Friday, December 17, 2010

Angry Management

So for two nights in a row, I had to stay up to finish books. First Chris Crutcher's Angry Management, then Daisy Whitney's The Mockingbirds. I am a longtime Chris Crutcher fan. I didn't discover his work until I started teaching, when I started facing the reality that many kids, most kids, aren't readers like I was. Many kids grow up not reading--it's not something they do outside of school, it's not something they choose to do, it's certainly not something they love. Often, it's not something they do even in school. It's horrifyingly easy to avoid, and most kids don't have a reason not to avoid it.

As a teacher, one of my greatest pleasures, one of my hugest victories, became being able to help a student who considers books a waste of time, stupid, lame, find a book that he or she (too often he) loves. I have given so many books by Chris Crutcher to so many students. But first I loved his novels my own self. They're all great, but Whale Talk might have been the first one I fell in love with. I also love/d Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, which has just about the best premise of any novel ever: the fat kid and a scarred up girl have a close friendship--they're brought together through being outcasts, but their friendship transcends that. However, the fat kid starts swimming and losing weight--but he's afraid that if he loses weight, he'll lose his best friend. Read the title again. There's a lot more to this book than what I've told you--Crutcher has been a counselor working with kids who've been to hell and back, and his books have some hard truths in them, because kids deal with a lot of hard truths.

He's also written about his books being censored, and several of his essays about censorship are central to my censorship unit. Speaking of, (hint to teachers!) nothing like a censorship unit to get kids to read. "Many adults don't want kids to read this," is such an excellent way to get non-readers to pick up a book, and often they won't put it down because first they have to figure out why adults don't want them reading the book, and then they have to finish it as a big fuck-you to all those stupid adults. More power to them.

So I was very excited to read Angry Management, but I'd be curious if it did anything for readers who haven't read Crutcher's other books. In the foreword, Crutcher describes it as three "novellas" which bring together "characters I've created separately over a fifteen-year span. In this book, they've stayed the same ages they were when I created them. Hey, the Hardy Boys have remained teenagers for more than three quarters of a century."

The premise that holds these novellas together is that all of these students are in an "anger management" group together; this is how they meet, learn a little about each other, and get the chance to interact. Angus Bethune, who's featured in a fabulous story in Athletic Shorts, Crutcher's book of short stories out of which I love to teach "The Pin," gets to be friends with Sarah Byrnes, and they help each other figure some stuff out. There is also a lot about Montana West, a character in The Sledding Hill, not one of my favorite Crutcher novels (if only because others are more wonderful).

Crutcher has worked with a lot of kids with lousy parents, and a lot of kids who've ended up in foster care. Montana is one of those, and her adopted little sister, Tara, is another. Montana's parents want to give Tara back, give up on her, and I think the most moving passage in this book is when Montana's trying to figure out how to help Tara: "How can she [Montana] tell her mother that feeling bad feels right when everything in your world is wrong; that at first you need your foster parents to make things familiar, which in this case means fucked up. It makes such sense at a heart level, but even for a wordsmith like Montana West, it's impossible to articulate. It's so true, and it sounds so crazy."

So everyone should read Crutcher. But maybe this book isn't the place to start. Read Whale Talk, and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and Athletic Shorts, then all his other novels, then this one. I'm curious to hear from any Crutcher fans who disagree...

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