There’s a reason popular kids aren’t usually called upon to take up quests in middle-grade fantasy: all metaphor goes out the window. Where’s the satisfaction in seeing a well-liked, effortlessly capable 12-year-old take down evil forces? The stakes are too low, there’s no empathy, no fun. But when the kid in question has something really deep to overcome – the loss of family or feelings of isolation – the stage is set for a slaying of both physical and metaphorical dragons.
Laura Ledwick is definitely not the most popular girl in Grade 8, let alone her school. Laura is funny, outgoing, and smart, but struggles with feelings about her weight. Mean girls taunt her about her size and she often mentions her body in a negative or self-deprecating way, referencing her “bulky arm” or “protruding stomach.” She’s thankful for a fresh start when her family moves to a rundown house in a new town.
There is nothing unrealistic about a young teen feeling unhappy about her body, but readers are told that Laura is heavy because she doesn’t exercise and eats poorly. As she says, “I don’t listen to the smarter side of my brain nearly as much as I should… probably because it’s usually telling me to eat some celery and go for a jog.” This is a reductive, one-dimensional portrayal of someone with a larger body type, which doesn’t leave any space for body acceptance or the possibility of other causes for her size. Despite this, author Wesley King laudably shows that Laura’s weight doesn’t hold her back from anything: at her new school she makes two best friends, has a reciprocal crush, and is supported by a loving family, including her visually impaired brother, Tom.
But a deeper problem lies in the fact that Laura’s weight drives the entire fantasy element of the story; her size seems to be the main thing she has to overcome. After hearing a mysterious rattling in her closet, Laura finds an elevator that leads her into the Under Earth, a place plagued by monsters bent on killing humans. Laura is (rather reluctantly) accepted by the non-murderous denizens of Under Earth as the “chosen one” to defeat the monsters, and she begins training nightly. Although her biggest motivation is to protect her family and town, the only real changes she exhibits in the face of becoming a monster crusher are weight-related. She already has so many positive qualities and a pretty good life, so body composition seems the only area ripe for improvement. “Even if I wasn’t becoming the best warrior, I was at least getting plenty of exercise,” she says. And, “though I wasn’t losing much weight with all the muscle I was gaining, I was starting to very slowly look a little trimmer.” The potentially questionable message to young readers aside, it just isn’t enough on which to rest a novel (and, apparently, forthcoming sequels).
Some readers will pick the book up solely for the promise of monster crushing, but the story is pretty light on action. Laura spends most of the novel repeating a cycle of training, going to school, and explaining to herself how she’s stuck in a bizarre situation. The last 50 pages pick up with some intriguing twists, but readers may have a hard time getting to that point.
The underdog premise of Laura’s story should set the stage for an engaging fantasy quest, but the book misses the mark. Not because it features a hero with weight issues – but because it features a smart, funny hero who is ultimately defined by them.