Jackie & Me (Gutman)

This book made me angry. Not because it challenged me or I disagreed with it or anything. It made me angry in the, “How in the world did this get published?” kind of way.

Joe shows up for the 6th game of the World Series and the Dodgers need a batboy. Not at all credible.

The epilogue suggests that somehow this young white kid is similar to Jackie Robinson? Absurd and insulting.

The time travel elements make Quantum Leap look intellectual.

And the way Joe reacts to his skin color in various settings? Really? Did no one read this and tell the author, “Hey, Danny boy, that’s really problematic!”

So who is this book for? Well, it’s got a young boy for a protagonist and it’s about baseball. And you want that audience to read the admittedly softened language but still incredibly fraught language that people used to taunt Jackie Robinson (and Joe, because he’s learning what it’s like to be Jackie in just a few days)? Really?

Do students need to know Jackie Robinson’s story? Absolutely. Is this a useful tool? Not a chance.

So how in the world does it become a good play?

http://www.childrenstheatre.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=533&Itemid=209 (and they spelled the main character’s last name wrong – unless they changed it)


Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (Delpit)

I resisted this book for a long time. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it has something to do with my doubt about whether teaching other people’s children was any different than teaching my own. But I’m attending a conference in a few weeks, and Delpit’s giving the keynote, so I figured this was kind of my homework.

I’m older now. I know there’s a difference, and I wish I had read this years ago.

I have learned about lenses and struggled to value different literacy traditions. Delpit’s the first person I know of to challenge the writing process and the overall ideas of fluency, and her arguments have got me thinking.

The debate in English departments about what to teach will never end, and it shouldn’t. But it’s time to turn more of our attention to how to teach, and Delpit asks us to check with the people of her title about how to best accomplish that. Seems quite reasonable. Like I said, I wish I’d read it a long time ago.

Out of My Mind (Draper)

First me, the reader. Because I knew Draper is an African-American author and has written other books about African-American characters and issues, I assumed that’s what I would find here. But such, at least at first, was not the case.

This is the story of Melody, a 5th grader who has cerebral palsy, and her efforts to be ordinary. As she is moved into a few inclusion classes, she finds allies that, to Draper’s credit, are not just uniformly good. The school system comes in for a scathing attack on how they treat students with special needs and such an assault is, in my experience, richly deserved.

The plot centers on Melody’s efforts to become part of a Quiz Bowl team and how she gets treated by her peers, her teacher, the media, etc..

As I was getting near the end, I started to wonder about the race of the characters. Had I pictured them as white in my head because I am white? Because there were no overt race issues in the book? Do African-American characters have to be described as African-American? Is our / my default that characters are white unless they are otherwise labelled? Hasn’t this issue come up in relation to The Hunger Games?

So, this is a good, well-written story. Just as her peers made certain assumptions about Melody, I am pretty sure I made certain assumptions about all of the characters. We all have a lot to think about. Thanks, Ms. Draper!


The Man Who Planted Trees (Giono)

A beautiful book – a story really, but it’s the only thing in the book (aside from a nice collection of extras), so I’m counting it as a book. A fable and as such, simply written, about a man who made it his life’s work to plant trees – during WW1 (and I was mindful of the destruction of the forests during that war0, WW2 and beyond. A simple and elegant argument that one person can make a difference.

Stunning illustrations from Michael McCurdy.


Inspired to plant a tree?  www.treepeople.org

And it’s published by a really interesting looking press –


Ways of Dying (Mda)

This title was recommended to me when I asked someone for a suggestion for a book about the African-American experience that did not depend on conflicts with whites or outsider white character who changes throughout the course of the novel.

I did not love The Madonna of Excelsior, so I held onto it for a while. But I finally dove in. Toloki, the protagonist, tries to find his way as a professional mourner and re-connects with Noria from his village. There is an age-old story here – what happens when you move from your hometown to the big city (Dreiser, Cather)? The details here are remarkable – the housing, the conflicts within the South African community, Toloki’s attempts to make his way through every day.

There are white characters, but they are at the periphery. Mda’s writing glides as Toloki moves from present to past narration with grace. The last 37 pages are particularly remarkable. They start with the best two paragraphs I have read about the differences between men and women since the opening paragraphs of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

How Does it Feel to be a Problem? (Bayoumi)

In this book, subtitled Being Young and Arab in America, Bayoumi portrays (he explains his understandable aversion to the word ‘profiles’ in the worthwhile Preface) 7 young Arab-Americans and their lives before and after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Though the structure of these portraits can feel formulaic (I wouldn’t recommend reading more than 1 or 2 at a time), there is no denying the power of these stories. The small moments are especially powerful – the high school student who wants to run for public office, the Marine sent to fight people who think and look like him, etc.. DuBois (from whom the title of the book is taken) said that the treatment of African Americans stands as “a concrete test of the underlying principles of the great republic” (261). Bayoumi argues that the treatment of the Arab Americans is our current test. He would not, I don’t think, say we are failing the test. He sees progress and sees problems, and these problems, he argues, borrowing language from Arendt, are likely to have a “boomerang effect” on the United States.



Townie: A Memoir (Dubus III)

This is the best memoir I’ve read in a long time. Actually, I listened to it in the car. Dubus III, himself, reads it. For a long time, it is a story of violence. Fights, divorce, even the word ‘townie,’ relationships, what happens in and then to his hometown, etc.. Dubus’s ability to recount these fights is amazing (and, at times, exhausting – did we need all of them?).

I admire the honesty of the memoir. He doesn’t remember exactly when things happen, and he acknowledges it. He moves around in time, but his thought process is easy to follow.

The story shifts (not abruptly) to focus more on his relationship with his father, also a writer. Here, Dubus sometimes reaches for the epiphany a bit too regularly, like he was running out of steam and just wanted to hit the high points. Only an extended scene on a train ride succeeds in the same way that the detailed scenes in the first half of the book do.

The ending is a bit contrived, but it almost has to be. Dubus brings the two parts of himself together leaving little doubt as to which one triumphs (if only by a little bit).

I’ve already started reading a collection of his father’s short stories, and the second one has a moment that comes right out of Dubus’ memory — a father leaves home and his son runs after him calling, “You bum, you bum, you bum. . .”

Great American story.