Family Matters

‘Maggie Goes on a Diet’: A Kids’ Book About Dieting? Not Without Controversy

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Poor Maggie. She’s an overweight 14-year-old character in a children’s book that’s not even due to be released until October, and already she’s stirring up controversy.

Why? Because the book, aimed at 4-to-8-year-olds, is about dieting for kids. “Fat at Four? A Diet-Book Fail,” decrees a New Yorker headline. Counters the Los Angeles Times: ” ‘Maggie Goes on a Diet’ the sensible way in children’s book.”

According to the book’s summary:

Maggie has so much potential that has been hiding under her extra weight. This inspiring story is about a 14-year-old who goes on a diet and is transformed from being overweight and insecure to a normal sized teen who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self-image.

Paul Kramer, author of the upcoming Maggie Goes on a Diet, is an ex-New Yorker who decamped 15 years ago to Hawaii, where his “true passion in life dawned,” according to Aloha Publishers, Kramer’s self-publishing outfit. “That passion was and is writing children’s books that deal with the issues that kids face today.”

It’s hard to argue that childhood obesity isn’t one of those issues. One in three American kids is overweight or obese. About 2 million kids are extremely obese, with a body mass index at or above the 99th percentile. Last month, a Harvard doctor generated a flurry of outrage when he suggested in the Journal of the American Medical Association that super-overweight kids facing life-threatening health complications should be taken from their parents and placed in foster care.

That’s an extreme solution, of course. Kramer’s book is merely suggesting that plus-size Maggie go on a diet. So what’s the problem? The title sends the wrong message, emphasizing dieting instead of healthy eating, says Cynthia Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We don’t want kids to ‘go on diets,’ we don’t want kids to use diet language,” she says. “You have to think about how the messages will be interpreted by a child’s brain. They will not see any nuance — they will see a causal association between losing weight and becoming popular, pretty and athletic. It emphasizes valuing people for their size and appearance rather than for who they are.”

(MORE: Should Parents Lose Custody of Their Extremely Obese Kids?)

Defending himself on Fox News, Kramer backed himself into a nonsensical corner. “I’m not advocating, never did, that any child should go on a diet,” he says. Huh?

The plot — not to mention the title — speaks for itself. Stung after being labeled “fatty” and “chubby” by kids at school, Maggie decides to overhaul her eating habits, embrace nutritious foods and hit the exercise circuit, after which she becomes a soccer phenom. Here’s how it plays out, in dubious narrative rhyme:

Losing the weight was not only good for Maggie’s health.

Maggie was so much happier and was also very proud of herself.

More and more people were beginning to know Maggie by name.

Playing soccer gave Maggie popularity and fame.

Fat girl gets skinny and handy with a soccer ball, and popularity follows? Carolyn Becker, a professor of psychology at Trinity University in San Antonio who developed Reflections Body Image Program, which decries “fat talk” and promotes positive body image, says the book misses its mark. “They are trying to promote healthier behavior, but at the same time they’re likely promoting weight stigma,” says Becker. “For some people, getting healthier may or may not lead to significant weight loss. It’s also quite possible to lose weight on an unhealthy diet.”

(MORE: Do I Look Fat? Don’t Ask. A Campaign to Ban ‘Fat Talk’)

Though the L.A. Times says the book’s plot “sounds like the kind of sensible advice recommended by experts,” it notes that customers have been less than supportive.

“The idea of this book makes me want to either cry or scream — actually both,” wrote a commenter named Adrienne Ressler from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It’s bad enough that the messages and images in the culture have co-opted most women into loathing their bodies, but targeting the insecurities of young girls, vulnerable to the risk of developing an eating disorder, borders on promoting high-risk behaviors and attitudes that are destructive both physically and psychologically. Please take this book off the market.”

Kramer is not without his supporters, including Fox News contributing psychiatrist Keith Ablow, who commends Maggie for “taking charge of her nutritional status, her weight and her life. I think she’s a fabulous role model — far better than the size 20 women who go on talk shows and lie about how happy they are with their bodies.”

Kramer, meanwhile, has got to be kvelling. The media attention has undoubtedly raised his self-publisher’s profile and guaranteed that more than just his neighbors in Maui will purchase the book once it’s available. Alas, Bulik of the Eating Disorders Program won’t be among them.

“I won’t be buying it,” she wrote in an e-mail.

MORE: Paradise Paradox: Why Life in Hawaii Is Linked to Early Death

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.