[Featured Image Description: Book cover of ‘The Belly Book’ by Fran Manushkin. The rest of the images in this post are book covers from the preceding text].
In this post: 10 Fat-positive books for kids fostering kindness and compassion for humans of every size.
Call it what it is – Fat
My grandma was thrilled and astonished to live in a country where she could get fat. It never occurred to her to be ashamed, to whisper or get snarky about it. It was okay to call fat what it is – just fat. Not a moral failing, but a mark of success, celebration, and survival.
Everyone needs more won-tons
Grandma stood well below five-feet tell. In my distorted childhood memories, her polyester-clad body had a round, won-ton shape like a firm beach ball. When I visited, she would envelop me in a soft hug smelling of of tiger balm, oranges, and cooking oil. Then she would pull back, evaluate my forearm with a two-hand squeeze, and exclaim one of two options:
With pride: “Ahh! Good! Good fat! GOOD, fat! Fatty, fat, fat!” as she beamed and patted me.
Or with alarm: “Ai-ya! Too skinny! Too skinny! Need more won-ton!” and her eyebrows would knit together.
She would then go on to evaluate my father, cousins, and any bewildered friends who happened to tag along. Regardless of her ruling, she would drag us to the sofa, set a TV-table in front of us, and ply us with food.
This, along with the words ‘chicken,’ ‘rice,’ and ‘eat,’ were the only English words I ever heard her speak. Roughly translated, all of them mean: “I love you dearly. I want you healthy.”
Fat is often natural, human, healthy and good
In pride of place atop Grandma’s television sat a cheery fertility Buddha statue, his tummy spilling out over his lap, laughing while a pile of by cherubic tots climbed his rolls. In the bathroom, wall hangings and calendars were filled with illustrations of plump-cheeked children eating peaches and cavorting in trees.
Fat was a good, joyous thing. She grew up in China with her mother and siblings, left behind to fend for themselves while her father and eldest brother left to seek opportunity in the US.
I lost my language as I grew up, so all that I have of my grandmother’s stories came through my English-speaking mother from her rudimentary understanding of Cantonese. In these stories, I learned how great uncle Jimmy, still a child, would sneak food from local farmers to feed the family.
This was unimaginably dangerous – a crime punishable by death. He stole enough to keep grandma and their siblings alive – not quite enough for everybody.
Grandma could do nothing as her mother slowly starved to death, refusing food so her children could survive.
Contempt & vitriol
We have a problem with size discrimination and supremacy in kid’s lit. I thought ableism in our books was bad, because it was insipidly disguised as ‘awareness.’ The way authors and illustrators treat fat characters is far worse, full of overt contempt and vitriol.
I’m not sure if you’re a human who has interacted with our society or watched any TV, but in case you aren’t hip – racism is bad, ableism is falling out of favor, but it’s totally cool and funny to discriminate and make jokes about fat people because… (uh…I cannot think of a reason why this is okay).
Choosing to ignore body-shaming is a privilege
I have thin privilege. I’ve never faced the institutional discrimination barring me from quality education, healthcare, and social status based on my weight. I’m likely to swerve out of my lane and make mistakes when I discuss fat acceptance and liberation. Please call it to my attention if (when) I mess up. Facing up to my mistakes a risk worth taking if we’re going to get more strong, confident, complex, and happy fat kids in picture books.
It’s up to me to teach my skinny son that all his friends are humans worthy of kindness and respect – and it’s 110% not okay to shame or bully his fat friends.
Because if I don’t make that explicit – society will teach him a vile message – that our worth is something mutable and negotiable, that our right to compassion and respect could correlate with our size.
Captioned age ranges are for when my sons got ‘the gist’ of the story with discussion & alternative readings – most contain text for much older ages.
Celebrate Kickass Fat Girls (Human)
Schwartz’s early versions* of ‘Begin At The Beginning‘ (also ‘Bea & Mr. Jones,’ with a caveat for ableist use of ‘dumb’) feature confident, passionate, talented protagonists who eat without shame and their plump bodies are normal and healthy.
‘Beautiful‘ (also see ‘Lovely‘) call out traditional beauty norms for femmes while smashing expectations in the illustrations. I would have loved to see larger characters, but all of the more plump girls are athletic and kick-ass. While I promote all books should be read by both genders, be careful when reading the text to boys, as it reads like an 1800’s primer for demure ladies.
‘The Adventures of Isabel‘* isn’t for everyone – it’s subversive and violent. Normally I avoid violence in books but Isabel is so smooth, and boss as she decapitates giants and dodges shills for big pharma – “Isabel didn’t scream or scurry. She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up, Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.” This book fills me with glee. Isabel happens to be fat and she does not give any shits what anyone thinks about it.
*Of COURSE – both Sschwartz & Nash’s books have been re-printed with slim characters recently because the world is awful and nothing good can last.
Boost Belly Confidence
I have feelings about illustrators’ insistence of portraying fat-positive characters as hippos, elephants, cows, and pigs, but ‘I Like Me!‘ is canon within the slim pickings of fat-positive literature. (Another caveat – Carlson is a non-disabled supremacist and her work promotes internalized ableism.)
‘The Belly Book‘ is a happy, bouncy romp of a book and one of my preschooler’s favorites. Two caveats: Erasure of adoptive families (“Once upon a time, your mummy grew you – right inside her tummy.”) And an unnecessary spread featuring a happy, slim girl admiring her innie belly button while a chubbier boy pouts at his outie.
‘I Love You Nose, I Love You Toes‘ ( see also ‘Horns To Toes And In Between‘ and ‘It’s Okay to be Different‘) is a toddler anatomy book listing basic body parts and boosting body confidence. Tubby bellies are just a natural part of us, and aren’t charged with negative or positive association on size.
Appreciate fat bodies as natural, beloved & belonging
‘The Night Eater‘ (or ‘Comenoches‘ in Spanish) was a huge hit – surreal but not-quite-creepy, we see how it feels when the Night Eater is fat-shamed by the moon, and how everyone loses out without his contributions. ‘My Great Big Mamma‘ appreciates and shows how kids love fat moms exactly they are – a gorgeous example of body appreciation without fetishizing fat bodies. ‘Big Momma Makes The World‘ is a modern Judeo-Christian spin on the story of 7 days of intelligent design – featuring a powerful and benevolent god (Big Momma) creating the earth, heavens, and humanity.
Reject body-shaming & bullying
‘Amanda’s Big Dream‘ features the effects of a coach’s fat-shaming and the subsequent support of Amanda’s parents and doctor reassuring her that health comes in every size. ‘Abigail The Whale‘ is bullied by the kids in her swim class, and eventually learns to embrace and celebrate her body and her abilities, with the perk of some mild revenge (a very splashy cannonball). ‘Belinda’s Bouquet‘ was a progressive story on fat shaming and fat acceptance in 1989, featuring lesbian moms(!) but it centers a thin white dude as the protagonist for no apparent reason and the story is clumsy.
Lots of white girls – I know, so I’m still looking for more stories on this centering fat kids of color along the gender spectrum. Slow progress!
No – YOU move
Both ‘Ernest, The Moose Who Doesn’t Fit‘ and ‘Brontorina,’ follow the device as an allegory for inclusion – change the environment, not the size of the character. ‘You Are (Not) Small‘ is a modern classic teaching kids about perspective and labels.
Normalizing bodies of size
Many stories written by Elvia Savadier normalize plump children and adults, including both ‘Time to get dressed!‘ and our family favorite ‘Boo Hoo Boo Boo.’ Both stories celebrating gay parents – ‘Daddy, Papa, and Me‘ and ‘Mommy, Mama, and Me‘ do the same. ‘When Santa Was A Baby‘ (Santa inherited the family’s ‘good looks’) and ‘Dusk‘ (Fat grampa) are holiday favorites accepting fat bodies.
Navigating Body Comparisons
‘Minnie & Max Are OK!‘ features the journey of Minnie & Max as they compare their bodies negatively with others in a grass-is-greener situation, ultimately coming to a place of self-acceptance. ‘How To Be Comfortable In Your Own Feathers‘ is didactic and ham-fisted, but addresses body dysmorphia (anorexia) and gives parents a place to start discussions for kids navigating eating disorders (so it’s not for everyone).
Recognize anti-fat tropes in stories
SO MANY BOOKS center on skinny characters learning to treat fat people with respect only have they’ve ‘earned’ it by going above and beyond to prove their humanity.
SO MANY BOOKS offer the only path to humanity and acceptance though diet and exercise. Bootstraps!
SO MANY BOOKS end with parents beaming at their successfully down-sized child, who is now worthy of love and affection because they starved themselves thin.
SO MANY BOOKS with fat, happy, confident characters who are depicted as pigs, elephants, and cows surrounded by smaller animals who make fun of them. Seriously, with those old stereotypes? Is drawing a portly giraffe or fluffy meerkat so hard?
WE ARE NOT HAVING IT.
Problematic (And Common) Story Devices To Avoid
- ‘My Friend Maggie‘ – this is by far the most detestable of the list, and I hate it.
The bulk of the book subjects Maggie to humiliating illustrations as she falls off playground equipment, sucks at hide-and-seek, and is the butt of the maker’s jokes. The protagonist insists she likes Maggie ‘despite’ these ‘flaws’ which is some nonsense thin-supremacy logic.
Later, Maggie proves her value by forgiving the protagonist for being an asshat, proving that fat people must go above-and-beyond in order to be treated with basic human dignity.
- ‘The Runaway Wok‘s has an unnecessary depiction of ‘Chubby Lan’ to depict his green and laziness
“Without bothering to find the owner, the chubby boy grabbed the wok…Finally his weak arms grew tired and he headed home.” “Chubby Lan couldn’t make it very far without losing his breath”
- ‘Maggie Goes On A Diet‘ portrays an undignified Maggie shoving food into her face with her head in the fridge, implies fatness is the result of mental issues, and glorifies fat-miserable-before and skinny-happy-after. The maker puts the onus of her bullying on Maggie – she changes, not her bullies.
- ‘Hooway For Wodney Wat‘s bully is an aggressive, ignorant, fat Camilla Capybara insisting “I’m bigger than any of you. I’m meaner than any of you, And I’m smarter than any of you. So there,” perpetuating an aggressive fat bully trope.
- ‘Harry Potter‘ I love Harry Potter – but we need to discuss how every fat character is evil, lazy, or incompetent. (Neville becomes a bad-ass only after slimming down.)
- ‘I Like Myself‘ – I mostly like this story despite it’s many problems (the makers are ignorant of both race and weight stereotypes). However, the idea that she likes herself ‘even if‘ she’s fat implies that weight correlates with worth, and that’s an insidious message our kids can do without.
- ‘Fire Engine‘ features a fat character who busts through a metal wall to eat all the cupcakes and snacks intended for his coworker’s party. Seriously.
- ‘Bear’s Big Bottom‘ is a compilation of all the things Bear fucks up because he has a large ass. No thank you.
- ‘Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog‘ That cover. Also every single other thing about this book.
- ‘Clorinda‘ tries – but ultimately fails. She makes it into a big production as a dancer despite everyone telling her she’s too big (she’s a cow) – but quits and goes home when she realizes she’s so large her partner can’t hold her weight without being crushed. In contrast – ‘Brontorina’ (listed above) solves this issue in an obvious way with a minimum of fuss.
- ‘Bare Naked Book‘ is just one of hundreds of examples promoting body-positivity while completely erasing fat folks from the picture.
- ‘Is Mommy?‘ is a wretched, negative smoking pile of crap of a book ripping apart moms, but the icing on the cake is the line “Is mommy fat?” with the general understanding that ‘fat’ is a very bad thing. BTW: Yes she is! (Mommy is also apparently short, boring, ugly, and mean.)
- See also: Pretty much every book with a fat character.
Listen to Body Acceptance & Fat Liberation Leaders
“When my body gets smaller, it is still me. When my body gets bigger, it is still me. There is not a thin woman inside me, awaiting excavation.”
– Lindy West, from ‘Shrill‘
Again – I’m not fat, so place is to signal boost and get you guys hip to the concept so you can learn more. This post should not the end & all of your education on fat liberation. Read more by Lindy West, Roxanne Gay, and many other Kickass Fat Positive Activists.
Stay Curious & Stand Brave
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