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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I Hope My Fat Body Isn’t Grossing You Out, World.

Well, there it is: my big, fat body.  I’m standing in the Gulf of Mexico, in the middle of a luxurious vacation with a group of my closest friends, enjoying my life and my world and having a wonderful time with people who love me, but I can see as how this would gross you out.  What with me existing and everything.

On Monday, Marie Claire published an blog in their online Year of Living Flirtatiously column called “Should “Fatties” Get A Room?  (Even on TV?)” by Maura Kelly.  I’m not going to link to that article because (in my opinion) Marie Claire is currently loving all the page views and publicity.  But I first read about it on Jezebel, where there’s plenty of excerpts from the article and a link you can follow to it, if you’d like.

Anyhow, the article went viral, Kelly issued a completely awesome non-apology and it started a really good conversation about about if fat people, like, have a right to exist even if they make people like Maura Kelly upset “simply by walking across the room.”  Well, OK, there’s actually been much more conversation, commentary, and insight written about it and I’ve appreciated it, really, and I’ve appreciated that so many people spoke up and said, “This is offensive, this hurts me, this isn’t OK.”  That part is awesome.

But at the same time?  What in the holy hell?  There is no both sides.  There is no “let’s talk about Maura Kelly’s points!”  She doesn’t have any points.  She does not have an argument.  She wrote an offensive, hateful piece that isn’t well written or edited and isn’t really coherent.  This doesn’t mean “why bother responding?”  as most of you know, I *always* think it’s worth responding.  But … wow.  That this is what we’re responding to?  It’s almost shocking.

Almost, I say, because on the other hand, it’s not shocking at all.  It’s barely a surprise, I guess, to me as a fat person.  That’s what it means to be fat, after all, that people can “seriously” write things like this for a major national publication and get away with phrasing it like a question.  Should fat people be allowed to make out?

I wasn’t always aware of fat activism, part of it, you know.  I didn’t just spring into being this way.  Wading out in the Gulf of Mexico, the sand under my toes and the water deliciously cool on a hot day, I think that was maybe the first time in my adult life I was in a swimsuit without some sort of cover-up trying to hide my body.

It felt so good.

Understanding my body was not my enemy, understanding that people do not have an unalienable right to comment on and judge my body, that my body is not part of their conversation – that changed everything.   Maura Kelly, Marie Claire, that ridiculous blog, they deserve a response.  And that response is: shut the fuck up.

OK, fine, that’s simplifying it a bit.  What I mean to say is: my body is not yours for public discussion.  How I walk across a room, how I kiss a man, how I eat a pretzel, how I look in a swimsuit with clear blue water washing over my skin – that is not yours to feel repulsed by, to wonder about, to comment on at all.

That’s mine.

This is how my fat activism started: the awareness that my body was mine.  It grew from there, spurred on by conversations with a very smart person who knew about body politics and encouraged me to think about it, by my development as a feminist, and, oh yeah, by my reading.

In reading others stories, I saw my life and my struggles reflected back, and I knew that I wasn’t alone.  It is this connection that has always made reading so powerful, so important to me.

Over a year ago, I started planning a program for the 2010 YALSA YA Literature Symposium.  The idea?  To look at the many books published for young adults (in the last five years) dealing with fat issues, fat characters, and even fat acceptance.  These books (some good, some bad, some trying) that had characters that were learning to make peace with their bodies, to stand up for themselves, to figure out who they were – these books I thought could be a connection for so many teenagers.

One week from today, what began, over a year ago, as an idea for an author panel program will now be a half-day pre-conference.

I hope that this is just the beginning of the conversation, the first step in getting word out to librarians (and teens!) that there are books being published now that reflect a world full of different bodies and different sizes and these voices can help teenagers (can help anyone!) learn to stop apologizing for their bodies and start telling people like Maura Kelly that they’ll walk across the room without any shame and she doesn’t get the slightest bit say in it.

I hope you’ll join the conversation and spread the message.  It’s the most important thing we, as a community of librarians, reviewers, and writers, could ever say to Marie Claire or Maura Kelly.

It’s the best response we can give.

(additionally: if you’re coming to the symposium, please let me know, I’m super-excited about getting to meet up with as many people as possible!)

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The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Kody Keplinger

The DUFF: the designated ugly fat friend.  The one girl in a group that’s just not “as pretty” as the others.  DUFF: it’s a “real” thing, you know.  You can look it up on Urban Dictionary, where it’s been an entry since 2003.  The DUFF, the girl in any group who’s just not as pretty, not as skinny, not as noticeable, not as special as the friends she’s with. And, regardless of the group, regardless of the situation, you already (and always) know who the DUFF is…don’t you?  She’s you.

“For a girl with such a fat ass, I felt pretty invisible.”

FINALLY, you are saying to yourself SHE’S GOING TO WRITE ABOUT A FAT BOOK (AS PROMISED) AT HER FAT BLOG.  IT’S ABOUT TIME!

Well, about that . . .

But!  But!  It says “fat” right there, in the title!  Yet one of the things that works about The DUFF is that we don’t really know if our protagonist, Bianca, is “actually” fat.  And one of the things that doesn’t just work but that makes The DUFF brilliant is that it still manages to be about the complicated and often painful politics of body image.  Bianca might be fat.  She might not be.  The DUFF challenges readers to ask: what does fat look like and what does fat mean anyway?

The DUFF starts one night out when Bianca is out with her friends.  She is approached by Wesley, school hottie and well-known player, who attempts to chat her up so her friends will like him.  Why would that work?  Because, as Wesley explains, Bianca is The Duff among her friends.  She knows it and they know it, he assures her.   If they see him talking to her, why, they’ll think he’s sensitive and kind for deigning to talk to her and probably make out with him.  Bianca, naturally insulted, throws her Cherry Coke in his face and stalks off.

Of course, you can probably guess where this is headed.

One of the things that works the best about this book is that though many plot developments seem inevitable and predictable (Bianca and Wesley’s hostility is also chemistry?  You don’t say!) Kiplinger still manages to give them an extra dimension, something just a little different than what you thought you guessed.

Like I said, we don’t know “how fat” Bianca is, but we do get to hear some of her thoughts on how fat she feels.  She refers to herself as having “big thighs” (p. 12), as being “chubby” (p.39),  and as having a “fat ass” (p. 139). But, again, Kiplinger knows that everyone feels that way sometimes, that feeling like that doesn’t always describe how we actually look.  Is this a book about a fat girl?  Kinda.  But it’s also a book about how society sometimes makes you feel like “a fat girl” by making you feel like “fat” is the worst of who you are.

Another nice touch: Bianca’s best friends, Casey and Jessica, also have insecurities about their looks.  Though Wesley opens by telling Bianca she’s the DUFF, Casey and Jessica are only human.  At one point, Casey protests SHE’S the DUFF.  Casey thinks she’s “Sasquatch” (p. 44) … but tall girls are all models, right?  They never have anything to worry about! Kiplinger knows that’s not true, and she knows that’s the heart of the DUFF.  One particularly nice, subtle moment comes when Bianca says something dismissive to Casey about the girls on the cheerleading squad, a squad Casey happens to be a member of:

“…He wouldn’t even date a girl on the Skinny Squad–“

“I really hate it when you call us that.” (p. 190)

Such a nice touch!  Slamming of the other cheerleaders who have “skinny” bodies doesn’t pass without comment.  Casey lets Bianca know that makes her uncomfortable, that the language is reductive and hurtful.  In less than 20 words and without beating you over the head with it, Kiplinger gets the point across, loud and clear.

So, Bianca finds herself pulled into a quickly escalating physical relationship with Wesley in an attempt to get through some rough personal times. (again, an refreshingly honest detail: sometimes, we use physical and sexual intimacy in a way that’s not always healthy or fair.  But it feels good and it makes us feel connected.)  They banter, bicker, have sex, and start to scratch each other’s surfaces.  But can they ever be more than just “enemies-with-benefits?”

(This is one of the book’s less believable parts: it’s so honest about sex that when the plot starts to veer off to “and the guy you have random hook-ups with could totally turn into awesome boyfriend material if you just stick it out and give him a shot!!!” it feels a little unrealistic.  Yeah, that happens, but, in my experience, not that often.  But this is, in many ways, a romance novel so it’s not entirely jarring or unexpected within the genre.)

The relationship between Bianca and Wesley is good, don’t get me wrong.  For one thing: their sexual relationship is sizzling and integral to their relationship as a whole. (This is one of very few YA book I can think of that discusses cunnilingus.  [maybe the only non-lesbian one?] And discusses it in a way that seems totally believable and real to a teenage girl’s mind.) No hand-holding here, Edward Cullen!  The way the book deals with sex is definitely for mature readers but it’s also good to see YA fiction moving beyond the billowing curtains.  And Bianca and Wesley’s banter is good too: natural, unforced, and kind of mean in all the best ways.  So are the moments when they start to really connect.  She stands up to him, calls him on bullshit, and doesn’t let him treat her like crap.  He likes her more because of that.  That’s believable, that works.

But, for me, what makes The DUFF really work is Bianca’s relationship with her girlfriends, some other girls at school, and herself.  This is a feminist book.  It’s a book about owning your identity, about not feeling bad for feeling good about sex, a book about rejecting “sexist” labels and words that tear girls down.  (yes, Kiplinger uses the word sexist!  HURRAH!)

Reading The DUFF and not knowing how ugly or fat Bianca “really” is doesn’t just show how subjective and individual measures like that are.  Keplinger knows it helps readers understand that everyone feels like the DUFF sometimes.  Perhaps that seems a little simplistic, but I think it’s a message teen readers NEED to hear.

Hell, I think it’s a message we ALL need to hear.

Recommended for: Language and sexual situations make this one for older teens only.  I recommend this as a first purchase for public libraries and for teens in grades 10-12.  I think this has the potential to be one of those books teen girls pass around from friend to friend.

A NOTE ABOUT THE COVER!

You’ll note that my post features two covers.  The one of the left is a picture I took the ARC cover.  The one one the right is the one that’s shown on Amazon, Kiplinger’s site, etc.  I IMPLORE YOU, POPPY, PLEASE USE THE ONE ON THE LEFT.  Not because the girl on the left is “fat” (maybe she is, maybe she isn’t…which fits the text!) but because the cover on the right seems all wrong for the book.  Funky eyeshadow?  Blowing a bubble with bubblegum? What does that have to do with anything?  It seems almost tween-ish.  AND THIS IS NOT A TWEEN BOOK.  That model looks almost flippant and uninterested.  The girl on the left is looking right at you: up close and unblinking.  I can practically see the smirk on her lips.  She’s Bianca.

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

I hope you can’t wait to read this book!  It doesn’t come out until September 7, but after ALA I ended up with two advance reading copies.  (thanks to Little & Brown!)  I knew that meant I had to give one away!  So, as I did with Some Girls Are, I’m going to use random.org to select a random winner from the comments.  It could be you!

All you have to do is leave a comment with your thoughts about the word DUFF and you’re entered. (details: contest is open until August 12, US entries only please, don’t forget to use an e-mail address when you comment so I can contact you.) And if you don’t win,  don’t forget to go into your local library and request they buy a copy.

In the meantime, I suggest everyone take a moment to embrace their inner DUFF, the first step in working towards letting go of any power a word like that might have over you.

We *are* all The DUFF.

And that’s OK.

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Why I Use The F Word


You know … FAT.

The first time my teen patrons heard me refer to myself as “fat” they seemed unsure how to react. A group of teenage girls had gathered around a table in front of the desk I was working at and were discussing what might be considered typical adolescence topics: boys, hair, clothes, and their social lives. I heard one of them say, disgust in her voice, “I’m so fat today!” When I casually looked over to see who was speaking I saw a teenage girl who could not have weighed more than 110 pounds. I saw a teaching moment at hand, so I interjected, “You’re not fat. I’m fat.”

Conversation at the table came to a grinding halt as six heads swiveled as one to stare at me. They stared at me with confusion.  I was new in my job and this was one of the first times this group of girls had ever seen me. Their previous relationship with our library could have been classified as hostile, or at the very least, tense.  They stared at me now as if I were deliberately baiting them into making a nasty comment about me.

I smiled at them and they giggled nervously, some averting their eyes from my friendly gaze. This was one of my first verbal interactions with the high school crowd of girls who frequented my public library most weekdays, so I wanted it to be a positive one. I could tell the girls did not know how to react to this statement and could not tell what my intentions were, so I made sure my smile was extra warm.

“It’s true,” I continued, keeping my voice sociable and pleasant. “I am fat. It’s just a word, that’s all. It’s not an insult. It’s no different than saying I have brown hair.” I pointed to my hair at this point and smiled a little wider.

They giggled again and shifted nervously in their seats. “That’s why you shouldn’t call yourself fat,” I said, motioning vaguely to the girl who had spoken earlier. “It’s not because being fat is terrible or insulting, but because it’s not factually true.”

“Um, yeah,” one of the other girls said to the speaker. “That’s right, you’re, um, not fat, I guess.” There was a moment of silence, as the statement hung almost visibly in the air.  I wondered if this was the first time any of them had ventured to say this out-loud: you’re not fat, had been brave enough to not join in the chorus of body hate, the repeated mantra of “fat, fat, fat!” that so often surrounds so many of us.

There was no giggling this time; they just continued to stare at me as I smiled at them. I went back to my work and a few minutes later, I heard them return to their conversation. This was an icebreaker day in my relationship with these patrons, I like to think that from that day on they thought of me as a person who, at the very least, told the truth.

By the end of the year, I know they thought of me as an ally and an advocate, an adult who could (who would) speak up for them in a library setting.  I hope they also thought of me as a fat person because, as I told them that first day, that’s just what I am.

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