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Can a book really help kids lose weight? October 7, 2008

I usually equate good books with the building of reading and writing skills, the value of rich, well-written stories and worthwhile, memorable characters, and cultural literacy. A noble, brave, kind character can be an important role model, and even influence behavior.

And “just like us” characters can keep us company, reassure us that we’re OK, and maybe even help us solve our problems. Think Judy Blume, perhaps especially the landmark Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

But a book that may help young readers lose weight through modeling behavior that is neatly hidden in storyline? This I’d never considered. I’ve never thought books that promoted any agenda, from room-cleaning directives from preachy Berenstain Bears, aka The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room (A First Time Book) (I know, I know — queue the e-mailed objections) to the raft of pre-election, partisan propaganda that’s popped up between deceptively bright-and-sunny children’s book covers, were generally worthwhile reading. But I now admit some might have useful angles.

According to a bumper crop of news stories on this subject in the past few days, a new study claims kids who read books that promote healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise and good nutrition are more likely to lose extra weight.

Reports the L.A. Times, “A recent study found that after reading a book with underlying messages of getting healthy via physical activity and good nutrition, girls ages 9 to 13 showed a slight decrease in their body mass index.”

The book to which they’re referring, Lake Rescue (Beacon Street Girls, No. 6) by Annie Bryant, is part of the Beacon Street Girls series written for (ack-age guideline coming) preteen girls, and also addresses tough situations like cyber bullying and divorce. Describes the Times: “In this book, an overweight girl goes to an outdoor adventure camp with her class. Although worried about being picked on for being heavy, she finds a role model who teaches her about becoming healthier through eating right and trying new activities.”

So what’s the fact breakdown? Apparently the book’s author (in the most clever marketing ruse I’ve ever heard of) proposed the study, which featured 64 seriously overweight girls already enrolled in Duke University’s Healthy Lifestyles program. They were put into three groups and tracked. One group read no books, one read another Beacon Street Girls book that didn’t deal with health and weight loss issues, and one read “Lake Rescue.”

The Times reports the “Lake Rescue” group decreased its BMI scores 0.71%, the group that read another book decreased its BMI scores .33%, and the group that had no intervention increased its BMI scores .05%. Well, the progress may have been slight, but it’s noticeable.

And of course, nothing, including a book, is a panacea. Children need support, availability of healthy food and exercise opportunities, and other positive reinforcement to lose weight. After all, the girls in this study were already enrolled in a serious program. But given the onslaught of junk-food commercials and candy-popping peers facing them down every day, I’ll bet the weight loss proposition is harder on children, girls or boys, than it would be for just about anyone else.

If this book helps, this is wonderful. I’d even give my blessing to a Berenstain Bears book that tackled such a tough subject for a younger audience, if it got results for its young readers.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



Life lessons worth hearing September 13, 2008

Anyone having experience with children knows a story beats a lecture any day. Moreover, stories beat lectures and complicated explanations to a child’s questions because they avoid the personal, finger-pointing element that makes lectures so distasteful… to anyone.

You know the psychology, because adults employ it too. “I have this friend…” I have an uncle, an M.D., who wishes he had a handpuppet he could reach around a corner to “talk” him out of unwanted social engagements or other obligations. I wish I’d thought to use something like that in lieu of some of the disastrous notes and letters I’ve committed to paper in my time.

Aesop’s fables, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, fairy tales, Greek and Roman myths, all of these have endured because of the simple, but potent lessons they deliver peoplekind. But unlike the too-personal (and hum-drum) lecture, they’re more powerful because they offer them in an easily understandable, digestible package with characters with whom we can identify. You can’t beat the fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf for a lesson about lying, and how destroying your credibility can put you at great peril.

Even Dr. Seuss delivers sweet, simple morality in Horton Hears a Who, as suggested by Allison Bruce in a recent column in the Ventura County Star, with its message of respect. (“A person’s a person know matter how small.”) The Lorax is another, more overt morality tale about wastefulness, and preserving nature.

I don’t personally like the preachy, simplistic and over-obvious moral lessons like those depicted in the Berenstain Bears series. I may be in for some indignant e-mail, but I find nothing original, or memorable, about them — they always strike me as if the authors just said, “Hey! What about…” and jotted down the story in about 15 minutes.

Sure, it’s good to warn children about overeating, not being selfish, or caution against watching too much TV. So give me Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory any day (remember Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teevee? They also met far more satisfactory ends, and I think that message is driven home much more clearly than with a tidy little lecture from Mama or Papa Bear-Berenstain).

I’m glad I caught Bruce’s column and her suggestion of Jacqueline Golding’s guide Healing Stories: Picture Books for the Big & Small Changes in a Child’s Life, now available in the Magic Bookshelf store. Golding lists high-quality books as conversation starters for problems and issues children may encounter.

I think there’s nothing like a story to bring a lesson to vivid and constructive life, and to also let us know we’re not alone in our troubles, that many, many others have gone before us and shared our problems.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever