Posted Friday, Aug. 26, 2011, at 10:19 AM
Maggie Goes On a Diet does not look like a good book. I wouldn't judge a novel by its cover, but when it's a children's book, the cover picture is fair game--and this pitiful line drawing isn't going to pull in a single discerning reader. The title is simplistic and didactic. It's self-published (by Aloha Publishing, whose website tagline is "Why Everyone Should Write a Book," which begs a pretty obvious response). With all due respect to Amanda Hocking, that's not usually a good sign.
But thanks to that provocative title, Maggie Goes on a Diet is getting plenty of attention. Search "Maggie" on Amazon and it's the first suggestion.The author tops the Google rankings for Aloha Books over its own website, and has already appeared on Good Morning America to defend his book (one of the rare Good Morning America appearances that may not particularly increase sales—the book isn't even scheduled for release until October). Amazon commenters and others fear that a girls' book promoting dieting will lead girls on the path to eating disorders (conveniently overlooking the fact that any parent who'd purchase such a book for her daughter has probably already done her worst). Maggie is sucking away a powerful lot of attention--and that's a shame. Because if we want to have a debate about whether there should be children's books on topics like healthy eating and childhood obesity, let's at least center it around a decent book.
I'm a little surprised that I'm saying this—but Ed Koch's forthcoming Eddie Shapes Up is just such a book. Written with his sister, Pat Koch Thaler, and with an introduction from former President Bill Clinton, it's a a semi-autobiographical dose of wishful thinking from the former mayor, who says he didn't really "shape up" until the army. This is what preteen Eddie's life could have been if he'd made better (perhaps simplistically better) choices. The Eddie in the book goes from a dodge-ball vicitm who dreads recess and eats the chips from his friends' lunches to a soccer player—not a star—with a still-stocky body, a healthier diet and the ability to enjoy more of his life. Eddie Shapes Up succeeds in making its message reasonably entertaining, mostly because of clever llustrations, like the ones hiding Eddie under his blankets and showing him struggling to zip his pants.That it has some clunky sentences and a predicatable plot nearly goes without saying, but in a world that includes Maggie Goes on a Diet, it's welcome, and even a standout.
I admit that I'm judging Maggie based entirely on cover, title, and the words of writers I respect like Mary Elizabeth Williams, who calls it "clumsy" and points out that, indeed, much of the trouble with the book lies in that cover, with its image of a girl gazing at her thinner reflection in a mirror and clutching a woefully unfashionable pink dress, and in its title, with its echoes of every unhealthy "diet" any one who remembers being a teenage girl has ever been on. Eddie has an immediate advantage in being about a boy, and teaching boys about healthy weights and healthy eating holds far less baggage than doing the same for girls. Women who grew up with, or surrounded by, eating disorders fear "triggering" one in our daughters, and while we know boys are also vulnerable, the risks for boys, and the range of socially acceptable weights and shapes, seems larger. Then there's the fact that Eddie Shapes Up (apparently unlike Maggie Goes on a Diet) places its emphasis on health and happiness—Eddie has more fun when he can move—without ever mentioning appearance or popularity.
"Do little girls need diet books?" Mary Elizabeth Williams asks in Salon. As a parent, I'd say no to both Maggie and Eddie. The anti-obesity message is coming through to my kids a little too loudly through school and culture, and because, happily, neither healthy activity nor good eating are issues for them, I see no need to belabor the point. But talking to kids with weight issues about those issues (the Boston Globe calls it the "fat chat") remains a tough conversation. With younger kids (and even older elementary students) Eddie Shapes Up, particularly with its mayoral backstory, could help. Maggie Goes on a Diet? I'm unconvinced.