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.