by Judith Matz, LCSW
One of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, grew up in Nigeria and has an excellent TED talk where she explains the danger of a single story. Adichie loved books as a young child, and she reveals that when she began writing her own stories at the age of seven, her characters mirrored those in the American and British stories that were read to her:
All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.
Adichie captures her point of how vulnerable and impressionable we are, and especially children, in the face of a single story with these words:
Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify…But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized. Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.
Although far from perfect, it’s become more common to find children’s books in the United States that offer some diversity in their characters. This past summer the National Public Radio program, All Things Considered, featured an interview with Elizabeth Bluemle, co-owner of Flying Pig bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont. At the time, her store promoted children’s books where at least one major character is a person of color. The book couldn’t be driven by racial issues; instead, kids and adults in these stories were just being kids and adults. No single stories here. What about stories for younger children with characters who are fat? Most recently two come to mind. Maggie Goes On A Diet came out in 2011, the story of a girl who is poor at sports, unpopular, and bullied by her peers. But when she goes on a diet and loses weight, she becomes the popular start of her soccer team. Don’t Call Me Fat, published in 2014, was the subject of an excellent blog by writer Anne Ursu. Written by a psychologist, this book about weight is meant to be sensitive to fat children but instead, teaches stereotypes and weight stigma. The loud and clear message to children from both authors is that losing weight is key; you can’t be happy or healthy at a higher weight, and you can expect your peers to shun you. There’s been a single story for fat kids: Fat is bad.
Amanda’s Big Dream, illustrated by ASDAH member Elizabeth Patch, was a collaboration born out of the need to have other stories. What about a child who is at a higher weight and happy? What if she eats well and is physically active? What happens if someone comments on her weight? And how can people who care about her offer her the support she needs to not lose confidence in herself? There is no single story. Amanda is not the single story of a child who is at a higher weight. She can’t speak for every child who is fat, just for herself. There are kids who are fatter than Amanda, and there are kids who are thinner than her – but who are afraid of becoming fat. There are kids who don’t have the financial and emotional resources she has. There are kids who are more outspoken than she is. Amanda is just herself. But Amanda can do something very important. She can show kids—as well as pre-teens, teens, and adults— that there’s not just one right size to be. She can help start conversations between children and parents, and show adults how kids need and should be supported to feel good in – and to take care of – their bodies. I look forward to the day when a story that features or includes a higher weight child isn’t actually a story about weight. When a bookstore like Flying Pig will promote books where at least one main character is fat, and the story itself has nothing to do with body size or eating habits. We should expect kids of all sizes and colors to be portrayed in children’s books, with all of the strengths and vulnerabilities that kids have. Running and playing. Jumping and dancing. Scared of monsters. Unsure of how to make friends. Playing with animals. Going on adventures. Dealing with a new sibling or a divorce. All of this. Not because they’re fat or thin. Only because they’re kids, with the natural challenges and dreams that are part of being human. We need many stories so that kids of all shapes and sizes can, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, relate and see themselves reflected in what’s being shared with them by the adults in their lives.
I’d like to suggest that, as a community, we create a list of stories that exist now – and are published in the future – that portray children of different sizes in a positive way. Here are a couple of recent ones:
- Your Body Is Awesome by Sigrun Danielsdottir
- Reeni’s Turn by Carol Grannick (ASDAH member). This book was awarded a Finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award at Hunger Mountain (Vermont College MFA in Creative Writing/Writing for Children and Young Adults). Excerpts of Reeni’s Turn will appear soon in the Spring/Summer issue 2015 of Hunger Mountain, in print and online.
What are YOUR suggestions? In the comments section, we invite readers to submit their favorite children and youth-focused books that inspire body confidence and self-esteem. If you are an author/illustrator or a potential author/illustrator reading this blog, then consider reaching out to Judith and Elizabeth to discuss how you might also start publishing your own stories that reflect your specific background as it pertains to size, body acceptance and self-esteem.