Sometimes, an "issue" book is simply an "issue" book. The protagonist is a cutter. On drugs. Pregnant. Homeless. Abused. Et cetera. The book revolves entirely around said issue, and things progress much in the same manner as an after-school special (which, come to think of it, do they even make those anymore?). These books often serve as cautionary tales rather than actual stories, where plot trumps character and message trumps style.
It would be wrong to categorize FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN'T HAVE as simply a book on obesity. While Andrew Zansky, the novel's protagonist, does weigh in at 307 pounds, his weight is simply one facet of his struggle as a teenage misfit. He isn't the fattest kid in school; he's the second fattest. He isn't friendless; he's got Eytan, skinny as Andrew is big. When Andrew meets new girl April, he's instantly smitten, but he tells her he's a jock, which is a complete lie. In an effort to impress her, he tries to make a soccer goal during gym class, and he ends up putting a few kids in the emergency room...and he loses his gym shorts in the process. Utterly embarassed, Andrew expects to sink to the very bottom of the social plane after this fiasco, but a chance encounter with O, the star quarterback of the football team, changes everything. Instead of joining Model UN with Eytan, Andrew decides to try out for football (where April is coincidentally going out for cheerleader). Andrew goes from being the fat kid to becoming the secret weapon of the team, and he suddenly finds himself invited to parties, and even getting private football lessons from O (in exchange for tutoring). His crush on April only intensifies when he discovers that she too was once heavy, and she has further altered herself through tinted contacts and teeth whitening in an attempt to become pretty.
What I love about Andrew is that as a narrator, he's emotionally available. Yes, he's a teenage boy who thinks about sex constantly and is distracted by breasts and makes "your mom" jokes and stuffs his face to cover up his sadness over his parents' divorce. Yet he is honest in presenting himself, and that vulnerability makes the reader root for him all the more, as he is surrounded by false faces and ulterior motives. This isn't a novel about Andrew going from a size 48 to a 32 and getting the girl and winning the big game. It's about a kid who realizes that there is a space between the person he is and the person he wants to be. It's about a boy truly becoming a man as he stands in the shadow of his cowardly father. It's about someone who tries something new, falls down a lot, reaches for things he can't have (or shouldn't have) and eventually discovers that perhaps the path that those around him choose to tread--the path that says do whatever it takes to be who others want you to be--is not the path for him. I also appreciate the fact that his high school is populated by kids of various backgrounds--Latino, Korean, Jewish, African American, Chinese--and that ethnicity affects way these characters definte themselves.
Author Allen Zadoff makes his YA debut here; he wrote a memoir called HUNGRY about his own journey from obesity to a healthy weight. Andrew, unlike Zadoff, does not emerge from the fat cocoon a skinny butterfly. He's still very big as the novel ends. That, however, isn't really the point. What matters is that Andrew faces some of the demons in his life--from bullies to mini bagels--and he makes choices. One of my favorite authors, Gary Schmidt, says that writing for young people is all about characters making decisions, and that is why this novel works so well. Andrew wants things, and he is denied them, and yet he has the courage to try for them anyway. That is the stuff of good fiction, particularly teen fiction, and that is why I heartily recommend this book.
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