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Take a Second Look, books that send empowering messages to teens about body image

At TLT, we have an ongoing discussion about books and pop culture and how it affects the body image of our kids.  We are all constantly being bombarded with subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – messages about the way we look, or should look.  Sometimes, as I start to read a book, alarm bells will start going off in the back of mind: Warning, Danger Will Robinson!  Subtle messages include the propensity to have beautiful, white girls in flowy dresses on the cover of every book, repeatedly sending the message that this is the standard, the ideal for beauty.  Today I want to discuss with you a couple of books that seemed to be one thing, but turned out being something altogether different, reminding me, as a reader, that the beauty of a book can be more than skin deep – just like a person. 

Don’t judge a book by its cover! And yes, we all do it.  But let’s remember to look into the heart of things.  Here are a couple of books that remind us all to do that, to dig deeper.

The Collector is about a boy named Dante Walker who has died and become a demon, a collector.  His job is to collect souls for the big guy downstairs, some call him Satan.  He is given an order and has 10 days to collect the soul of Charlie.  Charlie is where our body image discussion comes in.  When we first meet Charlie she is an average teenage girl, described as being homely almost.  She sits off to the side in the cafeteria with her two besties, at times ridiculed.  Dante can’t figure out why the big guy below wants her soul, but he figures the way to get it is to make her wish that she was beautiful, which she starts to do in baby steps.  Better hair maybe, better teeth, clearer skin.  These are the things that many of us have wished for at various times at our life.  Some people spend hundreds of dollars on products to help transform the way that they look.

As I read The Collector, I was worried at times about the message the book was sending about physical appearance.  But in the end, there is a really positive spin on the message.  I can’t tell you what it is, but you’ll have to trust me. Better yet, read it for yourself and see if you agree with me. Of course this is only book 1 in the series, so we’ll have to see where it ends up going.  My wish? That in the end Charlie would choose to truly be herself.  I think that would send the most amazing message to readers.  I’ll keep reading to find out what happens, but also because it is a fun read.

Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick is another example of book that appears to be sending one message, but is in fact sending a completely different one.  In Gorgeous, Becky makes a deal with a world renowned fashion designer: he will make her 3 dresses and she will be turned into the most beautiful woman in the world.  Becky is soon transformed into Rebecca and is thrown into a life greater than you could ever imagine.  But she also knows that in many ways, she is betraying herself and there is kind of a shallowness to her life that she begins to recognize.  Gorgeous is an absurd twisted fairy tale; funny, but in the end, a fairy tale with a really good message.  In fact, with a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly proclaimed: “With writing that’s hilarious, profane, and profound (often within a single sentence), Rudnick casts a knowing eye on our obsession with fame, brand names, and royalty to create a feel-good story about getting what you want without letting beauty blind you to what’s real.” (May 2013)

Both of these books start out seeming like one thing, but when you read them all the way to the end, they end up saying something completely different about appearances.  A look at the covers would make you think they are something different than what they are, something we do with people every day.  Once you get past the shiny, glitzy covers, there is a fun reminder that what you see is not always what you get, and that we shouldn’t judge books – or people – by their appearance.

What other books do you feel send a positive message to teens about self acceptance and body image? Help us build a list by leaving your favorites in the comments. Thank you.

Book Review: Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick

So I got home from the library last night and there was this mysterious package on my doorstep.  Little did I know that it was a subversive gift from a book fairy with a twisted sense of humor.  Imagine if you will Mephistopheles trying to deal with current pop culture trends and obsessions – that’s what we have here.

Synopsis: When Becky’s mom dies, she finds a note telling her that magic is going to happen and she should say yes.  She then finds herself being wooed by one of the most famous designers of all time with a simple promise: he will make her three dresses that will transform her into the most beautiful woman in the world.  What small town girl from the trailer park could turn an offer like this down? But what does it cost to be the most beautiful woman in the world?

This book is both absurd, and absurdly awesome.  I hadn’t heard of it so I opened it to read the first few pages to see what it was like and just never really put it down.  I liked our main character Becky from the get go and her home life brought back fond memories of watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.  Then Becky finds the note telling her that magic was going to happen and she should say yes . . . Well, Becky definitely deserved a little bit of magic.

Rudnick takes everything that we lament about today’s culture – out obsession with fame and fortune and product labels – and just throws it in our face in a way that both embraces it and mocks it.  When Becky – who is now the fabulously beautiful Rebecca – hops on the back of superstar Jate’s motorcycle (think 90s Justin Timberlake or today’s Justin Beiber) and rides of into the sunset with the one boy she read about in the tabloids that could make her knees quiver, you can immediately think of who your Jate would be.  And like most superstars, Jate has a few secrets of his own. 

Gorgeous is a tour-de-force romp through a mash-up world of twisted fairytale (seriously – there is a prince) and deep moral lessons that reminds us that it is important to be honest with yourself and bold in how you live your life.  Just when the absurdity comes to a tipping point, a character utters some truth about fame or beauty or life to bring the reader back to the real world; it’s like Rudnick is sending his story afloat on the absurdity balloon and seeing how far he can take it (there are little people making shoes! ala the Elves and the Cobbler) and then he yanks that balloon string back in and reminds us all that true beauty is more than skin deep.

Gorgeous is a deliciously absurd romp through the mind of a pop-culture obsessed teen trying to get out of a small town life with the help of three magical dresses.  Everything about this book could scream shallow and superficial and overly focused on outward appearances, but in the end it turns out to be anything but – it really is a testament to be one self and embrace your inner beauty.  This book is not for everyone and in many ways it is seriously a hot mess, but if you look at it as a kind of twisted fairy tale and just hang on for the wild ride, you may enjoy it as the absurd – and often humorous – hot mess that it is.  I hope people don’t consider it blasphemy, but in many ways this reminds me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I love) and its wild ride through absurdity – but with a really important message to readers. (And I am not saying that all books have to have an important message, it just happens to be that this one does and gets to it in a really fun way.)

3.5 out of 5 stars.  This book is understandably getting very mixed reviews on Goodreads and received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Put this in the hands of Meg Cabot fans (not coincidentally, she blurbs the book). It is not the type of book I would usually pick up, but I was surprised by how funny it was and how much  ended up liking it. Published by Cartwheel Books, a division of Scholastic, in April of 2013. ISBN: 9780545464260