REVIEW: ABIGAIL THE WHALE by by Davide Cali

Where’s the fat kids in picture books?

Well, you might guess the answer. They don’t really exist. Or they’re lumpy, somewhat grotesque bullies.  Or maybe you can find a few rotund hedgehogs or something but hey they’re really more adorable than anything else.

You know what fat people look like in picture books? Like this:

(this is from President Taft is Stuck in the Bath and I’ll be talking about this garbage fire shit soon.)

And yet picture books are the perfect place to start the talk with kids about loving and accepting your body.  Think of the picture books about accepting differences, about being OK with who you are.  Think how important those can be to kids, how when they are done well they are so affirming and so important.

Fat kids deserve mirrors too, is what I’m saying.  And they just don’t exist in picture books.

So yeah, I winced when I saw the title Abigail the Whale and saw a round fat girl in a bathing suit on the cover of a book.  I winced with everything I was expecting from this book.

And then I cried when it was nothing – nothing – like I was expecting.

The plot is quite simple. Abigail hates swimming in school. She hates it because when she jumps in the pool she makes “an enormous wave.” The other kids laugh.  They point.  And you know what they shout.  They shout “Abigail is a whale!”

The illustrations give us a lot here. They gives us Abigail slumping to the pool. They give us a huge wave from Abigail jumping in.  They even give us her heartbroken face as she bobs in the pool and her classmates tease her.

After swimming she sits by the pool with her swimming teacher.  And I braced for it.  I braced for the well meaning grown-up telling her that if she tried hard enough, if she worked hard enough at swimming, she could lose a little weight.  Oh, it wouldn’t be phrased like that, no dog whistles never are, it’d be something like: be stronger, feel better, be healthy, be more confident.  See, LOSING WEIGHT is always goal #1 of what they want us fat people to do, fat kids included, but they make sure to phrase it in a way where it seems like they care about us. So, I braced myself for it, for the gentle swim coach who encourages our fat little Abigail to work for her health.

And … instead …

“What’s wrong, Abigail? Don’t you like swimming? You’re a good swimmer, you know.”
“No, I’m too big and heavy.”
“That’s not true.  That’s just what you think.

Whoa! Whoa! Did an adult in a story just give a fat kid a compliment on her skills?  Did he just say that she’s good at something and then implicitly state that she is NOT too big and heavy.

I honestly gasped when I read this.  It seems so fucking small, I know.  I know it does.  But it’s not.  It’s not the kind of message fat people get.  We just don’t.

The book then gets into the main plot, which is the swimming teacher sharing his philosophy with Abigail, which will change Abigail’s life and power the narrative.

“We are what we think,” her teacher said. “If you want to swim well, you have to think light.” … “So if you want to feel light, think light.

Look…OK.  I know this is some surface level philosophy.  I know that it only scratches the very surface of what we need to understand and teach kids about bodies and how they interact with the world (and how the world interacts with them.) I totally agree. I also know there is a great amount of privilege in the suggestion you just “think” your way out of situations.

But I really think the swim coach’s advice is what makes Abigail the Whale work, because it is something that’s fundamental to fat positivity. One of the most important things you learn in fat positivity is that you can work to change people’s preconceptions but in the end you must accept your body and you are the most important voice when a thousand people are screaming at you about what a whale you are. It is your thoughts that change the world. You’re not suddenly thin.  It isn’t suddenly easier to find clothes that fit. But YOU can think about yourself differently and, in fact, that’s one of the first steps of fat positivity: what if I thought I was enough? 

And that’s really the core of what Abigail’s coach is telling her here: think of who you want to be and don’t let the world tell you otherwise or change your thoughts.

Abigail decides it can’t hurt and starts practicing it in ALL situations, not just swimming and not just when she’s worried about making a splash. In bed she thinks hedgehog curled up in a burrow and falls right asleep.  Abigail tries it all week! She thinks kangaroo and jumps high in gym. She thinks rabbit and eats all her carrots at lunch. She even, be still my heart, thinks shining sun and GUESS WHAT that boy she likes smiles at her.

YES, FAT KIDS!!! YOU CAN BE THE SHINING GOD DAMN SUN!!!!!!!!!!!!

And, at last, we come back to gym class and the pool.  And Abigail gets in line and thinks …. rocket. And she enters the water without a splash. And then and then she thinks of every kind of ocean fish and she swims beautifully, flawlessly. She thinks kayak, surfboard, submarine, speedboat and swims every stroke!

“Way to go, Abigail!”
All the kids in class we watching.
This time, no one shouted “Abigail is a whale!”

THE FAT KID IS TRIUMPHANT!! 

But of course there is still one kid who must tease. She dares Abigail to jump from the high diving board. Abigail climbs right up, though. And she thinks.  She thinks very hard.  And you know what she thinks of? In this moment after she has been victorious over her fears and shown off her skills and silenced the taunts Abigail thinks …

She thought very hard:
whale.
No, even better…
SUPER WHALE!

And she splashes all over that kid. With joy.

Let’s take a look at some of the illustrations from Sonja Bougaeva, because they’re really important and just wonderful.

Here, the illustrations give us the gravity of Abigail’s feelings. It sucks to be teased.  It hurts and it has a real impact.  It’s not “just fun” for Abigail.  Validating for fat kids to see!

Abigail is fat.  She is round.  She has a belly. This is a book about a fat kid and she is illustrated accordingly.  She’s fat.  This makes her body real and it is an actual mirror for actual fat bodies. Again, this seems like a detail, but it’s not.  Look at her in comparison with the other kids.

That’s a fat kid. That’s Abigail.

And you know what?  Abigail gets joy. Abigail gets to be GOOD AT SOMETHING.  Look at Abigail swimming, look at how she is HAPPY.

Oh, and note that she’s still fat. Look at her belly!

JOY JOY JOY LOOK AT THAT FAT KID’S TRIUMPHANT JOY JOY JOY!!!

I really did cry when I read Abigail the Whale for the first time.  So many moments when it could have went horribly, horribly wrong.  So many moments when it chose happiness for Abigail, when it gave her moments to preserve and, yes, persist.

Here are some amazing things for fat kids in this text:

  • her swim coach is fat too (see him in that first picture) so we know other fat people exist and DO STUFF in this universe and can even help each other out!
  • Abigail learns to sustain and bolster HERSELF. Using her coach’s technique she finds something in herself that motivates and inspires her.  She doesn’t rely on someone liking/befriending her or someone seeing something “other than her fat”. Within HERSELF and for herself she finds strength, resolve, and courage with WHO SHE IS and HOW SHE IS. This is some serious stuff that fat activists struggle with. To have it portrayed for kids in such a positive way … just … it means so much.
  • Abigail is allowed to feel stress and the impacts of the teasing. And, by that same token, she is allowed to feel joy and pride at her successes.
  • When she is up there at the top of the high dive, ready to jump in and show her bravery, Abigail does not imagine herself a rocket. She does not imagine she is light as air. She does not imagine herself as an arrow or even a cannonball. The text gives her that word back – the word the children have tried to turn against her. ABIGAIL IS A SUPER WHALE and that is empowering.  Many fat people will tell you of their joy of taking the word fat back for themselves and that’s what Cali gives Abigail in this moment.  I am here, at the top of this high dive, and I AM A WHALE and you won’t make me feel bad or hide from it. I WILL HAVE JOY. I WILL BE THAT THING YOU SAY I SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF. I WILL MAKE A SPLASH!

And does she ever.

Abigail the Whale is unlike anything I’ve ever read in picture books and, to be honest, it’s really quite unique in children’s AND YA lit. Because it gives us Abigail and her belly and her splash and it makes no apologies.  Indeed, it celebrates. This is a powerful message for kids, especially fat ones, and for the grown-ups who take care of them and are passing on messages about bodies and body image they might not even be aware of.

This is a translation of an Italian work and we’re so lucky to have it! If anyone speaks Italian or knows Davide Cali, please send him my biggest love and thanks! Abigail the Whale was published in the US by Owlkids Books. You can find out more about it here.  Of course, I am highly recommending it as a first purchase for all libraries and for anyone who wants to start sharing fat positivity with kids. You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library. If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it.

Most major reviewing sources found it to be pleasantly innocuous or standard fare.  Trust me as a fat person and reviewer and lover of kid’s books: it’s anything but. Kirkus thought the swim teacher should have done more to stop the bullying – but this isn’t a book about THE OTHER KIDS, you see.  It’s a book about Abigail. And it’s about damn time she gets her own book.

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Comments

  1. Thank you, as always, Angie! (And Abigail!) ❤️

  2. Weeping in my tea now. What a joyful book! And just in time for spring…

  3. I am recommending this for my library system–thanks so much for highlighting it. <3

  4. Margo Tanenbaum says:

    Thanks so much Angie–your review means a lot. Everyone is talking about diversity these days but NO ONE talks about fat kids–the forgotten minority. Thanks for your sensitive review. I hope my library system orders this one…

  5. Love this review so much! Thank you for it. Will look for this one to read.

  6. Barbara CArouthers says:

    Thank you for sharing. As I look around I see fat kids everywhere. What a great book, I will be purchasing it!

  7. Thank you for this review! We will be purchasing this title for our collection based on it. Just a small note: the book was originally written in French, not Italian, and was entitled Marlène Baliene.

  8. This is the kind of book I really needed when I was a kid. As a woman in her 20’s that still often deals with the hatred of my own body, a book like this could have potentially really helped me at a young age to see that I was wort more than my weight. I loved your review, and despite not reading a childrens book in many moons I think I just might have to pick this one up.

  9. I feel like it misses out on standing up to bullying. Shouldn’t the coach have said something? Not a bad message but as someone who was bullied for her weight and lost weight from an eatting disorder because of it, it would have been nice to see it address the bullying part of it.

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