Butter by Erin Jade Lange

Butter

Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 9780571294404
Published: 7/3/2013

Butter is hugely overweight. Massively so. He’s the kid who has to rethink sitting on plastic chairs in case they’re not up to his bulk, who requires extra large seating and a customer made desk in class. Then one day he sees a post on his high school class page that says he got his nickname for eating a stick of butter in one sitting. Furious that someone is spreading round the wrong story about how he got his nickname, Butter decides he’s had enough and posts a link to his website, where he promises, on New Year’s Eve, to eat himself to death in front of a live web camera. Suddenly he’s hugely popular and his website is getting masses of hits a day. But what happens when his New Year’s deadline gets closer?

WARNING! POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!

Let’s get the thing I didn’t like out of the way first because I think if I left it to the end, it’d overshadow the really good points the book has. I didn’t get on very much with Butter as a character. Sure, I could understand where he was coming from sometimes woth his weight issues and the reason for them. I even understood why he felt the need to start up the website, which is a curious mix of a cry for attention and a real escape route. Ultimately though, I didn’t come away from the book feeling a whole lot of sympathy for him. As his friend Tucker put it, he’s too negative, he always expects to be disappointed, he seeks perfection in everything and everyone he meets, even though that’s impossible. And ultimately, I don’t think he finishes the books cured of that. I don’t think the book ended on the note it was meant to for me and I think a large part of that was because I didn’t really like Butter, or any of the other characters enough to really get the ending too well. Too many negative aspects all round and not enough positive ones for me (with the possible exception of Butter’s music teacher, who kind of reminded me of Dumbledore, only with a trumpet. Something about being a little all-knowing and knowing things without being told them).

That said though, this book should not be dismissed. It has huge things to say both about how we treat each other and about online socialising.

The really scary part of the book is the reactions of Butter’s classmates to his plan. Far from worrying about him or trying to help him, or standing up for him against the bullies and name-callers, Butter finds that there are vast numbers of kids who will comment on his webpage by night and then act completely differently by day and outside of their online personas. Whereas in the corridor they’ll ignore him or give him a smile, when online they’ll make suggestions for his Last Meal, placing bets on whether he’ll go through with it or not. This is what’s so scary about the Internet and the huge number s of people who socialise through it now; you can essentially create a whole new you. You can behave in ways that are completely alien to you in Real Life and some people even become what are known as trolls. These are people who deliberately post inflammatory posts on webpages and profile pages solely to stir up trouble and cause upset. These are the people who, at their most extreme, will find Facebook sites dedicated to dead family members or friends and post hateful and derogatory comments about the deceased. They won’t even have known them, will not even live in the same country often, but they want the reaction their vicious comments will spur. And this type of behaviour is hinted at in this book. Online bullying is becoming more and more prevalent in schools and the kind Butter faces is a prime example. It doesn’t read like bullying, it’s mostly people suggesting foods rather than calling him names, but it is bullying, it is goading, and that’s what makes this book a worthwhile read. You may not like Butter or any of the other characters, you may not come out of it with the feelings you were perhaps supposed to like me, but you will be more aware of just how insidious bullying can become when it’s done via a laptop screen. After all, why be you when you can invent a new persona and say and do the things online you’d never have said to this person face to face? I consider my fairly Internet savvy but even I found myself reassessing what bullying can actually be after reading Butter’s posts.

There’s also the issue of separating your online life from your real one. Butter really likes a girl called Anna at school, even though he’s only ever talked to her online, and through a persona at that. Understandably, once he starts talking to her in real life, she becomes a little bit scared when he talks to her about things he shouldn’t have known. It’s a neat reminder that you never really know the person you’re talking to online unless you’ve met them in real life too – after all Anna didn’t technically know Butter’s handle ‘SaxMan’ at all, he was a made up being with a fictional life at a nearby school, even if she did eventually know the person behind him. It’s a powerful demonstration that even though Butter ultimately meant no harm, Anna really didn’t know him until he told her who he was. With today’s newspapers semi-regularly reporting new stories of online grooming, it’s clear that this is a truth that needs to be given more prominence.

So, even though I didn’t really connect with the characters, I can still highly recommend this book. It’s messages about Internet social hubs and online meetings are important, and I could easily see this book being used as a talking point in schools. It’s important to think about another’s point of view, whether it’s to consider why the overweight kid comfort eats or why that girl would be wary of you if you know things you shouldn’t, and again, this is something this book covers rather neatly. Definitely worth more than a glance.

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