#vted Reads: The Shape of Thunder

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Oh lovely listeners, we are all still here, and we are all noticing the change of the seasons. This year the melting of the snow and the return of the sun are coinciding with a COVID-19 vaccine becoming available. We know, lovely listeners, that you are all feeling that complicated mix of joy, sorrow and wonder, as you get your vaccines, and we are right there with you.

Speaking of a complicated mix of feelings, in this episode we talk about the new YA book, The Shape of Thunder, with the book’s author, Jasmine Warga. It’s a tale of love, loss, theoretical physics, and how we interpret our students’ behavior. Specifically, how those interpretations shape the way we structure learning challenges for our students. Listeners, we get emotional.

That said, let us give you a quick content note: listeners, this book and our discussion touches on school shootings, and sibling death. If those topics won’t work for you right now, we still love you and want you to take the best care of yourself you can. (Hint: see our earlier talk about vaccines!)

I’m Jeanie Phillips and this is #vted Reads, a podcast about books, by, with and for, Vermont educators.

Let’s chat.

 

Jasmine: So, thanks so much for having me, Jeanie. I’m so thrilled to be here. So, I’m Jasmine Warga and I am an author of books for young people. My first two books were for more like teens, and my next couple books have been for middle graders, but I’m interested in writing like complicated and messy and challenging books for young people that really speak to the world that they’re living in and help them to build an emotional vocabulary to discuss those things.

Jeanie:  I’m trying so hard. That’s a fan girl, but I love your book so much. The first book I read of yours was My Heart and Other Black Holes, and I just felt like you understood and got on the page depression so beautifully and so honestly, and I just so appreciated that. When I was a high school librarian, I shared that book with so many kids and it meant a lot. And then I got a copy of Here We Are Now and I just felt like you were in my soul, the way you wrote about music and about this girl and her relationship with her estranged father and her mother. That book just got so under my skin. And then Other Words for Home was like one of my very favorite middle grades when it came out. It was like my book of the year. And now we have this beautiful book. So, I’m going to try hard not to gush all over you.

Jasmine:  Thank you. Thank you so much for your support of my work. And I just, I really, really appreciate that. And I especially appreciate you loving Here We Are Now because I feel like of my books it’s like my niece known or loved books. So, it’s always special to me when people also understood kind of the soul and heart of that book.

Jeanie:  I love them all. And I’m so excited about this book The Shape of Thunder. I read it so quickly because I couldn’t stop and I’m eager to talk about it. But before we do, what are you reading right now?

Jasmine:  Okay. So, I’m actually reading something really exciting right now. I have an early copy of Mariama Lockington. So, she is the author of For Black Girls Like Me which was her debut in 2018. She’s a new book coming out in 2022 called In The Key of Us and it is a really warm poetic. I mean, Mariama, I think she has a background in poetry and you see that show up in her prose and it’s this really gentle, but also complicated queer first love story. And I feel like I haven’t seen that a lot in middle grade. It’s starting to black girls who both have agency and are very different from one another, but are finding their way to one another, and I’m just loving it. I can’t stop reading it. So, it’s definitely something to look out for in 2022.

Jeanie:  Oh, I can’t wait. That sounds perfect. Fabulous. So, could you, let’s dig into this one. You’ve already just read to us from Cora’s voice. I wondered if you could introduce us to our two main characters, the two voices that we hear in this book, Cora and Quinn.

Jasmine:  Yeah. So, I’ll start with Cora since I read from her chapter. So, Cora Hamed is one of the main characters and she is sort of like a brainy type, a perfectionist type kid. She’s really well-suited to the way most school systems and school districts operate in that her brain works really well collecting facts and memorizing facts, regurgitating information, and she’s really like proud of that kind of achiever label that she’s been tagged with.

The book sort of opens in a really difficult moment in her life where she’s grieving the loss of her older sister Mabel, who she really kind of idolized and was very close with, and Cora’s family life is a little bit interesting in that she lives with her father who is Lebanese and also her grandmother who’s actually her maternal grandmother who’s white. And her mother left when Cora was really little, but the grandmother has stayed. And so it’s kind of a little bit different of a family dynamic there, but it works for them. And her home is filled with a lot of love and support even though they’re all going through this really difficult moment.

And then our other character is Quinn McCauley.

And Quinn is a very dreamy and artistic type kid and also very active kid. And school is difficult for her because she finds it difficult to sit still. She also finds it difficult to memorize information quickly. And so she’s kind of been tagged as not being that bright and that tag has led her to believe that sort of about herself. And so she has all these big ideas, but isn’t that great sometimes at expressing them. She also when she was younger had a little bit of a speech impediment, disability, stuttering and she’s mostly outgrown that, but it will still happen when she feels uncomfortable. And that’s also led to this perception that she isn’t that bright and, again, that is in fact how she thinks about herself.

And Quinn is also, when the book opens, dealing with something extremely challenging and that her brother committed this atrocious crime that he was a school shooter and hurt all these people in her community. And so she’s dealing with the guilt over what her brother did wondering what she could have done, just talking and wondering in what way she’s responsible for what happened and especially grieving the way that this tragedy has divided her from her best friend Cora because they find themselves on opposite sides of the fault line of this tragedy.

So, that’s kind of, I guess, the cliff notes summary of both of them.

I think they think of themselves as way more different than they are which is I think how kids in general are. But they definitely it’s funny cause I think Cora like in her identity tags obviously mirrors my own background more. And so lots of people I’ve spoken with have thought that I am Cora. But I really put parts of myself in both girls and then obviously made lots of stuff up which is the role of a writer. So, I would say that like Cora thinks more like facts and information and Quinn is very visual and dreamy, and I think that kind of guides their different viewpoints.

Jeanie:  I love all of this. And they’re both mourning the loss of someone and they’re both, even if they’re not sure they understand it, Cora too is mourning the loss of her friendship with Quinn and Quinn definitely is. So, there’s like layers of mourning happening in this book.

Jasmine:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  One of the things I love about your writing for kids is the way that you get at different family structures. So, you mentioned Cora is living with her maternal grandmother and her father. Her mother is not in the picture. Quinn’s parents are together, but they don’t really get along very well. They’re really struggling. And when I was a kid, I craved these kinds of books that had families that were not the two parents and 2.4 kids or whatever it is.

Like I wanted books with families like mine, which was not what I saw in literature. And so I’m wondering if you’ve ever gotten feedback from your readers about the way that you share different family structures in your books. Do kids feel seen?

Jasmine:  I really appreciate this question. I hadn’t really realized that a lot of my books do take on those different family structures. I guess it stems in part I hate the term broken family because I don’t think any families are broken. I think families just come in different shapes and what’s important is that love one another and show up for one another. And so that’s really important to me to reflect that on the page.

You know, I get a lot of letters from kids and most of the stuff that jumps out is the immediate things you would think. So, like from My Heart and Other Black Holes kids telling me they feel really seen from having like a mental health struggle, and I get lots of letters from Other Words for Home which are really moving about from Muslim kids or Arab kids who saw themselves for both of them for the first time or kids who had never seen a Muslim character and feel like this really opened their eyes.

But I don’t get a lot of letters that directly address the family unit, but I wonder if in some ways I do get a lot of books that say this book made me feel seen like I’m very different from this character, but I have these like emotional qualities.

And so I wonder if that’s a part of it, but I really just always am interested, I guess, in the unexpected, and also in that I think there can be love in units that don’t look perfect. And there’s no such thing as a perfect family. And so I guess I like to show that. I also really am interested in like those like uncommon dynamics. I like them in books and so I think then I respond to writing them.

Jeanie:  Yeah. So, oh gosh, I have so many questions and it’s hard to decide which one next. But I’m just going to, I’m going to talk a little bit about this book begins in a way that surprised me, which is that Quinn and Cora want to come up with a plan to time-travel. They want to go back in time and fix things, and specifically they want to find a wormhole.

And I have to tell you, I hadn’t really given wormholes much thought before I read this book. Did you do a lot of research? How did this idea of a wormhole come to you?

Jasmine: Yeah, so I actually was, I did do a lot of research and it came to me from doing research about time-travel. So, I knew early on just from reading lots of heartbreaking articles about kids and how they feel about school shootings, this idea of wanting to change it, of wanting to go back in time and change it.

And so I had this idea of time-travel and then as I kind of mimicked the research that Cora would have done more deep, I realized that I think a wormhole would really appeal to both of the girls and that it feels more believable than building a time machine.

Like I think that Cora is too much of a pragmatist to really have bought into this idea we can build a time machine.

But a wormhole is also kind of like a portal. And I loved portal fantasies when I was that age.

And I feel like Cora, as much as she wants to leave she’s a pragmatist, also kind of has that appeal to it. And wormholes are actually like scientifically possible portals that exist in our universe as a way to kind of leap between moments in time. And so I kind of became fixated on that idea that it seemed to me like I feel like Quinn was just desperate enough for things to change that she would have run with any kind of idea.

Like it says in the book, she initiated that they’d built up a time machine, but I really think Cora would have focused in on this wow like that’s the most like scientifically possible mode. And when like people in theoretical physics talk about time-travel they are lots of times honing in on wormholes or kind of like string theory, which is sort of like an adjacent wormhole idea.

And so this idea of like gaps in the fabric of our universe I think was like really interesting and kind of captivated me, and I liked to believe that it also would have captivated Cora. And like I said, I think that’s how it steered because Quinn was all in all ways and kind of has to convince Cora that this is actually like science not fantasy. And so wormholes kind of to me land at that perfect intersection that they play so much to where my imagination would have been as a middle grader.

Like, I so badly was that kid who wanted to find the door in the tree and walk into a completely different land or checking the back of closets to see if I was going to define a portal. And so wormholes, like I said, are like scientifically sound portals against theoretical science, but as Quinn counters to Cora, all science is really theoretical. And so it’s, I’m really interested in that overlap between science and magic and I think wormholes really are at the perfect intersection of that.

Jeanie:  I love the way that Cora sort of approached this as a scientist. She was sort of developing her hypothesis and thinking about the scientific method. And there are all sorts of ways that science shows up in this book. Cora’s father is a scientists. I love this whole idea of why humans are attuned to the sounds that birds make.

And I wondered as I read like how this might, how this book might be a part of an integrated science humanities unit and tying those things together in the way that Cora and Quinn in a way tied together fantasy and science.

Jasmine: Yeah. I mean, that would be the dream. I think like so much of books, right, is about your own curiosity, your curiosity as a writer. And so I try to infuse that into all of my books and hope that there are other outlets in there within the narrative for kids to exercise. They are all curiosity about the world.

I particularly am finding myself drawn to science, which I find really interesting as someone who, when I was young, believed I was not good at science. And it was like a really big cause of insecurity for me because I felt all this pressure to go up and be a doctor, and I felt like I wasn’t good enough at science to be a doctor and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And now it’s almost like that the pressure has been lifted. I’m able to be curious about science and enjoy it in a way that I wasn’t as a kid.

I find it really interesting that all of my like creative writing projects, lots of them have found their way back to that curiosity.

I’m not an educator and so I never wanted to like presume to design anyone’s lesson plans. But I also think that any time that you can kind of show that these things don’t have to be like segregated from one another and that there is like science isn’t like a rigid thing that it can be combined with a story about curiosity and sort of looping that all together. I would have enjoyed that as a kid.

So, selfishly like I’m here for that and hoping that kids get that.

Like I was just recently thinking about both of my girls are still in preschool age, and I think about how the curriculum they have in their preschool is so integrated. It’s not so much like this is this, and this is this. It’s more like this is learning and it’s great to be curious, and these are different skills to aid in your curiosity. And so I am hopeful about being able to kind of keep that approach. So, it’s not like I as a kid felt so much like I’m bad at science, I’m bad at math, but okay like I have some, I’m getting some good responses here to my writing. So, that’s what I’m good at. And not seeing it as like a collective like all together piece, which was my education.

And so I’m interested, I guess, in that wholeness of that and bringing that idea to books.

Jeanie:  I just love all of that. And it brings me back to what you said earlier about Quinn and how you wrote some of yourself in Quinn.

And Quinn does not feel good about herself as a learner at all, which made me really, which really broke my heart when I read this book. And so I want to read a little section from page one 87.

“Mrs. Euclid bends her head toward me. ‘Oh, Quinn, I know you are so smart. You’re one of the most talented students I’ve had in a long time. Your drawings are very detailed. You have such a great eye, which is always a sign of a brilliant mind.’ I know she’s trying to be nice, but for some reason there’s an eruption happening at my core. It’s that lava spitting feeling again, my anger, the anger I’ve tried so hard to ignore for so long is bubbling up. ‘You don’t have to compliment me. I’m not like a sad dog.’ She’s the first teacher who has ever told me that I’m smart. I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t deserve those nice words.”

When I read that…

So, one of the things I think about all the time as an educator is what would school look like if we could recognize, celebrate and grow the talents of every single student?

I think there are kids like Quinn who feel like they’ve never been considered smart. And I guess what you were just saying about your daughters and about curiosity and an integrated curriculum made me think like that’s the first step of a school that sees all kids as having brilliance and genius within them that needs cultivating. And I just so appreciated you giving us that picture of Quinn as a learner.

Jasmine:  Yeah, I mean, I was interested to show kind of the way both of these girls, even though Cora is uplifted by the system, she’s also kind of chained by it. Because when you get tagged as talented and gifted, you feel all this anxiety to like live up to being like this perfect student, which doesn’t leave you any room to explore and make mistakes, and you have this big fear of failure because your whole identity is wrapped around being one of these perfect kids who has been tagged this way.

Then for Quinn, it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if you’re not tagged that way, then you start to believe that about yourself and you start to perform in that way.

And so I think that it is just like, it’s such a complex and complicated problem.  And again, I’m not a working educator and so I, again, don’t, I’m not an expert in this at all, but I just want to see, like you said, see all of our kids and celebrate all of our kids because I don’t think that just because in third grade you can really quickly do have memorized the times table and do that means that you are should be tagged in one way, and the kid who’s a little bit, having more difficulty performing in that kind of assessment should be tagged in this other way and that that should affect the trajectory of your entire education.

I was like Cora and that I was able to memorize things really quickly, but that also, like I said, led to lots of anxiety because I felt like if everything wasn’t perfect that somehow my identity that was like the only thing I felt like that was good or worthy about me. It wasn’t creativity or taking this risk or having this curiosity, it was this ability to perform on these like, assessments.

And so I think that I just wanted to kind of show like how they both feel about each other in that way and how the system has kind of let both of them down. And that it, I mean, it’s serving Cora, but I don’t know how well it’s serving her. I think like I had to do a lot of soul searching. I mean like a dolphin when you get out of this gold star, like you are trained to crave this type of approval. And once that has been removed, they’re sort of like, “Well, what do I do?” Because you haven’t been taught to like follow your own, like I said, curiosity and interest. You’ve been taught to perform in this system.

Jeanie:  You got to give your own gold stars when you write those few pages or when you do that thing, right? I agree with that.

I think a lot of this book made me think about this essay I had to read by Matt Kolan and Kaylynn Sullivan Two-Trees, called Privilege as Practice (.pdf).

It’s the subtle ways that we preference some things over others in schools. It’s not like I don’t think we set out as educators to say, “Not all kids are smart.” But it’s these little subtle preferences that end up sending that message.

And so Two-Trees and Kolin use this idea of preferencing fast processors which is really common in school because we’re trying to do things efficiently. That gets in the way of other ways of learning and knowing.

And I thought of that on page one 14 when Cora and Quinn are having a conversation, I think it’s written from Cora’s perspective, and she says, “She’s quiet. I can’t see her face so I don’t know if she’s blinking. ‘Like, tell me exactly how he changed,’ I add. ‘I know what specifics are. It’s just you were quiet. I was thinking not everyone thinks as fast as you.’

It’s this moment where Cora has this a-ha because she realizes that, oh, it’s that we think differently. We need different things to do our best thinking. I don’t know, it was a good reminder of me to check, I’m a fast processor and a fast talker, and as an educator, I have to always check that about myself.

Jasmine:  No, I feel the same way, and when I briefly taught sixth grade science, I definitely preferenced, not intentionally, my fast processors, but because of my own insecurity of like standing up there and being like, “Oh my God, did they learn it? Do they know it?” And so I was so relieved every time my four or five kids who were really fast at regurgitating information, the hand shot up and they did it. And I definitely preferenced them because they made me feel better about my teaching and like a swaging my insecurities about it as opposed to trying to sit in that with my other kids and figure out in which ways I had let them down.

But that was obviously an uncomfortable emotion for me and so it’s much easier to just be like calling on the same kid who’s able to keep that piece of whatever it was I was doing because I felt validated by that. And so I think that it is complicated.

I completely agree with you that I don’t think most if any educators set out to want to make kids feel dumb or not loved. It’s just an unfortunate by-product I think of a system, like you said, that is so stressed to feel efficient for so many different reasons. It doesn’t have that time to breathe and sit in the messiness of like really figuring out are kids understanding this information or is it just this set of kids that’s able to fake that they understand this information? That was kind of me as a kid.

Like I don’t know how well I really understood the information. I just understood the bits that I needed to be able to like cough back up to do well on the assessment.

Jeanie:  Me too. I understood very well how to please teachers. That’s what I was really good at. Which meant when the teachers were gone, I was like, “Oh, now what do I do?”

I love when they’re looking for this wormhole and Cora thinks it’s in this old tree. And I my heart I love trees so much. And so I loved this old tree. I came to love it through this book.

There’s this point they have to cross a stream or a small river in order to get to the tree, and Quinn is very in her body and can do that with ease… but Cora can’t.

And so I love, on page one 27, when through Quinn’s voice we hear, “Cora can now cross by herself, and it makes me happy to think I taught her something.”

That reminds me in schools where every kid should feel like they have something to teach and something to learn. There’s something about reciprocity and being on both sides.

Jasmine:  Yeah. Yeah! I mean I just need to say yes and thank you for understanding the book and kind of the heart of that because that’s exactly right.

Everyone has something to give and share and I think sometimes we need to step back and figure out how to give them that space to shine and share those gifts without us. Because, again, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we make our kids feel like they don’t have gifts to share, they’re going to believe they don’t have gifts to share, and then they’re going to forget that they have gifts to share and bury that deep, deep within themselves.

I just want a variety of kids to feel loved and feel seen and know that they have a lot to give to this world, even if they aren’t the perfect speller on the weekly spelling test.

Jeanie:  Yeah. So, Cora and her friend Owen, her love interest Owen, are both sort of I don’t know if I would call them outliers, but they’re both non-white students at their school and they experience not overt racism, but these quiet little micro-aggressions all the time. Not just from fellow students, but from like, the teachers.

They’re doing a unit on the Middle East and they think Cora’s going to know everything about the Middle East even though she was born in the United States. Or they expect Owen because of his Japanese ethnicity, to know about China, say.

And I was thinking about my friend Mike Hill who taught me that micro-aggressions only feel micro to the person giving them. Not to the person on the receiving end who hears them all the time.

I’m often reflecting on middle grades literature as an educator as well as like how will kids read this story, but also like what can I learn from this? What do you think teachers should know about the micro-aggressions that Cora and Owen face?

Jasmine:  Yeah, I mean, again, I want to be careful about not giving any prescriptive advice to anyone, but my thinking is that always I don’t think that onus of talking about race shouldn’t be on children of color only.

We act like children of color are the only people in the classroom who have a race and that’s not true. The white kids in the classroom are white and they also have a race.

And so I think that it’s not inappropriate to engage with race and talk about race. What is inappropriate is to single out and other the children of color so they have to talk about race and they have to explain their race or know about their race and not putting that onus on anyone else none of the other white kids in the classroom. That leads to an othering and that leads to them feeling insecurity.

I mean, I think about how growing up, I was asked by so many teachers in elementary school like, “What are you?”

And what an odd question to ask a young person this is.  I think it’s disrespectful.

We used to ask people about their cultural backgrounds and say, but to do it in a way that feels empowering to the student and also doesn’t feel like they’re being singled out amongst their peers.

I think it’s this like presumptive assumption and also there’s a ratio of race for white kids and this hyper awareness of it for children of color.

And now you hear so many people saying, “Oh, race, is that appropriate to talk about with young kids. We shouldn’t do that.”

I’m just thinking children of color have been having to talk about race always.

That’s always been the atmosphere at school, at home, et cetera. It’s just now there’s a push to try to make that feel more equitable and make sure that we’re not making it like this unspoken weirdness that only children of color have to speak to.

So, I think that that’s it just treating, not to sound cheesy, but your kids in your class like with the same mode of expectation so that you aren’t you would never expect your kid who has vague Irish ancestry to explain the Irish potato famine to the whole class. And so you shouldn’t ask your child in your class with some Middle Eastern ancestry to explain the political landscape of the Middle East.

I understand teachers are busy and they’re overworked and it’s hard to know every single child, but I just think about how like it’s also about knowing your kid and knowing their relationship with their identity and what that’s like.

Again, not to just bring it back to my own kids all the time, but I was recently so impressed with my daughter’s preschool in that her teacher’s doing like a country folk tale unit and is doing all these different countries. And she wrote me an email that said, “Hey, look, I know your family has Jordanian ancestry and Lillian really has mentioned this and is proud of this. Like would you feel comfortable having Lillian share a folk tale from Jordan? How do you think Lillian would feel about that, blah, blah, blah?”

Like approaching me and trying to figure out like what Lillian’s relationship is with this so she doesn’t just put her on the spot and say, “Hey, Lillian, tell, educate all of us as about Jordan.”

But say, “Hey, we’re going to do this. I thought this could be a special thing for Lillian. Do you think she would feel comfortable with this?”

And I think that that is really nicely done because it’s like figuring out kind of what the dynamic is at home and so the kid and every kid’s going to feel differently.

The other thing that made this feel better is that it wasn’t just Jordan. She’s doing all these different countries and lots of kids all of different backgrounds that can do of German ancestry, that kids who have Japanese ancestry, she can do Indian ancestry, are sharing their folktales and sharing their country. And so it feels like a collective celebration where everyone is sharing these parts of themselves, as opposed to just putting that onus on kids of color in the classroom.

Again, it’s about making sure we understand that all of our kids have a race, even if that race is white. Making sure we’re talking about that and having open and honest conversations. So, I think the hardest thing about micro-aggressions is none of the characters in this book who do them, like, I don’t think Coach Pearlmann means to make them uncomfortable. He loves these kids and wants them to feel seen. It’s just he doesn’t know.

It’s just about increased awareness.

Jeanie:  Yeah. What I hear is we, as humans, we make assumptions. It’s how we get by in the world. We have to make assumptions sometimes, but when we don’t interrogate those assumptions, we can get ourselves in a little bit of discomfort or trouble.

And I work with a lot of educators who work with middle school kids around identity and giving kids an opportunity to explore identity in all of its different facets, all of the different identity markers. And I think that the gift of that is twofold. One is that kids really get to know themselves and each other better, but also teachers really get to know students better as they explore these different identities at a time when identity formation is really important to them. And so I really hear validation for that that strategy, and I often wonder if we leave too much to chance by waiting until we think kids are ready to talk about race or ready to talk about gender identity or sexual orientation when really they’re ready quite much sooner than we are as adults to have those conversations with them.

Jasmine:  Yeah. I love Alicia D. Williams who wrote Genesis Begins Again. I’ve heard her talking. She has wonderful things to say when she works on then a kindergarten classroom about how it strikes them when they’re picking the color of the crayon for how they’re coloring themselves in. And it, again, it’s not, I think you’re able to have kind of scaffolded conversations. Nobody is saying with a five-year-old and a six-year-old that we have to be having really heady, complicated academic conversations about race, but more just acknowledgement, again, to give these kids an emotional vocabulary.

What was so difficult for me about my childhood and my processing of my racial identity was it was talked about and also not talked about, and so I didn’t know how to express the questions I had. I just knew that it made me feel weird that I was asked these questions and my friends were not asked these questions, but I also didn’t know how to answer these questions, I didn’t know how to express that those questions made me weird. I didn’t, I wasn’t given any kind of roadmap for how to talk about it.

It’s just opening and holding space for them to have conversations at their level. It’s not about imbuing them with knowledge.

I think that’s so like so much for young people. Like that’s what I say like this book that I just presented is not about teaching middle schoolers about gun violence. They already know what that is. They live in this world. It’s about holding space for them to discuss those questions and feelings they may have about it and saying,

“I see you. I know you’re living through this. I know it’s a really hard thing that’s happening. Maybe through the form of story, you can find some of your own words to express how you feel about it, what you think about it.”

And so I think that that kind of play lots of really tricky things I think we as grownups make it more complicated than it has to be we think we have to go in and give our kids like knowledge and theories and philosophies. Really it’s just we need to listen to them and hold space to listen to them and let them know that it’s okay for them to want to talk about things like these.

Jeanie:  So, let’s talk a little bit about the lockdown drills at this school, because I found this to be really powerful.

And the school has suffered a shooting, right? And now they have lockdown drills on the regular and Cora and Quinn are re-traumatized every single time.

And it didn’t feel right to me at all. I guess I was like, “What should we be doing differently at schools? How might we approach this in a more trauma-informed approach?”

And I don’t expect you to have an answer, but I found the book to have these really good questions and really put us in the shoes of students during lockdowns.

I couldn’t help but think some of the teachers have to be traumatized by this too. They all experienced this together.

Jasmine:  Yeah. I mean, and again, think I don’t have answers. That’s the thing. I just have questions. I have frustration that as a country, I think that gun violence is such a multi-pronged issue that, yes, has to do with mental health, yes, has to do with guns, yes, has to do with toxic masculinity, yes, and sometimes has to do with white supremacy, yes, has to do with inadequate security at schools. Like all of these things can be true, and one of them doesn’t negate the other.

But I find it frustrating that, as a country, we aren’t willing to engage with the messiness and the multi-pronged issue, and instead have just like gone for the one that seems like, I guess, like the easiest route, which is just training our kids for like the inevitability of it.

And that makes me sad because I don’t think school shootings should be in the same classification as a tornado, like I remember doing tornado drills. But we couldn’t stop tornadoes and we can mitigate and stop acts of violence if we wanted to really take a hard look at all of the thorniness of this problem. And so again, I don’t have solutions at all, and I also recognize how complex and how difficult it is and how many vying different voices there are, but I think the problem is because it’s so multipronged, we fight about like, well, which of these things is it as opposed to wanting to engage with it and all of its complexity. But I think the people that are the most hurt by our inability to engage with how complicated it is are our kids.

Jeanie:  Yeah. Well, and that brings me to this other thing about your book which is that it’s very compassionate, not just to the victims of the shooting, but also to Quinn’s brother and his family. And I wondered he’s really viewed with this compassionate lens in the book, not by Cora but by others or by you as an author. And I wondered if this was intentional and if you expect to get any pushback on it?

Jasmine:  Yes, it was intentional and yes, I do. I think the first thing I want to say is I recognize that when white males, particularly young white males in this country, mete acts of violence, the compassion or at least curiosity that is shown by the media about why they did this act of violence is very different than when a young Muslim boy or a young boy of color commits an act of violence.

It is like written off as though the reason for that act of violence is because they are Muslim or the reason for that active violence is because they are brown or Black.

And I completely understand the frustration in which those two things are handled.

I have felt that frustration and that heartbreak and I get it, but at the end of the day, I believe in radical empathy and radical kindness. And these are still kids who are committing these acts of violence and to me, that’s still an indictment of our society of what are we doing wrong that our kids feel this way?

And so I think that it’s possible to have compassion and empathy for the perpetrator without excusing or forgiving the behavior. And again, I think that’s a complex idea, but I think our kids can understand it and handle it. I think that’s sometimes grownups who feel that makes them uncomfortable.

So, for me, there’s no forgiveness for what Parker did. There’s no excusing what Parker did.

There’s also an understanding that hundreds of other kids feel as isolated and oppressed by like a toxic environment as he did and don’t turn violent.

So, it’s not about making excuses for him, but it’s about asking:

  • Why do so many of our young people feel isolated in this way?
  • And does it have to do with the fact that so many of our young people, especially young boys, are raised to believe the most important thing they can be is strong? And we have a country that shows strength through violence?
  • When you start to feel scared and isolated as a young person, how do you show you’re hurt?
  • How have you been taught how to show strength?

That’s something that we should have like a conversation about.

And so, yes, it was intentional because I really, really believe in radical empathy.

I think not that it’s easy to have empathy for anyone, but I think that like empathy is a buzzword right now.

We often talk about it in terms of people who are less fortunate than us. Are less privileged than us. That’s an easier type of empathy to have. I think it’s much harder to dig deep and have empathy for someone you’re also really angry at and really disappointed in and has really done an unforgivable thing.

But I think that’s where we as a society find our humanity, if we’re able to do that.

It also gets back to if we’re able to do that, we’ll be more on the path to understanding why these things are happening because, like I said, they’re still kids. These are our kids hurting other kids.

And to me, that’s something that we need to talk, we should talk about, about why this is happening.

Jeanie:  So, you’re really connecting some dots for me, Jasmine. And some of those are, you know, Parker would have benefited from conversations about race. He becomes racialized in an environment where nobody is talking about race and the people who are talking about race are talking about it in a racist way. That’s his only exposure to talking about race as far as there’s not, it’s not, you don’t go explicitly in there, but if I think about the environment in which Cora and Quinn are going to school where they’re not really talking about it.

Then I think about the little clues we get about Parker, that’s the story. It’s my head. And then I’m thinking about what you said about tornadoes and I’m thinking fire drills. I’m thinking about growing up with fire drills and what would schools be like if we just had fire drills, but we didn’t also put in sprinklers and smoke detectors, right? Fire drills are not the only way we’re coping with the potential of a fire. We’re also doing all these other things at the systems level.

And it makes me think with school shootings, besides lockdown drills, what else are we doing as ways to mitigate these possible hateful events? I don’t know. These dots are like coming into focus for me in ways they didn’t… And I’m so grateful to you for helping me think differently.

Jasmine:  Yeah. Well, thank you for listening to me. And I think understanding for me I think the most important thing is the book is not meant, like I said, to give answers. It’s just these questions that I had that were keeping me up at night about:

  • Why have we all accepted this?
  • Why is this the world that our kids live in?
  • And how do our kids feel about this?
  • And also what do these communities look like after the news vans have left?

That’s the thing I get asked a lot about, like, “Why did you write about this for middle graders when primarily most of the shootings happen at high schools?” But this affects whole communities. These are communities that live with the violence, with this trauma for years and years and years.

And I’m just curious about kids who are growing up in this environment.

Also our kids are kind of traumatized even if it doesn’t happen in our community. Like they know about it, they know this could happen. And how do you talk to your young kids about that? I mean, that was the whole sort of inspiration for this book was me thinking about how many I talked to my oldest daughter about why her kindergarten has active shooter drills.

Like what do you say to a five-year-old about what that means about the world that they live in? And also the onus of responsibility that adults have just shoved up that we’ve put on to our kids, I think that is like the most frustrating thing to me is that we’ve basically like shoved this problem back onto them. And so that was also like in my head as I worked on the book.

Jeanie:  Well, and that shines through because the theme that, like the theme that most powerfully landed with me is the need to talk about hard things and to say them out loud and have conversations about them. And Quinn experiences that because her parents don’t want to talk about what her brother did and it’s like silence. She has no way to process what happened. And Cora on the other hand gets to see a therapist that helps her sort out her feelings. And I guess I was really inspired by how this book both makes space to talk about for us to talk about hard things like this with our students and sort of helps us think about why we need to.

Jasmine:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  How do you hope teachers will use this with their learners?

Jasmine:  What the dream would be a kind of that book club tape situation. I just feel like it’s such a great opportunity to let kids read it and share what they take from it which is honestly my favorite way for any book to be used which is that we read it all together and then we just talk about it.

Like I understand there’s curriculum objectives and all of those things that I don’t have to think about in my job, but I think that the stories are meant to be talked about and discussed. It was originally an oral art form.

So I always think that like half of the power of the story is how the reader is given space to react and respond to it. Like stories don’t exist without readers and the readers bring them to life and particularly when you’re writing for young people that’s true.

It just should be about bringing these conversations to light and letting her young people know that so many of us grownups also don’t think it’s okay.

I think there’s like this like kind of blanket of silence over this issue and I think that can lead to this feeling that we don’t care. Like I saw all these tweets that went viral after the insurrection from like middle school and high school students being like, “Oh, poor Congress they had to hide under their desks; like, we do that twice a month.”

And so I realized more and more like kids have really strong feelings about it.

I think they just aren’t given the space or the platform to talk about it until a tragedy happens. And I want our kids to be able to talk about, to be more proactive in this conversation and also feel like people are listening to them and also not give up on the idea of change. I think so many of us have become cynical and given up on the idea of change and I really don’t want our young people to.

Jeanie:  Yeah, that’s beautiful. I know this book isn’t launched yet, but are you working on anything new?

Jasmine:  Yeah, yeah, I am. So, this is a big departure for me, and I’m so excited about it because I’ve written four pretty like, heavier books that have been really emotionally difficult for me. And so in the middle of the pandemic when I was feeling really yucky, I started working on something that was kind of fun and joyful and very different from something I’ve done before.

In July I was watching the launch of Perseverance, the Mars Rover with my three-year-old and she turns to me and says, “Mommy, do you think the robot is scared?”

And right then this story just came to me where I was like that is a beautiful question. It also, what does it mean to explore, to have that curiosity to go beyond our world especially in a moment when our own world feels so claustrophobic and suffocated?

And so my next book it’ll be out in fall 2022, and it is called Resilience Mars Rover Story.

It’s about a Mars Rover and some of the other NASA vehicles that go on this journey to Mars to try to advance our understanding of Mars as a planet.

It’s really pretty closely bound in actual NASA science. It’s kind of a hog posh of Curiosity’s mission and Perseverance’s mission with obviously some fictionalized elements for the narrative, but I kind of think of it as like one and only I’ve been bought with robots instead of gorillas like that’s kind of like the jam of sort of the genre feel of it.

So, I’m hopeful that it’ll be a book that can stand lots of grade levels and that it could be a read-aloud for as young as like second grade, but eighth graders could read it and take a lot from kind of that STEM curiosity stuff. So, I’m excited about it.

And also I get asked a lot about if I’m ever returning to a verse after Other Words for Home. And it’s not a verse novel, but it’s written in really like sparse, lots of blank white space way because it’s narrated by a robot. And so I think that it’s kind of a return to that writing style and I’m excited about it.

Jeanie:  I can’t wait. I also wonder what you do to imagine the voice of a robot, but maybe that’s a question. Maybe you’ll come back and talk to us about this book.

Jasmine:  I’d love to.

Jeanie:  So much. I am so grateful that you took the time to talk about to us about this. Well, I think is going to be a super important, but it’s also just a sheerly wonderful book of its own, but I think it’s also going to cause folks to have some really important conversations. I’m so thankful that you came to talk to us about it.

Jasmine:  Well, thank you. I’m really thankful you hold space for me and asked me such thoughtful and insightful questions. And thank you for everything you do to raise awareness about books. We all really appreciate it.

 

 

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.

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