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Tempest in an oatmeal bowl: Is a diet book for tots going too far?

September 2, 2011

Or is that the wrong question? Paul Kramer’s rhyming picture book, Maggie Goes on a Diet, has already inflamed that portion of the Internet where the hypervigilant overreact to dumb things that would otherwise get little attention. And it’s not even out yet.

For a list of upcoming activities at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the center’s website. And mark your calendar: This year’s Miami Book Fair International runs Nov. 13-20.

The heroine of Kramer’s book is a 14-year-old soccer player who loses 51 pounds over eight months, by rigorously following a healthy diet. His problem — or you might say, his bonanza! — begins with the target audience for rhyming picture books, which isn’t teens but 4-8 year old kids.

Another sore spot: the title. Apparently “diet” has become a four-letter word. “We don’t want kids using diet language,” Cynthia Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Time magazine.  “You have to think about how the messages will be interpreted by a child’s brain. They will not see any nuance — they will see a causal association between losing weight and becoming popular, pretty and athletic. It emphasizes valuing people for their size and appearance rather than for who they are.”

Okay! That would make sense if obesity, including childhood obesity, were not a major public health crisis. As Time notes, one in three children is overweight. Two million are “extremely obese.” If current trends continue — that is, if increasing numbers of Americans continue to get fatter and fatter — then obesity will overtake smoking as the chief cause of early death, The Scientific American reported in January.

Furthermore, is it the child’s brain that sees a “causal association” between losing weight and becoming popular — or is it the human brain? As economist Daniel Hamermesh argues in his new book, Beauty Pays, good-looking people earn on average $230,000 more in a lifetime than their less attractive peers. Hammermesh’s research finds this beauty privilege in every culture that’s been studied, from Canada to Germany to China. It’s not just an American flaw.

So obesity, in children and adults, is more than a lifestyle choice, a body image issue, or a matter of building or diminishing individual self-esteem by the use of politically correct language. That doesn’t mean, however, that a book advocating dieting to four year olds is remotely appropriate.

For his part, Kramer is disingenuous when he tells Fox News, “I’m not advocating, never did, that any child should go on a diet.” He’s more credible defending the word his choice of language.

“I regret that people associated the word ‘diet’ as me trying to push dieting on 4-year-olds and 6-year-olds. I’m not,” Kramer says, according to this AP story. “To me, diet means a change of habits, eating nutritiously, losing unhealthy weight.”

So, yeah: What’s so bad about teaching kids the value of practicing discipline, focus, and hard work to reach a goal? On the other hand, kids 4-to-8 ought not have to worry about things like weight and diet. Sensible people can agree on both these propositions, or so goes my hope.

What interests me is how insubstantial and unnecessary this whole bru-ha-ha really is. Maggie Goes on a Diet is a shoddy piece of work, with flat-footed rhymes and amateurish illustrations, a self-published book put out by a “publisher,” Aloha, whose website promises, “Writing a book boosts revenue 380% for consultants, 219% for public speakers and 194% for real estate agents.”

I’m not condemning self-published books in general, or the services provided by a company like Aloha. Sometimes good books are published this way. Rarely, but sometimes. Maggie Goes on a Diet isn’t one of them, however.

The controversy surrounding this book is entirely a 21st century artifact. Before digital media weakened traditional publishing and expanded the opportunities for self-publishers, books like Maggie Goes on a Diet were produced, but almost no one paid attention to them

The other key factor: The Internet allows — nay, encourages — the promotion of trivial irritations into campaigns of senseless righteousness.

Without these two conditions, you probably would never have even heard of Maggie Goes on a Diet. And if you did, it would already be sliding into obscurity.

Am I the only one who looks at the ’90s now with a sigh of longing?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean Piccoli permalink
    September 2, 2011 1:18 pm

    Up next: “Maggie Purges.”

  2. September 2, 2011 6:48 pm

    No !

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