NEW YORK — Messages of good health and positive self-esteem for girls aren't hard to come by in kid lit, so what's the deal with all the attention for a not-yet-published rhyming picture book about an obese, unhappy 14-year-old named Maggie?
The title, for starters: "Maggie Goes on a Diet."
For seconds, like-wildfire circulation of a blurb describing how the bullied girl is transformed through time, exercise and hard work into a popular, confident and average size soccer star. And cover art showing her wistfully holding up a Cinderella dress as she stares at her imagined, much slimmer self in a full-length mirror.
And an inside page, the only one most people have seen, that shows her hunched over the fridge during a two-fisted eating binge.
Thirds? Real teenagers have long moved on from rhyming picture books and the reading level for Hawaii dad Paul Kramer's amateurish, self-published effort is recommended on Amazon for kids ages 4 to 8.
The online mess for Kramer began recently with outraged commenters on Amazon, where pre-orders haven't propelled Maggie anywhere near the top of the rankings. There's now a "savemaggie" hashtag on Twitter, a "Say No to Maggie Goes on a Diet" Facebook page, calls for a boycott and demands that Amazon and Barnes & Noble pull the book.
Kramer won't disclose how many orders he has for Maggie, which isn't out until October. While most of the attention has been negative, he said, there are supporters, like this one who responded to a book basher on Twitter: "She's 14, not 6. Are you seriously suggesting that, with the obesity problem in this country, that a book teaching children to exercise and eat right, is somehow IMMORAL? I bet your fat."
Kramer, who went on "Good Morning America" to defend the book, already has regrets, though using the word "diet" isn't one of them. Diet, he said, isn't a dirty word as many of his angry critics have declared. Even for a book clearly most appropriate for little kids? He insists he didn't have 4-year-olds in mind, thinking more along the lines of 8 and up.
"The main message was that Maggie went on a diet predominantly because she loves sports and wanted to be able to run faster, bend more easily and be better able to play sports more effectively," Kramer told The Associated Press by phone from Maui, where he lives with his wife and soccer-loving, 16-year-old son.
Kramer, who struggled with obesity as a child and a young adult and still works to keep the pounds off, wishes Maggie's fantasy self in the mirror wasn't quite so thin on the book's cover. He also wishes her transformation through weight loss wasn't quite so much — 51 pounds in a little more than eight months.
"Now that I see the controversy I would say that I would have had her lose about 30 pounds and still have a little way to go," said Kramer, who's neither physician nor nutrition expert.
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He said he's just a guy who wants to inspire overweight kids to be healthy.
"I regret that people associated the word 'diet' as me trying to push dieting on 4-year-olds and 6-year-olds. I'm not," Kramer said. "To me, diet means a change of habits, eating nutritiously, losing unhealthy weight."
Leslie Sanders, medical director of the Eating Disorder Program at Goryeb Children's Center in Summit, N.J., thinks Kramer's references to dieting in a rhyming picture book featuring a teen girl are unfortunate. The same goes for the notion that a child's key to success, beauty and popularity is being thin.
"There's a mismatch here," Sanders said. "You've got a rhyming book you're reading to a 4-year-old or a 6-year-old about a teenager focused on weight and eating. Why should young children be thinking about weight? There's no reason to have literature about dieting for young children at all."
In addition, most little kids don't sit down as Maggie the teen does once her "diet" begins and whip up their own oatmeal with yogurt and fruit, or prepare their own turkey sandwich with mustard and lettuce, followed by a dinner of vegetables "with various proteins," as the book describes.
You know who makes those choices for little kids? Their parents, Sanders said. The ones that don't appear in the book about Maggie the red pigtailed teen. In fact, there are no adults in the book at all.
That disturbs Arden Greenspan-Goldberg, a New York City psychotherapist who specializes in eating disorders and has a 22-year-old daughter.
"As women and mothers, we have our work cut out for us," she said. "We hope that when our girls look in the mirror, they like what they see."
Contrary to the online flash mob, Maggie does stand up to her tormenters, though, in her own sad, quiet way.
"Most of the times Maggie did not wish to respond or counter attack," Kramer writes. "On rare occasions Maggie got so mad she could not hold back. She said, 'Is your life so boring that you have nothing else better to do? How would you like it and how would you feel if everyone picked on you? So lose your stinger and make like a bee and buzz on through.'"
Once Maggie drops the weight, she not only gains gal pals but enjoys the attention of, urg, guys, another little something that young girls don't really need to think about.
She also gets higher grades and is invited to her first sleepover, bringing along deodorant spray so she doesn't have to worry about leaving a smell when she uses the bathroom.
Meanwhile, back on the soccer field, the teen encounters a pudgy, smaller girl as she practices and offers some tips. "She reminded Maggie of how Maggie was before she lost the weight," Kramer writes.
The book concludes, as Maggie collects a soccer trophy: "It is sad that people are judged mainly because of how they look. A pretty cover does not necessarily guarantee a good book."
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