Look No Further- Review of Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds – Review by Amy Watkins
When Jason Reynolds said that he wrote Look Both Ways with teachers in mind, he wasn’t lying. I have never taken so many notes while reading a YA book trying to capture all of the ways I could picture using it in my classroom, nor have so many characters carved their way into my heart so quickly or made such a lasting impression on who I want to be as a teacher. That is a lot for a 185-page book to do, but with Jason Reynolds as the author, I wasn’t surprised. Whatever niche you are looking to fill in your classroom library or curriculum, look no further.
The structure of the text makes it accessible for even my most reluctant readers in that it’s told as ten separate but interrelated short stories centering around kids’ lives starting at the end of the school day. So often, as teachers, we decide who kids are based on their behavior in our classes, between the bells, but each story challenges those shallow assumptions by revealing the rules, motivations, and complexities that shape the realistic, lovable, and complicated characters that could easily be students in our classes. I think students will also be able to appreciate the honest depiction of internal motivations guiding the characters. In other words, I think they will see themselves in some characters, but also be able to empathize with others. Each character, like each of our students, works to cope with, conquer, or accept a real-world struggle. Some characters are dealing with grief because their loved ones can’t be with them; others’ lives are affected by diseases. Some characters are trying to navigate the difficult terrain of adolescent anxiety, friendships, and romance, while others are trying to step up and handle real adult issues. These stories can reach everyone.
The craft moves demonstrated by Reynolds in each short story provide a wealth of resources for teachers looking for quick write excerpts. For instance, Fatima Moss “keeps a checklist of all the things on her journey [home] that have changed“(61) in the short story “How to Look (Both) Both Ways.” Reynolds actually structures the first and final pages of the chapter as a numbered list that captures not only the details of the plot but also provides insight into the character’s mind and personality. We fall in love with Fatima through her list. Writing their own lists inspired by their daily routines can help students build their confidence as writers and hone their eyes as observers. In “Skitter Hitter,” the introduction paragraph pulls us in with effective repetition and artful sentence variety that would be an accessible yet challenging exercise in creating rhythm in a piece. Many of the sentences start with “Maybe…” so students can latch onto something recognizable feeling confident enough to examine and play with developing cadence in their own paragraphs. His first paragraph is an artful combination of compound-complex sentences and perfectly placed fragment that sound so good, kids will be drawn to imitate the complexity. It truly is a joy to read. I would love to read such powerful leads in my students’ writing.
If a teacher wants to use the novel as a whole class text, it would easily enhance almost any unit. If you teach with a genre focus, like that described in Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days, you could nestle it into your narrative unit studying the plot development, the well-paced beginning-middle-end, of each short story. In an informational unit, it would work well to help students mine their own lives for ideas to research since the stories highlight characters dealing with sickle cell anemia, foster care, grief, cancer, skateboarding, and dementia. I think the best place to integrate this text would be in a multi-genre unit because the key to a good multi-genre project is weaving the separate pieces together, finding the glue that unites the independent elements, and Jason Reynolds uses a number of artful techniques to unite these stories. It’s almost like a school bus fell from the sky right into your lap with a pretty bow saying, “See what I did there?”
If your curriculum is more thematically arranged, have no fear. Each story authentically reveals its lesson subtly enough to encourage deep conversation with many opportunities for follow up questions like, “Where did you see that in the text?” If you want to discuss the power of friendship, of brotherhood, in the face of difficult situations read “Water Booger Bears,” “The Low Cuts Strike Again,” “Call of Duty,” “Five Things Easier to Do than Simeon’s and Kenzi’s Secret Handshake,”How a Boy Became a Grease Fire,” and “Broom Dog.” If you want to examine characters’ mental processes as they make decisions, “Skitter Hitter,” “Satchmo’s Master Plan,” and “How to Look Both Ways” are insightful. Characters overcome obstacles, cope with loss, address abuse, stand up for what is right, and come together.
Truly Look Both Ways is one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read in terms of its versatility and classroom application paired with the potential for authentic student engagement. In addition, it was fun to read. I was drawn in, challenged, rewarded, and left weeping on more than one occasion.
Amy Watkins is an enthusiastic English teacher in Belleville, Michigan who believes her students are writers even when they doubt themselves. The mother of three boys, she also encourages their love of reading and writing, although at times, they are also hesitant. She reads YA books obsessively and is always surprised at how much she loves writing when she takes the time to actually do it. She fangirls Jason Reynolds and is launching a Project Lit book club at her school to share her newly cultivated collection of his novels with everyone.