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.