Just back from the SCBWI LA Conference, I must confess that I book-binged. I bought as many books as our baggage allowances would permit. After unpacking, the problem is where to start reading!

I started The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round, by Carolyn Mackler, while still at the conference on one of my lunchtime escapes to the JW Marriott pool, so it was a good starting point. (Somewhat ironically, these book conferences leave you almost no time to read. It turns out writers like to talk.)

I also attended Carolyn Mackler’s breakout session, Teens and Their Bodies in YA Novels.

“Body is a constant conversation for all of us at every age,” she explained as she began the session.

The truth of this statement is what makes body image such a universal topic as well as one that is likewise so difficult to discuss. While it’s a universal concern, it is also highly personal. The session generated many interesting discussions.

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round is the story of Virginia Shreves, a high school student at a prestigious Manhattan private school. The story begins with her making out with Froggy Welsh the Fourth. It is just a weekly makeout session in part because Virginia doesn’t think that she deserves more. One of the first things she tells the reader is that she is fat.

Virginia has to deal with the absence of her best friend, the constant obsession her family has about her weight, her issues with her weight, and bullying. While this seems like more than she can handle, her ‘perfect’ family is nearly destroyed when her brother is accused of rape and dismissed from University. Virginia though learns to take control of her own life and makes positive changes for herself. While she makes significant progress, she isn’t quite through, and we aren’t through with her either.

In The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, Virginia’s story continues where it left off in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. The story opens with Virginia going further with Froggy, but we soon see she has just gotten started taking control of her own life. Virginia becomes even bolder and more independent in the second book. She kickboxes, gets a summer job, passes her driving exam, wears clothing that makes her feel good, starts an underground paper, and falls in love for the first time. It is refreshing that she doesn’t lose weight and instead gains confidence and independence.

As a reader who somehow survived high school and is now raising a high schooler of my own, it was effortless to relate to Virginia’s insecurities. No matter what our body type, most people can understand how she feels. Likewise, it is even easy to connect to the bully who says she would rather die than be fat like Virginia. We later learn that she has bulimia and is battling her body images issues.

As a parent of a teenage girl, Virginia’s mother made me carefully examine what messages I send inadvertently about body image as well as rethink how I approach these issues with my daughter. I can’t say that my mother was unlike Virginia’s, so I have tried to be very conscious of how I speak about body and image and weight, but we can all use a reminder from time to time.

Both books also did a great job addressing date rape. It’s unusual to have insight into the story from the accused’s perspective as well as from the accusers. There are many parts of this subplot that are relatable and worthy of discussion. It is essential to see how this affects the victim as well as the families on both sides.

I would highly recommend both of these books. They are great reads filled with incredible character and gateways to many meaningful conversations.

I will miss you, Virginia.