Skin and Bones: Body Image in Children's Books

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005-2010

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Last Updated 06/08/10

Picture Books

(Click for fiction, ages 5-12, young adult fiction and nonfiction )

Dancing Feet written and illustrated by Charlotte Agell. Gulliver, 1994 (0-15-200444-0) $13.95 OP

With a rhyming text so infectiously rhythmic it almost sings, Dancing Feet is a joyous look at what makes people, people. Agell's striking, fluid pictures show us people from cultures all over the world--different clothes, different hair, different skin--while her verses remind us that despite our many differences, we all have some things in common: feet that walk and dance, arms that hold and hug. There's not an ounce of preachiness, just a vibrant statement of a beautiful truth. * (2-6)

Meet Danitra Brown by Nikki Grimes. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1994 (0-688-12073-3) $15.00; Mulbery, 1997 (0-688-15471-9) $6.99 pb

Bursting with such exuberant life that the illustrations almost fly off the pages, Meet Danitra Brown tells the story of Zuri Jackson and Danitra Brown, two best friends who face life together with brave hearts and joyful spirits. Zuri narrates in carefree, colloquial verse, describing "the most splendiferous girl in town," who always wears purple because she might be a princess, and is going to win the Nobel Prize someday. Danitra is also a good friend, as Zuri finds when other kids tease her about her skinny legs and black skin, or when she feels lonely because "it's Mom and me only" on Parents' Night. Centered around the theme of friendship, Meet Danitra Brown is also about having the courage to be yourself in a sometimes hostile world. Cooper's soft-edged but vibrantly alive illustrations don't just complement the poems--they complete them, making Zuri and Danitra utterly real. * (5-12)

All the Colors of the Earth written and illustrated by Sheila Hamanaka. Morrow, 1994 (0-688-11131-9) $15.00; Mulberry, 1999 (0-688-17062-5) $4.95 pb

A richly loving and exuberantly joyous celebration, All the Colors of the Earth reveals the beauty and magic to be found in every child. A lyrical, evocative text joins perfectly with imaginative illustrations, creating wondrous, strong, and beautiful visual metaphors for the many colors of human skin. For love, as it reminds us, "comes in cinnamon, walnut, and wheat, love is amber and ivory and ginger and sweet." Each illustration is uniquely appealing: light glows in the faces of an interracial couple tenderly holding their baby, two little girls leap into the air as they run, vibrant with life and freedom. Unlike some well-meaning but ponderous stories, the simplicity and vigor of both text and pictures make this book's message seem as natural as sunshine. * (4-8)

Nina Bonita by Ana Maria Machado. Illustrated by Rosana Fara. Kane/Miller, 1996 (0-916291-63-4) $9.95

Nina Bonita is a beautiful little Brazilian girl, with eyes "like two shiny black olives" and skin as dark and glossy as "a panther in the rain." Her neighbor, a white rabbit with pink ears, thinks that Nina Bonita is the loveliest person he's ever seen and longs to have a daughter just like her--but when he asks Nina for the secret that makes her skin so dark and pretty, Nina makes a few wild guesses, with some pretty silly results for the rabbit, who tries spilling ink on himself, drinking coffee, and eating blackberries until he can barely move. Finally Nina's mother decides to set things straight, telling the rabbit that Nina looks just like her grandmother. With that in mind, the white rabbit finds a lovely black rabbit to marry and soon has a delightful family of every color and shade.

Originally published in Brazil, Nina Bonita brings a carefree simplicity to the subjects of skin color and multi-racial families that few American books can match. It may in fact seem overly simplistic to an American audience, but I found it rather relaxing to see the volatile issues treated so matter-of-factly, like a glimpse of an ideal world. The illustrations amply justify the rabbit's viewpoint, showing an exquisitely beautiful girl with a cloud of smoky hair, whose dark skin glows richly amid the pastel background showing life in Brazil.

There is a Flower at the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me by Alice Walker. Illustrated by Stefano Vitale. HarperCollins, 2006 (978-0-06-057080-4) $16.99

Vitale could probably make the phone book look fascinating if he illustrated it, but he was really given a treat to work with this time. Walker's imagistic poem cries out to be creatively illustrated and it blends so perfectly with the pictures here, it's hard to envision them apart.

"There is a flower/At the tip/Of my nose/Smelling me" begins the poem, and the flower that curls down from the sky here does seem as fascinated by the girl it is "smelling" as she does with it. A glorious sunrise kisses her skin, "Praising me" and a pen outlines her in lovely calligraphy, "Writing me." The soft brown skin of the girl beautifully complements the pink of her dress and the brilliant colors that bloom around--and occasionally through--her. The final page, "There is a story/At the end/Of my arms/Telling me!" shows the girl's broad, smiling face covered with all colors of the rainbow; the glowing colors and simplicity of line, paired with the evocative words, make her seem an ideal representation of joyful humanity. * (3 & up)

Fiction, 5-12

Owen Foote, Second Grade Strongman by Stephanie Greene. Illustrated by Dee DeRosa. Clarion, 1996 (0-395-72098-2) $14.95; Puffin, 1998 (0-14-038707-2) $3.99 pb

"Parents always said things like that. They said names could never hurt you. But kids were smarter. They knew they could."

More than anything, Owen hates being short. His best friend Joseph says it's worse being fat, but Owen knows he's wrong: "Being small was practically the worst thing that could happen to you. Unless you were small, you couldn't understand." But when the most terrible day of the year arrives, height-and-weight-chart day, Owen is for once left unscathed by the nurse's booming remarks; it is Joseph who is publicly humiliated. Owen rushes to his friend's defense--and is suddenly in big, big trouble.

With believable depictions of childhood relationships and concerns, this warm and funny book gently conveys a positive message about size and character without ever losing its empathetic insight into childhood feelings. Owen's legitimate dread of height-and-weight-chart day will strike familiar chords in many readers, as will his difficulty in getting any adults to really understand his problem. I was a little unsatisfied by the conclusion, in which Mrs. Jackson agrees she shouldn't make personal remarks that everyone can hear; it doesn't seem to occur to anyone, including the author, that she shouldn't make them at all. But aside from that personal quibble, I found this to be a very likeable and encouraging story. (6-9)

Jonah the Whale by Susan Shreve. Scholastic, 1998; Scholastic Apple, 1999 (0-590-37134-7) $4.99 pb

Do any schools teach career development for 8-12 year olds? If so, have I got a text for them. This rousing story is a perfect, kids-eye-view of one of the important precepts of getting what you want: acting as if you already have it. Eleven-year-old Jonah Morrison is miserable. His mom's boyfriend, the only father he's even known, has left them. Now his mom has to work two jobs, he has to go to a new school, and trying to fill the emptiness inside him with food is making him fat. But when someone writes a message about "Jonah the Whale" on a blackboard, Jonah decides it's time to take charge of his life: he's going to do something important, something that will make his father come back to them, something that will show the kids in his school that "Jonah, the Whale, will be somebody." And with thought, persistence, and a refusal to let things like classes, homework, and the unvarnished truth get in his way, he does just that.

There are so many children's books now--valuable in their way--about having to face not being able to get what you want, that a book about a boy who finds a way to get exactly what he wants is a refreshing change. Best of all, it rings true--perhaps because Jonah is not trying to remake himself as others want him, but as he really wants to be. I suspect some people will disapprove of this book because it seems that Jonah is rewarded for lying, showing off and skipping school--but that completely misses the point: Jonah is reinventing himself as a person doing something important and with that in mind, his priorities are perfectly straight.

This is a wonderful read, with a wonderful pay-off. The clever design of the paperback, with the title in the People magazine font, is a fun bonus. (8 & up)

Pig and the Shrink by Pamela Todd. Delacorte, 1999 (0-440-41587-X) $4.50 pb

Tucker Harrison is sure he's found the perfect science fair project in Angelo Pighetti--"Pig"--a fat classmate who obviously needs some scientific help. But as he painfully discovers, an experimental human being has ideas--and feelings--of his own. A likeable story of friendship and self-acceptance, that makes up for what it lacks in plausibility and subtlety in humor and warmth.

The Autobiography of Meatball Finkelstein by Ross Venokur. Delacorte, 2001 (0-385-32798-6) $14.95

It's hard enough being a fat kid, but when you're a fat, vegetarian kid named Meatball, bullies really see you coming. But when "world-class, award-winning bully" Rufus Delaney forces Meatball Finkelstein to become a cannibal, Meatball discovers that eating meatballs gives him a super power--one that might just foil a dastardly plot against kids everywhere, saves his parents' health food store, get the girl, and even put Rufus in his place once and for all. A very likeable first-person narrative keeps this story fresh, although its blend of wry humor and whimsical fantasy doesn't always mesh well. Or perhaps I just enjoy wry humor more than whimsical fantasy.

Young Adult Books

Gallows Hill by Lois Duncan. Delacorte, 1997 (0-385-32331-X) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 1998 (0-440-22725-9) $4.99 pb

Seventeen-year-old Sarah is miserable in her new home, the small, very conservative town of Pine Crest; she and her mother--who moved there to live with a still-married man--are virtually outcasts. When Sarah plays a fortune-teller at a school carnival, things seem to be looking up: the other kids are impressed, especially charming and popular Eric. But when he convinces her to make fortune-telling into a business, using information gathered by her hostile stepsister-to-be Kyra, her "fortunes" begin to inspire fear and hatred. To make things worse, Sarah finds herself actually having what seem to be true visions, and her research for a report on the Salem Witch Trials is giving her terrifying dreams. Still, she refuses to listen to her friend Charlie's theory that some kind of karma is being played out by her and the other teenagers in Pine Crest--until it's too late.

Duncan weaves several theories about the paranormal into a story that's quite compelling, albeit not entirely convincing. As usual, her plotting is far superior to that of most YA thrillers but some atypically sloppy foreshadowing keeps it from seeming as taut and well crafted as her other work. But the story does become progressively more interesting--and harrowing--as it goes on, with a truly fascinating plot twist and several black and white characterizations that turn out to be intriguingly grey. Charlie, a fat, generally despised boy who is the book's unexpected hero, is an especially likeable character. (12 & up)

Cyrano by Geraldine McCaughrean. Harcourt, 2006 (0-15-205805-2) $16.00

The play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand has just about anything a romantically inclined reader could want: swordfights, star-crossed love, sacrifice, and a magnificent yet deeply vulnerable hero. This essentially faithful "novelization" strips the story to its bones, then dresses it again in language that is fluid and accessible, opening it up for readers who might have trouble appreciating the dense, archaic poetry of the original. Although the translation of busy stage action into fiction occasionally limps, Cyrano soars in filling in the parts of the story that would, in a good production, be conveyed by the power of the actors--the emotional lives of its characters.

Cyrano, a renowned swordsman and wit, is a larger-than-life character--but even his reputation is smaller than his nose. Able to easily outtalk or outfight anyone who mocks him, Cyrano maintains a dazzling image, but inside he feels grotesque and invisible, especially to his beautiful cousin Roxane. When Roxane asks for a rendezvouz, Cyrano briefly believes his love is requited: "Like the spilled oranges bouncing down the aisle of the theatre, Cyrano's heartbeats tumbled through him, golden, sweet, falling bruisingly hard." But Roxane only wants to confess her love for the beautiful Christian:

When Cyrano meets Christian, a newcomer to his regiment, Roxane's passionate belief in his soulfullness hardly seems justified: "Christian snorted. 'Well, naturally I can write. Joined up and everything! It's just that... poems and suchlike? Love letters?" Once again the mouth hung open, and Cyrano thought that he glimpsed, between those perfect white teeth, a space as large as an empty library: a vacancy." But Christian's inability to communicate turns out to be an opportunity Cyrano can't resist, to finally express his love to Roxane.

Showing a respect for its source that never creates a reverent distance, Cyrano beautifully captures the noble idealism, pathos and tragic irony that are the heart of Rostand's play, thankfully avoiding any hint of postmodern mockery. (There is only one notable change for modern sensibilities: Roxane is not depicted as finding Cyrano ugly.) It may inspire readers to discover the original play, but even if it doesn't, the story of the dashing hero who covers up his heartbreak and vulnerablity by living his life with panache will be hard to forget. (12 & up) by Liane Shaw. Second Story Press, 2009 (978-1-8971887-62-3) $11.95 trade

I'm not a fan of problem novels, but this one had a hook that grabbed me instantly: it's about a girl involved with a "pro-Ana" support group online. Maddie narrates her story from an eating disorders clinic where, in her mind, everyone is in a conspiracy to force her to be fat. Cut off from the Internet, she desperately misses the only support she had, the group of "Girls Without Shadows" who were the only ones who understood her need to do anything to be thin. But as Maddie describe the events that led her to the clinic, she starts to feel less sure of what she believes:

"I thought I had this all figured out. Looking back, I was sure I knew what I was doing. I have a right to do what I want with my own body, and so I did it. I wasn't hurting anyone, including myself. I knew this absolutely. I had it confirmed by my GWS and everything."

Confused and desperate for non-judgmental support, Maddie breaks the clinic rules to talk to her online friends one more time. What she discovers then will change her life forever.

The best thing about this story is the authenticity of the online culture depicted--and it's a sympathetic portrayal, as well. Though we know as readers that all of the GWS girls are deceiving themselves and each other, there is clearly no malice, just as great deal of pathetic self-delusion. Oddly, the "real" characters in the story don't come to life nearly as well, and a somewhat contrived bit of romance with a boy in the clinic falls flat. But though the writing may not rise much above "message novel" competence, it's a very engrossing, fast-paced story that stirs up a lot of feelings, and will likely have a strong appeal to teen readers. (12 & up)

Tall, Thin and Blonde by Dyan Sheldon. Candlewick, 1993 (1-56402-139-4) $14.95; (1-56402-374-5) $3.99 pb

Tall, thin and blonde is just what Jenny Kaliski is not, and she's never wanted to be, either. She and her best friend Amy have always agreed that they wouldn't become the type of girls who "never talk about anything but boys and clothes." But when they begin high school, Amy suddenly becomes Miss Perfect Teenager, with a new group of friends and a completely different outlook on life. When Amy tells her--"for your own good"--that she should lose a few pounds, wear make-up and fix her hair, Jenny goes on her first diet, wondering "Why did people have best friends? Why didn't they just have enemies?"

Both funny and sad, Tall, Thin and Blonde poignantly captures the pain of rejection as well as the futility of striving to be someone you're not. Its attacks on the beauty myth are right on target, as Jenny discovers how quickly a person can become obsessive about appearance, and begins to understand the lengths she must go to to fit an image: "It looked like I was declaring war on myself." Although the ending is a little pat, the humor and genuine pathos of the story more than make up for it. (10 & up)


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