I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing. His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.
I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.
With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull. Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have. I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.
I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write. He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.
I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.
But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year. He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.
When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.” I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.” He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.
Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave. I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year. Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life. We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper. “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.
I also asked him how he felt about reading. “It calms me,” he told me. “It gives me something to do.”
It calms me. I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction. But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.
I loved watching reading transform Bull.
From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles. He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.
I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives. I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading. I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along. I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.
So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since. I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.
- Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book. It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived. Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
- Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them. It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like. I liked that book a lot.”
- Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect. The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people? But it made me understand everybody else better.”
- The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book. It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into. I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner. That was some crazy shit.”
- Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read. I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II. It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
- Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
- The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie. It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL. I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”
Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads. And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.
Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.