Spokane’s Chris Crutcher has written 14 books aimed at the young adult audience. He’s also consistently among the authors most often challenged in schools and public libraries, according to the American Library Association, as his books cover difficult subjects – abuse, discrimination, poverty, disability and homosexuality among them.
This puts Crutcher in a good position to talk about his work and experiences during Banned Book Week, which begins today. He’s participating in a number of local presentations this week to mark the event. In this “5 Questions” interview, Crutcher discusses his writing, weird complaints and not talking down to teenagers.
Q. What’s the craziest complaint you’ve heard leveled at one of your books?
A. The craziest came from an administrator who walked into the high school library in Meridian, Idaho, where I had been asked to speak. She saw a blown up poster of the cover of “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes” among some other cover posters they had also blown up. She demanded that the Sarah Byrnes poster come down. The cover is a picture of the torso of a competitive male swimmer leaning against the underwater edge of the pool. When the librarian asked why, the administrator said, “Because you can see that boy’s nipples.” I was quick to tell her that if she hurried over to the school pool where the team was working out, she could see some real ones.
Q. When you’re writing, do you think to yourself, “Oh, this is going to rile some people up”?
A. No. I never write anything just to rile people up, but that isn’t to say I’m not aware that it might. When I’m writing, all I think about is the story.
Q. You write young adult work that doesn’t talk down to teenagers – and have probably lost a few readers in the process. Do you ever think it might be easier to sugarcoat some of the story points and language in order to reach the broadest possible audience?
A. It’s always seemed a mistake to me to think about audience. Most of my protagonists are teenagers and I’m aware my stories will be marketed to them, but the trick with realistic fiction is to make it realistic. I worked for decades in this town in the world of child abuse and neglect and haven’t come close to writing what I know. Plus, it is very seldom that a teenager complains about my writing. It’s almost always adults and they’re usually adults who believe if we control what kids think we can keep them safe. Truth is, if we could control what they think – and I’m extremely grateful that we can’t – they’d be far less safe.
Q. It seems in the past 20 years the popular culture has become so much more permissive, more violent, more sexual. Does it surprise you that smart works still come under fire in a world with bikini baristas and sexting and outrageous videos on YouTube?
A. I’m 67 years old. Pretty much nothing surprises me. Videos and sexting and bikini baristas (whatever that is) seem to be less controllable than literature, plus literature usually comes to kids through schools and libraries. Censors often feel they have a right to attack there because those institutions are funded with public money. Plus (and this could get some letters to the editor) I often find the censors are more interested in making a righteous public statement than they are in “protecting kids.” They seldom bother to educate themselves in child development and are pitifully unaware of what really goes on in teenagers’ lives. Plus, far more often than not, in my case at least, they haven’t read the book. They’ve looked at particular passages, or read or heard statements from like-minded folks.
Q. What do you tell parents who are genuinely interested in shielding their kids from things in the world they deem unhealthy or inappropriate?
A. I tell them I’m glad they are interested in their kids’ lives and they have every right to monitor what those kids read and prevent them from reading materials they consider unhealthy, or at least try to. I tell them I don’t know a school anywhere that doesn’t follow a policy of giving a student an alternative book if either the student or parent believes the assigned one is inappropriate. I tell them that if their student is upset or insulted or offended by the content in a book the parent should take action. I tell them they have every right to parent their children as they see fit, but they have no right to parent other people’s children and in the end, that’s the point. My stand against censorship doesn’t mean I think everything in print is valuable. Like all writers I think there’s a lot of crap out there. But I’m not smart enough to make that decision and neither are the censors. This is America. As they say, freedom ain’t easy.