When I picked up Robin Brande's Fat Cat to read, I had forgotten that she had written another Young Adult book which I had liked and had previously recommended somewhere, Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, a well-done commentary on the unforgiving interpretation of What Is Right. The story unwinds tensely around Mena and the reader can feel the almost palpable heat of innocent hatred of the "Christian" kids for all things Wrong -- homosexuality, evolution and anyone defending such abominations or simply standing up to the righteous. Mena and her family are basically shunned by the community they had always thought were an extended family. She begins to learn about the world outside fundamental Christianity and even a little bit about the world inside. She even has enough curiosity and courage to ask her teacher how one can believe in God and the theory of evolution at the same time -- a question with which Charles Darwin himself struggled when scientifically developing the theory. That makes Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature a much more serious or perhaps "heavier" in weight of social issue than Fat Cat.
Fat Cat addresses the issue of obesity and popularity, except they're not issues in this book. Catherine is a little fat, but not obese and while she's obviously not in the most exclusive clique, she is neither yearning to be popular nor is she being taunted for being fat. Nor does it appear she or any Honors classmates are being taunted for being geeks. This story is an evolution of a different sort. In a Science Fair experiment which first begins as what happens when Cat chooses to eat and live like early hominids -- no cars or cellphones unless in an emergency, no processed foods (like chocolate!) or even dairy (there were no domesticated animals that long ago and so, no milk), and no hair product, Cat is motivated to win first place primarily in order to beat a former friend Matt McKinney, whom she has had a rivalry for as long as she could remember. It used to be a friendly rivalry, which turned bitter -- at least on her side when they were thirteen, some 3-1/2 years ago. As the narrative is told in Cat's viewpoint, the reader is just as clueless as Matt as to why they are no longer friends. Did he throw the Science Fair competition and let her win? Did she overhear him telling lewd jokes about her? Eating healthy and walking to school and work have the added benefit of Cat's losing weight and gaining toned muscles. She goes from "Fat Cat" to "Hot Cat" and attracts way more male attention than she ever dreamed of or even wants. The experiment morphs into how would a Homo Erectus choose a mate, and is that any different today than it would have been then? Along the way, Cat learns as much about the self she becomes as she does her pre-historic model. And in the end, when the judges ask, "Do you think this project has changed you? Beyond the obvious physical changes?," she can smile and say, "You have no idea how much."
It's great that Brande is able to depict science in such an accessible way. While I never knew any such intelligent and creative high schoolers so into science (no Science Fairs in West Babylon and I was in the honors program!), I can see how they would exist and how they're really just like ordinary teens with the usual teen angst. Brande is an observant recorder of young adult nature, a trait which itself is a pre-requisite to a good scientist. I'd like to think that the 21st Century Teen would enjoy Brande's writing as much as a middle-aged bookseller, but maybe I'm just blinded by the science.
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