High school finally behind her, Winnie is all set to attend college in the fall. But first she’s spending her summer days working at her granny’s diner and begins spending her midnights with Dallas—the boy she loves to hate and hates that she likes. Winnie lives in Misty Haven, a small town where secrets are impossible to keep—like when Winnie allegedly snaps on Dr. Skinner, which results in everyone feeling compelled to give her weight loss advice for her own good. Because they care that’s she’s “too fat.”
Winnie dreams of someday inheriting the diner—but it’ll go away if they can’t make money, and fast. Winnie has a solution—win a televised cooking competition and make bank. But Granny doesn’t want her to enter—so Winnie has to find a way around her formidable grandmother. Can she come out on top?
Claire Kann’s sophomore young adult contemporary novel features our protagonist Winnie, a queer, Black, self-proclaimed fat teenage girl who is enjoying her summer before she begins college. She is balancing working at her Grandma’s diner, Goldeen’s (yes, named after the Pokemon!), talking to a boy named Dallas she’s in a love-hate relationship with, navigating her queerplatonic relationship (QPR) with her “ungirlfriend” Kara, and thinking about entering a televised cooking competition to make extra money.
Claire Kann writes Winnie’s voice in first person, and her narrative flow is very much stream of consciousness—not in the Ali Smith type of way, but in that her thoughts are presented seemingly as they come, with no filter. The book is aptly named because for much of the story, Winnie struggles with making other people happy at the expense of herself, and thus we see her journey in establishing boundaries and prioritizing herself.
Winnie’s beauty in her fatness is emphasized with the stunning fat, Black model who is shown on the front cover of the book, and with Winnie’s confidence in her body. However, this confidence is challenged as she deals with adults who claim to have her best interests in mind when suggesting changes to her exercise and nutrition (for example, a doctor who suggests these things, knowing that she has a clean bill of health).
Winnie’s relationships with her friends and family, and especially with her grandmother, are not the most straightforward. The complications are compounded by the small-town dynamics of Misty Haven. Her relationship with Kara is complicated, and at times Kara seemed manipulative, but I was unsure of whether Claire Kann meant for it to be an actual trait of her character, or whether it was a by product of what Kara was also experiencing. We also see Winnie being interested in a boy who was supposed to be her Summer King after she is elected Summer Queen, and how she struggles with balancing the two and her feelings towards both of them and her queerness in relation to these feelings. However, the book shows that no relationship status or label is superior to others, and Winnie learns to first and foremost pursue relationships that make her happy.
Winnie’s relationship with her grandmother is also somewhat stifled. They used to be close when she was younger, but the older she became, the more she realized that there was a discrepancy between who she was becoming and who her grandmother wants her to be. This discrepancy comes at a critical point because Winnie has to deal with her frustration with the punitive consequences and the consequence of her volatile relationship with her grandmother – all while she is in limbo with increased independence in the future at college.
If It Makes You Happy is a novel of exactly that: Winnie being “in limbo”, with others, with herself, with her romantic interests, and with school and life transitions. The book challenged me to sit with my own discomfort of wanting to “solve” everything for her when really it was just a journey I was meant to be a companion on, and I learned to appreciate that as a reader.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
Although somewhat disorganized in terms of direction, Claire Kann’s sophomore novel has a ton of heart and illustrates what can be a difficult transition from high school to college. This is a time of change, moving into a new season of life, and I think Winnie’s story perfectly demonstrates that it’s not always straightforward with many loose ends to tie up and where some insecurities may be especially sensitive. I loved reading her story and navigating her relationships with her.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: It’s the summer before college and Winnie, a self-proclaimed fat Black queer teenage girl, is trying to balance friendships, her job at the diner, family relationships, and her queerplatonic relationship while entering a televised cooking competition to make some money.
Perfect for: Readers who love food-themed books, readers who like reading about the in-between time transitioning from high school to college, and who are looking for a fat Black, queer teenage girl protagonist
Think twice if: You aren’t in the right mindset to approach some comments made to Winnie about her fatness, especially from her doctor and her grandmother. Also think twice if you like more clear-cut plotlines.
Genre: young adult contemporary
Trigger/content warnings: fat shaming comments especially in medical practices, homophobic, arophobic, and queerphobic comments – but all of these are made clear that they had a negative impact on others’ wellbeing.