BOOK REVIEW: Better With Books

July 12, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Melissa Hart’s Better With Books is a crash-course in diverse young adult literature. The book suggests preteen and teen reading lists in the following categories: adoption and foster care, body image, immigration, learning challenges, LGBTQ+ youth, mental health, environmentalism, physical disability, poverty and homelessness, race and ethnicity, and spirituality. Hart debuts Better With Books in a time of increasing sociopolitical tension and growing diversity; however, she effectively references contemporary issues like immigration policies to argue that reading - now more than ever - is a vital tool to grow a new generation of empathetic and civic-minded people.

Hart relies on breadth rather than depth to introduce her audience to as many books about as many marginalized identities and experiences as possible. This scope succeeds because Hart writes to a friendly audience of fellow educators and caregivers. From the foreword written by Sharon M. Draper, a National Teacher of the Year recipient, to her own introductory comments on social issues in the classroom, Hart establishes this book as a necessary reference for any teacher. Therefore, she spends little time making the case that books do actually promote empathy in young readers. After all, her intended audience of educators supposedly agree that diverse representation in literature is a foundation for civic values. Hart does argue, though, that diverse literature has transformational, measurable change on individual students.

While Hart’s book operates as a guide of suggested reading lists and book summaries, the most fulfilling sections are the chapter introductions. She frames every chapter with stories about how one book has changed a child’s life. Hart deftly expands the lens in each chapter from an individual -- an immigrant, the mother of a transgender daughter, and Hart’s own child -- to a larger population. For example, in Chapter 1, Hart describes Lyda, a preteen who lived in foster care. After reading Steve Pemberton’s memoir A Chance in the World, something shifts in Lyda’s life. Now a college honors student, Lyda says, “literature can help … It pushes you to feel for characters and makes you want to do something about the issues they’re facing” (3). Hart then zooms from Lyda to the following: “At any given time, 438,000 US kids live in foster care” (3). Upon closer investigation, a reader may recognize rhetorical flaws in these large jumps from individual students to entire populations. While no one student’s experience can represent a marginalized group, Hart does effectively hook readers by demonstrating how books have changed one person’s life. The not-too-subtle suggestion, then, is that a book can also change numerous more lives. As per the back cover, “Through the power of reading, kids can find comfort and perspective,” but adults should curate these books to “find a way into meaningful conversations with their tweens and teens.”

Hart does not necessarily imply that all students will engage with books in the same way, but she does use literacy as the thread through which she invites readers to imagine a better future. After citing the 438,000 children in foster care, Hart ends her introduction by returning to Lyda being adopted. She describes a photo in which Lyda poses with her parents at a baseball game: “In the photo, they look joyful … intimate. They look like a family” (9). On the next page, the reader sees a stock list of book summaries and suggestions. While the transition to the reading list may seem abrupt, this tension highlights Hart’s intention. She pushes the reader to make the connection back to their own classroom, encouraging educators to fill in the gap between Lyda’s story and their students. While teachers cannot possibly ensure that every child is adopted or has a happy ending, Hart emphasizes the readers’ responsibility to help other children feel acknowledged and validated by reading books about people like themselves.

While Hart thoughtfully and soulfully connects individual people to life-changing texts, her text could benefit from precision. For example, Hart lists preteen and teenage options without describing how she is labeling the texts as such: reading level, maturity of content, states curriculum guides, or other metrics? Additionally, Hart could preface her introduction with a note on how she avoided books that tokenize diverse groups. For example, in the section on physical disability, Hart could have clearly noted which books were actually designed for readers with disabilities: books with multimodal components and Braille translations. Furthermore, a brief conclusion would provide more cohesion to the text and a final call to action for the reader.

Better With Books is much needed as a down-to-earth reading guide that connects educators and parents with books about diversity. Hart writes with an easy-to-navigate format, an accessible tone, and a clear conscious.

Hart, Melissa. Better With Books. Sasquatch Books, 2019, Print.

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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”

From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many others).

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I Don't Know

June 7, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I taught high school fresh out of college. I was so young that people often thought I was a student (which is perhaps also why I was so nervous about being the one in front). Suddenly, after years of watching someone else do all the lecturing, I was in charge of a classroom. To say I was intimidated is putting it lightly. In fact, I felt many emotions – excitement, anxiety, challenge, fear, etc. Up to that point, my educational model consisted of listening to lectures and doing group projects. I understand the reasons for (and benefits of) a lecture-style classroom, however, having been with Harrison Middleton University for awhile now, I also recognize its limitations.

My wonderful job enables me to discuss a wide variety of literature in small groups. Furthermore, technology allows us to do this with people around the world. No longer am I a lecturer at the front of a classroom. This experience has opened my eyes to some of my own flaws during my high school teaching experience. While I incorporated drama as often as possible into the high school curriculum, I did not utilize discussion nearly enough.

Leading discussions can be extremely intimidating for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, though the leader directs the flow, there is no ability to control all of the comments. Sometimes conversations enter a place that is off-topic or offensive, and the leader must reign those in. Sometimes conversations seem flat, boring, uninspired, or lacking in participation. Sometimes the students have not adequately read the material, and the leader must carry the conversation or the group must read passages out loud together and discuss it that way.

Also, the leader must do a lot of prep work ahead of time. First, the leader must prepare questions ahead of time and know the reading quite thoroughly. Second, the leader must lay down ground rules from the beginning, such as focusing all comments on the relevant text. Third, the leader must feel empowered to cut someone short, ask that the conversation return to the focus work. Typically the leader does not participate in the discussion, but often people will ask questions that have no answer. The leader, therefore, must feel comfortable with the limits of their knowledge.

As a high school teacher, I did not have any of these resources yet. I always felt ashamed when I did not know the answer immediately. Now, however, I find that saying “I don’t know” is exciting. Now I see it as an opportunity to discover something, even if it is just a factual review of the text. Personally, I get excited when we reach a spot where I do not know something because it is an opportunity to learn.

During a conversation in which I am the leader, I like to prepare clusters of questions. I often find themes, and try to group questions around that theme. Then, if a participant wanders from one theme into another, I can ask a followup question about it. Also, I like to leave a section to the side of my notes for what I call “I don’t know” questions, or, in other words, things I want to look up later on my own. Since I lead a lot of works about topics that are unfamiliar to me, sometimes I have a lot of “I don’t know” questions. And even when I lead discussions about something very familiar – say Shakespeare – I still come up with a ton of questions, which is so exciting!

Because I love to learn, I now realize that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response in any discussion. Not only have I fulfilled the old adage that “the more you learn, the less you know,” but I also get energized from the list of “I don’t know” questions down the side of my discussion notes.

To see this method in action, join us for the July Quarterly Discussion on either July 11 or 13. We will read a selection from Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind. Email for more information or to register.

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The Book of Seeds

April 26, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spring is upon us. Just as blossoms begin to show their strength, color, and vibrancy, so too the weather changes and begins to warm. All of the seasonal changes often add up to a change in attitude as well. Flowers, I believe, bring out the best of human nature, fostering images of beauty, strength, love, hope, and imagination. But where does the beauty begin? How does the flower take root and gain enough energy to grow their blooms?

Paul Smith begins his recent book The Book of Seeds; A Life-size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World (2018) with the following lines:

“Seeds are amazing. They can travel thousands of miles across oceans and continents, and can live for hundreds of years. A seed no bigger than a pinhead can grow into the tallest living organism on the planet. The smallest seed can barely be seen with the naked eye; the largest is the size of a human head. Over a period of more than 300 million years, seeds have evolved into every size, shape, and color imaginable” (6).

All of that seems amazing when one considers how little we discuss seeds in comparison to how much time is spent on animals, even extinct animals such as dinosaurs. Often we fail to notice the same awe-inspiring capabilities from plants of the same time period – ones to which we still have access! Paul Smith continues:

“Plant life on land evolved a staggering 600 million years ago, with the ancestors of many of these early plants still extant today: the mosses, clubmosses, horsetails, and ferns. These species don’t produce flowers or seeds; instead, they reproduce through spores. It was not until approximately 240 million years later that the first primitive seed-bearing plants appeared, an adaptation that conferred numerous advantages for survival, including the capacity for sexual reproduction in the absence of water, the ability to disperse over long distances, and the adaptability to survive in a dormant state for long periods of time until the right conditions arose. Today, the vast majority of plant species (more than 80 percent) are found in the tropics, but even places as inhospitable as Antarctica and the Sahara Desert support seed-bearing plant species” (7).

Seeds have adapted many tricks to optimize their environments. For example, some seeds remain dormant for long periods of time waiting until the conditions are ripe for life. Smith explains that some seeds, particularly those in warm, wet environments, do not remain dormant. Instead of storing energy, they choose to sprout quickly and gain access to the immediate environmental benefits. Other seeds, like the coconut, float which enables them to travel greater distances to access better growing conditions. Many seeds may remain dormant for years. One of the greatest examples of this was found in the 1960s during an excavation at King Herod’s palace in Israel. A 2,000 year old date palm seed was found among the ruins and when planted, it grew normally.

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A variety of seeds ready for spring planting. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

More impressive than their amazing adaptations, however, is the important part that seeds play in determining human existence. Without plants that can be planted and cultivated as a food source, humans would have to remain hunter gatherers. Seeds, especially the ones that can be saved and transported, allow humans to move to a new place, or stay in one place. The ability to grow foods impacts social connectivity and health. Smith writes, “The adaptive leap that humans made from collecting grains and seeds to planting and harvesting them seems to have occurred in parallel in several different places” (18). This astounding idea – that multiple communities who did not know of each others’ existence arrived at cultivation simultaneously indicates something important about the nature of humans and of our interaction with the planet. Smith notes that around 9500 BCE Wheat, Barley, Pea, and Lentil “were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent – what is now Iran and Iraq” (18). From there, he continues:

“At around the same time, Rice was first cultivated in China, followed by Soybean. In the Andes, the Potato was domesticated around 8000 BCE, together with beans. In New Guinea, Sugarcane and the Yam appear in the archeological record about 7000 BCE. In Africa, Sorghum was domesticated in about 5000 BCE, and in Central America, Maize was first cultivated around 4000 BCE. Domestication of livestock occurred over a similar period of time. The transformation of wild plants into crops through artificial selection and breeding enabled human communities to establish themselves in villages, towns, and cities, and to flourish” (19).

While the history of seeds is astoundingly impressive (and seeds themselves are as diverse as imaginable), more importantly, however, may be the future of plants. Smith claims that plant diversity is of utmost importance since the majority of life on earth depends upon plants. He notes that we have studied relatively few, however. He claims that plants seem nondescript, but they have important roles in our daily lives. Smith ends his introduction with a quote by Aldo Leopold which underscores the point that humans would better serve themselves and the earth by adding a curious intelligence into their dealings with plants. He quotes, “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” (27).

I highly suggest thumbing through this massive collection of seeds. The diversity and colorful arrays are astounding. It will leave you with yet another reminder of the world’s vast richness.

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