Weekend Pick for December 2, 2022
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For the month of December, we would like to welcome Dr. Susan Densmore-James. Dr. Densmore-James, also known as The Book Dealer, works at the University of West Florida in Teacher Education and Educational Leadership. We're so excited to have her insight for our December picks!
Dr. Susan Densmore- James
The Book Dealer
I just returned from my favorite event of the year: the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)/ALAN conference. I first attended NCTE in 2001 as a classroom teacher, and every trip since has been both memorable and life changing. The theme this year was “Pursuing the Light,” and the atmosphere was just that: a beacon of love and light shining brilliantly in this most sacred of spaces. The excitement was electric; everywhere I looked, I could see educators excitedly talking about books and (finally)hugging one another, something we have been unable to do the past two years. These educators, authors, artists, and researchers are the embodiment of light, love, and hope for a better, brighter future.
As I boarded the plane for home, I saw the news: 5 people were senselessly killed in a crime of hate. Another 25 were wounded. The joyous feeling I had from interactions with my “book” family quickly faded, and I began to think about students in my state of Florida (a state that seems to be trying its best to limit many important books). I was reminded of how detrimental (even life-threatening) a lack of acceptance and love of all humans can not only cause loss of dignity, it can also end in loss of life. I have always had trouble articulating what it is I love most about attending NCTE, and right there in that airport, I realized why: Books are a Beacon of Light and the people attending that conference are keepers of the flame of love and light. I have watched as literally thousands of my students have gained so much from books– knowledge, entertainment, support, healing, and understanding. I have seen the major growth and transformation of students and educators that comes from empathy built while reading. Collaborating and engaging with these phenomenal keepers of light is a powerful force that comes from sharing their stories and the stories of millions of kids across the world. Over the next month, I hope to share several books with you that I feel are true beacons of light, love, and hope.
The first book I want to share is so “hot off the press” that it is not even in press yet, but if you are reading this today, Jas Hammonds’s We Deserve Monuments is out November 29, 2022. Although I have spent almost 35 years reminding young people not to judge a book by its cover, I fell victim to Jurell Cayetano’s art on the front cover of this amazing book. If ever there was a cover designed that held such promise of a bright, beautiful story, it is this one (hat tip to Cayetano). I am blessed to receive dozens of books monthly from authors and publishing houses, but after the initial lure of this beautiful cover, I also saw the Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue reviews. Heralded as an “...absolute must read” and “a gripping portal of the South’s inherent racism and a love story for queer Black girls…,” this immediately made me stop in my tracks and start reading.
Throughout my career, I have been intentional in my selection of books portraying diverse characters. I have always claimed to be an educator who values equity, equality, and diversity, yet I have read a minimal number of books portraying gay women. I have many who are close to me (including my own child) who are outside the white, heterosexual woman. The only way to better myself is by realizing my shortcomings (thanks, Maya Angelou), so I purposefully began reading We Deserve Monuments. From page 1, I was mesmerized.
The story starts with Avery Anderson, a senior in high school, being uprooted from her Washington D.C. life to spend her senior year in Bardell County, Georgia, to care for her terminally ill grandmother. Hammonds creates a vivid setting and truly unforgettable characters. Bardell could not be any more different from Avery’s life in D.C. Her grandmother, Momma Letty, is vastly different from her own biological daughter, a seriously professional black astrophysicist who works at George Washington University. Avery’s mom is married to her daddy, a Caucasian, fun-loving, music-playing man. Life in Hammond is completely new to Avery on so many levels. She is devastated to leave her comfortable life in D.C., but her greatest loss is losing her first girlfriend due to a bad break-up, and in turn losing the friend group that came with that relationship.
As the story progresses, Avery’s mother struggles to reconcile the troubled and strained relationship with her mother with the realization she needs to provide support and assistance as Momma Letty is nearing the end of her life. Avery also makes an attempt to get to know her grandmother, a woman she has had very little memory of from childhood. Her grandmother only responds to her with gruff remarks and insults, making it even more difficult to connect. Avery gains the nickname “Fish” from her grandmother when Momma Letty criticizes the nose ring Avery wears (this is minor compared to some of the insults hurled at the family my Momma).
Luckily, Avery soon makes friends with her next-door neighbor, Simone, and Simone’s friend, Jade. It is then the book starts to take unexpected twists and turns, as Avery learns about the colorful history of Bardell (including rumors of a murder plot that kills Jade’s beloved mother and racial tensions and events that involve Avery’s own grandmother). There is a love story within a love story. Avery learns the vastly important lesson of true love (sometimes losing love is life’s best teacher and opens new doors for a truer love), and Hammonds expertly transports the reader back in time to share in the love story of Momma Letty and her husband, Ray.
As Avery’s relationship with her grandmother strengthens, so does her knowledge of the racial inequalities in Bardell. Avery and her friends dig into a decades-old coverup revolving around Momma Letty and Ray. This is Jas Hammonds’s first novel, and it reads like a novel that has been created by a master writer. Her word choice is truly a work of art, and what could be a hard -to-follow plotline is tied neatly together with the richly developed characterization penned by Hammonds. I honestly could not wait to get to my university class the next day (yes, I read it in one sitting), to share this new author’s work!
When I finished the book, I read about Jas Hammonds in order to feel even further connected to this amazing talent. Already granted a fellowship for Emerging Author of LGBTQ voices, they remind the reader in the acknowledgements about the importance of each individual in society. “We all deserve monuments,” Jas writes. No truer words have ever been spoken. We all deserve to be treated like the incredible human beings because we all bring so much to our world. I am thankful to you, Jas. Your story will educate, help, and heal so many. Thank you for shining the bright light of love and hope on our world.