An Open Letter to the 2011 Quick Picks Committee

First, thanks to all the amazing responses on my last blog, being linked from Courtney Summers own blog definitely made my week!  Using random.org the winner of my copy of Some Girls Are is Claire, hooorah, who I have contacted via e-mail.  If I don’t hear back from her, I’ll try again.  Definitely keep reading for more reviews and giveaways.

I loved Some Girls Are SO MUCH I wanted to *make sure* it was nominated for both the 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults list and the 2011 Quick Picks list, so I headed over to YALSA’s site to check out the current nominations list.

That’s where I saw one of the books nominated for a Quick Picks was the offensive and super problematic This is Why You’re Fat.  I really felt like I needed to write this open letter to the Quick Picks committee, trying to address some of the issues I think are worth discussing about this book and its possible inclusion on the final 2011 list.  I hope this gives people, both on the committee and in general, something to really think about and discuss!

Dear 2011 Quick Picks Committee:

First. let me thank all of you for your work on this committee.  Right now, I’m in the middle of my first term on a YALSA selection committee and I KNOW what hard and exciting work it is; how you start to think, for a few seconds, staring at a huge pile of books you have to read that maybe, just maybe, you might be getting sick of books right before a wave of euphoria at how many damn good books there are being published washes over you.  I know, too, the weight of the responsibility you feel: knowing these lists will be used by literally thousands of librarians and teachers across the entire country.

Because, of course, these selection lists mean something, it’s an honor to be on them, it helps sales, it gives authors traction, it’s something librarians can use when they are justifying purchases, it counts to be included.  That’s why I’d like all of you committee members to seriously think about what it means to include a book like This Is Why You’re Fat.

For those of you who don’t know This is Why You’re Fat is the book form of a blog.  Well, it was a tumblr, actually, and basically it was nothing more than pictures of “disgusting” food posted.  There was no witty commentary like there is at say, Cake Wrecks or Regretsy.  There was just pictures, thrown up on a tumblr dashboard, all under the moniker This is Why You’re Fat. You can’t see the blog/tumblr anymore because it’s been removed (by the creators)  but the pictures ranged from the infamous Krispee Kreme Hamburger to “giant” Oreos.

What this really was, though, was more of the continued fucked up messaging our culture gives about food, eating, and health.  See, we fatties get constantly told about how people are just trying to shame us because they care so much about our health. But if that’s the case, why wasn’t the tumblr called “This Is Why You’re Unhealthy” or, even, say, “This Is Why You Have Blocked Arteries!!!” Oh, right, because it wasn’t about that, it was about TEH FATZ!  The dreaded, disgusting, worst thing you could ever be: this, America, THIS IS WHY YOU’RE FAT!

I’d like to ask all of you who work with teens to take a moment to consider where a book like This Is Why You’re Fat fits in with teens who are suffering from disordered eating and looking for some thinspiration. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s a word used within the pro-anorexia movement to describe tips, slogans, and, most especially, pictures that encourage continued weight loss and starvation.  And, yes, I just said pro-anorexia, otherwise known as the movement to promote anorexia as a “lifestyle choice” and not a disease.

You can Google thinspiration or thinspo or pro-ana, if you’d like.  Here’s some of what you’ll find: pictures of girls showing off their rib cages, posters sharing tips about how to go for long periods of time without eating, posts of “before and after” pictures of celebrities where you can see wrist bones and clavicles sticking out, and posters positively encouraging each other as they become sicker and sicker.  There’s even many YouTube videos to go with the pictures.  It’s not hard to find, it’s not inaccessible, the most you might ever have to do is register for a free forum or click a button PROMISING you are 18.  You can literally find dozens of examples in one Google search.  Just this week the American Journal of Public Health posted a comprehensive analysis of pro-ana and pro-mia websites, finding that 91% of these sites had public access.

And who is doing all that Googling?  Statistics show it’s mostly teenage girls.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Eating Disorders Association, and the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, one in five women has an eating disorder or disordered eating, and 90% of these women are aged 12 to 25. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents.

And while it’s not pictures of models with their shoulder blades poking through their skin, a book like This Is Why You’re Fat is MADE for thinspiration.  It acts as motivation, inspiration, and a driving force to adolescents who are desperate for justification about their “lifestyle” choices and on the hunt for visual proof to keep them vigilant about not eating.  This is re-enforcement of the worst, most harmful kind of thinking: don’t eat cookies, donuts, bacon, ice cream, hamburgers, cheese, meat, bread: don’t  eat it because  this is why you’re fat! FOOD IS WHY YOU’RE FAT. This has real-life consequences.  (I know, I must have said that phrase about 20 million times on this blog, but it’s a really important context to put these things in, a frame, and it needs to be said and repeated.)

Am I taking this to the extreme?  Probably.  But that’s the entire premise of the book, isn’t it?  The thought process behind the pro-ana and pro-mia movements?  Dealing with extreme ends of the spectrum, thought taken to its most grotesque and overwhelming ends?  That’s how they end up being so perfectly, nightmarishly suited for each other, this book and thinspiration within the pro-ana and pro-mia world. Maybe only one in five teenagers might see this book and get “food is why you’re fat!” from it (although I would argue this is the not so thinly disguised premise from the start) but the point is: we know there’s that one in five teenager out there.  And that the one in five figure is probably a  modest estimate.   What are we saying to them?

Thousands of libraries across the country will purchase This Is Why You’re Fat if it is selected as a 2011 Quick Pick.  That means even more teenagers will have access to it, will see it on library shelves.  What messages will they be getting from it?  That they should try to live “more healthy lives” or that eating a burger is what has made them so disgustingly fat? Is that none of our concern as librarians?  Does that have nothing to do with the books we chose, from the thousands published every year, as worthy of this distinction and honor?

I see that selection criteria for Quick Picks informational titles includes “Accuracy” and “Objectivity.”  I know that you, as a committee, will be sitting down to discuss all these nominations during Annual.  As a fellow librarian who works with teens, a YALSA member, and a librarian who uses YALSA’s lists for collection development, I’d like to ask you to really consider and discuss if This IS Why You’re Fat is either accurate OR objective.

What we do matters, don’t you think?  I do, it’s why I do it, after all.  I don’t think that this book shouldn’t exist, that it should be pulled from all library shelves and bookstores.  But I think it’s worth questioning what purpose it serves, what audiences it is geared for, and what purpose we, as a librarians, would serve by selecting it as a 2011 Quick Pick.

Thanks for your time and hard work on the committee.  Like so many other librarians, I appreciate all your work and I do know, first hand, what a significant commitment it is.  I know you don’t take that commitment lightly and I thank you for taking the time to read and really consider my thoughts and point of view.

I hope to see you at Annual,

-Angie Manfredi

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Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers,

“We’re the kind of popular that parents like to pretend doesn’t exist so they can sleep at night, and we’re the kind of popular that makes our peers unable to sleep at night.  Everyone hates us, but they’re afraid of us too.”

At least, that’s the kind of popular Regina Afton used to be.  But this?  This is a freeze-out.

I was a mean girl in high school.  (yes, a mean fat girl.  I know, a head-spinner.) I know that term has kind of lost its sting after the movie, after Tina Fey turned it into a punchline.  Don’t get me wrong, I like that movie a lot too, but it’s a comedy, a good comedy, yeah, but it’s a haha look at “mean girls” in high school.  Ah, how quickly we forget.  There’s nothing haha about it.  The Booklist review suggested this book was good for libraries “where Gossip Girl maintains a loyal following” … but there’s nothing glossy, glamorous, or deliciously soap operatic about the betrayals and hurts in this book: that’s what makes them sting.

Courtney Summers’s Some Girls Are is a look at what mean girls are really like, what it REALLY takes to hang with the most popular and most ruthless girls in high school, the ones that make it impossible for their peers to sleep at night.  It is a raw, riveting, unforgettable look at what it means to suffer through high school hell and still have the courage and determination to not give up.  It’s an amazing book.

Regina is part of the clique that runs her school but after one party goes very wrong and she tells the wrong person about what happened, the group quickly turns on her.  Some Girls Are is the story of how Regina faces high school, and her own past sins, in the aftermath of this incident as her friends quickly go about making her life hell.

And make no mistakes: Regina has done wrong.  Kara, the girl in her group who betrays her, was previously humiliated and  ignored by Regina.  Interestingly, Summers suggests that Kara’s (serious) disordered eating was encouraged by Regina’s pressure.  (acting on behalf of Anna, the Queen of their clique.)

Everyone knows Kara used to be fat until the second half of tenth grade, when she learned to stick her fingers down her throat and started popping diet pills.  She had to wear a wig in her class photo because she was losing her hair; you can see it if you look really closely.  It was the pills or the purging.  And those were only suggestions, anyway.

It’s not like I told her she had to do that to herself. (pg. 28)

Wow.  This is an amazing passage that confronts the real-life consequences of all that supposedly harmless body snarking and constant peer pressure regarding weight and looks that happens all too frequently among teens.  Regina has other memories of how badly she treated Kara:

I stood next to her at Ford’s while she bought the over-the-counter diet pills.  And then, from that point on, I watched her melt.  It made Anna happy. (pg. 86)

Kara didn’t just “think she looked fat in these jeans!” – didn’t just say one or hear one negative thing about her weight: she realized that her standing in the group depended on how she looked and decided that standing was worth her health.  This happens more than we’d like to admit, as adults who work with teens, as adults who live in a culture that constantly tells us “just a few pounds more!” and it’s part of what I liked best about this book.

What I Love About This Book

The list could go on forever: The prose!  The characters!  The tension!  The messed up, compelling, utterly irresistible romance!  But, really, all of that comes down to one thing: IT TELLS THE TRUTH.

The truth, the truth I remember, is that high school can be a blood sport.  It was not a laughing matter.  The truth was that adults can look the other way, that the  people you think are your friends can turn on you in the blink of an eye if the “mood” goes against you, that all it takes is a few words to make someone’s life hell.  There’s no looking away from what happens to Regina OR what Regina, herself, did.

There are big questions with no easy answers in this narrative: Regina did terrible things (not the least of them how she pressures, shames, and guilts Kara when it comes to her weight) and now terrible things are being done to Regina.  What I love about this complication is that there’s not an easy answer to if this is fair…  it’s a question that doesn’t really have one answer, just the kind of question teens deserve to be asked more often.  (What else do I love?  Regina doesn’t remain a passive, helpless victim in this cycle: she remembers how the game is played and strikes back in anger and even physically.  Now the story is even more complicated: is it “right” or justified that she does this?  What are the consequences of this striking back?  Can this self-perpetuating cycle ever be broken?  Another big question!)

Summers makes everything happening to Regina feel so immediate, so helpless, so suffocating, that when Regina actually connects with someone else,  a boy named Michael she helped ostracize, their connection feels like a lifeline: urgent, confusing, and vital.  This makes their connection seem tangible and real and oh-so irresistible.  To me, this is 100x more dramatic than some 100 year old vampire.

Everything about this book feels so damn true.

Recommended for: All public libraries and all high school libraries, content and language make this definitely a high school level book.  Also recommended for reluctant readers and fans of realistic stories with a edge.

Comment for a Chance to WIN A COPY OF THIS BOOK!

I hope you can’t wait to read this book!  If you’ve already read it, I hope to hear your thoughts and opinions about it in the comments!   St. Martin’s Press generously provided me with this copy and my library already has a copy, so I’m going to use random.org to select a random winner from the comments.  It could be you!  And if you don’t win, why don’t you go into your local library today and see if they have a copy.  If they don’t, request they buy one.

As for me: I can’t wait to see what Courtney Summers writes next.

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