Deadline Challenges Teens to Ponder What Really Matters

Crutcher, Chris. Deadline. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

It is a popular hypothetical question: If you only had a year (or some other finite period of time) to live, how would you spend it? What would you do? What conversations would you have? Where would you go, and with whom? Ben Wolf, Deadline's narrator, is faced with these questions at the beginning of his senior year of high school. When he is diagnosed with a terminal illness, Ben decides, against his doctor's wishes, not to undergo any treatment and to tell no one, but rather to live his life in a meaningful way without worrying his family and friends. Despite his small stature, he joins the football team, and does quite well. He starts dating a girl he never thought he had a chance with before. He befriends and does his best to help the "town drunk," and he does it all while reading "every book [he] could get [his] hands on that would teach [him] about real life" (Crutcher 25). As Ben puts it, "I have maybe twelve months to fall in love, marry, make smart investments, grow old, and die. But it's relative, right? There are insects that pack it all into a day" (24).

However, despite Ben's resolution to live the days he has to the fullest, he soon realizes that maybe keeping his secret from his loved ones was not the smartest idea. In reading Deadline, one sees death from Ben's point of view, but as he begins to realize how his passing will affect those who care about him, the reader can also sympathize with Ben's friends and family. We have all experienced, or will someday experience, the death of a close friend or family member, and at some point we will all have to come to grips with our own mortality. Deadline treats these universal truths with both humor and grace.

Recommendations for Teachers
As with all books being considered for classroom use, it is advisable that teachers read this book ahead of time to decide whether it would be appropriate for the age group in question. Ben Wolf is 18 years old at the time of his diagnosis, and while he is wise beyond his years, he still acts like an 18 year-old in many ways. In other words, he mentions sex a few times, and he and his classmates occasionally use strong language. The mature topics of child molestation, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol abuse are also addressed. While these are not necessarily appropriate subjects to expose to pre-teens, teenagers (grades 9 or 10-12) will, in many cases, appreciate the honesty of Deadline. Ben lives his life to the fullest, and luck seems to be on his side (relatively speaking) at several points in the story, but nothing is sugar-coated.

Teaching Ideas for Deadline
  • At one point in the story, Ben's therapist gives him the assignment of writing out the things that he hopes to learn or do in the months he has left. This would be a good pre-reading activity for the students to take part in. If they only had a year to live, what would their priorities be? They could record their lists in a journal, and those who wish to could share their answers, or they could all share their lists on an electronic discussion board. With such a delicate subject, the latter might be preferable, as students sometimes feel more comfortable expressing themselves in writing (Rozema and Webb 31).
  • The Moe Bandy song "Too Old to Die Young" (written by Scott Dooley, Kevin Welch, John Hadley; see YouTube video below) appears several times in the novel. As a pre-reading activity, students could listen to the song (and, perhaps, read along with a print-out of the lyrics) and write a journal entry about what the lyrics mean to them. Upon finishing the novel, students could listen to the song a second time and write a response about how the song relates to Ben and his last year of life.
  • Ben builds relationships with several (some unlikely) people in the novel. Students could choose one of these characters and write a letter from Ben's perspective with his last words to that particular person. Ideas for "recipients": Cody, Ben's parents, Coach, Dallas, Rudy, Marla, Mr. Lambeer, Mr. Cowans, Hey-Soos
  • Students could write Ben's "last will and testament," describing what he would leave to various people based on his relationships with them. One good idea: Mr. Lambeer gets Ben's copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
  • At the very end of the novel, Dallas and Cody are jogging together, and the reader learns that they will both be attending Boise State in the fall. One could argue that Crutcher is hinting at a relationship between the two. Students could write a "sequel" chapter to describe what happens next.
Source: Rozema, Robert, and Allen Webb. Literature and the Web. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2008. 31. Print.

"The truth screams to be told in its native tongue." -Chris Crutcher
About Chris Crutcher

In reading the biography on Chris Crutcher's official website, it is plain to see that much of the author's work is inspired by his own life. His family moved to Cascade, Idaho when Crutcher was only six weeks old. Cascade, like the town of Trout, Idaho, in which Deadline (as as Running Loose, another of Crutcher's novels, and "In the Time I Get," a tale from his collection of short stories, //Athletic Shorts//) is set, was a small town in which school sports reigned supreme. Like Ben's brother, Cody, Crutcher's brother, John, was the star athlete of the family.
Crutcher (left) with his older brother, John. Source:

Although Crutcher did not excel in academics, he studied sociology and psychology at Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington State University) and went on to become a teacher. He taught in Washington and Northern California, where he also found inspiration for the characters and settings of his future writings. Crutcher later worked as a youth therapist, and his continued work in education and child advocacy "keep his fiction rooted in real life" (source).

Crutcher's many works have earned both critical acclaim and complaints from those who find his writings to be controversial. Eight of his young adult books have been named to the American Library Association's "Best Books for Young Adults" list, and four of his books were on Booklist's "Best 100 Books of the 20th Century" (source). Nevertheless, Crutcher "is often among the most frequently challenged authors in America" (source). He is very vocal in his opposition to book censorship and support of Americans' first amendment rights (source).

Like his characters, Crutcher stays active, and especially enjoys running, swimming, and basketball. He currently resides in Spokane, Washington (source).

This "book trailer," made by a high school librarian, shows its viewer many of the novel's main themes:

A high school student made this video analysis. It gives a pretty thorough preview of the book:

Moe Bandy's "Till I'm Too Old to Die Young" is a sort of theme song in Deadline. Ben hears it on his iPod just after his diagnosis, and his brother and girlfriend listen to it in Ben's honor at the end, just a few weeks after his funeral. See above for an activity idea with this song.

Additional Resources:
The Author
  • Chris Crutcher's official website: This is a very thorough and frequently updated website with information about Crutcher himself, his works, his causes, and more.
  • HarperCollins Author Essay: Chris Crutcher talks briefly about the creation of Deadline's main character, the novel's plot, and its main themes.
  • Vantage Learning Community Interview with Crutcher: This is a particularly good interview because it is summarized in writing, but each full answer is also given in audio format. At the end, there is a link to an excerpt of Deadline, read by the author.
Reviews of Deadline
  • A synopsis and review of the novel
  • Dearauthor review of //Deadline//: Author Jill Shalvis gives her two cents about the novel from the perspective of both an author and the mother of a teenage daughter.
  • The Reading Zone: This teacher's blog gives her review of Deadline, touching on the audience for which it is appropriate.
Teaching Deadline
  • Choose to Read Ohio: This site offers information about the novel and the author, as well as discussion questions and ideas for delving deeper into the novel's themes.
  • Scribd: This website provides comprehension/ discussion questions for each chapter of Deadline.
  • Mrs. Carla Taylor's website: Mrs. Taylor, an English teacher in Illinois, provides lots of thought-provoking questions about the novel, which is required reading in her senior classes. Click on "Deadline" at the bottom of the page to open the Word document.
  • "A Guide to Teaching Challenged and Banned Books": This .pdf file from HarperCollins Publishers gives great tips for teaching books that have been challenged or banned, focusing on the works of Crutcher, including Deadline.
Also by Chris Crutcher

--Reviewer: Susan Michon
*Please also visit my reviews on Chris Crutcher's Athletic Shorts and Peter Abrahams's Reality Check.