The Beginning of Social Justice Awareness

Yesterday, I mentioned a librarian who made space for me to dig deeper into the books we were reading as a class. Another influential person was her assistant (whose name, twenty-some years later I can’t remember!) This paraprofessional was always recommending young adult books grounded in social justice.

0440407850I read about Kurdish sisters fleeing to safety; I read about Holocaust survivors; I read about migrant farm workers and people crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. Looking back, these books easily could have been written last year. In some ways, it’s sad to think that our world hasn’t changed all that much. In other ways, I’m so thankful for a teacher who would make me aware of these human rights crises from a young age.

Journey of the Sparrows is one of those books that comes to mind from that era of reading. It follows the journey of three young children who travel from El Salvador to the United States, crated in the back of a truck. They end up in Chicago, where their story continues as they try to find work and make a life as undocumented immigrants.

This book paved the way to books like Enrique’s Journey, a journalistic book about a young boy crossing the border to find his mother. It laid the groundwork for my reading of Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions and is why I stand on the side of the refugee.

And, while Journey of the Sparrows was formative in itself, it will always represent that adult in my life who pushed my thinking and opened my eyes to a greater world. I hope that, as our girls grow older and their friends come to our home, I can be that adult for someone as well. I want our girls to be raised with a global awareness and a heart for the injustices both right here and around the world. Having these books in our home is helpful but having another trusted adult recommend them is incredibly powerful.

One of my greatest hopes is that they will have a librarian in their own school journey, just like I did, who sees that potential for justice and a heart for helping to push against systems of oppression.

Is there an adult who has influenced your reading journey? When did you start reading books that impacted your view of social justice?

A (1)This post is Day 9 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

Stretching My Thinking

As an avid reader, I entered eighth grade with most of the language arts curriculum already read. Luckily for me, I had a teacher and a librarian who recognized the fact that I was a self-motivated learner. So, while the rest of the class read The Diary of a Young Girl, I went to the library and read The Giver.

51UsRhmuBkL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What I loved about this exercise was reading these books in tandem. In order to skip class, I wrote a paper on totalitarianism in relation to both books. This was the first time I remember pairing books to create a deeper level of thinking. It changed the way I viewed reading and learning.

The Giver was also the book that helped me think critically about the government. It was one of the first dystopian novels I remember reading and I realized that, without political awareness, governments can become unsafe. I don’t remember thinking that this could actually happen in America but I do remember realizing that political involvement was nonnegotiable.

I know a lot of people compare our current political climate to dystopian novels and there are many days I completely understand. But I think the bigger reminder for me in this is to read books that stretch your thinking. Read stories with characters that make you uncomfortable. Read novels and memoirs and essays that help push back against your own status quo.

While The Giver is a fairly entry-level dystopian novel, I’m thankful for my teacher who put it in my hands and trusted me to make connections beyond the text. (Though, I’ve heard recently that it’s actually the first in a series. I may need to go back and read the others.) Now, I look at my reading habits and I’m often reading companion books that give me multifaceted views on a variety of topics. Because of that experience, I’ve learned to push my thinking and use books as a way to keep me on my toes and thinking critically.

What books helped you become more politically aware? Do you read to push your thinking?

A (1)This post is Day 8 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

The Book That Changed My Life

The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was much too young for its themes. I read it and connected to Scout as a young girl. But this book grabbed my attention and I kept reading. In high school, I reread it and dug into the injustice. As a new teacher, I reread it and connected to Miss Caroline, the teacher who was trying her hardest. I made Frank read it when we found out we were pregnant with Bea, telling him that Atticus is a model of understanding fathering.

220px-To_Kill_a_MockingbirdI know there are flaws in the book and perhaps it shouldn’t be a standard in curriculums of formative literature. I know I’ve romanticized Scout’s feisty spirit and Atticus’s noble role in his community. The fact that such an iconic book on race is written by a white woman is problematic.

However, sometimes we need to see ourselves in order to join a conversation. As a ten-year-old, I just wasn’t ready to jump into deep conversations of racial injustice. I needed some hand-holding and connection to my own life, even if it was simply the fact that the protagonist was also a young white girl.

Because of To Kill a Mockingbird, I learned to grapple with the uncomfortable issues of race and justice. I learned to question the status quo in my own experience. Because of To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve graduated to books on racism written by people of color who know what they are writing about.

Some books are important stepping stones to our awakening. Should everyone read To Kill a Mockingbird? No. It’s not for everyone. But I hope that my own girls read it and are transformed by it. I hope they continue to read it and grapple with the issues presented. And I hope they move on to other books that deepen their understanding of injustice and systemic racism.

I will be forever thankful for the lessons I learned from Harper Lee and for the journey her book set me on. This will always be one of my top favorite, life-changing books for that reason.

What book set you on a trajectory of discovery? Can you think of that pivotal read?

A (1)This post is Day 7 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

When Literary Friends Teach Life Lessons

This week, I’m remembering books I read during my middle school and high school years. I was incredibly fortunate to have librarians and teachers throughout my education who handed me an incredible array of books that made me think about my own life as well as exposed me to experiences that were vastly different from my own.

51TrAqwepPL._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_But before we get to some of those other life-changing books, I have to start this week with the author who most girls of my age and socio-economic status adored: Lucy Maud Montgomery. I think it’s interesting that, though Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, her books resurfaced in the 1980’s and 90’s in popularity. My mom doesn’t remember reading the Anne series but I know many women my age who look back on those books as pivotal in their reading journies.

Though Montgomery has written prolifically, the stories I most connected with were the seven Anne of Green Gables books and the Emily of New Moon trilogy. My Anne books are worn with all the rereadings over the years. While I was pregnant with Elle, Frank read the first book aloud and I loved reliving that story, knowing we were about to raise two girls.

I think what I loved most about Anne and Emily is that they leaned into their passions. They struggled with girlhood drama and stresses but their lives weren’t very much like mine. But what I did respond to and hope for was the fact that they knew what they wanted to do and they followed those dreams. Both were writers and, while I didn’t imagine that path for myself when I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to live a creative life. I wanted to follow my dreams and pursue my own dreams with the same hopeful energy.

I haven’t read the Emily books since my high school years but when I reread Anne with Frank, I remember connecting more with Marilla. Perhaps because I was a new mom raising my own feisty daughter, I understood Marilla’s exasperation more than when I was younger. Maybe I need to revisit these books again with the eyes of age and parenthood.

Recently, both the girls watched Canadian miniseries of Anne of Green Gables and I saw a new favorite emerge. Bea has watched it quite a few times now but Elle still talks about the “girl who walked on the roof.” I love that our own inquisitive, intense, spirited daughters will have a literary friend to turn to when they’re a bit older.

Is there a book or series that was published well before you were born that resonated with you, either in your younger years or now?

A (1)This post is Day 6 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

The Courage to Expand Horizons

I had to round out this week of childhood favorites with one I read over and over again, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, the story follows Francie Nolan through childhood and adolescence. Even though this book starts around the same time period and the protagonist is the same age as the Meet Samantha series, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn explores deeper issues like poverty, alcoholism, and the American Dream.

IMG_0786As a child, I loved Francie for the bookworm she was. Smith’s description of her first library card and her ritual of reading on the small fire escape captured my imagination.

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

When I first read the book, I saw a girl who idolized her father, clashed with her mother, and had the freedom to run around her Brooklyn neighborhood in ways I could only imagine from my place in the suburbs. As an adult, I read into the tragedy of a father who died of alcoholism, a mother who worked endlessly to make sure her family was cared for, and a girl who grew up all too quickly.

What Francie did for me, though was to normalize living in a world of books. I loved that this girl, who lived decades before me, could have that very same love as I did. I connected with her visits to the library, her eagerness for books and learning, and the desire to stretch beyond her neighborhood.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn taught me that, regardless of the specific books I read, the empathy and glimpse into a world beyond my own can give me the courage to act differently in my own life. Francie’s big move may have been to a different neighborhood but what I learned was that the foundation of imagination makes those moves possible. I wonder if I would have ended up in Paris without those faithful literary friends of my childhood? Did all my bookish habits give me the courage to move outside my comfort zone? According to Francie, I believe so.

I reread this book into my twenties as a comforting reminder that a foundation of reading can give us the courage to expand our horizons.

A (1)This post is Day 5 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

From Homemaker to Social Activist

Recently I found out that Frank had been putting my career as homemaker on our tax forms for the past six years. When I found out, I did not love that title. In his defense, apparently, this is an accepted phrase that won’t get your return flagged by the IRS. I pushed back against this antiquated term – I’m so much more than a simple homemaker!

51BEYPk-dtLWhen asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my childhood answers ranged from nurse to missionary to artist to teacher. I wasn’t limited by the realities involved in pursuing a vocation and I loved dreaming of all the things I could do. I always assumed I’d be a mother because that’s what most women in my life were.

And yet, when I read books, I identified with the characters who dreamed big dreams and pursued artistic careers. I wanted to go on adventures and live an exciting life. I never connected with the quieter characters, even if they more reflected who I was – and am.

When I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, I, of course, imagined myself to be most like the character of Jo. Partly because she’s the story’s protagonist and partly because she’s the sister who accomplishes it all. She travels (though not as she imagined she would), she pursues a career, and she gets married in the end. Unlike housewifely Meg, sickly Beth, and flighty Amy, Jo seemed to grapple with all the things I could imagine myself working through those same issues.

I look at my life now and see myself most in the character of Meg, staying home with the girls, struggling with my own high expectations of these years, trying to figure out what it means to live a domestic life well. In the story, Meg is the responsible oldest sister who follows the path laid out for her. Though she doesn’t marry a wealthy man, she does marry someone who befriends her parents and is approved by all. She is content living close to her parents and figuring out life as a wife and mother.

As I reflect on these characters, I suppose I have a bit of each sister in me. These days, I do identify most with Meg. When I was living abroad, Amy’s homesickness and exploration resonated with my experience. As I dabble in the world of writing and pursuing creative dreams, Jo’s experience of finding her own story hits home in so many ways. And, though I love to venture out and explore, I also love creating a safe space for our girls, just as Beth dreamed of.

Reflecting on these characters makes me want to go back and reread this story before my own girls are old enough to experience it. It’s been years since I’ve read this classic and I wonder how my perspective would shift if I read it as a mother. Would I see the world through Marmee’s eyes more clearly? How would I respond to Jo’s hopeless romanticism?

Frank just filed our taxes again and told me he changed my occupation to unpaid social activist. Maybe I have a little of Jo’s feistiness and desire to change the world after all.

Have you read Little Women? Which sister did you most identify with? Is there a character you imagined you’d grow up to be like?

A (1)This post is Day 4 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the A Literary Life. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 

When Fiction Sparks Recognition

The other day, I pulled out stacks and stacks of books I bought in my tween years. I know quite a few are still at my parents’ house and even more have been given away over the years. But these books that have been saved were like a treasure trove.

41LS4enKBZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Even though now I have to set goals to read more fiction, as a kid fiction was my go-to genre and more specifically, I adored historical fiction. Books like Number the Stars, about a family who helps their Jewish neighbors escape Denmark and Back Home about a British girl who was sent to America during World War II brought these events to life. I reread Lyddie about a girl who works at the mills in Lowell, Massachusets. The girls in the stories were around my age and I could easily imagine a role in the narratives.

Reading these fictional books set the stage for later history classes. My imagination had already been sparked so learning the dates and historical accounts seemed easier.

Looking through the books that shaped me now, I see a theme: A young, scrappy, often white, girl overcoming challenges in her world. Beyond the young white girl, I didn’t have much in common with these heroines. And looking back, these stories often romanticized the details a little bit. There was some tension, yes. But the stories ended happily and with a neat conclusion.

Now I look for a bit more grit in my fiction. I don’t necessarily want or need that tidy conclusion. My characters still don’t represent me much. I look for protagonists who are people of color and often their lives bear little resemblance to my own.

But as a child, I think seeing myself a little bit was important. I connected with these girls because I could imagine myself in their (made-up) stories. As we fill our library with books for our own girls and I dream about the day when I can introduce them to my old favorites, Frank and I are intentional about including books from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. I love reading Peter’s Chair and A Pocket for Corduroy with Elle before bed.

But I’m also remembering that it’s developmentally appropriate to find ourselves in the books we read. That as Bea gets old enough to absorb these deeper chapter books, we’ll continue to mix in perspectives from people of color. But I also hope that by seeing herself in the story, a spark is ignited to find more and more stories, even if she’s not the heroine.

When you were young, how did you see yourself in the books you read? How has that changed as an adult?

A (1)This post is Day 3 of the Write 31 Days Challenge. I’m spending the month of October writing about the A Literary Life. You can find the entire series over at my A Literary Life page. Disclosure: Amazon Affiliate links included in this post. If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.