Thursday, May 8, 2014

Slob, by Ellen Potter

Title:  Slob
Author:  Ellen Potter
Publisher:  Philomel
Year: 2009
Pages:  208
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Dealing with Loss, Bullying, Self-esteem
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Twelve-year-old Owen Birnbaum is the fattest kid in school. But he's also a genius who invents cool contraptions? like a TV that shows the past. Something happened two years ago that he needs to see. But genius or not, there is much Owen can't outthink. Like his gym coach, who's on a mission to humiliate him. Or the way his Oreos keep disappearing from his lunch. He's sure that if he can only get the TV to work, things will start to make sense. But it will take a revelation for Owen, not science, to see the answer's not in the past, but the present. That no matter how large he is on the outside, he doesn't have to feel small on the inside.

Bullying has been big in the news in recent years.  School districts and states are trying to address bullying in a number of ways, both legislative and practical.  As a result, there have been many, many books featuring bullies published in the last few years.  Usually, the bully is another student, and teachers and parents are at a loss as to what to do to help the victim.  The plot often revolved around the victim finding ways to deal with the bully through improved self-esteem, or we discover the bully is actually in such emotional pain themselves that it is only through helping the bully overcome their own issues that the bullying is resolved.  But Slob takes the bully story another direction-what do you do when the person bullying you is a teacher.

To be sure, the other students at Owen's school are not exactly understanding of his weight gain and general clumsiness.  But the driving force behind Owen's fear of school, and his biggest detractor, was his gym teacher.  As a teacher myself, reading about the way that the coach went out of his way to make Owen's life miserable, humiliating him at every turn, made my stomach turn.  I have never really understood why there are some people who seem to take other people's weight (or physical appearance in general) as a personal affront, but the character of the gym teacher really seemed to feel personally offended by Owen's very existence.

Ultimately, however, this book is not really about the bullying, except as part of a larger issue for Owen. Owen's parents were killed in a robbery, and it is this event that drives the major events of the book.  His issues with food and dramatic weight gain are the result of emotional eating.  Most of us are guilty of it at some point-the pint of ice cream consumed after a break-up, the secret stash of chocolate bars for days when you want to punch everyone you meet in the face.  But Owen has taken emotional eating to the level of an Olympic sport in an effort to subsume his feelings of loss and guilt after the death of his parents.  It is these same feelings that cause him to obsess over making  the machine that he believes will allow him to see into the past, and find his parents' killers.  Owen thinks that by bringing these people to justice he will be able to move on, but it is the quest itself that is holding him back.

There are lots of interesting characters in this book-the boy who he thinks is stealing his oreos; his sister, who is a member of a club of girls who want to be boys; his Tibetian Buddhist friend who is trying to teach him different ways to deal with his emotions.  I think that middle grade students will find a lot of things to think about while reading this book, and there are lots of good topics for discussion.  I think this book would be well suited as a guided reading book, or as part of a classroom library for independent reading.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Anti-Bullying Activities for Slob Resources
Indie Library Discussion Questions for Slob

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