Banned Books: Cut by Patricia McCormick

2nd May 2012

Banned Books: Cut by Patricia McCormick

Callie puts the Sea Pines guests into three categories – those with drug problems, those with eating disorders and those, like her, who have ‘behavioural problems’ that aren’t otherwise categorised. Callie is there because she cuts herself and has closed herself off, refusing to speak (out of determination, fear and habit at different stages in the book). The personalities of the girls are recognisable in any classroom (and seem to mirror the characters described in Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her time spent in an institution, Girl, Interrupted): there is the quiet, insular main character who observes and understands more than her silence lets on; the mouthy new arrival whose sarcasm and confrontational behaviour may or may not be acting as a shield; the meek girl who follows the lead of others; the person who feels they are always to blame. And yet the story never seems clichéd. It is, as with the best young adult fiction, depicting a world recognisable and relevant to its target audience.

Critics (mainly parents and teachers; the book received a predominantly positive critical reception) argue that Cut glamorises self-mutilation and could actually encourage readers to try and capture the feelings described by Callie when she cuts herself.

Before writing this, I spent some time trawling forums and book review blogs, and it’s the teenage readers who most vociferously support the book, feeling that it opens people’s eyes to what many dismiss as a taboo issue and that it has helped them to understand either their own actions or those of someone close to them. The story is not just about self-harm; it’s about depression, the pressures of family life and the anxieties facing teenagers. It is relatable even if the reader has not experienced mental health issues first hand.

Cut tackles sensitive and emotionally fraught issues, but through showing the girls coming together and bonding as a group and Callie finally finding a way to express herself and come to terms with many of her underlying problems, is far more positive than its critics allow. If anything my criticism of the book would be that it wraps up far too neatly, but that’s based on personal taste. The central message seems to be that whatever problems you are facing or however isolated you feel, there are other people who feel just as lost and that reaching out and talking can lead to understanding if not always resolution. I can think of worse messages to be handed out in classrooms.

With a background in journalism as well as YA fiction, McCormick doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. Her 2006 novel, Sold, tells the tale of a young Nepalese girl sold into sex slavery in India, and Purple Heart (2009) explores the tragic impact the war in Iraq could have on young civilians and soldiers (both Iraqi and American).

Published in 2000, Cut was awarded in a number of lists, including Children’s Literature Council’s Choice 2000, Teen People Book-of-the-Month and New York Public Library Best Books for the Teenage.

The American Library Association record placed Cut at number 86 in the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009. That’s a whole 85 places lower than Harry Potter mind you!

Alex Herod