- Olivia Luchini
Children's Literature: No Larges Allowed
During my second year at the University of California, Davis, I took a class on children's literature taught by my favorite professor. As I excitedly inspected the syllabus on the first day of class, I noticed something strange. A lot of the books that we would be reading directly cheered for smallness within their titles or they contained protagonists who were portrayed as smaller than average. This was the first time that I noticed the "small is good" trope blatantly, though I think I had noticed the lack or representation for other body types before I even started grade school. Today's blog will feature examples of children's literature that either prioritizes the small or demeans the big (which can happen simultaneously).
Let's just look at titles first and foremost. Within many of the classics, the word "little" is used to characterize the main protagonists within the cover of the book. Little Bear, The Three Little Pigs, The Little Mermaid, The Little Engine That Could, Little Owl's Night, The Poky Little Puppy, A Little Princess, The Little Prince, Pretty Little Liars, The Little Match Girl, Little Women, Stuart Little, Little Red Riding Hood, and more all feature a protagonist, main character who is known as little before we even open the book. Of course, in many of these, little is meant to be synonymous with young, but young isn't a direct synonym of little. While young is defined as "being in the first or early stage of life or growth" according to Dictionary.com, little is defined as "small in size." Additionally, these titles give us an image for the character that the book doesn't necessarily back up. A key example is Sara Crewe from A Little Princess. Her appearance is seldom described, but we immediately picture her as smaller due to this title because little means small. When the author means to portray that the character is weak, tired, young, good, heroic or innocent, they use the word "little," giving us a descriptor of appearance instead of the character that they are attempting to describe.
When we look at the word "big" within titles, we don't get a lot of images of goodness or heroism or innocent. Big Bad Bunny is about a naughty and loud bunny and Big Nate is about a rebellious and naughty sixth grader. Big Cat is about two children terrorizing their fat cat, so it's more about a big prop than a big character with whom the reader can relate to or learn from. In fact, a LOT of the occurrences of the word "big" are related to pets. Clifford, the Big Red Dog and Big Mog Book are just two examples. A lot of other titles are related to animals as well, mainly pigs and cats (the two most similar animals). Big seldom means brave, heroic or confident in the way that little means a million other positive things. Big means naughty. Big means taking up too much space. Big means drawing too much attention. "Big" is a spectacle, while "little" fits in just right. Big is not good.
In addition to this obsession with human protagonists who are good being described as little within titles, this distaste toward the not little keeps going with the pages. What is known as the "Fat Bastard" trope in which it's described that It is generally assumed that "overweight people are either pathetic, obnoxious losers or greedy, hedonistic, Corrupt Corporate Executives. They also tend to be portrayed as ludicrously obsessive eaters. Furthermore, most are portrayed as lazy, having poor hygiene, bad grooming, and no fashion sense," (According to TV Tropes). While I've already analyzed most of these situations within Harry Potter in a separate article, there are plenty of other examples. Baron Harkonnen from Dune, Clear Sky from Warrior Cats, Bill Kingsley from Don't Call Me Ishmael!, and more, most often spotted in Roald Dahl books.
Roald Dahl, famous author of books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, has several instances in which he expresses largeness as an evil. Augustus Gloop of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is meant to portray one of the ultimate vices, gluttony. He is described within the book as having "fat bulging from every fold, with two greedy eyes peering out of his doughball of a body." In contrast, Charlie is described as with his "skin was drawn so tightly over the cheeks that you could see the shapes of the bones underneath." So the protagonist is very slender, and that's supposed to be because his family is extremely poor. All of them are described as slender. It would be one thing if Augustus was described as fat quickly and then a majority of the novel revolved around him desperately wanting snacks, an action that I have seen people of all shapes and sizes express. This is not what happens. Augustus' weight becomes the punchline of a multitude of jokes, so the fatphobia runs rampant. Through song, he's called "so big and vile" as well as a "big greedy nincompoop." It seems that a lot of insults about him have to do with his appearance. Most certainly, Dahl loves making fat people props for jokes. Augustus Gloop clogs a chocolate pipe with his fatness and has to be worked out of it, Aunt Sponge from James and the Giant Peach is squashed by a rolling peach of gigantic size, Bruno Jenkins (a certified tub) of The Witches gets his by getting turned into a teeny mouse and Matilda sees this through her mother and Miss Trunchbull. Additionally, most of Dahl's main protagonists are small/weak children, while most of his ugly/rude/bad characters are fat.
It's okay. Dahl and his fatphobia got served a middle finger on a silver platter when his granddaughter, Sophie Dahl, became one of the first plus-size models. The world is a beautiful mystery.
Children's books aren't all that nice to tall girls either. Too Tall Alice paints a world in which a tall girl is gossiped about and cries herself to sleep, but that she need not worry because she can do one of two things one day, which are play basketball or be a supermodel. Upon my search for more books with a positive message about being tall, I didn't find much. Well, I found one book about a woman from the 1800s who was over 8-feet-tall and became a carnival attraction, but I don't think that counts as body positive as much as it counts as spectacle.
Children's literature has a long way to go with its protagonists and in its offering of books that celebrate bigness/height rather than make spectacle of it. While it is true that being littler or more slender can be just as isolating as being bigger or fatter, it is also true that it is far easier to find representations of protagonist characters who are slighter than it is to find protagonists who are big, but not a joke, villain or idiot.
In short, no TSC protagonists were found during today's deep dive into notable children's books. I hope that I can change that soon, and I hope that my fellow writers will, too. If you know of any that I missed, I beg you to tell me so that I can feature them in their own article. Remember, they need only four qualities: tall, chunky, strong and good.
May we write books that ignite confidence in the young people around us rather than shame or embarrassment in their form. I can easily retrace my literary steps to the handful of books that made me feel good about myself during my childhood, and none of them allowed me confidence in my body, but I wish that even one of them had.
Tomorrow, I'll be exploring the world of Percy Jackson. Thank you for learning with me. I hope that you learned something, no matter how small (even if it was that Roald Dahl's granddaughter, Sophie, is a plus-size model).