Welcome to my blog about books and the classroom.
A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

Interview with Chris Crutcher

Hi, Chris. Thank you so much for agreeing to interview with me. AND thank you for such an awesome YA read! The only other book that has ever evoked that kind of emotion from me was Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (another must-read).

Back before Deadline was banned from my classroom, I used it to strengthen non-college-bound seniors’ understanding of the evolution of heroism, and character motivations, in Beowulf (this method, might I add, helped me achieve National Board Certification). You should know that in that class were four teenage parents, two army recruits, and several students considered at-risk. None of them liked reading. But this group would have left AP students in the dust with their in-depth discussion of themes, symbolism, and vocabulary (thanks for italicizing those words for us, by the way!). They didn’t miss a nuanced idea or skip a page.

I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: YOU CAN WRITE!

I hope you’re ready to write some superfantastic answers for this blog. 😉

1.) What is your response to Deadline being read alongside “Beowulf”?

FREAKY! Makes me wish I’d read Beowulf. In fact I’ve said many times that most of the themes embedded in the “Classics” are available in contemporary literature and that those classics can be better understood when coupled with situations readers can read about and understand in current terms.


2.) I loved how you used the character of Rudy-the-wayward-priest-turned-town-drunk to complicate Ben’s internal conflict; but, have you gotten any slack over the “Catholic priest” stereotype?

Not yet. And actually Rudy’s a little off the “Catholic priest” stereotype in that his remorse was so quick and complete. Most of the priests involved in the current scandals did something very different than what Rudy did; they accepted relocation and went on. I did know, however that the possibility of that backlash may exist. I was actually kind to Catholic priests.


3.) Speaking of complicating the plot, throwing Sooner’s sudden death into the mix adds so much depth to story, as well as fortifies a central theme: Knowledge of the future brings immense responsibility to the present. For which one of these—plot or theme —did you include Sooner’s car accident?

Probably both, but more for theme. Sooner’s death gives Ben new perspective. He marvels at his fortune of being allowed to prepare. And he gets a new perspective on everything when he sees Sooner’s parents.


4.) Two-part question: 1.) Why are so many of your stories set in Nowhere, Out West? 2.) Why do so many of your characters pop up in non-related works?

So many of my stories are set in Nowhere, Out West because that’s where I grew up and except for ten years in the Bay Area in CA, where I’ve always lived. Probably some kind of comfort zone for realism for me. So many of my characters pop up in non-related works because I like to play.


5.) Which of your books has been the most fun to write?

Probably King of the Mild Frontier. It’s a memoir and I had so much fun mining my childhood and young adulthood for material I almost didn’t want to stop writing. Fiction-wise it would be a toss-up between Whale Talk and Deadline. Sarah Byrnes is also up there. Ironman next.


6.) How has your career as a therapist played into your storytelling?

Heroes from my life as a therapist have leaked into my stories as long as I’ve been doing both. Examples of heroism I couldn’t have imagined before I started working as a child and family therapist emerge like popcorn. And the processes are similar. As a therapist my job is to track the trail of a client’s life that brought them to me. They tell me all kinds of things that aren’t part of that “story.” My job is to “edit” and keep them on track, to find out how they got to this place and walk with them, helping to find a way to something better. As a writer I do the same. All kinds of great stuff comes into my head but it isn’t part of this particular story. There is a river that runs through it, if you will (apologies to Norman MacLean) and in each case, following that river is the thing that works.


7.) When/why did you become so involved with fighting censorship?

I think I started getting involved back when they started censoring me, which was in the early- to mid-eighties. It started out as kind of an “Oh yeah? My dad’s bigger than your dad,” kind of thing, but then I started listening to my readers and the readers of Cormier and Vonnegut and Blume and Angelo and Lee etc. etc. etc. about the anger censorship provoked for them and I started paying attention to how narcissistic most censors are and how their views bastardized the first amendment. They began to seem more cowardly to me; people unwilling to talk about tough issues, or unwilling to talk about truly heinous things that exist out there. From my life as a therapist I (and my life as a human) I saw more and more clearly that there is nothing that is not better talked about than not talked about. Secrets make us sick. So I suppose as I became a little better known and my work was censored more because of it, I became more and more involved. And truth is, I like a good fight. Especially when I think I’m right, which is close to a hundred percent of the time. (I’m not right a hundred percent of the time, I just think I am.)


8.) Have you ever been asked by an agent or publisher to bring down the reality a notch?

Never once. I have been blessed with fearless editors and an even more fearless agent.


9.) How do you find your muse?

You know what? I don’t know what that means. I hear that phrase all the time and I’m sure I’ve tried to fake my way through an answer, much like a sophomore book report, but I’ve not been successful.


10.) What does your day as a writer look like?

Different every day. I travel a lot so I write on planes and in hotels, and at my desk when I’m home. I’ve never been able to keep a schedule. When I’m hot, I’m hot and write a lot. When I’m not I’m worthless. The only thing I can say is that I try to address my story in some way every day. Keeps it fresh in my mind. I do as much writing when I’m running as I do at the keyboard. I am not to be imitated in my writing “process.”


Quick Recall:
What book are you currently reading? Non fiction, How It Ends, by Chris Impey, and Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen.

Favorite music?  A mix (I love iTunes) of current alternative rock (Hoobastank, Green Day, The Killers, Nickleback, etc.) and some old Fleetwood Mac, Moody Blues and The Traveling Wilburys.

If you could eat anything right this very second…? It might be one of those deep fried Oreos I had in Arkansas. Heart attack waiting to happen.

Favorite school subject? The easy answer is lunch, but I did enjoy writing as much as anything academic.

Favorite sport? Basketball. I’m better at running and swimming, but God, I love basketball.

Favorite vacation spot? You know, I don’t have one. I’m not much of a vacater. I always have to be doing something.

Favorite quote? Probably the Twain quote I used in Deadline: Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.


Thanks again, Chris, for all you’ve done to support me and for all you do to in the fight for intellectual freedom. It’s been great talking with you.

You are so welcome. Keep up the good fight. See you on the road. CC

Deadline by Chris Crutcher


                                                          Courtesy of www.chriscrutcher.com

Chris Crutcher. 2007. New York, New York: HarperCollins. pp. 316. U.S. $16.99

A coming-of-age story that has the capability to help students, who have undoubtedly lost friends and family, to sort through the shock of grave news. Through Ben’s mistakes and good-intentions-turned-awry, the readers have the opportunity to evaluate the ripples of their actions, the importance of forgiveness and honesty, and the fragility of life, helping to dispel the common teenage “it couldn’t happen to me” fallacy. That is a powerful tool in the hands of young people.

This introspective, and staunchly realistic, text is not only great for real-world education, though; Deadline can hold its own in the classroom…any classroom. I hesitate to bring up Lexile scores, as a work’s Lexile score alone does very little to qualify it, but as it is the only quantitative literary guide, many administrators and teachers use these scores to determine a work’s place in the curriculum. It needs to be said that Crutcher’s story, with a Lexile score of 880L, is sandwiched between classroom-fodder like Crime and Punishment, 850, and Things Fall Apart, 890. Furthermore, it surpasses the scores of some of America’s most taught works like A Farewell to Arms, 730; Of Mice and Men, 630; and The Grapes of Wrath, 680 (http://www.lexile.com). In addition to reading and discussing those great literary works, kids could use Deadline to bridge the gap between ancient and contemporary with the epic poem, Beowulf, as many of the themes tie in with Ben Wolf’s experiences (notice the names!).

This book is a teacher’s dream. Simply stated.

Interview with Jo Knowles

Hi, Jo!

It was so important to me to start this process with you, and I’m so appreciative of your willingness to answer my questions. Your book Lessons from a Dead Girl was the first book my former book club (http://moomoobookclub.blogspot.com) chose to read. I ordered 70 copies in 2007, and after the club members turned them back in, they stayed checked out to the student body until school let out for summer! Because of it’s popularity, it was the first of my optional book choices to be challenged at my school in 2008, and one of the first to be banned from my classroom in 2009. Through the two-year censorship struggle, you always supported my students and me through teleconferences, sending book plates, responding to emails, and gathering a realm of authors and YA-lovers to support me; in doing so, you’ve become a hero to my former students and me.
Now, if my hero is ready, let’s begin.
What is the most difficult aspect of writing about tough topics like teenage pregnancy (Jumping Off Swings) and the cycle of sexual abuse in children (Lessons from a Dead Girl)?
I think the hardest part about writing in general is trying to uncover the why’s and how’s of what leads people to do the things they do. For these two books, the stories that emerged were more complex and difficult to write about than I was prepared for, but at the same time, they were extremely important to me. So, I dug in and hoped I’d get it right.
Have you dealt with Lessons or Jumping Off Swings being challenged in places other than my school? If so, how have you dealt with that?
No one has reported any to me, but I know that doesn’t mean they haven’t been challenged. I’ve read reviews by high school teachers and librarians in which they say things like, “while it’s a good book, I could never have it in my school,” and that’s always disheartening. I think that sort of censorship that goes on all the time. Some people say that it isn’t technically censorship, but if the only reason a person doesn’t select a book for their library is because they know it will get challenged by a certain parent or group of parents, it feels like censorship to me. However, when people’s jobs are on the line, it hardly seems fair to judge.
What inspired you to write Swings in four perspectives?
No story is ever just one person’s story, and I thought, especially for a story about pregnancy, it was important to show it from all sides. I think people tend to leave out the father’s experience and perspective when it comes to stories about teen pregnancy, and I wanted to explore what a boy might feel if he knew he was the father of a baby he’d likely never know.
Can you tell us some of the feedback you’ve gotten from teenagers or their parents about this book?
A lot of teens have surprised me by being most interested in Josh and what happens to him. Usually they want to know if he and Ellie end up being OK. Parents have said the book made it easier for them to talk to their kids about sex and the emotional aspects of it by talking about the characters and the choices they made in relation to the story itself. The book allowed them to have “the talk” in a way that took the focus off their child, which made it less uncomfortable.
How important has a writing group been to the creation of your works?
Extremely. I have two writing partners who I rely on pretty heavily to share my work with. I also have a few other trusted friends (my gentle gatekeepers) who read for me at various stages of the process, mainly to give me a thumbs up or down in terms of how ready the work is to share with my agent or editor. If they don’t think it’s ready, they’re generous enough to explain why—and offer chocolate.
This one is a two-part question. You ready? 1.) How important was writing to you as a high-schooler? 2.) When did you know you wanted to be a career writer?
1.) As a teen, I used writing to explore my feelings about all the crazy stuff going on in my life. I wrote a lot of poetry and letters to myself. Writing gave me a place to air the things I needed to talk about but didn’t have anyone to really listen. I also loved writing about the books I read in my English classes. Both types of writing prepared me for college and beyond, so while the writing was important to me on a personal level, it also ended up being important in terms of preparing me for a life of professional writing—writing papers in college, writing for my freelance job, and now writing novels.
2.) My first taste of writing for an audience came in college. A short story I wrote was selected for our literary magazine and we had a public reading. I was extremely shy in college and didn’t speak a lot in class. Here I was using my voice for the first time. When I finished reading, I noticed that some people in the audience were crying. It was a profound moment for me, because I realized that my words could make people feel something. It was a heady feeling, but humbling too, because I realized how powerful words—even my own—really are.
Why YA?
The first books I loved were YA and I think I’ve been drawn to them ever since. I don’t know how else to put it except to say that I feel like YA demands a type of deep-seeded honesty I don’t see in any other fiction.
Can you give us a hint about what you’re currently writing? (I know you’re writing something!)
I’m working on answering the question about what happened to Josh, from Jumping Off Swings. 🙂
What does the day of a full-time writer look like?
A couch, a laptop, a cup of tea, and a disheveled-looking writer tapping away.
Now, to the fun stuff…
Favorite book? I couldn’t possibly choose.
Favorite author? See above—though I have to say that Robert Cormier is my hero.
Favorite food? I’ve been craving an ice-cream sandwich for days.
Favorite memory? My son’s birth.
Favorite lotion scent? I don’t know what scent it is, but I love the smell of Nature’s Gate Skin Therapy Moisturizing Lotion. 🙂
Favorite school subject? English
Favorite vacation spot? Maine
Favorite Kentucky teacher? You know I love you best. 🙂
Thanks, Jo, for agreeing to go first. I wish you so much success in all your future projects!

Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles


                                                                                     Photo courtesy of Jacketflap.com
Jumping Off Swings

Jo Knowles. 2009. Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press. pp. 230. U.S. $16.99
Jo Knowles successfully guides the “teenage pregnancy” plot in the tradition of American realism, so that the threat of cliché dies before it gets off the ground. This high-interest work has the potential to help students to distinguish between elements of Idealism and Realism, as Knowles unapologetically confronts the harsh details and tough calls that these teens are forced to face. She does this while probing the tear-evoking emotions of an unwanted teenage pregnancy and reversing the common misconception that said pregnancies are a plague only in high-risk, low-SES households.
Additionally, this coming-of-age text can lend itself to a discussion on the effects of points of view on the reader, as Jumping Off Swings is written in an omniscient POV, following the thoughts and feelings of Ellie, Corinne, Caleb, and Josh. This prevents the reader from seeing both Ellie and Josh as anything but tragic. Knowles leaves us with the understanding that both kids are merely pawns in a perpetuated cycle of teenage ignorance and parental negligence. But she also leaves us with hope, as all four characters face the consequences of the past in their attempts to move forward.