Monday, April 12, 2010

Authentic voices of children

National Library Week: Young adult novelist Chris Crutcher spoke to an audience of local librarians at our library yesterday morning before addressing a public gathering later that evening. The author's two appearances at our library were in conjunction with several presentations before high school classes as part of the Fox Cities Book Festival. In introducing him to the evening audience, high school senior and teen library board representative Ryan Nelson said that Chris Crutcher portrays the facts of life as they are, not as they ought to be.

Talking about how he got started telling stories, Crutcher recalled overhearing a locker room story of a coach who instructed his players to injure a talented opponent to knock him out of game. This became part of the inspiration for his novel "Running Loose." The coach's voice - not character - based on his own high school coach. After his novel was published, he returned to his high school back to school, and found out his book was restricted in the school library, requiring parental permission to read, despite his being the only published author in the history of the town. His book was censored because it got into philosophy of sports, and addressed issues of challenging authority.

Crutcher worked at a mental health center in Spokane, dealing with child abuse and neglect. He felt a need to write about the authentic voice of what was happening to abused children. He became conscious of the tension between the need to protect privacy and not share personal stories, versus the need to tell the story of societal problems. He found that due to limited resources, child protection does not protect rich kids, nor anyone over age 11. His fiction pushed the boundaries of young adult literature. Booklist declined to review "Chinese Handcuffs" because they couldn't recommend it. Crutcher started to wonder if he had crossed a line between fiction and real life that should not have been crossed. When a girl in Texas waited a long time to speak with him privately after a school talk, she told him: "When I read 'Chinese Handcuffs', I thought you knew me. I didn't think anyone understood my life." At that point he felt validated, and became more confident he was doing the right thing.

"If you start thinking about what's going to offend people and what isn't, you're not going to be able to tell the story." He related the story of a gay kid, who parents thought he was confused about his sexuality. The kid wasn't confused, but his parents were in denial. The boy told Crutcher the hardest thing in his life was hiding who he was, and knowing he would have to keep hiding at least through high school, asking: "Who wants to be Matthew Shepherd?"Stories are a way out - it's not about a secret, it's about the story. If other people understand the story, you're not alone. It's safe -- there's a place inside a book where it's real.

He related an Iowa book challenge, where a student got up and said to the school board "I'm an honors student with a 3.8 GPA. I could go to any college, but I'm going into the service. Do you mean to say that if I were to come back and write a book about my experiences in Iraq, using authentic voices, you wouldn't let people in this town read it?" That decided the issue.

More statements from Chris Crutcher:
  • The person at risk in a controversy is not the author or publisher, it's the teacher or librarian who gives the book to kids. There are kids who are invisible in their schools and if you ban the book, you ban that kid.
  • There is so much about the true nature of why we don't want to talk about things that's just under the surface.
  • If my book is banned in a high school, I send five copies to the nearest public library and write the newspaper that I did it.
  • Harper Lee guided me because of the intimacy she put into the creation of Scout. If I wanted to tell stories I needed to get the voices right. Storytelling voice is the thing you have to get.
  • When we don't grieve properly, when we don't allow ourselves to feel the awfulness of what we've lost, we get stuck and we get sick.
  • [About play therapy] You see the world through that kid's eyes, and that's where you start.
  • Every time I see a book get taken out of a classroom or library, I think we're taking ourselves out of the short list of people to turn to because when we ban the stories we ban the kid.
I'm glad we have writers like this, who not only tell a good story but an honest story, who will struggle to help those authentic voices be heard -- and spend time with librarians to remind us of the importance of making sure the stories will reach people who need them. There are stories that need to be told, even if secrets are kept. There are those who need to read these stories. Not everybody has to like it, and not everybody has to read them, but freedom isn't free. We owe it to those children to let their stories be read, even if sometimes we have to fight to keep them on our shelves. Chris Crutcher helps us see the world through their eyes, and that's a start.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The power of collaboration: Fox Cities Book Festival kicks off

It's National Library Week, and for the third year in a row, it's also the Fox Cities Book Festival. Over the next eight days, 50 authors will appear at 18 venues, including libraries, schools, universities, museums and coffee houses. One of the first is occurring here at the Appleton Public Library, as Kim Edwards, author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, discusses her writing.

Each year's Book Festival is a huge collaborative effort, requiring a year of prep work. The Board includes representatives of all the local public libraries, plus public schools and higher education, as well as many community volunteers passionate about books and reading. A highlight is always the appearance of the Fox Cities Reads author, who will speak at many different area libraries and schools.

None of this would be possible without both inspiration and hard work. The original inspiration for the event came from Ellen Kort, an Appleton writer and teacher who was Wisconsin's first Poet Laureate. Ellen talked for years with interested people before a committee finally gelled and organized the first book festival. It's now an annual event including committees to do fund-raising, coordinate dozens of volunteers, make author arrangements, organize the community read and market the event. None of this would work without a broad cross-section the whole Fox Cities community, and it's no wonder that our libraries are deeply involved.

As Kim Edwards advised budding authors: "Read, read and read, and write, write and write."