A Light in the Darkness

29436571March: Book Three, by John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell (2016)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a book on Goodreads with a higher rating than this one (4.7/5 stars), but that’s not why I read the conclusion to John Lewis’ March trilogy this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book win so many awards, (4 at ALA’s Youth Media Awards announced last week and the National Book Award last year) but that wasn’t why I read it either.

I read it because I needed some hope.

When earlier this week, I opened a new box of books at school, I breathed a sigh of relief to find March among them. It’s been a rough week, hasn’t it? It’s hard to not feel hopeless every time I turn on the news or scroll through my social media feeds, and after getting a little less sleep than normal due to my husband’s knee surgery on Monday, by this weekend, I was feeling weighed down. Hearing from one of our country’s leading civil rights activists who has really been through it all, that’s what I needed.

If you’ve read the first two volumes of March, you know what to expect in this one. The third volume picks up with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, when four young girls died and dozens more were injured. It then carries through the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X, the killings of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, Freedom Summer (with the major push to register black voters in Alabama), and culminating with the marches in Selma. It’s a dark story, darker than the first two for sure. There were more than a few scenes that make my neck prickle at purchasing this for middle school.

But there’s no way I can let this one stay off the shelves. There’s too many important things in these pages, things that I don’t think my students are aware of. I know before reading the first March, I had very little knowledge of John Lewis and the incredible role he has played in our country’s history (and modern politics),  and I was raised in a much more diverse population. It seems as though we teach about MLK, Rosa Parks, maybe Malcolm X in more liberal classrooms, but that’s about the extent of it. The fact that Lewis chose to tell his story through graphic format is genius. Not only does it meet students where they are (in the graphic novel section), but also it brings the reality of the horror of our nation’s past to very bright light. And the thing is, it doesn’t take much to see how relevant this story from 50 years ago is in our current situation.

The thing that I think makes this book so powerful, though, is what I mentioned at the beginning: the hope. Lewis does not shy away from the violence, from the language, from the very real darkness he lived through. But interspersed with that darkness are scenes from Inauguration Day in 2009, when President Obama took office. These little glimpses show us that despite all the terror Lewis has witnessed, he knows the value, the purpose, the goal and that it’s all worth it. He knows that those terrible years in the 60s were just the beginning of a lifetime of hard struggle (as is evidenced in his 30 years in U.S. Congress so far), and yet he’s not giving up. He’ll keep doing the work, and so can we. As sad as I am that Obama is no longer in Washington, I can remain hopeful, because Lewis is. And even when he finally does take a well-deserved rest, there will be others there, maintaining the fight.

3 stars, Mr. Lewis.

Girl Problems, or something

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir, by Liz Prince (2014)

Opening line: “No, Mommy!”

From the time she was a toddler (actually, she says from the time she left the womb), Liz knew that she wasn’t like other girls. She didn’t want to wear dresses, she didn’t want to play with dolls, and she didn’t really like playing with other girls either. Her heroes were Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. She played baseball on a team with all boys (until the day they made everyone put on cups). She very strongly felt that she was more like a boy than a girl, or at least any girl that anyone else saw. And although we have a shared experience of being called a boy in the school cafeteria (thanks for insisting on that haircut, mom), we were horrified for different reasons. Me, because I was most definitely a girl and wanted to be seen as such; her, because she wanted to be able to be seen as herself.

I guess those are similar.

This graphic memoir is such a wonderful contribution to YA lit. Whether you identify with Liz, where your normal is different from what the world tells you is normal, or whether you are confused by all the transgender issues in the news today (to be clear: Liz does not identify as transgender), or whether you are wanting a way to show others that their normal is okay, this book is for you! It gives such an honest portrayal of what we all know is a very confusing time, when all of us try to figure out just who we are and how we fit, and how the image other people see of us is often not how we see ourselves. (Interestingly, the photo of Liz in the author’s blurb looks nothing like the way she draws herself, minus the short hair and glasses. Perhaps the two shall never meet.) Liz is an amazingly resilient character with lots of sass to combat the endless bullying she encounters, a great example for many to aspire to. We need more like her, and more like Tomboy.

2 stars

Marching Still

March: Book One (2013) and Book Two (2015), by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

Opening line: “‘John? Can you swim?'”

It’s amazing how relevant this story is today.

In the first two parts of the planned trilogy, readers of this startling graphic novel series will get a full picture of the life and times of U.S. Representative John Lewis. The only one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement still alive, Rep. Lewis partnered with a member of his D.C. staff and a graphic novelist to tell his story to a younger generation. Book One starts with the morning of President Obama’s first inauguration, a day that blends itself in between the stories of previous decades, before going back to John’s childhood as the son of a sharecropper in Pike County, Alabama. Believing it was his destiny to be a preacher, he started speaking his gospel to the chickens he was in charge of on the family farm, but eventually realized that his mission lay elsewhere. While in college, he met with other students who were practicing non-violence in preparation for protests they intended to do at lunch counters that refused to serve black customers. Before long, John was heavily involved, becoming an active member in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helping to organize the lunch counter protests, movie theater protests, the Freedom Rides to Birmingham and Montgomery, and then the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It is clear from the structure of the book that Rep. Lewis (and his co-writers) meant for the reader to connect the events of the past with today’s current situation. As I mentioned above, snippets of President Obama’s inauguration day on January 20, 2009 appear throughout the text, often overlapping with images or word bubbles from events during the 50s and 60s. Perhaps this project began as a symbol of triumph for John Lewis, showing that all the hard work of he and his fellow civil rights activists paid off as we elected our first black president. I wonder, though, if and how the third installment will be different. As I poured through these pages, I couldn’t help but see images that look haunting like the ones I see on the news and internet today, the words of President Kennedy sounding so similar to those of President Obama in response to another tragedy.

Earlier this month, Rep. Lewis spoke in Atlanta with other civil rights leaders, addressing this issue. “I tell you,” he said, “we have a fight on our hands. I happen to think we’re too quiet.” He seems hopeful though, that with some “good trouble and necessary trouble” we can keep marching more toward equality. Let’s hope he’s right.

Dark, graphic, yet hopeful. 2 stars.

Retail Therapy 4: Books Bought Saturday

Saturday afternoon I had to run into the library to pick up a DVD I had on hold. That was all I needed to do. But a certain someone who was accompanying me had never been to the FriendShop, not to mention the library itself. This needed to be remedied, obviously. I was only acting out of mercy, when I brought him down to the basement and bought the following three books:

  • Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi (I suppose I should also read Lolita while I’m at it.)
  • Tales of a Female Nomad, by Rita Gold Gelman (When I worked at B&N, I was usually in charge of straightening the travel section after close, and this book always caught my eye for some reason.)
  • Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (Always adding to my Atwood collection. Especially since this is the predecessor to The Year of the Flood, which I own already.)

Purchased from: CPL FriendShop

Total Spent: $3.00

Retail Therapy 3: Books I Bought Today

Come on, folks. It’s been 2.5 months since I’ve bought any books. Which is why I went a little wild at the FriendShop today:

  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron
  • Nowhere in Africa, by Stefanie Zweig
  • On Beauty,by Zadie Smith
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue
  • Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See
  • The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

Purchased from: CPL FriendShop

Total spent: $7.00

Leaving one world for another

Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston (2009)

A couple years ago, I took a creative non-fiction writing class “for fun” to round out my last semester of college. It ended up being one of the most consuming classes of my college career. It’s a difficult thing to write interesting, purposeful, and honest prose featuring your life, and have it be something you’d actually be okay with someone else reading. Ghostbread is the kind of thing I aspired to write. It is just lovely.

Sonja Livingston grew up as one of seven children in a single parent household. While providing for seven kids is difficult for any family, Sonja’s mother struggled particularly, and the children grew up in extreme poverty, moving from apartment to house to reservation to motel to friend’s house to another friend’s house to home. It was far from a stable environment. And yet, the love and sibling bonds held the family together throughout the turbulence and uncertainty.

The story arc isn’t what captured my heart on this one, though. Instead, I was fascinated by Livingston’s prose. Let me tell you, each sentence packs a punch. She structures the narrative into compact 1-2 page stories, and each is led by a powerful first sentence that sets the tone for that piece. “When you eat soup every night, thoughts of bread get you through,” she writes as she begins discussing the meals while on the reservation. Or of elementary school, “At school, I learned to read and write and use spit in creative ways.” And later, revealing a thought common to many of us in adolescence, “No one told me the thing I most needed to know.” Each beginning line carries you to the next line and you can’t help but read through the rest of the story. To put it simply, it’s captivating.

The well-deserved winner of the Award for Creative Nonfiction (from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), Livingston’s book is highly recommended for any fans of this genre or any readers wanting to get an inside view of what it’s like to grow up hungry.

2 stars

I now present Mindy, my new BFF.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling (2011)

I have a thing for female humor writers. They’ve gotten me through more than a few tough times. I first read Laurie Notaro’s The Idiot Girl’s Action Adventure Club after getting a bad health diagnosis. I read Heather Armstrong’s It Sucked and Then I Cried when I was lonely living on my own for the first time. And now, with the death of a loved one, I read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and laughed and laughed and laughed.

Most of you probably know Mindy Kaling from her role as narcissistic, boy-crazy, somewhat-idiotic Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s The Office. Many of you probably don’t know that she actually plays a much bigger role behind scenes, writing, producing and directing episodes of the show. In fact, she is responsible for my very favorite episode (The Injury) in which Michael steps on his George Forman grill and Dwight gets a concussion. It makes me chortle every time. I’ve been following her for a while on Twitter (@mindykaling), so I knew that Mindy is much more hilarious and way less annoying than her Office character and I’ve been anticipating reading this for months. But she went above and beyond my expectations with this one. It was like a love letter to me the reader, acquainting me to my new best friend.

It goes without saying that I’ve never actually met Mindy. But to me, this read so honestly that I feel like she is a completely normal human being that would probably be my friend if we had gone to the same elementary school or lived in the same building. We have the same concerns, problems, and hilarious opinions, which she organizes into chapters like, “I Am Not an Athlete,” “Best Friend Rights and Responsibilities,” Non-Traumatic Things That Have Made Me Cry,” and “Why Do Men Put on Their Shoes So Slowly?” The chapters are short, lists and embarrassing pictures appear throughout, and it’s real fun to read aloud, even if the only person around to listen to you is your father or a fish named Charles.

Pick this sucker up, but only if you don’t mind snorting in public.

2.5 stars