My love affair with banned books goes back into a time long before I became a writer; in fact, to a time when no one would have expected that I would become one. We didn’t have the designation back in the fifties, but my diagnosis now, along with my memory of myself then, tells me I was ADHD cubed. If you were my teacher, I gave you maybe three minutes at the beginning of class to get my attention and if you didn’t pull it off, my gaze would be right on you and my mind would be out the window and down the street. Conventional wisdom these days tells us that if a child is clinically ADHD or ADD the best way to get his or her attention without the help of medication, is through intensity. Now, my father was one of the very few men of his generation able to convince his wife (my mother) that some of the very best contemporary American fiction appeared in “Playboy Magazine”; which meant I didn’t even have to sneak into their bedroom to look in his sock drawer or under the bed to find it. It was on the coffee table in our living room.
Talk about intensity!
While I can hear the collective intake of oxygen of the superior gender, hang with me. I get it about exploitation. I don’t read “Playboy” anymore. But hey, I was, like, eleven.
I won’t try to Drumpf you and say I was above reproach when I saw the latest edition there on the table and I won’t say I went straight to text, but if there was a Jean Shepherd story, I hustled to it right after a lingering glance at the nice lady in the fold-out who wanted nothing less than world peace. Jean Shepherd was funny as hell and it was as if he’d been reading my mail. He was like me, and because of that, I wanted to be like him. Most of what he wrote would be high-value target for today’s censors.
My father was a WWII B-17 bomber pilot who had flown thirty-five missions over Germany by the time he was the same age I was when I graduated from college. He was a true patriot with a great big frontal lobe, and if you were running for any office from dog catcher to President of the United States on the Republican ticket, my old man was your campaign manager in Valley County, Idaho; and he’d have run a nail through his eye before he’d have let a book get censored or banned on his watch. He thought he fought a war for that. My, how things have changed.
My high school and college years coincided with the sixties decade – the free-speech decade – so by the time I graduated I thought the idea of book banning and curbs on expression were pretty much wiped out; it was considered shameful to believe that people, even kids, couldn’t think for themselves. So imagine my surprise when I found that my first book landed me on a list of top ten banned books in USA Today! The Christian right, and to a lesser extent the politically correct left, had gained voice; strengthening the idea that we could control the way people think if we could control what went into their brains.
And the war was on, because it’s been that way ever since.
It has never bothered me to discover that one of my books has been challenged or banned; in fact, I’ve always deemed it an honor. For one thing, for a book to get challenged it has to have a certain visibility and for another if a book highlights controversy, that controversy is usually worth exploring. Plus, those who would curb free expression are my ideological enemies and I don’t care what they think of me.
I think the current political climate is reminding those of us willing to pay attention and remember, how dangerous attempts at thoughtless mind control can be, and how important the free exchange of ideas is to a true democracy. It is that fundamental; that big a deal. The Sherman Alexies, Laurie Halse Andersons, Lois Lowrys, Jacqueline Woodsons, Walter Dean Myers (RIP, you giant) Matt de la Penas (and on and on) among us challenge their readers, give them hope, make them work, make them think. They educate.
Those of us who fight censorship in literature are often accused of championing anything that is written. Nothing can be further from the truth. Kurt Vonnegut once said something very close to, “One of the problems of standing against censorship is some of the shit you have to stand up for.” There are all kinds of material we think is crap, and most of us are quick to say so. But we all know we’re not smart enough to make that judgement for other people. The harsh truth is, when one book is censored, all other books become targets.
So, what can I say? Don’t put up with that shit.
Chris Crutcher’s years as teacher, then director, of a K-12 alternative school in Oakland, California through the 1970s, and his subsequent 20-odd years as a therapist specializing in child abuse and neglect, inform his 13 novels and 2 collections of short stories.
“I have forever been intrigued by the extremes of the human condition,” he says, “the remarkable juxtaposition of the ghastly and the glorious. As Eric ‘Moby’ Calhoun tells us at the conclusion of “Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes“, ‘Ain’t it a trip where heroes come from.’” He has also written what he calls an ill-advised autobiography titled “King of the Mild Frontier,” which was designated by Publisher’s Weekly as “the YA book most adults would have read if they knew it existed.”
Chris has received a number of coveted awards, from his high school designation as “Most Likely to Plagiarize” to the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award. His favorites are his two Intellectual Freedom awards: one from the National Council for Teachers of English and the other from the National Coalition Against Censorship. Five of Chris’ books appeared on the American Library Association list of the 100 Best Books for Teens of the Twentieth Century (1999 to 2000). A recent NPR list of the Best 100 YA and Children’s books included none of those titles. Chris no longer listens to NPR.