#vted Reads: Look Both Ways

with Kendra LaRoche

Here at #vted Reads, we are big fans of finding yourself in a book.

Whether you’re a stinky, nervous wreck of a middle grades student or a winsome and confident Vermont educator who can still empathize with the… stinky, nervous wreck of a middle grades student, we love the kind of books where you can find someone to identify with, no matter what.

On the show today I’m joined by Kendra LaRoche, a humanities teacher at Burr and Burton Academy, down in Manchester Vermont. Both she and I found a ton of characters we loved in Look Both Ways, by Jason Reynolds. Whether you’re a Low Cut or a class cut-up, a checklister or a skater chick, we’re sure you’ll find some way of wanting to talk about this amazing book with your students.

So pull up a seat, open to the title page, and let’s—

Whoa whoa whoa, wait a minute: before we go any further, I should note that Kendra and I found it pretty much impossible to avoid spoilers for Look Both Ways during this conversation. So: spoilers. Tons of them. For the book.

Okay. Now… let’s chat.

Kendra: Hi Jeanie, thank you for having me. I’m a humanities teacher at Burr and Burton Academy, in Manchester VT. And I’m also a 2011 Roland Fellow. The passion that I have is working with students who are reading below their grade level and I want to improve their reading skills mainly through instilling a love of reading.

Jeanie: That just gives me chills. It’s exciting work. Thank you for doing the hard work. You do. The first question I always like to ask, cause I’m always growing my to be read pile is what are you reading right now?

Kendra: I’m reading Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. I’m reading that because I’m really committed to introducing more current global novels into our humanities curriculum. We shouldn’t really be reading the same dead white men that we were reading when I was in high school.

Jeanie: Tell me a little bit more about Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree.

Kendra: It takes place in Nigeria and it takes place during when Boko Haram had kidnapped a bunch of girls from a school. And it really takes place as a fictionalized story first, from the point of view of one of the girls who was taken. Then the second half of the book is actually a non-fiction journalistic viewpoint of interviewing all those girls and what actually happened. The idea being that not many people actually talked about that incident. And they wanted to get the word out.

Jeanie: What a fantastic choice for a humanities classroom.

Kendra: Yeah. I haven’t decided whether or not we’re going to use it. But I’m committed to really reading a bunch of books to see which ones I want to use. And this one, it talks about some great ideas? It’s also really hard. How do you introduce ideas of rape, for instance, into a high school classroom in a way that both honors the people who are in the classroom and also honors the people who awful things happen to?

Jeanie: Yeah. Wow. That is a big question.

Kendra: It is! And it’s not one we’re going to be able to answer today.

Jeanie: Yes. I am going to be talking about Speak and Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson in an upcoming episode, and I’m thinking how we teach consent. So tune in listeners, for a future episode to talk more about this!

Well Kendra, you and I are both big Jason Reynolds fans I know, from a conversation a couple months ago. Let’s dig into talking about this book. His — well I don’t even want to say newest because he’s always got new ones coming out, but one of his recent books: Look Both Ways. I wondered if you’d set the stage a little bit for this book.

Kendra: Sure! It’s essentially a tale told in ten city blocks. It’s interesting because each chapter name, is actually the street name that a particular character lives on. It all takes place in a middle school; when the bell rings, everyone leaves and goes their separate ways, down their own streets, into their own chapters. What I like about it a lot is Jason Reynolds’ commitment to various narrators? Whether those narrators are gay or straight, or male or female. Whether they are serious or goofy, whether they’re socially intelligent or autistic.

Jeanie: There’s a whole cast of characters in this book, isn’t there?

Kendra: Yes! And none of them are the same. And that’s just fascinating.

Jeanie: So each chapter has a different narrator, and yet they show up in each other’s chapters too, right?

Kendra: They do. There’s lots of overlap, but you almost have to look for the overlap. You notice these minor characters simply because you’ve read about them before.

Jeanie: Yeah. So, one of the things I appreciate that really shows up in this book is Jason Reynolds’ real appreciative lens for young people. As he writes for them, he doesn’t write down to them or patronize them. He sort of has this real keen eye for making young people these characters who are really fully formed. Not in like a preachy way. But like in this way that you feel like they’re real folks. I wondered if you noticed that too about his writing.

Kendra: *Yes*. He has this beautiful way of being… fully *there*. Fully present, with each of his characters. If we look at Fatima Moss which is the chapter on Portal Ave, in the book. I love how she has a checklist for everything that she does. I read Fatima as on the autism spectrum. That’s never said. Jason Reynolds doesn’t talk about that directly, soI may or may not be right on that.

But Fatima focuses so much on routine, on concrete solutions to changing the world. Her concrete solution is that she’s going to fill in the cracks, so nobody has to fall down and they don’t have to look down all the time. They can look *both ways*. They also can look up into the sky, and look to the future.

What I love about what Reynolds does is he beautifully allows us to dive into the mind of an autistic middle-schooler.

Jeanie: I hadn’t thought about Fatima that way, but I just want to pull open her checklist. And let’s read a little portion of her checklist cause it’s so interesting. I’m on page 61.

Look Both Ways, p 61: "Fatima Moss talks to only one person on her way home from school. And before she talks to that person, she keeps a checklist of all the things on her journey that have changed. And all the things that have stayed the same. That one person and their sameness or differentness included. This is that checklist. 1. Bell rings for five seconds. 2. Twenty-eight students (twenty-nine, including me) dash from Ms Broome's, English class. Difference: Today, Trista Smith and Britton Burns ran faster than everyone. Almost knocked Sam Mosby over. 3. I take off. 4. The whole school crowds into the hallway."

Fatima Moss’s checklist continues all the way through several pages later. We get up to 37 before something interrupts her checklist. It really puts us into the shoes of her, of her life. As the bell rings.

Kendra: It does, it makes us realize what she is looking for and what she’s not looking for. She’s looking for sameness and differences. We find out later why she’s looking for this.

Jeanie: We don’t want to give anything away, reader! You’re going to have to read the chapter, “How to Look (Both) Both Ways” yourself to find out more about Fatima Moss. It’s true. Like, Jason Reynolds just writes her as a fully human person. He doesn’t, you know, try to make us like her. I just so appreciate his strengths-based lens on young people. It shows up again and again in this book.

I wanted every teacher to read it just for that. Just for that purpose. Of like, this is what it looks like to really see kids.

Kendra: Yes. I wanted every student to read it so that they can understand some of the other students around them.

Jeanie: Yeah. Do you want to say more about that?

Kendra: Yes. It helps the students to understand not only the autistic kids in class who sometimes might be the smartest ones in the room, but the other students just don’t understand what they’re talking about, where they’re coming from, or the nuances that they are able to address that other students aren’t ready to address. But it also helps them to understand the person in the room who doesn’t talk very much. And that they’re not just antisocial, but maybe they have a good reason to be that way. That might bring us to another chapter that we will talk about in a moment.

Jeanie: Yeah. It makes me think too, some of the, some of the characters in this book have experienced trauma in one way or another? I think it’s a real experience and empathy to step into their shoes and what that looked like for them. And what the repercussions are in their lives. So thanks for pointing that out.

Some of the characters in this book are sort of ended up surprising us. I’m thinking about the chapter, “The Low Cut Strike Again”, which takes place on a Placer Street. “Plack-er” Street or “Place-ur” Street?

Kendra: I read it as Place-ur, but I’m not really sure.

Jeanie: Whichever it is, plack-er or place-ur let us know, Jason Reynolds, how you’d pronounce it. There’s a group — a foursome — of troublemaking kids. Then by the end of the chapter… you have a completely different view of them. I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about “The Low Cuts”.

Kendra: I would love to. Because they were the most surprising characters — in a lot of surprising characters! Reynold’s ability to draw in the reader is a little bit mind-blowing, actually.

We like the Low Cuts when we first start reading, but we don’t want to; they steal. You think about this, like some middle school or early high school kids reading this. As children we’re always told, well, stealing is wrong. There’s never any nuance to it. The fact that there is a nuance here, makes the middle school or high school real reader recognize that the book is not meant for little kids. This is going to draw them in *big time*.

We also are just begging the author to give us a reason to like them. And he doesn’t disappoint us in this. We’re given that reason just when we find out at the end, that they steal the money to buy ice cream for one of the characters’ mom. Bit’s mom. She has cancer.

One of my favorite lines is: “The other Low Cuts watched Bit the hustler, Bit who could turn 90 cents into nine bucks into ice cream, turn into a son.”

That’s on page 40 and Reynolds pulls off this change in the Low Cuts from stealers to people who have mothers who might have cancer and have really good reasons to be stealing some change from other people. He has us following every twist and turn in this really prolonged description of an afternoon where every penny is counted, and stretched into something new.

Jeanie: Yes, I love this chapter and what I love is Jason Reynolds includes the candy lady, right? What’s her name is? Her name is Ceecee?

Kendra: I don’t remember.

Jeanie: Let’s go to that chapter. Because he includes the candy lady and Jason Reynolds actually had a candy lady in his own growing-up. Reading that felt like a little bit of reading from his childhood. Her name is Ms. Ceecee. And she’s spunky, Ms. Ceecee.

Kendra: She’s fantastic. She tells everybody what’s what and does it let anyone get away with anything. And while the kids actually at first a little bit seemed like they’re making fun of her? In the end they use her own words to get to where they want to be and that’s kind of fun to see.

Jeanie: Could you read a little bit from Ms. Ceecee? I’m on page 30. Maybe towards the middle of page 30?

Kendra: Sure.

“She set the boxes up on the table. ‘Okay, today in the penny, nickel and dime categories, we got the old stuff.’

‘You always say that when we come here. Don’t nobody want no stale candy, Ms. Ceecee,” Bit said, fighting himself to cool his tone.

‘It’s not stale, Britton. It’s just older styles of candies. Like how them Michael Jordan sneakers y’all be paying all that money for keep getting remade? That’s what this is. Retro candy. Hard to get, and used to cost only a penny a piece when I was a little girl, but I gotta charge y’all four cents more. Attitude tax.”

Kendra: I love that part. I like that they get an attitude tax. Do you want me to continue?

Jeanie: Yes. I want to get to the names of the candy.

Kendra: Sure.

Look Both Ways, p 31. "Bit cocked his head. Ms. Ceecee cocked hers right back. 'Let that be a lesson, son. Plus, everything costs more over time.' 'Inflation,' Francy said. 'Sounds more like deflation,' Bit grumbled under his breath, patting his pockets. 'What you say?' Ms. Ceecee asked, adding the last box to the lineup on the table. 'Nothing,' John John subbed in for Bit. 'Okay, y'all know the rundown,' Ms. Ceecee said. 'I got Mary Janes. Tootsie Rolls. Squirrel Nut Zippers--' Bit did his best to trap his laugh, but a *pfft* slipped from his mouth. No matter how tough and tight he was, Squirrel Nut Zippers broke him every time."

Jeanie: Every time. I just *love* this whole chapter. It’s early on in the book and I just fell in love with the whole book, because of the Low Cuts. They aren’t the only surprising characters but they certainly are The four who make you change your mind about kids. I think in interesting ways.

But there’s another character who really broke my heart and I’m thinking about Pia right now.

From the moment you meet Pia, you know, she’s got a lot going on. She’s, tough. She doesn’t let anybody in. I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about Pia.

Kendra: Sure. Yeah. She’s that hardened middle-schooler who only lets her skateboard talk. The skateboard actually does talk. It has a quote in the book: “Get out of the way, or pay.” She doesn’t talk to anybody else at school. In fact, I went back and looked she doesn’t talk to anyone through the *entire chapter* except at the very end, when she actually goes to her sister’s grave. We don’t know what she says there, but it’s the first time when we know that she’s going to actually speak. Her pain radiates as she strokes her skateboard, which is its own type of communication. She’s named her skateboard. And she grinds her skateboard against the curve while proving a point to a bully.

That same bully knocks her down and knocks her board to the ground, and then an oncoming car runs over the board and splinters it to pieces. That is devastating for Pia, as it reminds her of her own sister’s death.

However, it wasn’t Pia that my heart broke for in this chapter. While her story is certainly tragic, the story of another boy, Stevie, is just as heartbreaking for me. The bully who ends up knocking Pia over, we find out is also beat up daily by his father. He has his own reasons for his actions.

Another boy in the group of bullies who stood around and watched it all happen, was only there because he was rather bulldozed into it. This boy Stevie waits outside of Pia’s school the next day after breaking her skateboard, to apologize not for any action, but for inaction — for his *silence*. She doesn’t realize this. She sneaks out the back of the school to go to her sister’s grave.

We understand that. She doesn’t know he’s waiting for her. However, my heart broke in that moment just as much for Stevie and his inability to apologize — and therefore to receive forgiveness — as for Pia and the pain of her sister’s death.

Jeanie: Wow. You capture that so beautifully! I think there’s also something that Jason Reynolds gets at in this book that I think would make a really interesting classroom conversation? Which is this idea that girls can’t skate, right. That if a girl is better than a boy at something like skating or something athletic, that she will be taunted. Or she becomes a target in a way, because of her skill. There’s something related to maybe the Me Too movement or about I’m thinking about the fight for equal pay for the women’s soccer team? That I think could come up and be discussed in a class based on Pia, and her experience as this, like, fierce skateboard girl.

Kendra: The whole reason that the bully bullies her in the end is because she’s a better skateboarder. He came out and tried one time and hurt himself and embarrassed himself. His underwear showed because he split his pants open! And he’s never really forgiven her for that.

Jeanie: There’s something I just, I don’t know. There’s something so astute in Jason Reynolds portrayal of Pia and the sort of everyday lived experience of some girls in school and, this… gendered experience they have.

Kendra: Yes. And some boys. He does equal I’m going to restate that line. For boys, he treats both with equal humanness.

Yes, we have Pia’s gendered experience as a girl who’s a skater, but we also have Stevie’s gendered experience as a boy who has no interest in beating other people up or being the best athlete, and yet is really expected to fit into these male stereotypes.

Jeanie: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you so much for articulating the way in which Reynolds is challenging the whole gender continuum. With this really simple chapter! About skateboarding, about Pia and her skateboard and her drive to ride.

That chapter with Pia is really painful for lots of reasons that we’ve already articulated but there’s also just soooo much humor in this book. Oh my gosh. I had laughed out loud!

I mean, even the first chapter starts with boogers! Lots and lots of boogers!

The chapter I laughed the hardest at was about Gregory Pitts. And I want to just share, I want to read a little section of Gregory Pitts, so let’s find him because my gosh, did that make me laugh? This is the chapter called “How a Boy Can Become a Grease Fire”. And the street is Roger Street.

Kendra: What page are you on?

Jeanie: I am on page 157.

Look Both Ways, p. 157: Gregory Pitts's friends love him so much that they told him the truth. And the truth was, he smelled dead. Like, rotten. It wasn't that he *was* rotten, but just that he smelled like his body had mistaken its organs for garbage and that he was essentially a walking, talking trash can. And on this, of all days, that smell just wasn't going to cut it. So in an act of service and sheer desperation, Remar Vaughn, Joey Santiago and Candace Greene -- Gregory's crew -- decided to help him out. Because today was a day of romance. 'Before we get going, you sure you good, Candace?' Joey asked. 'I heard what happened to Bryson.' Bryson was Candace's cousin. He'd gotten jumped the day before. 'Yeah, it's cool. Bry a tough kid,' Candace said, plus we walking that way. So as soon as we get done with Lover boy here, I'm going to stop by and see him.'" 

The chapter continues. Each of his friends, each of Gregory Pitt’s friends, has brought some product to help us sharpen him up and make him smell a little better, so he can ask out the girl he likes. And I have to say the last time I laughed this *hard* at middle grades fiction was The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963. Have you read that?

Kendra: *laughs* Yes, I have.

When he kisses the mirror on the car, is the last time I laughed that hard as at this chapter. I would buy this book just for this chapter. It’s such comic relief. It would make such great read aloud material, I think in front of a class of middle school kids.

Kendra: Because it’s so real! It’s not fake humor. This is the real problem that so many middle school kids have all the time. ‘Do I smell? How do I fix it? I’m sure I do. How do I ask somebody out?’ It’s so scary.

Jeanie: It’s so scary! And you know, there’s Axe body spray. There’s like lotion involved… And poor Gregory Pitts has not ever encountered any of these things before. There’s Chapstick I believe, or Vaseline or something for his lips. *So* hilarious. I mean there’s so many other places in this book that there’s humor. What was your favorite laugh out loud moment from look both ways?

Kendra: I loved the characters, Simeon and Kenzie, they were definitely my favorite. There’s so many different types of humor in that chapter. There’s the physical humor of Simeon’s *gigantic* size and Kenzie’s diminutive one. And we see them earlier in other chapters where Kenzie is on the back of Simeon, and they’re running through the hall. We wonder the whole book: why in the world is one kid on another kid’s back? And we find out the reasons for it.

Then there’s also the typical teenager, no it all fast talking, get out of trouble conversation that they have with Ms Wockley, whose face is hilariously described as a “pink raisin” by Reynolds. And it reminds me of how my students probably see me most of the time. As this person who’s a– they need to get out of trouble with and whose face might resemble a pink raisin when she feels like she’s getting upset.

The language that Reynolds used later in the chapter also makes me laugh. He describes plastic bags floating around their feet like “happy shrapnel”, and that contrast of “happy” and “shrapnel”, they don’t go together at all. Yet when they’re put together, they make a really humorous image in my mind.

Like the contrast of the happy shrapnel and the size difference between Simeon and Kenzie, these are all done for more than just humor’s sake by Reynolds.

We needed to actually find this pairing strange and humorous. We needed to wonder the entire time why they were friends. And we do find out at the end of the chapter, that Simeon’s older brother had stolen a car. And that Kenzie’s older brother took the hit for it and is in jail. These two end up being closer than brothers because of it.

Jeanie: Yeah. And there’s that moment when they finally do their handshake, their super involved, long handshake. That also felt just like such a real middle school moment. That handshake honors their brothers.

Kendra: Definitely. The handshake is only there because of the brothers.

Jeanie: Yeah it’s a beautiful kinship that they have. I also was thinking about this — I discussed it with Corey Smith when we talked about The Benefits of Being an Octopus. Which is: there’s a website that you can go to that has excerpts of young adult and middle grades fiction for how teachers look through the lens of students, through fiction.  And I think this is another example where teachers turn up and are seen as allies, as champions, but also… in pragmatic ways through the eyes of these characters. It’s a way of getting a glimpse into how we’re seen. Like you said, about the pink raisin.

Kendra: Yes. Always a little bit loving but never quite on top of everything that’s going on.

Jeanie: Yes! Now, thinking about how Jason Reynolds has constructed this book, with this intersection of characters and stories? I think it’s a little bit unusual. And the book that came to mind, for me, is Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks. Have you read that?

Kendra: I haven’t!

Jeanie: It’s a great middle grades book. It’s sort of about a community garden. And like this book, it’s told from the perspective of the people who have plots in the community garden. This book too, is about a community. It’s about a community of kids who live around the school, the walkers. None of them are on the bus, right? The bus goes by every day. There’s one character in particular who interacts with the bus every day. Is that Fatima?

Kendra: It is, yes.

Jeanie: Fatima Moss interacts with the bus. But these kids are all walkers and so they all live right there. Like Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks it’s sort of about this community, and the community experience that happens probably from about three o’clock to five o’clock, right? As they’re leaving school and heading home.

And so this feels like that perfect middle school community book. I’d almost want to start the year with this book. And I wondered if you had other suggestions or ideas for books that might be companions to this one.

Kendra: Mm. I love the connections that Reynolds’ makes in this book. And that’s why this book struck me as one that would be perfect, I agree, for a first book of the year. There are connections between chapters? We’ve talked about some of that already. It almost compels the reader to ask questions as they read. Looking for the answers as they go.

As a teacher, this is a reading style that we try to teach: ask questions as you go. I would love to use this in a classroom with some students to make them really understand that reading strategy.

There’s also connections in which… we want to know why for instance, there’s a hole in the rosebush, that comes up in one of the chapters as just a glance around the neighborhood. Why is there a hole in the rosebush? We have no idea until later on we find out that Ty has a best friend who took a beating for him. Then Ty brings his black and blue friend a bunch of roses. He just stuck his hand into that rose bush and pulled out a bunch of roses, and he says more with flowers than really needed to be said out loud by Ty or even said out loud by the narrator.

One of the biggest connections that I found was that in every chapter there’s a mention of a school bus falling from the sky. And I kept asking myself: why in the world is Reynolds talking about a school bus falling from the sky? I had this–

Jeanie: Me too! I kept guessing! Go on go on.

Kendra: Yes! And my guess was something that I was worried he was going to do. I was worried that in the end there was going to be this big tragedy and that lots of people would die. All of these characters we met would either die or be tragically injured. Which is I think a mistake that a lot of young adult authors make, is they think that in order to sell a book to a young audience, they need to make something huge happen.

But of course, Reynolds doesn’t do this because Reynolds is an amazing author.

In the end we encounter a heart-wrenching story about a son. Canton is his name. He’s worried about his mother getting hit by a bus. She is a crossing guard. The school janitor gives Canton an emotional support dog. (And if you could see me saying that in air-quotes, I am doing that.) This emotional support dog is actually made out of the head of a broom. And he carries it with him while his mom works every day. In the end, this broom head no longer resembles a dog, but a bus. And Canton outgrows his fear, ends up throwing this broom head up in the air over and over again. And as it sheds its bristles, his mom comments that it is a school bus falling from the sky.

This is not a story of disaster, but a story of overcoming life’s difficulties.

Jeanie: Yeah. *Yeah*. Over and over again. It’s about I think over and over again, this book is about the daily acts of resilience, of kids. Right? It’s about the ways in which kids are gritty all the time.

Kendra: Yes! They don’t need to have something huge happened to them in order to be heroes in their own lives.

Jeanie: There’s another character that just brings that up for me? Obviously, listeners, we can’t introduce you to every character, even though we really want to, but the character I’m thinking about, she has comedy shows. And she makes me laugh so hard.

Kendra: Well good. Because I think she wants you to laugh. *laughs*

Jeanie: She really does.

Kendra: Almost as much as she wants her grandpa to laugh.

Jeanie: And her mom. Cynthia. She has a comedy show all the time and she’s so kind to her grandfather who has lost the love of his life. And in such quirky ways! I don’t even want to go into it, but she’s constantly telling these quirky, funny jokes and working on her humor.

So for example, at one point she says,

“Don’t *divide* me from the class, Mrs. Stevens. Please don’t *divide* us!” Cynthia would fake beg, doubling down on the math joke.

“Oh, I’m not planning on doing any division, Cynthia. I’m thinking more along the lines of subtraction.”

That’s from page 139. Cynthia’s constantly working on her humor — for good reason. I think in a classroom we can sometimes just think somebody is trying to be distracting or annoying. But her whole back-story gives us the reason why humor is so important to her. And what she’s seeking in it. I don’t know; she just really touched me.

Kendra: Yes, and we talked earlier about how adults are also seen by kids. And this teacher, well, she has no idea why Cynthia needs to make these jokes. She gives Cynthia the space to be her. And I also really enjoyed reading about that and how much it meant to Cynthia, in her larger life story.

Jeanie: I know we’re going to come up on this and so I don’t know whether to bring it up now, but it makes me think about the way Jason Reynolds interacts with kids.

It’s really important to him to really see kids. He spends a lot of time traveling around the country, visiting with kids.

He was in Vermont at the beginning of the school year, in Johnson working with students in their teacher ed program. But also just he visits high schools and middle schools and really sees kids. And I’m going to wait a little bit to let you introduce the video that we’re both really excited about.

So let’s move along to: how might you use this text in the classroom? You talked a little bit about how much you’d love to use it maybe at the beginning of the year, but what are some of the things you might do with this text?

Kendra: I teach a class for reluctant readers. Particularly a class for students who are high school students but might read below the fifth grade reading level. And we overtly teach reading strategies to them. Sometimes these strategies are not taught in a maybe, college-bound class as often because a lot of these students already use these strategies without realizing it. But this book can be used to practice the particular reading style of asking questions to the text.

I could also use this in the opposite end of the spectrum.

You could use this in an AP-level class. Or for students who wish to be stronger writers; they’re looking to incorporate multiple perspectives into a text.

What I found fascinating is that Reynolds actually doesn’t follow the typical story arc of: rising action, climax, falling action. Instead, each chapter has its own story arc. And that could lead to a disjointed book. But of course Jason Reynolds doesn’t do that.

Those who dream of writing in a new style can analyze how Reynolds manages this feat. I would pair it with a short documentary by Kristian Melom, which I believe is the one you were just referring to, called Dear Dreamer (video).

I love in this video, how Reynolds talks about the rhythm of his writing. In the video, he talks like a musician. He uses his fingers to tap out the words that he writes. It gives a new perspective on how to choose words in a book? And how to use space in a book as well.

Jeanie: You know, that’s so interesting that you’re pointing that out because Jason Reynolds really loves Queen Latifah. And wanted to be a rapper — I’ve seen him speak — and sort of had this notion of rapping. A lot of his stories are in poetry form, right? He really does think about space and rhythm the way a poet does.

That video just gives such a great example to show kids about the thought which he puts into his writing. The way he sort of plays with it. It’s very playful. And so just thinking about that as a way to give kids options for other ways to convey their thoughts and to think about the words on a page? I think is so fascinating. I would love to see your class do that. You’ll invite me in. Won’t you?

Kendra: *laughs* Definitely! It’s not often that a book could be used both in a class for our students below a fifth grade reading level and also in an AP class where seniors could examine the artistry of it.

Jeanie: Yes! And there’s so much artistry to it! It’s so sophisticated. I think that’s one of the things that people miss when they think about writing for young adults, is the level of sophistication that is present when you’re creating such a work of art as Look Both Ways. Jason Reynolds also addresses that in Dear Dreamer. Folks, you gotta watch Dear Dreamer. I love it so much. I’ve watched it many times. It’s just such a beautiful little 10 minute short film about Jason Reynolds and his process and his writing and his approach to the world–

Kendra: –and his approach to students! And how he actually is very deliberate in how he looks when he shows up at a high school to speak to them. He talks about his hair and how off-putting it can be for some people, but that when he walks into a school, while some people might be put off by him? Others are saying, “Wow, I didn’t know people who look like me could do what *he does*.”

 

Jeanie: Yes! Such an important message. Like, I think also kids seeing themselves in this book in this way feel– it’s such a validating thing, both to see him in classroom spaces as a writer, right. As somebody to esteem. But also his characters are just so fully drawn that it’s also like seeing yourself, seeing your middle school self if you will, in text. Which is also a really powerful experience. You don’t have to save the world or rescue a dog or… right? Like you don’t have to… I don’t know. Hike across the US, right? Like, you can just be living your daily life and be seen and valued as a human in his books.

Kendra: Did you recognize yourself in any of the characters?

Jeanie: Yeah! I think I recognized: my middle school self recognized herself in some of Pia’s experience. Like there’s something about the low cuts that helped me see myself. There’s a way in which the characters in this book are dealing with adversity and interesting ways. Or with the death of a loved one, or somebody they know, right? They’re dealing with all these layers of things. That definitely felt real to me. The character you talked about at the very end, Carson, with the pretend support dog? Like his feelings for his mother, his worry about his mother. That felt so real to me. And I won’t say I had that experience, but… I had those feelings as a young person.

Kendra: Always wanting to protect other people.

Jeanie: Yeah. Fear. Yeah. That fear of, of What Will Happen If, yeah. Did you?

Kendra: See myself in any characters? Yes. The very first chapter, while it didn’t draw me in as well as some of the other chapters, the Low Cuts drew me in more than any others. The first character had this teasing relationship with her best friend.

It was the chapter on the boogers. And while I was a little grossed out by it, I will say that relationship that she had with her best friend, who was male, and that didn’t seem to bother either of them in the slightest? And that they just went back and forth with a little bit of making fun, a little bit of being fine with being made fun of? That ease of communication between them was beautiful. And reminded me of some of my closest friends at that age.

Jeanie: That’s wonderful! I love that.

Well, let’s riff on some other books we might suggest to fans of Jason Reynolds or other books that we could suggest to the Vermont education community.

Kendra: Sure. I have different suggestions for different people!

If you’re a teacher, particularly if you’re in Vermont, and you have a white community, I suggest you consider All American Boys [by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely]. I have used this in the classroom to give perspective on the interactions between my students and people of color and particularly about white privilege. We actually have used this as a choice for students. They could read All American Boys or The Hate U Give. I know that The Hate U Give is also extremely popular right now to be talking about. It’s a little more difficult to read while All American Boys can be accessed by anybody. Yet the nuances are still there.

Jeanie: You know what’s really unusual about that book too, that I think is really great in the classroom is it’s written by two authors. You go back and forth between a perspective of a white author writing a white character and a Black author writing a Black character — Jason Reynolds being the Black author. I think its Brendan Kiely, is the other writer and there’s something #OwnVoices about that. This idea of who gets to tell what story. That would be really interesting in the classroom as well.

Kendra: Yes. Who gets to tell what story. And then which story do they choose to tell, too. It might be surprising for a reader to find that the white author and then therefore white character is actually far more sympathetic to the Black character in the book than originally supposed when we first are introduced to him because of the culture that he’s in.

Jeanie: Yeah. I love that book. I think it’s a really important one.

Kendra: I do too but if you are someone who’s listening to this and you just want to read more by Jason Reynolds? I loved Long Way Down. This book takes place on an elevator ride and each floor has a new revelation and some of them are difficult revelations. I also want to add just because my 12 year old daughter loves Ghost. That is one that lots and lots of young people in particular have enjoyed. I have never read a book by Jason Reynolds that I didn’t like. If you pick one up by him, I think you’re probably enjoy it. Just when I think I’ve nailed down his style, he surprises me with an entirely new angle.

Jeanie: He’s got a new book coming out in the new year. It’s a rewrite of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Sort of a history of racism in this country that I just cannot wait to get my hands on. Another one to look forward to. Nonfiction. I think that’s a new genre for him.

Kendra: I think so too. I’m excited to see how he does with it.

Jeanie: Yeah, me too. Well, so many great suggestions. Kendra. Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be in your classroom and to- you’ve got beautiful books all over the place. I keep eyeing and to hear your suggestions for how you would use a look both ways and to hear all your insights into it. Any last thoughts on look both ways.

Kendra: Read it.

Jeanie: That’s very good advice.

Kendra: Thank you Jeanie, for having me.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

3 thoughts on “#vted Reads: Look Both Ways

  • December 10, 2019 at 10:34 am
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    This podcast keeps wrecking my To Be Read list in all the best ways. I really enjoyed listening to this episode and thinking about the different circumstances and specifically traumas that students bring with them into each learning environment. I was actually talking about this with another author on this blog as we thought through talking about self-care for educators as they do the work of supporting students with so many types of circumstances.

    Thank you so much for this podcast.

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