How to Be Brave: A Review

How to Be Brave by E. Katherine KottarasReeling from her mother’s death, Georgia knows that things have to change. After years of trying to blend into the background, Georgia is ready to be brave just like her mother told her to be in her last letter.

Armed with a list of brave things to do ranging from “asking him out” to smoking pot to going to trapeze school, Georgia is ready to get out of her own way and do everything; she’s ready to be everything in How to Be Brave (2015) by E. Katherine Kottaras.

How to Be Brave is Kottaras’ first novel. In a red-letter year for body acceptance novels, it’s also being touted as comparable read for Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy.

A lot of my issues with the book are decidedly my own. They also include spoilers to some extent so be wary.

After reading a few, I’ve decided I don’t like body acceptance novels. They are almost never done well and more often than not they leave me feeling less confident, not more.

Such was the case with How to Be Brave while the book is often lyrical and offers a thoughtful and nuance treatment of grief, it falls short as a story about an overweight girl learning to feel comfortable in her own skin.

Instead of letting readers draw their own conclusions about her size, Georgia is quick to point out that she is a size sixteen. She is not, in her view, as far gone as the girl who is perhaps a size 20 that shows up to cheerleader tryouts. Being size obsessed is fine, but the book stops there. By never getting into the build of any of the characters How to Be Brave doesn’t paint a full picture and just became frustrating. (Full disclosure: I’m the thinnest I’ve ever been and I am a size 16 and on the tall size. Reading about Georgia feeling SO FAT at that same size and maybe a similar height made me feel like garbage.)

What I’m really done with though, is the fact that these books tend to have a “morbidly obese” secondary character who is dead. In this book that character is Georgia’s mother (size 24, no word on height) who dies of what one can assume are complications from being overweight (though again this doesn’t really make sense since the mother was healthy enough to cheer in high school and took care of herself).

On her website Kottaras states that the novel began as a thought experiment to explore how her life might have been different if her mother had died before her father instead of the other way around. While I can’t speak to Kottaras’ experiences, I can say that I am decidedly tired of a book with an overweight protagonist needing some kind of contrast or wake up call to be healthy in the form of a dead relative.

This tired and frustrating trope combined with watching Georgia make choices that were difficult to support, left me disappointed and unenthusiastic about this book.

Parts of How to Be Brave are incredible evocative–particularly Georgia’s free verse thoughts at the end of each chapter–and even empowering. Unfortunately these moments are bogged down in clumsy and poorly executed body acceptance themes.

Possible Pairings: The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander, Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

*An advance copy of this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration*

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4 thoughts on “How to Be Brave: A Review

  1. UGH I agree with you SO. MUCH. I am kind of over these body “acceptance” books, because the truth is, not one of them actually has an “accepting” message. I guess Dumplin’ was the closest, but only because it was a STORY, and not just a book about how all “fat” people need to go hide in a closet. BUT the “morbidly obese” thing was annoying in that book too.

    Here’s some irony for you: My aunt died the week before Thanksgiving, and she WAS morbidly obese. Like, for real, couldn’t walk to her car without wheezing. She also smoked 3 packs of cigarettes a day, and it turned out that a tumor on her lung basically exploded and she bled out. Of course, my dad took this as an opportunity to fat shame me on my birthday, so that was super. He told me, in front of my kids, that “I was headed for the grave too”. While we were lighting the birthday candles. So there’s that. (Don’t worry, this has a point, I promise!) The thing of it is, comparing a size 16 high school girl to someone who is clearly NOT in that situation (i.e., my aunt) is so wrong on many levels. First, this message of “you don’t want to end up like a REAL fatty” is so unhealthy it makes me sick.

    Do you know what the WORST way to motivate someone is? Bringing them down, tearing away their confidence. So comparing a healthy, active young woman to her dead relative? NOPE. So much nope.

    Also, a size 16 isn’t really “fat”. (I also hate the word fat. That’s another issue.) Like you said, height means a LOT. You can absolutely be muscular and healthy at a size 16. No question. So now, all teenagers who are a size 16 are now thinking “crap, I MUST be huge, because there’s a whole BOOK about my hugeness”, when that is SO not the case.

    And can we PLEASE discuss the girl on the cover? WHAT EVEN!? She’s maybe a size 6. But probably a 4.

    You, my dear, should be proud as hell of yourself. I have seen pictures of you, and you look exactly zero percent like garbage. You look gorgeous! And like, I GET that there are reasons to lose weight, because I DO need to lose weight. But am I ever going to be a size 4, like the cover girl? NOPE. And that is FINE! And some people are a size 4 naturally, and that is ALSO fine.

    I get what these books are trying to do, but in our society, fat shaming is still the ONE form of discrimination that people think is okay. And until that changes, these books are going to be unhelpful at best, harmful at worst. Because the author has to acknowledge that these girls are ridiculed and self-conscious and all that jazz. Otherwise, it isn’t realistic. So no matter how much the character loves herself and is confident, fat shaming will forever be a part of this story arc. And all that is going to do is remind people like you and I, who deal with this stuff on the regular, that we can’t even escape it in a fictional world.

    The thing that scares me the most is, if YOU felt like garbage, what would a teen with a lot of doubt and insecurity feel? I get that we need to change the way people think about this, but I really don’t think this kind of story is the way.

    Sorry for the novel. I had a lot to get out. You’re my therapy for the day ;) I really appreciate this honest review, and you sharing your personal thoughts on this, because I know this is exactly how I would feel too.

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    • So first of all *hugs* forever.

      I thought it was just me with Dumplin’ because I know a lot of people really loved the “message” there and I guess I was projecting but I kept getting hung up on how Willowdean could never manage to get out of her own way (which granted is something I need to learn myself but still). With that one, I knew I was a little too close to some things. It was easier to see the problems for what they were in How to Be Brave I think.

      I feel terrible to say it but it feels very much like the author had no experience being overweight to couch everything in terms of size. And . . . ugh I won’t get into all of my issues again. But yes I hate that these supposed self-acceptance stories just end up making me (and maybe teen readers) feel terrible about themselves.

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