Attempts at Activism

51j12b62vzalIt’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired, & Get Going!, by Chelsea Clinton (2015)

Opening Line: “What’s the first thing you remember reading?”

I fell for the pretty cover design on this one. Saw it in the airport, loved the colorful dots, seemed like an inspiring title.

Chelsea Clinton (yes, that one) takes on the world with this one book. Or she attempts to, anyway. Designed as an introduction to all the major problems facing our world, she attempts to engage and inform young people so that they will take these problems on to solve them. An inspiring undertaking, indeed, perhaps a necessary one. But cover to cover, it’s a bit dry.

Broken into four parts, Clinton goes after what she sees as the four major problems facing us: poverty, equal rights, illness, and the environment. She examines each problem, providing lots of troubling statistics, in addition to a couple of profiles of young people who are combating those problems. She gives LOTS of specific ways for readers to help, ranging from telling their family and friends what they’ve learned in this book, to starting fundraisers and writing senators.

In general, it’s an impressive undertaking, and a good-intentioned one at that. It will be these young readers who will be responsible for fixing all these problems and changing the world for the better. But there are some issues with it. The first thing I noticed that I disliked was the voice. Clinton often talks directly to the reader, interjecting with personal details from her experiences. Instead of making me feel connected to the author and the problem, it felt forced and a little insincere. Also, I think this book tackled way too much. Each problem felt glossed over, and I didn’t feel like I learned much I didn’t already know. Perhaps that wouldn’t be true for her intended audience, but for me, I found myself wishing for deeper coverage on each subject.

I can see the purpose of this book. It will be great, for example, for a couple of former coworkers of mine who do a unit on activism in their 6th grade ELA classes. But past that… I’m not sure I see middle schoolers grabbing this one off the shelves and sharing it with friends.

1 star

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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