Book Review: How to Be Brave by E. Katherine Kottaras
An emotional contemporary YA novel about love, loss, and having the courage to chase the life you truly want.
Reeling from her mother’s death, Georgia has a choice: become lost in her own pain, or enjoy life right now, while she still can. She decides to start really living for the first time and makes a list of fifteen ways to be brave – all the things she’s wanted to do but never had the courage to try. As she begins doing the things she’s always been afraid to do – including pursuing her secret crush, she discovers that life doesn’t always go according to plan. Sometimes friendships fall apart and love breaks your heart. But once in a while, the right person shows up just when you need them most – and you learn that you’re stronger and braver than you ever imagined.
I really struggled with this book as a reader because it involved a lot – and I mean a lot – of fat shaming. The MC identifies herself as fat, at one point she says that she has a pair of size 16 jeans, though when I talked to Angie Manfredi* about this book she said she thought the girl was a size 18 or 20. The average female American is a size 14. The MC shames herself for being fat, other classmates shame and tease and shun her. At one point her mother, who is also identified as being fat, is dying from complications of diabetes and the doctor looks at Georgia – as her mother is dying – and says, “don’t let this happen to you.” I raged a lot at this book and the way they talked about being fat.
“Outfit #1: Dark indigo skinny jeans (are they still considered skinny if they’re a size 16?), drapey black shirt, long gold chain necklace that Liss gabe me, and cheap ballet flats that hurt my feet because they’re way too flat and I hate wearing shoes with no socks.” – page 5
Beyond the fat shaming, How to Be Brave is a book about friendship, grief, and finding yourself. When Georgia’s mother dies she creates a bucket list of things she wants to complete in an effort to “be brave”. The list involves things like trying out for cheerleading, skipping school, go skinny dipping and tribal dancing. Along the way they meet Evelyn who introduces Georgia and Liss to drugs and complicates their lives in a variety of ways.
Towards the end of the book Georgia and Liss have a major falling out over boys, Eveyln attempts suicide, and Georgia has almost completely withdrawn from the world around her and immersed herself in her art. Slowly things begin to head in the right direction, but not without a lot of pain and missteps along the way.
“What you say ‘that’, you mean my weight, right? You don’t think I can be a cheerleader because I’m a senior, or because I’m fat?” – page 29
I know that for me this book definitely suffered because I couldn’t help but compare it to Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy as it has a lot of the same plot points and themes: a fat main character journeying towards body acceptance, a grief stricken teen trying to honor the memory of someone they loved and lost, friendship and new love. The problem is that Dumplin’ hits on all these themes in equally or more successful ways, especially the part about the main characters journey of self-acceptance. But, more importantly to me, Dumplin’ does the body acceptance journey in healthier ways with far less outright fat shaming.
One thing that I did really like about this book is that it touches a lot on income inequality and the effects of that on the life of Georgia in very successful and realistic ways. Georgia’s father is the owner of a struggling Greek restaurant and that, on top of the medical bills the family faces, put them in a very tight financial situation.
In the end, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend How to Be Brave because as a former anorexic and the mother of a teenage girl, I feel that the explicit and implicit messages of How to Be Brave feeds into our toxic culture of fat and body shaming and doesn’t really successfully resolve or address those issues in a way that won’t leave many readers feeling the toxic effects of that.
*Do look for Angie Manfredi’s review of this book. I had a great conversation with her about it because I wanted to know how she interpreted it.
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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