Lovely listeners: we’re baaaaaaack! And we missed each and every one of you.
To celebrate our return, in this episode we brought back guests from *Vermont* Reads, a statewide program that encourages everyone across Vermont to read one book each year, and then turn and, you know, talk to one another. We are HUGE fans.
And yes, the names are confusing. They’re Vermont Reads — reading across Vermont — and we’re Vermont *Ed* Reads, reading across Vermont, but make it education. (Please imagine my jazz hands as I say that).
Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup returns to the show this time with Lizzie Lyons, the Children’s Advocacy Coordinator at the Vermont Network, an organization focused on addressing domestic and sexual violence across the state. Together, we’ll be talking about We Contain Multitudes, by Sarah Henstra, a book about boys, poetry, queerness, and how the artist formerly known as Prince refuses to stop changing lives, wherever he appears. (Hint: stay tuned for dance party details.)
Now, as you might’ve guessed from Lizzie’s presence, We Contain Multitudes contains some mention of domestic violence, which we touch on briefly in this episode. It’s an important topic, and part of the work this year with Vermont Reads is providing educators and other adults with tools and resources for supporting students (and more specifically LGBTQIA students) who are dealing with this issue. There are minor spoilers for the book at the 39-minute mark, but we feel like we did a great job yelling SPOILER ALERT! at the top of our loving lungs. Jog ahead two minutes and you’re fine.
But don’t jog too far ahead, because we really did miss you, and we missed this, and we are so happy to be back having these important conversations.
So! Without further ado: I’m Jeanie Phillips and this is #vted Reads: talking about books by, for, and with Vermont educators.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today I’m with Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup and Lizzy Lyons and we’ll be talking about We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra. Thank you so much for joining me, Christopher and Lizzy. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Christopher: Hi, Jeanie and hi, Lizzy. It’s great to see you both. I’m really excited to be here to talk about We Contain Multitudes. I’m the director at Vermont Humanities. I’ve been around now for about 4 years. So, this is the fourth Vermont Reads book that I’ve worked on, and might be my favorite. One of the things that really speaks to me about it, that I feel like I should tell people about right up front, is that this is the first LGBTQ youth choice in Vermont Reads 19 year history. And maybe coincidentally, I am a queer-identified person. And so, this book speaks to me pretty specifically and reminds me a lot of some of the experiences that I had as a young person.
Lizzy: And my name is Lizzy Lyons. I’m really excited to be here. I was approached by Christopher at Vermont Humanities when they chose this book. As part of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence because of some of the themes in this book. And we have been invited to be a partner in some of the programming that’s happening for this book, and we’re really excited about that. The Vermont Network is working alongside 15 different statewide organizations in Vermont and we work around themes of domestic and sexual violence and working toward a violence free Vermont.
There’s a lot of different programs of support that are happening statewide that I am excited to talk about in relation to this book. Also to let all of your listeners know that there’s supports out there, whether that’s just for you or her family members and shelter and other sorts of programming available stuff exciting.
Christopher: Yes. Lizzy, you might know this, but I don’t think Jeanie does. I was one of the founders of Safe Space in the early 2000’s which is the member of the network that serves LGBTQ Vermonters who are experiencing same sex, domestic, and sexual violence.
Jeanie: Excellent. I’m so grateful to be talking with community partners that also work with our schools in a variety of ways. And you two both serve community partners that reach into Vermont communities in really meaningful ways. So, I’m delighted to have you here. One of the questions I always ask at the beginning is, what’s something you’re reading right now, if you could each share something that’s captivated you at the moment, that would be awesome. I like to expand my to-be-read pile!
Lizzy: Well, I’ll go first because I was really excited about telling you this Jeanie, but I found Octavia Butler this summer. And so, now I’m, like now I’m just like insatiable but I’ve bridged off and I am reading Adrienne Maree Brown, her starting from the beginning the network library that we have, has all of her books. So, I’m starting with Emergent Strategy and I’m about halfway through that. So, that’s exciting.
Jeanie: I am a huge Octavia Butler fan, which means I’m also a huge Adrienne Maree Brown fan. Thanks for sharing that. Have you read Kindred yet?
Jeanie: Add that to your list. What about you Christopher?
Christopher: Oh gosh. Well, I am in the middle of a huge pile of choices for Vermont Reads 2022, but I’m not sure I should say anything about them yet. There might be some spoilers in there if I do, but me and the team are each over the next three weeks reading, three different choices. So, we have 12 on our shortlist. That will then go to the community advisory committee. But in my personal life right now, I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings, which to me is always go to as the sky gets darker in the year and I just love rereading it and finding more and more about this ecological story, that is at the heart of that novel from the 1950s.
Jeanie: Well, I love a good reread especially in the fall, it’s a good season for rereading and that brings us to this book because I reread it. I read it twice. I liked it so much, which happens every now and again, that I read something twice, right really quickly. And so, I loved it and have no doubts. It’s the perfect Vermont Humanities Council 2021 Vermont Reads book but why did you all choose it?
Christopher: Well, you know, we start our process really early. And so, you know, we had a long list of 20 or 30 books that we were reading a year and a half ago, and it slowly got whittled down to about five different choices. And part of what we do is we really look for opportunities to work with the community. And this book really stood out to us as an opportunity to work with Outright and with the Vermont Network and the Howard Center and Recovery Vermont on issues that are really important in Vermont right now. We’d also never done an LGBTQ book before. We rarely if ever made LGBTQ Grants and we felt like this was a population that was really missing from our work and deserves some love and attention.
Jeanie: Excellent. Well, I’m so excited to talk later on about some of the things that are happening in the community. But let’s introduce our listeners who may have not read the book yet, because once you hear more, you’re going to want to read it. So, let’s set the stage a little bit, Ms. Kang is a high school English teacher in Minneapolis, and she introduces her students to this mailbox that she’s really excited about in front of her classroom. She has them pair up with a younger or older student. The 12th graders are paired up with a 10 grade students to become pen pals of sorts, and their assignment is to write to each other once a week. They have to fill in at least the front side of a piece of paper but she’s not going to read them.
She just checks to see that they’ve written and she puts them in the box. So, they’re very private which feels really rare, actually in school to write something that somebody is not going to read, a teacher is not going to read. And so, the pair in this book are Adam Kurlansky, who’s a senior and Jonathan Hopkirk, who’s a sophomore. I wondered if each of you would choose a character and read a portion of one of the letters, that they write to each other. It might be the whole letter. So, that we could get to know these two characters a little bit.
Lizzy: Yes. I chose a letter from Adam Kurlansky to Jonathan, and as you will find out pretty early in the book when you read it. Adam nicknames Jonathan, and Jonathan nicknames Adam. And so, Adam for most of this book is called Kurl, and Jonathan’s called Jo. So, Kurl writes to Jo.
These letters I’m writing are starting to feel like one long ongoing letter in my head. I should tell Joe about the time I saw the Red Eft, I’ll think, or, I forgot to tell Joe about these birds actually look magnificent in the sky. And then I’ll read one of your letters and think, People have no idea what I’m like. I mean the gap between what people see and what’s actually in my head,sort of shocks me when I read your letters. I guess everyone has this gap. It’s just that they don’t come face-to-face with it very often. It’s a shock to hear that people are still talking about stuff that happened last year.We Contain Multitudces, page 45
and he goes on to talk about some of those gossipy things that are happening in high school, which is pretty fun.
Jeanie: Lizzy, would you tell me the page number you just read from, I love that letter.
Lizzy: Absolutely, this is from Adam’s letter on Monday, October 5th and it shows up on page 45.
Christopher: I’m going to read a letter from Jo to Kurl, that’s the letter that he wrote on Saturday, October 24th and I’m going to read a passage, that begins on page 92, and it’s actually a really good follow up to Lizzy’s passage because Joe is talking about when Kurl came over to his house for dinner, and it’s one of the first times that they really met in person, they spent a long time just writing to each other but eventually they do meet in person, and Jo is describing, what happens as Kurl is cooking for Jo’s family. Starts on page 93.
And your face Kurl, as we discussed the food! You can’t possibly be unaware of how hard we were all working, the whole evening, to see this change come over your face. Not just Shayna and Bron and me- even Lyle makes more jokes when you’re around, trots out his most reliably crowd pleasing stories for you. We’re all bending over backwards to get you to crack a smile, because when you smile it feels like the sun is coming out. You will point out, of course, that everyone does this. Everyone wears a different face at school. And you’ll point out that the extent to which I have trouble switching faces explains much about how I get treated at school. You’ll be right on both counts. But somehow with you the changes more extreme, like two different people. I wonder, Kurl, when you look in the mirror, do you ever get to see the unguarded face? Because I wish you could. It’s a wonder to behold.We Contain Multitudes, page 93
Jeanie: What you captured just there, with those two letters is why this book is so good. These letters are so good. There is such reciprocity, and give and take, and knowing and learning, and unlearning in these letters and I am not a person who really likes an epistolary novel. I’m not really a person that gravitates to novels in letters. But I found these, like they swept me away. Why are they so compelling?
Christopher: I think, for me, one of the reasons why they feel compelling us is because these kids are being so honest. They’re being so truthful with each other in a way that I think rarely happens with any relationship. And just to see Jo and Adam really sharing is unique. I also think that you know there’s this expectation that Adam’s just a dumb jock, that’s set up right from the beginning of the book, right? He’s the star of the football team and it appears like he’s always getting into fights, and nobody believes in him but as soon as he starts writing to Jo. Joe believes in him because he can see the unguarded Kurl.
Lizzy: And it’s still not unguarded though, I mean I think these letters are interesting because there’s, there are secrets throughout this book and there are also secrets in between these two people, who are sharing so much back and forth in these letters. But there’s so much that is left for, like your own conclusions. So, like sometimes letters aren’t there and one of them will start imagining what the other one is thinking. And it also feels so authentic in that way of, like you know not knowing. We had lots of conversations about this with youth advocates who are working with young people around the state, who have experiences of violence.
And but also like from my own experiences of when you’re in high school or you’re a young person and you’re figuring out, like do I? Do I not? What do I do here? How about here? Like what am I thinking now? And it goes from these very big extremes of emotions, all the way through the book. When I was rereading this book, just remembering some of the special passages. About how happy or how bad or how upset they were at different points.
Jeanie: You make me think about two things, and one is, Christopher what you said made me think about, how this is the perfect book to update The Outsiders unit. So many schools still read SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. But this book feels like a modern, a more modern version of the outsiders. Kurl and Jo are both kind of outsiders in their way, in their Minneapolis school community, for different reasons. And there’s something like really vulnerable about this book.
And then, Lizzy, what you made me think about is, like they don’t make great decisions in this book all the time. Like they’re like your average young person, sort of winging it along, you know making decisions. Both of them at various times make really troubled decisions. And as a reader, I think it gives you real empathy for how hard it is to make those decisions when you’re 16, 17, 18.
Christopher: And I, you know I think an interesting thing at least in the first half of the book is how angry Adam gets at Jo for being so open about who he is in school, and not trying to hide. And that results in a lot of violence that happens against Jo in school, that Adam saves him from, on more than one occasion. Even though, there’s no reason why you should have to do that, right? Like they’re completely unconnected kids in the beginning of the book.
Jeanie: Christopher, did you happen to mark the passage about the “gable?”
Christopher: I didn’t, but I can find it.
Jeanie: I wonder if that would be the perfect passage to read aloud, that really gets at that sort of tension between Adam’s, like could you just hide a little bit to keep yourself safe. And Jo’s feeling of, like I have to be authentically who I am because the end game is bigger than high school, because my focus isn’t on high school. My focus is on being myself in the larger world.
Christopher: Yes. I remember the gable very well, right? From my own high school experience and probably we all do. So, what they’re talking about is where the gay kids get segregated in the high school cafeteria, that they have to sort of huddle and protect themselves, and you know in my case this was a long time ago. This was the 80s, there were no out gay kids but the gable still existed. Very much, so. And it was the kids who went to the music room and ate by themselves, right?
There’s a small group of kids, who just would not go to the cafeteria because it was an unsafe space, and Jo, I think is really standing up for himself in that passage when he says, I don’t want to sit at the gable. I think that’s discrimination, that is saying that we should be segregated, but that there should be apartheid, and that’s not who I want to be in my life. So, I don’t I don’t want to sit there.
Jeanie: Thank you for giving that so much context in your own experience. Could you turn to page 28, and maybe read the last two paragraphs?
Christopher: Sure. This is a letter from Jonathan and he’s just been bullied in the cafeteria. He’s had a number of bullies dump their milk out all over him, and all over his tray, and Kurl has just rescued him, essentially. So, Jo says,
You picked up my milk-flooded tray and stood looking at me. For about one millisecond there was the tiniest flicker of something troubled across your face– I don’t know, I’ve thought it over quite a bit and I can’t puzzle out what it might have been. Maybe you were considering whether to ram the trade down my throat. You said, why aren’t you sitting at the gay table?” And then, you turned and stalked off. My answer? I’m squarely with Bron on this one, Kurl. The Gable is Discrimination 101. Designating a specific area of a supposedly common space for a minority group, even unofficially, implies that the rest of the space is off limits for that group. But in the interest of being forthright, I do know what you meant. You meant, “Why are you putting yourself in the path of these monsters, and if you found yourself in that path accidentally, why are you staying here?” Answer? Choose one of the following. A. Stupidity. B. Stubbornness. C. Fatalism. D. Masochism. E. All of the Above. Yours truly, Jonathan Hopkirk.We Contain Multitudes, page 28
Jeanie: Thank you for that. And that really leads into the next question I was going to ask, which may or may not actually be a question. One of the reasons I read YA and middle grades books is to understand young people better, right? To step into their shoes for a while. And that example, what you just read is one of those things, like we as adults in the lives of young people may not understand, what they’re facing in their day to day lives. Like I suspect most teachers in this school are completely unaware, that Jo is getting bullied on the regular or they might have that same sense that Kurl has about him like that he’s doing it to himself, that he’s setting himself up.
And this allows us to really step into the shoes of Jo, and of Jonathan and see what’s really happening for him, and what’s really happening in his brain. And another example that really shines from this book is that, these kids have so many interests that are really like strong interests, that nobody in the school knows about or connects with the learning they have. And so for example, Kurl is really interested in the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan because his brother served and was injured in Afghanistan. And while occasionally, he gets to use that in some aspect of his studies.
I suspect, he’d be a much better student, if that got worked into his history classes, his social studies classes, his science classes. And similarly, Jonathan is really interested in poetry and music. And again, that’s something he does in his outside time and writing poetry and studying poetry. And he talks about poetry in ways that made me wish schools taught it better. On page 19 he says,
Poetry’s like that, Kurl: slippery and coy. It means different things to different readers. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed if it makes you nervous. You’re not alone in that reaction.We Contain Multitueds, pages 19-20
And I thought, what if a teacher taught poetry that way. I think I would have loved it so much more than I did. And so, I guess my question for you is did this book help you see kids in ways that you might not otherwise have seen them?
Lizzy: Yeah. I mean, I think this conversation came up in two different ways. I mean, I think it is interesting that, what you’re talking of Jeanie, like there are, there are songs that happen in different settings in this book, whether that’s like concerts or whether it’s the character singing in their living room or, you know strumming inside of a tent. And there’s poetry that’s turned in for class assignments. And there’s also poetry that these two boys write to each other and say to each other. And so, I think it is interesting, how we show up in different species. I think, what is interesting throughout this book, is the fact, that this is entirely a world of young people, like there are very few adults that show up in any real big way.
And Jo’s dad is one of them and part of that family dynamic, and then Kurl’s family has some drama that is happening alongside as well, but adults that are interacting and showing up for these kids in this book, they’re not there. And so, we had some conversations about that at the Network. There’s really great curricula around being an Askable Adult and what does it mean to put yourself out there as somebody who has young people, who you can show up for. There’s also a coach in this book and there’s some really great material out there called Coaching Boys into Men and about how coaches play a really influential role in young men, and can use that as part of the work to create less violence. So, I put those two out there for you all listeners to consider looking into two.
Christopher: Yes. I think, Kurl’s coach is a really interesting example of somebody who is really trying to show up for Adam, and Adam doesn’t let him in and that’s pretty devastating, actually. You know, I think, one of the things you pointed out Lizzy is really interesting, as we were having conversations with Sarah Henstra, who wrote the book, she said that part of her inspiration for writing the book was about listening to young people, particularly her own kids, talking when they didn’t think adults were listening, and what they, what kinds of things that they were saying to each other in the absence of a grown-up world, and I think that really does come through in this book that the grownups are functionally not there. Those kids are making all of those choices, largely on their own.
Jeanie: Yes. The grownups are pretty faulty, even those with the best of intentions are pretty faulty in this book. I know Dr. Laura Jiminez, who you had on for a Vermont Humanities event, talked a little bit about that. I’m a huge fan of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It is one of my favorite books from a long time ago. I read it to my son when he was younger and we both loved it, and one of the problems with that book is the adults are so good in it, the parents are so almost perfect and this book, and I think that’s not really realistic for a lot of kids. And so, I appreciate you pointing that out. I’m also really curious about becoming an askable adult.
So, the other thing that this brings up is Sarah, when you mentioned Sarah Henstra, this isn’t an own voices story. I mean, this is a book written from the perspective of two adolescent boys. They are queer and Sarah Henstra is neither of those things. So, it’s not a story that we would call own voices, and I guess I’m wondering about what might we watch for in a book like this, that’s written by somebody who’s outside of that marginalized identity. How do we make sure it’s a book worth reading?
Christopher: Yes. I think, Lizzy, you might also have some things to say about this but I’ll start as a queer person reading this book, who had a queer youth experience. So, much of it rings true to me. That I am very deeply trusting of Sarah’s work to understand who these boys are, and how they are making the choices that they’re making. She talked to us a lot before we chose the book about the research that she did, particularly around the issues of domestic violence and sexual violence in the book and consent. Which are all problematic pieces of the work of the story, and that it was very interesting to hear her talk about that.
And it was also very interesting again to hear her talk about her own experience as a mom of teenage boys, and what it was like to hear them talking to their friends when they didn’t know she was around or when they didn’t think she was listening, you know when you’re a parent driving kids around in a car you’re essentially a robot, right? They don’t listen to you. We also brought this question of own voices to outright specifically and a bunch of folks that outright read the book and they said, this book feels truthful. Sure, it’s great when they’re our own voices selections and we have some to talk about, that are on the list of ancillary reading. But this book is something special.
Jeanie: I really appreciate that if you’re not writing an own voices book, you have to do due diligence, right? You have to be diligent about how you’re representing the community of which you’re not a part. And I feel that Sarah clearly did that in the way that the characters show up. And then, also as a reader, there’s some kind of diligence that’s required of us to make sure that, the author isn’t using tropes or stereotypes or, right? And so, and to notice that. And so, I sometimes I have avoided books like American Dirt in the past. I still haven’t read that because it has been labeled as problematic by the people whom this author is attempting to write about, and who she doesn’t share an identity with.
So, I appreciate that answer, Christopher, thank you so much. So, that gets to another question, when I was in library school, one of the things we would often hear and this was a while back. I hope things are changing is that, boys are not going to read books with girls as main characters, is one of the things they used to trot out in the early odds if you will. And so, I hope we’ve gotten past that. I hope that we’re beginning to have kids read books about identities that they don’t share, and certainly, girls were always reading books with boys as main characters, right? And so, similarly, this book for some of our students is going to be a mirror, right?
For queer students who are reading this book, this book is going to be some sort of reflection of a world they might be a part of, for kids who are not, who don’t identify as queer, this book is going to be a window into a different kind of reality. And then for some kids, what we hope is that, it becomes a sliding glass door, where they have empathy and really step into the shoes of the character. What do you say? If somebody says, oh, well if this book features LGBTQ characters. It’s not for every kid.
Lizzy: I mean, I have some strong feelings here. So, I’ll start. I agree 100% with what you just said Jeanie, like the windows the sliding glass doors and the mirrors are incredibly important for all readers. And I did once hear that they did a study about having more empathy if you are a greater reader and I think a lot of that has to do with the many opportunities that we have to step into other people’s shoes. But I also think that these characters were more than just one dimensional, it wasn’t just an LGBTQ book, it wasn’t just a young person book either and it dealt with real complex life issues and it took you along for an emotional roller coaster. Like I said earlier, I was just looking at some of the quotes I had written down, like earlier like they write to each other like we laughed anyhow, both of us helpless with it. “The swift secret, the joy and then like going all the way to like my whole body was trembling for a moment or for a minute or two, I couldn’t get a deep enough breath. Are you panicking, you asked. And I tried to say, no it wasn’t panic but I don’t know what happened, suddenly I was falling like it just takes you up and down” I feel like that those types of emotional roller coasters can speak to so many people, even if the specific family situations that were happening in this book are not ones that you have experience with.
It takes you along for the complexity and the thinking that goes through when you have family secrets and what do you do, who do you share that with, the kind of wrestling you go through as you have this experience in your life and you’re not sure who to trust. I think all of that was real. Just really grabbing for a reader and I read this book in just a couple of days. I couldn’t put it down. So, I definitely enjoyed it.
Christopher: Lizzy, this might be a good time actually to bring in Walt Whitman, a little bit when we’re talking about windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors, right. So, Jo is the poet and he is obsessed with Walt Whitman right from the very first pages.
Jeanie: He even dresses like Walt Whitman.
Christopher: And he dresses like Walt Whitman which is part of what gets him in so much trouble in school because he always looks like I think Kurl calls him a 19th century chimney sweep at one point. And you can imagine how that goes over in any particular school. But he’s obsessed with Walt Whitman and Walt Whitman is really known as the greatest American poet, right. That he is the poet through whom the American experience is filtered for all time. And three leaves of grass that he continued to write and revise for decades throughout his life. You know he was alive during the 19th century. He experienced the American Civil War.
He lived in New York at the time of great growth. And I think we often look to Walt Whitman as sort of the ultimate window, mirror and sliding glass door in literature that you can really find anything you want in leaves of grass and inside of myself. And that experience that he had of writing and revising that work over and over again over decades really became the story of America. Could I read another little passage?
Jeanie: Please do.
Christopher: So this is from Wednesday, November 25th and it’s on page 132 and Kurl has been asked to write an essay for his English teacher. And he chose to write about Walt Whitman and he didn’t really know anything about Walt Whitman before he met Jo and started writing letters back and forth to Jo. But what resonated with Kurl about Walt Whitman’s story was that he worked in an army field hospital during the civil war. And that really resonated with Kurl’s interests around the war in Afghanistan and what happened to his brother who was injured in the war. So, I’ll try not to, well, we’ll see how far we go.
Wednesday, November 25th. Dear Little Jo, I wrote about grass actually. Probably the most straightforward part in Walt’s whole Leaves of Grass book is where he talks about the actual grass. Except the more I read it the less straightforward it seemed to me. I mean he starts it off simply enough, describing how a child grabs a handful of grass and asks him, What is the grass? And Walt gives a bunch of possible answers. Just sort of trying them out. And at one point he goes, I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. What he means is it’s the symbol of his personality. I didn’t put this in my essay but if grass is the flag of anyone’s disposition it would be yours, Jo. Not a tidy mowed lawn either. I think Walt is picturing that kind of long grass on the riverbanks. When the wind comes along it churns and sways sothat it looks like another river running alongside the real one. What I wrote in the essay was about grass growing from the mouths of corpses. The beautiful uncut hair of graves, Walt calls it. This is the part of the poem that got me thinking about Mark in Afghanistan. When you take the train up to the mall, you pass the VA hospital and on the other side is the military cemetery. Watch the cemetery when the train goes past and you notice two things: One, it goes on forever. All those matching white crosses. All those dead. I mean Mark must ride that train and think, How did I ever not die over there? Why all of them and not me?We Contain Multitudes, pages 132-133
We’ll stop there. But it goes on. And it really is such an opportunity through Walt Whitman to walk through that door to see yourself reflected in the story of America.
Jeanie: I love that passage and I love that explanation so much. Every time they talked about Walt Whitman in the book, I think we should be reading this book as we’re teaching poetry because the poetry really comes alive in the letters between these two young men. I also want to cite black women. I want to cite Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop who came up with this concept of books that could be mirrors, windows, and sliding doors. And we use that a lot, that metaphor a lot. I used that metaphor a lot and I want to make sure that I give credit.
And then I want to share a story from my own experience as a school librarian and a handful of years ago, when I was at Green Mountain Union High School, down in Chester Vermont as a school librarian. The book is called Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this book by Kirstin Cronn-Mills; it was on the Green Mountain Book Award list and I had a student check it out and I thought I don’t know how she’s going to respond to this book. She, at least for my perception came across as a little bit conservative maybe.
And the book was about a young person who’s trans, Gabe. And I just wasn’t sure how this student who I’m not going to name would respond. And a couple days later she came back and her whole world had been blown open. She had such empathy for Gabe and his experience in the world. And she really started to get involved with the gay straight alliance at our school which we called Circle. And I think it really like was this transformational book for her. And so I would just offer that we don’t know who books are going to be a window and mirror for.
Not all kids are out in high school. They’re also maybe not out in their own families like they might have queer parents who are aunts and uncles or friends, and they need to see those people in these books too. And that we have no idea who’s heart is going to change, somebody who may have been homophobic or not understood what it meant to be a little bit different for whom this book could open new doors. And so I would just add that this story is about much more than the sexual orientation of these two boys, but it also is an opportunity for kids to sort of see people like or unlike themselves in ways that can transform their futures in their worlds and that feels really important.
Christopher: Yes. Just briefly, I would say, you know the mirror of Kurl’s story with his family and his uncle is hugely important in this book and we haven’t really talked about it much. It’s kind of a big spoiler. You don’t really know what happens until about two thirds of the way through.
Lizzy: Can we just say a big spoiler alert here, folks, if you want to jump ahead a minute to avoid the spoiler because you haven’t read the book. Go ahead and do that.
Christopher: Lizzy, can you talk about it? What’s happening?
Lizzy: Yes. I mean I agree if there’s a build up there and there’s little breadcrumbs that are dropped along the books path but both I would say, this is again like, this part where both these boys are talking about their sexuality and that is a big theme through this book. But meanwhile, their families are continuing to experience like their own dramas and so that definitely comes up. So, there is a reveal that happens to Kurl to Jonathan and then Kurl to Jonathan’s sister and Jonathan sister’s friend. And it happens in such a way where basically, it just is put out for everyone to see and Kurl goes into a little bit of a crisis about it, he’s like do they see, do they actually see what is in front of them.
And they do. And what he is letting them in on is that his uncle has been hurting him and in a lot of ways. He has been taking that abuse away from his mother and later on in the book, there is another very common experience. Kurl is thrown out of his family home for his sexual orientation and is homeless. He is fortunate enough to have a lot of really good friends around him and his brother becomes a great support to him, both in escaping the abuse that he was facing at home as well as giving him a safe place to be out and to be open about his sexuality.
So, both of those are really good resolution to a very difficult situation and also one of those places, where we spoke earlier about how adults aren’t really a big part of this book. There is a conversation that Kurl has about how he didn’t tell his coach about what was going on even though his coach tried many different ways at many different points to support Kurl. He did tell his friends and his peers and we were able to do a conversation for Vermont Humanities with Outright Vermont. And I would say that the experience of youth advocates as well as I would say.
What we heard from Outright Vermont was that peers talk to peers and so a lot of that support can come from spaces like GSA’s, which I heard you say gay straight alliances, which I’m familiar with as well, but are now often called gender and sexuality alliances in school and Outright is doing awesome work across the state supporting them in school. So, that young people have safe spaces with peers to access. And youth advocates are doing great work in similar fashions because young people aren’t always so easy to tell what is happening at home and behind closed doors. And so that is a big part of this book.
And there’s another, we haven’t even spoken of another big reveal. Family life is complicated, and I think this book captures that well.
Christopher: Yes. I think it’s really interesting how through much of the beginning part of the book, you’re really led to believe that Jo is the person who’s experiencing all of this physical violence and he is, right. He’s getting beaten up at school, his bike gets stolen and all kinds of things but it’s really the big jock who is struggling the most with violence and he just doesn’t show. He just doesn’t tell anybody. He actively hides it.
Jeanie: I really appreciate you bringing up the way this book kind of subverts stereotypes and tropes. I really appreciate how you bring up that how these two characters subvert sort of tropes and stereotypes. I guess I’m really wondering and maybe Lizzy can answer. I guess that one of the questions I have for you is how my teachers prepare themselves to support young people who maybe have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault in their homes or in their communities as they’re reading this book. Are there resources or folks you might connect them with?
Lizzy: Yes. That’s a great question. This is, you know, I could imagine that some people who are thinking about using this book to start a conversation might feel a little thrown in the deep water with some of these themes but Vermont Humanities has requested and Vermont Network has provided a bunch of resources to go along to support conversations about some of these things in the book. Already up on the website is a book guide that was created by Vermont Humanities that does cover some of these themes that come up through the book around violence and provide some resources there.
And then I think just knowing that those conversations can be big and making sure that you know who your local resources are in your community. And there always is the opportunity through Vermont Humanities to have these conversations supported by those local resources. Vermont Network is a partner in this book and many of our youth advocates across the state have had the opportunity to read these books and are excited to support some of those more difficult conversations.
Christopher: Yes. We’re sending, this is a little bit new for us in Vermont Reads to have this kind of direct partnership with other organizations. Typically, we just sort of let communities kind of do what they want . We started to feel like a different model is necessary when we were working on The Hate U Give last year and we further refine that this year with We Contain Multitudes and so when we shipped books now, they’re not just getting a box of books, they’re getting a full box of resources about domestic and sexual violence about LGBTQ youth and gender identity issues, about recovery and addiction.
Especially recovery and addiction and how it affects families and how it affects young people. So, all of that is there. And any community that wants to invite somebody from the Vermont Network or Outright or Recovery Vermont to come to their community can do so. And we’ll support that, we’ll pay for that right.
Jeanie: Christopher, how does one get signed up if they don’t have it already. How does one get signed up to receive this box of books and resources? That sounds so fabulous.
Christopher: You would go to vermonthumanities.org and click on Vermont Reads 2021 – We Contain Multitudes – and there’s a short application form on there that you fill out and send back into us. We’ll ask you a few questions. We’ll call you back and ask you more if we have more questions and encourage you to think about what kind of projects you want to do in the community. A lot of folks are already promoting work with their GSA, with their gender and sexuality alliance. A number of them started asking Outright if they would come to their community even before we announced that that was a possibility.
So, there’s plenty of options out there. We should also say that Vermont Reads, it’s not just for kids, it’s not just for schools, it’s for adult communities as well. And we hope that public libraries around the state and adult community centers and senior centers will take advantage of this opportunity as well.
Jeanie: As an adult who reads YA, I will highly recommend. I think a lot of adults really enjoy young adult literature and they can really help them understand the kids in their community. And so I highly recommend. This is a book for adults through the public library or some other forum to talk about issues that impact young people and families. I also really appreciate that you all have updated my language about GSA and gender sexuality alliance since I appreciate that. Is there any programming you have planned that may involve music or other things that you’d like to share?
Christopher: Since you’re leading us. And yes, we’re excited to have Sarah coming to Vermont next spring. She’s coming for four days. Sarah Henstra is the author of the book and she’ll be doing events with the partners around the state. She’ll be doing some work as part of our first Wednesday’s program presenting to more adult audiences. But we hope to close it out with the party and one of the other wonderful poets that’s very present in this book, which takes place in Minneapolis, his Prince. And so our hope is that we’ll close out our year with We Contain Multitudes with a Prince inspired dance party somewhere.
And if there’s anybody out there listening that wants to work on such a party with us, please give us a shout and tell us there’s an awesome Prince tribute band right here in Vermont that have said they really would love to work with us. So, if you want to plan a party, talk with us about that. We’d be happy to get you set up on that committee.
Jeanie: I’m getting my purple ready.
Christopher: Awesome. Lots of purple. And of course, it fits right into the themes of the book as well. You know, Walt Whitman and Prince are two of the great American poets and also two of the folks who really slid through lots of different identities and their lives and their experiences and so, they’re both meaningful. Walt Whitman is a little bit more foregrounded but Prince is very present in this book as well. It happens to take place the year that he passes away.
Lizzy: I have a quote that I just wanted to slip in here too. Kurl writes about Jo while they’re at a Prince concert and Kurl writes on page 97, “Now that I’m thinking about it, Prince sort of reminds me of you, Jo. I don’t know. Obviously it’s not the stilettos and spandex or his little wild wired glasses but there’s something, how he created himself maybe. How he invented a world to live inside.”
Christopher: I had that passage marked too.
Jeanie: I love that, Lizzy. Thank you for sharing that.
Christopher : Yes.
Jeanie: It reminds me why I love both of these characters so much. Their appreciative lens on each other, how they see each other and how they find a world to live in to inhabit. So for readers who may have read this book and loved it or who are going to now read it and love it because you’re going to love it, people. I kind of guarantee it. Are there other books that you all recommend that are about dealing with trauma or domestic violence or sexual violence, family addiction, issues around consent? Do you have titles you would suggest?
Lizzy: I do. I actually put this list, I put this question out to our youth advocates to see if I would get any good responses. And I got one from Carey who is one of our youth advocates over at Circle in Washington County. And she recommended Grown by Tiffany D Jackson. They’ve done it as part of one of their book clubs there and she let me know that it’s about a teen girl, who’s dating a much older famous musician and covers all sorts of topics that would be interesting. And she said she feels like it’s kind of inspired by the R. Kelly situation.
So, there’s that. I also wanted to put out a recommendation myself. It’s a little different because it’s more of a dystopian fantasy type situation, which I really enjoyed. And it’s called The Fever King by Victoria Lee and she has a follow up book The Electric Heir. And I thought this was a really compelling book, the main characters do fall in love and they’re both boys. So it does have themes similar to We Contain Multitudes but there’s witchcraft and powers involved. There’s also a refugee crisis going on. So, it’s very political, it’s very dark.
And it has some other troubling themes similar to We Contain Multitudes. So, I definitely put that out there as a fun but troubling book to read.
Christopher: Yes. I’m going to continue the dystopian theme actually with my recommendations. And the first one I want to throw out there is a book. Spoiler alert, it’s called They Both Die at the End and it’s by Adam Silvera, and he is a Latinx queer writer. And it’s a dystopian novel about a near future world in which you are told at midnight the night before you’re going to die. And it’s about two boys who don’t know each other before they get the call but find each other through an app called Your Last Best Friend and what happens to them over the next 24 hours. It is crazy compelling.
It’s definitely super sad and in fact they both die at the end. And then the other one that I had is one that I found recently, actually when I was in Minneapolis. I’m starting this book called Jay’s Gay Agenda and it’s by a non-binary writer named Jason June. And it’s about a young boy who moves from a very rural community, like many other communities here in Vermont, where he was the only gay boy from a bigger city where he suddenly finds himself kind of in Candy Land. And what happens to him there. So those are my two recommendations for folks that are interested in these themes.
Adam Silvera, of course, has a lot of books out there in the world. And they’re all pretty dystopian but they’re all pretty good.
Jeanie: Excellent. I feel like I can. I’m really excited about the list you just gave me because I haven’t read any of them and I’m just going to add them all to my list. When I interviewed a bunch of kids a couple years ago at – what’s that amazing event called for young people, it’s Teen Lit Mob. Anyway, I interviewed a bunch of kids and from around Vermont and one of the things they said over and over again is they want books with better with more representation, even if they aren’t about social issues.
They just want a wide variety of characters represented. And one of the books they loved was The Sword in the Stars which is by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy. And it is a futuristic science fiction and legend story where the King Arthur in the story is female. And there’s lots of representation racially but also by folks that are non-gender non binary or trans and or queer and I loved it. Kids loved it. So, that’s one of them that I’m going to suggest and the other one is, I feel like Andrew Smith’s Winger and the sequel Stand Off do such an amazing job of talking about consent amongst other things.
And I feel like consent to something we need more books about. And so those are my suggestions, listeners. Any last words from you all about We Contain Multitudes or any last passages you’d like to share?
Lizzy: I really enjoyed this book and I think everybody should read it. That’s my share.
Christopher: Can I close with one last little passage?
Jeanie: Please. Tell us what page it’s on.
Christopher: Obviously, I think everybody should read this book because we bought 4000 copies and you all need to read them. But this is a letter from Kurl to Jo on page 98 and it’s shortly after they have gone to Paisley Park to see Prince perform. He says,
Watching him it suddenly hit me how rare and amazing it was to be able to see something being made out of nothing. Up close like that. It reminded me how it felt watching you sing when you didn’t know I was in the room. Halfway between dirty and holy. I don’t know. But I suddenly found myself smiling like an idiot and looking all around the room and thinking, Anything, anything is possible in this life. This moment is everything. Right now. I mean you must have felt it too, because when I looked over at you there were tears on your face.We Contain Multitudes, page 98
Jeanie: That’s the perfect way to end. Thank you both so much for joining me to talk about this book.
Christopher: Thank you, Jeanie.