Author Christopher C. Crutcher says his middle initial stands for "just plain 'C —as in the perfect 'C student." If academic grades measure intellect and "C" suggests mediocrity, this grading system is a failure.
Crutcher turned 60 in July and the "3 C's" associated with him as a young adult author infamously include Censored, Combative, and Controversial: red flags for fighting terms. But educators familiar and knowledgeable about Crutcher's work say they represent Candid, Conviction, and Connected.
He's the author of 11 young adult books (9 novels, one short story collection, and a memoir). He has also written dozens of essays on subjects, ranging from diversity to dysfunction. Crutcher has garnered many awards, including the American Library Association's 2000 Margaret A. Edwards lifetime achievement award. In recognizing this achievement, the Edwards committee cited six of his titles: Athletic Shorts, Chinese Handcuffs, The Crazy Horse Electric Game, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Stotan! and his first novel written in 1983, Running Loose (all published by Greenwillow Books).
On November 11, 2005, Chris Crutcher was presented with the prestigious Celebration of Free Speech and Its Defenders Award from the National Coalition Against Censorship. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledged editors and supporters " . . . who never flinched as I delivered manuscript after manuscript filled with fictionalized versions of the desperate lives that peopled my world as a child abuse and neglect therapist and who knew that backing off the language of that truth meant backing off the truth of those people's lives; the members of the NCAC who tirelessly draw their swords against those who believe our children's emotional and spiritual safety lies in ignorance, and who fight that threat to our most basic freedom, freedom of the mind" (National Coalition Against Censorship, Rubin Museum, New York).
Despite the accolades, Crutcher's books are challenged or banned in schools and library media centers across the United States every year. That frustrates the man who has spent 10 years heading a K–12 last chance alternative school, 20-plus years working as a family therapist, and 25 years leading the Spokane (Washington) Child Protection team. In Chris Crutcher's arena, snuffing out the real stories to protect children from the truth is foolhardy. Over the past three years, he's logged over 130,000 air-miles visiting libraries and schools and speaking at conferences across the country to fight the good fight for freedom of expression. He told an ironic story of visiting a town where his books were being challenged. A woman cautioned him before his presentation, "Mr. Crutcher, we don't mind you talking about the rape and incest, but please, don't talk about homosexuality."
He has written, "Our schools are filled with kids who have been treated badly all their lives. They don't tell anyone, because there is shame in being treated badly. Many—girls and boys—have been sexually mistreated. Still others struggle in fear with sexual identity. They respond with eating disorders, cutting, suicidal thought or action. I can't tell you how many letters I've received from kids who found a friend in one of my books, a character who speaks to them . . . ." ("I Don't Give a Damn about My Reputation," Urbana: Voices from the Middle, Sept. 26, 2005).
Author Visit & Professional Development Program on Diversity
In January 2006, Chris Crutcher visited North Country School, a junior boarding school in Lake Placid, New York. With an international population of students from diverse socioeconomic and emotional backgrounds, the school brings authors and students together to foster an affinity for literature.
Chris pushed the envelope when he spoke with students and faculty. For one boy in the front row, self-imposed silence masked his pitted background. A facial tic and various behaviors gave him away. As Chris told a horrific story of a child who had suffered and survived, the boy relaxed and soon his tic subsided. A week later, the boy so often booted out of class for chronic misbehaviors sat attentively focused—eager to listen to Crutcher's King of the Mild Frontier. Accepting that adults who take care of him also scare him helped to transform pain to power. As Crutcher said, "If the information is out there and talked about, it's a lot less dangerous."
The following was compiled from personal interviews and notes from Chris Crutcher's presentations.
Chris Crutcher: "I go to the edge but I write about real people. I owe it to these people to give an honest depiction of what really happened. If I tone down the story, if I don't tell the story in their language, that diminishes them and their stories. Obviously, I 'd sell more books if I sanitized them."
"The toughest thing is to start thinking of the audience. It's the worst thing you can do when you're writing. I don't think of the censors when I'm writing. I believe if you're going to back off, don't write it because holding back lessens the lesson."
Feel Good Stories Don't Make Feel Good Kids
Tough truth may help to break down barriers, reaching kids that are in a bad place and feeling alone. Crutcher points to school violence to illustrate the point. Candid stories told about suffering kids, he maintains, open the eyes of students sharing the same classroom. Recognizing harsh truths hidden by shut-down emotions may help students and educators pay attention and connect. Pretending that pain doesn't exist fuels feelings of isolation and alienation.
"For the abused child," Crutcher said, "the most powerful control they have is, 'I can keep this a secret.' There are characters in my books that have secrets that they don't want to reveal. The cover art reflects the artist's response to symbolizing the story; my characters deliberately avoid eye contact."
"In your memoir, King of the Mild Frontier, you call frequent attention to your temper, that it was mismanaged by adults, and that it plagued you into your own adulthood. What do you do with your anger now? How do you keep it under control? Is there a difference between anger and temper?"
"It depends. If it's about temper, I try to see it coming, identify it, and talk myself out of having any kind of tantrum. Luckily most of my temper is reserved for inanimate objects. Anger, which is more likely to be focused on people, is another story. I define it as righteous anger or self-contempt. If it's righteous, I'm likely to let it out, but under control. I get angry at the social services system when I think it turns its back on people with no money or resources. I get angry with censors when I believe their point of view is ill-thought-out and when their philosophy gets in the way of truly helping kids. Though I know that's a difference of opinion, I've paid a lot of attention and feel it's important to fight. I use anger for that sometimes. When my anger is at someone for reminding me of my own weaknesses, I have taught myself, most of the time to say, 'This is about me. This is about me. This is about me. This is not his/her fault.' When that works I back away and don't get into it. I'm better at it than I used to be, but sometimes it catches me off guard and I find myself apologizing later for something I've said. Of course, sometimes the two kinds of anger overlap."
"How has recognition as a young adult author impacted your life?"
"It lets me talk about certain issues from a pulpit I wouldn't have if that recognition weren't there. I am aware that as a culture we hide our less fortunate, and we do things to keep them less fortunate. Folks just going about their way living their lives may not know what I know, or what I write about. To some degree, that recognition gives me a chance to put issues toward the front that might not be there if I didn't. That isn't to say that I know more than the next guy in my profession or that I'm not in error as often as I'm right, but I have no agenda when I write or talk about these issues other than to tell a good story and get the issues out in the open."
"Other than that, the recognition is kind of cool because I get responses for my work and there is enough of a narcissist in me to feel good when I'm recognized."
"When did you first begin to write?"
"In high school I read one book, To Kill A Mockingbird, which I loved. Otherwise I relied on stealing my brother's book reports. I was the first academic ecologist because I recycled all my brother's book reports. I was probably ADHD. Teachers would ask, 'Chris are you listening?' and I would always say yes but the real answer was no."
"I was the perfect 'C' student. My dad was on the School Board and he took our education seriously. My brother was a perfect 'A' student. My dad would pay for A's. He would pat us on the back for B's. C's wouldn't get him off the couch. But F's? F's were lethal!"
"My school was small, 85 students in K–12, so I was involved in lots of activities. I often put sports into my stories because I was always forced to play sports. If you didn't want to play, it didn't matter. They came and got you. And my parents let them in!"
"In 8th grade it was the school newspaper. I had a column that I wrote. That was mostly about me being a smart aleck and having a platform for making people laugh."
"My two favorite teachers would ask me to write 500 word essays as retribution for some misbehavior. I loved that. I would stay up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, working up something just to make them laugh. One time I wrote the whole essay on a length of toilet paper."
"What I wanted out of school was out of school. I had school phobia. When I was in 5th grade, my family got a television. I thought if you were to be truly TV literate, you had to watch 15–16 hours of TV. Later, when I began to get homework, it began to seriously interfere with my TV time!"
"As a counselor listening to really tough stories, I would be inspired. Hearing stories and writing stories are very much the same thing. There's this thread that carries through from one to another. I'm inspired by how strong the families are that pick up the pieces. The inspiration for me is to read the story, learn about the character, and become their friend. I'll make the connection and I want that to happen for the reader. If I have a strong emotion, then I want to tell that story. Every time something makes you laugh, every time something makes you cry, it's potentially a story."
"I mess with a story daily. What's hard is getting started. There are a lot of times when I feel everything is stupid; then I realize that it is stupid and I must throw it away and start all over. The hard part is to sit down and turn out a page. But if you write one page a day, you'll have 365 pages in a year."
Chris is outspoken about the damage being done to students caught within the current trends of education.
"I am seriously chagrined with the education system today. They are taking the creativity out of education by going around in circles, testing, measuring quantitatively. Public schools are testing kids into comas. Yet we know that there's this amazing power in personal attachment and connection. Ask any kid what their favorite subject is, and you'll find that it has very little to do with subject matter. It's the place where the teacher cares about them."
"How do you get your books into the hands of the kids who may need them most? I'm thinking of neglected, abused and/or troubled teens that shy away from the academic scene, have difficulty with reading, are reluctant readers, or are resistant library users."
"I think that I was a junior in high school when my guidance counselor first introduced me to the school library. It was time to consider college. I saw a brochure on the pile and I liked the colors. That's how I picked my college."
"How do my books get to kids? The administrators in schools don't know who I am. Sometimes that works in my favor. Teachers that are comfortable with my books will use them in class. They usually use them so they can talk about the issues with students in the classroom."
"Then there are the swear words. A lot of reluctant readers want to read them because they've heard there's bad language in them. No matter what I write about, the publisher will place sports and jock stuff on the cover. Athletic action draws boys toward them."
"Because I'm the writer, I'm the creator of my characters. I really like T. J. the tri-racial character in Whale Talk. Some of his characteristics are based on this really neat kid I know. He's fun to hang around with. There's usually one adult character with my point-of-view. I usually really, really like that character. That's known as self-esteem."
"It's the school's curriculum or the librarian that develops a slow swelling of readership for my books. Librarians are uncanny. They can find the kid that needs my books. I was speaking at a school in Texas and I could feel this palpable sensation of one person in the crowd hanging back. After my presentation, she edged her way forward and asked, 'Did you write that book about me?' (See sidebar: Chinese Handcuffs.) We talked and I explained that it was another person's story and that there are a lot of such stories. Then she asked, 'So what do I do now?'
'I asked her who gave her the book. 'The librarian,' then I told her, 'You must go back and talk with her about the choices you have.'"
"If you have trauma in life, that's forever. There's no magic to wipe it away. But if a person shares their story with another person, they become stronger. They have twice as much power to survive. We all need a witness. As a counselor listening to really tough stories, I was inspired by how strong and courageous families are. The families that pick up the pieces and go on. They are the heroes."
"There really was a real 3-year-old girl who was deliberately burned when her stepfather pressed her face against the wood stove to get back at her mother. There are random things that turn you on your head. I wanted to explore (in Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes) what it was like for her to fight her way back. If educators knew the pain behind all that rage a child shows, they would do anything they could to reach the child."
In Chris Crutcher's world, punishment for such children is like turning up the heat while tightening down the pressure cooker's lid. When he speaks with students, it's in a language they can relate to. Take the character called Telephone Man, a fictionalized student who gained notoriety in Crazy Horse Electric Game and appeared again in Athletic Shorts.
"I have a reputation for telling really edgy stuff. Many of my stories I heard from when I worked at the alternative school. For a writer, tragedy comes easily. But you need to find some of the funnier stuff to balance it. Telephone Man gave me that balance, the tragic and the humor."
"Telephone Man is autistic, but about telephones, he's a savant. He followed the telephone repairman all around the school, looking over his shoulder, correcting him and arguing about what wires went where. The repairman hated him because Telephone Man drove him crazy and because Telephone Man was always right. His father was a racist and every epithet out of Telephone Man's mouth had a racial slur. Telephone Man would call anybody anything; his racial attacks were used against everybody. He was just showing rage. When he was angry, he would fly into my office arriving feet first, swearing angry. If the door was closed, he would kick it open, blowing it off its hinges. We learned not to latch the door."
Crutcher's work carries a distinctive blueprint; it has a compassionate blend of humor and tragedy, honest depictions of characters like Telephone Man, the prevalence of human connection and condition, soul-searching and self-reflection of every man, and individual resolution and survival. In the truest definition, character development happens in Chris Crutcher's stories.
Students looking at Crutcher's work will face racial inequity, homophobia, bullying, abuse, incest, and psychopathic predators. They'll read about bad stuff that happens to good kids and adults who are responsible for the pain, the suffering, the secrets. The good news is that the victims fight their way through the darkness, often lent support by tuned-in adults and empathetic classmates. The victim emerges, wounded but not ruined; an unimaginable story is shared and the character becomes responsible for a renewed destiny.
Chris Crutcher's next book is Deadline. "I'm already past my deadline," he said. "It's a story about a boy with a blood disease, leukemia. He's 18, so he's legally past the age when he must tell his parents. He's been given a year. He wants to have a normal life, and he can't tell his friends, his girlfriend, or his family because they'll treat him differently. The theme is staying connected."