UPDATED Books for Talking about Race with Kids, featuring Dear Martin Discussion Questions (Now with books for parents, too)

71Lf9Mxxj4L{I first published this list in December 2014, after the grand jury decisions in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I’m revisiting it today as there are riots across the country after a string of events including the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. So much has happened in between and yet so much has remained the same. In the interim, many, many books about racism and police brutality have been published for children and adults. I’m updating the list to include more books, books for parents who are looking to learn also, and I am including some discussion questions I wrote regarding Dear Martin, an incredible young adult book by Nic Stone that I think works as a wonderful door into a conversation with older kids and/or adults about systemic racism in America. Scroll to the bottom for those.  Please also note: I link to Amazon throughout, but I highly recommend making use of your local library or ordering from a bookstore that is local to you.}

Issues of race in American culture have been at the forefront of the news lately. With all the complicated and strong feelings, chances are kids have both been exposed to the news and have questions about it. There are tons of books out there that can be read with kids, helping you facilitate a conversation with them about race, privilege, and history. Because of some of the graphic violence that comes with these issues in American history, not all books are appropriate for all children. I’ve grouped books based on age, but knowing your child’s level of sensitivity is also important. This list isn’t exhaustive, nor is it perfect, but hopefully these books can be useful in discussing issues about race, identity, and justice with your kid(s). Other helpful resources include Bookriot’s chart- Black History in Young Adult Fiction, this comic on white privilege, and the Civil Rights Leadership Conference’s guide on talking to children about racism and diversity. They point out:

“Children care about justice, respect, and fairness. Squabbles about sharing, concerns about cliques, and problems with playmates-the daily trials of childhood-reflect their active interest in these social issues. So do the questions children ask, when they feel safe enough to ask them.
One important gift we can give our children is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.”

New books are coming out all of the time and there are some great resources for staying on top of what is out there. For example, you might check out the websites We Need Diverse Books, The Brown Bookshelf, and Latinxs in Kidlit. Or, ask your librarian!

I know there is a meme out there of Mister Rogers telling us to “look for the helpers” in times of tragedy. Guess what? To the kids in our lives, we are the helpers. Not only must we set a good example, but we also need to talk to them about the violence that they are exposed to and help them feel safe enough to ask questions, knowing we will be honest with them. As Mister Rogers said, “I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”

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Elementary School

These books cover a range of genres and time periods. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautifully written novel that deals with issues of race and class in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. Let Them Play tells the story of fighting segregation in Little League. It’s a story that will likely appeal to kids’ sense of fairness and will be relatable to many children. Most Loved in All the World is a picture book about a woman working on the underground railroad who has to separate from her daughter in order to send her to freedom. The Name Jar is a picture book about a young Korean immigrant who struggles to choose an Americanized name, before finding acceptance with her new classmates. Reading books about Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman can help younger children learn about important African American leaders while also getting some context about the struggle against racism.

download (1)Tweens

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
  • Mississippi Trail, 1955 by Chris Crowe
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones
  • Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic novel about racism, classism, and allyship in rural Alabama. Mississippi Trail, 1955 and A Wreath for Emmett Till deal with the murder of Emmett Till and could help children old enough to think critically about that violence to put the outrage over the death of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin into a larger historical context. Finding My Place is about a young African American woman in 1975, who moves to a new school and is the only black girl. Her struggle to stay true to herself and find a sense of belonging also gives a portrait of generational differences in the Civil Rights Movement.

Young Adults

Some of these books are more violent or racy than those for the younger groups. The Bluest Eye, for example, is a stunning depiction of the intersection between race, class, and gender, and a searing critique of white beauty standards, but it also includes a pretty graphic scene of rape. The Round House is similar in a lot of ways to To Kill A Mockingbird, but deals with rape and domestic violence against Native American women. Southern Horrors and Other Writings is an incredible collection by journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. It’s an important piece of African American and women’s history, but also deals pretty graphically with lynching violence. These books, are just a snippet of the huge list of titles that could be read by teens and young adults interested in social justice and civil rights issues. The Hate U Give, which follows its young protagonist through the aftermath of her witnessing a friend get shot by the police is one of my favorite books I’ve read in years. It does not water down the complications of her situation and it is such a compelling read, I read it in one sitting. Internment has kind of Hunger Games vibes, but follows its protagonist as she rises up against the government after she and her family are rounded up and put in camps with other Muslims because of their religion.

Adults

These are just a snapshot of the many, many possible titles, just from nonfiction, that you could pick up. I would be interested to know what you have read about racism that moved, enlightened, enraged, and educated you. Let me know in the comments.

Discussing Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone follows Justyce, a 17 year-old boy who is arrested after a party, because a police officer mistakes him helping his girlfriend as him getting into trouble. The experience shakes Justyce’s sense of his place in his community, as he has one foot in a fancy prep school and one in his lower-income neighborhood. To help himself make sense of his place in his community and the evolving dynamics around race in the United States, Justice begins writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I think that Nic Stone does an incredible job of using Justyce’s experiences as a starting point for discussions about policing, affirmative action, casual racism, code switching and many other issues. For such a quick read, it has a lot to unpack and it would make a great book for parents to read with older kids this summer, for your book club, and to pair with one of the nonfiction books listed above.

Questions:

  1. How does Nic Stone use classroom discussions to address important issues related to the plot of the story? Did you find this technique helpful?
  2. What do you think of the group Halloween costume? What were the boys trying to do? Why does it backfire?
  3. Do you think socioeconomic status or class influences the perspectives of Justyce, his classmates, and the other kids from his neighborhood?
  4. What do you think about how Justyce tries to make sense of Dr. King’s definition of integration? How does it affect his relationships with his friends? Do you see any of the struggles Justyce faces in your own community?
  5. What are the arguments made for and against Affirmative Action? What do you think?
  6. Why does Justyce meet with the gang leader? Do you understand where he was coming from? What do you think about his decision?
  7. What risk did Justyce and SJ take at their debate competition? What were they trying to accomplish? Did it pay off?
  8. How would you characterize Justyce’s relationship with his mother? What do you think about how it weighs on his friendship with SJ?
  9. How does Justyce’s father’s history affect him? Why?
  10. What do you think of Justyce’s friends at high school and college? How do they represent different perspectives? Were there any you felt strongly about, positively or negatively?
  11. How does the media affect the events of the novel? Do you think the book’s use of media reflects how cases play out in the press or on TV in real life?
  12. Was there anything else from the novel that really stood out to you or got you thinking? What was it? What are your thoughts?

Why I Hoped for a Girl

tT_D6rYb9IYCIn 2011, right around the time I transitioned from earning a Master’s degree to my Ph.D. program, Peggy Orenstein published Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. Orenstein had made her career as a journalist by reporting on the issues that adolescent girls face and on her own infertility saga. Then, she had a daughter, Daisy. In the introduction to this book, she explains “Why I Hoped for a Boy.” If a book’s introductory chapter could have a click-baity title, this is a clear example of one. Quickly, Orenstein explains that when she found out she was having a girl, she was happy: “I suddenly realized I had wanted a girl—desperately, passionately—all along. I had just been afraid to admit it.” You see, her alleged hope for a son stemmed from fear that, because she was an expert on girlhood, she would be held to an impossible standard as a mother to a daughter.

When Julio and I set out to start a family, I hoped for a girl. Although I spent six years of my adult life studying girlhood—more within the history of childhood than within pop culture—I had the benefit of not being a best-selling author on the subject. Plus, no one listens to me anyway. Although I certainly face internal pressures, I did not worry about the unrealistic standard that Orenstein was afraid of. I just knew that so many of the most meaningful moments of my life came from my relationships with other women and I wanted a daughter to share that with, too. Don’t get me wrong, a boy would have been great—especially one raised with the wonderful man I’m married to—but the heart wants what the heart wants and mine wanted a daughter.

When we finally got pregnant, my heart felt pretty sure that I was having a girl. I had prayed for a daughter pretty fervently, though, so I had my doubts. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking? My best friend was also certain I was having a girl. I maintained a neutral ground as best I could, not dismissing my strong intuitive feeling, but not taking it as a medical fact, either. When we found out our baby was, in fact, a girl, it was not as exciting as I thought it might be, in part because my husband had to be video-called in from the parking lot because of COVID-19 restrictions, and in part because I already knew.

Back to Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Orenstein’s book focuses on how little girl culture became so relentlessly pink and princessy, and what the implications of that culture have for girls’ development and self-esteem. She found that, although girls do tend to outgrow the princess stage, the lasting effects of the girlie-girl culture can be detrimental to their body image, self-esteem, and achievement at school compared to their male peers. The hyper-focus on gender in marketing to children, however, is pervasive even beyond pink and princesses.

So much of it is foisted onto kids, too. She describes how her daughter switched from loving Thomas the Tank Engine to knowing all the Disney princesses shortly after going to preschool. After that, Orenstein started seeing the pink pressure everywhere. And she lives in Berkeley:

“The waitress at our breakfast joint would hand her her pancakes and say, ‘Here’s your princess pancakes.’ … A pharmacist offered a pink balloon. The final straw came at Daisy’s first dentist appointment. The dentist asked, ‘Would you like to get in my princess chair so I can sparkle your teeth?’ And I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, do you have a princess drill, too?'”

I think, perhaps, one of the best things we can do for the children around us and their parents is not to say prescriptive stuff like this to them. The assumption that all girls like pink and princesses teaches girls that they are supposed to like pink and princesses. We don’t make this same assumption with adults we don’t know. We pick up on cues about them or we ask questions. We don’t know what is going to stick to a kid and how, so don’t prescribe to them what they are supposed to like just because they are a girl. Or a boy. I’ve known boys who were really talented in the arts and were made to feel embarrassed about it because that’s not what boys are supposed to like. You might say that doesn’t happen anymore, but look at what happened last year when it was revealed that Prince George takes ballet class at school.

What’s Changed?

When Charlotte Pickles was the best parent ever_Once we told our family that we were having a girl, I was asked:

“Are you totally against pink?”

I am not. In fact, the nursery is pink. We painted it when we bought our house, thinking that it was going to be more of a neutral peach and it came out pale pink. I loved it, but my husband did not. Jokingly, Julio was relieved that we are having a girl because that means he doesn’t have to repaint the pink guest room as we turn it into a nursery. Some pink is fine. I just don’t want a ton of it. Really, that comes down to my taste because as far as I can tell, newborns are very sensible and don’t care what they’re wearing so long as it’s comfortable.

As I started shopping for our little buddy, however, I did notice that a lot seemed to have changed since Orenstein’s research. Sure, there was still a sea of pink to wade through and plenty of princess products, but from what I saw, the selection was more diverse than it was a decade ago. There were still some trends that made me gag, particularly sexualizing newborns with onesies that read things like, “Sorry, boys. Daddy says no dating” or “Sorry, ladies. I’m taken.” For the most part, my shopping for “research purposes” has unveiled a few trends that I think are really positive:

  • Llamas are the new “it” animal for children. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good unicorn, but the llama products provide a ton of gender-neutral options. Plus, we are working on getting an actual llama.
  • Dinosaurs are on-trend.  Again, plenty of neutral options in addition to clothes for girls that have a fun print that is not stereotypically feminine.
  • Brands like Primary have come along offering basics for kids that provide a capsule wardrobe vibe that is colorful without being gender-specific.
  • There are plenty of neutral options that celebrate qualities such as being “Kind like Mommy” (this onesie is available in options that read Daddy, Grandma, and Grandpa).

Basically, if you want the hot pink princess culture, it’s still around, and I don’t think it’s productive to shame or discourage girls if they want it. BUT there are many, many other options around so it does not feel as prescriptive.

My Very Birds Eye View Goals

So, I have spent a lot of my adult life thinking about girlhood and culture. But, I know enough to know that even if I were to design what my research shows is the safest, healthiest way to raise a girl, well, I’d be an arrogant dumbass. 1) Children are individuals and 2) They do not live in a vacuum. So, although I do have some high-level ideas, I approach them fully aware that they may be harder than I could imagine to stick to. As far as I can tell from my studies and experiences, however, there are a few things that I might try in order to put some boundaries between my family and the steamroller of marketing to children. These, at least, are the hopes and goals Julio and I talk about.

Limit exposure to marketing. The influence of advertising on children is scary. I wonder how much of it will shift now that many kids are being born to millennial parents who don’t have cable. Nevertheless, we want to do what we can to limit what advertising comes into our home. Julio is really good at being skeptical about who makes money off of making him think he needs or wants something. I would be happy if our daughter learned that from him, because there will be plenty of people wanting to profit off her whims and insecurities.

Let her be the guide. Julio and I have been going for walks at lunchtime and he often turns the conversation toward wondering what our daughter will like. Will she play a sport? Go to camp? Like math? We talk a lot about doing our part to make sure that she has diverse experiences, but not forcing her to do some extracurricular just because. Before we even get there, I think that will apply to her taste in things like clothes. I enjoyed the book Bringing Up Bebe and one of the ideas it discusses is that French parents raise kids within a framework that is strict on some things and allows a lot of independence in the rest. For example, I choose your clothes when we leave the house, but you get to choose at home. If our girl likes princess dresses, then she can let us know. We’ll make sure she’s dressed for the weather, if you catch my drift.

Provide diverse examples. Fortunately, diversity in children’s media has improved, but it is still important to us to do everything we can to make sure our daughter is exposed to images and stories about people of different races, genders, and walks of life. The more she knows about the great achievements and silly fun had by other people, the more seems possible for her. Studies show exposure to diversity is really good for kids.

Don’t stress about the small stuff. Kids pick up on so much. I think that if I were morally opposed to pink (which, again, I’m not). I’d be virtually guaranteeing that it becomes her favorite color. The debate about girlie-girl culture is not really about pink or princesses. It’s about what our culture is teaching girls and boys they have to be, often in ways that are subtly harmful. There are many ways to help girls grow up to have a strong sense of self, and stressing about pink is not one of them.

Not groundbreaking, but it’s a place to start.

What do you think? Have you noticed any gendered trends in kids’ culture?

Further Reading

Saving Our Daughters from an Army of Princesses (NPR)

Is Pink Necessary?  (NYT Book Review)

What is the Pink Tax (Good Housekeeping)

Battle Hymn of the Boymom (Jezebel)

My Personal Syllabus for 2020

Books HDWhen I was sent to lockdown over two months ago, I was fortunate enough to have an enormous stack of books from the public library. I got a few notes on Instagram about how lucky I was, but, really, I am just a literary glutton. It is not uncommon for me to have over a dozen books out from the library. I have a problem.

Between those books, the ones I own but have not yet read, the backlog on my Kindle, and access to advanced copies from Netgalley, I could easily be locked down for a year and not run out of things to read. That is beautiful, in my opinion, but it also presents a total free-for-all of directionless, indulgent reading. I could only read mystery novels for a year, probably.

Like many people, I have actually had a hard time focusing during this time. I am not sure if I have retained much of what I read, but the mental fuzziness has started to wear off and I am thirsting for some learning. I remembered that in January I created a personal reading syllabus after I read advice about doing so by Haley over at Carrots for Michaelmas. I broke out my list to spark some more purposeful reading.

Kasey’s 2020 Syllabus

  • Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales
  • The Confessions of St. Augustine
  • My Sisters the Saints by Colleen Carroll Campbell
  • Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  • The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Most of Nora Ephron (been in progress for years)
  • Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice, Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and The Fight for the Right to Vote by Tina Cassidy
  • Needful Things by Stephen King
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • Joan of Arc by Kathryn Harrison
  • The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
  • Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy

My reading syllabus was created in the context that I already read a pretty diverse and inclusive range of books, especially in current literary fiction and young adult fiction. The purpose of this list was to pursue some topics or writers that I have been neglecting while reading the big new releases.

The first theme of my syllabus is books by or about the saints. I hope to read more than what is on this list (i.e. books by St. Teresa of Avila and St. Gertrude Stein), but I included some big titles that have been sitting on my shelves for years, partially read or waiting to be started. I used to do quite a bit of spiritual reading, and for what feels like a long, long time it has been crowded out. In an effort to get back to some sort of rhythm in that area of my growth, I have also included books by great Catholic writers who I have read little or nothing by: Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, and G.K. Chesterton. Over and over, I keep hearing Flannery O’Connor talked about as one of the greatest Catholic writers and I have only read a couple of stories by her. Similarly, Catholic public figures who I respect love Tolkien and, despite my dad’s many attempts to get me to read The Hobbit, I never made it past the first twenty pages. Finally, I also included some nonfiction and novels that I have meant to read for a long time, but never quite get around to. That’s how Stephen King and Mary, Queen of Scots ended up on the same reading list.

I am hopeful that I will be able to make progress on this reading list while still reading my usual pile of the big books of the year. I’ll let you know.

EDIT: So far, off the list, I have read My Sisters, the Saints, which made me weep pretty good. Other books that I have read and enjoyed include: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Lakewood by Megan Giddings, Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein, She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City by Kate Winkler Dawson.

Have you made a reading plan or list for yourself? What is on your list? I’d love to know!

How to Keep a Notebook

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My women’s suffrage commonplace, homestead commonplace, and field book cover.

Keeping a notebook, a journal, a diary has been important to me for as long as I can remember, I think because, although it does not look good on paper, I am very important to me. My relationship with myself has easily been the most challenging—learning to control myself, finding the depths of my lows and reigning in the highs of my highs, learning that there was not some mysterious “real me” lurking underneath all of that, learning how and when to tell myself to cut the bullshit. Much of that has happened on paper. I’m better for it.

Assuming that my experience isn’t extraordinary, counselors probably advise people to keep journals because at some point in the writing of whatever theory you have about why you feel so crummy, you will start to hear the ridiculous egotism of your inner-monologue. Or its cruelty. Or faulty logic. Or maybe we just get tired of ourselves when we have to write out our thoughts. I don’t know. I have a Ph.D. in literature, not psychology.

We English majors, however, are likely to point toward Joan Didion on this subject. In her 1968 collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she writes that keeping a notebook keeps us in touch with ourselves. My notebook will not help you. Yours won’t help me.

“It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s
self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised
to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find
them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and
surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night
and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is
going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we
could never forget.” -Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”

Keeping a Field Book

IMG_20200425_120350074There are many reasons to keep a notebook, though. As I learned to keep better company with myself, my notes focused more on the world outside my head. After reading David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding: Diaries (1977-2002)I decided that if I really wanted to write well, I should probably start carrying a notebook and writing stuff down a lot more. At first, I tried to keep a notebook in Google Docs. It was simple and always on whatever device was at hand. But it was so easy to completely forget about. And it lacked style. I looked into Bullet Journaling. It’s so cute, but I am just too lazy for the amount of planning it requires and, even with the stencils and skinny-tip color pens I bought, I lack the artistic skill required. I tried and failed to keep The Morning Pages several times. I am, at heart, a chaos muppet. I need a notebook that allows me to sort-of lack discipline.

After my father passed away, I was looking for something in his desk and I found a little leather field book cover, complete with a ~3″x5″ notebook. I resisted the urge to take it, because at that point everything felt sacred and if I didn’t fight the impulse, I would have moved all his random stuff home with me. But, the notebook stuck in my brain. Dad had style. I found an imitation leather version, added it to my Christmas list, and received it from my brother and sister-in-law. Since then, I have tried (and mostly succeeded) to fill one field book per month.

I like the style of a field book for a few key reasons.

  1. Because this style is inspired by surveyors’ notebooks, it does not have the self-reflexive vibe that I previously invested in diaries. These are my observations. Sometimes they are about me; often they are not.
  2. They are little, so I can actually finish a book in a month. That sense of completion propels me into the next book and I get that “yay! fresh notebook!” feeling to keep me going. Before, I would buy pretty notebooks and never finish them, because they felt too precious for the random crap that takes up a lot of brain space. (Many have become commonplace books. More on that in a moment.)
  3. Field books are pocket-sized, so they are easy to slip in my purse, coat, etc.

Very basically, the first five-to-seven pages of each month’s field book are dedicated to lists and trackers, bringing in some of that bullet journal impulse. The rest are free-form.

Here are my suggested field book front pages:

  • A writing log to track time spent writing and on what project. (mine is usually mostly empty)
  • A habit tracker (I make a simple grid. Days of the month go down, habits go across)
  • A list of books read
  • A list of new words learned, their definition, and where I read/heard them
  • A shopping list and meal planner
  • A prayer list (If you do not pray, I still recommend something like this page, so that you can keep track of the people in your circle who are struggling, and come back to it with love. It’s also a good reality check when you’re having a bad day.)

The rest of the book, I fill with notes, overheard bits of dialogue, to-do lists, stray thoughts, descriptions of things I find interesting or beautiful, etc. In other words, the various bits of life that I find wonderful, humorous, or terrible. Most recently, I have been riffing on The Morning Offering Journal to start my days.

I am 18 months into the habit and some months go better than others. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, my notebook has been more abandoned than I’d like, but I’m trying to get back to it. Once I feel like I have earned it, I plan to reward myself with Field Notes’ National Parks series of books, because they are gorgeous.

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Sometimes, I need to keep a notebook that is dedicated to a specific topic. In that case, I make a commonplace book that divides the subject into sections. I fill in these sections as I find relevant information. Currently, I have commonplace books going for our homestead, the history of U.S. women’s suffrage, and a project I’m working on about the saints. Eventually, I will make one about our daughter.

As an example, my commonplace book for the homestead is divided into sections about the Garden; Chickens; Compost, etc.; Alpacas; and Other Dreams & Projects. As I read books and websites or talk to other homesteaders/alpaca farmers, I collect the information into those different sections, making notes of where I learned the information.

The commonplace book on women’s suffrage is divided into: my learning plan, Colorado & The West, National Movement (Including British Influence), Race Issues, Working-Class Suffragists, and a section for keeping track of sources, contacts, and events.

I like to start my Commonplace book with a table of contents and crude tabs to make it easier to find the different sections. Keeping a commonplace book is a very old practice, so there are tons of resources on how and why to make one. I find these sources helpful: Critical Margins, Notebook of Ghosts, and Youtube.

Why do you keep a notebook? What is your favorite method? Is yours really pretty? Let me know below.

Further Reading:

My Favorite Essay to Teach: On Keeping A Notebook — by Jessica Handler

What Kind of Muppet Are You?

The Morning Pages

A Brief Guide to Keeping a Commonplace Book

“Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly
what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened?
Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself
on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify
itself.” -Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”

(Book Review) The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

southern_book_club's_guide_to_slaying_vampiresThe Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix is the latest from the author who brought us Horrorstor and My Best Friend’s Exorcism. I enjoyed those two, silly though they were, so I was excited to get an advanced copy of this latest horror-comedy novel.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires takes place in the early-mid 1990s in a small southern town. After burning out of a more respectable book club, Patricia Campbell is invited to a less-formal “not-a-book-club” that alternates true crime titles such as Helter Skelter and The Stranger Beside Me with less-gritty fiction, like The Bridges of Madison County. After part of her ear is bitten off by an elderly neighbor, Patricia becomes convinced that the woman’s grand-nephew, James Harris, is up to no good–perhaps with supernatural implications. Dubbed Steel Magnolias meets Dracula, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires includes a little satanic panic, a little Desperate Housewives, and shockingly little vampire slaying.

At first blush, I thought that this book was going to be Hendrix’s best yet. As I read further, however, I found myself looking down at the percentage marker on my Kindle and wondering where the vampires were. How had I gotten this far through the story without anything actually happening? That turned out to be most of the book. There are some genuinely funny bits of dialogue in this novel and I loved the interactions between the women. Whenever the husbands or the children barge in, the story starts to get muddled. I actually wonder if this narrative would have been better served by alternating perspectives between Patricia, her friend Slick, and James Harris. At any rate, as much as I enjoyed the characters, I wanted more actual story. At times, the insertion of lurking evil in a very sleepy setting reminded me of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. I wanted more of that.

Once I’m back in the library, I would seriously hesitate to recommend this book to fans of horror and of vampire novels. At least in our library, our readers of those genres can tend toward the more purist side of the spectrum. There is really not a lot of vampire stuff in this book. A lot of the times I laughed or felt really drawn into the story were the moments that dwelled more on the true crime books and how people thought Patricia’s imagination had just run away with her. There is some good stuff here about tropes on women as true crime consumers and on the tendency for women’s instincts to get brushed off as hysteria. There is not a lot of horror, despite someone’s earlobe getting bitten off in the first act.

I was provided with a free e-galley of this title in exchange for an honest review.

Professional Reader
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(Book Review) Why They Marched by Susan Ware

Why They Marched: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote by Susan Ware 0219A419-DCB5-43EE-82D2-7EA6C7D60531is a great read for this year, as the 100th anniversary of U.S. women’s suffrage comes up this August. I

Ware does not treat the American suffrage movement as a monolithic, unified group of women, as many less complicated representations have done in the past. Instead, she uses the extended metaphor of a museum to look at artifacts from the suffrage movement and connects them to the stories of individual women, including women of color, working class women, and women who were actually against women’s suffrage.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on Charlotte Perkins Gilman and emerging definitions of feminism; Maud Nathan and Annie Nathan Meyer, two sisters on opposite sides of the debate; and Claiborne Catlin Elliman, who rode her horse 530 miles on a pilgrimage campaigning for suffrage. Claiborne Catlin’s story was especially fascinating to me (and sad; she lost her poor horse). The journey was exhausting for her and in August she wrote in her diary “I’m so tired I wish I had never been born” (Ware 134). Same, girl.

Ware does a nice job of exploring the nuanced way that suffrage intersected with other issues in women’s lives. For example, in a fascinating chapter, she looks at the role of Mormon women, who had the right to vote in Utah, and their conflicted relationship with the movement, which disapproved of polygamy. The book is perhaps at its best when it examines the intersectional feminism of black suffragists who had to fight for their role within the suffrage movement, which was all too happy to exclude them if they had to to get the vote. The chapter about Ida B. Wells and the 1913 suffrage march in Washington, D.C. Wells and other black women were asked to march not with the groups from their states, but in their own group a the back, in order to appease the racist suffragists from the south (eyeroll). Naturally, Wells thought this request was absurd. She said, “it only required that our women should be as firm in standing up for their principles as the Southern women are for their prejudices” (Ware 103). When it came down to it, Wells seemed to acquiesce, but then she came in from the sidelines to march with the other women from Illinois. The Southern women could just deal with it.

This book is not necessarily a quick read. It is pretty dense with information, but the chapters are easily digested, so it makes a good volume to pick up and put down as you have time to read and learn. I recommend picking up a copy and going through the stories of these remarkable women before this August 26th.

(Book Review) Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

Darling Rose GoldDarling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel comes out March 17th and is a good pick for fans of the true crime story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard, dramatized in The Act

In the book, Rose Gold Watts is an 18 year-old girl trying to make her own way in the world after her mother is sent to prison for abusing her for years. In a case of  Munchausen syndrome by proxy, Patty Watts’s earnest belief that her baby daughter is chronically ill devolves into her making Rose Gold sick for years, effectively starving her. Five years later, when Patty is released and goes to live with Rose Gold and her infant son, she starts to wonder if her daughter has really forgiven her or if she is up to something sinister.

Darling Rose Gold is clearly inspired by the Blanchards. Some of the smaller details, such as Rose Gold’s love of Disney and the deterioration of her teeth, echo that real case. Where the story goes from there, however, really had me turning the pages.

I’m having a hard time explaining my thoughts about this book without spoiling the plot twists, so I’ll try to keep it simple. Although the ripped-from-the-headlines nature of Wrobel’s story does knock a few points off for creativity, I think she does an excellent job of taking the character of Rose Gold from an optimistic, if wounded, girl to a woman who has been let down by almost everyone she ever trusted.  The ways that experience changes her psyche seem real, if extreme, and the final twist they build toward was satisfying, if sensational.

This book is not groundbreaking or especially fine literature, but it is well-written, thrilling, and fun to read. I recommend, especially for true crime fans.