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Teens can relate to these stories

Chris Crutcher's young-adult fiction moves even reluctant readers. But the books have been banned too.

November 14, 2008|Preston Williams | Williams is a writer at the Washington Post.

STRASBURG, VA. — Here's all you need to know about Chris Crutcher, whose young-adult fiction is set against a high school sports backdrop and is a hit with jocks and non-jocks, not to mention readers and supposed nonreaders:

During the morning sessions of an all-day appearance at Strasburg (Va.) High School recently, students approached Crutcher on three occasions and paused while tears welled in their eyes as they talked to him. That's how much his books reflect their lives.

Although Crutcher, 62, has no children, he said that knack comes in part from years of working as a director of an alternative school and as a family therapist dealing with child abuse and neglect cases. And, as he says, "I can get back into my own adolescent head pretty quickly."

He is listed eighth on the American Library Assn.'s list of most frequently challenged authors for 2007 -- Mark Twain is third -- for writing books with blunt themes such as abusive parents, molestation, racism, substance abuse, death, abortion and homosexuality.

Five of his works were on an ALA list of the best books for young adults from 1966 to 2000.

"Besides the Harry Potter books from when the kids are in younger grades," said Katy Ferrell, who teaches a "reluctant readers" class at Strasburg, "I haven't seen anything like this before."

One could say that Crutcher has enhanced more young lives while sitting in Spokane, Wash., writing for strangers, than he did in years of working with troubled kids. He said it's a case of readers "bringing their own history to the story."

Junior Derek Buckley admitted he "wasn't really into reading before this. But once I started reading these, I got into them. They're really edgy. He tells a good story. You get attached to it."

Crutcher, too, wasn't into reading when growing up in Cascade, Idaho. He would reword his older brother's book reports to avoid reading the material. Not until he picked up Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" did he realize what he had been missing.

There are good guys and bad guys in Crutcher's worlds, but his main objective is honesty. When he reached his 20s, Crutcher said, he realized his upbringing "sugar-coated" the world instead of preparing him for it. He wants young readers to be exposed to the kind of sticky life situations from which he was sheltered.

Crutcher said he visits about 30 high schools a year and enjoys chatting with students. He said the talks help him with teen dialogue. But when he speaks at public libraries, he said, about 90% of his audience is adults who who say they would have been helped by his stories.

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