What does Jane Austen have to do with a Drake mixtape?
For this episode, I was joined by Vermont rockstar librarian Meg Alison, in discussing Ibi Zoboi’s Pride, a Pride and Prejudice Remix. We talk about gentrification, agency, and the amazing power of spoken word poetry, we give a shout out to DisruptTexts and ask teachers to think critically about the books they teach. Who is represented in their pages? And who isn’t? And how did Zoboi’s novel make one of our librarians think more deeply about a hotly contested road project in tiny Brandon, Vermont? Grab your six-dollar maple lattes, listeners, and find out.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Philips, and welcome to Vermont Ed Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today, I’m with Meg Alison. We’ll be talking about Pride by Ibi Zoboi. Thanks for joining me Meg. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Meg: Well, thank you for inviting me, Jeanie. I love listening to your podcast. I think it adds a lot to the conversation around literacy and being a literate community statewide in Vermont, so thank you. I’ve been a librarian since 2001 when I found myself as the first children’s librarian at the Joslin Public Library, Waitsfield, Vermont. Then moved to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, then the Moretown School Library for eight years. Now, I’m at U-32 Middle & High School in East Montpellier, Vermont. It’s my fourth year there.
I’ve served on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award committee. I’m a lifelong bookworm. I love to read. I couldn’t be happier to be sitting here with you today in Waterbury, Vermont, talking about books, and one of my favorite books of the year.
Jeanie: We have talked about books a lot as friends and librarians. Thank you for your nice words about the podcast.
Meg: You’re welcome.
Jeanie: I’m so excited to have to you on.
Let’s talk about Pride, this book that we both love so much, we’ve read twice.
Tell me… just introduce us to the main characters and the setting, if you would?
Meg: I’d be happy to. Pride by Ibi Zoboi is actually a remix. Not so much a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There’s a lot that Zoboi pays homage to with Jane Austin’s work, but there is a lot of new themes that Ibi Zoboi also raises in Pride.
We have five sisters. Instead of the Bennet sisters, they have the Benitez sisters living in Bushwick, New York, a burrow in Brooklyn. The main character being Zuri Benitez. She’s a senior in high school, her sister Janae, who’d be Jane’s equivalent in Pride and Prejudice, is back home for the summer from Syracuse and there are three younger sisters. They live with their parents in a two bedroom apartment in Bushwick.
Talking about my old hood which isn’t really the hood anymore & graffiti. Lots of graffiti! #PRIDEremix
— IBI ZOBOI (@ibizoboi) October 4, 2018
Across the street, there is a mini-mansion being built where formally there had been a boarded up broken down building. Their very curious, the sisters. about who’s going to be moving into this mini-mansion in their hood. They take all sorts of guesses. Could they be rappers? Could they be basketball players? And could they be *white*? Gentrification is a theme we’re going to talk about in the story.
And lo and behold it’s Darius Darcy and his brother, Ainsley and they’re Black. It throws the sisters off their game.
Zoboi has written a beautiful love story that is contemporary, authentic, and relevant.
It follows the same theme as Pride and Prejudice. We have a happy ending, but not without a lot of grit, and resiliency, and great storytelling.
Ibi wrote that after she wrote her National Book Award-winning finalist debut novel, American Street — that takes place in Detroit, which deals with a lot of heavy hard hitting topics about urban life, drug use, addiction, violence, and loneliness — that she was looking to write something lighter. In light of the political climate of today, she needed a story that was going to bring light. And it was her editor, I believe, that suggested that perhaps looking at Pride and Prejudice would be a good idea to base a story around. So, that’s what I hear is the story behind Pride about how it became birthed.
Jeanie: I love that she has updated the classic, but she’s also updated our thinking about what a rewrite is, right?
It’s not just a retelling, it’s a remix.
That she makes us think differently and that’s the language of young people, right? They remix songs. So, I love that she’s thinking that way, because there’s a lot of patterns. I’m a big Jane Austen fan listeners. I hate to admit it, but I have read Pride and Prejudice more than three times. And I loved being able to say, “Oh, Zuri is Elizabeth and Janae is Jane,” and “Oh, there is Lydia,” right? I think, Kayla is the Lydia character. Colin, is the Mr. Collins character if you will. I loved being able to like identify Darius Darcy as Mr. Darcy, and his older brother as Jane’s beau in the book.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s not a simple plug and play. It’s a remix. And it resets it and it explores new ideas in a way that really grabbed me. I thought I was going to be a tough sell for this book and I fell for it head over heels.
Meg: Much like in the — oh, I won’t give any spoilers. *laughs*
Jeanie: Yes, but it is, I should say, also way more than a romance. If you’ve endured high school English, you’ve likely read Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet wants to marry for love and not just economics.
And Zuri Benitez tosses that right on its head. She doesn’t just want to marry for love. She wants to pursue her own potential and her own passion, and do what she loves.
Meg: Exactly. Zuri’s thinking that she’s got her sight set on Howard University as a place where she’d like to go to school. Her sister is the first in the family to go to a four-year college, at Syracuse. We have a young woman whose parents did not graduate from college, did not attend. I think her father may have attended a two-year program, but he is a janitor. He works the night shift at the hospital. They married young: her parents married for love. And that’s a bit of difference between the Bennets. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet may have married for love when they were young.
But what is such a pleasure in Pride and Prejudice is the sort of just devil may care attitude Mr. Bennet has it about his wife. She is just so focused on getting her daughters married, and in the right social circles and for wealth, so she can — I think — so she can live life vicariously through her daughters. It’s status that would be bestowed upon her, should her daughters have a good marriage.
And Zuri’s mom says, “Why don’t you be a player too?” She wants her daughters to go out and make something of themselves but doesn’t shame them if they fall in love at the same time.
Jeanie: Yeah. The Benitez parents have high standards for their daughters, though. The Benitez girls are not allowed to go and sort of flirt just anywhere, right? Even though mom is all for dating, they have really strict standards for these girls.
Meg: They do, but the whole hood knows about the Benitez sisters because there’s five girls. And they know how they’re being looked at. From that lens as well, when we look at dating norms or how chivalry or customs about romance and dating come into play between Victorian England and Bushwick, New York, 2017 or 2018.
It’s interesting because females have more agency, obviously, in today’s day and age. (Well, they do and they don’t.)
Zuri definitely is aware of that. There’s moments in the book where Zuri, with Warren, says, “Well, this isn’t really a date,” and, “How about I ask you out?” I mean, she definitely has a lot of agency. It’s just that she’s strong-headed, but she also wants to be loved.
Jeanie: Absolutely. She’s just as aware of her reputation as Elizabeth Bennet was.
I feel like there’s a piece on page 146 and 147 I’d like to share that’s specifically about Zuri having this desire to be somebody in the world. Oh, and it’s a poem. I wish I could read it as well as author Elizabeth Acevedo, who reads the audiobook.
Zuri’s visiting Howard for the first time. And the poem is called “Dear Mr. Oliver Otis Howard”.
What I love about Zuri is she has this agency over her own life. She also has this strong desire to go and become something, so she can improve her home, which is Bushwick.
Meg: And through that passage, Ibi Zoboi is also standing on the shoulders of giants and giving homage to Ta-Nehisi Coates, to Howard University, to Langston Hughes — where Zuri finds herself reading poetry when she goes to visit Washington D.C — and Howard University. Her first time away from home by herself. She has a vision. She has a purpose.
Jeanie: This book really starts with Zuri focused on gentrification and the changing nature of her “hood,” her neighborhood.
When the Darcy boys and their family move in across the street. But this theme continues throughout. She has this real concern about how Bushwick is changing. Do you want to talk more about that?
Meg: I’d love too. She’s seeing it change right before her very eyes. And what she’s noticing is the changes are often wrought because white people are moving in. It’s a very explicit use of race in this book that’s very effective by Zoboi. It throws Zuri off her game a little bit. She assumes right from the get-go that the new people moving in across the street must surely be white. That Black people aren’t gentrifying. You know, so, I’d like to read this passage that starts on page 63, about the Maria Hernandez Park.
When we reach the park, Janae hands me a blanket from her bag. Then she and Ainsley go off on their own, leaving me to babysit Darius because he looks like a fish out of water. Or, maybe, I’m the fish out of water because no one told me that we were going to go to some sort of art and music festival for white people.
I look around to see that almost everyone is sitting on blankets, something we never did when I used to come here years ago. Nobody was having picnics in this park back in the day. We sat on benches and kept our eyes wide open in case anything went down. And something used to always go down. Still, I’m tired of standing, so I spread the blanket out on the dry grass, confident that with all these white people here now, they’ve cleaned up the rat poop and broken glass.
And so it speaks to the gray area, the complexity of gentrification because it’s not all bad, it’s not all good.
And she’s seeing changes happening. She’s seeing things get cleaned up. But there is a bit of sadness there because it wasn’t ever cleaned up for her. It wasn’t ever cleaned up for the people who were living there. It seems to be that she recognizes that it’s changing and being cleaned up for the people who are moving in. So there is that theme of who is inside and who is outside. And one thing that I find so compelling reading this book, and it speaks to my own biases, is that I didn’t know there was a difference between a “ghetto” and a “hood”. And what Zuri speaks about… She speaks about Bushwick as her “hood,” her neighborhood as a place of love. And it’s the people from the outside who judge it and call it a “ghetto”.
Jeanie: Yeah. I really feel that. Because it’s not like she doesn’t want her neighborhood to be safe, or clean. I think what she’s really concerned about is belonging. She feels a great sense of belonging. Her neighborhood, there’s a big scene in the book where they throw a block party. Her mother cooks all this Haitian and Dominican food, and there’s music, and drumming, and dancing. It’s like her favorite day of the year. It’s very influenced by the people who’ve lived in this neighborhood for a long time. And it’s a time where she feels like she really belongs. She belongs when she walks down the street to the bodega. So she knows what to expect. She looks out and sees the men talking politics. Or the young men talking smack, right.
What her concern is, as these people come in, not only do they make the neighborhood maybe safer or cleaner, but they also increase the likelihood that she’ll no longer belong.
Meg: And that scene, in particular, it’s very stark because Darius comes over and he is the fish out of water. He’s so awkward and stiff. And Zuri tries to get him to dance. And it’s a really telling scene because he’s there at the block party. He’s been invited over but he doesn’t have the Bushwick swag that Zuri is just keyed in on. He doesn’t know how to talk like he’s from the streets. He doesn’t know how to “dap,” you know, with the boys from the hood. And she’s really aware of that. It’s almost as if she doesn’t know what to do with him, you know, as a character.
Jeanie: She almost wants to coach him so that he can survive the hood. Even as she also wants him out.
Meg: And there it connects right back to Pride and Prejudice, because there is a dislike between those two characters that is pretty fierce.
Based on their prides of who they are, as well as the prejudices that have of each other.
And what’s interesting is that Darius and his family, the Darcy’s are moving into Bushwick, into this big mini-mansion, but they’re leaving Manhattan.
There’s a real telling scene, where Zuri asks him, why are you moving, you were living on the Upper East Side? And he says, well, you know, we were one of the only Black families in our apartment building, and we were really cute. The neighbors thought we were really cute when we were younger, but as we got older, and grew into these tall, strapping, teenaged, *Black* boys that the neighbors in their apartment build were afraid of them.
Jeanie: Zoboi writes that scene so beautifully.
So much of this book, I guess and so much of Pride and Prejudice too, is about belonging. That theme of where do you belong? Where do you fit in?
Meg: That was powerful. And what Ibi Zoboi does so well is really paint this picture of Bushwick. And how Zuri Benitez *belongs* there. I mean, Bushwick is 80% Puerto Rican/Dominican. Ibi Zoboi herself is Haitian. So we have in our character, Zuri, this Afro-Latina young woman, who fully embraces her culture.
Zoboi weaves in all these cultural context clues for us as readers to discover, or to recognize, depending on our perspective as we read the book. For me, personally, it was a discovery. I’m not from Bushwick. I’ve never been there. I’m not a part of that culture. So, for me as a reader, it was this window into another world of bodegas, and bodega cats, and daps, and block parties, and the L-Train. All of the food that she talks about. And the spirituality of an Afro-Latina culture, through the lens of Madrina.
So we have this priestess in the mix, who lives in the basement. You were saying that, that might be a connection with “Pride and Prejudice” the character, who I couldn’t place who Madrina might be.
Jeanie: Yeah. Madrina is like this wise woman that Zuri seeks out. In many ways, Elizabeth Bennett seeks out the counsel of her aunt, right? And Madrina is like an aunt. She’s a family member but she’s not actually related to them. She’s their landlord, but she’s been in Zuri’s life her whole life.
But I want to talk more about, sort of, the Afro-Caribbean/Haitian spirituality that shows up in this book.
Because it also shows up in Zoboi’s other book, American Street, in a big way.
Meg: It was fascinating to me to discover this as a reader on my second reading of Pride. The first time I read it as a teacher/librarian, and I picked it up, and I was a fan of Ibi Zoboi’s first work, American Street. And, actually, I was a little hesitant to read it because I’m not a huge Pride and Prejudice fan. I’m not a huge Jane Austen fan. I’ve read it but I didn’t go head-over-heels in love with it. And so, I picked this up and read it, and loved it as a novel standing on its own. I’m delighted to know that it’s on the Green Mountain Book Award list, it was just named.
On a second reading, so taking this book, and now co-teaching it with Jen Ingersoll, with juniors and seniors. It was then that I became a curious reader.
I approached this book with a more inquiry-based lens. So when I read about the Madrina character and all the spirituality from the Afro-Latina culture, I was curious. I didn’t know what I was reading. I had to use Google as look at these things.
Madrina lives in the basement. And she has ceremonies. Everybody comes, and there are drums playing, and everyone’s wearing white and headdresses, and they dance for the Oshun, who’s a deity of the river.
So Oshun is an Orisha and an Orisha is a spirit. Oshun is the goddess, or deity of love. And she’s embodied through water, through the river. So when I think about that, rivers are constantly changing and moving and changing form. And Zuri is the daughter of [Oshun]. She’s the daughter of the goddess of love.
So it was so eye-opening to read the passage and reconnect this thread that goes throughout the. whole novel. This actually, this river goes throughout the whole novel that connects these themes of love, of why Zuri’s jealous. Love can be jealous, it can be envious. All of these characteristics come through in Zuri.
The idea that Zuri is a manifestation of the spirit Oshun whose an Orisha of water, goddess of water, really plays through with this quote that I just absolutely adore that Ibi Zoboi writes.
If oceans are the wounds of the world, then I am the interconnecting umbilical cord with deep love flowing.
Jeanie: That’s beautiful.
Meg: That’s one of Zuri’s poems, one of her spoken word poems that’s woven throughout the text of the story, which is a difference in Pride and Prejudice.
So in Pride, what we have is Zuri sharing her spoken word poetry, which gives the readers a window into her inner thoughts and feelings in a way that’s just remarkable.
“Spoken word is an instrument of change that binds the arts, literature & poetry by bringing youth culture front and center in the classroom.”
— Meg (@meg_allison) February 22, 2019
As a literary device, it’s a remarkable achievement. I also find that in those poems, Zuri writes about the grittier realities of life. When she talks about gentrification, she talks about the junkies on the street. She talks about the lens that, for me at least, I didn’t see so much throughout the narrative, but in her poems, reading them multiple times, you feel the pain and the pride.
You feel the tug and pull that Zuri is between this moment for herself of big changes, and that’s another theme. It’s a beautiful coming of age story. You talked about what it means to be an insider and outsider, what it means to leave home. Can you ever come back? Will it be the same?
Jeanie: For me, you’re just illuminating all of the ideas for how you might use this with students.
As a social studies connector, it does illuminate the African diaspora, and the many places that people of color come from and the many ways in which they traveled to where they are now.
For Zuri, it’s her mother is Haitian American and her father is Dominican, but she was born and raised in Bushwick, Brooklyn. So I think that connects powerfully to some of the things we teach in social studies.
On the other hand, this spoken word piece made me want to use it as a book to inspire poetry.
Meg: It’s a perfect month. It’s April; it’s poetry month. At U32 we’ve invited Jeff Hewitt to come work with our students who are studying this text in their world authors class to work with our students, to write spoken word poetry inspired from the spoken word in Pride. We also had the opportunity to invite Steven Willis, a visiting spoken word artist, to U32 for two years in a row who has introduced this art form to our students.
We want to be very careful that we’re not misappropriating an art form, but spoken word is just following in a tradition of performing your poetry, of knowing that you have an audience that it lives off the written page.
Our students that are participating in this class are a little nervous about that. It’s not part of their culture to have spoken word as it is for Ibi Zoboi. Ibi Zoboi is a spoken word poet. Elizabeth Acevedo was a spoken word poet who does the audio recording. It’s a part of Afro Latino culture to have spoken word as a part of your life and your form of expression but not so much up here in Vermont.
Jeanie: Yeah, I love the power that you have to speak your poetry out loud. It gives it this authentic audience. Years ago I used to use with students this fabulous documentary called Louder Than a Bomb, which was about spoken word poetry in this contest. There’s a moment where Zuri reads her poem out loud in Busboys and Poets, a bookshop named after Langston Hughes. The Girls in the Hood poem on page 153. I love the emotion that she feels before when she signs up and then after she’s performed it?
Meg: It is a gorgeous book, and I highly recommend that folks listen to the audio version as well read by Elizabeth Acevedo.
Jeanie: I loved the audio version so much for that very reason. She’s the author of another favorite book, The Poet X and a spoken word poet. She does those poems so beautifully.
I love that Zuri goes through that emotion that I see our students go through where they have this thing that they’re good at, but then they’re nervous, they’re vulnerable about sharing it and then she shares it and she has this, like people are so delighted with her work and applaud and she has that moment of pride.
It made me think about how do we give our students opportunities to cultivate their specific talents and then share them with an audience?
To go through that cycle of like, oh no, that’s so scary. Oh look, I did it! Oh, people loved it! Right? That’s such a fruitful cycle for growth.
Meg: I think what’s important to note is that Zuri left home, she didn’t do this in Bushwick. Her poems are written down in her journal, but she had to take this journey metaphorically and literally to step outside of her comfort zone.
Perhaps metaphorically and literally our students take this up outside of their comfort zones, step outside places that are familiar and comfortable to a place where they’re standing on an edge of something and they don’t know what’s going to happen if they give it their best shot.
In this case, Zuri gave it her best shot. She knocked it out of the park, and lo and behold, Darius was there.
Jeanie: Of course he was. Of course he was, and of course, she was ticked off about it at first, he wasn’t she? But we will not give away any endings.
Let’s talk a little bit more about what you’ve termed “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
Meg: Well, it’s this idea that I have that Zuri herself, wanting to go to Mecca, made me think she wants to go to the Mecca because it’s Howard University. So many people that she’s admired have gone there as well. Just as if Ibi Zoboi weaves in these references to people that have influenced her like Langston Hughes, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, by paying respects.
I think that’s a part of remix culture.
We have a song by Drake that references Lauren Hill and plays a loop of her song, that’s giving her so much respect by looping in a verse from her song to bring it to another audience, to a new age.
I think that a remix does that very well by just sprinkling in that these nods of respect to the people who’ve come before us, to the poets, to the writers that have influenced us. Ibi does it in a way that’s very natural, but they really stuck out at me. I made note of some of them, but I’m not going to tell you what they are because there’s such a treasure trove to discover as a reader as you’re going through the book and just make note of all those nods that she gives.
Jeanie: They’re like Easter eggs, right? I remember, her father, Zuri’s father at one point sits down to read a book he’s read many times, and its Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That made me chuckle. It’s fun to find these remix elements as you call them.
I knew that Austen was intentional about mentioning books in P&P. I did the same w/ PRIDE.
Zuri reads BETWEEN THE WORLD & ME & remixes a Walt Whitman poem. Her sister, Mari, reads Suze Orman books. Her father is reading Howard Zinn's A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES.
— IBI ZOBOI (@ibizoboi) December 24, 2018
Meg: It’s so much fun, and if you’re teaching this to students, it’s fun to find them as a reader sitting by yourself and going through the book.
For a teachable moment using this text in the classroom, now something you’ve curated all these cultural touchpoints to unpack with your students and not assuming that they know who these people are.
Then you’re just going down another rabbit hole after another rabbit hole building knowledge together through those little Easter eggs that Ibi weaves in for us or leaves for us. It’s a delight, absolutely a delight.
Jeanie: Yeah. Wonderful. It also felt to me like an entry point for empathy.
This book for me is an empathetic moment where I get to see what it’s like to be a young woman of color in Brooklyn navigating that world.
It’s an empathy point for me too, to see, as somebody much older than Zuri Benitez, how young women are navigating relationships and romance in a much different time than when I was a young woman.
I just think often about adults reading young adult and middle grades literature as an opportunity to sort of step in the shoes of a younger character and see what the world looks like now.
Meg: It’s beautiful, and with that, as adult readers coming into YA, we can bring some of our own judgments and prejudices. It makes me think how this book might be unfairly judged by adult readers who aren’t quite so familiar with youth culture. For example, there is a reviewer in the Washington Post, when this book came out last September, who gave it a really negative review based on the Zoboi’s use of slang and African American vernacular English. The critic was thinking that it wouldn’t have much appeal outside of its young adult audience of ages 13 to 17.
— IBI ZOBOI (@ibizoboi) September 26, 2018
I quite disagree with her, and so did Ibi Zoboi in a well-documented rebuttal that she put out on Twitter. She really stood up for her book and stood up not just for her book but for her characters. I thought that was really telling that as a writer she has such deep empathy for her characters.
These are characters who are marginalized, who are living on the edges, not just of our narratives that we share commonly in our classrooms and in our TV shows and in our film, but on the edges of our society oftentimes. I felt like that was Ibi’s opportunity as well. She just stood up for these characters once again.
I had the opportunity to hear Ibi Zoboi speak at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in January where she got her Masters in writing for young adults in 2011.
She wrote that when she’s approaching a new book, anything she writes, she asks herself, are the children well?
It’s a Masai greeting that she has discovered, and she approaches her novels that way. “Are the children well?” When we think about approaching this text with empathy, are the children well? Is Zuri well? Is Darius as well?
Jeanie: You bring up something for me that I’ve been thinking a lot about as I’ve been reading more about culturally sustaining pedagogies. This assumption that the only language, the only academic language or the only language we can speak in schools or in books, is standard American English.
There’s a moment in the book actually wears Zuri and Darius have this discussion that I’m just going to share because I think it’s illuminating, this idea that, oh, there’s too much jargon and there’s too much vernacular in this book. They’re in the car and it’s uncomfortable and they’re trying to find some music, and she says,
“Ain’t nobody laugh, Mr. Darcy. So seriously, you don’t got no trap music?” I ask, trying to figure out the buttons on his dashboard.
“You mean, do I have any trap music?” He says this slowly, enunciating every word.
“Hold up. Are you correcting me?”
I don’t have any words for him. I just stare at the side of his face, and if he wasn’t driving at 65 miles per hour down a highway right now, I’d mush him so hard it would make him rethink his whole life.
Zuri’s point is well taken here. She is a perfectly intelligent human being.
Because she speaks the way her community speaks does not make her any less intelligent.
Meg: She knows how to code-switch. When she meets the grandmother, Darius’s grandmother, who is very rude and judgmental of Zuri. She’s very wealthy. She has a lot of class judgments of Zuri and where she’s from. She’s not happy that they’ve moved their family to Bushwick. She enunciates.
Zuri can pick up on all of that and just flip on the dime how she approaches the world and how she communicates. That’s a real undervalued skill, I believe. It’s speaking a second language.
Jeanie: Yeah, and Zuri calls her out too, just because you can speak a certain way and you have nice clothes doesn’t make you a kind person, doesn’t mean you’re polite, or you have good manners. That again reminded me of Jane Austen’s original, right, that money does not equate good behavior or good manners.
Meg: It’s so true.
Jeanie: I’m really glad you pulled out that story about the Washington Post and also pulled out this notion of the slang and the vernacular that’s present in the book. I think as educators it’s really easy to short sell young people’s culture, and their culture just like ours did before folks, does include new language, new terms, new ways of speaking things just like ours did when we were young.
Meg: And in Shakespeare’s time, as Shakespeare used a lot of slang in his plays. At the time it was considered quite lowbrow and vulgar, and now he’s held up as the epitome of highbrow literature.
Jeanie: Right. That’s a great point. I love that. Maybe Austen did too. Who knows?
Jeanie: You’ve been using this book with students a lot. Is there anything else you want to share about how that’s going? How are students reacting to the book?
Meg: Well, I would just want to give a shout out to my colleague Jen Ingersoll who is taking a risk and introducing this book to her World Authors AP level class. The students have been digging into a treasure trove of authors from Achebe, to Kafka, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They just finished up Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen in February.
Jen had seen a review I had left about Pride on Goodreads. My first reading, I gave it five stars. My second reading, I’m giving it 10 stars out of five. She approached me, I thought, out of a place of curiosity.
Could we use this with our students? It might make a great way to pair up with Pride and Prejudice. She’s looking to actively disrupt the canon of what is traditionally taught, even in a class that has a lot of diverse authors anyways that she’s introduced to the students.
I also think she’s disrupting it by bringing in young adult literature to an upper level English class, Where young adult literature is usually on the margins of what’s considered academically rigorous to unpack in a curriculum. As a librarian, I really appreciate that because we sell books all the time. I hand out books all the time to students who are looking for independent reads for pleasure reading, but not so much for books that are used in the classroom. I see it from a couple of different angles.
We are in the middle of teaching this unit, and our students are juniors and seniors. There’s a wide range of reactions to this book. Some students are really having a hard time liking Zuri, finding her not very likable, finding her pretty abrasive and immature. Some students finding out that this is their favorite book that they’ve read in quite some time.
They’re all approaching it with a real analytical lens, looking at thematic comparisons between Pride and Prejudice, looking at themes of gentrification so you can weave in history and social studies and sociology, race and gender.
They’re keeping dialectical journals, comparing the texts. We’re going to go into a spoken word unit which pairs very well with this text asking our students to give us a summon of assessment that will be a spoken word, which is going to push them outside that comfort zone.
Jeanie: It could also ask them to do their own remix in a way.
Meg: Exactly. We might leave that open for interpretation.
Let them help design the assessment.
What would they remix? Because we don’t want it to be a traditional paper? That that belongs in the Pride and Prejudice unit. We don’t want it to be a traditional dialogue. We want something to be new and fresh but relevant for the students to connect with.
They’re finding a lot of connections in their place here up in Vermont.
I mean we’re experiencing change as Vermonters, and they can see it with their own eyes. We may not have bodegas but we have general stores where sometimes you go by and the old guys are sitting out front talking about local politics, just like on the bodegas.
We have dairy farms that are dying off every year. There’s a loss of culture. There’s a loss of some of those cultural touch points in Vermont with new people moving in, bringing in new ideas and new customs and maple lattes for example.
So, it’s complex and they can see it with their own eyes as well.
Jeanie: I drive through Brandon all the time and I always want to do a study in Brandon on a side of a house. As you’re heading into Brandon from down south, it says, “Better for who?” It’s about the way they’re updating Brandon, Vermont. They’ve put in a new road. I always think I want to know that person’s perspective. Wouldn’t that be interesting because it’s sort of like who is Bushwick better for? When gentrification happens, when change happens, who are Vermont maple lattes better for?
Who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside and who can’t participate?
Who’s unable to get that maple latte. It’s usually the folks who’ve already been here because it’s just– it’s so complex.
Jeanie: When property values go up, who gets to stay and who has to leave?
Meg: Exactly, and who gets pushed out.
Disrupt Texts is a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve. It is part of our mission to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.
I’m going to ask you why should we be challenging the canon?
Meg: think we should be challenging the canon because it does give a platform for marginalized voices, stories, and authors.
It’s essential that we disrupt the tradition of only hearing from certain people, certain races, certain perspectives.
Change is hard. Change is hard for Zuri. And change is hard for our English curriculums in our schools and which stories are our cultural foundations. To Kill a Mockingbird is one, for example, that often comes up and is often taught, but why not use The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas instead, which is a new book that came out that’s about agency and finding your voice. That’s about the themes of self and society. Yet there’s a feeling that if we don’t teach To Kill a Mockingbird, that our students are missing out on a language that connects them to a tradition, to a foundation.
However, I question and I ask, if they can’t find any relevancy in the characters, or the setting, or the timeframe. If they can’t crawl into Atticus’ skin, because they can’t relate to him, because they don’t see him, they don’t know who he is, then how can they ever even connect to the themes of the book?
I wonder more and more if giving students’ opportunities to pick and choose books of similar themes, text sets that they might find more relevant, could possibly be a win-win. Any one of us could say, okay, these are the 10 most influential books every high school student needs to read, and we’re going to have 10 different book lists created.
Getting folks who make these decisions around the table to really sort of unpack where they’re coming from, their biases, and be open to trying new texts from new authors.
I mean, seeing how our students respond, in my opinion, it’s a win-win.
Jeanie: I couldn’t agree more and I think there are several layers to it. I think it’s really crucial that every single one of our students see themselves in our curriculum, right? In Vermont, while we may be a very white state, we still are teaching students of color, and they deserve to see themselves reflected in the books we teach, in the topics, in the content that we bring to them.
It’s also really important for white students to step into the skin of somebody different than themselves, right? It’s really important for them also to see themselves not at the center of a story, to experience a world in which they’re being asked to see the world through somebody else completely different’s eyes.
I would say the same thing about books and stories that feature members of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s really important for boys to read stories that center female main characters, right?
We can’t always read about people just like ourselves.
Both of those things seem really important to me. Seeing yourself in literature, and some of us have the privilege of seeing ourselves in literature a lot, and also of being able to have empathy for the other people’s experiences by stepping into their shoes in literature.
Meg: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. There’s no better vehicle for that than through a book and through a book that’s being carefully unpacked and discussing in the classroom setting. Just as I, on my first reading, loved this book. On a second reading, interacting with this text and listening to dialogue that my students are having about this book has given it so many more layers than I had sitting alone reading it to myself.
We have this relationship with our books that’s quite intimate. We take them home, we read them, we sometimes talk about them with other people, but we can return them and we read a new one. They come to life when we have opportunities like this podcast. You need to talk about them, to talk about them with other people because we build and create that knowledge together.
A text like this that might throw our students off balance provides such rich learning opportunities.
Jeanie: I also heard you say, and I’m in your camp 100%, that it’s important that we bring YA into the classroom. When I was a middle and high school librarian, I worked with an AP English teacher, and towards this time of year, we would pull out all of the Green Mountain Book Award Books of the year, end of the year before, and kids would have choice.
I would buy multiple copies and they would get to choose a Green Mountain Book Award Book. Those were some of the most successful experiences they had in that class because those were their favorite books of the year. They were no less rigorous around the work they did around them. The reading was not necessarily easier. Some of the books were actually quite challenging or long, right.
They had this relationship with the book that was different than they had with Hamlet or than they had with The Things They Carried, for example. I’m curious about using YA and middle grades books in our middle school and high school classrooms. Any experiences besides Pride you’ve had with that?
Meg: At U32, thanks to our English department, and Kara Rosenberg who joined our school three years ago and chaired the Green Mountain Book Award Committee, has been instrumental as well as teachers who were ready to see this change in the department where they’ve implemented independent reading time for 15 minutes at the start of every English language learning arts class.
Our students are reading anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes a week independently at the start of their classes, and it’s been a game changer.
Our 10th graders also, just like what you said with your GMBA project, had to read a GMBA book over the summer and then be prepared to present a project for it for the library, like a marketing project using the book that they read at the GMBA list.
Now, these books are selected with great care and expertise and are celebrated with a lot of joy when they’re released in Vermont. It’s wonderful to see them being promoted in the classroom and to have time carved away during the instructional time for students to read independently.
I think that for some students that’s the only time that they’re given or they’re allowing themselves even to read independently.
These are students, I think about our emerging readers or readers who considered themselves non-readers. To have 15 minutes a day with a book in front of you, perhaps with a teacher or librarian who is very invested in finding the right fit.
There’s so many options in YA right now; it’s a wonderful time to dig into young adult literature. Unlike when we were younger and teenagers, I can’t recall a young adult book that I read. I think I stopped reading young adult after middle school after I got through all the Judy Blume books and I moved straight on to adult fiction or whatever was being taught in the classroom.
It is a golden age right now for young adult literature.
If you haven’t yet enjoyed a young adult book that there are so many layers to them. There’s love and romance, and yes, they’re coming of age stories because we’re capturing what it feels like to be of an age where you’re betwixt two worlds; you’re betwixt childhood and adulthood. That means they’re no less heavy hitting or dealing with issues that we’re dealing with just from a lens of young adults.
Jeanie: And they are literary.
Meg: Very literary.
Jeanie: There’s a lot of literary merit to them. It makes me think, I struggle a lot when I encounter teachers or parents that turn reading into a chore. For me, reading is so joyful, and that’s fed me personally and professionally, right?
Reading brings me joy, and anyway in which we can help our students, our young people, our children, our learners to love reading feels worth the effort.
Meg: Books like Pride by Ibi Zoboi, books by Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, Renee Watson, where our students can see themselves on the pages or perhaps have this encounter with someone that they don’t know anything about. Somebody like this character but they’re curious and they’re interested and it feels a little edgy. When they’re talking in slang and they’re referencing Beyoncé they’re making it relevant. It’s a joy to read something like that for students, I think. We all know, we all have students who just are non-readers, and its books like Pride who can turn the tide for students.
Jeanie: Let’s name some more of those books.
We also talked about sort of books that maybe could be paired, the way you’ve paired this one with Pride and Prejudice, in order to disrupt the canon a little bit, to challenge the canon.
One of the pairings that I thought about recently was Monster by Walter Dean Myers, which truly is a great way to talk about the juvenile justice system through literature. Pairing that with Dashka Slater’s, The 57 Bus, which delights me because that’s two books that are sort of outside of the traditional canon paired together. Let’s think about some other books we might bring in or we might pair.
Meg: I think about Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime which would pair very nicely perhaps with Catcher in the Rye. When you think about a young man’s sense of identity. His first forays into freedom. Trevor Noah’s memoir is about growing up in South Africa, in Johannesburg.
Oh, hey #vted librarians and teachers: our collections need this book! #vsla @VTVSLA @ChristieNold @katyfarber @meg_allison @lifelegeros @MargiPutney @gileslibrarian @raphaelstacy @lhalman @Nate_Merrill @OswaldAlly @rbebolong https://t.co/UqKOfbPd6b
— Jeanie Phillips (@JPhillipsVT) April 21, 2019
He was born to an African mother, with a German father. He couldn’t even play outside on the streets because in the mid-1980’s, the procreation act, the act that he just came into being because his parent made him was illegal. It’s a very reflective memoir that intersects race, class, and politics that you could pair with something like Catcher in the Rye. Students can connect with Trevor Noah.
Jeanie: It’s a brilliant book. I have to say I purchased it on audio. He reads it, for my son and I to listen to when my son was in high school. He loved that book and I did to. Trevor Noah is super smart about race and does a great job of educating us all about the construct that is race. Yes, that’s a brilliant book.
Meg: I think of this books things like The Handmaid’s Tale and looking at the Green Mountain Book Award list. That contains authors who are diverse, that we are hearing from marginalized voices.
I think the key is whenever we’re reading a story, is to think about whose narrative is being centered.
I think of a book like Tommy Orange’s, There There, that came out in the fall that I shared with some of my faculty in the English department. Already, they’re considering adding it to their American writer’s curriculum. It’s a new voice, it’s a debut novel, but again, a very old voice. He is an indigenous Native American writer.
He has made it a very contemporary urban tale. Whereas traditionally, I think that we’re used to reading indigenous voices from the past, telling stories from the past, but not from a new lens, not from a present-day contemporary perspective. I think that book particularly is very exciting.
Jeanie: I loved that book so much. I loved that it upends this outdated notion of what it means to be Native American because all of his characters are urban and Native American, and living mostly in Oakland. That’s a gorgeous novel. It does bring really fresh voice especially as we struggle with whether or not to teach Sherman Alexie in this current moment.
Today I am supposed to start teaching an excerpt from Sherman Alexie's novel. I think we'll use this teachable moment to discuss a teacher's dilemma when asked to teach someone who assaults women. #MeToo
— Margery Bloom (@wideeyedla) January 17, 2019
I also think of Jason Reynolds as one of those voices, especially for our middle-level readers that sort of brings this fresh perspective and high interest. Kids are loving his books. They can’t put them down.
Meg: They are verse novels. What that means is there’s a lot of spoken word in his novels. To read them, it looks on the onset like an easy read for our young readers, but again, interwoven into his words is the struggle. The struggle of what it means to be young, black, and living in a place or places that can be violent, where there is gun violence, where there is drug use. His Long Way Down is absolutely stellar. I’ve bought multiple copies of that book. It’s been awarded lots of shiny stickers on its cover, highly recommend.
Jeanie: Yes, that’s a great one. I have heard that many reluctant readers can’t put that down and want a book like that. I know for my son growing up in Vermont, often the violence he would hear about on the news or in the media felt so far away. A book like that allows us to step in and have empathy for people for whom this is their daily life. And yet, we can’t ignore that that kind of violence also does happen in Vermont.
Jeanie: What else are you reading?
What else are you recommending to your teachers and your students?
Meg: Some books that I am recommending to my middle-grade readers, and I am delighted to see that this was nominated for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list, is The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. It’s a graphic novel. It’s a fairy tale story.
In the story, the Prince doesn’t feel completely like himself until his dressmaker starts to design him some dresses. He is a very gender-fluid, non-binary prince, who fully comes into his own. It is a beautiful story that feels authentic. I am delighted that it’s going to have a wider audience being on Dorothy’s list.
Other ones that I am recommending for my middle readers, of course, I’ll mention again, Black Enough. It’s Ibi Zoboi’s anthology of stories about being young and Black in America. She’s curated many authors. Some of whom have gotten their writing chops at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. There is quite an alumni list growing from that campus in Montpelier of writers.
That book is very accessible. It’s got Jason Reynolds stories, Nic Stone, Renee Watson, writing about what it means to be Black, which again is a theme that she explores in Pride.
You are enough, you are enough exactly, who you are.
Angie Thomas has her new one, On The Come Up, which is not a sequel to The Hate U Give, but it is a stand-alone. Its own story about rapping and a young teenager who is finding her voice again.
This theme of finding our voices is very hot right now in young-adult literature.
Jeanie: Ghost Boys seems like a companion to The Hate U Give, especially for middle-grades novels. Who has written that?
Meg: That was Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Jeanie: Yes. That’s on my next-to-read list.
Meg: I haven’t read that, but I read her Ninth Ward that came out after Katrina. It wove magical realism with this story of survival from a young girl who was trapped in the attic of her home with her grandmother after the Ninth Ward flooded with Katrina. So, I highly recommend that book as well.
Jeanie: That was a gorgeous book. I loved that one too. It really put me in the shoes of somebody who experienced that tragedy in a way I couldn’t otherwise have experienced it.
Anything else you want to say about Ibi Zoboi’s wonderful remix of Pride and Prejudice, Pride?
Meg: I would just let everyone know that it is a treasure trove to be discovered. The more that I encounter this text, read this text, and work through it with students literally every day, I am finding a new thing to appreciate, new things to discover. I don’t want to spoil it too much for you, but my colleague Jen Ingersoll and I will be creating a syllabus and sharing that out to the world of the resources that we’ve gathered. We’ve been watching YouTube videos about dapping, and listening to Bushwick poets read at poetry readings.
Just really discovering and bringing to life this community of Bushwick for our students in East Montpelier, Vermont. It’s been such a joy to co-create with her. I just want to give a shout-out and a nod to her, and for having just the courage to take a risk and to do it with me. It has made coming out of winter and coming into spring a delight.
This is usually a very hard time of the year because it has been a very snowy winter, but knowing that I can go to school every day and work with students around this text, I literally I’m waking up every day with a smile on my face. It’s exciting. It is a great text.
Jeanie: I just have to say I cannot help myself… just watching you talk about this. I’m so delighted that you’ve brought your full learner-self to this text. It makes me wonder, do we in part teach the books in the canon because we know them so well, that we don’t have to think about it?
What joy awaits us when we put aside the book we know so well to take on a new one and to be learners alongside our students?
Embrace that joy, folks. I know you middle-school teachers especially are good at that. You’re really great at keeping up with Dorothy’s list and bringing new books in. I just want to keep encouraging you to do that, because watching Meg light up about the learning she is doing around this book, I can’t help but think about what an inspiration she must be for her students. Thank you so much.
Meg: Thank you, Jeanie. It’s been a real joy.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Philips, and this has been an episode of #vted Reads. Talking about what Vermont educators and students are reading. Thank you so much to Meg Allison for appearing on the show and talking with me about Pride. If you are looking for a copy of Pride, check your local library. Special thanks to Audrey Homan, audio engineer extraordinaire. To find out more about #vted Reads, including past episodes, upcoming guests and reads, and a whole lot more, you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @vtedreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.