Benedict Arnolds —
Teal Deer Warning: This seemingly simple post about a children’s book is incredibly long thanks to its dual-action content, which serves first as a comment on the authors, followed by a detailed review. Of a children’s book. I know, it sounds ridiculous to dedicate this much time to a children’s book, but as you shall see, this book is uniquely disgusting in its message of bigotry and hatred.
You’ll notice this book review is not posted on the literary-based theme day, Word-lovin’ Wednesday. That’s because the book I’m about to review is 100% post-consumer recycled bullshit.
As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s a children’s book. A book of terrible, terrible lessons aimed at children. It’s so shitty, I just…
And, the dollop of rancid cream on top of this hateful sundae is that the two authors who collaborated on this book are two of my favorite children’s authors, whose work have each inspired two awesome children’s shows that I actually don’t mind watching with my kids (so obviously it’s not the guy who wrote Caillou).
Toying with Stigma
I just happened to stumble upon it at the library. I couldn’t find any of the books I wanted, so I thought I’d do a blind search under “obesity” and see what came up. There was one book on the connection between cortisol and weight gain and another book on stigma. I got the stigma book for myself, which came in handy for my George Takei post.
As I’m scrolling down the list of books about obesity, I see one called “The Gulps” by Marc Brown and Rosemary Wells.
For those unfamiliar with their names, Rosemary Wells is the creator of the book series featuring Max and Ruby:
They inspired the TV show of the same name:
I love Max and Ruby. I like how simple and kind and clever it can be. And I like trouble-maker Max, although my wife Veronica would like to spank him sometimes.
And Marc Brown is creator of the incredibly witty and down-to-earth book, and television, series Arthur:
Arthur is just awesome, and usually very good at teaching kids how to respect the differences in people. It’s an honest show that teaches good values and emphasizes being the best person you can be. Everybody messes up on Arthur and everybody has their moment in the sun. It’s one of the most refreshing children’s shows on television. If I’m flipping channels and come across it, I would still watch even if my kids weren’t around.
That these two illustrious and respected children’s authors wrote a book about obesity called “The Gulps” intrigued me, to say the least.
And since our family was rocking out in the children’s section, it took about five seconds to find a copy, which I pulled out to reveal the cover:
After “What the heck?” (or its appropriately vulgar derivatives), the next obvious question is, “Are they serious?”
Yes. Yes, they are.
“It’s an elaborate prank,” you insist. “When you order it, they send you Arthur Treats Everyone Kindly, Regardless of Their Body Size.” You might even notice that it was published on April 1, 2007 and assume it was an elaborate April Fools prank.
But you’d be wrong. If you order “The Gulps” (and I hope that you would never do such a thing), they will send you “The Gulps.” If you insist upon reading it, you will find yourself coated in an oily film of shameless stigma and degradation. I put the book back immediately and walked away. I felt terrible for even looking at it.
Then, after a minute, I thought about it. I thought about how a parent or child looking for “Max’s Birthday” might stumble upon “The Gulps” and notice the familiar Marc Brown style. They might even take it home and read it to their children.
I knew I had to get it and write about it, but I felt really uncomfortable checking it out because the cover alone is a great, big testament to terrible.
But you wouldn’t suspect as much when you read the letter from Wells and Brown that was written for the launch of the book:
Once in a blue moon a children’s book comes along that breaks new ground. The Gulps is just such a book and we are both very excited to have worked on it.
Breaks new ground?
When I was in my early teens, I recall a movie I saw late at night — late enough that my memories of the movie are more like a fever dream than an actual movie. But in it, this guy accidentally opens a portal to hell in his friend’s backyard (which sounds like a euphemism, but it’s not). After he reads from a book of incantations, the ground collapses and gives way to unholy smoke and fire, ushering demons into the world.
If Rosemary Wells and Marc Brown have broken any ground, it’s closer to opening a portal to hell than the construction of the Foundation for Saving the Children®.
Each of us has a little gray in our hair. That means we remember a different time growing up in America, when kids got loads of exercise naturally. We went outdoors to play every free minute of the day. Families sat down together every morning and night to home-cooked meals. People with backyards had vegetable gardens and used them. Families did work outdoors and walked places instead of driving there.
They’re both roughly Baby Boomers (though Wells was born in ’42, making her a Wartime Baby), growing up during the age of the greatest advancements in kitchen convenience technology. The advances in processed foods boomed in the 1950s out of consideration for the housewife, which was the primary occupation available to the majority of women. If you’re not aware of the revolution in Time Management Studies that exploded during this era, then I suggest you watch this riveting documentary on the subject.
So, yes, when you are growing up in the 1950s, then it was standard for life to be as Wells and Brown describe it. In fact, that’s the childhood I had as well, even as I grew up in the 1980s. Although I grew up with video games, I also loved playing outside and would walk everywhere, using my imagination in the woods and creek behind our house. Our family sat down every night to home-cooked meals. We didn’t have a backyard garden, but my mom prepared meals from scratch, on top of her running her own janitorial business. When I was old enough, I even helped her and my dad clean car dealerships around St. Louis.
The main difference between my childhood and the one described by Wells and Brown is that we did have to drive in order to go anywhere but a neighbor’s house, especially since we lived in one of the newly-built suburbs that was (and still is) a two to three hour walk to the grocery store, round trip. With both parents working, time was not nearly as free for the ’80s housewife, who fulfilled virtually the same role as the ’50s housewife.
And I come from a middle class background. Things have changed even more since the 1980s, when women began flooding into the workplace and wages began to stagnate and people required more jobs to stay in the same house. It’s an issue described with great clarity and detail in Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap, which I highly recommend.
I would suspect that Wells and Brown, whose respective careers were both flourishing throughout the 1980s, were able to successfully avoid the two-income trap. So, I’m already not in a mood for a lecture from two financially-privileged people on how working class people should behave based in an era that is remarkably different in terms of time and money, among many, many other variables.
But by all means, Wells and Brown, tell us how you see things:
But the prosperity of our country has given us a couch-potato lifestyle, supported by the attraction and ease of unhealthy fast food. As a result, childhood obesity has become a national epidemic and a national disgrace. One in three American kids is overweight, and that is a very frightening statistic to us.
Let’s just say that you’re friends with Rosemary Wells and/or Marc Brown, and it’s Halloween and you want to terrify them, I’ve got a brilliant idea for you.
Take the following photos and print them out:
Then shake them in their faces and tell them that both photos are the exact same children. Tell them these children have been eating Chinese food their entire lives. I guarantee that they will crap their pants in horror.
And so the state of America’s weight has driven Rosemary and Marc to action. By joining forces, these two very popular, very influential children’s authors/illustrators began to collaborate in the fight against childhood obesity. And just to be clear, their audience are the Gulps of America — the fattest of the fat:
A book can’t change everything, but it might be able to sew a few healthy seeds. We made it funny and we think it might inspire a lot of kids and their folks to start taking better care of themselves just like the Gulps!
We hope so, anyway!
Rosemary and Marc
Aaaaaaaaaw, see… “The Gulps” is a love letter from Rosemary and Marc to all the fat children of the world. And to top off their condescending letter, they include a photo of them both standing before a bunch of food they want the fatties to eat instead of the fast food binge which they believe these fat families must perpetually partake.
That’s all wonderful, well and good, and I agree with the spirit of the message, but the execution leaves something to be desired. The “problem,” as Rosemary and Marc see it, is that fat people just can’t figure out how to eat right and they need to plant the seed of health into fat kids so they will help their family transition from fast-food fatties into a whole-food heroes.
Meet the Gulps
So, who are the Gulps?
We have no idea, since they don’t have names, except for the youngest, Dawn, who is the hero of the book (as you shall see). The fat members of the Gulp family are referred to simply as Daddy, Mama, Brother and Sister. And when we first meet the Gulp family (even before the story begins) they’re on their way to the theme park Dizzyworld and they’ve packed all the essentials:
And now we know exactly who the Gulps are: a bunch of fatass bunnies who are about to go on vacation with a ridiculous supply of Pizza Stix, Snack Pack Pudding Chocolate, Cheezie Chips, Candyland Fun Packs, Koko Snax, Chips, Nacho Cheez, Choco-Nut Candy, and Doodle Puffs.
You’ll notice that all of the Gulps are busy packing boxes of food into the trailer, except for one:
While Mama Gulp lugs the giant sized candy bars, Dawn Gulp frolics with a bouncy ball. You see, while her parents and siblings are only concerned with how much food they can stuff into the trailer, Dawn enjoys the simple pleasure of playing with a ball. Either that, or Dawn is too damned lazy to help her parents pack for vacation, but I digress.
We follow the Gulps on their gluttonous getaway, which begins with the family driving along with a dashboard full of chips, Sugar Nibbles, and Sweetie Colas. Interestingly, among the artifacts on the dash is this:
Ah ha ha! Get it? Mama Gulp is such a disgustingly fat slob that she thinks Svelte Pink nail polish will make her look thin. Oh Marc Brown, your subtle touches of humor do not go unnoticed!
In the midst of their incessant gobbling, the Gulps sing the praises of Dizzyworld. Sister Gulp cheers for Roller Coaster Mania, while Brother Gulp adds, “And deep-fried Devil Dogs!”
Then Dawn interjects, “I’d rather sip a carrot shake and go paddling in the duck pond.”
Yes, while Sister and Brother prefer sedentary rides and fattening foods, little Dawn enjoys healthy, active choices that have thus far prevented her from suffering the fate of the dreaded obesity. Wise beyond her years, Dawn will act as the family’s calorie conscience on this trip.
Sadly, this celebration of gluttony and sloth takes place “by the time they reached the end of the driveway.” The Gulps have “scarfed down their Winky-Twinks and Jiffy-Chips,” so they have to stop at Belly-Up Burger get some Bloat Burgers with cheez and ultrasized fries. “We don’t even have to get out of the car!” Mama Gulp declares.
Dawn, being the voice of reason, says “I’ll have a salad.”
They get back on the road, but it isn’t long before the Gulp family trailer breaks down, which they initially guess is due to a flat tire or the carburetor. Dawn sets them straight: “The car says no! This family’s too fat to roll!”
In response, the Gulps remove three TVs(!) and a microwave, but to no avail.
Rather than calling for help, the Gulps sit around listening to music, painting their nails and playing on the computer. Of course, thoughts of food are never far away:
“I’m hungry!” said Brother. “I wish the pizza man would come!”
“Sometimes just wishing makes things happen!” said Mama.
As if by magic, Farmer Spratt appears with a bucket full of green apples:
Thin and perpetually cheerful, Farmer Spratt will eventually teach the Gulps how to be healthy. But for now, even with the arrival of a new character, the conversation continues down its predictable course:
“Is there any place to eat around here?” asked Mama.
“My goodness!” said Farmer Spratt. “We’ve got plenty to eat. Come and stay for supper!”
The Spratt family takes in the Gulps, but the joy is short-lived as the “food” Farmer Spratt offers is a terrible, terrible ruse:
The Spratts cooked supper fresh from the garden.
The Gulps watched nervously. None of it was take-out.
None of it was frozen, or came in a can.
“What is it?” whispered Brother.
“It’s green,” whispered Sister.
The Gulps were too polite to say that they didn’t ever put anything green into their mouths. They hid the salad in their shirts, and went to bed hungry. Except Dawn, who fell asleep full of sweet corn and zucchini bread.
After reading the words above, look at their faces (click to see the full version) and tell me what we are supposed to assume the Gulps think of healthy foods:
Mama Gulp looks absolutely horrified, Papa Gulp looks concerned and a little sad, Brother Gulp looks like he’s examining a Martian stool sample, and Sister Gulp looks like the vegetables are befuddlin’ her dumb fatty brain.
So here’s what Marc Brown and Rosemary Wells are teaching children: Fat people fat because they are so addicted to their boxes upon boxes of processed junk food that even when they are incredibly hungry (thanks to their insatiable appetites), they will turn away fresh, healthy, farm-fresh meals because they are scared of vegetables.
Of course, Dawn is gleeful as she carries the loaf of zucchini bread.
The question at this point, of course, is how the hell has Dawn been feeding herself this whole time? Obviously she doesn’t eat the same food as the rest of her family. They’re all fat, blonde, and dumb, while Dawn is thin, ginger and smart. Somehow she must be able to eat healthy foods to keep her from getting fat, blonde and dumb, right?
As their punishment for turning down the healthy food, the Gulps go to bed hungry, which would be an unthinkable punishment in their gluttonous world. But the Gulps’ own personal hell was only just beginning.
The next morning, the Spratts put the Gulps to work. As you might have assumed, the Gulps have never done anything physically demanding in their life. That’s what makes this next page so hilarious!
Papa Gulp tries to fix the henhouse roof, but is too fat to climb the ladder. Mama Gulp tries to retrieve eggs from the henhouse floor, but is too fat to pick them up. Sister and Brother try to pick snap beans, but because they were so out of shape, the baskets were “too heavy to carry.”
And Dawn Gulp? Well, Dawn doesn’t actually do any manual labor in the book. Instead, she gets to learn how to bake Apple Pan Dowdy from scratch. Remember kids, if you’re thin, then you still get to eat delicious treats like Apple Pan Dowdy, while your fat family works the farm.
These caricatures of fat people are bad enough, but then you see the actual picture and it’s even worse. I divided the page up into two sections, the way it caught my eye. See if you notice what I did.
Here’s Papa Gulp struggling with the ladder:
Look, even Papa’s underwear is showing. You’re pathetic, fat daddy!
Now, here’s the other half of the page:
Simply looking at the images, I realized something: the Spratts and Dawn seem to be laughing at the horrible fat people who are too fat to be useful. Even the chickens seem to be gawking at their terrible obesity. And while they laugh at the fat people, Mrs. Spratt and Dawn get to hold homemade pie.
Of all the pages, this is the one that bothered me the most. Kids are much more observant than we give them credit for (as any parent can tell you), and they pick up on subtleties that may slip right by adults. So, what message is this page sending to children, fat or thin? That it’s okay to laugh at fat people? That if you’re thin, you’re rewarded with pie? That if you’re fat, even chickens will stare at your amazing fatness?
And the message of humiliation isn’t limited to that page. On the next page, it’s the following day and the Gulps are tired and sore. When Farmer Spratt asks what they do at home, Papa replies “Mostly watch TV.” Then Mrs. Spratt suggests that they all hike down to the County Fair. Dawn is ecstatic, but her parents, not so much:
“We never walk!” groaned Papa.
“Except to the refrigerator,” said Mama.
As if to prove that the Gulps are stubbornly sedentary, the story is illustrated this way:
Ah yes… Mama Gulp is so fat, she must be wheeled around, but HA HA HA the wheel is nearly flattened under her corpulence. And, once again, the thin people are happy and laughing, their ears pert and pointy, while the slovenly fatties are sad and their ears droop with fatigue.
It’s a powerful image, and one that sends a strong message to children.
But surely the trip to the fair will be fun for everyone, right?
Well… sort of.
For the first time since their trip to Belly-Up Burger, the Gulps are smiling and happy.
Dawn’s delighted with her orange balloon, but the rest of the Gulps? They’re celebrating the food, of course.
“Deep-friend corn dogs!” shouted Mama with tears of joy.
“Miles and miles of Funnel Cake!” crowed Papa Gulp.
Meanwhile, the kid on the slide seems to be screaming in pain thanks to the skin-peeling agony of a waterless waterslide.
To be fair, the Spratts are on this page enjoying the food of the fair as well. Of course, they enjoy the right food.
This page also contains the most disappointing cameo I’ve ever seen, as Arthur’s DW is clearly coming down the slide.
The Gulp family fun is short-lived, however, as disaster strikes when they attempt to join in the fun. First, the dance floor snaps under the weight of Mama and Papa Gulp (and even the girl in the purple dress is laughing)
We also learn that when the Gulps go for a ride on the hay wagon, the wheels snapped off. When they went down the waterslide, the four fat Gulps got stuck and the waterslide was shut down.
The message? Fat people can’t have fun because their fatness ruins the fun for everyone else. Wherever fatties go, they’re breaking stages, snapping wheels off wagons and blocking up waterslides. Fat people are a nuisance, an eye sore and a self-destructive menace we can all laugh at in good conscience.
These are all messages we hear every day from the mainstream culture that is directed at adults, and kids pick up on these attitudes as they are espoused by their parents. But I have never seen these kinds of messages directed so overtly at children.
That would be bad enough if this were just some kid’s book in the library that a parent might stumble upon randomly, but it’s not. This is the work of two popular and talented children’s authors, who are promoting these messages of intolerance. Not only that, but their target audience are fat families “just like the Gulps!”
Shame on you Marc Brown and Rosemary Wells for creating these gross caricatures of fat people.
Shame on you for exploiting stereotypes and encouraging humiliation and self-loathing.
Shame on you for aiming this dreck at children, who are so vulnerable to influence.
You both disgust me.
Learning Their Lesson
Most fat people experience a moment so humiliating or degrading that inspires you to try and lose weight. Weight loss companies like Jenny Craig encourage fatties to remember that moment during their weight loss attempts as inspiration. They call it the Sting.
For the Gulps, their disastrous trip to the fair was the Sting because now we get to the part of the book where they turn their lives around.
The next morning, Dawn enters the bedroom of the Gulps at 6 am and finds their beds straining under the weight. Dawn lays down the law:
“If the Dreamliner is ever going to roll again,” said Dawn, “somebody’s going to have to exercise and eat right.”
“Sometimes wishing makes things happen!” Mama said.
“Mama,” replied Dawn, “stop wishing and start working!”
“Soda for breakfast is history,” Dawn declared. “No snacks, candy, or chips. Nothing frozen, fried, or dyed. No heaping helpings. Fresh from the farm only. And lots of outdoor work!”
“We’ll starve to death,” said Mama.
Once again, the Gulps are so incredibly lazy, so incredibly stupid that it takes a child to save them from themselves.
And so, Dawn encourages Mama to taste a salad, Brother to enjoy swimming, Sister to chase butterflies and Papa to try fruit. Or, as the authors say:
Bit by bit they got out and got fit.
Bite by bite they began to eat right.
Once they acclimate their tastes to this new diet, the Gulps succumb to this vegan hallucination:
Now, after an unspecified length of time on the farm, the Gulps have lost all the weight and are able to do all the chores that their fatness prevented them from doing before.
Papa can climb the ladder to fix the roof, Mama can bend over to pick up eggs, and Brother and Sister can haul shit around like nobody’s business. Most importantly, of course, is that when you’re thin, farm chores don’t make you tired and sad, they make you happy.
Even Sister can hoe with a happy heart.
Thanks to their trip to the farm, the Gulps are now free to leave the fat farm and continue on their vacation:
“Try the Dreamliner, Pop!” said Dawn one morning.
It started right up and rolled out of its place.
“Get out the map!” whooped Papa.
“Where are you going?” asked the Spratts.
“We’re going to climb Mount Dauntless!” said Mama.
Remember kids: only fatties go to Dizzyworld. Healthy families climb mountains on vacation.
After the Gulps leave, they’re faced with one final temptation. Hungry once more, they pass Belly-Up Burger again, along with Porker Heaven and Captain Cluck’s Chicken. Now the Gulps are faced with a similar dilemma painted with a new, healthier brush:
“Oh no! There’s nothing to eat!” cried Mama.
“What’s that?” asked Dawn suddenly.
“Hot diggity,” shouted Brother, “it’s a Salad Circus!”
“Six hundred different kinds of salad!” cheered Sister.
Sister ain’t kiddin’… here’s the Salad Circus sign:
Now we know this is definitely a fictional story. Two bucks for a salad my ass!
If fresh, fast, healthy food were that cheap, it would be a completely different reality in this country. But as it stands, salads are more expensive than cheeseburgers, largely due to federal subsidies.
But this is the Fantasyland of Fatness promoted by Wells and Brown.
In “The Gulps,” fat people are addicted to processed food and are intensely lazy. The “solution” is to hold them captive on a farm and force them to eat healthy foods and do hard work until they get thin and realize how delicious salad is and how fun farmwork is. It’s a sort of kid’s version of “The Biggest Loser.”
This overly simplified children’s book is insulting and childish (and not in the good way that a children’s book should be). I am so disgusted with Rosemary Wells and Marc Brown for creating this book. The Max and Ruby characters are so benign, and the Arthur series so intelligent and thoughtful, that I never would have expected this kind of malevolent drivel from either of them. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that fat hatred and bigotry can come from even the most surprising sources.
The only positive thing I have discovered about this book, and the only thing I can unequivocally say I agree with, is that while reading the letter from Wells and Brown, I noticed the following Amazon ad for their book:
If for some sick and twisted reason I wanted to buy this book, then I would have to agree that one penny is the best price I would pay for this crap.