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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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Heri Za Kwanzaa

December 28, 2018

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

Heri za Kwanzaa means Happy Kwanzaa. Since Kwanzaa began on December 26, and since I know so little about the holiday, I thought that today was the perfect opportunity to learn about it. Also, due to the fact that I know so little about it, I would be happy for anyone to correct anything that I have posted. This post intends simply to touch the surface of the holiday. Furthermore, I am very interested in literature that may include mention of Kwanzaa or other traditions related to Kwanzaa. Feel free to post comments for literature and/or corrections!

Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga founded Kwanzaa in 1966. It is an African-American and pan-African holiday which celebrates community, family, and culture. It begins on December 26 and continues until January 1. The first symbol of Kwanzaa is the mkeka, a placemat which demonstrates African traditions. Kwanzaa is based upon seven principles called the Nguzo Saba. Karenga explains: “As we said in the ‘60s, the Nguzo Saba are a Black value system, a set of communitarian African values which aid us in grounding ourselves righteously and rightly, directing our lives toward good and expansive ends, and toward conceiving and bringing into being the good communities, societies and world we all want and work and struggle so hard to bring into being.” Kwanzaa is celebrated with feasts, music, dance, poetry and narratives. The holiday is concluded with a day of reflection upon the commitments of the seven principles. Karenga continues, “The holiday, then will of necessity, be engaged as an ancient and living cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice in its reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person in community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the integrity of the environment and our kinship with it, and the rich resource and meaning of a people's culture.” I thought that this sentiment is consistent with the foundations of other religions. I am interested in Kwanzaa’s inclusion of metaphor, symbol, and history. Due to the foundational nature of the seven principles, I have listed them below. I find these ideas consistent with the season.

The seven principles of Kwanzaa include:

Umoja: Unity, the willingness to help one another

Kujichagulia: Self-determination, that we make our own decisions

Ujima: Collective work and responsibility, that working together creates a better life for all

Ujamaa: Cooperative economics, that we support our community

Nia: Purpose, that we have a reason for living

Kuumba: Creativity, that we use our hands and minds to make things

Imani: Faith, that we believe in ourselves, our ancestors, and our future.

All information for this blog is taken from the Official Kwanzaa website.

Whatever your faith, whatever your community, we hope that you celebrate with peace and love. Happy holidays from Harrison Middleton University!

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Literary Magazines

December 7, 2018

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

“We should like to think of the readers as a homogeneous group of friends, united by a common appreciation of the beautiful, - idealists of a sort, - and to share with them what has seemed significant to us.” - Eugene Jolas, editor of TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review was first published in 1927. Only twenty seven issues exist, all published between 1927 and 1938. This eclectic quarterly (not to be confused with the more contemporary Transition Magazine) published all sorts of work. It intended to support modernist and surrealist writers. In the first issue, Jolas wrote: “Of all the values conceived by the mind of man throughout the ages, the artistic have proven the most enduring. Primitive people and the most thoroughly civilized have always had, in common, a thirst for beauty and an appreciation of the attempts of the other to recreate the wonders suggested by nature and human experience. The tangible link between the centuries is that of art. It joins distant continents in to a mysterious unit, long before the inhabitants are aware of the universality of their impulses.” Though issues of this journal are difficult to find, a friend lent me a copy of the 26th issue, published in 1937. It has many stories to tell.

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review, Number Twenty-Six, 1937. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

TRANSITION: A Quarterly Review, Number Twenty-Six, 1937. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The journal includes articles, essays, and literary works in either German, English, and French. In other words, the recipients of this journal were educated and, most likely, tri- or bilingual. Also, I assume that the audience was interested in material that not just broke the rules, but defied them. It includes prints of both art and music, poetry and drama. The Contents page lists the following categories: verse, prose, the ear, the eye, cinema, the theatre, workshop, inter-racial, and architecture. Published in black and white, it does include images from Mondrian, Man Ray, and Joan Miró (among others). I was, personally, most surprised and pleased at the inclusion of a hand-written composition of “Gyp’s Song” from Second Hurricane by Aaron Copland, dated January 21, 1936. He calls this a piece of Gebrauchsmusik, or music composed for an amateur group.

The literature section contains a couple of astonishing things. First of all, it has an original publication of Work in Progress by James Joyce. This was published in periodicals which allowed the artist to continue writing and perhaps fund the remainder of their writing. Joyce calls his piece: Work in Progress, Opening pages of Part Two, Section Three. Of course, Work in Progress was finally completed in 1939 and published as Finnegan’s Wake. That this piece exists at all is one of luck due to the chance meeting of Joyce and Jolas. Furthermore, it is so rare anymore to see a partial work. Either we have less patience or time for serial publications, but it is neat to pick up Joyce’s story at the line which begins: “It may not or maybe a no concern of the Guinnesses but.” Furthermore, the Contributor section says nothing of Joyce himself and reads in a style different from all of the other contributors. It reads:

“The fragment of James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” which appeared in TRANSITION No. 23 (February 1935). “Opening and Closing Pages of Part II, Section II”, will be published in book form early in 1937, under the title of “Storiella as she is Syung”, by the Corvinus Press, London. This edition, which will be limited to 150 hand-printed copies, will include reproductions in color of two illuminated lettrines by Lucia Joyce.

“No further fragments of “Work in Progress” will be published in book form, as the book will appear in its entirety some time in 1937, probably some six months after the issuance of the trade edition of “Ulysses” in Great Britain. One thousand de luxe copies of “Ulysses” were published in London by John Lane on October 3, 1936.”

It should be noted that an edition of “Storiella as she is Syung” was auctioned in 2007 for $14,400, but in 1936, Joyce had trouble publishing this text. He struggled to write Work in Progress due to the poor reception of early chapters, as well as failing health, and rising conflicts prior to World War II. In fact, the first sections of the book had been published by the popular magazine The Dial. The editors at The Dial asked to rewrite his text and finally refused to publish the rest of it. And it is at this time that Joyce happened to meet the Jolas’s who became interested in carrying it in TRANSITION. We are so lucky that they did, considering it allowed Joyce to finish and then publish all of Finnegan’s Wake two years before his death.

Finally, a portion of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is included in this edition of TRANSITION. While the story is listed in the Contents page, there is no information about Kafka in the Contributors section. While it was surely an oversight, I find this deletion significant. Kafka died in 1924 almost ten years after the initial publication of Metamorphosis and nine years before the first translation into English. Originally translated into English by Willa and Edwin Muir (still very popular today) in 1933, Eugene Jolas, then, translated this version for TRANSITION himself. It is not an easy version to find, perhaps only because it exists in pieces of the serialized magazine.

In looking through this quarterly, I am amazed at the amount of strings attached to each work. There are social, historical, personal, anecdotal, artistic and cultural implications of nearly every aspect. For more fun, I suggest following just one of these threads: research Eugene Jolas, or the Muirs, or publishing in the 1930s, or wartime effects on literature, etc. This edition alone could go in so many different directions. Of course, this is always true. Art of any form interacts with culture in complex ways, some of which seem invisible in the moment of publication. Reflection offers such a deep wonder which impresses me beyond words. Researching this quarterly has turned into a minor obsession, a wormhole of sorts that takes me away from my daily tasks and leads me into the lives of so many others.

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Love Letters

February 16, 2018

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

“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one.” - Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden

I think that it would be ideal to have somewhere between 96 and 3 words for love. Certainly, one does not seem enough. It is much like the word nature, which contains so much. When discussing literature, we spend so much time just trying to figure out what type of love we are talking about...what type of love the characters demonstrate. Moreover, we use the same word to say that we love something as silly as ice cream, and something as serious as a lost loved one. The following love letters fit the week's theme, which celebrates St. Valentine. They are an exchange between Nathaniel Hawthorne and his future wife Sophia Peabody. They married in 1842 and had three children and a long marriage. Though both were known to be quiet and reclusive, these letters prove of an intense and passionate relationship.

Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to Sophia as his “Dove” and said that she was his sole companion. He continues, “I need no other - there is no vacancy in my mind, any more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!” After their first child was born, Nathaniel Hawthorne also felt a different kind of love and he voices this profound responsibility of fatherhood. He writes, “I have business on earth now, and must look about me for the means of doing it.”

We wish you health, happiness and love. Contemplate and celebrate the many meanings of love this week!

Nathaniel Hawthorne to Sophia Peabody, December 5, 1839

Dearest, – I wish I had the gift of making rhymes, for methinks there is poetry in my head and hear since I have been in love with you. You are a Poem. Of what sort, then? Epic? Mercy on me, no! A sonnet? No; for that is too labored and artificial. You are a sort of sweet, simple, gay pathetic ballad, which Nature is singing, sometimes with tears, sometimes with smiles, and sometimes with intermingled smiles and tears.

 

Sophia Peabody to Nathaniel Hawthorne, December 31, 1839

Best Beloved, – I send you some allumettes wherewith to kindle the taper. There are very few but my second finger could no longer perform extra duty. These will serve till the wounded one be healed, however. How beautiful it is to provide even the slightest convenience for you, dearest! I cannot tell you how much I love you, in this back-handed style. My love is not in this attitude, - it rather bends forwards to meet you.

What a year this has been to us! My definition of Beauty is, that it is love, and therefore includes both truth and good. But those only who love as we do can feel the significance and force of this.

My ideas will not flow in these crooked strokes. God be with you. I am very well, and have walked far in Danvers this cold morning. I am full of the glory of the day. God bless you this night of the old year. It has proved the year of our nativity. Has not the old earth passed away from us? - are not all things new?

Your Sophie

- These letters can be found in: Forever Yours: Letters of Love. St. Martin's Press, 1991.

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