Reading generously can mean different things in different contexts. It can mean resisting the urge to critique and instead search for a more “generous’ explanation of an author’s intent. But it can also mean openness. When I began reading stories by Black authors in 2016, I did so because, as a white woman who has lived in largely white spaces, I knew I was closed in ways I couldn’t identify. So I turned to the medium that always opens me: story.
This reading journey started with my New Year’s purchase of Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. I bought it because it was a middle-grade memoir, told entirely in poems. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve read it, and each time I do, I love the mother, Mary Ann, a little bit more.
That format — a story told through poems — is also the way Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover is structured. It’s a story for basketball lovers and for lovers of that unique age known as middle-schoolers. I wrote about this story for the Children’s Book Club, and I read the prequel this month (see reading list below.)
I ended 2016 with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, because December requires a good ghost story. This one is good because it doesn’t explain too much. It has stuck with me because it’s fundamentally about a mother.
It was at this point in my reading journey that new connections began to form. Right after I finished Beloved, I went to see the film version of one of August Wilson’s plays, Fences, and I realized that Paul D (Beloved) would be about the age of Troy’s grandfather (Fences). Which would mean slavery would not be something long ago and far away, but something that could be discussed over Sunday dinner, after church.
Slavery is one of those topics I had avoided reading about, until I picked up Kindred by Octavia Butler. It opened my eyes to the type of slavery that was more common in my state of Texas — not the sprawling plantation but the small family farm. The plotting in this sci-fi story (without a lick of pesky science to explain the time travel) is among the best I’ve ever read. I’ve been told the graphic novel edition is fantastic as well.
Another plot-driven tale, this one from the Harlem Renaissance, is Passing, by Nella Larsen. I wrote about this story in a previous reading column. It’s about colorism and a friendship which turns due to jealousy, and not a single detail is wasted.
As our country continues to experience police violence against Black men and women, there is no better way to see inside the lives of those affected than with Angie Thomas’ YA novel The Hate U Give. (I recommend the audiobook.) Thomas used to write fanfic for the soap opera, Passions, and she’s able to juggle multiple plot lines while keeping the reader engaged.
I ended last year with a sci-fi short story collection titled How Long Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Each story exists within the sphere of Afro-futurism, and many of them play with, respond to, or subvert sci-fi tropes. Jemisin gives us a different way to see things we think we know, even Hurricane Katrina in “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints in the City Beneath the Still Waters” (one of my favorites).
From reading these Black stories and others, I learned I was missing some great reads. Sure, these books taught me things, but more importantly, I just really enjoyed them. I was being ungenerous by not checking them out. That’s why we need stories by Black authors, whether fiction or plays or poetry. We need to get to know the Jackies, the Joshes and Jordans, the Sethes, the Roses, the Danas, the Irenes, the Clares, and the Starrs.
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
Picture Books and Early Readers
Counting the Stars: The Story of Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician, by Lesa Cline-Ransom, illus. Raúl Colón (picture book biography)
And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, by Janet Stevens, illus. Susan Stevens Crummel (Join us for Children’s Book Club next Friday, March 12!)
Middle Grade and YA
Rebound, by Kwame Alexander (prequel to The Crossover, mentioned above)
Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, by Mary Maples Doge
Death Wins a Goldfish, by Brian Rea (the illustrator of this month’s Children’s Book Club selection)
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (I will write more about this one)
Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat, illus. Wendy MacNaughton (very readable cookbook)
Wintering, by Katherine May
1. Name a book by a Black author that has impacted you.
2. If you’ve read a nonfiction anti-racism book that you would recommend, I’m listening. (I did recently read Just Mercy at the request of a friend and am glad I did.)
3. Share your February pages. Sliced, diced, and abandoned are all fair game.
Browse more Reading Generously
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro