I posted this entry on my personal friends-only LiveJournal account, and it occurred to me that it might fit here. Carrie encouraged me to post it here, too. So, here are some reflections on a book I read as a child, slightly edited from the version posted on my person LJ.
When I was little, I was the “fat kid.” This probably does not surprise anyone now, since I’m still pretty much the fat kid, but it really did have a big influence on forming my personality as a child. I’ll never forget how it felt to have a group of elementary school children approach you every day at lunchtime in the cafeteria and tell you to put the food down, that you should not be eating lunch at all because you’re so fat. The person I remember doing it the most died a couple of years ago from a drug overdose. Weird.
Anyway, my grandmother used to love garage sales and would pick up kids books whenever she found them to give to me. One year, she brought me a paper sack full of old books including a very used, tattered copy of Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade by Barthe DeClements. I read it several times. I have not thought about this book in years, but lately I have been reminded of it.
Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade is the story of a group of fifth grade girls. A girl named Elsie starts going to their school, and she is the “fat kid.” The cover of the book I had when I was a kid actually showed a girl you could consider overweight (see left cover picture), but the cover on the Amazon book does not (see right cover picture). At least, I hope one of those girls is not supposed to be Elsie. The blond girl maybe has a baggier nightgown and chubby cheeks. What are we teaching our children? Anyway, Elsie is socially awkward and has some weird issues, like her home life isn’t quite right. Elsie’s mother has her on a serious diet. She is hungry. She starts asking other people for food at school, and her new friends don’t know whether to give it to her or not. Unfortunately, her teacher has to take over the role of enforcer for the diet at school. Elsie eventually starts stealing money to buy food and gets in a lot of trouble. Meanwhile, the other girls continue to struggle with normal elementary school troubles.
I am glad my parents did not try to put me on an extreme diet when I was a kid. I think their efforts combined with the nastiness of the kids at school would have given me a TERRIBLE self image. They did encourage physical activity, but yeah. Elsie’s mom in the book was tyrannical.
Having recently lost 40 pounds (but still being the “fat kid”), I am reminded of Elsie because my pants are constantly trying to fall off. In the book, Elsie does lose weight, but no one buys her new clothing. So she is forced to wear these clothes that are too big for her, and her pants fall down in front of other kids. Her friends try to help her with belts and safety pins. The other kids keep making fun of her now for having the clothes that are the wrong size, again affirming the idea that kids will make fun of people for anything.
When I read the book as a child, I thought having clothes that were too big would be a wonderful problem to have. I was jealous of Elsie and thought she was basically just too whiny. I thought she was lucky to be losing weight, no matter how it happened. My adult viewpoint is much different. I read on Amazon that Barthe DeClements wrote two other books featuring Elsie, How Do You Lose Those Ninth Grade Blues? and Seventeen and In-Between. I would be interested in seeing if Elsie continues her struggle with weight as she is older and what emotional effect her childhood experiences had on her. One of the reviews mentioned that Barthe DeClements had worked as a school psychologist, so perhaps she would include some lasting issues instead of making it magically be all better.
I’m glad I am losing weight, but I don’t want to be that person who is talking about it all the time. I am more concerned with how good I feel than I am with how I look. The fact that I can walk up a flight of stairs and not be out of breath is something to cherish. But I do need some new pants.
Another winner from the same sack of used books from my grandmother was Eve Bunting’s Our Sixth-grade Sugar Babies.