When I was in kindergarten learning to read, some of the very first books I read were from Joy Berry’s Help Me Be Good series. I loved those books, even with their sometimes over-the-top moralizing. They were fun to read, featured kids like my friends and me (as well as funny little pets), and taught children to share, to be honest, to be a good sport, etc. I think books with a message have their place in children’s literature, but we have to be careful of what messages we’re sending to children.
For instance, I think the book Maggie Goes on a Diet by Paul M. Kramer is sending children the wrong message. Although the book won’t be available until October, the publisher’s website provides the following summary:
Maggie has so much potential that has been hiding under her extra weight. This inspiring story is about a 14-year-old who goes on a diet and is transformed from being overweight and insecure to a normal sized teen who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self-image.
I think part of the reason I’m so disturbed by the book is that it’s advocating for children to go on a diet. When I hear the word diet, I immediately think of a temporary regimen that leads to temporary weight loss. What seems healthier and more appropriate is to advocate for children to develop healthy eating habits that they sustain throughout their lives, rather than temporarily going on a diet in order to fit into the slender pink dress on the cover of the book. It is important to note that thinness does not equate to good health.
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Additionally, Maggie’s motivation for losing weight doesn’t seem to be the goal of getting healthy, but rather stopping people from bullying her about her weight. An article on abc.com, “Dangerous? Book About Dieting Teen Targets Kids 6-12,” describes the problem with this approach: “Highlighting imperfections in a boy’s or girl’s body ‘does not empower a child to adopt good eating habits,’ [Joanne] Ikeda said.” Ikeda, a nutritionist emeritus at University of California-Berkley, also noted, “Body dissatisfaction is a major risk for eating disorders in children all the way up through adulthood.” If a child is more focused on losing weight in order to look a certain way, rather than losing weight to become healthier, there is the risk that he or she could develop a dangerous eating disorder.
The book also seems to suggest that Maggie lives happily ever after once she loses weight, as she joins the soccer team and becomes more popular. What an oversimplification! Just because someone is a certain weight, whether that’s overweight or a healthy weight, doesn’t guarantee that their life will be awful or awesome.
It’s no secret that we have a problem with childhood obesity in America. While there have been several proposed solutions to this growing problem, and there are no clear right answers, I do think it’s a problem that requires thoughtful, research-based action, rather than one person’s inexpert ideas about what will help children eat healthier.