Illinois author Carol Coven Grannick has written a compelling new novel in verse about body image and the struggles one young girl experiences around her changing body.
Reeni is part of a moderately observant Jewish family living in Chicago.
When the story opens, Reeni’s longtime ballet teacher is retiring. Reeni is one of the best students in the class, and her teacher invites Reeni to perform a solo at the final recital.
Reeni loves to dance, and she wants very much to perform a solo as her teacher requested, but she also struggles with stage fright. She is terrified she will freeze or fall.
Grannick includes imaginary news articles about Reeni’s disastrous performance as a comical portrayal of Reeni’s worries. All humor aside, the author also does an outstanding job helping us see Reeni’s struggle with stage fright and how it dovetails with her body-image struggles.
Reeni’s family, especially her mother, gives her all the right messages — “Your body is changing, and it’s perfectly normal,” “You’re beautiful just as you are,” “You have a healthy relationship with food. You dance every day. Your body will settle right where it belongs.”
But everywhere she looks — at her fellow sixth-grade girls, who are dieting and criticizing their own bodies; at magazine and internet articles about weight loss; at the posters on her own bedroom walls of slim, tall ballerinas — Reeni doesn’t see anyone else with a round shape like hers. She absorbs the message that thin is “good” and fat is “bad.”
So Reeni begins to diet and starve herself. Meanwhile, her big sister, who never gets stage fright and is widely praised for her acting ability, is about to leave for college.
Reeni feels both envious of her sister and also bereft of her support. This changing relationship adds to Reeni’s feelings of stress and worry.
Soon, Reeni’s sister, parents and best friend realize there is a problem. They try to help, but nothing gets through to Reeni until the family’s Passover Seder.
As she listens to both the stories of the Jews escaping slavery and her parents’ telling contemporary stories of people around the world suffering, Reeni’s entire frame of reference shifts in a moment:
“By the time we eat, it’s feeling crazy that I’ve spent this year thinking about food, as if ‘thin’ would be a magic trick to make me someone I think I want to be or give me the courage that’s out of reach for me.”
I know my adolescent self would have really appreciated Reeni’s story. While I would have said I did not have conscious memories of puberty per se, Grannick’s language, voice and several of the scenes (including one where a fellow ballerina calls Reeni “chubby”) brought back personal feelings I had completely buried.
One thing that resonates for me in this story is that Reeni’s parents have anticipated how she might feel and have always communicated body-positive messages, healthy eating and strong bodies, and Reeni still gets caught in the cycle of hating her body and trying to starve it. It could — and does — happen to anyone, Grannick is saying.
Grannick has created a powerful portrayal of not just Reeni’s struggles, but those that many young girls go through, even those with outside interests and/or supportive family and friends.
This is a book that every school library should carry, and if you have a young reader in your life, I would suggest you give them a copy. Many young people struggle with body image, even if it isn’t obvious from a casual glance.