First, a quick book review:
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
I read this in one shot (took a short break to fix food, but ate said food while reading), and pretty much loved every bit of it. Yang talks in the back matter about how much of the story is based on her life experiences as an immigrant, helping her parents run cheap motels in California in the 1990s. That authenticity takes the book to a whole new level. It’s not a highly dramatic book–I’d call it a quiet read for the most part, maybe because the narrator is looking back instead of reacting in the moment. (Although the book mostly reads as taking place in the present, there is a reflective tone about it, and it is set in the past. So the narrator isn’t technically looking back, but it felt that way to me anyway.) And though it is dealing with some heavy issues (such as poverty and racism), the flow of the book, and maybe the distance of time, keeps it from being overwhelming. We can empathize with Mia and get a fabulous window experience (or mirror experience, depending on the reader! it was window for me!) without feeling frightened or crushed by the very real struggles Mia is facing. We know she makes it out okay because she is here telling us the story, years later. Ultimately, a moving story (with some heartbreaking moments as well as triumphant ones) that kept me wanting to find out what was going to happen next at the end of each chapter.
(end of review)
Reading this book over break got me thinking again about windows and mirrors, and reading without walls (which I posted about a few years ago). Also, about the #ownvoices movement of supporting books about diverse characters written by people who are part of the diverse group being written about. A shift for me since that previous post is that I want, in lessons related to windows and mirrors, to be sure to emphasize the fact that some of us (me included) find ourselves in loads of books, while others find ourselves in very few. One of our 7th grade teachers assigned a Window Book project recently, but made a point of saying that it could be a Mirror Book project for kids who don’t find a lot of mirror books. That got me thinking.
So, today, with a 6th grade class, I did a quick booktalk of Front Desk, then showed this video of Grace Lin talking about her own experiences of not finding mirror books and how, as a writer, she tries to write those books for kids like her.
Then I had the kids write a short paragraph, to be displayed anonymously on a Padlet, about a book that they found powerful because of how it served as a window or a mirror. The anonymity felt important, and I like how Padlet makes that so easy (I can just give kids the bit.ly link and they don’t log in or anything). It also felt important to me to give them a choice between window and mirror (although some kids ended up doing one of each!), so that I wasn’t forcing them to share their own experiences.
Most kids wrote about window books, and it was clear that they were moved by learning about other perspectives. Much of our discussion after the writing was about how reading window books helps you be a better person–more empathetic, more aware. It was reinforcement of the idea that reading without walls is incredibly important, and our curriculum should really focus on supporting this. One student wrote about how reading Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli helped her see that being gay is just “a different experience with the same feelings about it.” Romance is romance! The book was a window because the student isn’t gay and doesn’t have a secret like Simon has, but it ended up being a mirror as well because feelings are feelings.
The kids talked about how a book can really put you deeply into the shoes of someone different from you, in a way that reading the news or watching a show or even talking with someone often can’t. It changes how you interact with people; it changes your heart.
And oh my, the power of finding yourself in a book! I found myself most moved by the mirror responses, maybe because those were the most vulnerable ones, the most surprising ones. One student wrote about how the book Small Steps by Peg Kehret reminded her of a time when she was seriously ill. Another wrote about Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, which centers on a girl with dyslexia, being a mirror book. In the discussion, a few kids talked about how mirror books that focus on going through something difficult not only help you feel less alone, but also can give you hope that things might turn out okay or help you see something about yourself that you didn’t already see.
It all comes down to this: everyone needs mirrors, and everyone needs windows. In the curriculum and in the library.
I’ll be continuing this lesson next week with the rest of 6th grade, and I’m really looking forward to it!