I continue to be coming around to my new reading life which is, as this moment, out of sync with how I used to read. I have leaned hard into books that I want to read, not should or need to read, but ones that I want to read. That got me into a groove last year and I hope it will anchor me through 2022, also.
If you’re interested in 2021 and 2020, those links are also here for you.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers I couldn’t stop reading this one once I began. A few years ago, I remember reading Pachinko as voraciously. Like, unable to do anything except perform basic functions because I was absolutely consumed by this intergenerational, historical, contemporary, beautiful novel about Black women and mothering and legacy, and race and…it’s incredible. I’d definitely have it in classrooms and I’d also consider putting it into conversation with The Known World by Edward P. Jones. Jeffers’ characters stay with you. I haven’t stopped thinking about them since I finished the book. A fantastic way to start a new year. Anchored in Black women.
This Close to Okay, Leesa Cross-Smith I have a soft spot for Leesa Cross-Smith after loving her So We Can Glow, a collection of excellent short/flash stories. This novel is about two people who find each other at moments when they are both fragile (CW: suicide, just know that). Then, they put each other back together-ish, in ways that are humane and realistic and that make you really grateful for folks who take the time to check in on us. Leesa C-S writes a beautiful sentence; she’s the type of writer who actually uses interesting words throughout, and those words are delightful and surprising, and memorable. Truly enjoyed this book, suspended all doubt while reading it, and was glad I did because the novel was quite satisfying.
The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, Maurice Carlos Ruffin I was preparing for a trip to New Orleans and wanted a book to help me ease back into that vibe. Ruffin’s collection of short stories was unexpected, heartbreaking, and fabulous, all at the same time. He writes well, encouraging you to take a second, third, and even fourth look at sentences and the people and places within them. They are important glimpses of the people whom, as a tourist, one might overlook or not pay attention to, or even think they’ve come to New Orleans to forget. However, Ruffin insists we pay attention, hear the stories, consider who we don’t see, or choose not to see, when we visit these places.
I appreciate this book for breaking me out of my reading rut. Fabulous, thoughtful, complex look at a young Black girl who is wealthy, goes to school in a predominantly white environment, and is trying to figure out all the identities she has and wants to be. I’d also use this book as a craft study b/c Hammonds Reed can write a brilliant sentence, and this book has so many. One of my faves of the year at this point.
I continue to turn to YA as a way to get my reading life restarted. Liz Lighty is an overachieving Black girl who wants to go to the local PWI more than anything. She’s queer, which is hard in a small Indianapolis town, made even more complicated because she runs for prom queen. I felt for Liz, who has be to exceptional in every way, struggles with anxiety, and the loss of her mother, and, well, being working class in a white midwestern town.
Another entry to the #blackboylit canon that gives us a nonbinary young person living their best life. This was a great example of all the ways young people can grow up whole, free, and supported by a loving community. A memoir in vignettes, too!
I read this one with the Johnson book above in preparation for moderating a panel for SLJ’s Day of Action. Another #blackboylit title. I so appreciated the main character, a bisexual Black boy who experiences depression, a missing parent, and falling in love. I loved Gio so much, and also appreciated his comments about school, lol, especially being dragged through a reading of To Kill A Mockingbird.
This book got me OUT of my reading rut. Just an excellent collection of short stories about Black women that is beautifully written, funny, sad, healing…just everything. I wished it was longer, have recommended it as my favorite book this year, and gift it, too.
I stan for Dr. Givens and his scholarship because it helps me locate myself in the tradition of the art of Black teaching. Lots about the life of Carter G. Woodson, Black teachers, and why what we do matters even more today. It’s also an important reminder that as teachers we need to be “scholars of the practice” and make time to read scholarship.
This queer love story set during enslavement was moving and reminiscent of Morrison in so many ways. I loved the love and resistance of characters and felt such deep sorrow to read about the ancestors, real and imagined. Once I started, I read right through the days to finish, and the two men at the center of the story, and their insistence on loving each other, was so very powerful and beautiful.
This book came up at the library and I’ve been wanting to read it. The story of Kossola, the last survivor of the Clotida, is devastating. It’s important for understanding the impact of enslavement, how Africans were treated by African Americans, and the lasting legacy that so many of us carry with us. Required reading. Plus, it’s a powerful account of the anthropological work of Zora Neale Hurston.
I’m a Danielle Evans fan. Her first short story collection is one of my all-time favorites. This second collection is even more brilliant. She can write a beautiful sentence and tell a brilliant story while breaking your heart and affirming your Blackness and brilliance all at once. These short stories are definitely teachable in high school classrooms, too, and ones I wish I had access to when I was looking for something different for my own short story units…
Seems like the universe is trying to help me find my way back to my reading life. These short/micro stories are delightful. Lots take place in Kentucky, so that’s even more special to me, and Cross-Smith is SO good at writing about women in the everyday. I felt so seen while I read this collection in all parts of my life: high school, college, post-college, now.
I finished the final book of Hibbert’s trilogy and found it quite satisfying. Hibbert’s characters are funny, thoughtful, smart, and real. A great easy breezy read that also features characters with autism, depicted multidimensionally, where the characters are so much more.
I try to read books on Black motherhood because there are so few out there. I would like a mirror for that part of my experience, too! Austin’s book is an interesting take on adoption and makes a strong case for why and how to do it. I found myself bothered by her perspectives on birth parents and there was an air of respectability that was hard for me. I’m glad this book is out there for folks, though.
Just when I needed a good romance that centered on a single mom suffering from debilitating migraine headaches who was an amazing writer and got back in touch with an old flame, this book delivered. A solid rom-com, filled with some great humor (the tween daughter is well-written, much because I bet Williams drew on her success writing your a YA audience in a couple of her earlier books). Love this, too, especially for the summer.
I wanted to immediately teach this book with juniors, especially in all those discussions about the “American Dream.” A story of two Chinese girls in the west, their family, their hopes, their dreams, and, well, what happens as they try to survive during brutal settler colonialism. So many beautiful, heartbreaking sentences and characters who I absolutely loved.
How I appreciate Black women for being able to lovingly gather us. bell hooks lays it down about why we need to actively choose love again and again, and how we can heal ourselves. I found myself stopping and rereading so much of this book; so much resonance, especially right now.
My reading slump continues, apparently. I love Oak Bluffs for many reasons, some which showed up in this book about a Black fairy godmother and her goddaughters. There were a few juicy plot twists, and, if you’ve been to MV and OB, a few details that spark great memories. Nice summer read but, seeing as I wasn’t reading it in the summer, lol, it was easy breezy and enabled me to finish October able to reconnect to some steady reading.
This book is EXCELLENT. Daunis Fontaine is an Ojibwe young woman who is deeply connected to her community, the elders, and her family. The mystery at the heart of the complex story kept me reading straight through the weekend. I felt all the emotions and I so appreciated this specific, beautifully written novel. It definitely needs to be in kids’ hands. One of the best books I have read this year.
I’ve been reading at this book for a long time and finally finished it. Really reflective way to think about one’s friendships and to determine if there are “big friendships” in our life. I also appreciate how the authors go there and take up how hard it is to maintain a real friendship and that it’s worth the work. Makes me want to definitely also reach out to the folks I’m in big friendships with (okay, one person, lol), and make sure she knows how important she is to me.
Leslie’s book about the death of her husband is both tragic and hilarious. I was so sad for her, especially after she found the love of her life and lost him so unexpectedly. Leslie doesn’t sugarcoat the grief that she felt and how she dealt with it, but her writing is also so funny that I laughed AND cried while reading. Oh, and Leslie also was in the process of adopting her sun, a story arc for which I cheered. I’m so happy I’ve been able to read Black women’s words this year; such a range of diverse voices that are needed so very much.
This book was exquisite. So much history here: a Black free doctor raising her daughter, helping Black folks who had freed themselves. Many themes here that are classic and eternal; the ones that stuck with me the most were about the relationship between mother and daughter and what one does for independence and freedom, as well as the ways that we find and keep friendships, especially among women. I would definitely teach this one in the classroom.
This short story collection was uncomfortable to read in all the best ways. It’s filled with every day characters trying to figure out all the things in life that are, well, worthy of taking up in short story form. I cringed, I reread, I felt all the feelings, and was deeply appreciative for all of them.
I couldn’t put this one down. A fascinating portrayal of the role of white women in enslavement and all the ways Black folks resisted, persisted, and remained free within themselves. A thoughtful look at a white family bent on maintaining their whiteness at all costs. So many complicated issues here. I would couple it with They Were Her Property to build a text pairing that can help readers understand–really, truly understand–history.
We need diverse books has to include disability justice, or else it’s an incomplete movement. Here is an excellent collection of essays that expanded my own understandings, pushed me to confront my own biases, and has made me think deeply how my work has to center disability justice. I’d definitely have this book in my classroom library and I’d regularly pull essays from the collection for whole-class discussions.
In our house, we use that phrase as a playful, cautionary reminder to be thoughtful about making decisions and to not be fooled.
When school was called off seven weeks ago and I became my child’s full-time teacher, I almost did, indeed, fall for the okey doke.
How could I help my sun master–wait; let’s be real here–maintain the skills he’d been working on if he wasn’t in school daily? It didn’t matter that I’ve been teaching young people and adults for nearly two decades. An almost-six-year old is not a high schooler, no matter how much their dispositions are similar on a given day.
I immediately went down the online rabbit hole of fancy schedules, programs, and apps that had no diverse books or materials, and what seemed an endless stream of worksheets for printing (and my annoyance for the prevalence for these with a lack of regard for those of us without a printer).
Around the same time, I started leaning really hard into rituals and routines that have always anchored me, especially during chaos and transition (cue current moment). Those include running, journaling, and reading. And by reading, I mean fully immersive reading, where I lose track of days, what my kid is doing, everything.
I’d picked upA Black Women’s History of the United States (ABWH) by Drs. Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross at Boston’s fantastic Black-owned Frugal Bookstore, with every intention to read it some day. But once #pandemicreading ensued, I couldn’t quite find a book that spoke to me. Young adult authors, contemporary fiction– books that usually were the perfect balm–weren’t working. When I remembered the copy of ABWH in my car (my greatest fear is to be stuck somewhere without a book, so I have them everywhere), I went looking for it, thinking (hoping?) that it might be an answer to getting my reading life back on track.
I could not put it down, and the voices of all these Black women ancestors shook me, telling me: look, you got this!
This being educating my child and building on the traditions that Black women (and in this case, Black women educators) have been doing for Black children, families, and communities since we were in this country.
An educator and activist, Burroughs’ dedication to Black women and girls, and her belief in the brilliance of them, led to her founding of the National Training School for Women and Girls among many other accomplishments. The writers summarize: “…she embraced both industrial and classical education, and expressed early Black Nationalist and feminist ideologies. She encouraged race pride by celebrating dark skin, and she remained a champion of Black women’s voting and labor rights” (p. 2). I also kept circling back to Burroughs’ motto for her school: “We specialize in the wholly impossible.”
Throughout the book, I read and learned about SO MANY Black women who have done (and do) just that: specialize in the wholly impossible by dedicating their lives and work to collective struggles for Black freedom for Black women, girls and femmes, especially during times when so many others denigrated and dismissed us.
ABWH reminds me that the ancestors are always watching and helping if I just listen. Black women have been here educating children and adults for generations. With schools that have systematically attempted to destroy us, we’ve made our own classrooms in places within our communities, written or revised texts to make them affirming and empowering for Black children, and been the teachers, time and time again. While adversity that included racism and sexism was consistent, our responses to it have always been to creatively organize ways to help as many folks as we can, with whatever tools we have. We have consistently specialized in manifesting the wholly impossible, and we’ve always been creative and resourceful.
Who am I to forget that or to not do the same?
Because there is a foundation of Black women educators who have assured the flourishing of Black children (and many others), certainly I can teach my sun and in the process heap tons of love on him. Surely I can understand that schools can be damaging, traumatic places for Black children and decolonize my own thinking that what we do at home isn’t as good as–if not better–than what schools might be trying to teach. Absolutely I could reach out to all the wonderful early childhood educators I know (his teacher included), and figure out how to design instruction that resonates with his deep desire to know, ask questions, and be immersed in learning.
I would merely be doing what Black women educators have been doing all along, and what Black women educators have been doing for me all along.
And along the way, we could read books written by Black authors that reflect my child (like The Brownies Book); books by other authors of color that offer mirrors into experiences he needs and wants to know more about (like We Are The Water Protectors); and have a few moments of transformation. We also could be aspirational and think about the skills, dispositions, and experiences I want him to have and then think about how to realize them beyond the nearly oppressive chatter of “gaps” and “deficits” and “learning loss” that threatens to drown out any other more important talk about normalizing high achievement for all children in the district.
I’m learning much about early literacy as my sun learns how to read, and I’m also remembering how my own grandmother taught me. She collected scraps of wood from my uncle’s shop. As a carpenter, there were always remainders amidst the piles of sawdust. She had him cut them into smaller sizes, and on those she wrote letters and words. As I gained proficiency, she’d add more combinations of words, requesting more scraps as she needed. She, too, specialized in the wholly impossible. The everyday, wholly impossible. She didn’t see it that way, though; rather she’d simply say “I haven’t done anymore than I should have done.”
Let me remember the foundations on which I stand.
Let me not fall for the okey doke.
Instead, I find myself feeling relief and gratitude for being able to learn about the phenomenal history of Black women who have actively worked to make this world better. I am working hard to remember their names and to make sure my sun learns their names and their accomplishments, too. Daily, I inventory more “funds of knowledge” (Amanti, Neff, Gonzalez, 1992) our family has (and that we’ve always had), and think about how we can use those to connect to other things we desire and need to learn.
I hope to make my world a bit smaller by figuring out how to work together with other Black educators who have the ability to teach through their screens and make it feel like their children never left. I’d like to be able to think about how they can share their brilliance to even more families who are working hard to help their children thrive.
Together, we channel the spirit of Nannie Burroughs–and the millions of Black women who have and will continue to be here–as we continue specializing in the wholly impossible: yesterday, today, tomorrow.
Friendly suggestion to purchase any of these from your friendly Black-owned bookstore. In Boston (and all around the US b/c they ship), that’s Frugal Bookstore.
Have you read any of these texts? What do you think? And, most importantly because my TBR list is always growing, what are YOU reading and would recommend? Leave me a comment if you’re so moved. Thanks.
After nearly 16 years of teaching and learning with young people, I’m leaving the classroom at the end of the school year.
I am not leaving entirely; rather, I’ll be working in a program that prepares pre-service teachers, a pursuit I’ve wanted to dedicate much more time to doing.
Now, though, is the hard part of leaving. My first thought after accepting my new position was: what is going to happen to my books? I knew I wanted them to go to someone who knows why a robust, diverse classroom library matters–for all kids, but, in the case of my work, particularly for underserved kids. I also wanted to be able to give the library to someone who might not have the resources to acquire this treasure for him/her/themself.
And while I’ve worked to create a school-wide culture of independent reading at my current school, I’m not so sure it will continue in ways that I’m comfortable.
So, this was a wonderful opportunity to look backwards–something I’m not that fond of doing because, well, when that happens we can see the good and the bad.
I have a beloved colleague that used to teach down the hall from me about 10 or 12 years ago. We have continued to be critical, thoughtful friends for each other over the years. He’s wanted to gain a foothold with independent reading with his kids. He knows it matters. He has made smaller achievements with them. He could make leaps and bounds, I think, if he had more resources. His school’s budget has been trimmed even more.
Supplies, particularly books, are usually the first line item to be cut.
He is taking all of the books. All nearly 900 of them that kids WANT to read. He and a colleague are driving across town and will load them all and take them back to their school.
This colleague sent me an email asking for money for the library.
Is he kidding? But that’s how Chris is. I told him that the fact that I know the books are going to be read and re-read and that that library is going to be used is all the peace of mind I could ever want, and a small step towards giving kids access to all the books they want and need.
But yes, he could take me to dinner and we can catch up as thanks, for sure. Always. I’m also reminded of how ideas leave us connected and believing in the power of literacy and kids’ rights to have literate lives, reminding us to work like heck to realize those ideas.
Welcome to the latest in the occasional series I call Kids Are Loving. Here, I briefly note books that my sophomores and seniors have loved. (Previous lists can be found here and here). [Note: My classes are comprised of mostly underserved young people (i.e., students of color, ones with learning challenges, boys, etc.) who usually have not had enough positive experiences with reading before starting my class.] Happy reading!
Zits: Chillax, Jerry Scott, Jim Borgman: This book has captured all types of kids. They say it’s funny and enjoy the comic strip aspect of the book (and even stop and sketch while they’re reading).
Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, Eddie Huang: Before it became a hit TV show, it was a book. This one resonates for students from a broad range: language learners, different races and ethnicities, etc. All say Eddie is irreverent and hilarious.
Swim the Fly, Don Calame (from Amazon): three 15-year-old buddies make a pact to see a naked girl before the summer is over and in the process mire themselves in increasing trouble and constant humiliation. All three are on the summer swim team, and, in a desperate attempt to impress the superhot new girl, Matt agrees to swim the dreaded butterfly at championships, despite the fact that he can barely tread water. At the same time, he’s dealing with his horny grandpa, a sadistic swim instructor, and his pals’ wacky schemes to catch a glimpse of bare skin, which includes dressing up like girls and entering a women’s locker room. That would’ve worked if it weren’t for the accidental dose of laxative . . . well, you get the idea. My note: BOYS LOVE THIS BOOK.
Noggin, John Corley Whaley: (from Amazon): Five years ago, Travis Coates died at the age of 16 after a long, hard battle with leukemia. However, Travis was offered a chance to become the 17th test subject in a very unorthodox medical experiment, which involved cryogenically freezing his head and eventually bringing him back to life once science becomes more advanced. Science moves faster than either the doctors or Travis and his family ever imagined, and soon he is back with a healthy 16-year-old body thanks to a generous young donor. Kirby Heyborne fills Travis’s voice with a realistic mix of pain, confusion, and the joy of being given a second chance, as he highers and lowers his pitch and volume. He also tackles the many people in Travis’s life who had to grieve his loss and must now deal with his return from the dead—albeit with a different body.
Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible, Suzanne Kamata: I found this book while doing some reading for a chapter I’m writing on multicultural kid lit. Aiko, the 15-year old protagonist has cerebral palsy and creates Gadget Girl, a graphic novel featuring a fearless, creative heroine who solves problems through her ingenuity with kitchen gadgets. Aiko is biracial (Japanese and white), also. I’ve added this one to my classroom library because 1) there aren’t enough books about disability and 2) those books tend to not feature characters of color.
Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon: A good-old love story that was in frequent rotation. The main character is a young woman in a bubble, content to live there until…Ollie, a cute boy, moves in next door. Things suddenly get WAY too complicated, in those ways that make you love teenage romance and identity development. There are lots of delicious sentences, too, in case you’re looking for mentor texts.
A Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, Misty Copeland: many students have been captivated by Misty Copeland’s story. They find her persistence and ultimate triumph inspirational and profound. That they can also find her on social media is an additional element that makes her life come alive for them.
And One to Grow On: A Great Read Aloud
Blackbird Fly, Erin Entrada Kelly. Kids love being read to. I need to remember that. I found this middle grade gem while doing some reading for the chapter I wrote. Essentially, it makes the reader cringe about middle school and all the reasons why it is a terrible place for many folks, particularly if that life resembles that of main character Apple, a Filipina American living in Louisiana. Yet, there is so much hope here and reminders about the power of parents, and music, and good friends. I read some excerpts to my kids and they ate it up.
I’m featured in the Teacher Learning Sessions Podcast chatting with Penny Kittle (OMG!!!) about how to get young people reading. Please listen (it’s less than a half hour) and send some coins to the Book Love Foundation. Teachers need books and Penny Kittle is, essentially, the fairy book mother by giving teachers classroom libraries. She is a gem and my kids are better readers because I received one of these grants. All the money raised goes to teachers to buy books. If anyone has ever purchased books for you or for your students, it’s time to pay it forward. Book love is contagious!
Welcome to another Kids Are Loving (#kal), where I offer up texts my students are reading and loving. In case you missed KAL #1, you can catch up here. These texts are ones young people choose to read. [Note: My classes are comprised of mostly underserved young people (i.e., students of color, ones with learning challenges, boys, etc.) who usually have not had enough positive experiences with reading before starting my class.] Kids are currently reading, chatting up, and passing around a lot of nonfiction. Enjoy!
Image from Amazon.com
Columbine, Dave Cullen: none of my students were alive when this school shooting happened on April 20, 1999. Cullen’s account of the shooters, the environment, and the aftermath holds them spellbound through the entire account. Plus, Cullen’s writing is riveting and makes for great modeling about powerful writing.
Laughing at My Nightmare, Shane Burcaw: Burcaw is a 21-year-old living with spinal muscular atrophy. It’s Burcaw’s use of humor that students love as they read about his triumphs and travails. What kids realize is that having a challenge doesn’t mean someone is so different after all.
Lost Girls:An Unsolved American Mystery, Robert Kolker: I picked this book up after reading a review in the New York Times. Essentially, this book attempts to find out what happened to four murdered women whose bodies were found in New York. That these young women were, essentially, forgotten because they lived lives of survival makes their fates and the inattention paid them, even more troubling. This book has resonated with many students and has topped a number of Best Of lists for them.
Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, Nathan McCall: Nathan McCall came to my college when I was a sophomore (I vaguely remember). At that time, his book had just been published. I remember him as being warm, strident, and of having my peers note that they felt he was talking about their own experiences. Now, nearly 20 decades later, that same feeling of personal address by McCall continues to resonate with readers, particularly ones of color, but McCall’s message holds true for any young person going through difficult times and encouraging them to keep pushin.
The Coldest Winter Ever, Sister Souljah: I can’t keep this book in my library and have multiple copies. This is a fast-paced, drama-filled story of a young woman who navigates elements of urban life. Winter is street smart, in love with a bad boy, has a complicated relationship with her father…kids love it (and so do I). There are two sequels, BTW.
Spanking Shakespeare, Jake Wizner: A senior in high school has to write his memoirs as part of a graduation requirement. As you might imagine, the details are hilarious. This book has been popular with boys who want to laugh. A lot.
What are your kids loving lately? Share their faves (and yours) in the comments!
Welcome to what I hope is a regular series I’m calling “Kids Are Loving” #kal. Here, I’m aiming to note what is popular with my teenage readers in hopes of having a record for future recommendations, to also serve as suggestions for those of us working with young people, and to remember what they enjoyed at that particular moment. These books are all ones students selected on their own and read as part of their independent reading lives.
Boy 21, Matthew Quick: boys love this book! I can’t keep our multiple copies in the library. From Matthew Quick’s website: Basketball has always been an escape for Finley. He lives in broken-down Bellmont, a town ruled by the Irish mob, drugs, violence, and racially charged rivalries. At home, his dad works nights and Finley is left alone to take care of his disabled grandfather. He’s always dreamed of somehow getting out, but until he can, putting on that number 21 jersey makes everything seem okay…
Monster, Graphic Novel, adapted by Guy Sims from original by Walter Dean Myers: a graphic novel of the popular story of WDM’s Steve. Tackles timely questions in a gripping, accessible way. Students who loved the original Monster also like this version. More info here.
Redefining Realness, Janet Mock: another popular selection that is informative and inspirational as well as a great example of how literacy can save us. Plus, Mock has a fantastic online presence that encourages follow-up and further reading.
The Death of Bees, Lisa O’Donnell: a student explained why she loved this book: alternating narrators and a mystery that isn’t resolved until the last few pages. Great for kids who love mysteries, young adults as protagonists (and I found them portrayed accurately, though it took me a moment to get used to the narrators because they talk just like…well, like teenagers!), and a well-told, sentimental story. (The link takes you to an NPR story about the book).
I received this amazing grant from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, allowing me to stock my classroom library with an awe-inspiring number of books my kids will actually enjoy reading. While perusing the catalogue, I noticed that Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin was among the options. KMG is one of those books that evokes an instant reaction for me: flashback to early high school (or maybe late middle school). I was a binge reader, so I probably was in the process of reading every book Duncan had ever written by that point. I was most likely splayed out on my bed while my grandmother was most likely telling me to do something (most likely to wash the dishes or pour the food up after dinner) and I was unable to tear myself away from the book. I passed much of my youth like that.
During this particular time of year, when life threatens to speed up and have its way with me, I start to read for comfort as a way to reorient
Killing Mr. Griffin: Nearly As Good Now as It Was Then
myself. This type of reading is my self-care, I reckon. I might reread a book or two that I’ve enjoyed (cue Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed), a lot of young adult literature, some poetry…I don’t want to veer too far outside of the familiar because I need a place to stand (or read, if you will), that is comforting. That’s why I wanted to reread KMG. Would time stand still the same way? Would I feel those little creepy thrills at the mystery? Would I be as enmeshed with a text in the ways I was when I was a teenager?
Essentially, yes. The quick premise of the book: Mr. Griffin is a high school English teacher who pushes his students to be excellent. He doesn’t take late work, doesn’t accept mediocrity, insists that students think critically. Wait. Am I Mr. Griffin?! I hope not, because four particular students decide to play a prank on him and scare Mr. Griffin into becoming a nicer teacher. Of course, given that Duncan wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, this intention was going to go awry, and it did. The kids kill Mr. Griffin.
I’m relatively sure that when I read it as a teenager, I would have been all caught up in the social structure of the killer kids: they lure in a nerdy junior (the majority of them are seniors), they make her feel that she belongs, they complain about the teacher being too demanding. I would have totally gotten behind their cause (well, up to a point), allowing myself to get caught up with the momentum of the story. I would not have paid any attention to Duncan’s attempts at Mr. Griffin’s backstory, choosing instead to consume myself with how Murder Inc. was going to either hold or fold as more people began to find out what they’d done. I did feel some anxiety at moments around the actions of the one kid at the center who orchestrated everything. But, yeah. I would have spent all night reading it, going back to wherever I got that book the next day (be that the public library if it were a Saturday or the Thrifty Bookworm if I could get a ride there to trade it in) to keep reading something along those lines.
Fast forward to nearly 25 years later. Here’s what I noticed reading KMG this time:
Lois Duncan had some great lines of prose, particularly when it came to description. A line I wrote down to use as a mentor sentence: Susan turned to see David Ruggles running toward her, the slightness and delicacy of his bone structure giving him the framework of a kite with his blue Windbreaker billowing out beneath his arms, the wind seeming to lift and carry him (3).
All I could think about this time was how similar my teaching philosophy was to Mr. Griffin and how, IRL, if you’re a tough teacher, you’re often not considered a “good” teacher by students until years down the road. I also thought it was so sad that he truly loved his students and working with them and all they were concerned about was their grades. So, they killed him. Yipes. And he and his wife were expecting a baby?! NOPE.
I was less forgiving of plot holes. Characters came and went, then reappeared (or didn’t) with little rhyme or reason. Again, I notice this now but then? Such discrepancies wouldn’t have bothered me much. I was also not satisfied with the (relatively) tidy ending.
There are some fantastic allusions to Macbeth (the Murder Inc. kids make a reference to the line about the old man “having so much blood in him”) and there are several to Hamlet. The English teacher in me cheered.
In sum: Grade then: A; Grade now: B+
Reading one of my classics was a delightful experience. While I’m sad about how things ended for Mr. Griffin, I do think the experience of reading the book was as positive now as it was then. I also have had a series of great conversations with colleagues about rereading the books that mattered to them as young people and if they held up to our grown up eyes. Wouldn’t that be a wonder to share with our students? But, oh, it was simply joyful to sit in a restaurant this afternoon and read, and read, and read and not care what time it was, or who needed me. For those moments, it was me and my book. And that was all that mattered.