Writing it really real

It's hard to be the Hardy Boys. Lukewarm adventures with lanterns in caverns are hard to come by, after all, and in a largely fantasy-free nation, they can be hard to relate to -- especially for the kids who, for whatever reason, cannot live them.

Chris Crutcher, 57, a longtime young-adult author and therapist based in Spokane, Wash., understands this. His books headline a burgeoning "young adult" sector of the publishing community, one of extreme influence and little mainstream respect. It's a genre he's even been known to call the "bastard stepson of literature," toeing the line between not-completely-formed sensibilities and the structure implied by the published word. Crutcher's characters are far from perfect, courting adolescent issues of insecurity, abortion and even suicide, but all with a sense of the real feelings behind them. He should know. He works with them every day.

As a result, Crutcher stands as one of the many who are banned by school curriculums. He is in town this week for the International Readers Association conference (as he almost always is) to make sure that the teachers and librarians who comprise the association remain aware of his intent. And that his -- and a handful of other "young adult" visionaries' -- ideas are represented in the assigned literary canon.

Last month, Crutcher even released an autobiography of sorts, "King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography," aimed at both adults and children, wherein his own childhood exploits are looped together anecdotally into a humble exploration of the growing mind. For an author known for shaking things up with his difficult, first-person characterizations, it comes as a welcome explanation.

"It was as much whim as anything," he says. "I get the question, 'Where do you get your stories?' all the time, and that was the thing that started it -- to say, 'Well, I've been these places in my childhood as well as other places,' and I started playing around with it. And it just kept going."

Next to "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Wuthering Heights," it might seem frivolous to explore the nether regions of the child's mind. But in terms of the balance between projection and introspection (not to mention making kids actually want to read), the value is apparent. Who doesn't want to read about themselves?

"I think that's certainly the healing nature of it," Crutcher says. "And that's certainly the healing nature of any good book I've ever read. It's making a connection with the narrator, or the storyteller, and sensing that he or she is talking to you."

But that talking can be a touchy situation when it comes down to the institutional bureaucracy of the educational system. The traditional fear being that exposing children to the potential mischief of sideways glances will influence them into behaviors untold; this in the age of Christina Aguilera's crotch-pants and 50 Cent's bullet wounds. But censorship is nothing new. Ask Mark Twain.

"Oh yeah, I'm on the list. I've got two books on the top 100 since 1969," says Crutcher. "They get challenged all the time, and I think they've all at one point or another been banned -- more at the middle-school level than at the high-school level. Basically, they're being burned by the religious right. You can sugarcoat it anyway you want, but that's who bans the books.

"They either ban it for language, or they ban it for ideas," he continues. "'Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes' has, I think, a very evenhanded discussion about abortion. And I've had letters that say I was pro and letters that say I was anti, so I think it was a pretty good layout of the discussion. But boy, I'll tell ya, just bring it up, and you're gonna get swamped with that."

Still, the struggle is obviously worth it. Say "fuck" and kids are going to read. And that's the point, isn't it?

"It is what you hear. I mean, when I'm in my office with an adolescent who has had some horrific history, that is the language of expression."

Crutcher's embrace of that expression, and the situations that inspire it, has paid off tenfold in the reaction he gets from kids -- kids perhaps otherwise ignored by a system hurrying to FCATs and SATs.

"I talked to a young woman, a 17 year old in Houston, right after 'Chinese Handcuffs,'" he remembers. "It's a story about a girl who's been molested -- first by her biological dad and then by a really obnoxious stepdad. And this girl kind of waited for everybody to clear out, and she came up afterward and said, 'I didn't have a question or anything, but I just wanted you to know that I thought you knew me.'

"And she said it was the first time that she had any idea that anybody knew what she was going through."

Chris Crutcher, (with Alex Finn, David Klass, Joan Bauer and others) Network on Adolescent Literature (Sig 21) session 2 p.m.- 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, May 7 International Readers Association Conference (May 4-8) Rosen Center, 9840 International Drive, Orlando; $130, $65 students for one-day admission to entire conference; www.reading.org

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