Friday, October 12, 2018

Fall Diversity Reading

We began The Diversity Challenge because we believe strongly that books are one of our best tools for seeing into the lives and experiences of people different from ourselves. As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop famously wrote:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. (Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.)

A small window can be the beginning of something big for many students and adults. Our Fall theme is religious identity, and I am going to highlight a number of books from our list to get you started.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok
I read this book a long time ago and who knows if it would stand up to re-read at this point in my life (the dangers of re-reading--clearly another blog post), but I remember it very fondly. Two Jewish teens in 1940s Brooklyn become unlikely friends and deal with their fathers, growing up and their religious identities. At its heart, The Chosen is a story of friendship and family, but Jewish traditions and themes run firmly throughout the book. Readers familiar and unfamiliar with Judaism can gain a lot of insight from Potok’s classic.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
This book holds a firm spot among the best books that I read in 2017. A re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire follows three siblings from a Muslim family in London as they move towards the inevitable tragic ending. I was most struck by the scenes involving the radicalization of the brother--the way Shamsie illustrated the evolution from innocent relationship to extremist involvement really demonstrated how easily anyone can be changed. Ultimately, though, Home Fire is an exploration of the universal themes of family and love.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
It must be said that Barbara Kingsolver is my favorite author. The Poisonwood Bible is probably my least favorite book of hers, but I still recommend it for readers not afraid of a sprawling, depressing, sometimes confusing novel about a missionary family in 1960s Africa. Nathan Price, a minister, takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo for a year that turns into much more. A lot happens in this book, and most of it is not very pretty, but Kingsolver’s style and story-telling always win the day for me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Summer Reading

Summer Reading

The phrase “summer reading” tends to conjure thoughts that fall solidly into one of two categories: the boring-read-for-school books or the fluffy-beach-read books. As part of our Pesky Diversity Reading Challenge we asked that your summer books contain a main character who is a person of color, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be on the lighter side. Here are a few books that fit both categories:

Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
Maya is a “good” Indian girl trying to finish high school and convince her over protective parents to allow her to attend film school in New York next year. Although Ahmed introduces serious topics about race and Islamophobia this is still a classic YA romantic coming of age story with good writing and a sense of humor.

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy by Kevin Kwan
The trilogy begins when Chinese American Rachel agrees to travel to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick, for a family wedding. She soon finds out he belongs to a “crazy rich” group of expats who scheme and connive and cause all sorts of problems for Rachel. The series continues Rachel and Nick’s story but also branches out into a number of other characters. Kwan’s humorous writing and attention to detail make these books interesting and funny while touching on many topics of social and economic diversity.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead wrote a number of books before The Underground Railroad and some of them are pretty good. Sag Harbor follows 15 year old Benji through the summer of 1985 in the African American enclave on Long Island where his family has a beach house. Not a lot happens, but the character driven story feels beachy and delves into being a black teenager in the 80’s without getting too heavy. Definite nostalgic bonus for anyone who spent summers at a beach house.

There are so many books that meet the POC main character criteria for the Pesky Challenge we hope that you will try at least one. If you need some help getting started check out our list of books here, or the whole guide for more information on the challenge. Happy reading!

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Why a Diversity Reading Challenge?

For the next twelve months we not only challenge the Governor’s Academy community to read outside of their regular work, but to read more diversely. Why is it important to find the time for books when our schedules feel full, and much of our days are spent “reading” texts, emails, memes, articles, etc.? Besides the unique enjoyment of losing yourself in a good book, studies have shown that deep reading actually improves brain function (don’t believe me: see this ), and can even increase our ability to empathize (see this…). This Washington Post article also points to a number of studies done recently that link reading fiction to empathy and social awareness. So read for the pleasure of it, but hopefully reap the benefits of improving your brain and your understanding of others.
A quick reminder of the Pesky Diversity Reading Challenge: we have broken the year down into four categories--one for each season. The spring challenge is to read books with a character from the LGBTQIA community. If you’re not sure where to start, there is a display of amazing books in the lobby of the library, a list on our website, and lots of resources online. Here are a few books that I have enjoyed recently that fit this category:

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
A slightly fictionalized version of the author’s life, Juliet Takes a Breath tells the story of a Puerto Rican 19 year old lesbian trying to find herself.  She spends the summer in Portland, Oregon interning for a crunchy-feely feminist author, and the experience challenges her and gives her new strength in interesting ways. Along the way she also deals with many typical teenage issues: love, fashion, family and her hair. Rivera writes with no fear, and as a result Juliet’s voice is real and fun.

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate
Jordan Sun attends a private boarding school for the performing arts. With an unusually deep voice for a girl (Alto 2) she struggles to find a place to perform and shine until the all-boys a Capella group needs a new tenor. Noteworthy does an excellent job of examining gender and stereotypes within a compelling narrative. Jordan is also exploring her own sexuality which sets up an interesting dichotomy.

The Maze at Windemere by Gregory Blake Smith
The Maze at Windemere takes a house in Newport, RI and examines 5 separate time periods that revolve around it. Some sections and literary devices employed are more successful than others, but overall an enjoyable read. One section of the book (1896) follows the intrigues of a closeted gay gentleman hoping to marry into high society and be set for life. Smith does an excellent job setting up each time period, and this story and its characters feel very authentic--a window into LGBT treatment in a historical context.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Native American Reading

Unintentionally, some of my reading this winter followed a distinct theme of Native Americans and the awful way we treated their ancestors and continue to mistreat them. I’m not sure how I ended up grouping these books together in the space of a few weeks, but I am glad that it happened. These books stand alone in their different genres and voices yet together form a strong collection with real significance for me. I would recommend any of the following books.
My path began with Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann which I listened to in my car. Grann does an amazing job of weaving tons of details and research with a captivating narrative. The audiobook is read in three sections by three different narrators, one of whom is Will Patton. (I can admit to being completely distracted at times by his slightly southern, gravelly textured, somehow intimate voice...sigh...but I digress.) The story of government sanctioned robbery, embezzlement and murder of the Osage tribe is so mind blowing yet emblematic of our country’s systematic dismissal of native tribes it should be required reading for all Americans. The FBI parts are interesting, too, but the Osage murders steal the show.
The search for a new ninth grade summer reading book at my school prompted some re-reading this winter which included The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. (Small pause to disclose my deep and ardent Barbara Kingsolver girl-crush...sigh.) I read this book in college and have read every one of her books since, but this was the first re-read of hers for me. I enjoyed it all over again; so much so that Pigs in Heaven quickly followed because honestly I couldn’t remember what happened to Taylor and her adopted daughter, Turtle. The story resonated in a way that I am sure it did not at my first reading twenty some years ago, as Taylor fights to keep her Native American daughter from the Cherokee tribe. My younger and less enlightened self was probably all Taylor, but the me coming off of Killers has a lot more understanding for Annawake and the tribe. 
Without even thinking of this string of books, lots of press and a lucky hit on my local public library Overdrive catalog brought me to Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot. Although she grew up on a reservation in Canada not the US, the residue of generations of institutional racism is just as thick. Mailhot’s memoir is fragmented (in a good way), raw, brutal and honest. Her writing style may slant slightly toward what I think of as MFA’d, but most of it blew me away. I can’t wait to see what comes next from her. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

13 Reasons Why

In January of 2000 I signed my first teaching contract. Twenty-one kindergarteners would be my captive audience for 45 minutes a day and I was confident that classroom management would not be a problem since I had the toys. I was, after all, the new science teacher at MSAD 11. Now, if you don’t recall first grade science, let me remind you that racing marbles down ramps of varying heights and launching whirligigs off of stairwells were just two awesome activities. Sadly, though, I must confess that I did, indeed, have some behavioral hiccups. My mantra began and went something like this:

“Please clean up after yourself.”
“I know your tooth is loose, but you have to push in your chair before you go to the nurse.”
“Please check the floor before you leave.”  

I ended up dedicating twelve years to those munchkins and when I finally transitioned to the upper grades, it wasn’t because of the curriculum; I became weary of hearing my own reminders.Now I work in a library a few nights a week at The Governor’s Academy and I am stunned at the number of times that the ole mantra comes out of my mouth. Well, most of it. So, this former elementary school teacher is asking you to please remember these 13 Reasons Why No Adult in Pesky Should Ever Have to Pick Up Your Gum Wrapper.
13. It’s sloppy.
12. It’s lazy.
11. It’s thoughtless.
10. It’s disrespectful.
9. It’s irresponsible.
8. It’s immature.
7. It reflects poorly on you.
6. It reflects poorly on your friends.
5. It reflects poorly on your community.
4. Your handbook prohibits it.
3. Your teachers expect more.
2. Your adults raised you better.
            1. And in the words of Robert Fulghum, author of Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, you should always, “CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.”


Monday, February 12, 2018

Cupid Rhymes with Stupid...un-Valentine's Day Books

I am not a celebratory person. This personality trait covers many aspects of life including birthdays, events, and holidays, but it really rises to the surface when faced with commercially overblown fake holidays. Valentine’s Day--I’m talking to you. Why, oh why, has a single date on the calendar come to signify love and all sundry of pink things? Every year wherever I’m working I battle for an un-Valentine book display as opposed to the ubiquitous “Love Story” array, and most years I win. Let’s face it--people happy in love don’t need to read about other people happy in love, but a great, kick-you-in-the-face, love stinks book can do wonders for the heartsick psyche. Or anyone, really.
A number of different plotlines fall into the love stinks genre: death of one (or both) characters, fate or life circumstances keep lovers apart, it’s-not-you-it’s-me break up, falling out of love, etc. Here are a few books from our display that meet these different love stinks scenarios.

Death: The demise of a romantic partner can be as classic as Romeo and Juliet, taken with a modern twist like The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) and Me Before You (JoJo Moyes), or encompass diverse relationships like A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara). Any way you slice it these books are sad--bring tissues.

They’re Better Off Apart: Some characters just don’t belong together--for me Rhett and Scarlett (Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)  fall clearly into this category. Is she going to “get him back” as she claims near the end? I for one hope not. Everyone in This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz) is better off without the main character, Yunior, in this collection of connected short stories. It’s possible that he has finally learned something in the end...but you never know.

Life Circumstances Keep Them Apart: Circumstances can’t get much more uncontrollable than The Time Traveler’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger). Clare and Henry attempt a traditional marriage even though he tends to arbitrarily jump around to different times. Yeah, that will complicate things.  Family pulls a late in life couple apart in Our Souls at Night (Kent Haruf), and a more perfectly tidy, heartbreaking 180 pages may not exist in literature. Read it in one sitting--you won’t regret it.

So many not-perfect endings, so little time.