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Review: Skinny by Donna Cooner

Find your voice.

Hopeless. Freak. Elephant. Pitiful. These are the words of Skinny, the vicious voice that lives inside fifteen-year-old Ever Davies’s head. Skinny tells Ever all the dark thoughts her classmates have about her. Ever knows she weighs over three hundred pounds, knows she’ll probably never be loved, and Skinny makes sure she never forgets it.

But there is another voice: Ever’s singing voice, which is beautiful but has been silenced by Skinny. Partly in the hopes of trying out for the school musical—and partly to try to save her own life—Ever decides to undergo a risky surgery that may help her lose weight and start over.

With the support of her best friend, Ever begins the uphill battle toward change. But demons, she finds, are not so easy to shake, not even as she sheds pounds. Because Skinny is still around. And Ever will have to confront that voice before she can truly find her own.

Please note: Due to the nature of this book and the book discussion that follows, plot points will be discussed and some may view this as spoilers.

We all have that little voice.

You know the one. It’s that voice that tells you “This is not a good idea. You’re going to look like an idiot”. Perhaps your voice tells you that you aren’t fast enough, strong enough, smart enough… or that you aren’t deserving of love. For Ever, her voice tells her what she already knows: she’s fat. That isn’t enough for Ever’s little voice, appropriately nicknamed “Skinny”. Skinny tells Ever that nothing in life is worth having because she’s overweight, and Ever believes her – for a while. It’s when Ever decides to make a change that the battle with Skinny truly begins.

Talking about teen obesity and possible dramatic solutions such as surgery can be a touchy subject, but author Donna Cooner has handled the topic with grace and respect. The care and concern expressed by her father in his letter is touching and real, and you feel his love for his daughter. She vividly portrays the strain that Ever’s weight places on her body and her psyche, and clearly lays out (via conversations with the medical team) the long and involved process that follows gastric bypass surgery. There is no sudden lifting of the veil, no “aha” moment; Ever has to work hard to lose the weight following the surgery, and each step is clearly documented. What keeps this novel from turning into a novelized medical checklist, however, is the emotion that Cooner gives her characters, and to Skinny.

Ever has suffered a traumatic loss – her mother died when she was younger, and she has sublimated her grief in the rituals of food: the Snickers bars she shared with her mother, the cookies they made together and a myriad of other symbols of loneliness. Her father has remarried a woman with two girls (cue evil stepsister comparisons) and Ever has made herself out to be the motherless lost girl, alone on the fringes with a male friend named Rat to keep her company. The set-up seems fairy-tale-esque, with one exception: it is all, as Ever discovers, a matter of perception. She sees her step sisters as evil and self-involved because she cannot read the hurt on their faces for being rejected by their own parents. She sees herself as alone because she cannot see that she pushes away her friends before they can hurt her. She idolizes her childhood crush, not realizing that she was the one to pull away when romance bloomed. Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, she cannot see the value of her friendship (and perhaps more) with Rat, and hurts him deeply when she devalues his concern in the process. Part of the issue with Skinny’s voice may revolve around Ever’s weight, but most of the damage is done by Skinny echoing Ever’s own insecurities about being a good person. As Ever loses the weight, she must also shed her previous persona; the difficulty lies in finding and accepting who is underneath.

“Skinny” is a wonderfully touching yet uncomfortable novel to read – not because of the subject matter, but because it will strike close to home for most readers. Low self-esteem around body issues isn’t related to girls, although the statistics for them are alarming enough. According to a recent Dove.ca survey of women ages 10-64, a girl’s “inner beauty critic moves in by the time she is 14 years old and continues to erode her self-esteem as she ages” (article link here). Boys are also affected, and it’s something that breaks a teacher’s heart daily. I’ve seen beautiful girls of Caribbean descent denying themselves breakfast and lunch so that they might one day look like their petite southeast Asian friends. I’ve heard boys teasing each other about not being as broad across the shoulders, or for being shorter than the girls in class. Ever sums up the realities of childhood cruelty herself:

“They drive past slowly, the rest of the boys inside laughing hysterically. I try to pretend I don’t hear it. It’s not okay to drive around the high school parking lot at yell out at people, “You look like a third grader”, or “Your dad’s a drunk,” but for some reason all the groups unite to comment about my weight.”

The world doesn’t care if you’re kind or good. It only cares that you’re fat. Nothing else matters.”

Donna Cooner has create a wonderful and significant book that will inspire great discussion amongst its readers. We all have those voices in our heads. They are constant and ever-present. What distinguishes us from one another lies in how much power we give those voices, and how we view ourselves. It’s a lesson that we never stop learning, or a battle that we stop fighting. I cheered at the end of this book, when Ever finally realized her worth, and can only hope that each day, another of my students will have their own “Ever” moment, and learn to leave that voice in their head behind as they step into their own spotlight.

“…It’s time for the princess to say good-bye to her fairy godmother. Skinny isn’t standing on center stage, or sitting on my shoulder, or talking in my ear. Skinny only exists in my head. She is part of me, but she’s only one part. There’s also an elephant part of me that is big and proud. And a singer part of me that people would love to hear. And a daughter part of me that misses her mother and loves her father. And maybe, there’s a friend part of me, too.”

 

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