This week Dawn Williams speaks with Laura Winnick, Blue School Librarian and Middle School faculty member. Laura shares some of the books she couldn't put down, and even re-read during this time at home. She also offers recommendations for adults and middle schoolers to add to their summer reading list. Have a pencil nearby for all of Laura's recommendations!
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DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge. And now, we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you're finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you.
Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous and compassionate.
I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment and proud parent of a Blue School Graduate. Every week I’ll be talking to an educator, Blue School Advisory Board member, or special guest about today’s ever-changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing.
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Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Laura Winnick, Blue School’s Librarian, and a member of our middle school faculty.
Laura, your library is one of my favorite places, full of nooks, and so bright and full of students and chatter. You've built this space that is such a community center, and then you've supported this culture of reading and book-loving in that space. I know during the spring, you've had to pull that culture into our virtual school world, our Zoom school world. But now, just as of today, here we are in summer -- the beginning of summer vacation -- which feels like a whole other thing. I'm so excited to talk with you about summer reading and your thoughts about the world of summer reading for students -- and I guess for parents and other people, too. So what does summer reading mean to you personally?
LAURA WINNICK: Yes, thank you for those kind words, and certainly that space is really built off of our students' devotion to reading and to the printed word. So it's just a true honor to be able to create spaces that foster that devotion for students. And yes, I know that all of our students have begun to do -- even on the first day of summer -- are already launching into their summer reading.
And it's funny, I was thinking about this question: What does summer reading mean to me? The funny part is that, especially in the beginning of this quarantine, suddenly there were so many more hours to read, so summer reading in some ways started a little bit early.
I feel like for me, the thing that defines summer reading is really uninterrupted reading time in the middle of the day. So usually I'm reading at night or in the morning, and being able to read voraciously for hours and curl up on the beach or near some water or outside really characterizes this sense of the ability to really immerse yourself into a fictional world.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Totally. I guess I have two questions, then. In that you feel that as we started quarantining, you had a moment to dig in, were there books that you got to dig into during that time that you're excited about or still thinking about?
LAURA WINNICK: Definitely. And you know, a lot of these recommendations will be adult books. Certainly one of my goals this summer is to do more middle-grade reading because I won't need to do any physical organization of the library space this summer. So that's my school reading hat and initiative, and I can talk more about what books I'm interested in reading for middle grades.
But when quarantine happened, I definitely felt like -- Or at the beginning of quarantine, you know -- I feel like there are two stages of quarantine, right? In the beginning, time was moving very, very slowly, so a lot of the reading I'll talk about was reading there. And then with the uprisings, time started moving so quickly. So it does feel like these two different phases.
But most of my reading, or the kinds of lengthy, luxurious readings certainly occurred in phase one of quarantine. A couple of things that I was aware of in my reading was one, that I had an opportunity to reread books. And that was, I think in the beginning, as I struggled to understand the new information of what a COVID world looked like. It was too difficult for me to immerse myself in another fictional world. That was too much more new information. So rereading books really proved to be a joy. And I was really rereading some shorter, easier-to-read books.
So this book called Safekeeping. I reread Dept. of Speculation, which I'll talk about later. And then I also started to listen to a lot of audiobooks, and this was really something I had never done before. I've definitely listened to my fair share of podcasts, but I had never really spent a lot of time reading by listening. So there was just more time to do that.
So in this time, some books that I felt hit particularly well in this pandemic -- in some ways, they had pandemics in them, and then also were outside of the current pandemic. And holding both of those at once in a book felt like that was a really -- I've always wanted to go to those worlds. So The Great Believers about AIDS in Chicago by Rebecca Makkai. It's a really plotty book. It moves really quickly. It's really character-driven, and I just loved it.
Then this book that I read a year ago, and I certainly have recommended it to some parents, but it is particularly connected to current pandemics. It's called Severance. It's about a flu that starts, and there's a young woman living in New York and continuing to go to work, despite people being killed by this flu. And kind of capitalism corrodes, and what does it look like? What does work look like? Why are we attached to work? How does life in the post-apocalyptic America reflect ourselves and our country's values? So that book is by Ling Ma. I really recommend that one.
And then the third kind of pandemic-related read I recommend is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. All of these authors were so forward-thinking, they managed to offer me new ways of seeing the present moment and also escape the present moment.
DAWN WILLIAMS: That's so interesting. Now are you in a place where you're thinking about continuing to sort of sit in the pandemic moment, or are you thinking out to different kinds of books?
LAURA WINNICK: Yes, it's interesting because in so many ways, the pandemic moment is a racial justice moment now, and it certainly has always been, but it's more prevalent and more urgent. To that degree, some books that I'm thinking about -- you know, just in general or as a cis, white woman, I always try to queer my reading, and I write a lot of queer and feminist book reviews. And I certainly always try to diversify the authors that I read and that I follow and that I'm learning from. And certainly that is an element of Blue School's 4 through 8 library.
So some books that maybe get it. I'm thinking about reading to that end. I'm thinking about picking up some more Baldwin this summer, and maybe doing some audiobooks of Baldwin, because I've read so much of him. But it would be interesting to hear that in a new way. Imani Perry -- her new book called Breathe, a memoir. I'm really interested in reading that. And then Kiese Laymon's memoir came out in 2019, called Heavy, and I loved it and read it then. But I also want to return to that book.
I was also thinking about -- you know, I like memoirs, and I really like realistic fiction. I'm not much of a sci-fi reader, even amongst the middle-grade sci-fi fantasy. I really veer towards realistic fiction. The N.K. Jemisin series, The Broken Earth, his trilogy. I was thinking, "What else am I going to read this summer?" There's an initiative right now, I think until June 20th, about Blackout Publishing, getting the top ten list of bestsellers to be written by black authors.
And when I was thinking about what I'm going to purchase this week, I was like, "Oh, maybe this is the summer I really try to do this trilogy." I've heard such amazing things about it. And they're quite big books, so I think I've wondered if I have the time, and I definitely have the time.
DAWN WILLIAMS: I'm so excited to hear that. I'm going to join you in that. I've been holding off on it, and I think this is the summer for me, as well.
LAURA WINNICK: Oh, great.
DAWN WILLIAMS: I'm making my list for this week, too, and there are some books that I feel like I need to reread. I've been rereading some Angela Davis. I feel like that's always really important, to go back to Angela Davis. But I was also thinking that trilogy could be a good one. I look forward to talking to you about that.
LAURA WINNICK: Well, we'll have to do our own little book club.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Absolutely. These are such great suggestions, but are there overall great books that you've read that you want people to just have on their lists or have in their mind when they're browsing?
LAURA WINNICK: Sure, yes. I sent an email to families of 156 Library, so 4 through 8 families, about returning books. And some parents reached out, wanting some recommendations. And I have to say, I just love -- this is just my favorite thing to do. And I can't believe that this is my job, that I get to recommend books to people. It's just more satisfying than writing a book review or even reading a book I love is giving a good recommendation, when a person comes back and says to me, "You know, the book you recommended to me was the best book I read all summer." So I love doing this. So what else do I have?
Some other good books I've read in this quarantine time -- this novel called Little Eyes by Samantha Schweblin, an Argentinean writer. This novel really focuses on this idea of surveillance, and it's really profoundly done, and I loved it. I read it in two days, I think.
Jenny Offill, who's the author of Dept. of Speculation came out with a new book in maybe January. This book is about climate change. The protagonist is a librarian. That is called Weather.
And then another one of my favorite authors -- he's really a millennial author -- but he wrote this small, little book called Early Work, and it's just such an easy read. And I really mean that in that it's quite literary and it's funny, but you can just drink it down on the beach. So that book I really recommend, and then his book of short stories is out July 7th. And I read it and loved it. That's called Cool for America.
Another really easy read -- this book my mom and I recently both listened to, and my mom adored it. And I was like, "Yeah, it's good. It was easy.” The end was a little put-a-bow-on-it, but a lot of people are giving it a lot of positive reports. It's called Writers & Lovers by Lily King.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yes, I read it, too.
LAURA WINNICK: What did you think of it?
DAWN WILLIAMS: I thought it was very easy. It was one of my early quarantine reads, and I was finding things that, I think as you said before, I didn't want too much challenge. There was so much else that I was consuming that it felt like a glass of water. It went down very easily, and yes, it was a little cute for me, but I enjoyed reading it. It was just perfect for the end of a stressful day.
LAURA WINNICK: Yes. I also read two other memoirs that I really recommend. One is called Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. That's about Silicon Valley. And then The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. That is an amazing book. It's this fantastic, creative nonfiction. I don't think this book is getting enough press, and it's really about undocumented workers, and it's about New York, and it's stories of survival. What does it mean to rewrite what a life -- the values of a life, of a person's life.
And then the last three things I'll say about a few other books that I'm going to read this summer. And this book is called Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, who is a poet who writes about being an Asian American. And it's a personal essay that has teeth, you know? There's a lot there. There's some theory and literary, like what it means to be an Asian American writer. And then this book called America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo. And then the last one I have is a new book by an Irish writer called Exciting Times. And I think her name -- you pronounce it "Nissa" -- Naoise Dolan.
So I can't vouch for -- I haven't read any of those yet, but I've got them all cued up, and I am excited to read them.
DAWN WILLIAMS: That's so great. I feel like I have now officially a list that is too long for the summer, which is my favorite kind of book stack. I love those book piles that you're like, "Okay, we're going to do this."
So that feels like one of your hats, like your recommend-to-adults and read-your-own-books hat, but I'm curious about what conversations you've been having with students about their summer reading. Are there books you're hearing from them about? Are there books that you're suggesting to them?
LAURA WINNICK: Yes, you know I so greatly miss the in-person ability in our library in the mornings, and when kids come by during lunch, to just kind of drop by and be able to visually assess. Like, "Oh, that 6th-grader has finished two books this week," or "This 5th-grader has now -- I need to get a pile of three books to recommend to her, because she needs it." So that sense of being able to physically and visually assess where students are at in their reading. And when I'm checking books in and recommending books out, I have so missed that in our virtual, remote learning. But I have had this opportunity to engage, with middle school students in particular, in kind of a deeper and like one-on-one. And it feels in some ways conversational, but it overlaps time because our middle-schoolers have been doing independent reading projects every week. And I assess them and return them to students. And students have had these two different categories. They can write letters, and there are a few different letters.
And a lot of that time, those letters ended up being long letters to me about the student's experience reading. And then they also were able to create artistic projects to explore their independent reading.
So those conversations, you know -- it was really nice to get to just kind of have an individual one-on-one connection with middle school students. And they almost even felt more in-depth, because it was less about like -- you know, kind of like a drive-by conversation as I walk through the library and peer over students' shoulders and see what they're reading.
And I'm really excited that the summer reading list for the middle school that I've created, I really had two goals. Diversity is always a goal, and then a secondary goal was find the funny. I really wanted to find some humorous books, and I constantly actually feel like that is always a tall order when students say, "I want a book that will make me laugh." It's always harder to find those books, and I'm always really pleased when I do.
So I feel like I’ve got a pretty diverse book list this summer, and students are excited about those. We've got one queer romance. We've got some kids transitioning to middle school and worried about that, a few books that are quite funny, some sci-fi. And so I've been in conversation with students about those books, and they are really excited to read them.
One thing that students are also talking about -- or a I guess a group conversation that I had -- was in the GSA that Meredith and I run for the middle school. Some of our students made it their goal for June to only read LGBTQ stories, so I certainly have a lot of lists of those. And we have a bunch of these books in our library. So The Best at It is a book that I put on the summer middle school book lists, but then other books that are included that we have in our library that focus on queer protagonists are Hurricane Child, Zenobia July, Drum Roll, Please, and Pet. And those are some newer, very recently published by 2019 books.
And then the last thing I want to say just about when I was pitching and introducing this book for students for the summer -- Our one nonfiction book, and I already got the student surveys about which two books they've selected to read, are committed to read. There was a lot of high interest in this book, and this is this book called Stamped, which is an adult book by Ibram X. Kendi, and then created and published very recently -- I think in early 2020 -- written by Jason Reynolds, who's a beloved black author. And we have all of Jason Reynolds' books in our library, and this is, I think, his first nonfiction book that he co-wrote. And so this is about the history of anti-black racism in America, and also just thinking about the socialization of race and understanding in a way that's super accessible to young people.
So as I spoke with students in our school, there was just a lot of interest around, education around the George Floyd uprising. I really recommend Stamped. And I think it's like, in general -- I just want to say everyone in the middle school should read this. And what's amazing is you can read the adult version as your kid is reading the young adult version. And then there's so much opportunity for family discourse and discussion that is really important to be having right now.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Totally, yes. That is definitely in my family read. We will all be reading that book this summer. I wonder if there are other ways that -- I mean, I think as parents enter the summer, they're thinking, "How do I encourage these conversations? How do I encourage my child's love of reading? How do I not get in the way, but how do I encourage them?" How do you recommend the parents get involved with their children's summer reading?
LAURA WINNICK: Sure. A couple of things I want to offer. One is that I'm leading a book club for ages 10 through 14 this summer. So that book club will be offered all three sessions of the summer programming that we're offering students. So if it feels like your child is reading, but maybe is alone in that experience or looking for more connection, please urge them to join my book club. You know, book clubs are one of my favorite things. Second to recommending books, it's one of my favorite things because it's just this way we have students in different grades coming together to chat about books and to share their love for the book.
And I always try to make it kind of like not necessarily multimedia, but doing little art projects, cooking a recipe that comes from the book, making a playlist from the book. You know, I really try to make it so that over the summer it will feel like it's not just we get on a 30-minute Zoom and all we do is talk about it, right? There are other ways for kids to be making these smaller projects based off of the books they're reading.
So I'm excited about that. I also think that if you're a parent and you are struggling to find some books for your children, I'll be on email over the summer, so please reach out to me. I would happily send them a curated individual list based off what I know of your child's reading habits and give you some resources to find more books to put into your children's hands.
I also want to encourage families that -- you know, in the middle school, we say you read 30 minutes every night. This is really part of our program, and we really mean to -- I think our novels and nonfiction teachers, Caitlin and Amy always say, "We're teaching you nothing if you are not someone who is advocating for your own reading, if you're not figuring out the books that you love. None of these skills are applicable to you if you're not doing this other thing of going out there and cultivating this joy and love for reading that we know every person has and can have."
So let your kid know that 30 minutes every night is what we expect, and those 30 minutes shouldn't feel like a punishment. We want to find books that make you feel happy, and we want to find books that make you laugh or make you cry or make you feel things that you're excited about reading.
And then the last recommendation I have is, again, kind of out of my new love for audiobooks, is thinking about listening to an audiobook as a family and after you finish each chapter, being able to have discussions, and asking your child to come up with some discussion questions or even facilitate the conversation after you've finished reading.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yes, audiobooks are my number one way to travel in the car. So any road trip, our family agrees on an audiobook. And this is since we had a 4-year-old. And now we have a 16-year-old, so the books have gotten more and more, I don't know, interesting over the years. But that idea that we can be in a car together for seven hours and not want to get out at the end because we're so deep in a book is a real gift.
LAURA WINNICK: It's such a good feeling.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Totally.
LAURA WINNICK: And to be in it with other people is really sweet.
DAWN WILLIAMS: Yes, for sure. Well, Laura, I thank you so much for this. It's always good to be in this conversation with you.
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