Fierce and Tender: A Reading Life That Transforms by Valinda Kimmel
What in the world does reading novels have to do with becoming self-aware? Everything. If we’ll let it.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of books when it comes to helping readers (this reader, in particular) become more self-aware. This frightening world we live in right now has me realizing that I can’t change everything, but I can change me. As an avid reader, I’ve seen time and again how fiction has played a central role in my personal growth.
Earlier this year, Bronwyn Averett shared her experience with bibliotherapy. In her Book Riot blog post, Bronwyn says, “One of the great things about bibliotherapy is its openness. The basic principle – that reading books helps you to ‘read’ your life, and so allows you to better understand it and to live it more fully – can be brought to many situations.”
This idea resonates so strongly with me. Books have helped me to understand myself and other individuals very different from me. My reading life has made me more aware of biases and misconceptions, held me accountable to believe and embrace new ideas, and healed old, harmful wounds.
One such book, Pax by Sara Pennypacker, is about a boy named Peter who loves deeply and experiences loss more than once in his young life. Through a series of extraordinary events, he finds himself injured and completely dependent on a tough, emotionally scarred war veteran, Vola. Peter shares his brokenness and anger about his loss with Vola. In the emotion-filled moments of the exchange, Vola connects in a powerful way with Peter.
Peter’s own fists had come up, and the rage he’d felt at his father had scared him more than the threat itself. Vola reached over and cupped the top of his head with both hands. Peter froze. Except for an occasional “attaboy” shoulder shake from his father or a casual arm punch from one of his friends, no one had touched him since his mother. Vola paused, as though she knew he needed time. Then she pressed down firmly.
It was a strange thing to do, but Peter didn’t pull away, didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even draw a breath. Because at that moment her strong grip was the only thing keeping him from flying apart.
This scene struck me like a lightning bolt. I’ve always felt that when someone is hurting, I should be ready with profound words of comfort, but I never seem to know what to say. In such moments, I’ve felt woefully unprepared and afraid that I came across as uncaring. What an unforgettable image Pennypacker created for me through her powerful writing. Without words, Vola extended emotional healing to Peter in an incredibly vulnerable moment. She showed me that when people I know are hurting, I don’t have to speak pithy, bumper-sticker sentiments. I can reach out with simple human touch to connect and help hold a grieving one’s world together, if only for a moment.
Averett’s words brought a second example to mind. Deborah Wiles’ book Revolution gave me a tiny glimpse into what it feels like to live in America as a black person; I want desperately to understand the struggles my black friends are facing. Wiles writes a short biographical section about Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) in her docu-novel about Freedom Summer.
He was in Rome, Italy, and eighteen years old, when he won the gold medal—the Olympic light heavyweight boxing crown—at the 1960 Olympics. Legend has it he refused to take that medal off, even to sleep. Legend goes on to say that when he returned home to Louisville, Kentucky, Clay stood on a bridge and hurled his Olympic gold medal into the river because he discovered that he still wasn’t allowed to be served in a white-owned restaurant, that all the medals in the world wouldn’t matter to white, segregated America in 1960.
Listening to the audio version of Wiles’s book, I had to pull my car over to the side of the road as I wept for the extreme pain that my culture, my society, my country has visited on its own sons and daughters simply because of the color of their skin.
That excerpt forced me to reflect about the part I play in the racial climate in America today. What attitudes, misconceptions, biases are in me that I need to meet head-on and deal with in my own life?
There are dozens of more examples of both literary and nonfiction text excerpts that I could share that have allowed me to “read” my life and understand myself more fully. Books that I choose to read, books I seek out on my own, can provide me with the ability to reflect and to learn.
Choice is critically important in our lives as readers. No one is telling me which books I have to read. I’m choosing, and with that choice comes the freedom and the personal accountability for the deep life lessons I’m experiencing in the words of provocative texts.
So how does this relate to students? We lose this transformative power of fiction, I believe, when we only assign whole-class novels. The teacher is put in a position to choose the excerpts, with the lessons and themes that are given the most “air time.” However, when students choose their own books, themes and profound truths emerge and empower the reader because it means something to them at that time and in that place.
The reader’s heart and mind are tender toward new ideas, self-reflection, self-education, and moments of self-awareness because they freely and willingly chose the experience. Compelling characters, transformative events, and life-changing themes affectionately ambush the reader with “truth” images that go deep into their hearts, ones they won’t easily forget.
We can make room for that kind of therapy in our own reading lives and in classrooms when we read (and read voraciously) so we have books to talk about, put on the shelves, and “book talk” to students. We are in a position to facilitate an environment that not only grows readers, but also grows thoughtful and self-aware human beings.
Valinda Kimmel has flipped through lots of calendar pages since beginning a career as a teacher nearly three decades ago. She currently works as a K-5 facilitator/instructional coach for the language arts department in a suburban school district in Bedford, Texas. After hours, Valinda loves lazy evenings and long conversations with her husband Mark, and spending time with her adult children, their spouses, and five of the most brilliant “littles” in her world. She hopes that you’ll engage in spirited conversations with her on Twitter (@vrkimmel) and on her blog at valindakimmel.com