Banned Books Week: Interview with YA author Chris Crutcher

I had planned to do a whole week of posts in honor of Banned Books Week, but life got in the way. However, I didn’t want to let the week go by without mention.

As a parent, I believe it is my responsibility to monitor my children’s reading. While I try to err on the side of freedom, I have asked Natalie, my 14-year-old, to wait on a few books because I didn’t believe she was mature enough to deal with the topics or issues presented. Having said that, I would never expect the library at her high school (if she went to a normal high school) to remove those books from the shelves. Whether or not other students check those books out is not my business – nor parent’s but their own.

I do, however, believe that it makes sense to keep the books available to primary grade students age-appropriate. I do not think that The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie should be on the shelves at the local elementary school. And I don’t believe that is censorship, but feel free to argue with me on that point if you’d like. 🙂

Since I didn’t have time to do a full post highlighting some challenged books, I decided to republish an interview I had the honor of doing with YA author Chris Crutcher a couple years ago. Chris is a local author to me, living in Spokane. I listened to his book, Whale Talk, on audio earlier this year – and it is fantastic. His books have been challenged and/or banned in schools, and we talk about that a bit in the interview. Enjoy!

chriscrutcherChris Crutcher is an author of YA fiction, as well as a teacher and family therapist. He has taught at-risk kids and worked as a child protection advocate. His realistic and fast-paced fiction reflects the issues he encounters in his work. As an author who has experienced his books being banned and challenged, he is an outspoken advocate for free speech. He graduated from Eastern Washington University, and currently makes his home in Spokane.


Whale Talk: There’s bad news and good news about the Cutter High School swim team. The bad news is that they don’t have a pool. The good news is that only one of them can swim anyway.

A group of misfits brought together by T. J. Jones (the J is redundant) to find their places in a school that has no place for them, the Cutter All Night Mermen struggle to carve out their own turf. T. J. is convinced that a varsity letter jacket–unattainable for most, exclusive, revered, the symbol (as far as T. J. is concerned) of all that is screwed up at Cutter High–will be an effective carving tool. He’s right. He’s also wrong.

Still, it’s always the quest that counts. And the bus on which the Mermen travel to swim meets–piloted by Icko, the permanent resident of All, Night Fitness–soon becomes the cocoon inside which they gradually allow themselves to talk, to fit, to bloom.

Chris Crutcher is in top form with a cast of characters–adults, children, and teenagers–fighting for dignity in a world where tragedy and comedy dance side by side, where a moment’s inattention can bring lifelong heartache, and where true acceptance is the only prescription for what ails us.


Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes: Sarah Byrnes and Eric have been friends for years. When they were children, his fat and her terrible scars made them both outcasts. Later, although swimming slimmed Eric, she stayed his closest friend.

Now Sarah Byrnes — the smartest, toughest person Eric has ever known — sits silent in a hospital. Eric must uncover the terrible secret she’s hiding, before its dark currents pull them both under.

Other works by Chris Crutcher:
The Sledding Hill
King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography
Angry Management

For a complete list of his works and a more in-depth bio, visit Chris Crutcher‘s web site.

I was fortunate to be able to interview Mr. Crutcher via e-mail:

Can you talk a bit about how your work as a therapist has informed your writing?

Chris: “It’s given me the information I need for the subtleties of human behavior… showed me how there is a reason for everything (whether a good or bad reason) and that if I learn that reason I will understand the person better. That translates well into creating characters.”

As I read through your bio, I found that some of your books have been banned or challenged in school libraries. What was that experience like?

Chris: “Happens all the time. These days it’s mostly just irritating. Same complaints, same unwillingness to look at the fact that when we talk with kids and are willing to hear them, we know them better. The business of censorship is the business of shutting up ideas and issues. It promotes ignorance as “help” to kids. Ignorance is not a help to kids.”

As a parent of an almost-13-year-old daughter, I’ve found that the books she reads spark amazing discussions on topics that might not have come up otherwise. Why do you think parents are so afraid of their teens reading books that talk about real life issues?

Chris: “I think a lot of the time it’s because they’re afraid to be “wrong” about those issues, or that they’ll have to fight with their kids about them. Actually reading about those kinds of things makes the discussion easier, because if the issues are too personal you can talk about the character’s issues and that leads into being able to talk about your own, or it allows both sides to talk about the issues without getting too personal. Most of the time, though, it’s about philosophy. I think parents are too willing to let religious beliefs get in the way of true connection with their kids. My thought about that is this: philosophies are fine but we should never let philosophies trump our humanity.”

For those of us who haven’t read any of your work before, what’s the best book to start with – the “essential Crutcher,” so to speak?

Chris: “I don’t know that there is one. Probably if you read Whale Talk or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes or Deadline, you’d get most of it. My memoir, King of the Mild Frontier tells you where a lot of my work comes from.”

I’ve just recently “discovered” YA lit in my own reading, especially since I skipped that genre growing up and went right from children’s novels to adult literature. What YA books by other authors do you recommend?

Chris: “Anything by Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Paul Curtis, Laurie Halse Anderson, Terry Davis. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is stunning. Lois Lowry’s The Giver will keep you asking all kinds of important questions. Joan Bauer’s stuff is always smart and funny and insightful. Those are just a few – if you asked me at a different time, others would pop up.”

Which writers have had the biggest impact on your life and your writing?

Chris: “Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, Alice Walker, Joseph Heller, Tim O’Brien, John Irving, Pat Conroy. Again, ask me at a different time and different authors would come up, but you can not miss with those.”

What is the best book you’ve read this year so far?

Chris: “Probably a non fiction book: Columbine by David Cullen. It will challenge many of the things you think about that shooting – a real lesson to the culture.”

If you could recommend one book that everyone should read, what would it be?

Chris:The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.”

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6 Responses to Banned Books Week: Interview with YA author Chris Crutcher

  1. Sandy
    Twitter: youvegottaread

    I’ve always felt like it is a slippery slope. Would I have let my daughter read the Twilight Series in 3rd grade? No. Should I let her read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 8th grade? No. I’ve always been fairly lenient with what my kids read, but there are certain topics that are age appropriate. I don’t consider that banning, I consider it being a reponsible parent.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Sandy – I agree completely – it is being a responsible parent. And responsible for your own kids. When a parent tries to ban a YA title from a high school library, however, that steps over a line into trying to parent other people’s kids.

  2. Sheila (Book Journey)
    Twitter: bookjourney

    Fantastic post (and apparently a new author I need to look into!)

    I agree whole heartedly on what you said here Carrie about Banned/Challenged books. While I do not believe books should be removed from shelves, I do believe that yes, as parents we do need to take an interest and the final word when it comes to what our kids read. Some of the YA I have read I have stated in my reviews how shocked I am about some of the content and the age they say the book is geared towards. I would not ban said book, but I would probably steer my child away from it until they were old enough to understand and have a conversation about the book.

    I have a friend whose daughter is 13 and she lets her choose her own books to read under the guildelines they have set – that trust remains open unless she breaks that trust. They read many of the same books so this works great.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      Sheila – that has been one of my favorite things about discovering YA and having a teen-age daughter. We share books back and forth and they have provided great discussions at times. Sometimes about issues, sometimes just about how good – or bad – a book was. And Natalie pretty much chooses her own books because I know I can trust her. She put aside a book recently that is currently a very popular YA title because the subject matter was highly sexualized and she wasn’t comfortable with that. I didn’t ask her to do it – it was her call.

  3. Vasilly
    Twitter: Vasilly

    What a great post, Carrie! I just checked out Crutcher’s Whale Talk because it’s BBW and your positive review of it. When parents talk to kids about the issues that affect them and their generation, it bring the two closer together and an understanding that might not have happened otherwise.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies

      V – I agree! Books are such a fantastic way to connect with people – why do we forget that when it comes to our own kids?