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.
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.
It’s an all-hands on deck type of situation with my classroom now. All my kids are reading, but they won’t go to the library, I can’t get a library cart for them, and the books they want to read aren’t readily available.
When I decided to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my sophomores, I decided to for several reasons, many of them about the importance of the text as “American” (whatever that means), and also because the character Jim presents all sorts of conundrums. I also wanted them to come to their own conclusions about whether the text should be taught in classrooms (the culminating debate for the text). That Huck can’t quite resolve the conflict between his conscience and his heart is just as compelling, and, while at the center of the novel, there are numerous other angles that also provide interesting moments of analysis.
I also remembered when I taught the text a couple of years ago that I was absolutely worn out once we got done with the book. With the last 12 chapters to go, I’m feeling that same way, and have been thinking about why.
The additional layer that often gets overlooked in these discussions about appropriateness, N-words and the rest is how much background knowledge you have to build for kids AND how much correcting of historical inaccuracies you also have to resolve. Students are as naive as Huck when it comes to thinking about Jim, and–this is where I understand why I have to teach this text and be on my game every single time I work with the kids–they will remain that way unless you help them think of him otherwise.
They want to call Jim illiterate. They want to say that he’s not “smart”. They want to think him illogical. They also have questions about enslaved Africans: would Jim have known his family in Africa? They ask with a genuine interest.
They also think they know everything about slavery because they saw Django Unchained.
I want to pass out, but I can’t.
I have been building text sets out of necessity (ah, the mother of invention) to give them a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans. I’ve shown clips from Skip Gates’ newest documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross which talks about slavery and fugitive slave laws (and if you don’t cry when you watch the story of Margaret Garner, well, then…), pulled from slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, historical documents, etc.
I am cobbling together supplemental texts as quickly as I can, which is fine. It’s just…frustrating and disheartening and, yes, exhausting. Teaching HF is fraught with my own internal conflicts: is it worth reading a text that potentially takes so much out of me emotionally, through analyzing Huck’s conflict amidst the historical setting and contradictions? Is it worth having to correct so many plain-wrong misunderstandings about enslaved Africans, about romanticized notions of slavery, of fighting to help them see Jim as a person (before that all goes to hell when they reach Phelps’ farm)?
I would say yes, though I’m uneasy.
I think, too, that I’ve come to the point that I think this text should be taught as interdisciplinary, with a History teacher who can set to rights the wrongs that kids have internalized. And I’m not putting this work off on a History teacher; rather, I simply think that the more kids have the opportunity to learn counternarratives, and apply them to texts to broaden or correct their (mis)understandings, the better critical thinkers, writers and people they can become.
Because the struggle is so real right now, and I have never been happier to know that tomorrow is the weekend and I can shore up my own courage before returning down the Mississippi River with them on Monday.
The best measure for me to determine if I’m reading a book that is weighty and meaningful (and please keep in mind that these terms hold various currency at different times in my life, dependent on what I’m supposed to be doing or attempting to ignore) is if I’m unafraid to read and cry on the subway.
I’ve read several titles that had me weeping, furtively wiping my eyes, wearing my sunglasses UNDERGROUND because I was overcome with something emotional about a text. I admit that I hope people don’t think I’m insane, but, when a book takes you, you don’t really quite care enough about what people might say. All that matters is, well, the book.
In this frenzied summer of teaching writing with high schoolers and literacy to preservice and new teachers, I have also been attempting to help all of them broaden their understandings of what it means to read and write. The teachers participate in a book club in hopes of remembering what real readers do (funny, they tend to want to impose all of these arcane rules on students that they would never do to themselves. I constantly remind them that, if they don’t want to complete particular activities after doing something, then students don’t want to either). Given that the class is a mix of elementary, middle and high school teachers, of all subjects (no comment on how much of a challenge this is, but I will say that thoughtful, flexible groupings make everything better), I provided a list of books along the grade-level spectrum.
One of them was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universeby Benjamin Alire Saenz. Now, as much as this is a young adult novel about two Latino young men discovering who they are, falling in love, and being loved by such wonderful parents (oh, I wanted their parents to be my parents or to be parents of kids I taught, or just, I don’t know, hang out with them or go bowling or just be in the same room with them…) it is equally as much a book about literacy. The boys read to each other, share poetry, draw, write letters…I wonder if this is caused because the setting is late 1980s El Paso, Texas and how much things would probably be different (I had a moment when I wondered, why don’t they just text, which sent me rereading for the actual year), but I am so grateful that this novel is set in the time before technology changed everything.
Aristotle & Dante: Two kids you should get to know
This, too, is a story about boys who love each other. Machismo aside, they cry, they hug, they are true to each other. While one boy’s father is struggling to be demonstrative with his love around his son, the other boy’s father is loving, gentle, kind in ways that encourage his peer to do the same.
It’s a wonderful model for what friendship might mean between two boys who love each other on multiple levels, and who want to be who they are within and without the confines of societal expectations, regional (mis)understandings, and, for lack of a better word, the universe. Don’t we need such nuanced stories, particularly when it’s so easy to think of young men as hard, as uncaring, as ones who definitely don’t cry?
Now, I’m back on the YA lit train and I can’t get enough of it. It’s been years since I really was able to immerse myself in the genre. It’s so well-written, so evocative, so important for young adults and the folks who try to understand them and who value them.
I’m ordering a few copies of Aristotle and Dante (side note: and I’m also happy the Printz award committee selected this book–let’s hear it for diversity!!) and I can’t wait for kids to say to me, “Dr. P, can you believe it when…?” and I’ll nod, and we’ll dig in to those conversations about loving texts, and young folks who figure it out, and who we love as much as if they were real people, too.
Drown always comes up as a book people often use in their classrooms. Kids love it, they say. That refrain, of kids loving it, is usually enough to garner at least one copy of said title in my classroom free reading collection, but I let Drown allude me. Two years ago, while combing through my department head’s binder, I found some stories from Drown with her meticulous notes and queries to push kids into and through the text, and thought that I’d use those stories in my Modern American Short Story unit.
So late to the party, I was.
The kids loved Junot. Rather, they loved the humor, the honesty, the heartbreak of the characters. When we read the New Yorker short story “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” we had an intense discussion about Oscar: fool or hero? Wasn’t dying for love admirable? (Many thought not. Oscar, they reasoned, was just a pitiful loser).
When I knew Diaz was releasing a new collection of short stories, I was more receptive (finally). I often half-listen to adults, but when young people talk, they generally have my full attention.
After being completely floored that my young Dominican students (particularly the boys) had NO IDEA who Junot Diaz was, and after I made several grandish claims (see earlier blog posts), I photocopied his short story “Ms. Lora” from another New Yorker where it ran that summer.
I was so anxious to finally read This is How You Lose Her that I ordered it on Amazon, was promptly struck with book buyer’s amnesia (it’s happened before), and purchased another copy in a local bookstore. (And maybe I was attempting to correct my book buying karma by keeping it local–sort of).
Then, I intentionally took the subway from one end to another, purposely scheduled a meeting and arrived an hour early so I could read and not be interrupted, so I could have the experience that kids have been having all along.
This experience of reading TIHYLH has been infuriating, comforting, endearing…makes me want to reread every page real slow because I don’t have something to read next that’s going to be as good.
I vacillate between wanting to punch Yunior in the face for being so callous with women to hoping to offer him a soft place to land for losing his brother to cancer. I want to shake the women who bide their time with men who see them when their “main women” are otherwise occupied. I want to take others by the hand and tell them to just hold on. It gets better.
I read so many pieces of text in my life that I think I lose my edge of actually feeling…thus, when I read something and it sucker punches me, I’m disoriented, gotta tell everyone about it, intentionally schedule reading time into classes so kids can read (but really so I can read, too).
What am I going to do with that extra copy? Well, I emailed that student who I had in class this summer and told him I’ve ended up with an extra copy of the book. Does he want it? Wait. First, I emailed him to ask if he knew the book was out and he said “Ha, way ahead of you Kim. This Is How You Lose Her, planning on getting it this week. Also, the short story Ms. Lora, was phenomenal. The Dominican culture in it is very similar to my own. I never knew I would ever find such things as the plastic covers on sofas being written about in a book! Hope all is well.”
I’ll make sure that extra copy gets delivered this weekend and follow up in a few weeks. I will listen more than I speak, simply content that a book and an author can create a text that we care about and will talk about for months to come.
This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz
Then, he’ll return the favor. “I’ll have a book for you by the summer comes,” he writes.