Jason Reynolds on Diversity

It’s become a cliche to say that knowledge is power, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Coretta Scott King award-winning author Jason Reynolds talks about diversity in books, maintaining that we need diversity for now and because books are a time capsule to the past. We can learn about other people of all different walks of life and eras through books. For kids and adults alike, this encourages empathy, critical thinking, and more.

Check out the videos to hear more!

Like what you heard? Get Jason Reynolds’s books here.

Review: Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You made the Best of 2014 lists of some of my favorite, most trustworthy sites: BookRiot, NPR, Shelf Awareness. These lists were helpful because I spent most of 2014 out of the country and out of access to new releases. But that also meant that any book I chose from said lists had a lot of hype to live up to.

So it was a bit of trepidation that I began listening to to Everything I Never Told You. From the beginning, it not only met, but surpassed my expectations. The first words, “Lydia is dead,” set the tone for the rest of the book. Not that everything will be laid out so blatantly—indeed circumstances are slow to unravel—but that her death will weigh heavily on the characters, as though in their grief they are the ones buried beneath six feet of earth. Lydia was the favorite of the family, with the long black hair of her Chinese American father and the blue eyes of her white mother. Her father wants her to be a well-adjusted and sociable teenager while her mother pressures her to study science and become a doctor. Her parents desperately want for her the things that were just out of their own reach.

The year Lydia dies is 1977, and mixed-race families in Ohio were still scarce enough to cause a stir. A newspaper article about her death notes that children of such marriages often have it hard, straddling two worlds. Strangers pull their eyelids sideways with their fingers at the children, tell them that they are other, not American, outsiders. Lydia and her brother Nath cling to each other, as only they understand the lonely situation that they find themselves in. Ng has said in interviews that all but one instance of racial prejudice her characters face are based on her or her family’s own experiences. These realistic touches create a believable atmosphere and obstacles the characters must face.

Throughout the book, nobody knows if Lydia’s death was an accident, suicide, or murder. Some of the marketing around Everything I Never Told You describes it as a mystery. Because of the unknown circumstances of Lydia’s death, it has some elements of a good mystery, but that is not where the emphasis of this story lies.Those who are in it for an intriguing who-done-it with twists and turns and fast plots will be disappointed. This is a book about families dealing with loss. Not only the loss of Lydia, but the loss of their own hopes and dreams. Slowly Ng peels back the layers, the hidden motivations behind the characters’ actions or inactions.Everything-I-Never-Told-You-1

I usually have a distaste for books about families who don’t talk to each other. If the whole book’s conflict could be resolved in a few open and honest conversations, and the characters just fail to do that, it falls apart for me. I kept expecting that feeling in Everything I Never Told You, but as the narrative progressed, as I got to know each of the characters, I felt sympathy and solidarity rather than annoyance. It’s as if the things they feel are so big that they cannot physically get their mouths around the them, as if they are so abstract that the words have not been invented yet. Or maybe it’s because this family doesn’t resent each other. Quiet anger doesn’t bubble over and drive a wedge between them. They still very much love each other.

The last hour of the book, I had what NPR refers to as a “driveway moment.” I came home from a walk to the grocery store, during which I’d been listening to the book, but didn’t want to turn my phone off. I sat in my home office, where I was supposed to be working, and finished listening. I’m the sort of of audiobook listener who likes to multi-task while listening—driving, cooking, gardening, walking, working out—but here I sat, totally absorbed in the book, not wanting to do so much as tap my foot. The mystery of Lydia’s death is heartbreaking. The loss of a life so young is never easy. And still, I didn’t want the story to end.

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Why Listen to Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is a follow-up to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the most hotly anticipated book of the year. It has received the most press, the most tweets, the most buzz. By now you would think it needs no introduction. And yet, I’ve embarked on this post to convince you why you need to listen to it.

To recap the controversy surrounding the novel: Harper Lee is, by some accounts, suffering from senility, and at the least is very old (89 last April). Her sister had been her lawyer, staunchly keeping away busybodies throughout the years (including industry professionals). Months after the death of Lee’s sister, the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was quickly found and sent to press.

The state of Alabama investigated the situation to see if Lee had been taken advantage of, and declared that everything was on the up and up. Publishing crisis averted.

So, we can all rest easy now. Or can we? My father-in-law lives at a memory care facility because he is afflicted with dementia. On a wall of the facility is a paper reminding non-residents that influencing patients on how to vote is illegal. When I first heard about the controversy, I thought about that piece of paper. I pictured Ms. Lee at a similar home in Alabama, signing, but not understanding, the contract in front of her.

It made me uneasy. But then I started to think about The Trial. Kafka requested that his friend and literary executor Max Brod burn his manuscripts upon his death. But Brod edited and published them instead—including The Trial. The literary world would be just a little bit darker without The Trial. It’s not just a great piece of literature. It’s a great piece of art.

Harper Lee is one of the most influential writers of our time. Her writing is poignant and handles issues of racism  with the precision of a master architect. Yet it is appealing to a wide audience, communicating these wisdoms in plain words that are easy enough to digest.

From the few reviews that have thus far come in, this will not be an easy book. Scout, who now goes by Jean Louise, confronts her idealized notion of her father, Atticus. He is not the pure-hearted man we know from To Kill a Mockingbird. And as Scout grapples with this, so will we. There is no golden age of history that we can look back to. If I’m understanding it correctly, this book will force listeners to pick apart the complexities of history and human relationships.

And that is what art is for. Art cuts through the news clips and talking heads. Art makes us think. It makes us feel alive.

I have every faith that Go Set a Watchman will do that.

There are, of course, other reasons to listen to it. Reese Witherspoon is narrating. The Wall Street Journal published the first chapter last week and it gives every indication that this is just as beautifully rendered as To Kill a Mockingbird. And you’ll want to know what everyone else is talking about!

But for me, it comes down to art. The very best art is not just for the artist. It’s for the world.

Will you be reading or listening to Go Set a Watchman? Let us know in the comments.

To Kill a Mockingbird

The most anticipated book of the year—possibly of the decade—is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, a follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird. This means that now is the perfect time to revisit Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork.

Whether you only vaguely recall the classic from ninth-grade English class, or you count Atticus Finch as one of the best fictional characters in literature, let’s revisit it. To Kill a Mockingbird follows our small heroine, Scout Finch, as she wakes up to the world around her in 1930s Alabama. Together with her brother, Jem, and friend, Dill, Scout investigates the mysterious recluse Boo Radley next door. Meanwhile, Scout’s father, Atticus, defends an innocent black man who is accused of rape. Lee expertly interweaves themes of prejudice and acceptance throughout the story, treating all of the characters as real people with their own sets of complicated motives and morals. It is for these reasons that To Kill a Mockingbird has become such a classic and people often laud Lee as one of the greatest writers of all time.

Listening to To Kill a Mockingbird on audio feels like you are right there with Scout as she recalls her childhood. Sissy Spacek narrates in an endearing Alabama accent, bringing life to Scout Finch’s precocious personality and Southern cadences. Just listen to the beginning as Scout talks about the background of her town and family.

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Review: Bad Feminist

Roxane Gay’s favorite color is pink. She blasts hip hop in her car. She watches a great deal of Lifetime movies. She likes men and sex. A lot. She is also a feminist.

If one were to hold her up to the golden standard of feminism, she might not measure up. But she’s not trying to measure herself against any sort of label. She’s just trying to be herself.

Throughout this book of essays, read by Bahni Turpin, who punctuates each joke at just the right point, Gay slides easily from pop culture to politics to personal reflections. Sometimes she does all three in a single essay. She uses cultural phenomena as a springboard to talk about larger contemporary issues. In one essay she delves into the movie Bridesmaids. While admitting that she likes the movie, she hardly found it the revolution it was purported to be, because while combatting the stereotype that “women aren’t funny” it promotes many heteronormative and sizist stereotypes.

In “What We Hunger For” she uses the acclaimed Hunger Games books, which she devoured, to talk about the need for strong female role models. And she uses to this need to talk about her own experience with sexual assault as a teenager. In the most personal, most intense passage of the book, Gay opens a vein and bleeds for us, recalling the emotional details, her devotion to her attacker before the assault, and the hurls of “slut” she heard at school after. It is in such personal moments that Gay connects best with her audience, when her points are driven home better than any academic arguments ever could (though her PhD in rhetoric is apparent in each essay, if not sentence). Seeing her—bared, scarred, and messy—is to understand and accept her as human.

Gay doesn’t lay out any sort of thesis or offer any solutions in many of her essays, including in “What We Hunger For”. Rather she discusses things that mean a great deal to her and leave us to do with them what we will.

Gay gushes over Sweet Valley High, and rails against Daniel Tosh, the a comedian known for rape jokes. It is this sort of juxtaposition that leads Gay to describe herself as a bad feminist. That she can find solace in elements of pop culture while simultaneously criticizing others, or even the same elements, is disconcerting to her, and may also be for readers and critics.


But by the end of Bad Feminist, I didn’t think that Gay is, in fact, a bad feminist. I think she’s a very good feminist. To say otherwise is to either give into a stereotype of feminism that any thinking person would reject, or else to carve in stone the perfection of feminism that no earthly being could possibly aspire to.

Many of the essays in Bad Feminist concern race as well as gender. Once again she uses pop culture to talk about cultural trends, as she critiques Tyler Perry movies, and wishes for more movies like Love and Basketball, though it is no great cinematic feat. In fact, a great cinematic feat doesn’t always do it for her, especially when so many such films featuring black stories in the past several years revolve around slavery (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained) or servitude (The Help). She wishes to see more dynamic movies concerning black people, rather than in roles of subjugation.

Beyond Hollywood, she considers the treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Trayvon Martin in the press, the former whose light skin and tussled hair landed him on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the latter who is routinely called a thug. She also talks about the erroneous statistics that fly around, such as black men are more likely to end up in jail than go to college (there are about 600,000 more black men in college than in jail), and just how disheartening it is that such myths are so pervasive.

Some have criticized Bad Feminist for devoting so many essays to race. This is ironic, because it is exactly this sort of white-washed feminism that Gay, a black woman whose parents were born in Haiti, finds so distasteful. So much of feminism is devoted to helping white, middle-class, well-educated women, but there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all feminism. I believe that anyone of any racial or religious background can enjoy Bad Feminist, just as I believe that not only women will take interest in this book. Anyone, men and women, gay and straight, religious and not, black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and white, can find true pleasure in Gay’s wit, her critical analysis, her personal stories, and the podcast-like nature of listening to essays in an audiobook format.

Gay never asks us to agree with everything she writes. She is, after all, only trying to be herself.

Listen to a clip about Roxane Gay’s dissecting the movie Bridesmaids.

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