Monday, April 2, 2018

Loser's Bracket by Chris Crutcher - Book Review

I met Chris Crutcher at a National Council of Teachers of English convention in Orlando (could have been Anaheim) in the late 1980’s where he was giving a presentation on Young Adult fiction. He was a trim, handsome, athletic looking man who was a school counselor and an athlete. Someone asked him what set young adult fiction aside from other fiction works. He responded, “The length.” I was intrigued, bought a couple of his books and devoured them avidly. I was teaching English at the time and chair of a large English Department in a Pennsylvania school district. I enjoyed the books, thought them useful for non-readers and less able students in our district, and encountered strong resistance to using them as assigned reading when I suggested it to my colleagues. Since heading in other directions, I rarely read Young Adult (also called Adolescent Literature) these days, but when I do, I usually enjoy a good read dealing with the problems of developing young people whose feelings are close to the surface and whose experience is limited, to be interesting and arresting reads while not demanding too much of me. They deal with the real problems adolescents encounter: popularity, over-weight, dis-functional family life, adjustment to sexuality, and maturation, and more. These are all real problems that young people often find it difficult to discuss with adults. Thus the novels can provide help to them, or a platform for such discussions. As such, reading them can be crucial to helping with problems young people are encountering in their real life in ways that can displace the problem onto others they encounter in the pages of a book. They can discuss these issues with other kids or adults who know how to listen in constructive and useful ways. English teachers who say, “I’m a teacher, not a therapist” are missing the point as well as a chance to involve their students in literature which can turn them into lifelong readers.

Loser’s Bracket by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow Books, 2018, 256 pp, $17.99/9.99) is told in first person narrative by Annie Boots, both a gifted athlete and student, whose life has been fractured. Her mother Nancy is over-weight, an alcoholic and drug abuser. Her sister Sheila a drug abuser in and out of rehab, an absent father, and Sheila’s son, who has his own problems. Nancy has been removed from custody, and Annie has been fostered by an upper middle-class family named Howard, which has its own problems, but, despite the father’s controlling needs to make her a star athlete, which she is anyway, Annie’s in a good situation while yearning to stay connected to her biological family. The story revolves around the interactions between and within these two families and the custody system. Annie describes the situation in breezy, accessible language with a degree of understanding and anxious good humor. She comes across as likable and insightful while trying to deal with her own problems.

In the guise of a book club held at the local library, and definitely not in school, Crutcher includes a chapter about the writing process that, for any student struggling with writing anything contains some of the best advice I’ve ever read about how to achieve a desired outcome, no matter what emerges and how surprising it might be. Annie, carrying all her load of Nancy, her mother, Sheilla, her sister and Sheila’s missing son, as well as her foster parents and all the talents and skills she has remains, as she has been throughout the book, an open conduit to experience with a blockage for internalizing what she learns. As the story moves along, the characters learn that unlike in the books they read to each other, they are the authors of their own stories. Thus, the novel moves the characters and the reader toward an understanding of each of our capabilities for taking charge of our own lives. The disappearance of her brother creates dramatic tension, keeping the story moving forward as does the tension between Annie’s foster parents and within her biological family.

Chris Crutcher

Chris Crutcher is the critically acclaimed author of twelve novels, an autobiography, and two collections of short stories. He has won three lifetime achievement awards for the body of his work: the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults, the ALAN Award for a Significant Contribution to Adolescent Literature, and the NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award. Drawing on his experience as an athlete, teacher, family therapist, and child-protection specialist, he unflinchingly writes about real and often-ignored issues that face teenagers today. He lives in Spokane. (Amazon profile)

Chris Crutcher writes stories that address issues not unlike similar issues dealt with in any novel focused on adults, but revolving around the lives, concerns, and developmental problems of teenagers. Telling this story in first person put the reader inside the skin of an adolescent girl facing and surmounting problems that would be difficult for anyone. He uses lively dialogue bringing the kids to life while the adults are not the adult stereotypes often found on television and in lesser books. These are real people living real lives. Loser’s Bracket is not just a good young adult novel, it’s a good novel. I was supplied a digital copy of the book by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it using my Amazon Fire tablet.

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