Book Tastebuds.

Deeply interesting and engaging thread in Betsy Potash’s Creative English high School Teachers page on Facebook today concerning American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. And while I’ll post links and resources, the big question I’m left with comes from the pushback I received from another teacher, to the point I should not be allowed to voice criticism unless I’ve read the book.

Is that accurate? Do we always have to read the book before we decide something, or what media to consume?

Have you ever tried to make a toddler eat? I know a few wonderful toddlers who don’t like macaroni and cheese, preferring broccoli and other vegetables. My own sons as toddlers has some quirky eating habits. The older one hated spaghetti and most pasta, including macaroni and cheese. He loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The younger one wasn’t picky, and his preference for junk food became a battle. But they did know their own minds, even if they didn’t have the words or vocabulary to articulate their discerning tastes. And over time, they did try new things and expand their palettes.

Our students don’t like to read. They don’t. Why? Many reasons. They struggle, it’s not entertaining for them, book culture seems odd and foreign to some, and oftentimes they don’t see themselves reflected in the novels many districts push. The texts are not ‘window, mirrors, or sliding glass doors’ (Rudine Sims Bishop).

But if you ask them about certain movies, stories, or their own interpersonal relationships and what keeps and breaks friendships, what keeps them faithful or what does betrayal look like and do, they will have plenty to say. And then we can work together on what they might like to read, on what burning questions they have that books and texts can help to inform and enlighten, and challenge, then you can have them try something they might not have before. And they might find that it’s like food they don’t like. (How many teachers have done ‘book tastings’ — did you get offended when a student chose one book over another? Of course not.)

Then why was it that the thought that a grown adult woman, (me), who listened to literary criticism of a novel and found it deeply resonating and informative, and chose not to spend my money on this book or read it, why was that so offending to some in that thread? (They hadn’t read it either.)

So many conclusions jumped to…

If you’re like me, your #TBR pile is miles deep. I’ve probably read over 700 books in my lifetime. Heck, even the scant posts on Goodreads tells me I’m at 396, and that hasn’t tracked my reading life. At what point do we allow students to make these choices for themselves? Rather, at what point as an adult am I allowed to read a critic or review and make up my own mind? Full disclosure: I hate to read movie reviews, and despise trailers that give away too much. But I still love movies, and get most of my recommendations from my sons. I guess I didn’t realize there was a number to being allowed to state clearly “I am not going to read this book.”

And when Esmeralda Bermudez said it reminded her of a novella I bust out laughing in the car. We (me and my students) put on novellas in class during Study Skills the other day, and of course I got my ‘teacher all over it’ because I am compelled to make connections to body language, facial expressions, etc., and themes of love, betrayal, despair, romance, etc. (We had just finished Romeo and Juliet.) And I don’t disparage the girls in my class and watching novellas. I spent countless hours with my mom and then into college watching All My Children and Guiding Light.

But what I am not going to do is read this book. Too many other things to read and watch. If that means I have a fixed mindset, okay. I’m good. In the meantime, I’m going to look for other, better books with authentic voices and perspectives about immigration.

We should allow our students to have their own tastes, too. All we need to do is tell them their tastebuds might change over time, and be flexible. After a few hundred books, I’m still flexible. But I want quality, not quantity, now. And Oprah’s recommendations don’t mean what they used to, either.

Links to the controversy:

Latinx Critics Speak Out Against ‘American Dirt’; Jeanine Cummins Responds

American Dirt’ was supposed to be a publishing triumph. What went wrong?

Jeanine Cummins American Dirt