The Littlest Bigfoot by Jennifer Weiner, 304 pp, RL 4

Source: Purchased

While I love cryptids, I was most drawn to The Littlest Bigfoot, Jennifer Weiner's first book for children, because of main character Alice. Tall and wide, with big hands and big feet, she is also cursed with the Mane, a "reddish blond, thick, and unruly" head of hair that is like having a "three-year-old on top of her head, a little kid who refused to listed or be good, not matter what bribes she offered or what punishments she put in place." I couldn't recall reading a middle grade novel where the size and physical appearance of the main character are central to the plot since Judy Blume's Blubber, which was published in 1974. I am sure I must be overlooking more that a few titles, but several internet searches with many variations in wording (fat kids, overweight kids, big girls) brought up only books about childhood obesity, articles about the rarity of fat-positive characters in kid's books and a great list of YA books titled, "Top 10 Fat Books," written by Karin Perry at Nerdy Book Club, leading me to believe that sizeism is not a subject that middle grade novels have dealt with much in the past. 

And I understand why this might be the case. It's a tricky, delicate subject but it can also be the elephant in the room. Does being overweight count as diverse? Yes, we definitely need more cultural and ethnic diversity in kid's books, but I think we also need more overweight characters. If you were or are a girl who never fit into that coveted "slim" size in pants and were always older than your clothing size, you might know what I am talking about. Jennifer Weiner knows what I am talking about. Her novels for adults often feature overweight female protagonists (who do not lose weight to find happiness). And, in 2010 Weiner became a voice for gender parity in the literary media, leading to the first ever female editor of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul. Paul is now in charge of all book reviews at the New York Times. I am moving on to my review of The Littlest Bigfoot, but I hope you will read through to the end of the for more about Weiner and what she has to say.

The Littlest Bigfoot begins in New York City with Alice, her expensive trunk and luggage surrounding her, waiting on the corner for her drive to arrive and take her to yet another new private school - the seventh in seven years, to be precise. Alice's size - while the word fat is never used, it is clear that Alice is a big girl - causes problems for her wherever she goes, whether it's sitting on the class guinea pig in first grade or breaking the bunkbed at boarding school in sixth grade, the words her roommate scrawled in her diary (which she left open in the common room) "ALICE IS ANNOYING AND UGLY AND DRIVING EVERYONE NUTS" seem to sum up the feelings of her classmates across the board and over the years. Alice tries to pinpoint the difference between herself and the other girls, but she can't find it, even though she senses it every time "a new group of girls looked at her, and then, sometimes before she'd even said 'hello,' they'd turn away giggling and whispering."

Now Alice is headed to the Experimental Center for Love and Learning in upstate New York, where "age and grades don't matter as much as the understanding that we all have things to learn from each other." The newly relocated campus is across the lake from the Yare Village, where an almost entirely hidden enclave of Yare, or Bigfoots, live. Weiner does a marvelous job giving life to Yare culture, from the traditions like Naming Day and the stories they tell their young to keep them in line about the scary No-Fur (human) with a white beard and red suit (trimmed in the duff of the tiny baby Yare) who comes down Yare chimneys to steal food and toys to the use of a "top-lap" to maintain an Esty account where the Yare sell their handicrafts, using the profits to fund their shell corporation and pay their electricity bills. Millie, daughter of the leader of the tribe and heir to this role, is as much of an outsider in her world as Alice is in hers. Born with a curiously rare, white fur, Millie is short and small with "thin wrists and delicate fingers." Even worse, she is fascinated by the dangerous world of No-furs and lives to watch Friends and The Next Stage, a talent competition show she dreams of singing on someday. Millie yearns for acceptance from this alien world that looks so appealing to her.

The meeting of Alice and Millie is a given, but how Weiner brings it about and where she takes the story after (and beyond, The Littlest Bigfoot is the first in a trilogy) is exciting and enthralling. While bunkmates Taley, a gifted seamstress with debilitating allergies and Riya, a singleminded fencer, are friendly and inviting, Alice keeps a distance, believing that they are just following the kindness rules of the school. The arrival, a few weeks into the first semester, of Jessica, classic mean girl, feels almost anachronistic to the world that Weiner creates in The Littlest Bigfoot, that is until Jessica perpetrates an act of cruelty that is universal in tone. The addition of the character of Jeremy, (who shares alternating chapters with Millie and Alice), an outcast in a family of superior thinkers and athletes who has found his niche researching and documenting the existence of Bigfoots, adds a layer of danger to the story, especially after he befriends brilliant fellow researcher Jo, who is handicapped. Jessica's prank, which, for my taste, goes shockingly unpunished (even though she does get some fair due in the end) causes all three worlds to collide and leaves a big cliffhanger that I can't wait to see resolved. 

As I said at the start of this review, while I love cryptids, especially Bigfoots and Yetis, and I think that Weiner does a superb job creating their world, I especially love the character of Alice. From her size and appearance, to the joy she feels when she runs through the woods and her body works for her, not against her, to her true love of food and eating that lead her to special cooking lessons with the school chef. Alice's wariness and need to keep a distance from Taley and Riya feels every bit as real as the joy and dismay Alice experiences when she is welcomed into Jessica's clique. I hope that someday Jennifer Weiner will consider writing a reality based work of fiction for middle graders where she explores these situations and themes even more deeply. But, for now, in a world where there doesn't seem to be much of a place on the shelves of the world of kid's books for big girls, I'll take The Littlest Bigfoot any day!

As a pudgy child with a series of bad haircuts, I became, especially so after three pregnancies, the poster child for the hearty peasant stock my Italian and Polish ancestors passed down to me. I like to think that I took the "bad" gene bullet for my brother and cousins, all of whom are not only slender but athletic and fit. Sadly, I passed this "bad" gene onto my three children. Like Weiner's main character Alice, my daughter and two sons regularly outgrew their clothes every year and, like me, their size rarely matched their age once they passed toddlerhood. It's incredibly hard to find clothes for children who don't fit into what you find on the racks of the stores in the mall. And feeling invisible starts early, no matter how hard you try as a parent to make your child feel beautiful and "normal." It's deeply rewarding to find a kid's book like Weiner's where my own kids - and my young self - can feel represented and accepted on the page. Where the pain of being different can be shared, but also where the joy of appreciating yourself for who you are can be experienced.

As a longtime bookseller, of course I am familiar with Jennifer Weiner's bestselling books and, as an overweight person I was thrilled to see someone like me appear regularly in a popular genre. While I never read one of Weiner's books for adults, I applauded when, in 2010, she, along with another bestselling female author, Jodi Piccoult, objected to the lavish attention that Jonathan Franzen garnered for his work, calling attention to the disproportionate number of books reviewed, both by male reviewers and male writers, and the shockingly low number of books reviewed by female reviewers and female writers. For some stunning charts and graphs illustrating this gaping disparity, visit VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, where a count of book reviews and book reviewers has been conducted every year since 2011, inspired by Weiner's commentary. I guess these numbers shouldn't be too surprising, especially given the attention that's been paid to women working in the film industry of late (check out THIS for a in depth analysis of film dialogue, broken down by gender and age, starting with Disney films). Of course, Piccoult and Weiner were also rightly calling attention to the inherent intellectual snobbery, double standard and bias against  novels that portray pop culture and humor, especially when written by women. For this, Franzen has accused Weiner of manipulating social media to boost sales of her novels and called her an "unfortunate spokesperson" for the cause of gender bias in the literary world. This unfair fight feels so familiar to me, the apples and oranges of it all, the way that it's used to shut up the loud girl, the smart girl, the girl who isn't afraid to stand up for herself or her friends. Right or wrong, literary or commercial, Weiner shone a light on yet another gender disparity. People listened, are listening, and making changes. Best of all, Weiner is really funny.

I spent most of a Saturday reading a multitude of articles about Weiner, interviews with Weiner, tweets from Weiner (she is a master at tweeting and has called out more than a few journalists and authors for misogynistic comments) and even an article in Ms. magazine titled, Decoding Anti-Feminist Writer Caitlin Flanagan. For more about Weiner and this literary debate read:Written Off: Jennifer Weiner's Quest for Literary Respect by Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker Magazine, January 2014

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