Ah cicadas! The harbinger of hot summers for me. I admit my family (well me mostly) have competitions for telltale signs of the seasons: the first robin, the first cicada, the first V of geese, the first snowflake…you get it. This week has delivered both the weather and the sights and sounds that invite you outdoors. As a teacher, the summer provides an escape from the demands on your time and the confines of your school as you rush headlong into a readathon to galvanize the escape. The season’s warmth and lack of routine ushers in the physical and psychological freedom, ie space, to explore reading and writing so I picked up a new read, As Brave as You, owing to the author.
What might I expect from a middle grade novel by Jason Reynolds? Does an author switch gears and voice to appeal to a younger audience? As co-author of All American Boys, he equipped we northerners with a glimpse into the thorny persistence of racism in the States as manifested in the ever present news coverage of racialized police practice and the black lives matter movement (more prevalent in the US but not to suggest its absence here in Canada). To be sure, the weighty issues of mental health, divorce, gun violence, suicide, alcohol abuse are all still evident in this novel, but somehow Reynolds handles these with such delicate care and sensitivity that you see them as understood from a preteen’s life view. The potential gravity is lifted by the spirited writing and dialogue tickling your tongue, begging to be read aloud; the tea-drinkin’, pea-pickin’, poop-scoopin’ daily chores of a couple of brothers from Brooklyn visiting their grandparents in Virginia for the summer. The vernacular is entertaining, matching the nunya bidness attitude of the characters. As a reader, you come to terms with the family’s history alongside the lead character, Genie. The teacher in me could swoon about Genie’s obsession to document and number his inquiry questions. In fact, the story launches out of one such question that plays with words and gives bathroom humour its due respect (eg. poopidity). In this way we truly gain insight into the character by seeing, not only hearing, what he’s thinking; that black and white demonstration of making thinking visible. Across the book you’ll find a grocery list of inquiries that dog the character as events provoke analysis. They range from scientific to philosophical:
- “Is the sun hotter in the south?”
- “Is there an age limit for divorce?”
- “Is who we are only based on what we do?”
- “Would I fight for Ernie?” (his brother)
Genie returns to his questions often as urgent responses are required in order to see which ones are Google-able.
And the characters! Grandpop who’s blind but sees more than others, except himself. Grandma with her suitcase full of sorrows and her arms full of love. Ernie, Genie’s brother, with his cool-cat-with-shades swagger betraying his still unsure confidence as the oldest. And a town full of quirky folks whose connections are intricately tied to the family history. We, like Genie, witness the tenacity of history repeating itself across generations as the story unfolds to expose patterns of behaviour, passions, responsibilities that come with birth order, physical resemblances, and names.
But it is the relationship that forms between Genie and his grandpop that stays with me, that forced me to work out its complexity in writing. I’m probably not done thinking about this.
Are there themes and concepts to explore with students to gird them with new insights into the human experience? Yes, like empathy, forgiveness (EVERY character bears witness to this), letting go to move forward, coming of age, looking out for family, etc. Maybe it’s me as an adult reader who brings all my background knowledge into re-writing the story. I fell for the symbolism of the caged birds. You see, Grandpop’s blindness instigates his self-imposed house imprisonment. His refuge is an off limits space devoted to a Narnia-esque ‘outdoor indoor’ room brimming with trees, plants and 5 caged birds (named after the Jackson Five!) Grandpop has chosen a replica of a childhood scene tucked inside his home, trapping himself and the birds where it is safe. This closed off space mirrors not only his visual impairment but his impaired relationships, such as the invisible barrier between he and his son, the boys’ father. As Genie and Grandpop bond and learn to trust each other, Genie unlatches the psychological and physical door that empowers grandpop to bravely venture outdoors. At night. With Genie as his guide. What’s perhaps most compelling to me was that the introduction into the open physical space enables, indeed precedes, the psychological space that grandpop experiences. He literally has to get comfortable walking outdoors before his emotions can be revealed and relationships repaired.
And that made me wonder about ourselves.
I began asking questions in writing, like Genie: do you stay trapped, closed off because it’s safe? are open spaces a catalyst for open minds? to what degree does our physical space determine our psychological space? This idea of course resonates with the flexible seating and outdoor learning ambassadors in education. How much more vulnerable might we be in settings that were open and inclusive? How do we arrange our physical spaces to mirror our own comfort zones? How do public spaces nurture or negate relationships?
Luckily, I have lots of space and time coming up to explore some of these ideas.