September 1st is here, which means it’s nearly the end of summer. Which means… It’s the final installment of YA Book Club in Paradise. But fear not, fans of Mary and Emily’s YA Book Club series. We’re not taking a break this time. Immediately following this, we’re jumping into a little YA Book Club mini-session we’ve dubbed YA Book Club: Back 2 School. We’re hitting up two books for this installment of the book club. They are:
My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows (end of September)
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (end of October)
Read along with us, and come back at the end of the month to read our review of My Plain Jane. But for now? Let’s get into our last pick for the summer: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler. Spoilers to follow…
Mary: This month we're reading The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler, which follows Virginia Shreves as she struggles with her body image and her relationships with her family, who she believes views her as the least attractive and least desirable child. It's hard not to categorize this book as a text about being fat, a book about weight, but I do think it's more than that. From here on out, unfortunately, there will be spoilers!
Mary: The big twist, if we can call it that, is that Virginia's brother Byron gets suspended midyear for raping a girl (they keep referring to it as date rape, but rape is rape in my mind). Virginia then has to challenge her deep love of her brother in order to reconcile what he's done. And then somewhere around the end it circles on back to body image.
Emily: Yes. All of this sounds right. I have a quick question. I listened to the audiobook, and it was the 15th Anniversary audiobook, but there was a reference to La La Land in it. Did they, like, update the references for a rerelease or something?
Mary: Whaaaaat? That is weird and I"m not sure. I don't remember the La La Land reference, to be honest.
Emily: When I hit that, I was like, oh I thought this was an older book but I guess not. And then I was like wait yes this came out in 2003. It was a whole thing. So it stuck out to me, especially because, FOR SOME REASON I CAN'T EXPLAIN, this book seemed dated to me.
Mary: Ah yes, it kind of does, doesn't it? I'm not sure why.
Emily: It just doesn't seem like contemporary YA that's being written currently.
Mary: A lot of times when there's an attention to material culture, it seems dated really quickly.
Emily: I wonder if that's why they updated the references for the 15th Anniversary Edition? Maybe they weren't updated in your one. SO CONFUSING.
Mary: Yeah, mine is just the plain old regular edition. That is so bizarre.
Emily: Can you imagine if they updated the references in an anniversary edition of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird?
Mary: It would spark outrage.
Emily: So anyway, moving on from this thing I fixated on...
Mary: One thing that gets me is all the diet talk. This is a standard go-to for books about weight, but I hate it and it upsets me.
Emily: It upsets me a lot. Her diet habits remind me of things I did when I was her age.
Mary: OH definitely. It's a lot of just...not eating. And her feeling guilty about it.
Emily: Yes, and "thinspo." Is such a destructive way to think about food and your body.
Mary: Lordy yes.
Emily: Here's my quick soapbox about dieting.
Mary: Yes please.
Emily: "Dieting" is a slippery slope to an eating disorder. Yes, eating healthy is a good idea, but "dieting" is not. If you're eating in a way that you can't maintain forever, then STOP DOING IT RIGHT NOW. It's about changing the way you approach food and think about food more than changing the food you eat. Which I think Virginia actually realizes by the end. Because she starts thinking about WHY she's overeating rather than NOT eating at all.
Mary: Definitely! Eating because you're sad or upset is not sustainable. It's bad. But eating because you are hungry, yes! Very good.
Emily: I read something recently that said that when you make food "OFF LIMITS" it actually makes you want it more and feel more rewarded when you get to eat it, which just perpetuates bad habits.
Mary: That is 100% true. And also diets of restriction just aren't sustainable. 98% of diets do not work. That is a TRUE STATISTIC.
Emily: But all of this is to say, I found the diet talk uncomfortable, and I'm glad she moved away from it by the end.
Mary: Me too. It moved on to the stuff with her brother, which OOF. He is awful.
Emily: I had a really hard time with the brother stuff too, because my brother died recently. It's weird how any sibling relationships bother me at the moment, good or bad. Like I just don't want to hear about your problems with your brother because mine is dead. But to be fair, her brother is terrible.
Mary: I kept wondering how she could defend her brother. Because he straight up RAPED A GIRL HELLO.
Emily: Why was this storyline in this book?
Mary: It did add a layer of complexity, so it's not just about weight. That's how YA books about weight always go. There's the fat part and then also there's the PROBLEM. The big life problem. FYI for anyone who doesn't know, I study weight and YA books, so this is a genre I am very familiar with. The thing is, her brother is such a douchebag and her family just goes with it like it's fine, repressing all their feelings.
Emily: So tell us about the general structure of a book like this.
Mary: Well, in general, I think that a lot of YA books about weight try to put the weight on some bigger issue, blame that issue for why the character is fat. So if the character "overcomes" that issue, they can be free from the weight. In this book, Virginia's problem is, I guess, she feels unloved and worthless, mostly because of her family but also from (and this is never explicitly said) from media images of "perfect" bodies (ie, the thinspiration she puts up around her mirror). Her brother does something so awful that her whole family dynamic has to be questioned, and she realizes that she's not so bad after all. She's a good kid. And she starts eating more intuitively and as a result feels better about herself. But like wow, what a road to get there.
Emily: How do you feel about this as a structure?
Mary: It is ultimately super flawed. Some novels subvert the structure and make it so the character doesn't lose weight but ultimately gains the self confidence anyway. It's just a problem to say weight is always related to some external factor, because it could just as easily be a hormone imbalance or thyroid problem or ANYTHING. Getting healthy mentally is wonderful, but it's not the solution to all your problems.
Emily: And also... fatness isn't a problem necessarily. Sure, you want to be healthy. But what healthy looks like on your body can be very different from what healthy looks like on someone else's body. I did like that at the end when she takes up kickboxing, her dad makes a comment about her weight, and she says, "My body isn't something you have a right to comment on." Or something like that. Because LAWD I hate it when people "compliment" other people on losing weight. Because it basically means, "Your body wasn't ok before."
Mary: Dr. Linda Bacon has a really great book called Health at Every Size that talks about setpoint weight and how everyone has a different place their body wants to be! This is why everyone's healthy weight could be different. There are studies. With mice. People could lose weight because they're super sick, and yet they get complimented on it. And that's messed up. I had a friend once who lost about 60 pounds and when I asked her about it, she said, oh I've just been really depressed and done a lot of bad stuff to my body. It's not a good thing.
Emily: Right. I want to talk about the Bri's.
Mary: Every fat girl has to have her foil, and Brie is Virginia's. Virginia is fat, Brie is thin. Virginia is a dork (sort of? unclear) and Brie is popular.
Emily: I had a HUGE problem with these characters because they were such cardboard cutouts.
Mary: They were basically mean girl stereotypes. Then it's revealed that the head Brie is struggling with an eating disorder and Virginia feels better about herself in a way.
Emily: Even when we find out Brie is bulimic, it's still like... DUH OF COURSE SHE IS.
Mary: Yes, and like...one person's pain shouldn't make you feel superior. That happens, sometimes, I guess. But if this is a "message" book, oof. What a message.
Emily: Yes and also I hated how she was shaming these girls for being thin, essentially.
Mary: Body shaming works both ways and is bad both ways. Someone pls hire us to do some public speaking on body image.
Emily: YES. Send us to the high schools across America. And Canada. Send me to Canada.
Mary: Let us teach the girls!
Emily: Children are our future and all. Etc.
Mary: I will add that the parents infuriated me with all their "let's get you a reward for losing weight" BS because that has happened to me before. And I know it comes from a good place but GEEZ.
Emily: I feel like there should be more to say about this rape thing.
Mary: Yes, I think there should be more to say about that too. And yet, I'm struggling to think of anything. It's BAD. He SHOULD NOT HAVE. And he didn't seem to feel so bad about it?
Emily: How did you feel about Virginia going to visit the victim Annie at her dorm?
Mary: Virginia goes to visit Annie at her dorm and Annie is like, it happened but it didn't ruin my life. And then they have tea
Emily: How did you feel about that?
Mary: Not great? Also not awful. On one hand this is saying hey, bad really terrible things can happen to you and you can still thrive. But it was SO SOON after it happened. Not even a full semester. It's also okay to feel bad about it and be in pain. So I'm not sure how I feel about it on the whole.
Emily: I just don't even know how I would react if someone in my family did something like that.
Mary: I would be devastated. Her brother was a jerk though. For real.
Emily: He was terrible. Virginia is lucky she has an extra sibling. It's so weird she didn't communicate with Anais more, but I guess there was a pretty substantial age difference there.
Mary: Right, right. She's kind of a non-character in the novel.
Emily: Which is too bad, because she seems cool.
Mary: Yeah, she's cool. Like an ultra feminist peace corps girl.
Emily: Pretty much Anais's whole role in the story is whenever Virginia sticks up for herself, her parents are like, "You sound just like Anais." You have to wonder what would have happened if they had been closer in age. How would that change the way Virginia saw herself? Or her family? Or the world?
Mary: Oh definitely--it would be very different. Let's go with a super basic question. Did you like this book?
Emily: I had mixed feelings about this book. I kind of felt similarly to how I felt about Moxie. I don't feel like this is one of those YA books that adults can enjoy in the same way because some of it seems very intro-to-body-positivity.
Mary: Definitely. I feel very similarly.
Emily: Especially how there's a recommendation for Body Outlaws at the end.
Mary: Yes! there's a nicer further reading list in the back, which is great.
Emily: Oh I didn't get that haha. I just meant her teacher literally says "HERE READ BODY OUTLAWS."
Mary: Oh right. The audiobook probably doesn't have that list.
Emily: Nope. At the end it's just like "WE HOPE YOU HAVE ENJOYED THIS BOOK BYE."
Mary: Classic audiobook.
Emily: Yep, I see you, audiobook.
Mary: I think that's all I have for this book.
Emily: COOL GUESS WHAT
Emily: We're going right into our YA Back 2 School Series, and our next book is My Plain Jane, a Jane Eyre retelling/spinoff thing.
Mary: Aw yeah. I love Jane Eyre.
Emily: I'm pretty excited about it. Not gonna lie. Come back and see us at the end of the month for that one! Goodbye for now!