Author Crystal Maldonado’s young adult contemporary novel Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is a compelling, body positive, coming-of-age book about self-love. In an #ownvoices book centering a fat Puerto-Rican girl living in a predominately white Connecticut suburb, Maldonado pairs an effortlessly diverse cast of characters with her immersive writing for a riveting reading experience. I sat down to read a few chapters, but managed to complete the book in two sittings!
Maldonado spoke with me over Zoom about the struggle for self-acceptance in the midst of a social media era, especially with the lack of positive fat representation. “You never know when you’ll discover you love reading. Some people don’t like reading when they’re younger just because they’ve never read anything that resonates with them,” she said. “It could open up a whole new world. Who knows how many writers we could have if they just saw themselves in a book they picked up?”
In our discussion, the debut author expands on the need for representation and body positivity, compares her writing process to Charlie’s, and explains the importance of friendships.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Though Fat Chance, Charlie Vega centers the experience of a fat Puerto Rican girl, her struggle for self-acceptance feels largely universal. What made you choose to center her story as a young adult book?
I’ve been fat my whole life, and it took me a really long time to be okay with that, to embrace the term fat, and to give up on this idea that I needed to lose weight in order to be happy or to pursue goals or accomplishments. I found myself wishing as an adult that when I was younger I had read or seen a character that looked like me, was fat, and was okay with that, or became okay with that. In a lot of the media I had consumed growing up in the 2000s, if there was a fat character at all, then that character was often either miserable or on a journey to lose weight. That is a really damaging message that you internalize without even realizing that you’re internalizing it, because that’s all you see reflecting back at you.
I often think that you don’t even have to be “fat” to feel a lot of these things because we all are bombarded by these messages, and with social media, it’s tenfold. You’re just scrolling through, and you see all of these beautiful people and these “perfect” bodies, and it’s easy to turn on yourself and say, “Well, this person has a perfectly flat stomach. Why don’t I have a perfectly flat stomach?” I wanted to explore that especially in a book for teens because I feel like we don’t talk about it enough. We just accept that this is the reality, but I don’t think it has to be. I would love for everybody to start challenging some of these ideas and make room for other types of bodies. No two bodies look the same, and yet the people we see on the screen, the people we read about in books are often very similar. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I would love for us to start thinking about these things.
Charlie’s best friend Amelia is the “Heather” of the book—someone most people can’t help but like. What inspired Amelia’s character?
I feel like we all know an Amelia—somebody who everybody loves, and they’re so great that sometimes you get a little mad at how great they are. But you can’t really be mad because they’re legitimately a good person. She’s just that person that we all kind of know. When I was in high school, I had a best friend that was one of those charming and wonderful people, but sometimes I would still feel a little jealous or feel like “Man, I can be wonderful too,” you know? I wanted to explore that a little bit—this idea that you can love and support your best friend but also sometimes feel a little competitive with them. What does that mean and how do you overcome those feelings? Look at Charlie, all of these comparisons are so internal. She’s fighting herself basically and thinks that it’s everybody else pitting her against Amelia, and then it turns out a lot of it is her doing this to herself. If you can get out of your head a little bit, that certainly helps.
Amelia herself, I just wanted to create this incredible Black female character who is amazing in all of these wonderful ways, but was also real and nuanced. She’s going through all of her own feelings too, and I wanted to display that, and hopefully people see themselves in her as much as they do in Charlie.
I loved the curated reader kit that you put together for The Booked Shelf. It felt perfect, like all the comfortable and familiar aspects of being a book lover. What was in your “writer’s kit,” either for this book or in general?
I feel like Charlie has it so much more together than me in that sense. She has a whole nook, and she’s got her lights. She was like, “This is exactly my process,” and I’m way more chaotic. I’m just trying my best, but I swear sometimes I’m writing in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s really early in the morning on my laptop. I would say my ideal kit would be a beautiful notebook of some kind (that can’t be too beautiful because then I’ll be intimidated to write in it). I jot down notes in it, and I sometimes still like to write things by hand, just to brainstorm. I really like colorful pens so I can make little doodles and stuff.
I need my laptop because I’m so bad at writing by hand. I know some people are very old-school about writing, and I’ve heard of people using typewriters. I don’t know how to use a typewriter. I need my laptop and some good music. I like to go on Spotify and just browse by moods so that I can just pick something that I’m feeling or think I will need to feel in order to convey whatever dialogue or action is happening. I’m a huge fan of discovering new playlists, and that helps me find new artists that I become obsessed with, which is great. That is probably what my real life kit would look like; it’s not nearly as cute as Charlie’s.
What are some recent or upcoming releases that you are excited about or would recommend readers go check out?
I read Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, and it rocketed to the top of my favorite books list. Now I recommend this book to everybody because it’s so good. It has ghosts, magic, and love, and I wanna just live in that world. If I could, I would. That was my favorite book of 2020.
I’m currently reading Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant about this adorable girl Tessa, and she is really into writing. She reminds me so much of Charlie, and I just want the best for her. She’s trying to find love, and she’s faking it. It’s awkward and beautiful.
Books that I haven’t read yet but I’m excited about. . . Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp, she is just a phenomenal writer and person. It’s about a girl named Pen, and it involves food and love and culture and identity. I cannot wait for this one. Those are probably my top three recommendations right now. Although, I have to be honest, my to-be-read list is ginormous for 2021.
You mentioned that Tessa from Elise Bryant’s Happily Ever Afters reminds you of Charlie. Which characters in other books do you feel could have an iconic friendship with Charlie?
Charlie needs some fat friends, is what I think. I feel like she just doesn’t really have any aside from Brian. She doesn’t have any fat girl friends and I feel like she needs that. She needs someone to go shopping with and then they can trade clothes and stuff like that. I don’t know if you’ve read Puddin’ by Julie Murphy, but there is this sweet character, she is fat, she wants to be a journalist, and she is just the sweetest little thing I have ever read and met. Her name is Millie—Charlie would totally be friends with Millie. They would just go shopping, get cute clothes, then take their purchases home and watch a bunch of Netflix together. It would be great. Then they could beta read each other’s writing, how fun would that be?
Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado was published on Feb. 2, 2021.