Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Skinny by Donna Cooner

Skinny tells the story of a morbidly obese teenager who decides to have surgery in an attempt to lose weight. Fifteen year old Ever Davies is 302 lbs. She's so fat she cannot fit into the desks at school, she can't wear a seat belt in a car, and she can't sit at a restaurant table. Withdrawn and depressed, Ever believes she's ugly and unlovable. Her constant companion is the voice in her head of Skinny, who tells her over and over what she really is.

"'You can paint a pig, but it's still a pig,' Skinny whispers in my ear."

"'Congratulations. You're fat and mean,' Skinny says."

Things weren't always like this for Ever. Growing up in Huntsville, an hour north of Houston, life was good. Her mother was an artist who illustrated children's books, her father the local sheriff. Everything changed when her mother died from cancer and her father married Charlotte, who is mother to Lindsey and Briella. Ever misses her mother more than anything. And she's not happy about having a stepmother and two stepsisters who are thin, beautiful, and popular.

When Ever's mother was alive, she was always on a diet. By the age of nine Ever was as well. Her mother was curvy and pear shaped and she worried that Ever would be overweight. Gradually after her mother's death, Ever began to eat and put on weight. And as she gained weight her life changed and her relationships with family and friends also changed.

Her two best childhood friends were "Rat", Theodore Simon Wilson and Jackson Barnett. Jackson, whom Ever once kissed and still crushes on, and Ever have drifted apart as she put on the pounds. Once Jackson was skinny with buck teeth, but now he has grown into a good looking guy, who doesn't give Ever a second glance.
As I covered myself in grief  and fat over the years, his memory of me as his best friend trickled away until now I am completely unrecognizable. I know the feeling. I don't recognize me either."
Her only friend is "Rat", Theodore Simon Wilson, a brilliant, geeky boy she's known since Grade One.  Rat has always been there for Ever. He provides Ever a ride to school and after school she accompanies him to the Sam Houston Boys and Girls Club where he works on the computers while Ever entertains the children at the club with her beautiful voice and her ability to tell stories, especially Cinderella. Rat encourages Ever to develop this voice, her wonderful ability to sing.

After a disastrous accident at her high school awards ceremony, Ever takes the drastic step to have gastric bypass surgery. She does this in the hopes that Jackson will once again look at her and remember what they had when they were younger and Ever was thinner.
"But it's a simple solution, really. Girl loves boy. Boy loves girl. Girl gets fat. Boy leaves. Girl cuts her stomach up into a little bitty pouch to get boy back."
Ever has her surgery near the end of the school year but it is Rat who is at the hospital and who comes day after day encouraging her and charting her weight loss. He plans her post-surgery program and helps her begin exercising. When Ever returns to school in the fall she has lost almost 100 lbs and her peers begin to take notice. Popular girl Whitney Stone takes charge of Ever's transformation, taking her shopping for new clothes that fit her slimmer body and taking her to a top salon to get her hair styled. Meanwhile Rat tells her if she want to be a part of the musical next spring, she needs to enroll in drama class. But all Ever is interested in now is trying to recapture the interest of Jackson, her childhood sweetheart, forgetting that it is Rat who truly loves her for who she is. Sadly, when Ever viciously lashes out at Rat, she alienates the one person who loves her through good and bad times.

It takes the Fall Ball for Ever to learn who her true friends are and how she has pushed away those who have always loved her. She also has to decide between letting Skinny run her life or taking charge herself.

In the end, Ever discovers that other people carry hurts too and that she is not alone in this regard. Once Ever is able to confront Skinny, she realizes that Skinny is her own voice who bases everything on appearance. But she also understands that Skinny is only one part of her and she can change what Skinny is. Skinny also doesn't listen - she just talks. Ever realizes that she has been very selfish and self-absorbed. She isn't the only one hurting; Briella and Lindsey have been hurting just as much with the loss of their father through divorce and his repeated absence in their lives. Once Ever starts to listen and hear what others say, she realizes the hurts and problems other carry too.

My concerns with this book revolve around its presentation of gastric bypass surgery as a solution to morbid obesity in teenagers. At 5'6'' and 302 pounds, Ever has a body mass index of 48 (a BMI of >30 is considered morbidly obese), so there's no doubt she is very overweight. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, there are numerous causes of obesity in teens including genetics, cultural influences and personal behaviours, and biology. However, the website indicates that "less than 1 percent of all obesity is caused by physical problems". Often overweight teens have lifestyle habits and/or have suffered some major stressful life event. Therefore, losing a large amount of weight will take time and unless a holistic approach is taken, the weight is likely to be regained. Gastric bypass surgery for teens therefore seems to be a drastic step that should be a last resort and certainly Cooner seemed to suggest that this was the case with her character Ever. She had tried numerous diets and exercise programs all to no avail.

Another concern I have is that Ever never receives any counseling regarding her obesity. On the one hand it was assumed that she was fat because her mother was overweight and that Ever simply inherited her mother's genes. However, by Ever's own admission she was a normal looking girl when she was younger, despite her mother encouraging her to diet. Yet it was obvious that Ever was deeply affected by her mother's death and her father's remarriage later on. Both Ever and her father appeared to have difficulties coping with the loss of her mother. Her father busied himself with work while Ever retreated into an angry, sad world of her own making. Although her father did write her a note expressing concern about her weight gain, apparently little else was done to help her. And there is no hint of counseling after the bypass either. I really felt that author Donna Cooner should have contained an author's note dealing a little more in depth about gastric bypass surgery.

Despite this reservation, Skinny is probably one of the best young adult books I have read this year. Ever's voice is authentic and captures her struggle to cope with the loss of her mother and to adjust to high school and life in a blended family. The reader feels empathy for Ever and recognizes her deepest desire to be loved and to belong. The scene where Ever confronts Skinny, her inner voice that tells her she's ugly and hopeless, is a bit strange. However, the reader wants Ever to believe in herself and in the possibilities she has for the future.

The story has an underlying Cinderella theme woven throughout; Ever is part of a Cinderella family with the father, stepmother and two beautiful stepsisters. There is a ball near the end of the story in which Cinderella loses her Prince Charming, only to find true love with the real but unrecognized prince in her life.Told in Ever's witty voice (with help from nasty Skinny), the story is broken into five parts; Ashes (the ruin that is Ever's life), Prince Charming (Ever's blind crush on Jackson and failure to see Rat's devotion), Abracadabra (her surgery and weight loss), The Ball (Ever's transformation by Whitney into a beautiful princess), Midnight (disaster at the ball), and Ever After (finding happiness by recognizing who her friends are and who her real Prince Charming is).

More importantly though we see how Ever's weight gain - a symptom of her grief and anger has isolated her and almost destroyed her life. Her surgery, initially undertaken for the wrong reasons, give her a second chance to discover who she truly is and to work at developing and sharing her true voice - the voice that sings.

Book Details:
Skinny by Donner Cooner
Point an imprint of Scholastic 2012
260 pp.

No comments: