard choice between loving a werewolf, warlock or faerie. Hardly: Bennett's coping with the kinds of obstacles more familiar to most kids. And he's willing to risk embarrassment when he decides to become a runner.

I caught up with Fry, via an email exchange, to ask her about the message and inspirations behind her novel, as well as what it's like to face a publishing market dominated by supernatural beings.

Jacket Copy: Your story revolves around a young man’s weight problem and the tangled reasons behind it – did you worry that your character would be very different from the crop of lean, dazzling, super-athletic heroes that populate the tween and YA bookshelves these days?

Erin Fry: The biggest reason I think that Bennett is instantly relatable as a character is because he’s not super-athletic or what most would envision as the typical hero.  Bennett is an overweight eighth-grader who enjoys eating cheeseburgers while he watches Dodger games, thinks P.E. ought to be banned as a required class at school, and knows firsthand just how gross a bellybutton sweat stain can be. He doesn’t have the perfect body, for sure. But in middle school, who does?

Like a lot of middle school kids, Bennett’s not totally comfortable in his own skin yet. His insecurities and doubts, and then his fear as he takes that step to try running for the first time — those are familiar things for middle-grade readers . . . or maybe for readers of all ages, really. Does he stand out?  Maybe.  Is that a bad thing?  I don’t think so.  

JC: Bennett’s a very sympathetic, likable character. He’s dealing with a lot of issues that most young people face. Do you remember the first time you “saw” him clearly?  Often you’ll hear writers talk about that first moment – or moments – when their main character suddenly came to life in their minds. When did it happen for you?

EF: I started coaching middle school cross country five years ago.  Cross country is different than most sports because there are no tryouts.  Every kid that shows up can run.  So I’ve had kids who could run a 6-minute mile and kids who could barely run a mile at all.  And somehow I have to figure out a way to coach them all. 

It’s the kids who finish consistently in the back of the pack that fascinate me.  Kids who are clearly not runners.  Some are overweight.  Some are just really, really slow.  But they show up — practice, after practice — slog their way through the run, finish dead last, and then show up again the next day ready to do it all over again.  It got me wondering why.  Why would anyone put themselves through that?  And that’s when Bennett — and his story — started to take shape in my head.  Bennett’s that kid who’s not afraid to finish last. 

JC: Bennett’s father is obese, too, and Bennett’s own love of junk food is influenced by the fact that they share a bond over activities involving food: they love to watch sports together, for instance, while munching on hamburgers. But after his father has a stroke, Bennett is taken care of by his Uncle Jim. He's a very different kind of role model.

EF: Uncle Jim’s an easygoing and affable guy, especially compared to Bennett’s bossy, control-freak Aunt Laura. But Uncle Jim also calls Bennett “sport” (not a fitting nickname for sweat-phobic kid who wears XXL t-shirts) and relishes activities like coaching his kids’ soccer games and taking early morning runs, while Bennett’s more a couch-and-French-fries kind of guy. From the very beginning, I think Bennett was prepared to resent -- or at least avoid -- Uncle Jim.

But while Aunt Laura tries to literally shove her turkey and sprouts sandwiches down Bennett’s throat, Uncle Jim’s approach is to be more of an example, like when he starts taking Bennett out on early morning walks. Gradually, Bennett finds himself drawn to, and then trusting his laid-back, Gatorade-guzzling uncle whose advice is, "if you don’t feel good about being overweight, then, well, just shrink."  Which suddenly has Bennett wondering if he can.

JC: Did you have any other middle-grade books in mind as your own inspirations for “Losing It”?

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