Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Why YA? Giving voice to Sarah Byrnes (Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher)


Reading ya lit with our teens helps
them view the real world with a
safety net.

The thing that shocked me most when I began working with teens was how much different their lives were from mine.  My first eye opening moment came when I saw an incredibly large teen beating up a boy who was the size of a 3rd grader.  I simply ran in and called the police because I thought we all clearly understood that hurting another was not only inhumanely grievous, but a crime.  A couple of days later this abusive teen returned to my library with a posse, one of whom was carrying a sledge hammer.  I was sitting in a chair when he approached me and he leaned down at me with one arm on each arm of the chair, pinning me in.  “You better not ever call the police on me again,” he growled.  In my youth I was (courageous/naive/bold/stupid/whatever) so I simply looked him in the eye and replied, “You better not ever give me a reason to.”  Weeks later I was at a gas station when he approached me again and thankfully the gas station attendant came out and intervened on my behalf.  I wish I could say that was my only terrifying experience working with teens, but it was not. Nor was it my only heartbreaking one.

Over the years I have grown close to teens who have had babies and abortions.  I have spent time with teens abandoned by their parents being raised by grandparents.  Some of my most heartbreaking moments have been recent as I have comforted teens who have had friends, and fathers, take, or attempt to take, their own lives.  I have visited juvenile detention centers with teens who stole or set fires for no reason other fact that they had no hope and it didn’t really matter anyway.  There were no spring flings or new school clothes coming up.  There were no cars at 16 and graduation parties at 18.  No prospects of college because if food doesn’t show up on the table at night you are guaranteed that there will be no one dropping you off at your dorm your freshman year with small room refrigerators, stereos, and the promise that you can come home on the weekend to get your laundry done.  There is no one home at the end of the day offering these teens a plate of homebaked cookies and asking them how their day was.  Some of these teens came to the library after school for no reason other than the fact that they couldn’t go home until after dark and they needed a place to stay; for them – there was never any hope for dinner.

This is one of the reasons why I love Chris Crutcher.  Crutcher is an author who spends time in the grittily real world of teens who are living lives that we could never imagine.  He gives them a voice and tells their stories.  I read them, and I think everyone should, because by stepping into their world – I, too, give them a voice.  And in learning who they are and what they feel, I develop the tools to love them unconditionally; to see beyond their challenging exterior and see the true brokenness that rests inside their breastbones where a beating heart should be.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is the story of two outcasts drawn together by their exteriors.  Eric is shunned for his obesity and Sarah Byrnes has a face riddled with scars.  These are two “ugly” teens shunned in a world that prizes beauty.  Slowly, Eric begins to change and find himself through swimming; his body slims down but his friendship with Sarah Byrnes remains strong.  Sarah Byrnes now sits silent in a hospital and Eric must discover the secrets that haunt her.  You see, the scars on Sarah Byrnes face may be no accident and Sarah, like many teens in homes across our country, is not at all safe.  Abortion, murder, suicide, body image – these are all topics that come up in this book with chilling effect.  But we are kidding ourselves if we think they are not topics that many teens have to face in very real ways.  Maybe not your teens, hopefully not your teens, but the breathe would leave your lungs if you knew what happened when some of our teens walked up the steps of their homes and closed the door to the world outside.

Although Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes has been declared one of the “Best of the Best Books for Young Adults” by the American Library Association – and it truly is – parents have often fought to have this book, and many others, removed from school and public libraries.  They want to protect their children they say from books like these.  But who is protecting teens from living lives like this?  Who is standing up for teens like Sarah Byrnes?  Everyone who reads this book is.  You see, when we open the pages of a book and take a moment to slip into the skin of someone else, we develop an empathy that changes us.  It opens our eyes to the people around us.  If we put on blinders, we miss those moments when we can reach out and help the Sarah Byrnes in our lives because we don’t recognize the signs.  Your teen may not be Sarah Byrnes, but they may be sitting next to her in class or passing by her in the hallways.  We can pretend that teens aren’t living lives like hers, but it is only make believe.

So sit back, turn the page and read about Sarah Byrnes.  Weep for her.  See beneath the layers.  And then talk to your teens about her.  Ask them if they could see the signs.  Ask them what they would do.  Ask them to care. Then hold them close and let them know that they are loved.  Why YA? Choose to be bold, like Chris Crutcher, and give voice to those teens that are living lives we could never imagine. 

Karen, who struggled with whether or not she should write about Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes or Whale Talk.  So after you read about Sarah Byrnes, go read Whale Talk because that is an amazing book about bullying and racism and the power of friendship in unexpected places. Read More YA? posts and find out how you can write your own here.