Chris Crutcher is a giant in American YA literature, having won the Margaret A. Edwards Award already in 1997. By that time he already had 8 publications under his belt (not counting individual short stories), but much of the Award was probably because of the vital Staying Fat for Sarah Burnes (1993), in which everything that makes Crutcher into..err Crutcher is present: a focus on sport, the supporting role of the coach/teacher in a teen’s life, the responsibility of the parents as the teen grows into adulthood and of course, the friendship between teens. Also, he does not shy away from what one would call “issues”: abuse, abortion, intellectual freedom… it’s all there in Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.
Initially connected through their common outcast status, Eric (who was fat) and Sarah Byrnes (who has horrible burn scars in her face because of an accident that occurred when she was 3) have been friends since forever. Once Eric – or ‘Moby’ as he came to be called – discovered swimming, he started to slim down. He stayed fat for an entire year because he feared he’d lose Sarah Byrnes’ friendship, if he suddenly wasn’t anymore, but Sarah Byrnes is a tough kid, who doesn’t care about that at all! That’s why it’s so painful for Eric to see how this tough person who didn’t let her ugly face (his and her own words) get the better of her, just stopped speaking one day and is now in a hospital, where she just sits and stares catatonically… Eric knows something else is going on and wants to find out before it’s too late.
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes shows the personal growth of not one (main) character (Eric), but of several. Obviously there is Eric, but Crutcher includes an important storyline of Mark Brittain whose insistence on what is right(eous) and moral, and what isn’t, has landed him in big troubles. Now he has to take responsibility for his actions, actions which may have been instigated by the pressure he’s been under since he was born! It’s not hard to see why a topic like religion – always a hotbed of controversy USA! – is not often tackled in a YA novel, but to his own credit, Crutcher does it, and even has the decency to show us the different sides of the argument (although the “liberal” point of view is clearly the implied better option!). If you don’t agree with the implied message, you might take offense here (and judging from the many challenges this book has received, I’m guessing a lot of people have!), but the cat didn’t one bit. Chris Crutcher totally Judy Blumed his way into the cat’s favor!
And another poignant question, though, might be: given the fact that this was published in 1993, when today’s teens weren’t even born, does it pass the test of time? And, yes, it’s true, the kids today may not get all the references in the book. They might know about Rocky Balboa and The Far Side, but I don’t see them getting the winks to Raymond Burr, Leave it to Beaver or even Scarface. That being said, the book surpasses its temporal allusions and is definitely worth being called “a classic”. It’s the type of story that sticks. It’s about being more than what people would usually call “your shortcomings”, or “your handicap”. It’s about getting challenged and true friendship and loyalty and looking beyond the obvious, the apparent, the superficial… If that’s not contemporary, I don’t know what is!