Study Guide

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things Themes

By Carolyn Mackler

  • Family

    Parents and siblings can often make you feel like an alien who crash-landed on a planet populated by a less-intelligent race, but in Virginia's case in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, the natives are all beautiful, too. Her mom's a shrink who lives on lettuce and yoga, her dad's a clueless dude who likes skinny women, and her brother and sister might as well be the Jolie-Pitt twins. While her parents worship at the Church of Byron, Virginia's eats Frosted Flakes in bed and wishes they—her parents, not the Frosted Flakes—would just realize she exists.

    Questions About Family

    1. Does Virginia's dad really think he's helping when he buys her a mirror, or is he just doing what her mom wants him to do?
    2. Why do the Shreves parents have a Biannual Byron Brunch, but nothing for Anaïs? After all, she's perfect too, right?
    3. Is Virginia's mom only sensitive to teen issues when she's getting paid to be?
    4. Should Byron have been allowed to move back home after getting suspended for date rape?

    Chew on This

    The Shreves children become who their parents mold them to be.

    Virginia walks out on her mother's presentation because she feels her mother walked out on her entire life.

  • Sex

    The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things is all about the polar opposites of sex: consensual versus rape, to be precise. Virginia's having a pretty awesome time working her way around the bases with Froggy Welsh the Fourth, and her biggest sexual concern at the beginning of the book is how to let him touch her breasts without actually seeing them.

    But the fun of sexual discovery comes to a screeching halt when she discovers something way more sinister: her perfect brother, Byron, has committed date rape. Suddenly, Virginia no longer sees boys as cute, but threatening, and the idea of sex goes from fun to sinister overnight. So part of Virginia's struggle in this book is making some sort of peace with who her brother is, and eventually getting her groove back when it comes to Froggy.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Where did Virginia's "Fat Girl Code of Conduct" come from? If nobody taught her these rules verbatim (and we're thinking they didn't), what made her think they were rules?
    2. Why does Virginia become repulsed by the idea of Froggy touching her after Byron rapes Annie, given that Froggy has always been nice?
    3. Was what Byron did to Annie a result of his parental sex education (or lack thereof)?

    Chew on This

    Byron doesn't need a thorough sex ed lecture from his parents to know the basics of respecting a girl and her body.

    If you're fooling around with someone after school, you have a right to talk to him in school, and Froggy knows this all along.

  • Appearances

    If you ever needed a perfect literary example of the phrase looks can be deceiving, it's Brie Newhart in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. She's super-skinny, her skin is perfect, she wears fancy purple boots from Paris, and she's got a lock on the Model Brewster Student award until graduation. In other words, she's the ultimate popular girl.

    But when Virginia walks into the school bathroom and sees those purple boots beneath a stall door, they're accompanied by the sound of puking. You don't develop an eating disorder if your life is actually perfect—kind of like how you don't commit date rape if you're actually a nice guy.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Do the Bri-girls shun Brie because they can't deal with her psychological issues, or because they can't deal with her not being beautiful anymore?
    2. How does Virginia's appearance differ from who she really is?
    3. If Strawberry had the same clothes but they cost more money, would Virginia's mom approve of her shopping there?

    Chew on This

    This book is, first and foremost, a commentary on the unrealistic and dehumanizing pressures we place on young women to be thin.

    No one who fits the skinny, preppy, rich, white person mold in this book is actually happy.

  • Transformation

    There's a whole lot of transformation going down in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. Change is what makes characters interesting, and Virginia makes some pretty radical changes over the course of the book. She dyes her hair purple, gets her eyebrow pierced, and goes shopping at Strawberry instead of Salon Z—but these are only external manifestations of a much bigger internal change. What's really happening is that while Byron's transforming from awesome to pathetic, Virginia's transforming from pathetic to awesome.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Why won't Virginia's parents let her go to Seattle, when they let Anaïs go into the Peace Corps? 
    2. Does Byron actually learn anything about himself when he goes from Columbia student to lonely-guy-on-his-parents'-couch?
    3. Which is a bigger transformation: Virginia with an eyebrow ring, or Shannon with a tongue piercing?
    4. How does Byron's transformation influence Virginia's?

    Chew on This

    Virginia's parents, who have always pushed her to conform, only begin to approve of her after she rebels against them.

    Virginia's belief that Froggy doesn't accept her is more about her own low self-esteem than how he actually feels. When she changes her appearance and her self-esteem improves, she's able to see herself through his eyes—and girl looks good.

  • Friendship

    When is a friend not a friend? When he's Hamster Boy. But we're talking about Virginia here, and Virginia's in high school, where you bond with the people who are most like you, or like who you want to be. The point is, actually liking them is often secondary to seeing yourself in them. That's why Brie is so easily replaced by Brittany—the only requirements to join the Mean Girls' Club are having your name start with the same letters and being able to wear each others' clothes.

    It isn't all shallowness when it comes to friendship in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, though. Virginia always has Shannon, who's the kind of friend who will invite you on vacation, snuggle against you in the dark, and tell you that if she were a genie, she'd grant your three biggest wishes. She's one friend who's irreplaceable, even when she's spending a year clear across the country.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What makes Shannon and Virginia become true friends, even though they originally bonded over being outcasts?
    2. If Virginia were making new friends, would she be as jealous of Shannon's?
    3. Does the fact that Shannon's new friends have tattoos and aquamarine hair influence Virginia's decision to get her eyebrow pierced and dye her hair purple?

    Chew on This

    A real friend is someone who loves you even when your life is falling apart, because they know you'd do the same for them.

    Virginia needs Shannon more than Shannon needs her.

  • Admiration

    If Byron's the sun, Virginia's an orbiting planet; if Byron's the lead, Virginia's the understudy; if Byron's the… well, you get it. Virginia always comes in second (or third, if you count Anaïs), and at the beginning of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, she's cool with that. Heck, she's so grateful for a scrap of her big brother's attention it doesn't really matter that he's always ditching her to hang out with someone cooler. It's only when he hurts another person and loses his Big Man on Campus status that Virginia realizes why a dying star is called a dwarf.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Why could Anaïs and Shannon see through Byron before the rape, but Virginia couldn't?
    2. Is Virginia's mom's unwillingness to take Virginia to fancy dinners one more way of maintaining her perfect image? What is she afraid people will think of her if they know she has an overweight daughter?
    3. Does the fact that Byron's friends shun him after the rape mean they were never really friends? How come none of them come to talk to him about it?

    Chew on This

    Admiring someone can make you blind to their flaws, even when those flaws are obvious to everyone else.

    The more you put someone on a pedestal, the more power they have over you.

  • Femininity

    What makes a teenage girl awesome? Unfortunately, it's not always the same thing that makes her popular. The name of the party Byron goes to, Virgins and Sluts, pretty much sums up the two things society allows women to be. It's the whole Madonna/whore thing, and no, we don't mean the "Like a Virgin" Madonna, though that song title adds a whole 'nother layer to the debate.

    In The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, Virginia almost goes off the rails thinking she needs to be skinny and slutty to make boys like her, but two Ani DiFranco-lovin' feminists show her that the girls who make their own rules actually kick the most butts.

    Questions About Femininity

    1. If Virginia's mom is a teen therapist, why isn't she more enlightened about how she raises her own daughters?
    2. Why does Virginia fall in love with Ani DiFranco after listening to her with Annie, but not with Anaïs?
    3. How does meeting Annie change Virginia's perception of—and dreams for—herself?

    Chew on This

    Virginia… La Vierge… Virgins and Sluts… The author named her protagonist after an archetype.

    Dr. Shreves, a totally bright and accomplished woman, is an example of just how hard it is to be a female in this society and not get trapped by narrow and sexist expectations.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Alcohol is a major player in The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. In fact, if there were no booze, there might not be a story, since a major catalyst for the plot is Byron getting drunk and making the monumentally bad decision to rape Annie. Virginia, despite watching all this go down, makes the decision to get drunk on New Year's Eve, which ends not in good times but in puking, and after her mom takes a few too many trips to the punch bowl, she accidentally tells her daughter she's proud of her (okay, that last one's not so bad).

    In other words, overall, if ever there was a cautionary tale about underage drinking, this book is it.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. What does it say to Byron that when he moves home from school, his dad starts drinking more? Do you think his dad even realizes what kind of message he might be sending?
    2. Does the fact that both Byron and Annie had been drinking make his behavior any less reprehensible? Does Byron think being drunk is an excuse?
    3. Virginia is repulsed by the idea of sex after Byron rapes Annie. Why isn't she repulsed by the idea of alcohol?
    4. Why doesn't Byron talk to Virginia on New Year's Eve about the consequences of drinking?

    Chew on This

    Alcohol sometimes makes people behave in ways they wouldn't if they were sober, but it doesn't turn a guy into a rapist. It just gives him a (lame) excuse.

    After the rape, Annie learns a lot about herself—most importantly, how strong and resilient she is. Byron learns nothing except that he's not popular anymore.