Butter by Erin Jade Lange – Review by Kevin English
Outside of the Nerdy Book Club, I have two friends that make up my “nerd herd.” We used to teach at the same school (our mascot was a zebra), and so the name stuck. One of those friends recommended Erin Jade Lange’s Butter to me—and I am so glad she did.
Throughout my brief tenure as a teacher, I’ve quickly discovered that students do judge books by their titles and covers—and I would add that readers judge other readers by their book titles and covers, too. Before writing this review, I let the book sit on my desk at work to see what students would have to say. I encountered the following:
“You’re reading a book about butter? Is this like the time you talked about that book about dead bodies?” (They’re referring to Mary Roach’s Stiff.)
“Uh… Mr. English, I think your book addiction has gone a little too far if you’re reading about butter.”
And yes, students, I read a book about Butter. The capital “B” is intended. Butter, in Lange’s case, is a proper noun, as the novel details Marshall’s experience as an overweight teenager. The novel is far from being about the yellow sticks in our refrigerators; it is, instead, about Marshall’s daily frustrations with issues of identity, body image, and friendship. And all of these are issues that my students, whether they admit it or not, face daily.
Maybe it was the context I sat in while I was reading this novel that really prompted me to write a review. I was surrounded by 1,500 student council members at a conference in Traverse City, Michigan, and often overheard discussions about encouraging student participation and welcoming other voices to be heard. With the conference and student chatter as background nose, this line still stuck with me:
“So I guess the downside was not fitting in. I didn’t fit in with the band nerds, the athletes, or the academics. I didn’t fit into airline seats or Levi’s jeans or leather jackets. The only thing that ever really fit was food … inside me. And the more food I fit in me, the less I fit anywhere else” (132).
Fitting in is always the elephant in the room, whether you’re at a student council conference or it’s your ninth-grade English class and no one wants to look “dumb.” But I think it’s the ability for novels like Lange’s Butter to draw our attention to these issues, to deal with them vicariously through a character, that really help us become more understanding, compassionate people.
I also recently read Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls (read it if you haven’t!), and, like Butter, it’s encouraged me to think a lot about the idea of recognizing others. It’s like the difference between hearing and listening, something that I often remind my students of. When we see people, do we really see them? Butter, despite his size, isn’t seen for who he is until the end. I won’t spoil the ending for any of you, but just know that, while intense, it does give a glimmer of hope for all of us.
A quick update since recommending this book: It hasn’t stayed on the shelf for more than a class hour. As soon as a student returns it, another notices and checks it out!
Kevin English is in his second year of teaching high school English in southeast Michigan and is a teacher consultant for the Eastern Michigan Writing Project. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinmenglish.