Is it Love Island that perpetuates the non-stop pre-occupation with looks, eating and fitness? Or the sense that Insta is feeding into our kids’ idea of their appearance and how they would want to change it? If feels as if children’s focus on body image is as strong as ever.
Neatly fitting into this zeitgeist is the latest offering from Tamsin Winter, author of Being Miss Nobody, (a top hit in my school library with the Year 6s, who adore its modern take on bullying and its consequences, and read it as a key text for transition into high school and Year 7). Winter’s new book, Jemima Small Versus the Universe, also takes the reader into secondary school, and deals with bullying, but with a different focus and a very different protagonist.
Jemima Small’s surname is a bit of a misnomer. She’s actually rather the opposite in terms of her brain – she’s super brainy and an expert at quiz questions and random facts, and her personality too is large and joyful – she has a wicked sense of humour and a zest for embracing life. But for most people, they see that the misnomer lies in her body size, something pointed out rather distinctly when her school forces her to join a healthy eating group at lunchtime.
The focus on Jemima’s weight ranges from the blatant bullying and name-calling at school and on the bus (not made any easier by the fact that she’s been asked to join the school’s fat club), but also from the not-so-subtle looks exchanged by strangers, the whispers by fellow customers in the pizza restaurant.
Winter pulls attention to it as well, showing Jemima’s discomfort at squeezing into a booth or a bus seat, her excessive sweating in the face of pressure, her embarrassment at trying on clothes (think swimming costumes), and her dread of the upcoming school camping trip. But perhaps the most excruciating moment in the novel is science teacher Mr Shaw’s bananometer, which is intended to demonstrate estimation – he wants to see how many bananas class 8N weighs, and therefore needs to weigh each child and convert the weight to bananas – writing each person’s on the board. When I read this scene, I thought it was fairly implausible, but then after talking to some pupils in Y7 and Y8, discovered that some teachers do the daftest, and sometimes most insensitive things. In the book, this scene is spectacularly cringy but superbly effective.
However, Winter doesn’t just concentrate on Jemima’s weight. In fact, much of the book is taken up with Jemima’s larger-than-life personality, and her intelligence and wit. But we see, as the book progresses, the ease with which someone’s confidence can be knocked. Jemima should be happy and outgoing, but gradually others’ bullying increases Jemima’s lack of confidence in her body, which leads to a lack of confidence in her whole self. She can’t be happy in herself. And when the school is asked to take part in a television show – the general knowledge quiz show Brainiacs – she should be an obvious candidate, but her worry about being on television because of her size dominates her thoughts.
Winter’s knack at drawing a complicated 13-year-old is evident throughout – Jemima’s sassiness is often crushed by bullies, and the reader feels every blow, every slight with her. Cleverly, it’s not just a black and white issue though – Jemima faces jibes from her older brother Jasper, but there’s a nuance therein, as Jasper is both supporter and tease – there’s a deep love and affection, even an admiration that comes across under the layers of mischief. Indeed, Jasper and Jemima share a bond in that their mother left them when they were young and when emotions about this come to the surface, they are definitely a team.
It is the support network behind Jemima that enables her to find her confidence, and feel happy in herself – her father, who also has a nuanced relationship with her weight, seeing his daughter’s positive sides and yet aware that maybe he needs to take some responsibility for his daughter’s fitness and eating habits, and also Gina, the ‘healthy body guru’ at school, who initially is viewed with suspicion, but carefully comes good with her positive energy. Jemima’s best friend Mika is a key supporter too – a good friend who consistently boosts Jemima’s confidence.
This isn’t a novel that preaches losing weight, but it subtly shows the benefits of a healthy mind and healthy body and that the two are neatly intertwined. It also cheers the celebration of intelligence and brains, and perseverance.
The book is obviously issue-based, but it is so much more than this. It celebrates being happy with who you are, with not being afraid to use your strengths, and seeing each individual shining brightly in their own field.
An accessible contemporary novel that feels both of the moment, and yet bigger than that too.
For ages 11+. You can buy it here.
With thanks to Usborne Publishers for the review copy.