Saturday, August 30, 2008

I get so hungry, by Bebe Moore Campbell, illustrated by Amy Bates - review

I get so hungry, by Bebe Moore Campbell, illustrated by Amy Bates
I could tell by the illustration facing the title page that this book was going to make me cry. We see a little girl, alone on the couch watching TV with a big bowl of potato chips in her lap, her face expressionless in the light from the picture tube.

The book is about Nikki, a little girl who is overweight, and how she comes to terms with it, and what she does about it. And first of all, I want to make clear that I admire the late Bebe Moore Campbell for writing this book. Her heart was obviously in the right place. The book is written in the first person, and we feel Nikki's hurt when she is teased. We are there when Nikki takes comfort in food. Our heart sinks along with Nikki's when she realizes that the food that is available to her at home is not helping. This is a tribute to Ms. Campbell's skill and empathy.

In addition, I think it was very brave of the author to address Nikki's mother's role. If someone is going to come looking for a book about childhood obesity in my library, it will probably be a parent, not a child, but I Get So Hungry in no way lets the parent off the hook. Nikki's mom uses food for comfort, too. She prepares fried food, keeps potato chips and soda in the house, and packs Nikki giant lunches with no fruits or vegetables. She lies to the pediatrician when he says, "No more junk food."


The book is also loaded with stereotypes. Nikki, her mother, and her new teacher, Mrs. Patterson, are overweight because they eat only bad foods, eat so fast that they can "barely taste them", lie about food, sneak food, "can't stop" eating, and use food to reward or comfort themselves. I think that very few people will see themselves in this comprehensive roster of destructive habits.

Also, Nikki is motivated to lose weight when Mrs. Patterson falls ill. The teachers whisper that her illness is a consequence of her weight. This, as my friend Kathryn pointed out, is an inappropriate intrusion. Not only is this plot point not about the child, but it also implies that Nikki will suffer dire consequences because of her weight, and that is a loong line to draw. It seems a dangerous and unnecessarily scary message to the child who may be reading this book.

Further, Nikki is teased quite a bit by a classmate. After she loses some weight, that classmate teases her again, but her friends point out that there is no longer any reason to tease her, because she is no longer fat. WHAAT? Put down that potato chip, kid, else everybody's going to make fun of you, and what's more, they'll have every right to. Aagh.

The flip side of childhood obesity is the body dysmorphia that some children fall prey to. Healthy boys and girls torturing themselves over every pound, assigning disproportionate significance to food. Implying that cookies can endanger your life or that extra weight will make you lonely... no. That's too heavy-handed.

There's a happy ending to I Get So Hungry. Mrs. Patterson starts walking every morning before school, stops sneaking food in class - instead, she sips water - and starts eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Once she explains all this to Nikki, and recommends that Nikki start eating only when she's hungry, Nikki joins Mrs. Patterson on their morning walks. They both lose weight, and in the end, Nikki talks her mother into walking too.

I think that this is a bit insulting. It seems to imply that losing weight is as simple as "Back away from the donut and get off your butt," and it's not. What's more, Nikki and Mrs. Patterson lose substantial weight over the course of just a few months. When Nikki joins Mrs. Patterson for their first walk together, they are wearing gloves. When we see a much smaller Nikki coaxing her mother out for a walk around the block, it is still cool enough for them to be wearing long sleeves and a vest.

I want messages about diet and exercise to be part and parcel of every input our children receive. I want books that make it clear that health and fitness are the responsibility of the whole family, the whole community.

But I Get So Hungry is not that book, for me (and for Other Paula, Patty, and Kathryn, each of whom read this book at my request. I wanted to be really sure it wasn't just me). I think it dwells on Nikki's sadness when she is overweight and glosses over the hard work of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It makes a faint cultural connection (the fried food, the African American characters), but omits any reference to the role that safety plays when parents must make choices about their children's afterschool activities. Sedentary, inside activities are safer than going outside in some neighborhoods. In addition, in single-parent households like Nikki's, outside play raises questions of supervision - does mom make dinner, or does she go outside and keep an eye on Nikki?

It makes me sad. Bebe Moore Campbell was such a wonderful author, and, as I said, her heart was surely in the right place. Amy Bates has created beautiful, sensitive illustrations. The book is saturated with empathy. But it just - misses.


YNL said...

"Nikki, her mother, and her new teacher, Mrs. Patterson, are overweight because they eat only bad foods, eat so fast that they can "barely taste them", lie about food, sneak food, "can't stop" eating, and use food to reward or comfort themselves. I think that very few people will see themselves in this comprehensive roster of destructive habits."

Other Paula disagrees with me strongly here, and, thinking about it, I disagree with me too. The habits described certainly jibe with my knowledge of addicted behavior, and, as such, usually DO occur en suite.

I would revise my review to reflect this, but because of crappy script compatibilities between Firefox and Blogger, I can't edit posts from this computer.

Laura Lutz said...

I'm glad you modified your review - I agree, people displaying addictive tendencies will certainly see themselves in that depiction.

Your review was great, and I agree with what you had to say. I also found this book disappointing, particularly because it was addressing an important need...but it just fell short. I probably wouldn't recommend this book to parents asking for books on this topic - it really oversimplified the multitude of psychological, emotional, and physical issues at hand.

But this book also left me wondering how does one write a book with this subject matter? Would you leave out the teasing part entirely? Not have Nikki lose much weight (if any) in the span of the picture book? How would you get across the message that being severely overweight can have dire consequences, even for children...without scaring the crap out of them? I don't think Campbell did it exactly right...but I'm also not sure the best way to go about it.

Ultimately, I do have respect for Campbell's attempt.

YNL said...

What I would do, if I were qualified to write this book:

1. Consequences for the teasing. Teasing is treated just like hitting in some school systems. I want that kid to get in TROUBLE.

2. Not wallowing in Nikki's unhappiness. Just hit it a little more gently. There should be enough detail so that the reader can identify behaviors that he/she shares with Nikki, but not enough so that the kid gets caught up in feeling sorry for Nikki, and for him/herself.

3. Leave out Ms. Patterson's illness. I do like that the teacher, the 2nd most important person in Nikki's life, is the example - why not have her undertake a diet and exercise regimen as a New Year's resolution?

4. Address the fact that weight loss can start out slow: 'At first it didn't seem to make any difference, and I almost quit.'

5. Give Nikki credit for maintaining: 'When it's raining, it's hard to get up and walk. The custodian lets us into the gym on those days.'

6. Not setting up weight loss as the end to all Nikki's sorrows. That can be dangerous - 'I lost the weight but I still feel crappy: something must be wrong with me!' All she needs to say is 'Sometimes I still feel sad and lonely.'

There are so many things that this book gets RIGHT... it's frustrating that I don't feel good about recommending it.