Chris Crutcher is a name commonly heard around the libraries of junior highs and high schools, not only because many students enjoy his novels, but also because his books consistently raise controversy among parents and censorship groups because of the hard problems he tackles in them.
These problems range from child abuse to racial prejudice, and the strong language he occasionally uses, including the occasional swear word.
Despite the fact that his books, such as “Whale Talk,” “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes” and “Athletic Shorts,” are famously banned from several schools and libraries, he remains a popular author for young adults. Drawing from his experience from working at a mental health center, he writes stories of young people dealing with crippling tragedies, while also injecting plenty of humor into the novels as well.
He was able to take some time out to talk about his beginnings, his feelings about censorship and a preview of what’s next.
You have a BA in psychology and sociology and were a teacher. What made you decide that you wanted to write novels?
There wasn’t anything in psychology that I really wanted to do and I taught for awhile. I didn’t like traditional teaching too much. I worked in alternative education for a long time and then I started working at a mental health center with child abuse families, and there were just too many stories and, by that time, I was actually a pretty good reader. I didn’t read a lot when I was younger, but I just got interested in trying to fictionalize some of the things that I was listening to all the time and writing novels seemed to be the best way to do it.
You’re one of the most banned authors in North America- how do you feel about that title?
It makes me want to find out how to get banned in South America! [laughs] It doesn’t bother me. Number one, at least it means somebody knows who you are. I mean, they have to read enough of your books to want to ban them and the people who want to ban books are philosophically 180 degrees from me, and I know why they don’t like stories told in tough language, and I know why they don’t like to talk about certain kinds of issues, and the reasons they don’t are the reasons I do. When they get up in arms about thinking that, somehow, kids are going to be corrupted reading these stories, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and I kind of like to fight anyway.
What are some of the ways you address the censorship of your books?
Well, I’m here in South Carolina, in Kershaw County yesterday, where they had tried to ban “Angry Management” from the schools. So, a lot of times, a good way to deal with it is to, if you’re close, go to wherever it’s happening and speak out. I get to host The Great Chicago Read-Out, which is a thing at the beginning of Banned Books Week where you get a bunch of banned authors reading the parts of their books that got banned. It’s a whole bunch of fun.
You just try to publicize it. It’s a pretty clear First Amendment issue. Nobody has to read a book and it isn’t right for somebody with one philosophy to decide that everybody should have that same philosophy, so it’s not too hard to speak out against that.
What are some of the ways that your fans have responded to the censorship?
For one thing, the kids like it because it’s a banned book. I would’ve been a great reader if my parents told me that there were books that I couldn’t read! A lot of the times, when you go to a place where somebody actually tries to take a book away, particularly it’s the kids who have read enough of it to have gotten into it, the ones who like it, that really get angry. I mean, if you’re a teenager and somebody comes along and says “You’re not smart enough” or mature enough or whatever to read it, it’s usually going to kind of tick you off and some of the best support, actually, is when somebody tries to take a book out when the book’s really enjoyed. A lot of times, that happens because a classroom will be halfway through the book and then some parent gets a hold of it and finds out that Chris Crutcher has a potty mouth and wants to get it out of there, and then there’s media coverage and all that.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Well, in the very near future, you can expect a book called “Period 8” that I sent to my editors, I think last week, so it should be coming out this year and it’s got a little more of a suspense. One of the protagonists is a teacher, so then he retires; he’s up in age, but the other two main characters are a boy and a girl who are seniors in high school.