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Original Essays

A Dangerous Thing

by Chris Crutcher
  1. The Sledding Hill
    $6.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    The Sledding Hill

    Chris Crutcher

  2. Stotan!
    $9.99 New Trade Paper add to wishlist


    Chris Crutcher

  3. Athletic Shorts: Six Short Stories
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  4. Whale Talk
    $6.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Whale Talk

    Chris Crutcher

  5. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
    $4.98 Sale Trade Paper add to wishlist

For most of my writing career my books have been challenged. The case against my book Whale Talk in schools in Limestone County, Alabama, is one of the most recent — and typical.

I responded to that community by writing to their local paper in the event anyone there wants information from the source of their scourge:

From what I have been told, the major issue is the language used by the characters in the book. Probably the most offensive scene, taken out of context, would be on pages 68 and 69 where a four-and-a-half-year-old mixed-race girl is working in a play therapy session, mirroring what her life is like living with a racist stepfather and a mother who won't protect her. In the course of her therapy she is taking the role of the offender, yelling out all the names that she herself endures on a daily basis.

Because she is screaming the words, they are in large font, which, I assume, makes them even more offensive to those paging through the book. The scene read in the context of the story, I believe, is heartbreaking. It is also true. It is something I have seen played out by a real four-and-a-half-year-old mixed-race girl in that very situation. Of course some things have been changed to fit this story, and to mask it from the real event, but it is real, and it is actually milder that what I witnessed in that case, and in hundreds of others.

Censors can make a case for zero tolerance in language. They can make the argument that since we don't allow our children to use that language in schools, we also shouldn't give them stories in which it is used. But that's an easy thing to deal with, and I've seen it done a hundred times. Teachers bring up the offensiveness of the language and talk about why it's used to make a story real. We don't have to use the language to talk about the story in the classroom, but we can certainly talk about the raw power of any good story told in its native tongue.

I worked full time as a therapist in the world of child abuse and neglect for fifteen years, and continue to do pro-bono work even today. I hear stories like these and stories far worse on a regular basis. I am struck by the fact that the kids I hear them from populate our classrooms. They do not tell their stories because many of them feel shame because they are treated that way, and they hold the secret; the only real power they have over their situations. They would rather be angry or depressed than vulnerable, and so they sit, many of them believing they are alone. Stories like Whale Talk and other, far better stories, let them know they are not alone, while not forcing them to talk about their personal situations at the same time.

When we censor these stories, we censor the kids themselves. Imagine falling in love with a book because somehow it mirrors your life, and gives meaning to it, and may even offer solutions to your personal situation, only to have those in power over you censor it because it is offensive. All but the most hard-nosed of us might think our very lives were offensive.

I think people who believe we can protect our children by keeping them ignorant of hard times and the language those times are told in, don't realize that by showing our fear of issues and language that are "everyday" to our children, we take ourselves off that short list of people to turn to in a real crisis.

Whale Talk is a tough book, but it is also a compassionate book, about telling the truth and about redemption. I didn't draw the tough parts out of thin air; they are stories handed to me by people in pain.

When a teacher looks out over his or her classroom, he/she is looking at one in three girls who have been sexually mistreated, one in five boys. That doesn't take into consideration the number of kids who have been beaten, locked up, or simply never allowed to be good enough. Stories are buffered in fiction and therefore allow discussion of issues that would not otherwise be brought up. They save many students. I'd think twice before I allowed them to be taken away.

I have no personal agenda in whether or not a library keeps Whale Talk or Athletic Shorts or any of my books shelved. They'll get challenged a certain number of times every year and they'll be praised some certain number of times every year. How the situations are resolved won't impact my income or my self-esteem.

The people who ban the books and the people denied access to stories have a lot more to lose here than I have, and that's why I take time to state my case — again and again and again.

The kids you turn your backs on when you take away their stories, are the ones who lose, as well as you as a community of adults who may appear to fear their truths. Remember, if you take Whale Talk out, you can take any book out, and could easily cheat your children out of Alice Walker and Judy Blume and Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain and Walter Dean Myers, and Christopher Paul Curtis and Lois Lowry and Pat Conroy, to name a few.

It's important to me to stand behind what I write, and just as important to fight censorship on a philosophical basis. The freedom to express is fundamental to freedom in the larger sense. If the censors had their way, they would interfere with the freedom to think, and that would be a dangerous thing. They can't, however; that's why the caged bird sings. spacer
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