Review by Shyamala Parthasarathy
Penguin Teen, Penguin Random House, 2019
225 pages, hardcover, $21.99 CAD, 978-0-143-19868-0
Ages 16+, Grades 10-12
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, LGBTQ+
Trigger Warning: Rape/Sexual Assault, Cyberbullying, Fatphobia, Transphobia, Homophobia
“I was just wondering what I’d look like if I was thin,” I said.
“Well, get over it,” he said. “You weren’t meant to be thin. Just like I wasn’t meant to be straight.”
“I had a lapse in judgment,” I said. “I’m fine, really. I’m happy with who I am.”
He stuck out of his pinkie. “Promise?”
I wrapped mine tightly around his. “Promise.”
It was true. I loved who I was. But the echoes were like hiccups. You never knew when you were going to get them. Maybe I would, in a moment of weakness, suck in my gut again. I hoped not but you could never tell.
Heather Smith’s Chicken Girl is a book about hiding and confronting both yourself and the world, and accepting that not everything revolves around you. When sixteen-year old Poppy posts a picture of herself dressed as Rosie the Riveter from the era of World War I, she gets what every curvy girl gets on the internet—photoshopped onto sub-Reddit thread ISeeFatPeople that make fun of fat people for existing. Poppy spirals into depressive episodes and goes from an optimistic, curvy roller-derby player to a cynical, mildly nihilistic high-schooler who hides from the world in the chicken-suit she wears for her summer job.
Poppy’s only happy points—in her own words—are her twin brother Cam (a gay teenager who’s just come out) and her friends: six-year old Miracle (a vibrant young girl raised by a single hooker mother), fellow teenager Lewis (a trans boy in the final stages of his gender transition who’s also caring for his ailing father), Thumper (a homeless, reformed former white-supremacist who lives on the streets by choice) and Buck (the cooler, older hippie love interest). Just as Poppy begins to work her way through the trauma of being cyberbullied, her brother is sexually assaulted and Miracle vanishes, leaving her to confront her trauma on her own and take a long, hard look in the mirror.
As a fat girl myself, I was quite taken by Poppy’s voice in this book. While she doesn’t necessarily categorize herself as fat per se, she is big and healthy enough to play roller-derby in a team; her body and body-image are things she struggles with. Smith does a fantastic job of making Poppy out to be a real person here—she’s deeply flawed, quite narcissistic, tends to overthink things and jump to the worst conclusions about everyone. While her trauma is real and powerful, it takes her quite a bit before she gets to the point of extending sympathy/empathy to the people around her without centering herself.
This was particularly discomfiting in her knee-jerk reaction to her brother’s sexual assault. Cam, working in a hair-salon soon after his coming-out, is attacked by his boss. In a classic victim-blaming move, Poppy asks him why he didn’t defend himself, and makes it worse by telling their parents about his assault when he specifically asks her not to. The book brushes past the issues of consent and trust/intimacy Poppy’s actions here raises, but it does keep this particular conflict open-ended—Cam does not openly forgive her even through the end of the book, as is well within his right to do so.
If Cam’s sexual assault is a brutal portrayal of a reality many teens—particularly queer teens—face, Smith also presents a positive queer teen narrative in the form of Lewis. Assigned female at birth, Lewis has a supportive father (and mother before she died), who switches to calling him by the right pronouns the instant he comes out as trans. His conflict arises out of the fact that the same father is ailing from cancer, not from his queerness by itself.
Lewis is also the one who holds Poppy accountable to her behavior—he points out her victim-blaming with Cam, and challenges her judgmental attitude constantly. Smith toes a fine line here by centering cis-gendered Poppy’s internal conflict over Lewis and Cam’s own traumas. The book doesn’t quite tip over the edge, however—while Lewis’s narrative function is to teach Poppy about the world, there is just enough self-examination on Poppy’s side for it to feel realistic and not stereotypical. In that, Poppy becomes a fully realized cis-gendered, curvy girl who experiences marginalization due to her non-thinness, but realizes that her marginalization is not an excuse for bad behavior.
The whimsical writing style takes a close first-person POV—while I would’ve enjoyed seeing the POVs of Lewis and/or Cam, I still raced my way through the entire book at one sitting. Smith presents complex, flawed teenagers in a way that doesn’t talk down to them; to that extent, Chicken Girl is a book that normalizes queerness and non-normativity without apology.
Shyamala Parthasarathy is an MA Literature graduate, currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. Hailing from Chennai, India, she is currently working on a young adult urban fantasy novel, and can be found in her natural habitat: the corner of a room, typing away on her laptop or angrily glaring at it.