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Body Image and Every Day by David Levithan, a discussion by Christie Gibrich

Recently, I had one of those moments where I am talking about a book that I really loved and the person I am talking to, in this case fellow blogger Christie Gibrich, says “yes, but . . .”  So I asked her to write about her “Yes, But” because it is an issue that I myself even referenced last week in my review of Butter by Erin Jade Lange.  I’ll let her tell you all about it.
A little background: Every Day is the story of a person known only as A who wakes up every day in a different body.  For 24 hours A lives the life of this person.
My co-blogger, Karen, wrote a review of Every Day by David Levithan in June (find it here).  I fully admit that I am a rabid fan of David Levithan- I had the pleasure of meeting him at a conference after his Boy Meets Boy came out, and I went into full fangirl worship mode and we talked for a good thirty minutes about his work and how much I loved it, and how much my teens loved that he was writing such realistic characters for teens- and for GLBT teens.  So when I got ahold of an e-ARC of Every Day, I stayed up through the night to read it.  And I was loving it.

Until I hit Day 6025.

Day 6025 is approximately 7/8ths of the way through the book.  “A” has already been a variety of teens:  twin linebackers, girls, gays, drug addicts, alcoholics, etc., and has handled those with a grace and understanding that others have pointed out could be more than a teen voice.  Then he becomes Finn, and that understanding goes out the window.  Finn is an obese teen, by Levithan’s own description “at least 300 pounds” wearing “an XXXL buttondown and some size 46 jeans” and when “A” wakes up in Finn’s body, the prejudice and loathing for his host starts from the moment he opens his eyes, and never goes away. 

“Finn Taylor has retreated from most of the world; his size comes from negligence and laziness, a carelessness that would be pathological if it had any meticulousness to it.  While I’m sure if I access deep enough I will find some well of humanity, all I can see on the surface is the emotional equivalent of a burp.”

“A” never bothers to see what’s beneath- most obese teens are not like this by choice.  Unlike society’s belief that if you just walk it off or eat less, or that it’s because schools are cutting physical education, or that it’s just a choice, there’s usually deep psychological issues going on- depression, emotional abuse, suicidal impulses being turned inward.  Or medical issues that are not being treated properly, because of lack of health care or parents not being advocates for their “fat/lazy” child.  If it was as simple as just eating right, a teen could turn it around.

“The chairs are wobbly underneath me at the bookstore’s café.  I decide to walk the aisles instead, but they’re too narrow, and I keep knocking things off the shelves.”*

Really?  REALLY?!?!  We need to have an image of this teen as GODZILLA or THE THING going through a public bookstore destroying things because he’s 300 pounds?!?!?  There’s a difference between hyperbole for a point and encouraging the stereotypical mental image that society has for those who are overweight.  Unless the chairs were antique wicker chairs, or the aisles didn’t meet minimum ADA requirements, this wouldn’t happen to a person of Finn’s description, and the twin linebackers would have had similar problems.  Even then, if “A” bothered to access Finn’s memories like he did with other hosts to work in their worlds, he would have figured out how to work within his body instead of joining the chorus of disgust.

“If I were in a different body, this would be the time I would lean down and kiss her.  If I were in a different body, that kiss could transform the night from off to on.  If I were in a different body, she would see me inside.  She would see what she wanted to see.”

“A” doesn’t bother to relate to Finn.  He can’t get through the day fast enough; Rhiannon can’t be bothered to look beyond the surface to see “A” within Finn’s body.  If he was only someone else, then things would be different and he could change everything … but because he can’t be bothered to work with what he was dealt, or be bothered to work around his own personal prejudice, the date and the time with Rhiannon was a waste.  This furthermore enforces the belief that if you are overweight or obese or fat, you’re unworthy of love- because no one will ever be able to see the “real” you.

I was so let down by this chapter in Every Day.  Up to that point I was loving the book, and how “A” was flipping from character to character.  The fact that Levithan, who writes so well for teens, wrote this whole chapter, left me in compete disbelief.  I know other YA librarians/readers who are split- some didn’t catch it, while others reacted the same way I did.  It’s bad enough that we have the media shoving preconceived notions of how we’re supposed to look, how we’re supposed to act, and how we’re supposed to dress down our throats every day.  Being told that having a certain amount of body mass makes us unworthy of love is unacceptable.
Have you read Every Day – what do you think?  What ya titles do you think handle the issue of body image well?
*Editor’s note: I (Karen) recently read Skinny – which I will review soon – about another morbidly obese teenager, in this case a female, and she undergoes weight loss surgery after the chair she is sitting on stage breaks beneath her. And in Butter, reviewed last week, our main character has specially made school furniture to accomodate his size. In both of these titles, I thought the issue of weight and the emotions that go with it were handled well.

Book Review: Every Day by David Levithan

It’s not every day that you get to read a book that can be described as stunningly brilliant, but Every Day by David Levithan is, in fact, that book.

“We all contain mystery, especially when seen from the inside.” (David Levithan)

Meet A.  Every day A wakes up in a new body and for 24 hours lives that person’s life.  A does not know why and has no control over it.  It is simply the way things are for A.  It doesn’t matter if the body is male or female, they just have to be around the same age and in the same geographic area.

The rules A has developed to cope are simple:
Don’t get noticed
Don’t make any decisions/changes that would affect this life
Don’t get attached

Things suddenly change for A when one day, in the body of Justin, A falls in love with Rhiannon.

“And it’s there, just out of my reach. A sound waiting to be a word. She is so lost in her sadness that she has no idea how visible it is. I think I understand her – for a moment I presume to understand her – but then, from within this sadness, she surprises me with a brief flash of determination. Bravery, even.” (David Levithan)

Every day, each day as a new person, A tries to find a way to get back to Rhiannon.  A, who once had no reason, has found a reason.

Every Day by David Levithan is a brilliant concept for a book.  And in true Levithan style, it oozes with raw emotional power and, quite simply stated, some beautifully phrased insights.  A spends time in so many different people that he (or she) had developed a very mature, sophisticated insight into the human condition.  Drug addicts, abuse victims, religious zealots, vain cheerleaders and obese, awkward boys – A has embodied them all and Levithan finds a unique way here to tell their story and give them voice.  And because this is Levithan, he finds a unique way to get the reader thinking about things like gender identity and sexuality.

To me, the most beautiful part of this story was the fact that no matter what body A inhabited, Rhiannon could always tell it was him/her walking towards her because the soul was reflected in the eyes.  That doesn’t mean she didn’t have problems sometimes getting past the packaging, because she sometimes most definitely did – and this is where we learn so much about the human condition.  Our hearts may be willing, but sometimes even the deepest of loves can not get past our social conditioning.  At no time is this point more poignant then when A wakes up on the morning of their first official date in the body of an obese boy.  You heart will shatter into a million little pieces, but your head will also hang in shame because we all know that Levithan is speaking tremendous truth.

This is more than just a beautiful love story – and beautiful it truly is – there is also a bit of danger and intrigue as one of the bodies, Nathan, seems to have some recall that something happened and proclaims that he was possessed by the devil.  This path leads to the revelation that A may not be alone and may, in fact, be able to choose to inhabit one body for a long period of time.  The question is, although A may be able to take over a person’s body, is it the right thing to do?  It is this revelation, and the face of evil that seems to deliver it, that forces A to make some important choices.

In the end, there are no real answers as to the how and why of A and this bizarre existence, but that is irrelevant to our story.  No, this is a stunningly brilliant look at the human condition, an aching portrait on the meaning of true love, and a genuine reflection on the concepts of self, perception, identity and more.  This is an award winning book waiting to stand at the podium and collect its awards.  This is the book we read about and talk about and pretend that, of course, we would never be like that . . . and then cringe as we remember the times that we were.

If I have any hesitations regarding this book, it would only be around the concept of voice.  A, our main character, has a very wise, sophisticated voice and I do question how much teens will see themselves reflected in it.  And yet, clearly, A has lived a 1,000 lives and gained such tremendous wisdom that it would be difficult for him/her to fall into the regular trappings of adolescence.  This book, more than any other, made me reflect on the criticisms I often hear surrounding John Green and the voice of his characters.  In the end, I decided it makes sense for the character and the breadth of his/her experiences and chose to embrace the journey.  Like Mr. Toad’s, it’s a wild ride.

There is an air of pathos that hangs over this love story in a vein similar to The Time Traveler’s Wife, which I deeply love.  Buy it, read it, talk about it.  It is reach into your chest and pull your heart out brilliant.  5 out of 5 stars.

“Honesty, I’m just trying to live day by day.”
Every Day by David Levithan will be published on August 28th by Knopf Books for Young Readers.