Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Banning Belittles

Chris Crutcher and I at YSU English Festival

I spent a delightful two days this past week escorting my students to my alma mater, Youngstown State University (YSU), for the 35th annual English Festival. Students read seven books between November and April and attend the Festival, where they compete for prizes in writing and games based on the books. I attended the Festival many years as a student and this is my sixth year as a teacher bringing my own students. I love it more now than I did then. But what's not to love? A whole day surrendered to the celebration of reading, writing, books, and authors!

Especially when the authors are right on campus with you. Last year was my daughter's first time attending the Festival and while looking for a seat to eat lunch, found herself invited over by a couple of women. And wouldn't you know it, the one woman was the guest speaker and author, Laurie Halse Anderson! (Google her - she's a big deal in the YA world.) The opportunities for a book lover are endless.

On my second day at the Festival, I attended the morning sessions set aside especially for teachers, librarians, and parents. Up close and personal, I heard two marvelous authors speak. Sharon Draper not only signed my book, but sat and had a full conversation with me first. She was a humorous and touching speaker and when I finish one of her YA trilogies my students raved about, I will post about her.

But I want to talk here about the author I met for the second time, Chris Crutcher. Crutcher's books are controversial to say the least. His topics and language are off putting to many people, myself included at first, as I first read him as a sheltered seventh grader. However, if you've heard Crutcher speak or have read anything about his life's work, you would know from where his books spring. Crutcher has spent his life as a therapist. He's seen the hardest cases you can imagine; children and families dealing with situations and lives that most people couldn't even make up...and you would hope he was making them up, they are so horrific.

Crutcher admits that he himself wasn't sure if his books should be banned or not when he received harsh criticism upon the publishing of Chinese Handcuffs, a book whose main character is sexually abused her entire life by her father and then step father. (Crutcher's experts for editing this book were actually abused girls on his caseload at the time.) He received his answer when he went to speak to a school whose graduating class consisted of 4,000+ students. Speaking to approximately 1,200 students, he had quite a crowd looking for autographs afterward. But out of the corner of his eye hovered one patient seventeen-year-old student. When all others had gone twenty minutes later, she told him she had read Chinese Handcuffs and she felt like he knew her life. She didn't give her name, but told him that in 17 years she had never told another person of the abuse she had (and still) endured. He was the first. She didn't think anyone would understand because she didn't think anyone had ever suffered as extensively as she had.  She asked him what she should do now...he was a therapist in Spokane, Washington and she was in Texas. He suggested talking to whomever gave her the book, which was her English teacher.

Six months later Crutcher received two emails, from the student and the English teacher. The girl was now 18 and in counseling. She was free from her life of rampant sexual abuse. Chris Crutcher then asked us to consider a "what if?" situation. What if he hadn't written that book? That girl would have suffered on and even if she had moved away from her abuser, she could possibly suffered the rest of her life with the aftermath, not thinking or knowing to seek help. That one girl answered his doubts as to whether or not his books should be banned.

And if I had any doubts, he cleared them for me that day with one good point. When we ban books that have language or precarious situations in them, we ban the kids/people who lead those lives. We tell them no one understands and no one cares. We tell them that their bad, dirty lives are not good enough to be spoken of. We take away their chance of finding the freedom that even a simple story can bring - a story of understanding and hope. We close an open door. And I should've known this. My first meeting with Crutcher was in 2008 when I took my student Paul to the Festival to hear him speak. Paul embodies the very life for which Crutcher writes and I would give anything for Paul to have read whichever message was meant for him and maybe still be with us today. (Read Paul's story starting here and continuing Memorium 1-4 here.)

Where do you stand on book banning?


  1. Replies
    1. I can't say I was ever "for" book banning, but lingering doubts were cleared up for me with that example!

  2. Oh Jennine, I remember your Paul posts.
    Sweet lady you are making such a big difference in your student's lives and I'm not just talking about reading.

    1. Thank you Carolynn! Sharon Draper, who I mentioned above, gave a talk that morning too and hers was about a student who would cuss her up and down, dropped out of school Senior year, and to make a long story short, ended up years down the road an English teacher. He came back to her in thanks, etc. Her point was that you can't pinpoint which students you are influencing, you never know, so you do what you can with all of them.

  3. "When we ban books that have language or precarious situations in them, we ban the kids/people who lead those lives."

    I couldn't agree more. The world is not a Lifetime movie, filled with characters who fall and get up and grin and overcome. Some people do not overcome. Some people fall and never get up. Hearing their stories can evoke real compassion, especially in young people who may be unable to empathize or get beyond their own circumstances to see the world as it is. We're not doing our kids any favors by teaching them that because the world isn't perfect, it isn't worth exploring.

    I'm very grateful there are teachers like you who understand the complexity of these issues, and don't try to shut down the conversation before it begins.

    1. Exactly - we don't do our kids any favors by overly sheltering them. There is a time and place maybe, but covering up things makes for a harsher reality later. And makes it harder for them to learn that compassion you mentioned.

  4. By the way everyone, this post is currently being featured on Chris Crutcher's offical website! Front and center, a paragraph of it appears with a link to my blog to read this post!