Carolyn Mackler is really good at writing in a teenager's voice, even though she's an adult. She remembers what it was like to be young and awkward, which makes Virginia's voice totally authentic. Take these examples:
As much as I think incest is the grossest thing in the world, I'm flattered that someone would actually think Byron and I are enough in the same league to be "hanging out." (7.50)
Froggy has spent the past several minutes fumbling around my shoulder blades. I don't have the guts to inform him that this particular bra unhooks in the front. (1.31)
I must be an evil person, but I'm not exactly thrilled that Shannon is making new friends. What if she forgets about me? (7.109)
In other words, we've got typical teenage-girl problems and concerns—boys, sex, friends—as told through a teenage girl's voice, and with a teenage perspective. We might as well be sitting across the table from Virginia in the lunchroom. She'd love it if we did; then we could swoon over baseball players and talk about how much we hate our French teacher together. Sigh.
If a novel is a Printz Honor Book, you can be sure it's young adult lit—after all, they don't give this award to dead white guys who write about all being quiet on the Western front. The narrator's a teenager, and except for her parents, teachers, and doctor, the characters are all either in high school or college.
A coming-of-age tale explores a young person's journey to adulthood, and even though Virginia's not an adult by the end of the book, she's dealing with adult stuff, specifically sex and romance. She learns that sex can be both fun (snogging Froggy) and dangerous (date rape), and she also discovers who she wants to be (an outspoken feminist) and what she's good at (writing). In other words, she's not quite there yet, but she's well on her way, so this book sits comfortably in the coming of age category.
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things is a heckofa title, to say the least, but what does it mean? It takes quite a while to figure out, but once we do, it's totally worth the wait.
Sometimes book titles never show up in the text, and we're left to sort through the symbolism and references to make some sense of them. We don't know about you guys, but because of this, we always get a little giddy when we see the title in its full form tucked into the story. It's like finding the last egg on Easter morning or something. And this is one of those books.
Virginia uses the book title as the title of a list she makes for her webzine, Earthquack. In this list she tells the world how she feels about her body and her best friend moving away, and she admits that big butts are all the better for shaking at tapings of TRL. And since this list is like a mini-version of the book we're reading, it's totally perfect that they share a title. Add into the mix that the title refers to a point in her journey when Virginia is finally feeling good about herself, and we get that this book is all about where Virginia's heading, not where she starts out.
The book starts and ends with Virginia kissing Froggy Welsh, but under radically different circumstances. In the beginning, Virginia's following the Fat Girl Code of Conduct, which states that all making out must be done in secret, but by the end, she works up the courage to kiss Froggy in the school hallway. You could say the last chapter wraps things up and ties a bow around them, but what we see at the end is actually another beginning—Virginia and Froggy are heading into a relationship, but Mackler doesn't tell us how it's going to turn out.
If you've ever visited New York City, you'll recognize many of the locations in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. If you live there, you'll probably recognize them all.
Virginia lives on the Upper West Side, in a penthouse apartment on Riverside Drive (read: her family is rich), and Brewster, her elite private school, is on the Upper East Side. She hangs out in Central Park, her mom is interviewed at the 92nd Street Y (as in YMCA), her crush Froggy takes trombone lessons at Juilliard, and her brother goes to school at Columbia University. In other words, all the drama takes place within a matter of blocks.
However, two brief but important chapters take place in Seattle, where Virginia goes to visit Shannon on Thanksgiving break. You could say she finds her true self there, or at least begins the journey toward finding it. She buys a ticket without permission, gets her eyebrow pierced on Capitol Hill, and calls Byron a rapist out loud for the first time, so while she may only spend a short time there, Seattle is an important setting in this book.
The prose in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things isn't challenging, but the book does get off to a bit of a slow start. At first, it appears to be another litany of everyday problems by another unhappy high school girl, and you might wonder if anything's going to happen. Stick with it, though, because in Chapter 12—around a hundred pages in—the Shreves family gets a phone call that makes the plot take off like an Olympic speed skater. It's well worth the wait, and the book careens toward the end from this point on.
If you've ever read Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Flaubert, think of the exact opposite. This isn't lofty literature; it's easy to follow and full of teen slang. In other words, if you can follow your friends' conversations, you can follow The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.
Just like people often do in their journals, Virginia loves making lists. Take these entries from The Fat Girl Code of Conduct:
Then there's the list she makes for Earthquack at the end of the book, titled—duh—The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things:
See what we mean? Highbrow literature this isn't; relatable and compulsively readable it is.
Quick: what do onions, cashews, movie popcorn, Frosted Flakes, pasta, Popsicles, Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes, and Krispy Kreme doughnuts have in common? Give up? They're all food that Virginia binges on throughout the course of the book.
Food's a major player in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. And while you might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that this is because Virginia's fat, her body size actually has nothing to do with it—instead of packing on calories in this book, Shmoopers, food packs on meaning. Let's check out a passage where food shows up in the book to see what we're talking about:
Mom's always nagging me about junk food, so I stashed the Doritos bag behind a couch cushion and buried my nose in Teen People. (2.24)
Virginia's mother's incessant nagging about what her daughter eats is just one of the ways she communicates her displeasure with her daughter's body. But since there's nothing wrong with Virginia's body, we can understand this as representing Dr. Shreves's own obsession with what she perceives to be perfection—and in her book, only thin bodies can be perfect. So when she gripes about Virginia's body or eating, we're subtly reminded about how rigid and narrowly defined her mother's expectations are.
There's something else we can see in the above passage, though, and that's Virginia's response to her mother's, shall we say, perfection obsession. Virginia doesn't tell her mother to buzz off, nor does she eat differently to appease her. Nope, instead Virginia hides her food, and when she does, we are clued into the shame Virginia feels. Nothing spells shame quite like hiding something, after all, which is only reinforced by the fact that Virginia doesn't defend herself. If she were okay with herself, she'd have no problem telling her mom to mind her own beeswax.
Food doesn't just represent feelings when it comes to Virginia and her mom, though. Check out this exchange between Virginia and Byron:
While we're in the buffet line, Byron makes a sniping remark about how I look like one of those Teletubby characters. He emphasizes the word "tubby." Before I can stop myself, I kick him in the shin really hard. […] He slams down his plate of latkes and stomps away. I help myself to one of his potato pancakes. (27.32)
We assume Byron's in the buffet line because he's hungry, so his willingness to abandon his food and his place in line when he gets upset clues us into just how upset he gets. And it's pretty stinking upset, it seems, based on the slamming and stomping he does, too. For someone who's just raped someone, Byron sure gets irritated about a kick in the shin… But anyway, we digress.
Importantly, at this point Virginia is filled with anger and disappointment at her brother, and since everyone's acting like things are just fine when it comes to Byron, she has no outlet at home for her feelings. Coming from a family that's loathe to speak freely, then, it makes sense that the way Virginia expresses her distaste for Byron is non-verbally, first with a kick, and then by taking his food. She is manifesting her dislike for her brother, even if she has a hard time saying it.
And that's what's at the heart of food as a symbol in this book. Whether we're talking about Virginia blowing her diet as soon as she finds out about the rape, or Mrs. Shreves's home-cooked dinner, or the Oreos Byron shovels into his face on the couch, the moral of the story is this: if you can't get the words out or your mouth in this book, you can always shove food into it. Food is the way the Shreves family communicates; it's how they say with their bodies what they can't say in words.
"Did you know that 'fat' in French is 'gros'? If I didn't hate French enough already, I hate it even more now" (5.109), Virginia writes in an email to Shannon. Not only does Virginia loathe French because it brings down her GPA, she resents even having to take it in the first place.
"I really wanted to take Chinese," she tells us. "I thought it would be fun to be able to tell peole off in Chinese. Unless you're in Chinatown, no one will know what you're saying. But Mom insisted that I have to take French because every other Shreves converses fluently in it" (10.27).
Are you thinking what we're thinking, Shmoopers? Yup—Virginia's dislike of French is just another way that she doesn't quite fit into the Shreves family mold, another thing marking her as different from her parents and siblings.
Then there's the matter of Virginia's name. While it might make you think of a state, Mademoiselle Kiefer, her evil French teacher, uses it to humiliate her, calling her la vierge (the virgin) in class (10.69). And guess who's Mademoiselle Kiefer's pet? Why, it's Brie Newhart, of course, who wears her signature purple boots, purchased on a Parisian vacation, to school every day, and whose ringtone is the French National Anthem. In other words, just like at home, at school, French is a source of alienation for our main girl. Ugh.
French is a wedge not only between Virginia and her parents, but Virginia and her peers. It's one more thing the beautiful people can do well and she can't, a reminder of just how much she doesn't fit in, to both herself and others. And here we thought French was the language of love…
We all use visual aids as shorthand to denote our subcultures. If we're big Harry Potter fans and we see you wearing a Hogwarts scarf, we're more likely to approach you and start a conversation than we would be with someone who wasn't wearing one. Or let's say we're gay and you're wearing a rainbow-flag t-shirt—we'll assume you'll know gay acronyms without us needing to explain them to you. And if we all have tattoos and piercings, we have shorthand in place to talk about body modification and the way the procedures are performed.
In other words, Shmoopers, the ways we presents ourselves send messages about who we are and what other people can expect from us. Look around your cafeteria next lunch period, and we think you'll see what we mean.
In our book, once Virginia has her eyebrow pierced and her hair dyed purple, she says:
It was like I was seeing myself for the very first time. (22.46)
That's really powerful stuff, right? She's a teenager, but for the first time she feels like the person staring back at her from the mirror accurately represents the person she is inside. By taking on a more punk look, Virginia's using shorthand to align herself with a subculture, which is great, because mainstream culture hasn't exactly been nice to her (we're looking at you, Dr. Shreves and kids at school). Virginia is taking control of her body and her appearance, laying claim to who she is and sending the message that she doesn't want to be anybody else.
To be clear: it's a huge moment for Virginia, and not only does it symbolize her coming into her own and learning to accept herself for who and how she is, but it also represents the shedding of shame. This is really big coming-of-age stuff.
It isn't all positive body modification for our main girl, though, and when she cuts herself, burns herself, and kicks a dressing room wall, Virginia modifies her body in a negative way. While she generally keeps her self-harm in check, these are still small moment of body modification, and they represent just how at odds Virginia is with herself and her life.
Appearances may only be skin deep, but when somebody's change as much as Virginia's do, they can provide clues to more meaningful transformations. This is entirely the case in this book, so keep an eye on what Virginia looks like to gauge where she is in her process of self-acceptance and love.
This is Virginia's story, and Virginia's the one who tells it. She doesn't hold anything back, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that communication isn't exactly her family's strong point. It's like she's bursting to tell someone, so she's going to tell the reader; she even lets us in on her most private moments. Case in point: "I lower the nozzle so it sprays a stream of warm water between my legs. This is the first time I've touched myself like this in months" (22.61). How's that for telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Pretty truthy, right? Right.
And that's the thing about having Virginia as our narrator: she might struggle with shame, but she lays it all on the table for us. And while on one hand this is cool because it's always important to hear stories from outcasts in their own words, it's also cool because we get to see the impact of rape from a very unusual—but very valid—angle. Beyond the victim and the perpetrator, we gain an understanding of just how devastating rape is for family members; and as Virginia will have us know, it's pretty rough stuff.
How is Virginia's life awful? Let us count the ways:
In other words, it's all about survival for Virginia. At school, she has to survive the popular girls, known as the Bri-girls because their names all being with B-R-I, and at home, she's the only one of three kids still loving with their parents, because the other two are older and have moved off to be awesome elsewhere. It would seem that Virginia's life is always going to be dull and boring, at least until she, too, can get away.
Virginia misses her older brother Byron, who's now a student at Columbia, so she goes to his dorm to surprise him with Rice Krispie treats. Byron is less than thrilled to see her, though, since he's busy making plans for the Virgins and Sluts party that night. Virginia wants to be invited, but no such luck—she's just the uncool (read: fat) little sister.
Speaking of fat, her mom takes her to a doctor to discuss her weight, and an unsuccessful diet commences. Froggy, the boy she likes, is at her house the day her mom announces the appointment—which is, of course, totally mortifying. It seems there's no place for Virginia in the world, except maybe fat camp.
Papa Shreves has tickets for the Yankees playoff game, and Virginia loves her some Yankees, but since her pops can't make it, he suggests she invite Byron. Virginia leaves a message for Byron but doesn't hear back for several days, though she doesn't know why until the night the phone rings. It's Columbia calling to say that Byron raped his date, Annie Mills, the night of the Virgins and Sluts party, and he's being suspended. Byron is moving home pronto, and Virginia is moving toward a breakdown.
That's it; Virginia's had it. She buys a plane ticket without her parents' knowledge and goes to visit Shannon in Seattle. While there, she undergoes the first—well, second, if you count buying the plane ticket—radical change in her life. She gets an eyebrow ring, buys a polyester shirt, admits aloud what Byron did, and embarks on the life of a true, butt-kicking rebel.
Having served out his suspension at home, Byron moves back to Columbia. Virginia and her dad learn to communicate better, and even her mom admits she's proud of her. She makes friends with a girl at school named Alyssa, a rabid knitter, and together they start a webzine called Earthquack. But the best part of her new personality? Her crush, Froggy Welsh, has noticed. He joins Earthquack as the graphic designer, but better than that, he actually asks Virginia for a kiss in public. She's happy to give him one, and they kiss in the school hallway for all to see.