Sunday, April 22, 2018

Chris Crutcher

35068371Crutcher, Chris. Loser's Bracket.
Published April 3rd 2018 by Greenwillow Books
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

Annie is a high school senior who has a lot of family problems. Her bio mom, Nancy, lost custody some time ago due to extreme neglect and drug use, and Annie has been living with the Howards for a number of years, and she gets along well with their son, Marvin, who is about her age. Annie's sport is basketball, and she's hoping to get some college scholarships, but she is using the off season to swim, a sport at which she does not excel. The one good thing about swimming is that Nancy, her half sister Sheila, and Sheila's son, Frankie, often come to watch her, even though she is not supposed to have contact with them. The Howards know about this, and are generally okay with it, but when her foster father thinks that meeting with her bio family makes her misbehave, he wants her to cut off all contact. Sheila is not any better as a parent than Nancy was, but when Frankie goes missing at one of her meets, Annie blames herself. Nancy's boyfriend, Walter, is the most reliable one in the family, and turns out to be more involved in Frankie's life than Annie imagined. At the same time, the Howard family starts to have problems of their own. Will Annie be able to hold her own life together long enough to graduate and go on to college?

Crutcher has worked as a family counselor and this experience adds a lot to all of his books. He does an excellent job of explaining the challenges that Annie faces in the sort of detail that readers want in their sad books. He also makes it understandable that Annie is not willing to cease all contact with her family, no matter how awful they are to her. The Howards are a solid foster family, but it's good to see them portrayed as somewhat flawed as well. Annie's relationship with Marvin is fun to see, as their sibling bond is typically adversarial at times, but also very sweet.

The inclusion of swimming is fantastic-- aside from this author's Whale Talk, Calame's Swim the Fly,  Crossan's The Weight of Water, Dominy's A Matter of Heart and Luurtsema's Goldfish, there aren't that many books about swimming published for young adults. Readers who like to read about people whose lives are worse than their own (and there are a lot of readers who do!) will find that Crutcher's book, while dealing with serious issues, treats them with constructive levels of hope. It's easy to envision a successful life for Annie, even though it might not be an easy one.

The language in this, as is usual for Crutcher, is "gritty and realistic", which means there are multiple uses of profanity, including the f-bomb. Situations found in young adult fiction are notably absent, but there is a fair amount of descriptions of the abuse Annie and Frankie have suffered. I won't purchase this for middle school, but it is an essential purchase for high school.

Crutcher, Chris. Whale Talk
January 30th 2018 by Greenwillow Books
(first published April 10th 2001)
Copy provided by Young Adult Books Central

T.J. lives in a small conservative Northwest town where his mixed race heritage sets him apart. He was adopted by a couple who have their own issues, but are very supportive and as understanding as parents of a teen can be. After a run in with Rich Marshall, a local hunter and supporter of school athletics, Mr. Simet suggests that T.J. channel his energy and start a school swim team. There are challenges, like having to practice at the All Night pool, but soon T.J. has assembled a collection of quirky misfits from his school and is leading the team. Mr. Simet is very busy, but promises to help in a bit, and the group gets support from an unlikely source in Oliver, an older man who is living in the All Night gym and trying to avoid detection. Finishing up high school and applying to colleges is hard enough, but T.J. finds himself getting enmeshed in the life of Heidi, a girl he meets through the therapist he still occasionally see. Heidi is the daughter of  the woman Rich Marshall loved in high school... and a black man who was later paralyzed in a sports accident. Marshall is terribly abusive, and Heidi ends up being cared for by T.J.'s family. Heidi's  mother occasionally stays with them, and Rich frequently shows up at the house trying to get to his family. The swim team does well, and T.J. is able to improve his own situation, but things worsen with Heidi's. It doesn't help when T.J. sees high school girls in abusive relationships and tries to understand why they stay. When a tragedy occurs, T.J. finds out some family secrets which help him go on with his life.

Crutcher writes compelling stories, and uses his background as a counselor to add riveting details. This was originally written in 2001, so there are a few things that feel dated. T.J. and Heidi's racial background might still be unusual in the Northwest, but it is very common in Ohio. Unfortunately, the domestic abuse issues are all too fresh. T.J.'s father is a Vietnam veteran who had trouble readjusting to civilian life; today, someone of that age would be a grandparent. The book holds up well, but it doesn't hurt to alert readers that it is an older title in case they have questions.

The details about swimming are great. Mr. Crutcher must have been a competitive swimmer, and perhaps even a coach. It's good to see T.J. finding a positive outlet for his anger management issues, and also to see him take a positive leadership role. Interim Coach Oliver is an interesting addition to the group of athletes, all of whom face challenges of their own.

Crutcher is a master of the young adult problem novel, and his books should be on the top of the To Be Read pile of all fans of John Green, Carl Deuker, and Miranda Kenneally.

The language in this is very strong, and there are scenes of abuse. I will probably not purchase this for middle school, especially since it is an older title. High schools will want to refresh their (probably very well worn!) copies.

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