In the spirit of Banned Books Week, on Monday I went by the library and picked up a challenged YA classic: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher.
You can tell just from the back-cover book summary that Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is an Issue Book: overweight highschooler Eric “Moby” (as in Dick) Calhoune has been friends with tough, snarky, majorly-scarred childhood burn victim Sarah Byrnes for a long time, and he even upped his caloric intake when he joins the school swim team and starts getting in shape so that Sarah Byrnes won’t think he’s going to ditch her once he’s not fat anymore. But then Sarah Byrnes shuts down and checks into a mental hospital, and Eric makes it his job to find out what’s going on.
This is a heavy book, guys. There’s mention of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, abortion, suicide–all the fun stuff that makes this book so bannable. Occasionally the treatment of these subjects gets a little heavy-handed, but for the most part I can see that this was done with good intentions, and there’s a good amount of balance between viewpoints. I’m not at all religious, but I appreciated that there were thoughtful, reasonable Christian characters alongside the more fervently hard-line orthodox ones–making all the religious characters in a story into super-devoted nutjobs usually seems like a cheap shot to me.
Though it’s an Issue Book, the characters (almost) all seem very human, and aren’t just flat charicatures of their Issue. A couple of the characters, like Eric’s coach and teacher Mrs. Lemry and his mother Sandy, deserve major props for being supportive, intelligent adults who talk frankly with their students/children and treat them like, you know, real people. Too often, the adults in YA novels are either absent or villanous cardboard cutouts, and it’s refreshing to see something else. The only adult character who seemed more like a figure than a real person was Sarah Byrnes’ terrifying father, Virgil, and even then, I have to recognize that there really are absolutely messed-up and brutal people like that in real life. People do hurt their family members, for what they might see as a variety of reasons, and this book doesn’t shy away from that. (I want to note that, while I didn’t have much of a mental image for any of the other character, I couldn’t help but visualize Virgil Byrnes as Tom Waits. This doesn’t mean that I think Tom Waits is a scary child abuser, but I could really imagine him in this role in a movie version or something, between the way he dresses and his growl. I’m sorry, Tom Waits! I really liked you as Kneller!)
One major reservation I had going into reading Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes was regarding the potential fat-hate in the book. Thanks to my friend Tia’s perspective and the information she’s shared with me about Health At Every Size and Fat Acceptance advocacy, I’ve recently become more observant of hatespeech directed towards overweight individuals in books and movies, and I was worried that potential condemnation of Eric as a fat kid would spoil my enjoyment of the rest of the book. In general, though, I can accept how his weight was treated throughout the book. He is ridiculed, and he casually talks down about himself in regards to his size, but I see this as realistic–especially considering the way that fat-hate has permeated and become normalized in our culture and overweight people are taught a good deal of self-hate. Eric stands out as a plus-sized but healthy individual; he does a great deal of swimming and also spends part of the book outrunning someone, and we don’t see him as having any health problems due to his size. For the most part, he understands that being overweight really isn’t that big a deal for him, and I think he’s actually a pretty good role model for the HAES approach. I would love to know what other people who have a stronger background in these issues think about it, though.
All in all, I wouldn’t call Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes an easy read, but I think it would be a valuable book for teenagers, and it’s a shame that it’s been challenged and banned multiple times–most recently, it was challenged late last year in Belleville, Wisconsin, for being “pornographic” and “pervasively vulgar.” Though the school board ultimately voted to keep it in the curriculum, there are many more books that end up banned or restricted, like Slaughterhouse Five was over the summer in Missouri. I believe in advocacy for controversial books; I do believe in a parent’s right to keep an eye on what media their child is consuming and their right to remove items from the pool if they deem it necessary, but I do not believe it is one parent’s duty to police an entire school district’s reading material and choose what is appropriate for all students. If you are interested in reading more about Banned Books Week, the ALA has a great section set up on their website with information about First Amendment advocacy groups and lists of books that have been challenge and banned in recent years. Leila over at Bookshelves of Doom is also very good at keeping track of book challenges across the country, if you’re interested in what’s being challenged even as we speak.
What banned books have you read lately?