Jen Larsen’s critically acclaimed memoir Stranger Here detailed her own choice to have weight-loss surgery and the unexpected highs and lows that followed losing 180 pounds. In her teen fiction debut, Larsen tackles weight-loss surgery again in Future Perfect.
Ashley Perkins is the type of kid that any parent or grandparent would be shouting about from the rooftops: class valedictorian, AP student, on the volleyball team and now she’s set her sights on getting into Harvard. All of her friends and family know she is a shoo-in for admission. In her grandmother’s eyes, though, the main thing setting Ashley back is her looks: she’s fat.
Every year since her 13th birthday, Ashley’s grandmother presents her with a card: 50 pounds lost equals a trip to Disneyland, 80 pounds lost equals a shopping trip to Paris, 100 pounds lost equals a brand new car. Every year, Ashley has turned down her grandmother’s offer, but when this year’s card offers her Harvard tuition for the cost of having weight-loss surgery, Ashley struggles with the decision more than she ever has. Should she give in to her grandmother’s demands for how her body “should” look to get everything she’s ever dreamed?
Between the Covers recently caught up with Jen to talk about her novel.
Between the Covers: (No spoilers, please!) While you were writing this novel, did you know what choice Ashley was going to make? Did it change for you while developing her character?
Jen Larsen: I did know! Because her final choice is completely central to why I wrote this book. I wanted to write a character who was everything I wanted to be, and as brave as I wish I were, when I was her age. I wanted to write a book that was the book I needed when I was struggling with my own body issue demons, fear, doubt and isolation.
BTC: You documented your own weight loss surgery and its impact on your life in your memoir Stranger Here; what influence did your own weight loss have on this novel?
JL: When I chose to get surgery, I thought it was my only option—that I had no other choice, because it would be impossible for me to be fat and happy and lovable. That idea is dangerous and so incredibly wrong and yet so prevalent. Future Perfect is a counter to it, an argument for the fact that the body image standards that get pushed on us by the media and even by our own well-meaning family are limited, bigoted and cruel. There's no loving yourself "despite" your flaws, because your body isn't flawed. Not looking like a Victoria's Secret model is not some kind of defect.
BTC: Unlike other teen heroines "of size," Ashley never hides behind her body as a suit of "fat armor." She's not separate from her body, she just is. That is so refreshing! In developing Ashley's character, what pitfalls did you want to avoid? How did you reconcile those pitfalls with having to write a teenage character?
JL: It was really, really important that Ashley's voice be authentic. She rejects the idea that fat is a dirty word. She is fiercely, defiantly happy in her body, almost defensively so — because I think when you're a teenager you are very much still in a role where your beliefs and feelings feel challenged by your adults and your peer group. You feel as if you always need to be on guard, fighting back.
But Ashley also has ordinary doubts and fears and worries that nag at her. She compares herself to other girls, she has fleeting moments of self-doubt when she wonders why her boyfriend thinks she's beautiful, she struggles with her family's nagging and comments. When you're a teenager, your family's opinion is both the most important and the opinion you feel like you need to reject or rebel against. And that's part of what fuels her need to push back as hard as she can.
BTC: This novel could've easily translated to an adult trying to decide if this surgery was for her, so why teen? Teen voice can be very hard to capture, and these kids were very realistic. How did you transition your writing style to suit teen, if at all?
JL: Because I believe teen fiction is so, so important. There's this huge number of brilliant, hungry kids out there looking for themselves in the books they read, wanting their worries, interests, hopes, needs understood and validated. I choose teen because I thought this story and idea and message is so important for teens to hear when they're in the throes of their own struggles with the expectations of the adults around them.
BTC: Ashley's group of friends could each have a wonderful novel in and of themselves! In writing these characters, why was it important for you to stress how, in a lot of ways, these friends were her family perhaps more than her family was?
JL: Thank you! I love her friends very much. I wanted to talk about what happens when the family you have isn't the family you need. It's so important to surround yourself with people who give you strength, who love you and support you. It's okay to push back against your family's expectations if they don't understand you, or care for you the way you need, and create your own community to help give you the strength you need and support your sense of identity and self-worth.
BTC: I've seen a lot of people comment that "No loving grandmother would ever do this to a child!" Do you agree? Why is Grandmother so hard on Ashley when she gives others such love and attention (her dad, Jolene, etc.)?
JL: That kind of direct criticism and pressure on kids about their weight and size is incredibly common, from the really subtle stuff I used to get as a kid ("Why don't you just butter one piece of toast and then press it against the other piece?") to flat-out disapproval and condemnation. Parents and caregivers are roped into The War on Obesity by doctors, and forget that study after study shows that shaming and coercion is useless and, in fact, incredibly harmful. It can cause life-long eating issues, disorders, depression and even more weight gain. It is real and it is common and it is horrific.
Ashley's grandmother genuinely believes she's doing right and good—that she is taking care of her granddaughter in the best way she knows how, and actually helping her to achieve her identity. She thinks if Ashley wants to be successful, she can't be fat. That she'll be denied opportunities and struggle in her career. She thinks she's helping Ashley fight back. And in that sense, she's helping Jolene fight back against the people who reject Jolene's sense of self, unaware of the irony in celebrating Jolene's body autonomy while dismissing Ashley's.
BTC: What's next for you and your writing? (Please, please tell me there's a Jolene book somewhere.)
JL: I love Jolene and would love to write a book about her! But currently I'm working on a couple of new teen books—my first fantasy novel ever, a retelling of the "Princess and the Pea" and a book that's incredibly important to me, about two girls in love and San Francisco and social justice.
Thank you so much for such awesome questions!
One-Punch Man is just the best, and that’s his problem. Following the adventures of Saitama, “a guy who’s a hero for fun,” this hit Japanese series by writer ONE and artist Yusuke Murata is debuting stateside simultaneously as a manga as well as an anime streaming on Hulu.
The book follows a pretty simple premise: Saitama is a hero who trained so hard that his hair fell out, and now he can beat anybody with just one punch. Unfortunately, Saitama also discovers that without the risk of defeat, fighting evildoers has become a reluctant chore. Now, instead of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he wanders listlessly from farmers market to farmers market, looking for sales and pining for a fight that isn’t over in one punch.
Despite his reluctance, Saitama’s abilities get him dragged into all kinds of unlikely scenarios. A man who gains crablike powers after eating too much seafood goes on a rampage! Mosquito season turns out to be the work of an anthropomorphic bug woman! Skinhead terrorists cause baldness to go out of style! Saitama even gets roped into training a pupil, the angst-y cyborg Genos, whose hilariously lengthy origin story is in desperate need of an editor.
In a season where it’s hard to avoid three-hour superhero slugfests, this series is a breath of fresh air. It’s skewering humor and clever satirization is sure to appeal to both superhero fans and haters alike.
New York Times bestselling author Julie Murphy is back with her second teen novel, Dumplin', in which she explores self-esteem and body image against the backdrop of a small Texas town and its popular teen pageant.
Willowdean Dickson is fat and happy in her skin. For as long as she can remember, her former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet mother has called her "Dumplin'" and has made suggestions about her appearance in what she thought was a helpful way. Her support system exists in her best friend Ellen, their shared love of Dolly Parton and her resilience.
With Ellen working at a Forever 21-esque clothing store and spending time with her boyfriend, Willowdean takes a job at a popular fast food place called Harpy's. There, she meets Bo, a somewhat brooding and very hot guy who goes to a different high school. What happens when you are comfortable and confident in your own skin and then a guy you like starts paying attention to you? When Bo reciprocates Willowdean's interest, she starts to feel inadequate and experiences self-doubt. Still, the two of them can't resist the magnetic pull between them, even though Willowdean's doubts and Bo's baggage prevent the pair from really getting to know each other. Things begin to unravel further for her when Bo transfers to her high school and she becomes overwhelmed with the thoughts and comments of others, real and imagined. Guys like Bo don't date girls like her. To make matters worse, their romance doesn't extend from Harpy's to school.
But if you're Willowdean Dickson, you decide to regain your confidence and screw-what-others-think attitude by entering the most important competition in your small Texas town: the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant. At the same time, she and Ellen have a falling out with each other, unlikely pageant candidates gravitate towards her and she ends whatever this thing with Bo is.
Dumplin' is about losing and regaining confidence in oneself no matter what one looks like and relationships between mothers and daughters, best friends and love interests. Willowdean will make readers feel all the feels. Fans of Murphy's New York Times best seller Side Effects May Vary and strong female characters will gravitate towards Dumplin'.
Carry On is Rainbow Rowell’s much anticipated new book about Simon and Baz, two teenage magicians first introduced to us in another one of her novels. In Fangirl, the main character spends much of her time writing fanfiction about Simon Snow’s adventures at Watford School of Magicks and his turbulent relationship with his vampire roommate Baz. Though intended to be a parody of Harry Potter fanfiction, the short excerpts about these two boys captured the hearts and imaginations of readers as well as the author. We needed an entire book devoted to Simon and Baz, and Rowell does not disappoint. You may be thinking a book based on fanfiction in another book sounds a little too meta, but have no fear. Rowell has created a fresh story that stands firmly on its own. It's the author’s first fantasy book, but it's also part murder mystery, part love story, and absolutely the kind of compulsively readable book we expect from Rowell.
Unlike other heroes in noteworthy fantasy books, Simon is “the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.” It is prophesied that he will save the World of Mages, but he can’t even control his power well enough to use his wand most of the time. He is constantly reminded of his shortcomings by his nemesis Baz. As their final year of school begins, Baz goes missing, and Simon can’t focus on anything but where Baz is and what he might be up to. When Baz finally appears, things have changed. The boys decide to strike up a truce in order to solve a decades old murder and destroy the monster threatening their magical world.
Rowell captures the confusing, thrilling struggle to become oneself perfectly once again, proving she is a master of the coming-of age story in any genre. Her characters are so carefully and realistically drawn even when they are blood-sucking vampires that it is impossible not to become engrossed in their lives and swept up in their relationships. Be warned, you will miss them when you finish the book. To help with the literary hangover that awaits, Rowell has created playlists for both Simon and Baz that are absolutely pitch perfect. Sigh, swoon, repeat.
Readers will also enjoy Rowell’s other works as well as The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness for another spin on a Chosen One story.
Imagine a future where new high school graduates are funneled into one of two life options: prison (that's where they'll end up anyway) or a job at one of two superstores, AllMART or Q-Mart. This is the premise of Blythe Woolston’s MARTians, which follows Zoë Zindleman, a teen who is an unexpected early graduate of her now-closed efficiency high school.
Zoë’s homeroom technician explains that once upon a time a student like her might go to college to prepare for a professional position, but that was then and this is now. She’s lucky to have a job referral for both stores. Home life is a problem, because her house has been on the market for a long time, and so have all the other abandoned, looted dwellings on their cul-de-sac. And now that Zoë has job security, her mother, AnnaMom has decided to move away without her.
Lucky for Zoë, she meets Timmer, a fellow graduate who has had the advantage of working for AllMART for several months now. He’s also on his own, and he helps her navigate the world of the newly independent. He offers her a place to live at an abandoned strip mall, which serves as home to a variety of scrappy misfits. Of course, she could choose to live in the AllMART dormitory—after all, AllMART acts in loco parentis for its employees. AllMART is so much more than a job, her personal human resources manager reminds her. It’s all she can do to learn the departments within the vast store, all the while encouraged to remember “Your smile is the AllMART welcome mat.”
Although published as a teen novel, this dystopian satire features the kind sophisticated ideas and sharp prose found in adult science fiction classics. Savvy readers will notice references to Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, which influenced this cautionary tale of a future that leaves superstores at the center of everyone’s existence. Equally funny and chilling, MARTians is a novel to share.
Having won the 2015 Eisner Award for both “Best New Series” and “Best Publication for Teens,” Lumberjanes, by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen, is a series to keep an eye on. The Lumberjanes, a group of five snappy scouts at a camp for “Hardcore Lady Types,” are an endearing bunch whose wacky adventures are sure to elicit smiles.
The power of “Friendship to the Max” gets the girls through a number of sticky situations, ranging from dodging their strict cabin supervisor after hours to battling sea monsters armed only with their scrunchies. Yetis, were-bears and outhouses full of raptors aside, Lumberjanes is a book about friendship and individuality. April, Jo, Mal, Molly and Ripley each have their own quirks and skills that, when combined, make for an unstoppable force of feel-good girl power.
Fans of other offbeat series like Adventure Time or Bee and PuppyCat will feel right at home with Lumberjanes. Allen’s artwork is stylized and modern, the action is exhilarating and the zany sense of humor has something to offer readers of all ages. The film rights have recently been picked up by 20th Century Fox, so read Lumberjanes soon before everyone else is wondering “what the Joan Jett” this series is all about!
Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates capped a remarkable year last night when he won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Between the World and Me, a frank narrative outlining his experience as a black man in America. Coates received a standing ovation from the crowd at Cipriani Wall Street and told the audience, “I wanted to make racism tactile, visceral. Because it is.” Coates wrote the memoir as a letter to his teenage son and dedicated last night’s award to Prince Jones, a classmate from Howard University who was killed by a police officer while unarmed. Coates’ award-winning title has been selected as the adult nonfiction title in Baltimore County’s inaugural community-wide read, BC Reads, coming in April.
Adam Johnson won the fiction award for Fortune Smiles, a collection of short stories dealing with a wide range of global subjects. The award for young people’s literature was given to Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, a novel about a mentally ill teenager inspired by Shusterman’s son. Robin Coste Lewis won the poetry award for her debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, an exploration of race, gender and identity.
The National Book Award, which was established in 1950, has been awarded to some of the country’s most celebrated authors, including William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Presented by the National Book Foundation, the awards were open to American authors who published books from December 1, 2014, to November 30, 2015. The prizes were presented at a black-tie dinner, and all four winners will receive $10,000. Watch the entire ceremony, including all of the winners' acceptance speeches here.
Gotham Academy’s Olive Silverlock doesn’t pretend to be a slice of life protagonist. She’s a high school student at a gloomy Halloween-Castle-esque school in the heart of Gotham, dealing with hauntings, crocodiles in the pipework, mysterious and unwelcome cult meetings in the friendly campus mausoleum and, of course, semi-regular visits from Bruce Wayne himself. Authors Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher follow the creed of “start your story as late as possible” — although this is only volume one, Olive’s life is already in chaos as she deals with the outcome of her mysterious summer. Everyone seems to be whispering about what happened to her, and what it was that could be causing her to act so distant, even frightening. What connection does Olive’s new demeanor have to her mother, recently committed to Arkham Asylum? Will it strain her relationship with her boyfriend Kyle to the breaking point, or alienate his sister, chipper genius Maps? Don’t look for answers just yet, because the story’s just getting started.
Gotham Academy, Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy is teen experience expressed honestly and beautifully. With grounded yet fantastical writing and Karl Kerschl’s absorbing artwork, each page brings you fully into a wonderfully gothic and magical universe comparable to Narnia and Hogwarts. Kerschl’s environments especially should be commended, since he elevates each page to the style of classical painting with his detail, lighting and diverse color palettes.
Sending people backward or forward through time has been done so many times that authors Adam Mansbach and Alan Zweibel decided on a fresh take with time traveling mail in Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in My...!
Franklin Isaac Saturday, preferably known as "Ike," is stuck in the social bubble known as middle school. Although his school life isn't super terrible — he's kissed two girls and he's usually picked somewhere in the middle for sports teams — it could definitely be better. Popularity seems to be the only thing the other students care about, and Ike feels that he is always grasping for it. His troubles also include his stepdad, his crush on Claire Wanzandae with her cherry blossom-and-gasoline-scented hair and that his first name is "Franklin" because his dad thought Benjamin Franklin was cool.
So when Ike's history teacher assigns the class an extra credit letter-writing assignment, he chooses to write to his namesake about all of his grievances. As a joke to make Claire laugh, Ike actually mails his letter. Imagine his disbelief when he receives a reply from Ben Franklin a few days later.
While initially skeptical, once Ike believes the correspondence is real, he seeks advice from Ben about his life and, in return and unasked, he feeds the Founding Father tidbits about America's history and present. It's one thing for Ike to share his problems with Ben and quite another thing when Ike shares evidence with him that could affect the course of American history.
Don't be fooled! Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in My...! is a teen book in middle grade packaging which is in line with Mansbach's previous books (New York Times bestsellers Go the F**k to Sleep and You Have to F**king Eat). That said, Mansbach and Zweibel created a funny story centered around the idea of mail that can travel through time. Judging from the climatic ending, there may be a sequel in the future.
Fans of Andy Gavin's Untimed, another teen time-traveling novel featuring Ben Franklin and disguised as middle grade fiction, will enjoy this book as well.
Stand-Off by Andrew Smith, the sequel to the acclaimed Winger, starts off with our hero, Ryan Dean West, about to return to his prestigious (if strict) boarding school Pine Mountain Academy as the school’s first 15-year-old graduating senior. Along with the normal doubts and insecurity his relative youth to his senior classmates would bring, he feels overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of his bright-eyed 12-year-old roommate Sam Abernathy. Sam’s relentless chipperness is more oppressive than endearing, and to make matters worse, he suffers from extreme claustrophobia that could send him into a panic if conditions aren’t just perfect. Normally warm and friendly, Ryan Dean begins to push friends new and old away, refusing advice from his girlfriend, honor from his Rugby coach and friendship from Sam, who reminds him a little too much of himself three short years ago. The real crux of Ryan Dean’s pain, however, is dealing with the trauma of the previous year, the chillingly real terrors that plague him night and day that force him to accept grief, resolution and humility.
Andrew Smith’s first person storytelling is warm, direct and effortless. Ryan Dean comes to life in voice as well as in visuals. Sam Bosma accompanies Smith’s prose with illustrations and comics crafted to fit Ryan Dean’s voice, which takes the storytelling to a new level. A read of Winger first is a must for this excellent, fast-paced sequel. Lovers of imaginative but ultimately down-to-earth and realistic fiction of all levels will find themselves exhilarated, heart-broken and lost in these two books.