Immigrants, workers, union members and community activists marched on May Day in San Jose. Marchers protested attacks on immigrants, unions and the rights of workers, and called on Congress to pass a just immigration reform. (David Bacon)
—Boston is the home to many firsts: the first public park, the first subway, the first kidney transplant. Could the next first be a literary cultural district? With help of a planning grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Grub Street will refine the concept and pitch the MCC for designation of such a district.
—Medical researchers at the University of Mississippi analyzed what makes up a chicken nugget in two restaurant chains. They found that just 40% of the nugget is meat. So, what makes up the other 60%? (Click through if you dare.)
Tom Hallock is Associate Publisher at Beacon Press.
Today is Jessie Bennett’s last day at
Beacon Press, and I want to take the opportunity to thank her in the space she
created. Jessie came to Beacon six years
ago, answering the call for someone to fill “a temporary, grant-funded
position” to create a blog for the press. In my new hire letter I wrote, “There
is a possibility that the position will be funded for a second year.” Thanks to
her work, it was funded for a second and then a third, by which time we had
come to feel that both the blog and its editor were essential to the work of
We launched Beacon Broadside because we wanted to amplify the
voices of our authors, and to provide them with a way to connect their work to
the events of the day. Beacon Broadside required that we develop a “new mind”,
as we explored a different way for Beacon to fulfill its mission and engage
with readers, investing in something whose return would not be financial. Jessie
was the perfect midwife, creating a lively, timely and thoughtful blog that has
done all these things.
After six rewarding years here at Beacon Press, I am departing as Blog Editor and Digital Content Developer as of mid-August. When I arrived here in 2007, I had answered an ad looking for a part-time editor for a new blog at Beacon Press, one that would be less about flogging books and more about expanding Beacon's mission in the online world. At the time, Beacon had a website, email newsletters, and a MySpace page. Now, Beacon has accounts at Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Scribd, Pinterest, GoodReads, and LinkedIn, and our web team always has a keen eye on trends in the digital world. It's been gratifying to be here during this time of growth, to have spearheaded the use of video at Beacon, to have helped grow our following on Twitter, and, especially, to have worked with a group of authors I believe are truly the best of the best.
I'm departing in order to concentrate on a couple of creative projects of my own as well as to grab a bigger chunk of time with my family. As I prepare to leave, I am excited for the work ahead at Beacon: our marketing department will continue to grow and adapt, always within Beacon's overall mission to build a better world through good books.
Are you in New York for BookExpo America? Here's the low-down on how to connect with Beacon Press to meet our authors, get your hands on some galleys of upcoming books, and chat with Beacon publicists, editors, and other cool folks.
See below for more info on some of the authors and books we'll be featuring in Booth #2742.
For the second year, BookExpo America will open to the public for Power Reader Hours, Saturday, June 1st from 9am-1pm. Power Readers will have the chance to pick up copies of books at Beacon Presss booth #2742 that examine social issues such as interfaith cooperation, immigration reform, reproductive rights, and marriage equality. Come visit us and Read for Change!
Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town by Mirta Ojito Featured Galley Giveaway at Beacon Press booth 2742 Thursday, May 30th, 9:00 am - 12:00 pm
Mirta will be at the booth signing copies of Hunting Season starting at 10:30 am.
"An account that is as unflinching as it is important. Both an incisive reconstruction of a heartbreaking murder and an unsparing diagnosis of a national malady . . . with HUNTING SEASON Ojito has done truth an invaluable service. Extraordinary." —Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Labeled a "domestic terrorist" by the McCain campaign in 2008 and used by the radical right in an attempt to castigate Obama for "pallin' around with terrorists," Bill Ayers is in fact a dedicated teacher, father, and social justice advocate with a sharp memory and even sharper wit. Public Enemy tells his story from the moment he and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, emerged from years on the run and rebuilt their lives as public figures, often celebrated for their community work and much hated by the radical right. In the face of defamation by conservative media, including a multimillion-dollar campaign aimed solely at demonizing Ayers, and in spite of frequent death threats, Bill and Bernardine stay true to their core beliefs in the power of protest, demonstration, and deep commitment. Ayers reveals how he has navigated the challenges and triumphs of this public life with steadfastness and a dash of good humor—from the red carpet at the Oscars, to prison vigils and airports (where he is often detained and where he finally "confesses" that he did write Dreams from My Father), and ultimately on the ground at Grant Park in 2008 and again in 2012.
Lauren Slater’s rocky childhood left her cold to the idea of ever creating a family of her own, but a husband, two dogs, two children, and three houses later, she came around to the challenges, trials, and unexpected rewards of playing house. Boldly honest, these biographical pieces reveal Slater at her wittiest and most deeply personal. She describes her journey from fiercely independent young woman to wife and mother, all while coping with mental illness. She tells of a chemical fire that rekindled the flame in her ailing relationship with her husband; she reflects on her decision to have an abortion, and then later to have children despite suffering from severe depression; she examines sex, love, mastectomies, and how nannies can be intrusive while dogs become family. Beautifully written, often humorous, and always revealing, these stories scrutinize the complex questions surrounding family life, offering up sometimes uncomfortable truths.
Aviva Chomsky in Havana. Photo courtesy of the author.
I’ve been traveling to Cuba
regularly since 1995, for research, to attend conferences, and to take students
on short-term study abroad trips, when those have been allowed under the
Clinton and Obama Administrations. (Such trips were prohibited under the Bush
Administrations.) I’ve published several articles in Cuban journals, mostly
about Cuba-related themes.
Last weekend, I was in Havana to
present the new Cuban edition of ¡Nos
quitan nuestros empleos! (the Spanish translation of my book They Take Our Jobs!, which was published by Beacon
in 2007) at the International Book Fair in Havana.
Shortly after They Take Our Jobs! came out in English, friends in
immigrants-rights organizations told me that we needed a Spanish-language
version. It took a while to find a publisher (Haymarket Press) and even longer
to finish the translation. My Cuban friend who helped with the final editing of
the Spanish version, Alfredo Prieto, offered to help me find a publisher in
Cuba as well. He put me in touch with Fernando García of Editorial Nuevo
Milenio, who ended up bringing out the beautiful Cuban edition. I am thrilled
to have the project come to this fruition, and that I was able to be Havana for
Most often, my trips to Cuba begin
in Miami, a strange, liminal place that always seems like a good way to
transition from the United States to Latin America or vice versa. The driver of
my hotel shuttle asks me where I’m going. “Cuba,” I tell him. “You are going to
my country,” he replies. I switch to Spanish and ask him how long he’s been in
the United States. Since 1998, he tells me. “Here you work very, very, hard,”
he goes on. “I’ve lived well here, don’t get me wrong. But Cuba is my country,
and that’s where I want to live. Cuba is wonderful. It’s just the government
that’s bad, that’s ruined everything.”
Even though my flight doesn’t leave
till 9, I have to check in at 6. This is an improvement over the last time I
went, using the same charter company, Marazul Tours. Last March I was told to
arrive at the airport four hours ahead of the flight and look for an agent
wearing a blue t-shirt in Terminal G. Needless to say, there was no
blue-shirted agent anywhere to be found, and nobody answered the phone at the
several numbers I had for Marazul. Nor were there any counters that seemed
connected to our charter flight, which didn’t appear on any of the “departure”
screens. Finally a rumor reached our ears—other passengers looking for the same
blue t-shirt thought we should try Terminal D. With little else to go on, I and
my 13 students trudged over to Terminal D. Still no blue shirt, and no flight
listed on any screen, but the rumors grew thicker, and, finally, we found
ourselves at an anonymous-looking counter checking in. It was like being in
Cuba before we even left Miami—somehow you just have to figure out how to do
things that seem impossible—resolver,
as the Cubans say.
This time, though, I arrive as
instructed with only three hours to spare. Terminal G is teeming with
blue-shirted representatives, and multiple flights to Havana are listed on
every screen. There are only two people ahead of me in line, and I am quickly
checked in. The only sign that this is not a normal flight is when I try to use
my credit card to pay the $20 to check my bag. “Sorry, we only take cash,” I am
told. The blue-shirted representative says he’ll wait for me while I run to the
I usually try not to check my bag,
but this time I’m carrying many bottles of medicines and hand sanitizer that my
Cuban friends have requested. I’m also carrying a half pound of baker’s
chocolate—they want me to bake brownies while I’m there.
A grey-haired gentleman going
through the same lines asks if I’m with a group. No, I say, and you? “Yes, we
are a gentle group,” I hear him reply. I look around—his companions look gentle
enough, but I’m still confused—are they Quakers, or something? Then he starts
to tell me about the activities they’ll be doing in Cuba, and I realize that
they are dentists—a dental group.
By 7 I’m at the gate. I order a
cafe con leche from a nearby stand before I sit down. “Ya está dulce,” the
server tells me kindly as she hands it to me. We’re almost in Cuba—the coffee
automatically comes sweet, and in Spanish.
My seatmate on the first leg of my
journey—from Ontario, California, where I am teaching at Pomona College, to
Dallas—was a graduate student in Spanish returning home from a job interview.
I’m reading a book called Dangerous
Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World. The third
chapter is about a mercury mine in Almadén, Spain. “That’s where my father
worked—he was a mining engineer,” she offers. When the mine closed, the town
died—now there is hardly anyone left. She came to the United States to study,
and will probably stay. Migrations and global connections are everywhere.
My seat partner on the plane to
Havana tells me that she is going back to Cuba for the first time since she
left, in 1968, at age 13. “Look, I’m trembling,” she tells me as the plane
touches down. Her grandmother left Spain for Cuba in her 30s, and returned for
the first time when she was 80. “I’m almost as bad,” she says. I’m embarrassed
to tell her that I’m going to Cuba for the publication of my book on
If the Miami airport experience has
improved, the Havana experience has not. The line through immigration takes
over an hour, and the bags have still not appeared when I finally get through. Nobody
seems to know which of the two baggage claim areas our bags will be on. It’s
hot, noisy, and crowded, and it’s not clear where there are lines to stand in
and where we are supposed to go. Somehow, though, my suitcase appears and I
manage to pass through the required lines and exit the terminal. As always,
there is a huge crowd of excited friends and relatives waiting for people from
the Miami flights.
Every time I travel to Latin
America, I’m reminded how important, and how complicated, water is. At home, we
expect clean water to flow reliably from every pipe whenever we turn a faucet
or push a handle. Kitchen sink, bathroom sink, shower, toilets—there are so
many places where something can go wrong—assuming that there is water at all,
and that it’s not contaminated. The TV screen in the airport welcoming
travelers to Cuba flashes health warnings, one of which is (in Spanish) to
always boil your water before you drink it. This time, my friends advise me to
use boiled water to brush my teeth and to rinse dishes and vegetables in boiled
water after washing them.
Sometimes you can avoid the
foreign-tourist-in-Cuba experience of being “hustled” by staying away from
hotels and tourist sites. This time, though, I’m approached while waiting on a
busy street in Centro Habana outside my friends’ apartment. It’s 96 steps up,
and someone has to come down to unlock the street door for me. “Are you
visiting Cuba for the first time?” a young man asks me from inside a
neighboring storefront offering “economist/accounting services.” “What are you
doing here?” I’m a professor, attending the book fair, I tell him. “Oh, a
professor, what do you teach? Are you interested in economic issues?” Yes, I
say. “My friend just wrote a book on cuentapropismo,
he reveals. “I have a dozen copies at my place down the street. Do you want
one?” Maybe, I say guardedly, but I don’t have much room in my luggage. “Are
you married?” he continues without missing a beat. “I really like you. (Me caes muy bien.)” “Yes, I’m married” I
lie. “It doesn’t matter!” he exclaims. “It can be our secret dream! Nobody has
The book fair is amazing. The main
installation is at the El Morro fort just outside the city. The parking lot is
filled with buses and cars, and walkers are flowing in as well. The many
streets inside are packed with people. Publishers’ displays are interspersed
with food stalls, children’s activity stations, and performances. There is no
security visible, and the crowds are relaxed and jovial. The only thing I can
compare it to is First Night in Boston. But here everyone has come to look at
A young man approaches me after a
presentation by the sister of one of the Cuban 5, national heroes, imprisoned
in the United States on charges of espionage. They were spying on right-wing
Cuban American organizations that had planned and carried out armed attacks
against Cuba. “You probably don’t recognize me,” he says shyly. “You were
friends with my mother in 1995, when you were in Cuba with your kids. I was a
baby then, but when you left, you gave my mom the child seat from your bicycle.
I rode around in it for years.” He’s the same age as my son, in his third year
at the university.
There are multiple rooms with
concurrent book presentations going on all day, every day. Mine is at 3:00
Saturday afternoon. About 30 people fill the room. Two commentators precede me:
one describes my book in detail, and the second one gives my biography. I hope
he is around to write my obituary, because he gets it all so right: my
intellectual trajectory, my activism, my work life. It’s exactly how I want to
I decide to tell the audience about
four life experiences that brought me to write They Take Our Jobs!. They were experiences that opened my eyes to
the myths I had been living with, and together made me want to write a book
that would do the same for others. There’s a great word for it in Spanish: concientización. There’s no perfect
translation in English, but it’s something like consciousness-raising, or
The first experience was when I
left college after my first year, in 1976, to work for the United Farm Workers
in California. I was looking for something different to do, but I had no idea
what I was getting myself into. I had, of course, been eating fruits and
vegetables all my life, but as far as I knew, they came from the supermarket. It
had never occurred to me that everything I bought at the store had a history,
and that someone had to plant, care for, and harvest all of that produce. With
the farmworkers I was thrown right into the middle of a world I had no idea
existed: a world where almost everyone was Spanish-speaking and Mexican, and
where they worked long hours under harsh conditions to harvest the food we
blithely purchased in Massachusetts.
The second experience I recounted
was at UC Berkeley, where I was exposed to Chicano Studies and had the chance
to study with, and then teach for, one of the discipline’s founders, Carlos
Muñoz. The whole premise behind the Chicano Studies movement—like those that
pressed for the creation of African American and Native American studies
programs during that same tumultuous decade of the 1970s—was that existing
curriculums were basically the study of white people, and had left out the
experiences of people of color in the United States. Once again, this was an
eye-opener. All that history I had been learning all of those years, that was
an exclusive, politicized, history? There were whole histories that it had left
out? I decided to become a historian.
The third experience was when I got
to Bates College in 1990, fresh PhD in Latin American history in hand. Being in
Maine, one of the coldest and whitest states in the country, Bates had been
very slow to diversify, and its Latino student population was extremely small
and extremely new. Both students and faculty urged me to create a course on
Latino history, and I was eager to do so. A lot had changed since my Chicano
Studies days, though. Latin American immigration had skyrocketed, and it had
diversified both in its origins—including far more Caribbean, Central American,
and South American immigrants—and in its destinations, moving out of its
traditional centers in California and the Southwest. The new discipline of
Latino—rather than Chicano, or Boricua (Puerto Rican) studies—was developing. I
jumped on the bandwagon and decided I needed to become part of this new wave of
Finally, the experience that led
directly to They Take Our Jobs! came
in May of 2006, with the massive immigrants rights demonstrations. I
participated in a small part of the nation-wide movement, in Salem, where
immigrant-owned businesses closed and children stayed home from school on May
1, the national “day without an immigrant.”
The next day, I was in my
department office conversing with an African American colleague. Nearby, some
white students were complaining about the demonstrations. “I don’t have anything
against immigrants, only illegal immigrants. My ancestors came here legally! These
immigrants should do it the right way, following the law, like my ancestors
did.” This was a discussion I had
engaged in a million times already, and I had my response ready: Your ancestors
came here legally because they were European, and there were no legal
restrictions on European immigration at the time. But somehow, looking at my
colleague, it struck me for the first time: Only white people say that! Of
course the ancestors of most African Americans came here “legally” too—because
their enslavement was perfectly legal. But white people who are so proud that
their ancestors came legally are basically saying that they are proud to have
benefitted from white privilege.
I decided not to get into an
argument at that moment, but when I got home and opened the local newspaper,
the front-page article about the demonstrations quoted a white observer making
the same comment. It seemed more useful to compose a letter to the editor
explaining my thoughts, so I did; it was published the next day. And a few days
later an editor from Beacon Press called me saying that she had seen my letter,
and wondered whether I’d be interested in expanding it into a book. That was
the seed of They Take Our Jobs!.
The eminent Cuban historian Jorge
Ibarra attends my talk. “Whatever happened to your book on Haitian migrant
workers in Cuba?” he demands. On my first visit to the island, he had provided
invaluable help orienting me to the historiography, and the archives, relevant
to my research. “I never wrote the book,” I confess. “I published the research
I did here as an article in the Hispanic
American Historical Review, but then my work ended up moving in different
directions.” “I still have the original, typed manuscript of that article!” he
tells me proudly. “You gave it to me when you came back the next year, when you
were working on it.”
As I get ready to leave the fair,
I’m asked to sign a statement, a letter to Comandante Presidente Hugo Chávez
Frías. “The undersigned intellectuals, artists, writers, and guests who are
participating in the Twenty-second International Book Fair in Havana, from the
San Carlos Fort in La Cabaña, wish to send the President of Venezuela, Hugo
Chávez Frías, our solidarity and our commitment to accompany him day by day in
these moments of his recovery, because we know that he is carrying out a battle
and his spirit of struggles continues intact in these difficult but hopeful
moments he is living through,” the letter begins, in somewhat typical flowery
Spanish-language style. “You have succeeded in extending ties of unity to other
continents and countries besieged at this time by the twenty-first century wars
of recolonization, and you have always accompanied them with your solidarity. Dear
Comandante, you have succeeded, along with other compañeros, in achieving the uncompleted dream of Simón Bolívar,
José de San Martín, and other heroes of our independence, frustrated by another
imperial expansion that framed our dependence since the end of the nineteenth
century... You are at the forefront of this battle with your strength, courage,
and love. Adelante, Comandante, our
peoples are waiting for you.”
It sounds a lot like a song I
played for my students at Pomona last week, “Simón Bolívar,” written in the
early 1970s by the Chilean group Inti Illimani.
Simón Bolívar, Simón,
revivido en las memorias
que abrió otro tiempo la historia,
te espera el tiempo Simón.
Simón Bolívar, razón,
razón del pueblo profunda,
antes que todo se hunda
vamos de nuevo Simón.
You still live in our memories,
Simón History has opened another era Time is waiting for you, Simón... Before everything is lost Let’s try again, Simón.
The letter is not written exactly
with the words I would have used, but I don’t care, it’s basically a get-well
card, and I sign it, imagining that one day David Horowitz will discover it or
the National Enquirer will splash a
headline, “Aviva Chomsky claims Hugo Chávez at ‘forefront of battle’ and calls
for him to forge ahead!” But I doubt I’m important enough for it to merit any
notice at all. And it feels like the least I can do.
When we posted the offer, we were met with an immediate, emotional response from our Facebook fans and Twitter followers. The posts were shared and retweeted, and emails forwarded to friends in need.
Our distributor, Random House, offered its help with fulfilling the large number of requests we received, waiving all charges to Beacon for shipping the orders. We especially want to thank the people who work in their Westminster, MD, warehouse, who found a way to schedule this special project during a busy season while they were getting ready for their holiday breaks. In all, we'll be mailing approximately 2,500 books, and about 90% will be shipped through Random House. We are deeply grateful for their generosity.
We hope everyone who receives books will share them with others in their communities who have a need for these resources.
Managing Your Distress in an Aftermath of a Shooting This is an excellent, well-written guide for parents and other adults by the American Psychological Association, published 2008. One of the best ways to help children is to put ourselves—parents, teachers, congregation members—on a path towards healing. This document could be very helpful.
Tips for Parents of School Age Children: Helping Your Children Manage Distress in the Aftermath of School Shootings Aimed specifically at parents working with their children. From the American Psychological Association, 2007.
Protecting Your Church from Crime and Violence. Regular price: $17.95. Sale price: $14.95. Nine chapters. Particularly recommended: "A Shooter in the House—A Police Officer's Advice on How to Prevent and React to, a Gunman at Church." The entire document is 24 pages long.
Confronting Gun Violence at Church. Regular price: $17.95. Nine chapters. Particularly recommended: "Should Our Church Have an Armed Security Guard?" The entire document is 22 pages long.
Christopher Finan is president of American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, which was established by the American Booksellers Association in 1990 to defend the First Amendment rights of booksellers and their customers. He is the author of From the Palmer Raids to the PATRIOT Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, the winner of the American Library Association’s Eli M. Oboler Award for the best work on intellectual freedom published in 2006 and 2007.
Banned Books Week turned 30 this year, but this was not your
grandmother’s celebration of the freedom to read.
Since its founding, the centerpiece of Banned Books Week has
been the display of banned and challenged titles on tables in bookstores and
libraries around country. This year the celebration began on the Internet with
a tremendously creative two-minute video produced by Bookmans, an independent
bookstore with six locations in Arizona.
The Bookmans video was a contribution to a read-out of
banned books that was launched on the Internet last year. Most of the more than
1,000 videos that have been posted on YouTube feature people reading passages
from their favorite books. The Bookmans video shows a series of customers and
staff members reading a single line from different censored books. Each line
was carefully chosen to celebrate the importance of books, reading and free
The moving message of the video, combined with skillful
editing by Harrison Kressler, Bookmans’ video producer, helped it become the
hit of Banned Books Week. More than 17,000 people watched it on YouTube, making
it our most popular video to date.
City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco also joined the
read-out, producing a series of wonderful readings by writers and leading
members of the literary community, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the store’s founder. Director John Waters read from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Other bookstores who contributed to the read-out include
Chapter One Book Store, UConn Co-op, Vintage Books, Poor Richard’s Bookshoppe,
the King’s English Bookshop, the Book House and Bookmamas. The videos may be viewed here. (Some are exhibited on playlists.)
But the Internet read-out is only one of many new things
about Banned Books Week. The sponsors of Banned Books Week—the American
Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the American Library Association,
the Association of American Publishers, the National Association of College
Stores and the American Society of Journalists and Authors—have created a
steering committee to plan for the event throughout the year. The Internet
read-out was one of our first ideas.
The committee has also invited new groups to become sponsors,
including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Council of
Teachers of English, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Project Censored.
As a result of these
organizational changes, Banned Books Week has grown. Press coverage of the
event doubled last year. We don’t have statistics for this year yet, but it
appears that coverage continues to increase. In the past, we have had trouble
placing opinion pieces in newspapers during Banned Books Week, but this year
the Louisville Courier-Journal approached us for a column. KPFA,
a radio station in San Francisco, devoted a full hour to Banned Books Week.
This doesn’t mean that displays of banned books are old hat. They
remain the most effective means of delivering our message that even in America
censorship is a problem. The “ah-ha!” moment occurs when bookstore customers
and library patrons see that some of their most beloved books have been
Banned Books Week continues to give booksellers a great
opportunity to bring customers into their stores. I saw this for myself this
year when I spent Banned Books Week in Durango, Colorado, at the invitation of
Peter Schertz and Andrea Avantaggio, the owners of Maria’s,
have been expanding their celebration of Banned Books Week for several years. It
happened that this year Banned Books Week coincided with the Durango Literary
Festival, and festival organizers were planning a program on censorship. Peter
invited me to join the panel, which included Ellen Hopkins, whose books are
frequently challenged. It seemed like a long way to go for one appearance, so I
asked him to see if anyone else might want to hear about banned books.
I was surprised when Libby Cowles, Maria’s community
relations manager, lined up three classroom talks at Ft. Lewis College, a radio
interview and a breakfast speech to the town’s booksellers and librarians. From
the first day in Durango, my visit got great coverage in the local newspaper,
which published a column I wrote on the front page of the Sunday
opinion section. The publisher even invited me to address his editors at their
While I want to believe that the warm reception in Durango
was a response to my rugged good looks, it was largely the result of Libby’s
efforts and Maria’s excellent relations with community leaders.
There was something else at work as well. The message of
Banned Books Week is that we only possess free speech as long as we are willing
to fight for it. When people are made aware of censorship, they are grateful to
the booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents and kids who are fighting back.
There is no danger that Banned Books Week will grow old
anytime soon. Our challenge is to continue to find new ways to carry the
always been a reader. I love to lose myself deep inside the pages—and the
capacity for observation and my ability to imagine alternate realities has not
always served me well. In the first standardized test I was given, I performed
badly. I was asked to circle the image that should come next in a series of
illustrations. In every scenario, I could imagine too many possibilities. There’s
one I remember: a girl has dropped a bottle of milk on the floor. What would
happen next? Would she clean up the spill? Summon her mother for help? Enjoy
her after-school snack? It seemed to me so much would depend on the character
of that girl. And the plot line of her life. What if her mother wasn’t there
when she got home from school? Did she have a cat who might lap up the milk? Was
she easy-going or a worrier? Is it possible that she dropped the bottle on
purpose because she didn’t like the taste of milk?
You can see
why I had trouble with this test. My results made me a Cub, a member of the
lowest, slowest reading group. Within weeks, I was a Bluebird. And I have still
never forgiven that first grade teacher—her name was Mrs. Cunningham—for
telling the rest of the class—that my climb from Cub to Squirrel to Rabbit to
Bluebird was a result of hard work.
matter, I kept on reading. Anything that was around the house—and there were
plenty of books. My mother was an English teacher and drama coach. I read books
that were not age-appropriate, and when I tired of the plays and novels on my
mother’s bookshelves, I read my way through my grandmother’s Book-of-the-Month
selections and her library of Reader’s Digest Condensed editions.
was in training to become a writer. It’s true I wrote along the way; in fact,
when I was in fourth-grade, Mrs. Cunningham retired, and I was asked to write
and recite a poem in her honor. It was my first unpublished fiction.
high, I was published in a magazine called, Insulators,
Crown Jewels of the Wire. I was too busy practicing my flute to do much
extra-curricular writing in high school or college. After graduation, I taught
flute lessons, waited tables, wrote greeting cards for Hallmark, and landed a
part-time job in a bookstore. As a bookseller—and later as a consultant to
booksellers—I wrote ad copy, radio commercials, blurbs for catalogues, features
and a column for American Bookseller.
writing. But I was not—in my mind—a
my dreams. That’s where I met Woody Allen.
time, I had seen just two Woody Allen movies—Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah
and Her Sisters. I did not love either one. Also—in case it is
relevant—this dream occurred before Mr. Allen began dating his sort-of
stepdaughter, now-wife of twenty years.
dream, I am one of maybe ten or fifteen students in a classroom. The teacher is
Woody Allen. Then the scene changes; we’re walking in the park—just me and Mr.
Allen. It’s fall; the leaves have color: a few are on the ground. The
temperature is chilly enough for my companion to be wearing a light overcoat.
Woody Allen turns to me, and says, “You know,
we share the same interests—as writers.” He elaborates: “We’re both fascinated
by relationships. We write from character. We want to know what motivates
people. Also, we wonder why we’re here.”
cannot tell you why my subconscious chose Woody Allen as my writing mentor. (Why
can’t I have Tolstoy?)
I can tell you that when I woke up, I thought
about what Mr. Allen had called me: a writer.
And how he’d treated me as an equal. How quickly I’d advanced from back of the
classroom to walking by his side. And in some strange way, dream-Woody Allen
got me thinking that I might be able to move from writing to writer.
turns out that the man whose movies I had not yet seen was pretty much right-on
about my interests as a writer. I do write from character. That’s not so
typical in a nonfiction writer. In the case of Cottage for Sale: the characters who led me to write were the leading
men of my house-moving adventure—a lot of guys with tool belts and a bossy gray
cat named Egypt.
I started writing Remembering the Music,
I thought I was writing a book about all the intriguing personalities in the
community band I’ve played in for almost twenty years. But my mother—who is
what might be called, in writerly terms, a strong character—seemed to be
showing up on every page. I realized I wasn’t writing a book about the band
with some bits about my mother in it, but rather that I needed to write a book
about my mother with some bits about the band in it.
Remembering the Music is often mistaken
for a book about Alzheimer’s. In fact, it’s a book about all the things that
interest me as a writer: people, relationships, what motivates us, and why we
are here. It’s about choices we make, the journeys we take, and the families we
create from friends. It’s about learning to forgive, and most of all—about
finding the willingness to forget. It’s also about the bridge and consolation
we find in music. And it’s about the things my mother taught me—not only in her
vibrant youth, but in her debilitated and forgetful aging. Not the least of
which was to sit still, be present and know that every moment—remembered or
forgotten—matters to the person sitting next to us.
readers who prefer plot to theme: this is a book about two women, alone in the
world. Both of them just a bit eccentric, odd in their own ways. Both of them
fighters who don’t give up or give in. Though they aren’t so different, they
aren’t so much the same either. And they don’t really get along for most of
their lives. And then—well something horrible happens. Which makes something
all that character and theme and plot, if someone still insists that Remembering the Music is about Alzheimer’s—well,
it’s about the upside of Alzheimer’s. Thisis not a book about an illness. It’s a book about a healing.
have suggested writing this book must have been a cathartic process, but
catharsis was not my motivation or my practice. I wrote this book because I
realized that I had to. That my mother—the version of her showing up on every
page of that band book—wasn’t going away. That she wanted this book—and that
she knew I would learn something in the writing.
we write for the same reasons that we read. To uncover the truth about
something; to learn. Sometimes as readers—and especially as writers—we need to
stand back from a story before we can understand its lessons. From the distance
of the writer, I can tell you what this story taught me: healing comes in most
mysterious ways; we grow through challenge and adversity; life is precious,
relationships—fragile, love—undiscriminating, and hope—never-ending.
It was lunch time, and several members of the Beacon Press staff headed out in a chilly April drizzle to Boston's Downtown Crossing--not for a tasty sandwich from Falafel King, but to take part in World Book Night. Each staffer had signed up to hand out twenty free books to perfect strangers walking by on a busy street corner. Director Helene Atwan summed it up by saying, "Lots of different people going in and out of the subway were puzzled, skeptical, and finally, curious and grateful. A wonderful way to spend the lunch hour. We're all already looking forward to World Book Night 2013."
We've loved hearing stories from other givers, and must admit that it gives us a particular thrill to hear about people giving away Kindred by Octavia Butler--Beacon's literary contribution to the project.
At the Silver Spring Metro station, Politics and Prose floor manager Susan Skirboll had a pretty straightforward strategy for her giveaway approach: “I’ll try to look respectable and not like a total freak.”
Skirboll calls the story she selected — “Kindred,” by the late science-fiction writer Octavia Butler — a book “everyone should read.” Though it contains a little bit of science fiction and fantasy, “it’s done in a way that’s kind of believable,” Skirboll said. “It talks about the slavery experience in a way I had never read before.” --Washington Post
And on Twitter...
Have given out my 4th copy of Kindred by OctaviaButler for #wbnamerica & am excited that #4 is drinking her coffee and reading the book!!!! -- @misscecil
Learned during #wbnamerica: let them see what you're offering. know your book. saying "it's one of the best books i've ever read" helps. -- @corpuslibris
Our favorite story, hands down, involves a very unconventional delivery vehicle. (Photos by Shmuel Thaler of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Used by permission.)
Handing out free books to surfers while paddling out in waters off Cowell Beach doesn't seem logical.
But Hilary Bryant made it look easy, if not natural, Monday when the wet-suit clad vice mayor took several copies of the novel "Kindred" into the surf wrapped in Ziploc bags. Not green - she knows - but how else could she keep the books dry?
"They were very appreciative," Bryant said of the effort, which was part of the World Book Night celebration in the U.S. and Europe. "It was easier to start the conversation on the water than on the cliff. You have a captive audience." --Santa Cruz Sentinel
And now onto our staff and their experiences at Downtown Crossing in Boston.
Tom Hallock: Associate Publisher and Director of Sales and Marketing
Pictured right: Helene Atwan, Director of Beacon Press, with Tom Hallock.
So how did World Book Night, or World Book Lunchtime, go for you?
It was great, just great. We went to Downtown Crossing, the historic heart of the Boston retail district. There were a lot of people there at lunch time. There used to be a lot of retail bookstores there: a Globe Corner Bookstore, a Lauriat’s, a Barnes and Noble and a Borders—none of them are there now. And we just thought it would be a place where we would find some people who are not exposed to books regularly, and we were right.
People would come up with wary looks on their faces. I think maybe they thought we were handing out religious tracts or political propaganda or something, and we would assure them that they were really good books, and people got really excited about it.
In a sense, you were espousing the religion of reading.
Exactly, and I think we got a lot of converts.The best thing was seeing the expression on people's faces change as you got into the conversation, and you could see them open up to the idea that a stranger was about to hand them a book that they would really enjoy reading.
How do you feel about Kindred by Octavia Butler being included in the giveaway?
We were really proud of that and so glad thatCarl Lennertz and the people at World Book Night made it possible for Kindred to be part of the program. It's a great book that can be read by all ages, and it‘s been wonderful to hear stories from around the country about people introducing it to new readers.
Marcy Barnes, Production Manager
Pictured right: Kate Noe, Will Myers, and Marcy Barnes.
There were a couple of really enthusiastic people who came up to us, and a lot of people were really grateful. To choose people to give books to, I basically just chose anyone who wasn't wearing headphones. I wasn't thinking, "Is that a reader or not a reader?" I felt that it was more a celebration of reading and saving books, and a lot of people were really appreciative of the concept.
Ryan Mita, Digital Marketing Assistant
Here’s what went through my mind, and what happened while I was giving away World Book Night Books:
I thought giving away books on a wet, windy day would be a difficult, but it wasn’t!
I gave a jeweler something to occupy his interest on his lunch break.
I interested a groups of teenagers in picking up a book.
I felt really good sharing a great book with strangers and supporting an activity I love to do.
Will Myers, Editorial Assistant
It was nice to see people light up when they were given a free book. We had the World Book Night lanyard, so I think people thought we were from Oxfam or something along those lines. But once they knew we weren't asking for an email address, they were less suspicious.
At the Lambert's outdoor fruit stand--they were big boosters of World Book Night, and they were cheering us on. They kept asking, "Do you have this book? Do you have this book?" That was cool. It was a great experience, and I would absolutely do it again.
Kate Noe, Production Assistant
I got involved because my friend works for a counseling center for young mothers, and she was really excited for World Book Night because she was able to get free books for these young women who don't ever read. So she inspired me to reach out, too.
I would definitely do it again, but it was frustrating being rejected. Going up to strangers and having them ignore you... But those moments when people were curious and wanted to learn more, that was cool.
Crystal Paul, Assistant to the Director
Pictured right: Helene Atwan, Ryan Mita, and Crystal Paul.
I'm glad that we were handing out Junot Diaz and Zeitoun—multicultural literature that is applicable to everyone. I think it's great that there were such a wide variety of authors and types of books, because it encourages you to reach out to all kinds of people. And I was excited that Kindred was part of World Book Night. I love Octavia Butler.
I've always said that books sort of raised me. I grew up in a house where there wasn't a strong parental figure, so I turned to books not because I just wanted stories or escapism. But, literally, because I was looking for how I'm supposed to live life, the things I'm supposed to do. A lot of young adult literature in particular is about these orphan children, and then I started reading Sci-Fi. Octavia Butler was one of the first authors I read-- Xenogenesis which is now called Lilith's Brood And it was about a black woman going out into the world and being abducted by aliens. Basically, just completely abandoned and on her own, and how she navigated this totally new world.
This year's PEN Hemingway winner, Teju Cole for Open City. But a tough choice, so many great books this year, and especially so many great first novels, including the Hemingway finalists, Amy Waldman's The Submission and We Are Taking Only What We Need by Stephanie Watts, and of course The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht.
From Senior Publicist Caitlin Meyer:
All three finalists were great picks, but I’d have gone for Swamplandia! Karen Russell’s writing is a dream. Given that she’s just 30, and this was her first novel, and that she’s a woman, I would have liked to see her beat the odds and walk away with the prize.
Production Coordinator Beth Collins chafes against the Pulitzer's temporal and geographical constraints:
I don’t read a lot of fiction and I usually don’t read things when they first come out. I’m usually a few years behind. For example, my favorite work of fiction that I read in the past year was by A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoetby David Mitchell which was published in 2010, but he’s not American so he’s not eligible.
I thought it was fantastic for Binocular Vision, a short story collection, to receive high honors from so many. I've been reading it a story at a time over the last month, loving that I'm able to approach each piece individually, but it works as a collection as well.
Brittany Weippert in Business Operations throws out the Pulitzer guidelines and throws in her recommendations for Chuck Palaniuk's Choke and How I Became Stupid by Martin Page. Add your own favorite reads in the comments!
Tanya Erzen is an Associate Professor of religion and American studies at Ohio State University. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It.
Edward Cullen is a twenty-something ruthless CEO who meets Bella when she interviews him for her college newspaper. They experience a magnetic attraction, but he harbors a nasty secret: the only way he can have a relationship with her is if she agrees to sign a written contract agreeing to be his submissive. Edward expects a recalcitrant Bella to engage in whippings, handcuffing, and other bondage games. At one point, when Bella asks, “Does this mean you’re going to make love to me tonight, Edward?” his response is, “No Isabella, it doesn’t. Firstly, I don’t make love. I f$#k . . . hard. ... Come. I want to show you my playroom.”
This delightfully predictable (at least in the world of porn) exchange is to be found not in he famously abstinent pages of the Twilight saga, but in “Master of the Universe,” formerly the most-read Twilight fan fiction story online, and now, in its new incarnation as Shades of Grey, a novel about to receive a 750,000 first print run from Vintage. MofU, as it was known to the fanpire cognoscenti, was written in giddily awaited installments by Snowqueens Icedragon or “Mistress Icy.” “MofU is my own special brand of heroin, an addiction I will have to go into rehab for,” one of the thousands of devoted readers raved. Now, in the first installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed), Edward and Bella have morphed into Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele (copyright!) and Mistress Icy is using her pen name, E.L. James.
MofU was the gritty anecdote to Twilight’s relentless abstinence, part of the vast fan fic parallel universe where the most popular stories are what writers informally call “smut.” It's a genre that re-envisions the relationships in Twilight as sexually explicit and often raunchy. From “clean smut” to “hardcore,” instead of meadows and dazzling vampires, there is promiscuity, sexual abuse, incest, bondage, and sex addiction. In “The Training,” Bella “lives to serve her Master…” In "Never Sleep in a Strange Man’s Bed," Bella is awakened by a stranger named Edward who climbs into bed with her: “She was rubbing her firm little ass against me and moaning! Holy hell and all the devils in it!” In The List, a sexually frustrated Bella catalogues all the ways she’d like to have sex with Edward once they’re married. “To Do: Against the tree in the meadow, on our lab table, on his leather couch . . .” You get the idea.
The pleasure of reading the Twilight series for millions of fans resides in the books’ titillating fantasy of sexual postponement. Readers endure thousands of pages of erotic tension with Edward and Bella panting at each other with quivering lips and interrupted kisses. Even when they do have sex in Breaking Dawn, the final novel, Twilight fans only get a blank space between when Edward and Bella go to bed on their honeymoon and wake up to drifting feathers, a shattered headboard and her black-and-blue body.
The stories that crowd the top-ten lists of fan fiction like MofU provide plenty of salacious sex but stick to a romantic premise. No matter if Edward is a dominant in a bondage relationship, a “smooth-talking motherfucker” who likes to pick up girls in bars for casual sex, or a commitment-averse architect who has never had a long-term relationship: Bella and Edward are soul mates, destined to be together forever. The insatiable demand for books like “Fifty Shades” speaks to the power of the fantasy of true love and the redemption of the damaged hero awakened by the love of the right woman who is either sexually innocent or virginal. Like Twilight, “Fifty Shades” delivers on the romance novel fantasy that a relationship initially based solely on sex will turn into blissful marriage. Anastasia’s virginity ensnares and entrances sexually voracious Christian Grey until he realizes that his feelings for her are emotional rather than just sexual, and his treatment of her becomes kind, solicitous, and caring.
The fairy-tale success story of James is also seductive for fans, especially the hundreds of hopeful fanfic writers who long to be the next Stephenie Meyer, whose first attempt at a novel was Twilight. Or, they could be the next Amanda Hocking, whose self-published vampire romance novels, My Blood Approves, landed her the million dollar book deal with St. Martin’s Press. And this takes us back to the real romance, to our contemporary narrative of hope and longing: that in our age of mundane and ubiquitous celebrity, the story you’ve written online could catapult you from obscurity to celebrated writer. And a seven figure advance.
Yes, the unthinkable happened on Sunday, and the New England Patriots lost (by a derrière) to the New York Giants. Our sadness at watching Tom Brady's last second Hail Mary pass hit the turf was mitigated by our excitement at promoting two books for Other Press throughout the week. Our #pubbowl wager, which came with lots of good-natured trash-talking and humor, had the publisher whose home team lost (that would be us) on the hook to promote two of the other publisher's titles for a week on the web, featuring the two titles on their web site and promoting the titles across social media platforms.
With the approaching 6:30pm kickoff of Super Bowl XLVI between the New England Patriots and the (soon to be weeping in their locker room) New York Giants, the publishing world celebrates another great matchup off the gridiron. Boston's Beacon Press and New York's Other Press are teaming up for a special web promotion: the publisher whose home team loses (Beacon's New England Patriots or, if the Patriots are abducted by aliens, Other's New York Giants) will promote two of the other publisher's titles for a week on the web, featuring the two titles on their web site and promoting the titles across social media platforms. In addition, the publisher whose team brings home the trophy will give away a selection of its books to a handful of winners selected from online entries, and both publishers will use their web presences to endorse the giveaway.
The classic New York-Boston sports rivalry struck the publishers, both independent presses, as a ripe opportunity to engage in some fun, harmless, book-loving competition. (Also, it seemed to Beacon Press an easy way to let Tom Brady help earn it some free publicity.) Beacon Press is an independent publisher of serious non-fiction and fiction, emphasizing religion, history, current affairs, political science, gay/lesbian/gender studies, education, African-American studies, women's studies, child and family issues and nature and the environment (as well as a few sports books). Other Press is an independent publisher of novels, short stories, poetry, and essays from America and around the world-non-fiction and fiction-that explore how psychic, cultural, historical, and literary shifts inform our vision of the world and of each other.
The movie of the best-selling novel The Help is now available for home viewing on video. (Spoiler alert! Key plot points are divulged through the web links in this post.)
For anyone who missed it in the theater, I highly recommend you watch The Help. When the book came out in 2009 I read it and loved it… and I was troubled by it… and I reviewed it…
One reason I recommend The Help is that it tackles very challenging subjects with sincerity and an eye toward justice and truth. Another reason I recommend it is because of… disquieting thoughts [it raised in my mind].
There has been some serious controversy in connection with The Help. Check out Patricia Turner’s New York Times Op-Ed, "Dangerous White Stereotypes," and "Of Anger and Alternative Endings" in the Jackson Free Press. The author of the latter column (Donna Ladd, a white woman) accurately (in my opinion) points out that…
The Help just could not have ended as it did. Hilly, or her man, would have called the [White Citizens] Council on Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. My guess is that Aibileen would have been severely beaten and never hired again in the state; anyone related to Skeeter would have been destroyed economically and at least one cross burned in her mama’s yard; and Minny would have been killed and her house burned.
I am a post-civil rights black woman whose Southern roots have been nearly erased by world travel and an adulthood spent raising a family in Michigan. I am supposed to be offended by the movie The Help for its simplification of the injustices of the Jim Crow South. But I am not.
Black and white people have both praised and vilified The Help. One of the most powerful statements comes from the Association of Black Women Historians. The authors list several troubling, false, and stereotypical portrayals in The Help:
Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.
I respect the expertise and sincerity of the authors, and I’m troubled by one point they highlight:
We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent.
How can the authors of this statement find it “unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment” and then praise the performances of the black actors who chose to portray those very characters? If you disagree so strongly with a white woman writing this story and claim that The Help misrepresents both African American speech and culture, wouldn’t it be more consistent to criticize the African American actors who chose to star in the film?
According to the cover story in Entertainment Weekly (#1167, August 12, 2011), Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer “love the characters of Aibileen and Minny, which makes having to defend them to detractors a strange and uneasy burden.” Spencer says,
I am thrilled to be playing this woman. She is a human being with the breadth and depth of emotions, and she is a contributing member of society. It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?’ I think it should be ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and she gives the f—king performance of her life.’
I continue to think about The Help and the reasons I loved it and the reasons it troubled me. Jackson, Mississippi was a terribly racist city in the 1960′s when this story takes place. In far too many ways, Jackson (like the rest of our nation) still has such a very long way to go. Racism and hatred are alive and well (note the recent, brutal murder in Jackson of James Anderson). But ultimately I land on the side of those who recommend that people read or watch The Help. Love it or hate it or something in between, The Help, as pointed out by Jamia Wilson in her powerful and balanced article (she points out both positive and negative aspects) for Good Culture, inspires us to think and talk about race. That fact alone–that I continue to ponder the issues it raises (and I suspect anyone who has read the book or watched the film does as well)–is, in my opinion, the most redeeming quality about The Help.
NOW, one more point. I cannot stress enough how much I hope that people — particularly white people — will seek out other books by black writers on the subject of black domestic workers. The Association of Black Women Historians included a list of ten books at the end of their Open Statement to the Fans of The Help that they recommend. I’d like to highlight one of those books that I recently read; one that is published by my publisher, Beacon Press.
I loved Like One of the Family by Alice Childress [read an excerpt here]. This novel is a series of vignettes; brief conversations between Mildred, a black domestic worker, and her friend Marge. Childress creates a vivid image of the life of a black working woman in New York in the 1950s. It is funny, sarcastic, outspoken, and rings with truth. Here’s a brief excerpt:
‘Mrs. M…, what is the matter, you look so grieved and talk so strange ’til I don’t know what to think?’ She looked at me accusingly and said, ‘I’m afraid to say anything to you, Mildred. It seems that every time I open my mouth something wrong comes out and you have to correct me. It makes me very nervous because the last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings. I mean well, but I guess that isn’t enough. I try to do the right thing and since it keeps coming out wrong I figured I’d just keep quiet. I… I… want to get along but I don’t know how.’
Marge, in that minute I understood her better and it came to my mind that she was doing her best to make me comfortable and havin’ a doggone hard go of it. After all, everything she’s ever been taught adds up to her being better than me in every way and on her own she had to find out that this was wrong… That’s right, she was tryin’ to treat me very special because she still felt a bit superior but wanted me to know that she admired me just the same.
‘Mrs. M…,’ I said, ‘you just treat me like you would anybody else that might be workin’ for you in any kind of job. Don’t be afraid to talk to me because if you say the wrong thing I promise to correct you, and if you want to get along you won’t mind me doing so.’
This excerpt captures for me some of the challenges with The Help. Katherine Stockett did her best to write a book that would, well, help. It is flawed, as are all books, but it is her story; the story of a time and a place and people written from the perspective of a white woman. Balance The Help with Like One of the Family or one of many books about that time and place. Your knowledge and curiosity will grow. That is a good thing.
And then talk about race… which is one real value of The Help.
Photo: Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in 'The Help' (courtesy of Dreamworks)
She was pretty upfront about it: she didn’t want me there.
“It’s not you personally,” Marge explained. “It’s the book.”
Marge was the moderator, researcher, engine, really, of a local reading group. She was good at what she did, I was told, and I believed it. She was pretty thorough at listing all the reasons why she didn’t want to read or recommend to the group my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, about my ten years teaching teenagers in adult detention.
“The title, for one. It’s all wrong. Even the third graders I used to teach would know that it wasn’t correct,” she started off. “It’s just poor grammar. And what about that cover? It put me off.”
I happened to think Beacon Press did a terrific job with the cover—the title, in hip-hop script on a blue background and, in profile, the photograph of a young African American male, sixteen at most, looking out at the reader with a somewhat challenging look yet with the inevitable vulnerability of any teenager.
But I knew where Marge was headed.
“Besides, I don’t like the topic, sounds too depressing,” she said. And then she got blunt. “What’s it got to do with me?”
I’d heard the objections before, although not quite so frankly stated. I did some mild reassuring, but I didn’t work at it. I knew that Marge had called to invite me to speak to the group despite her opposition. Two friends who were a part of the book club had read the book, liked it, and lobbied for it.
When I arrived at the community center the night of my talk, I thought things might have changed.
“We don’t usually do refreshments, but I thought this time it might be nice,” Marge said, greeting me warmly at the door, then leading me to a table covered with plates of home-baked cookies and pastries, a coffee urn, and two pitchers of fresh-squeezed lemonade.
And indeed things had changed. At first when Marge introduced me, she was true to form. I winced as she laid out all her objections and doubts about the book in excruciating detail. “Oh boy, what kind of night is this going to be?” I thought.
But then, with equal clarity, Marge told the group of about thirty how the book had changed her thinking and answered all her doubts. How she understood now that the title reflected the fractured yet still human lives of many of the kids I wrote about, especially Ray, the young man who was damaged by years of abandonment and drugs, and from whom I took the quote for the title. She said how the cover itself mirrored these kids’ lives—on the one hand it showed the fragile world of childhood with the book jacket’s blue background and playful lettering, and on the other, the gritty world of the streets with that scowling, discontented-looking young man. How, yes, the stories that she expected to depress and alienate her did make her sad at times, as she learned about these children’s lives in and out of jail. Yet at the same time they made her smile and laugh and admire those same children for their resilience and generosity and willingness to forgive society for what it had done to them, although society didn’t forgive the children for their mistakes.
“It was pretty obvious to me by the end of the book that I had a lot more in common with those kids than I could ever have imagined,” Marge concluded.
Listening to Marge, I smiled to myself and began to wonder why I’d made the trip there (well, there were those delicious-looking brownies), since she was telling the group all the things I would have said.
And I wondered if Marge realized that what had happened to her is what I always hoped would happen whenever I handed one of my locked-up students a book: their perceptions of the world would shift; that places they’d never been to, were excluded from, would open up to them; that people they’d never gotten the chance to meet, or who they refused to meet because of all the protective barriers they put up, would suddenly became more like them than they could have ever realized.
I didn’t think Marge, now, after reading the book, would mind being in the company of Warren, who, finally, at the age of fifteen and reading on a fourth-grade level, had completed his “first-ever book,” as he put it, or Frankie, who made it through a long stint in solitary confinement devouring the novels (all good ones, I might add) I brought him; or Larry, who began to see that even a life like his wasn’t foreign to the pages of literature after he finished reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
Readers like Marge and Warren and Frankie and Larry and all the others out there are the reasons why writers like me write their books and why teachers like me stay in the classroom despite the struggles. We want to do nothing less than change the world (and a few hearts while we’re at it) book by book.
Summers tend to be blessedly slow at the nonprofit where I work, the National Center for Science Education. That’s because NCSE’s primary mission is to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and when the schools are out of session, the school boards are taking a break, and the state legislatures have adjourned, the creationist onslaught on the teaching of evolution slackens—even if it never entirely vanishes. So it’s a good time for me to catch up on my reading.
Of all the education books I read this summer, the one that impressed me the most was Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer’s Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010)—although, to be fair, I wasn’t reading it for the first time. At the center of the book is Berkman and Plutzer’s careful national survey of high school biology teachers, who were asked about what they thought and what they teach about evolution. The results were disquieting: as they summarized in the January 28, 2011, issue of Science, “The data reveal a pervasive reluctance of teachers to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology,” with only 28% of teachers deemed effective educators with respect to evolution—and with as many as 13% of teachers explicitly advocating creationism.
It wasn’t all bad news from Berkman and Plutzer, though. In chapter 6 of their book, they analyze the changes in the treatment of evolution in state science education standards, concluding, “... the content of state standards in the year 2000 reflected public opinion. But the nation’s major science organizations were successful in encouraging many states to redraft their standards, so that, by 2007, many more reflected the goals and priorities of the scientific establishment.” Battles over the treatment of evolution in state standards still rage in places like Texas and Florida, but overall the defenders of evolution are winning. And a set of model national standards, now under development with the guidance of the National Research Council, properly emphasizes evolution as one of the “disciplinary core ideas” of the life sciences.
The statistical rigor and scholarly detail of Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms was bracing, certainly, but it wasn’t exactly a book that I wanted to take to the beach or share with my ten-year-old son. That honor was clearly reserved for Jay Hosler’s Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth(Hill and Wang, 2011), illustrated by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon. A charming graphic introduction to evolution, the conceit of the book is that it takes place not on the earth, but on the planet Glargal, inhabited by intelligent aliens that vaguely resemble sea cucumbers. The squinches, as they call themselves, are facing a genetic crisis, and as part of their efforts to combat it, a squinch scientist, Bloort 183, has been researching life on earth and is now explaining evolution to the Glargalian monarch and his heir.
Both Hosler and the Cannons are old hands at explaining biological ideas in comics. Hosler is responsible for a string of comics on evolutionary themes published by Active Synapse, Clan Apis, The Sandwalk Adventures, and Optical Allusions—probably the best National Science Foundation-funded comic around! The Cannons previously illustrated Mark Schultz’s The Stuff of Life (Hill and Wang, 2009), which introduced the squinches while explaining the basics of genetics. The result of their collaboration, though, is something special: Hosler’s gift for narrative and the clever and appealing illustrations of the Cannons make learning about evolution the most fun you can have without donning a cape to fight crime. Don’t take my word for it, though: there’s a sample chapter, in which Bloort 183 explains extinction, posted on the NCSE website.
I’m looking forward to having time to read a number of forthcoming books on the teaching of evolution, including Jeffrey P. Moran’s American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science(Oxford University Press, 2012), which promises to analyze the historical roles played by race, gender, and regionalism in the controversies over the teaching of evolution. Is it any wonder that sometimes I wish that the summer could last the whole year long?