Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

While I have not read this particular novel by the infamous Chris Crutcher, I am sure that it is just as controversial as all of his other books.  Crutcher's novels are never comfortable to read.  There is always some aspect that is jarring or disturbing, or just seems wrong at first glance.  But there is always a redemptive aspect.  By this I do not mean that there is a happy ending.  That would ruin the narratives and make a mockery what Crutcher is trying to show.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes appears to me no exception to the rule, being challenged like many of Crutcher's titles (see Whale Talk.)

Staying Fat was recently challenged in Wisconsin's Belleville School District for being part of the grade-nine curriculum.  Lori Beil, the mother of a student at Belleville High School, complained that the book was pornographic and full of vulgar profanity.  An article on Channel3000.com reported part of the recorded message Beil presented to the review committee:
"I believe it would be better for the school to choose books without sex and profanity, that don't bash someone's religion.  There are more noble and aspiring choices.  Why am I doing this?  I'm motivated by love.  Love for my son, love for God and love for you, the people of my town."
Beil also stated that having an alternative reading available for her son was not a fair option:
"No child should need to leave a classroom because a book has too much offensive content when there are so many excellent books to choose from."
I think at this point it is important to note that Beil never recommended any alternative texts to the committee, nor did she seem to have any trouble talking about her religious beliefs even though others might have found her position to be offensive.  Double standards are difficult to consider seriously in situations like this.  There is, however, a silver lining to this story, in that other parents and students were very supportive of the text being part of the curriculum:
Most of the parents and students who turned out, many wearing green stickers in support of the book, said that Sarah's story has done exactly what it should.
"I think our teens today face so many issues that a lot of us adults cannot even wrap our heads around. I think it's really important that they're exposed," said parent Teresa McMahan.
"The book 'Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes,' has not only been a high-quality read but has sent positive messages to me, and I would say, without hesitation, to most of my class," said Taylor Forman, a Belleville High School freshman. 
The review committee voted unanimously to keep the book as part of the curriculum and sent their recommendation to the School Board.  I am very happy that this decision was made (and so is the Wisconsin chapter of the ACLU.)  If people are so worried about portrayals of their religion or certain moral standards, all it says to me is that they are weak in their convictions if a YA novel can shake them this deeply.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Concerns?

As always, thanks for listening.


  1. You know, without wanting to be on the censorship side of the argument, the texts by Crutcher that I have read do contain a level of vulgarity that is not necessary. Now, I know that kids are like that, and they have all seen and heard everything (probably) that he is talking about, but to have a teacher CHOOSE to assign it validates the vulgarity in a way that, were I the teacher, I would be hesitant about...
    This could be countered by the teacher being explicit about what it is in the text that justifies its inclusion... I am sure there is a rationale, but I have to admit I would never teach Chris Crutcher. Might recommend him to individual students, but he is NOT a classroom-friendly author.

  2. Generally I agree that his books are best for individual reading and for circulation in a library setting rather than being taught in a classroom. But at the same time, if the students feel they are learning, and if this is the first time there has been a problem with teaching the book in a decade, then doesn't that show there is some redeeming/teachable quality in it? I would like to think so, but I'm not a teacher so I could most definitely be wrong. Christ Crutcher is a hard one to figure out sometimes. Some days I think he's doing a great job, but at other times I feel as if he's just trying to be censored for the sake of having something to fight about.

  3. Rob:

    Sorry to communicate through a comment, but I couldn't find your email address (feel free to delete the post).

    It is a credit to Belleville schools that so many parents participated (on both sides). Rather than demand that the curriculum be optional, I think we should write our own fictions to "balance the marketplace of ideas". Here's mine: http://knol.google.com/k/chris-santos-lang/balance-for-staying-fat/3iue30fi4gfq9/3

    If you know of similar stories written in response to "Staying Fat", would you please tell me how to find them (so I can link to them from mine)? If not, would you please consider linking your website to my story and suggesting that other parents might want to write similar stories?

  4. Wow. That Lori Beil lady sounds just like a real life Mark Brittain... (though we all know there are plenty of those out there)

  5. This story has a mysterious and dark twist to it, along with realistic characters in practical situations. Chris Crutcher creates mind-boggling problems with reactions that will keep the reader turning the pages. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes will give the reader a whole new view on life, and make you think about how people approach others less fortunate than yourself. This is a good book, with a life lesson and a surprising twist. If that's what you're looking for, read Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.