Author: Erin Jade Lange
Genre: YA contemporary, tough stuff, AWESOME
Publication Date: September 18, 2012 (Bloomsbury USA – North America)
Source: Publisher-provided ARC/NetGalley review copy
Summary: A lonely obese boy everyone calls “Butter” is about to make history. He is going to eat himself to death-live on the Internet-and everyone is invited to watch. When he first makes the announcement online to his classmates, Butter expects pity, insults, and possibly sheer indifference. What he gets are morbid cheerleaders rallying around his deadly plan. Yet as their dark encouragement grows, it begins to feel a lot like popularity. And that feels good. But what happens when Butter reaches his suicide deadline? Can he live with the fallout if he doesn’t go through with his plans?
☆: 4.5/5 stars – brutal and unforgiving, but sorely needed in YA lit.
Review: I’ll be blunt – it’s books like this that keep me hopeful about the future of YA contemporary, and YA period. Brutal and unforgiving, “Butter” is not just the tale of one obese boy’s despair, but quite frankly, it’s the tale of the state of American culture today. This book is not for the fainthearted, and I’m glad it’s being published. It’s a wake-up call, one we sorely need, to not only how teens can and do behave, but how American culture is currently behaving. Because this book is pretty much flawless in all of my traditional areas of examination within a review (characters, worldbuilding, plots/arcs, etc), I’ll be focusing on my interpretation of Lange’s characters – Butter versus the Popular Crowd.
Why make the culture link, you ask? Because it seems pretty relevant. Over 60% of Americans are now considered “obese” (not overweight, but obese), and our media sends us extremely mixed messages – from the super skinny models for various clothing lines to the ridiculous fast food commercials we see on TV. Personally, I think “Butter” is one of these tales of the dangers of how mixed-messaged our culture has become – up is down, right is left, cats and dogs together, etc. This mixed messaging lies in Butter himself – he’s angry at himself and at his peers, so he wants to eat himself to death, only to get cheered on and encouraged by those he both hates and who don’t like him a whole lot either (until he declares his suicide mission). There’s also the mixed message of courting Anna via the internet, refusing to show a picture of himself to her, pretending to be someone else. She likes his internet persona, but at school, won’t be seen with him.
This is a tale of opposites colliding within the package of an obese teenage boy. This is also the tale of our culture doing the same thing in the package of the boy’s peers, cheering him ever onward toward his death.
I’ve seen some reviewers saying that they can’t feel sympathy for Butter himself simply because he IS obese and is struggling with his own illness and the idea of getting help. Food addiction is something real, not to be messed with, and is indeed an eating disorder (binging), not unlike anorexia – it’s just the opposite. There’s also genetics to be taken into account – because of how humans migrated to certain different weather-influenced climes on the planet, they’re simply born larger. The “thrifty” gene is currently being heavily debated within the scientific community – does it exist at all, or is it an excuse we’ve made for ourselves for consuming so much junk food? Personally, I’m wary of the idea of the thrifty gene, but the idea of people just being born a different size due to ethnicity (since race has officially been ruled not a scientific thing to be taken into account, and race and ethnicity are two different things) does entirely make sense to me. It’s why women, for example, depending on where they are in the world carry natural, non-obese fat on them in different areas on the body (for those near the UK, it’s the back, the Mediterranean, the hips, for a lot of East Asia, the calves).
But I digress. Butter is not just a sympathetic because of his weight or his struggle with an eating disorder, but also because he is the current human condition. He is lonely, he’s afraid of being hurt by others, he takes comfort in the familiar (his mother and food), yet he wants to change – but not so much that he’d go out of his comfort zone. I’d say that Butter IS one of the most sympathetic characters in YA contemp lit today because of all of his struggles. He is all of us.
The problem of mixed messaging is huge right now – and it’s brilliantly portrayed by the popular crowd at school who, pre-suicide announcement, torture him. They’re the skinny models and the shrinking clothing sizes in stores, while Butter is the ever-embiggening American in terms of body size, and ever-expanding self-loathing within the mind. I don’t think the phrase “bread and circuses” has ever been so relevant. We want to be skinny, yet we binge (as a culture) on things proven to be deadly to us. The current teen generation right now (“generation me”) has broken a record for the highest amount of type-2 (“adult onset”) diabetes contracted at the youngest ages. At their ages, they’d usually only be in danger of type-1 (juvenile onset), which is more of a genetic thing than anything else. We want to be loved by others, but instead we hurt each other, hide our true selves, and then retreat into food and other comfort zones in order to lick our own wounds.
“Butter” is the tale of all of us right now in American culture, struggling to stay afloat in a pretty depressing situation (economy, etc). Butter is all of us, and yet we are all of his new “friends” at the same time. The blurb talks about feeling sympathy for both the bullied and the bully, and that’s completely true. Lange’s naked exposition of Butter’s character that’s sometimes so raw you have to put the book down and breathe is one of the most striking pieces of YA contemp I’ve ever read. And I’m not really a fan of this genre, at ALL. Lange has done something amazing for it, and I just wish people would recognize that instead of not being able to see beyond the actual obese Butter and his situation. This book is not just one boy’s tale, but it’s a metaphor for all of us, and it’s something we shouldn’t forget.
“Butter” is out now from Bloomsbury Kids USA/Macmillan in North America, so be sure to go and check it out. Its place on my best of 2012 is well-deserved, and I can’t imagine any other YA contemp book that is up in my top five for the year within that list.