Books to love and to make you think

It is books that are the key to the wide world; if you can’t do anything else, read all that you can. — Jane Hamilton

Many of us are wondering what we can do…to keep sane, keep ourselves entertained, and keep engaged with the wide world right now. When in doubt, we say, pick up a book.

So we asked for some recommendations. Here are three+ that we hope will point a new direction in your literary explorations!


 

Several years ago, I did something that has injected an incredible amount of joy back into my reading routine: I started reading middle-grade novels. In general, these are novels written for children around the ages of 8-12. I hadn’t read many of them since I was that age myself and I feel as if I’ve stumbled into an absolute treasure-trove of wonderful books.

One of my favorites is The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt. The book follows a boy named Holling Hoodhood (yes, that really is his name) over the course of an eventful school year during the years 1967 and ’68. On one level the book is a comedy, and I laughed out loud more than once. But—like childhood—it’s also full of subtle, complex dramas. A surprisingly touching moment toward the end brought tears to my eyes.

I hope that many children read and love this book, but I truly hope that many adults read it and love it, too. In my opinion, any book that can make a reader laugh and cry deserves as wide a readership as it can get. (Oh, and it also revived my interest in Shakespeare. I’m not kidding. Read it to find out why.)

I also wholeheartedly recommend the equally affecting “companion” book, Okay for Now, which follows Doug Swieteck, a character who gets a small but memorable part in The Wednesday Wars. Schmidt is so adept at characterization that he had me immediately loving Doug, whom I’d spent the entirety of The Wednesday Wars hating.

So there you are: two great books to start with if you’re thinking of checking out what’s on offer in the wonderful world of children’s literature. It’s a big and varied pool, of course, so another place to go for excellent titles is the Newbery Award website. And don’t miss Ann Patchett’s fan/love letter to another middle-grade author, Kate DiCamillo, which appeared last week in the New York Times.

MARIA PARROT-RYAN is the producer of Love Wisconsin and a staff member at the Wisconsin Humanities Council.


 

I was just back in graduate school to complete my PhD after having taken 12 years off from school, a period during which I took a tour of various professions. I decided at the end of that tour that I really did want to teach and write as a university professor, which meant I needed to go back to school! I was living in Baltimore at the time. My husband and I had two little girls–ages 7 and 4. 

Beloved by Toni Morrison changed my life. I read it in a seminar devoted to African American Women’s Literary Traditions. I had returned to school with the idea that I would specialize in the literature of the US South. Reading this book convinced me I needed to focus specifically on African American literature. And that’s what I did–and today it is what I teach. I often teach a course devoted to Morrison’s fiction, and I even teach a capstone course for English majors focused solely on Beloved, which I am teaching again in Fall 2020.

Toni Morrison is a careful researcher, so while the book is fiction, it incorporates what actually happened during slavery, down to accurate descriptions of the tools of torture. It is loosely based on the story of Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery with her children and when threatened to be returned to slavery killed her baby rather than have the child endure that life. The combination of well drawn fictional characters and historical accuracy helped make the book a life-changing read.

Beloved is a gorgeous and compelling book that I think everyone should read, especially US citizens, in order to understand on a very deep level the legacy of slavery, this country’s original sin. And it ends on the most gentle hopeful note, leaving readers with the sense that we all have a role to play in making this a better world. It is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort. I promise. 

ROBERTA MAGUIRE is a professor of African American Literature at UW-Oshkosh, where she is also Chair of the UW-Oshkosh English Department, and a member of the WHC board.


 

I was a young grad student, just starting to do linguistics, at the University of Texas at Austin. I was trying to understand German-speaking communities in Texas, not just the way they spoke but how and why they were giving up German and becoming English monolingual, what linguists call ‘language shift’. A woman I talked to a bunch about this told me about this book and suggested that it could be a model for understanding shift. Wow, was she right.

This is probably the first time I started to think about not only the importance of community in our lives, but about how the structure of our communities shapes our lives and how our lives shape our communities. Warren shows how a century and a half ago, communities were structured very locally, with great interdependence among institutions, while today, most communities are far more profoundly connected to the broader society, including nationally. Those changes fit beautifully with how and when communities give up their heritage languages and switch to the majority language.

This book – and the conversations about it over 40 years – has driven part of my research and teaching since I first read it and it has motivated a whole set of colleagues and students to develop a new way of thinking about language shift, one that works for ‘older’ immigrant and immigrant groups like Polish and Norwegian speakers and newer ones like Spanish and Hmong. Maybe most importantly, it helps suggest ways that communities whose languages are endangered today, like Native American communities, can stabilize and revitalize their languages. 

Warren doesn’t really talk about language at all but the story he tells about communities and how they have changed yields tremendous insight. At the WHC, we talk a lot about communities, how they work, how they understand themselves and their pasts, how we understand ourselves as part of communities. In many ways, the story Warren tells will resonate with Wisconsinites and how we think about history, community and our interdependence.

JOE SALMONS is a professor of Language Sciences and the Director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures (CSUMC) at UW-Madison and a member of the WHC board.