To Dance Is To Be Out of Yourself

I apologize for being away from the blog for a bit, Dear Reader. It has been a busy month. I have read quite a bit since I blogged last–mostly adult fiction with a smattering of adult nonfiction (memoir) thrown in for good measure. 

I read very little YA. A diet of all one thing doesn’t make for a healthy life. So I mixed up my reading this month.

I did read and enjoy Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon. And despite there being so much I wanted to talk about with this book, I just never found the words for it. I think I enjoyed it more than Yoon’s other two novels. But I say that every time she comes out with a new book. So there’s that. I would definitely pair it with Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer.

I really like the magical realism element to the book.

But it was more than that.

I think I liked it because it featured black characters who have families and socio-economic backgrounds that mirror the families and socio-economic backgrounds of my students. I teach in the suburbs of NJ, and while my students have enjoyed The Hate U Give and Long Way Down, the settings and backgrounds of the protagonists in those novels are a world away from where my students live. These are great books that allow students a window into a different world. But I also want a mirror for them. I want my BIPOC students to see themselves represented in the text they read. Not just culturally but socio economically as well. I want my white students to see another representation of BIPOC students–not one of urban youth or of economically disadvantaged youth or both.

Instructions for Dancing does that for my students. The protagonist’s, Evie, parents are both professionals. Her mom is a nurse. Her dad is a college professor. She lives in LA, but in a middle class neighborhood. She could be someone my students go to school with. And that’s important for my students.

When we read, we build empathy. We learn about other people, other cultures, other ways of life. We can travel without ever leaving our homes. We learn how to be better people because we (hopefully) learn from the mistakes characters make in the novels we read or the lessons they teach us. We start to understand the human condition is universal. 

But if my students never see BIPOC characters who come from backgrounds like theirs, then what? I know a lot about transfer as it relates to learning. I know how hard it is. It’s one of the reasons my students write one way for me and another way for the science teacher and then complain when they marked off for structure “because it’s only science class.” It’s one of the reasons the social studies teacher and I use the same language for writing, have the same requirements, co-teach writing classes, and even teach or reteach the same lessons. It just makes transfer easier. 

I’m going to posit the same is true for empathy and understanding. Authors like Yoon make it easier for my white students not to lump all BIPOC students into one big category as other. It helps them to understand why a student might identify as African American, and why another might identify as Black, and still another might identify as Carribean American. I also think it helps white students realize they don’t get to put labels on others. We get to choose our own identity. 

Not being a person of color, I can’t actually make this statement for certain, but being a reader, I suspect there’s some truth to what I’m going to say next. I believe that seeing protagonists like Yoon’s helps my students of color not feel so alone. I would imagine that I’ve had students who just wanted to find themselves represented in a teen romance. They didn’t want to see the stereotypically perfect blond white girl getting the guy. They wanted a mirror. 

So, yes, I do believe Instructions for Dancing will be an important addition to my classroom library this fall. But I also found it to be a great book. I loved Evie. I loved her struggle. I loved her flaws. She was pretty much a jerk to every other character in the book at some point in time. Yoon did what she does best–she created a very real character for me. I was able to just get lost in this novel and be entertained.

So while I might find this book important because it’s a mirror (despite the magical elements to it), my students are going to just get lost in a great story. And after all that’s what reading is all about. 

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