If We Were Snowflakes by Barbara D’Souza

It’s not often I read young adult novels (here’s why), but Pearlsong Press has consistently impressed me with their innovative work around disability and fat rights. If We Were Snowflakes by Barbara D’Souza was no exception. In the future, the president of the United States has a moment of crisis when he realizes he has Type II diabetes. To control the condition, he loses a great amount of weight, leading to an idea to “care for” society: legally regulate fat people. Over a certain weight, and you are unable to purchase snack foods (it basically works like purchasing cigarettes or alcohol). If a child is too fat, their family either pays a FatTax to offset the potential healthcare costs, or relinquish their child to FatSchool Monday through Friday. Sixteen years go by with this law on the books.

The novel opens with Hannah, a fat teen who looks like her father, a fat man being tried for illegally giving chocolate to fat people. He is found guilty for distributing a controlled substance and sent to prison. Four years later, Hannah’s family struggles financially without her father’s income. Compared to her fraternal twin Sarah, who is thin like their mother, Hannah is a problem: she’s fat, shy, and costs the FatTax. Eventually, her mother can’t pay and Hannah’s sent to a school whose curriculum focuses on not eating and working out. At FatSchool, Hannah makes friends, loses weight, thinks about her crush, and wonders who turned her father in and ruined her family and life.

I loved so many things about If We Were Snowflakes. I absolutely felt like I was in the brain of a teenager. She wasn’t overly schooled on social justice in a way that sounded like adult/educated Twitter barfed on the page. And while she had a lot of emotions, it didn’t seem like life was coming undone every second while readers waited for the big transformation into “I’m a rock star and everyone likes me!,” a moment that I swear the 1980s normalized — and then “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” comes on in the background.

Hannah has to grow up when she’s confronted with what she doesn’t understand. For instance, her father admits he broke the law and would do it again. He stands on principle, not for what is on paper. Hannah wavers, thinking about what she’s been taught her whole life: “He wouldn’t just be breaking the law — he would, in a way, be doing something evil. After all, I had to admit that fat people did have health problems.” I’m not going to cite articles for you (again), but the research demonstrates Hannah’s mentality about fat and health is wrong.

Furthermore, the government sees no difference in how fat a person is. Hannah’s 400-pound father and Hannah at 172 pounds are treated the same way according to the law. At that point, readers get into all kinds of hypothetical questions. Should we ever regulate bodies based on size? Do we regulate any behavior that potentially has a negative affect on health (smoking, rock climbing, driving without a seat belt, eating cheese, working in a coal mine)? When we say “health” in connection to fat, do we really mean “not attractive”? Hannah has to work through these kinds of questions.

As she tries to investigate on weekends (the only time she’s allowed home from FatSchool) who ratted out her dad, Hannah’s mind slightly veers off in the way teens do: “I got up and looked at my snow angel, and thought it looked beautiful. Then I wondered if I really believed in angels. What did my family believe, anyway? It wasn’t like we went to church.” D’Souza’s little moments like this truly put in me in a teen experience. Hannah isn’t going to have some big revelation about religion; it’s something that strikes her in the moment, like most things do when you’re fifteen. Her dad’s life is important, but she’s still fifteen.

On the weekends, her best friend sneaks her snack foods because Hannah is starving. Before FatSchool she didn’t have big cravings, nor did she obsess about food. But thanks to dieting and extreme physical activity, she is food infatuated in all ways (dietitian Glenys Oyston wrote that when she was a chronic dieter, her refrain was “ME WANTY FOOD!” and that has stuck with me). D’Souza truly captures food obsession that the dieters of the world feel, stuck in a cycle of shame, hunger, and confusing various systems in their bodies and brains (sometimes permanently).

Hannah gains weight over the weekend, is shamed at FatSchool on Monday, and uncontrollably eats again come Saturday. Although D’Souza’s books is fairly dark because we have the government legally starving children, it gets even more horrifying as the strikes for being fatter each Monday tally against Hannah and others children. I applaud the author for not being afraid to go in a brutal direction when she wrote, “Dead kids don’t cost the state money in healthcare costs anymore. That’s the point. Thin or dead, it doesn’t matter, as long as they aren’t a drain on the common resources.”

Although If We Were Snowflakes isn’t a positive fat novel, it captures a journey and growth. The author examines hypotheticals that aren’t so outlandish. And, she does it in a way that is written for the young adult crowd and can be enjoyed by adults, too. Highly recommended.

CW: emotional, physical, and mental abuse of children, eating disorders, sizeism, and fat shaming.

15 comments

    • Absolutely! Very rarely do I read books in which teens sound convincing. I very much knew I would not recommend this book to you, Lou, even as I was reading it, because the whole thing is founded on government-approved child neglect.

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  1. This sounds really well done. What a horrific thought. Fortunately my husband has managed to reverse his type II diabetes without having any lawmaking powers (or wanting to use such)!!

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    • I also know that weight isn’t always attached to Type II diabetes. In many cases, as we get older we develop the disease simply because our pancreas has been working longer than it was really intended to (think about how young people used to die, or even how long our teeth really last us is a good indicator). Also, thin people develop Type II if they eat too much sugar but still don’t gain weight. Medically, it’s interesting.

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  2. This sounds really interesting. I love that the author has created a teenager who acts like a teenager. I’m intrigued by the idea of regulating something like this – not because I think it’s a good idea but because we kind of do that already. We regulate substances like cigarettes and now we do everything we can to encourage people to be vaccinated against Covid. There was talk in Quebec recently about taxing people who refuse to be vaccinated because they are arguably costing the rest of us money (in a medical system with universal healthcare) but that was quickly dropped. And the idea of who decides what “fat” means. Or even that your weight is something you ultimately can control. Just reading your review has got my brain going!

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    • I’m not sure that I approve of taxing people who don’t get vaccinated because it’s a slippery slope into taxing fat people, those who smoke, maybe drink alcohol, or even people with pre-existing conditions having to pay more. In the immediate, though, my brain wants to punish people who won’t get vaccinated out of a fear for everyone’s safety. That’s an immediate reaction, though, one that is not thought out.

      If you can, get a copy of If We Were Snowflakes. Pearlsong Press doesn’t charge much for e-books, and since they’re a small press, they can always use support.

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      • No, ultimately I don’t agree with vaccine passports either. I get the temptation but it seems like a reactive choice, not a compassionate one. There’s so much of individual health that is beyond our control.

        I looked this one up through the ordering system we use at work and it would be pricy coming from the States but an e-book is a good idea!

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    • I thought right away of fellow book blogger Anne @ I’ve Read This, who always has chocolate nearby. She would be a felon for sure.

      The whole book gave me low-level anxiety in a good way that got me thinking about how any law we put on the books is precedent for something more heinous in the future if we’re not careful.

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  3. I’d have to agree with the other commenters that chocolate as a controlled substance is a nightmare, but really this whole book is. Although I can never really see society or governments ever trying to implement something like this, I know there are soda taxes, etc. being considered. Ironically, bottled water is also expensive, so we can’t really make junk food more expensive if eating healthy is out of reach for so many people still.

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    • I hadn’t even thought about how bottled water is expensive. I know journalist Erin Brockovich recently came out with a book about water and what we can do to improve the water quality in our own communities. Tap water is all a lot of folks have.

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  4. Australian politicians consider a fat tax, sorry, a sugar tax, from time to time, but the conservatives depend on the votes of sugar farmers so it won’t happen. They also consider policies like making ‘free’ medicine more expensive for overweight people (we pay a Medicare levy with our tax).
    I like what you say about teenaged characters. Reading The Hunger Games last week I kept wanting Katniss to say I’m just a kid, I’m too young to have to chose a guy. The same applies to teenage athletes for whom I am always feeling sorry for the adult pressures placed on them.

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    • One of the things I hate about YA is that the teens in the stories (in recent memory) are always more than. They’re smarter, braver, more organized and intelligent about politically correct statements, etc. They’re saving the entire world, they’re changing the whole culture of their high school, they’re taking on politics. It’s too much. Most teen-aged people I know are my fellow students, and they’re largely wondering when to eat lunch if they have classes from 11:00-1:00 and now the dining hall is closed. That’s a struggle I can appreciate.

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