The other day I was observing a high school classroom. I listened as they discussed Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I love Alice. She likes to tell everyone she meets exactly how she feels, and yet she consistently shows us how she attempts to become part of the world around her, no matter what is going on.
Alice always showed me how she copes with the world around her, even if it is completely opposite of what she expected and is always throwing her for a loop. Alice is one of the girls of literature who I always return to when I need to be entertained and when I need to slow down and start to think about what is going on around me. I think of how Alice deals with her world being turned upside down, seeming to be nonsense.
The students were engaged in Alice and loved talking about her, making connections between Alice and her world and their worlds, even if on the surface the worlds seemed quite removed. As I watched the students in the class absorb literature, I thought of how much I value reading and sharing fictional stories.
I spend a great deal of my time reading. I read for pleasure, for work, for research. I read to find ways to make my world better and to learn more about the world around me. Although I believe that there are many reasons to read informational texts, as we enter this hectic holiday season, I want to challenge everyone to read more fiction.
I know we’re busy. I know we have a great deal to do. I know this is a crazy time of year, but my wish this season is that we would all start to learn about other people, other places, and other experiences. One of the best ways we can do this—especially without a great deal of money or a time machine—is to read. Sure, it’s important to read informational texts, but sometimes it’s good to take a step away from nonfiction, and find out what the world of fiction teaches us.
Study after study shows that even more than nonfiction, fiction helps to shape who we are. It enhances our ability to understand others and widens our sympathies Fiction helps us to see the larger world, and all its faults and beauty, with more empathy. The more we read, the more we are able to really listen to others around us and see ourselves outside of the world in which we exist. The more we read, the more we see what it would mean to live in futures different than those we’ve imagined or ones that turn our worlds upside down—like Alice’s.
I would love for us to start to share the stories we are reading with each other. So, let me tell you about the last book I read. This past weekend I read Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock. The Lions of Little Rock tells the story of Marlee. She is twelve-years-old, shy and quiet. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958, the year after the Little Rock Nine Integrated Central High School. As Marlee starts middle school, she meets a new friend, Liz. Marlee does not like to speak and Liz knows all the right things to say. Despite their differences, she and Liz becomes friends and Liz helps Marlee get the courage to speak in front of the class. Then, suddenly, Liz leaves school without saying good-bye. The rumor is she is forced to leave school after passing as white. Yet, Marlee and Liz are determined to stay friends. To do this, they must take on segregation and make decisions about what they believe to be right and true.
Throughout the novel, Marlee learns what it means to be brave and strong. She learns about the complexities of race relations in her hometown and what might happen to someone if they choose to stand up for what they believe. She learns what it means to stand up for what you believe and that no matter who you are, you can make changes in the world around you. The book centers around the larger struggle for school integration in Little Rock in the 1950s and 1960s.
As I read Marlee and Liz’s story, I was reminded of recent discussions of integration, segregation, and what it means to fight for justice. Although grounded in 1958, Levine’s novel tells us that “saying what you think is as important as thinking it” and that even though they made a difference, there was still a “long, long way to go.” I am reminded of those who have come before me who were strong enough to stand up for justice and goodness and for people to be treated with dignity and respect, and how we must continue to follow in their footsteps.
It is through fiction that we are reminded of such things. So, as December starts to bring with it families and holidays and grading and overtime and hectic shopping, take some time and stop and pick up a book. Give yourself time to read fiction and learn from another world. When you’re done, share with others what you read. Write a review, post a picture on Instagram or Facebook, or pass the book to a friend. Maybe leave the book at the local coffee shop or YMCA.
If you read something good, I would love to hear about it. And, if you find a copy of The Lions of Little Rock sitting around Macomb, pick it up, read it, and pass it along. It was probably the one I left for you to find. This December, let’s fill our community with words and stories, and find out what we learn.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.