Review: Skinny, by Donna Cooner (Oct. 2012)

Skinny, by Donna CoonerThe pitch: Fat girl Ever is miserable with the weight she’s gained since her mother’s death. She feels “trapped in a fat shell.” After losing weight with gastric bypass surgery, she gains enough confidence to let her gorgeous voice shine in the school musical.

The review: First of all, I should warn you that this whole post will be full of SPOILERS. Even the pitch has one, because there are no surprises in a book like this — that isn’t the point. If you’ve read a book before, you know Ever’s going to overcome the mean voice inside her that tells her she’s worthless, you know she’s going to end up with the boy who stood by her all along rather than the boy she’s worshiped from afar, you know she’ll be happier at the end of the book than she was at the beginning. You don’t read coming-of-age problem novels for surprises, you read them for comfort and inspiration (among other things, perhaps).

I picked this book up in particular because I care a great deal about how fat kids are portrayed in literature, and how they are given that comfort and inspiration. This is the first book I’ve seen about a teen who gets weight-loss surgery, and while I think it succeeds in some ways, in others it falls pretty short of the mark.

The characters are pretty specific for problem novel characters. I especially loved Rat, her best friend and eventual love interest. He manages to be the slightly insensitive brilliant geek boy who gets in trouble because he’s too smart not to be bored in school without feeling like a stereotype; I had a crush on him, too. Ever herself is believably flawed, but still likeable.

My favorite thing about the book is that one of Ever’s lessons is that it’s not all about her. Everyone has problems, and sometimes what she perceives as people treating her badly is a reflection of those people’s own issues. This is a lesson that is hugely important for teenagers, and I know I need reminders of it on a near-daily basis myself.

Unfortunately, this turns into my least-favorite thing about the book. If the people Ever saw as her tormentors — at least, the ones we get faces and names for — weren’t really tormenting her, if the real tormentor was Ever’s own internal monologue, then it’s all the fat girl’s own fault that she’s miserable. If Rat loved her and thought she was beautiful all along, if her classmates would have wanted to be friends with her if only she hadn’t put up a bitter and angry wall after the death of her mother, if the only thing stopping her from success onstage was her own lack of confidence, then how was any of it about her weight?

The book makes a halfhearted attempt near the end to sell the idea that she couldn’t physically have performed in the musical without losing the weight — but her physical health was never put forward as her main reason for getting the surgery in the first place. She wants it because she wants her crush to look at her differently; she wants to avoid social humiliations like having her chair break under her at an assembly. Her father and doctor assent to these reasons far too quickly, without any requirement that she attend therapy before committing to a major change in the functionality of her body.

I know a couple of people who have had weight-loss surgery and they are very happy with the decision — but these are adults, making that choice as a last resort at the end of a long parade of health issues. I was deeply concerned by Ever’s easy access to the surgery and the book’s glib attempt to have it both ways: she was beautiful all along, but rearranging her digestive tract was still the right call.

ARC swiped from the desk of my friend at Scholastic.

Also reviewed by: Crunchings and Munchings, The Scribbler in the Rye

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