I received a little gift a couple of weeks ago. Not in the usual way – wrapped up and beribboned. It came as a reminder. I was accepted as a reviewer for the Sacramento Book Review. When the list arrived for me to choose my first books, I found a new Chris Crutcher book and requested it along with three others. When it came, I dove right in. My review hasn’t been published yet, so I won’t write about that book here until after the review has appeared, but the gift was I was reminded what an incredible writer Chris Crutcher is. From my perspective, in the world of Young Adult writing, Chris Crutcher is a god. Maybe even THE GOD. I’m serious.
When I was still teaching, I always cruised the room, checking to see what kids were reading on their own. I found some good stuff that way. When one of my students said to me, “You should really read this,” I not only listened, I read. Those kids opened a lot of doors for me. Along the way, I ran across a book by Chris Crutcher called Ironman. One of my students hated to read, but loved bicycling. That’s all he could think about. Book report time was an agony for him, so when he told me I should really read Ironman, I paid attention. I suspect a librarian who was a good listener helped him find it. I read it and fell in love with the writing. It is so real. The characters are real. The dialogue is real. The situations are, oh, so real. There are layers of realism that reach kids in ways not many writers manage to do. And what a deft hand he has. He uses humor the way smart kids in pain do – to deflect and defend – and it’s brilliant and real.
I went in search of other Chris Crutcher books and found Whale Talk, Chinese Handcuffs, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrne, and Running Loose. Most of his books and stories are sports based and he covers quite a few. A little something for everyone. Like football? He's got a book for that – Running Loose. Are you a runner? Try Chinese Handcuffs. Is swimming your passion? Pick up Whale Talk or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. What more could one ask? Well, how about a hockey book? Hockey is my favorite sport, after all. But then I haven't read all his books yet. Maybe he has one waiting for me.
I started recommending Crutcher's books to my students. Then I bought multiple copies and used them for my end-of-the-year novel projects and kept copies in my classroom library. They disappeared and I bought more. I understood. Kids didn’t want to return them. They wanted to have them and read them over and over. Great writing will do that for kids.
His new book, about which I will write when my review has been published, revisits some characters from earlier books. It sure was nice to see those old friends again, but I realized I had more reading to do. I met some characters I hadn’t met before and wanted to know them better. I picked up copies of Athletic Shorts and Deadline because characters from those were reprised in his new book. Next on my list will be The Sledding Hill for the same reason.
The first story in Athletic Shorts, a collection of six well-crafted, tight short stories, “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune,” will introduce you to an extremely intelligent young man with problems hanging off his problems, like love handles hanging over a tight belt. His parents are divorced, gay, and remarried to gay partners. And he, like his parents in one way, is big. Not just big. Enormous. At least from his point of view. And since his is the only point of view we have, we are convinced he is huge. “Really, I’m surprised someone in my family doesn’t have a trunk. Or a blowhole.” And, he is quick to point out, he is named after a cow. A cow! Chris Crutcher just cracks me up. Through a nasty trick by a handsome, rich, perfect football star (who maybe isn't so perfect after all) who hates him, Angus is elected Prom King. And the girl of his dreams, all of his dreams forever, is elected Prom Queen. He arrives at the dance and, “eyes straight ahead on the band, walking lightly on the balls of my feet, like Raymond Burr through a field of dog-poop sundaes” he makes his way into the dance. I won’t ruin it for you. It’s worth your time to get the book and find out what happens. I just wanted to give you a taste. Give yourself a break and read Athletic Shorts.
Reading books is the best way for me to become a better writer. I'm working on a re-write of my first book, Family Matters, and since it's YA, reading Chris Crutcher is the best (and most fun) thing I can do to make that book the best it can be. I’ll be reading Deadline next, and I’ll let you know how it is, although I think it’s safe to say, it will be time well spent.