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.
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.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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