After Charlie Grisner gets back from his summer at Camp Fit (“Just call it fat camp, like it really is,” Charlie says), it seems for a minute like this school year might be a little different. That is, until he realizes that while he may be lighter, his problems are still hanging on like dead weight. First off, his mom’s disappeared again, which is just something she does from time to time. His dad won’t even acknowledge her absence. The kids at school still call him Chunks and he has to share a locker with Tanya Bate, the class outcast and stink bomb recipient. Maybe worst of all, he can’t stop binging on junk food and secretly throwing up.
Charlie manages to find a reason to push all of these problems to the back of his mind. That reason is Charlotte VanderKleaton, the girl he falls for the instant he sees her. She’s a girl who, Charlie swears, glows (although he admits that “it had been an unusually hot day…and with all that extra weight on me, some could argue that I was simply overheated and hallucinating.”), but Charlie’s problems with his family and himself keep getting in the way of pursuing her.
Most of us have dealt with body image problems at some point in our lives, whether we’ve felt too fat, felt too skinny or even developed a serious eating disorder. With the intense social pressure on women to be physically perfect, it’s easy to assume that eating disorders are an exclusively female problem. However, that’s definitely not true; according to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, about 10-15% of anorexia or bulimia sufferers are men. Charlie turns to binging and purging as a way to deal with the extreme emotional turmoil in his life. Food, unlike his parents, is always there for him. The problem is that while it makes him feel better for a second, it always ends up making him feel much worse soon after.
When things with his mom become way too much to handle, Charlie finally has to get help. Whether it’s his cool teacher Mr. Killinger, his best friend Ahmed or even his dad, Charlie finds out that he actually has a support system of people who want to help him. Things definitely aren’t perfect—not with his mom, not with Charlotte, not with his weight—but this is one important lesson we can all learn, whether we’re teenagers or just teenagers-at-heart (ahem, me): everyone needs help sometimes, and your problems only get bigger if you keep them locked inside your head.
-Charlie’s best friend Ahmed is a delight. He has a strange obsession with the Rat Pack, which means that he plays Frank Sinatra in the car, wears a blue velvet smoking jacket and uses the appropriate lingo. He also has a Turkish family whose closeness Charlie covets. When Ahmed’s mom sends him home with baklava, I’ll admit, I kind of wished I knew a warm Turkish family, too.
-Charlie’s first “date” with Charlotte is a haunted hayride. This brought back traumatic high school memories for me, as I once went on a haunted hayride just to be around some guy I liked. What I forgot was that I do not enjoy being touched or approached by strange men, let alone strange men who are wearing masks and wielding (admittedly fake) chainsaws. I was stuck going through said hayride in a state of on-edge misery while staring straight ahead and having no fun whatsoever. Luckily Charlie has a slightly better time on his hayride.
-Jenny Torres Sanchez deals with a lot of serious issues (depression, eating disorders, bullying, etc.), but never in a heavy-handed or moralistic way. The Downside of Being Charlie never feels like an episode of Full House (no disrespect meant to Full House, of course). By the end of the book, things are starting to get better for Charlie, but his life is by no means perfect. Rather, Charlie realizes that no one’s perfect—not him, not his parents, not even Charlotte VanderKleaton—and that’s okay.
-One of my favorite parts of the book is Charlie’s love of photography. For many people, art is a way of dealing with their problems, and Charlie is no different. Through his photography, he can be more open about the serious issues he and his family deal with.
As always, I love hearing from you…if there are any books you’d like to see in Young Adult Education, please let me know in the comments, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn!
Image via Jenny Torres Sanchez