Weight issues in YA are generally really poorly handled. In fact, I can only think of a couple of heroines who aren't very skinny. Considering what a big issue weight is in American society, it's rather startling how few books there are that take that perspective and deal with it in an open, feeling, non-shaming way, and the only book I can think of aside from 45 Pounds is The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, which isn't remotely our society. Though I know there are some others I haven't read, 45 Pounds is still a much-needed book that takes a heartbreaking look at insecurities, where they come from, and what to do about them.
K. A. Barson's debut novel has incredibly strong characterization. From page one, Ann's personality shines through. She's rather funny and intelligent, but, more than anything, she's a mound of insecurities and self-hatred. If, like me, you hated pretty much everything about yourself at some point in your life, you will feel for Ann; I ached and part of me was right back in that place. If you never went through that, I suspect it will be really hard to really comprehend how Ann could think that way about herself. From my own experiences, Ann's thought patterns are wholly accurate. They are also frustrating. She makes so many bad choices, but not for the sake of the plot, the sort of well meaning bad choices that are a part of growing up.
Ann really does have a problem with food, and Barson shows this very well. The root of Ann's dietary issues stem from her family. Any stressful situation sends her to the food, a response programmed into her from childhood, one she can't quit, though she wants to. Unhappy with the way she looks, Ann tries fad diet after fad diet, losing a few pounds and then falling off the wagon. These diets aren't sustainable, so she can never stick to them. I've seen this same issue with friends who try to follow this or that diet. They work, but they're so strict that they're not manageable long term.
With regards to weight, Barson's messages are very positive, if slightly preachy. She promotes health above all, and happiness. Ultimately, the most successful diets will be ones of moderation, but of real, day-to-day food. Also, when Ann really comes to dieting, she comes at it from both a personal and a psychological standpoint, rather than just the desire to look better, which tends to be outweighed by the deliciousness of burgers and the ease of not exercising. Barson emphasizes that a person cannot be forced to change their thinking, and that putting too much pressure, one way or another, on someone's diet is liable to make things worse rather than better. What's great too is that, though Ann does want to lose weight and be skinny and pretty, her goal weight is actually always set a couple of pounds above the high end of "healthy weights" for her height, showing that those are just numbers and that varies from person to person.
For readers who have been disappointed by the lack of familiar focus in young adult fiction, 45 Pounds has a very strong focus on that. Ann's parents are divorced, and she lives with her mother, step-father, and twin siblings. Her brother, Tony, fought with both sets of parents and has been a no-show since he left for college. Ann has huge issues with her mother. Though her mother really does care, she ends up being a really unhealthy influence on Ann and the kids. It's a great example of how even loving families and good intentions can come out skewed. The resolution between Ann and her mother was really satisfyingly handled.
On top of that, there's also a wonderful aspect that deals with friendship. First of all, I am happy to inform you that Ann isn't a social outcast because she's a size 17. In fact, most people are really nice to her and like her; she's not popular, but she can sit at just about any lunch table she wants. So many authors make the fat kid an outcast, but that's really not always the case, and not a healthy attitude to model. Anyway, Ann's best friend, Cassie, changed schools, which has led to them growing apart. At her summer job, Ann has befriend Raynee, a much more popular girl. Watching those two form a bond as they realized just how terribly their supposed best friends treated them was touching.
Even more exciting on some levels, Ann actually gets a boy! A cute one, at least to her, though I suspect from a couple of hints that he's likely not model hot or anything like that. He sounds like a sweet, average boy to me. She meets the boy on her first day at work when she messes up his pretzel, and he's so polite and kind about that. He never looks down on Ann for her weight, but he's also not a manicpixiedreamboy, because he's sort of awkward and really takes his time about things. Their romance is kept on the backburner to the rest of the plot, but I found it convincing and really liked the moral that there's someone for everyone. All guys aren't attracted to thin girls, and I say this as someone who has sat in on guy talk on multiple occasions. Though generally I don't think romance needs to be in every book, I'm very glad there was one here.
What Left Me Wanting More:
My one reservation with 45 Pounds is that some plot elements did seem to disappear or not get as fully resolved as I would have liked. For example, there was a big build up of stuff with Ann's brother, but very little actually happens with that. Similarly, Ann's father and his step-family comes up a couple of times, but I felt like there should have been more to it. These are very minor issues and were not huge detractors.
The Final Verdict:
K. A. Barson's debut is full of heart and encourages both healthy diets and relationships. Barson tackles weight issues in a sympathetic way, while also covering themes of friendship and family. 45 Pounds is an excellent novel for young adults, both well-written and well-characterized.