(Book Review) Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases

41zmchStXKL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

Although the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) got a boost in popularity when they promised President-elect Trump that they would “see him in court” if he tried to enact campaign promises that contradicted the Bill of Rights, the organization has been hard at work for 100 years, fighting to protect our rights. Many of their cases have helped shape our contemporary understanding of First Amendment Rights, Civil Rights, and more.

Fight of the Century, a new edited collection from Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman features a treasury of authors reflecting on particular ACLU cases. Each chapter prefaces the author’s work with a brief overview of the case, its context, and its impact. Through the combination of these prefaces and the following reflections, I learned a lot about cases that I had never heard of, or had only just heard of. I also appreciated the personal reflections on cases that I knew a great deal about, such as Yaa Gyasi’s thoughts on her own education in relationship to Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Other chapters that I especially enjoyed include “Victory Formation” by Brit Bennett, which examines Colin Kaepernick in connection to West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)which found that public schools could not force students to participate in patriotic rituals; “How the First Amendment Finally Got Its Wings” by Timothy Egan, which takes up New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), a crucial freedom of the press case; and “Loving” by Aleksandar Hemon, which reflects on Loving v Virginia (1967) from the improbable context of the author’s childhood in Bosnia and Herzegovia, where “mixed marriages” were common before the war.

Finally, a major vote in favor of this collection is that it includes a dissenting voice. That, after all, is part of the whole vibe of the ACLU, and they do not consider themselves above criticism. Scott Turow, a lifelong ACLU supporter, writes a chapter that staunchly disagrees with the ACLU’s stance in Buckley v Valeo (1976) and subsequent campaign finance cases. He does not pull his punches, but the chapter is included along with those that openly praise ACLU legal work. The collection also examines cases in which the ACLU defended the First Amendment rights of those who they disagreed with, such as the American Nazi Party. As Chabon and Waldman write in their introduction, “To understand the vital role that the ACLU plays in American society requires a nuanced understanding of the absolute value of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, of the right to due process and equal justice under the law, even—again, especially—when those rights protect people we find abhorrent or speech that offends us.” There may be court cases in the collection that you oppose, but the ACLU has spent the last 100 years defending your right to do so.

(Book Review) A Century of Votes for Women

41DxaxdZY9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage by Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder

We are less than two months away from the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States.* I’ve been doing a lot of reading about suffrage history this year.  So far, I have most enjoyed Why They Marched and The Woman’s Hour. This week, I picked up A Century of Votes for Women, which is a history of elections since the passage of the 19th Amendment.

A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections since Suffrage is the kind of book I imagine would be invaluable if I were working on a research project about women as voters, but as a casual read it was not an especially compelling or fun read.

The book breaks down the last century into a handful of distinct time periods: 1920-1936, the 1940s and 50s, 1964-1976, the 1980s and 90s, and the twenty-first century. In each chapter, the authors present an overview of the major, national political trends and shifts during the time period, then break down the data on voter turnout based on factors in women’s lives such as gender norms, family, economics, and education. Each chapter ends with a section that reinforces that women are not a voting bloc and explains how women’s voting choices were influenced by race, age, education, marriage, family, work,  and the politics of place. This layout makes navigating each chapter easy. It also clearly marks this book as an academic text. It is short on narrative, heavy on data.

I found the most interesting part of each chapter to be the sections that examined political trends and the changes in the lives of women during the designated time period. I found that I got the most out of them. For the other sections, the authors are basically tracking the gradual shift from voter turnout for women slightly trailing men to women turning out more than men (the Gender Gap) and the gradual shift of women voters from largely supporting the Republican party to mostly voting for Democrats. If that is a story that fascinates you, this book is for you. Otherwise, you might read the intro and conclusion and skim the rest. It is a valuable book for all the information it compiles, it is just not a great read.

*I think it’s important to acknowledge that the history of the suffrage movement in the U.S. includes an unfortunate streak of racism, as suffragists from the south were openly racist and many suffragists from the north felt they had to make concessions in order to get the vote. Although the 19th Amendment technically enfranchised all women, in practice women of color were still kept from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And voter suppression is still alive and well today. The fight did not end in 1920—not by a long shot.

(Book Review) The Anna Karenina Fix by Viv Groskop

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop.

51HLXmtEHZL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_When I was in high school and still a literary snob, I went through a big Russian literature phase. I read Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Nabokov like that was a perfectly normal thing for a 16-year-old to do for fun. I still remember Crime and Punishment fondly as one of my best reading experiences. It should come as no surprise that when I went to college, I went through a short, intense period of loneliness. One day during my first week, not sure what else to do with myself, I took a walk to the campus bookstore and bought a copy of Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and sat under a tree and read it. I felt so much better afterward. (Any other INFJs in the house?) To this day, whenever I see that cover on my bookshelf, I feel content. It’s not even that good of a book, really.

I tell you of these strange passions for two reasons:

  1. To establish myself as right in the target demographic for The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, seeing as I am both a fan of Russian literature and of the particular genre of light literary criticism mixed with self-help or some other popular genre. See also: Madame Bovary’s Ovaries and Kafka’s Soup
  2. To present an example of how each chapter of Groskop’s book unfolds.

Groskop is British, but spent years of her life studying Russian language and literature, including a period during her youth living in Russia. In each chapter, she presents an anecdote or two from her personal experiences as an example of some peculiarity in Russian as a way to segue to a great work of Russian literature, how it exemplifies that Russian quirk, and some (usually kind of grim) lesson about life that we can take from the work and/or its author. For example, she explains the use of patronymics and diminutives in Russian as a way into discussing Tolstoy and what we can learn from the major questions Anna Karenina asks about life. In another chapter, she writes about the hazing ritual of making new Russian language students read Pushkin as an introduction to writing about the feud between Nabokov and his pal Edmund Wilson over the translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, as an introduction to the life lesson, which I have forgotten because the story about Nabokov was so funny that I laughed aloud and read it to Julio.

I think this pattern works well in most chapters. I enjoyed learning about some of the idiosyncrasies that Groskop discusses, but other times I found myself rushing through them to get to the literature (as in the Dostoyevsky chapter). In most cases, I did not find the life lesson from the novel particularly compelling (although the Anna Karenina chapter, the book’s first, was very strong), but the analysis is a fun read nonetheless. Again, it’s literary criticism lite. This is the kind of book meant for book-lovers who want to love books with another book-lover. It’s sort of educational, but really it’s a love letter to reading. This book, like those cited above, is not a great book, but it is a fun read and it offers something akin to companionship to lonely bookworms. It is a kindred spirit wrapped in library vellum.

All of those faults and qualities make this a book right for a particular reader. If you are not that reader, I’d pass on it. BUT, I argue that if you are that type of reader, now is an especially good time to read this book. The Anna Karenina Fix was published in 2018 and it sat on my For Later Shelf on the library website for two years. I have been working through my paused holds before the baby comes, and I got this book during my first curbside pickup from my local library. (If you are reading this in the post-COVID future, what do libraries look like in your time?) Even after putting it off for two years, I was not sure if I really wanted to read it, but I am glad that I did. This book was a treat for a cooped-up bookworm, and I think that the grim life lessons from Russian literature are especially poignant because we are in such strange, uncertain, often awful times. Now is a natural time to think about big questions and to read thick books. This quick, friendly read is a nice introduction to doing so.

I’ve added Doctor Zhivago, Eugene Onegin, The Master and the Margarita, and Dead Souls to my reading list.

(Book Review) Dear Justyce by Nic Stone

dear justyce coverIn a previous blog, I provided some discussion questions for Dear Martin by Nic Stone. This September, a sequel/companion novel is set to come out called Dear Justyce

In this book, Justyce’s classmate, Quan, writes letters to him from jail. Justyce gave the notebook of letters he wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Quan and Quan reads them, writing back to Justyce about some of the letters while also telling him his own story. Through Justyce, Stone tells the story of a young man who did not have some of the advantages Justyce did, although he had plenty of the smarts, and examines how easy it is for Quan to get into serious trouble.

I found Dear Justyce especially moving because of the young men who I have met during my time as a corrections librarian who very well could have been Quan. There have been a number of guys whose stories just break my heart, because of how much they had to offer, but how much was stacked against them. For some of them, it seems like they never even had a chance. Quan’s father is in prison. His mother is abused by a series of boyfriends, the last of whom steals her EBT card and disappears for long enough stretches that Quan and his siblings start to starve. Quan turns to stealing to feed them. Before he knows it, even as he keeps his grades up at school, he gets involved with a gang for the community and protection it offers. And things escalate from there (I won’t spoil it).

The letters from Quan to Justyce are sometimes very direct about the intersection of racism and juvenile justice. Quan points out several times that there is a big disparity between the sentences Black kids get and the sentences White kids get for much more serious charges. Other times, such as when Quan gets involved with the gang, the story lets the reader ponder Quan’s choices and the larger societal issues they reflect.

One of the aspects of Dear Martin that I found especially productive was how Nic Stone uses Justyce’s letters and his experiences to examine different facets of systemic racism. Dear Justyce has a much narrower focus and because of this I think it works well as a companion to Dear Martin, but may not stand as well on its own.

I was not so sold on the novel’s turn to legal drama as Justyce gets involved in Quan’s court case, but it works as a primer on how plea bargaining works (or doesn’t) and how the justice system fails kids like Quan.

 

Professional Reader
Reviews Published

Solidarity: Catholic Social Teaching 101

Pope2CongressThis topic is kind of adjacent to my usual scope for this blog, but over the last few weeks, it has been on my heart a lot, so I decided to give it a go.

Solidarity is a pillar of Catholic social teaching and one that I take both comfort in and motivation from. I have so much access to information about injustice and suffering in the world that even beginning to know how I can help can feel overwhelming. Then, I remember solidarity and it helps me come up with some concrete things to do.

Let’s walk through an example: I have always whole-heartedly opposed the death penalty, but for much of my life it felt like there was nothing I could do about ending it. Last year, my friend Kate and I saw a Facebook event for a meeting hosted by the ACLU to organize around ending capital punishment in our state. We went, discussed the issue, filled out postcards, received training on how to talk to legislators, and drafted letters to the editors of local newspapers. Later, I sent my letter to a local paper, which published it. The death penalty was repealed in our state this year. The actions Kate and I took were barely a drop in the ocean of effort that it took to achieve the goal, but it was an act of solidarity. Why?

What is solidarity?

In the Catholic tradition, solidarity means working for the common good by working for justice and peace: “The Catholic social teaching principle of Solidarity is about recognising others as our brothers and sisters and actively working for their good.” (Caritas.org)

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops writes, “Loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world. At the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace. Pope Paul VI taught that ‘if you want peace, work for justice.’ The Gospel calls us to be peacemakers. Our love for all our sisters and brothers demands that we promote peace in a world surrounded by violence and conflict.”

Solidarity has kind of become a buzzword, however, and acts of solidarity can be reduced to merely performative statements of togetherness. St. John Paul II, who learned about solidarity firsthand during the Polish resistance, cautioned against this shallow treatment of solidarity as fellow-feeling:

“[Solidarity] is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”(St. John Paul II, On Social Concern [Sollicitudo rei Socialis. . . ], no. 38)

Similar to how Bishop Robert Barron reminds us that love is a verb not a feeling in his Pentecost homily about the church and racial justice (embedded/linked below), solidarity is perhaps best considered an action, not an emotion. Remember, it is often stated as standing in solidarity or walking in solidarity.

Solidarity in the Catholic tradition is really about working to build the type of community we are called to build—bringing the Kingdom of God to where we live. The USCCB reminds us that we must always consider the poor and the marginalized and work for their good:

“We have to move from our devotion to independence, through an understanding of interdependence, to a commitment to human solidarity. That challenge must find its realization in the kind of community we build among us. Love implies concern for all – especially the poor – and a continued search for those social and economic structures that permit everyone to share in a community that is a part of a redeemed creation (Rom 8:21-23).” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All)

And when we talk about “their good,” that means their ability to “have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

We see this teaching acted upon, for example, when the USCCB issues statements opposing violent immigration policies, budgets that forget the poor, or racial injustice.

How is solidarity different from charity?

When exploring ways to show solidarity for a particular group or movement, donations to charity often come up. Although donating to charity can be an act of solidarity, charity and solidarity are distinct from each other. (I’m talking about charity here as in the act of giving charity, not charity the form of Christian love, although the two are linked.)

Whereas charity is a gift that is meant to help another, it does not necessarily have to connect to systems of power. For example, I can donate food to a food bank and that certainly can help feed the hungry, but it does not address the root cause that is poverty. Solidarity, on the other hand, is aimed at working to build a better system so that another person isn’t hungry to begin with.

What does Solidarity look like in practice?

So, back to why I find solidarity both comforting and motivating—there are a lot of things, big and small, that we can all do each day as acts of solidarity. We may be called to solidarity by current events and as a lifelong practice. Most often, an act of solidarity means working to help a person or group that is somehow being marginalized, oppressed, and/or exploited. Awareness around privilege is really helpful in becoming more attuned to ways that you can practice solidarity. (For how not to make solidarity about you being good jump down to subsidiarity below.)

Solidarity can mean turning up at a protest to support people who are fighting for their rights.

Solidarity can mean writing letters or making phone calls to people in power, advocating for changes.

Solidarity can mean speaking up when someone says something bullying, or racist, or sexist in your hearing.

Solidarity can mean listening when someone tells you about how they have been hurt by prejudice or injustice.

Solidarity can mean spending your money at local businesses and those run by women or people of color.

Image from @bulldogcatholics on Instagram

Image from @bulldogcatholics

Solidarity can mean enjoying, sharing, and promoting art created by marginalized groups. (And I do not mean appropriating it.)

Solidarity can mean not eating meat as a way to stand with the poor who are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Solidarity can mean limiting one’s participation in fast fashion, an industry that exploits poor workers.

And so on.

In short, solidarity means putting your love for others into action in a way that pushes back on systems or practices that threaten the common good.

Solidarity can start with retraining your mind so that your image of the common good includes people who do not look like, think like, or live like you do. 

But don’t end there.

What is subsidiarity and how is it connected?

Another pillar of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity, which helps keep solidarity from turning into a colonizing effort. In essence, subsidiarity holds that an issue should be handled by the most local authority capable of tackling it. In practice, it can help prevent charitable efforts from swooping in and taking the power to effect change away from already marginalized groups. While solidarity lends its support, subsidiarity aims to make sure the stakeholders maintain their agency.

“Solidarity ensures all people are taken care of while subsidiarity prevents people from becoming faceless objects of charity. When both principles flourish together, they result in a more balanced, effective, and personal bond of charity” (Vogt 122).

Go do it

The church is far from perfect and there are certainly areas where we could stand to improve in enacting Christ’s love. I think, however, that solidarity is a particularly strong point in the interaction between Catholics and the world. It shines through especially well in the saints, such as St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Gertrude Stein, and Servant of God Dorothy Day, who famously said “If you have two coats you have stolen one from the poor” (perhaps riffing on Luke 3:11). Recent popes including Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have also drawn attention to the importance of this social teaching in calling the faithful to do better in serving the poor and marginalized and in caring for our planet. So, let’s get out there and do it, people!

Works Cited/Further Reading

Vogt, Brandon. Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World. Our Sunday Visitor, 2013.

USCCB What We Believe: Solidarity

Caritas New Zealand: Solidarity

12 Ways You Can Be an Activist Without Going to a Protest

A bishop in El Paso kneeled in prayer for George Floyd. Two days later, Pope Francis called

Bishop Barron’s Pentecost 2020 homily:

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.

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  • 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.

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