Traveling with Pomegranates: A Book Review

traveling-cvr-thumbIn their joint memoir Traveling with Pomegranates, famed writer Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees, and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, take readers on an intricate journey through Greece, Turkey, and France, as they attempt to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Published in 2009, Traveling with Pomegranates documents the pair’s intimate dance through love and success, submission and acceptance, while embracing unexpected inspiration and divine intervention when immersing themselves in French and Turkish culture and ancient Greek mythology.

Readers will enjoy examining how varying cultures impact and reflect the ever-evolving maternal hierarchy of mother and daughter. At the beginning of the memoir as Kidd approaches her fiftieth birthday and Taylor celebrates recently completing her undergraduate degree, the duo travel to Greece on a celebratory voyage of culture exploration. However, the journey becomes rather one of self-rediscovery and redefining roles. As Kidd watches Taylor examine a sculpture of Demeter and Persephone at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Kidd is overwhelmed with the feeling that she has lost her daughter, who suddenly seems strange and alien to her (11). She feels a great divide in their relationship as she recognizes Taylor as no longer a child, but an adult navigating the world privately and separately from her. Just as Persephone is separated from Demeter when Persephone is sent to the Underworld in Greek mythology, Kidd does not know how to reconcile the loss of her daughter, who is right in front of her, yet worlds apart from her. Kidd is a modern day Demeter. What Kidd does not know is the depth of despair that Taylor feels after having been recently denied admittance to graduate school, where she had hoped to study ancient Greek history. Taylor reverts inward and tries to keep the depression to herself, yet Kidd can sense a barrier between them, and she can’t reconcile how to maneuver over it. The symbolism of Demeter/Persephone and Kidd/Taylor winds its way throughout the memoir on a beautiful path of redefining familial roles and shifting relationships between mother and daughter. Kidd yearns for a heuresis, a Greek term meaning “reunion” and attempts to create genuine opportunities to reunite with her daughter throughout the entirety of their journeys (73).

As Kidd is confronted with the unexpected disconnect from her daughter, she is forced to examine the roles of the relationship between her own mother and herself. She explains, “In what seems like a cruel trick of timing, women often find themselves letting go of their daughters around the same time they must let go of their identities as younger women” (69). Kidd, immersed in Greek and Turkish culture, begins to see herself in the legends, folklore, and myths such as The Virgin Mary, The Old Woman, Demeter, Persephone, and more, and she imagines that her own mother must have gone through a similar difficult transition when coming to terms with her initiation to adulthood and independence. The differences in the values she and her mother have previously placed on matriarchal, domestic, and feminine roles in American culture are the same issues she begins to struggle to resolve within herself later in life. Likewise, Taylor begins to see the connection among herself and Persephone, Athena, and—later on—Joan of Arc and is determined to chart her own route through depression and the disappointment of rejection (from both graduate school and her college sweetheart) and to a new path that leads to a fresh, different purpose for her life that she has not yet considered. Her new purpose, a phoenix rising from the ashes of her failures.

The memoir is steeped in folklores, myths, honors, and traditions of the Greeks and Turks. With particular attention to Demeter and Persephone while the two are in Greece, the focus shifts to the Turkish traditions when they visit the house of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus. Kidd wrestles with her changing views on spirituality, yet she ultimately sees the humanity in the Virgin Mary in conjunction with identifying with Mary as a divine feminine deity. The Turkish and Greek legends of Mary meld together and become one of a Black Madonna wrapped in chains. A guide explains to Kidd:

Legend says she was kidnapped several times by the Turks from a convent on the island of Crete but always escaped back to her homeland. Finally the Turks chained her up. Undeterred, Mary broke free and returned home, wearing the chains. The Greek nuns left them on the icon as a reminder of what Mary was capable of. (125)

Inexplicably drawn to bees over the course of several years and not understanding their significance to her, it is in Turkey at Mary’s house that Kidd feels called upon to write a book about bees, and she proclaims her commission to her daughter. The influence of this place and its legends empowers Kidd to write The Secret Life of Bees, in which she includes the Black Madonna in chains, an idol of worship for some of the characters in her novel. The publication of The Secret Life of Bees solidifies Kidd’s place in the literary world, and the journey to Greece and Turkey helps to achieve this accomplishment for her.

The Secret Life of Bees helps Taylor to appreciate the connections in folklore, legend, and mythology in varying cultures as well. After her mother begins to write The Secret Life of Bees and Kidd and Taylor’s heuresis begins to occur, Taylor realizes that the Virgin Mary is just as important to her as she is to her mother, despite Taylor not yet being a mother herself. Mary represents something more to her than the matriarch with which her mother identifies. Taylor explains,

It does not escape my notice that Mary is becoming important to me. I tell myself that if Athena represents independence and self-belonging, and Joan of Arc a passionate sense of mission, the Mary represents the spiritual heart—my ability to love and be loved. Athena, Joan, Mary. It’s an unlikely combination, but I realize they’ve become my female triptych. (206-207)

On the heels of a break up and feeling lost to herself, Taylor has found new love with an old friend and is enjoying rediscovering herself as an independent individual, attached to nothing except to her own desires. She also values the intricacies of mother/daughter and the legends, folklores, and mythologies of these cultures as they become evident to her as being archetypes living within her. Taylor—and Kidd as well—end up finding themselves and their purposes through the experience and the journey; the places within themselves most often mirror their actual journeys.

Taylor references Isadora Duncan, a dancer, who once said that “a dance is a manifestation of the soul” (31). Taylor and Kidd dance their way around two different continents, two-step their way through redefining their feminine roles as individuals as well as mother and daughter, and waltz their way through finding new directions and purpose. Writers could benefit from reading this by examining how closely Taylor and Kidd knit their alternating stories together with the sense of place and embracing and honoring the traditions of different cultures. One simply cannot separate the place from their experiences because they are one in the same. But this memoir isn’t just for aspiring and accomplished writers; it’s also for anyone who enjoys an odyssey of the soul, a journey that is a beautiful and elaborate dance.


Noggin: A Book Review

After reading John Corey Whaley’s freshman novel, Where Things Come Back (2011), I had ridiculously high expectations for his sophomore follow-up, Noggin (2014). Where things come backRight out of the gate his first novel had earned him a golden sticker in the form of the Michael L. Printz award, and with the William C. Morris award also gracing the front cover, the book silently (and justly) bragged on itself as it sat on bookstore shelves all across the country. I won’t lie; I had a little anxiety that Noggin had the potential to earn Whaley the badge of Sophomore Slump. After all, it is not often that a novel with such accolades leads to subsequent novels with equal success. As it turns out, Noggin was a National Book Award finalist; thus, Whaley’s name was officially solidified as a powerful voice in contemporary young adult literature.

nogginAs the novel begins, protagonist Travis Coates is rudely awakened to the aftermath of his “cranial reanimation.” That’s right, you heard me: Travis has had a head transplant. Out of desperation, sixteen-year-old Travis undergoes an experimental procedure in the wake of failed attempts to cure his acute lymphoblastic leukemia. After a five-year nap, Travis is astonished to learn that the procedure had been a success: his head had been chopped off, cryogenically frozen, and reattached to a donor body. His new body (from the neck down) has given him a few more inches in height and tons more muscle mass. All of this would be great, right? Coming back from the dead, exempt from the disease that had plagued him, and with an upgraded physical form sounds like a dream come true…except that everyone he knew before is five years older, and his place in their lives is now uncertain.

Travis’s mission is to set his new-and-improved, second life right by making everyone else relive the past. His now 21-year-old best friend Kyle and (former?) girlfriend Cate are forced to choose whether or not they should soldier onward with their lives or if they should turn their backs on the progress they have made over the past five years. The passing of time means little to Travis. noggin2He went to sleep and then simply woke back up. However, the others have long since mourned his passing, moved on, and are maneuvering their way through adulthood. The situation is quite a conundrum, and no one seems to know what do. Unfortunately, Travis does not see it that way; he is impatient and doesn’t appreciate their current positions. This creates a great deal of tension and a string of impulse reactions on Travis’s part. His parents try to cushion the impact, but they, too, are trying to deal with the reality that he is back again and what that means for their family.

Whaley is a master craftsman when it comes to character development. A sign of a well-developed character is if he/she seems authentic. Travis Coates feels like the average kid down the street. teenagerHe is flawed, he makes mistakes, he is completely self-absorbed, and he lacks impulse control. Travis has good, yet misguided, intentions, and he screws up things for himself in a big way. What could be more real than that? I kept wondering when Travis would put everything back in order for himself and be his own hero, but Whaley is not one to wrap up his narrative with a big red shiny bow. His stories have a genuine and authentic style that can seem melancholy at times, but upon further inspection is just honest and raw. Being a normal teenager is difficult, and one does not emerge completely unscathed. There are usually some emotional scars involved, and Travis just so happens to wear his scar visibly around his neck.

Whaley skillfully balances the tragedy with the comedy. While the plot is a bit heavy, Travis and his new friend Hatton are not without a healthy dose of wit and sarcasm, and they deliver plenty of hilarious one-liners. There is just the right amount of oddity, too. Perhaps my favorite dose of quirk is a band called “Judd Nelson’s Fist” (174). judd nelsonI mean, come on!  Brilliant.  The absurdity of the plot seamlessly blends with the genuineness of the characters, and there are times when the reader forgets that Travis is a modern-day monster of Frankenstein. In a sense, the blend of tragedy and comedy mirrors Travis’s new body composition, and it is beautiful.

Some readers will thirst for more science in the novel. frankensteinFor example, little about the logistics of the actual surgery is explained. Some might feel that Travis’s adjustment to his new body is skimped over. However, most readers will be okay without the minute details. Whaley makes it easy to forget that the reader is immersed in a work of science fiction because he says he never meant for it to be a sci-fi novel. Whaley accomplished what he set out to do. The novel’s universal themes carry through beautifully. Though this book is technically a work of science fiction (Despite Whaley’s rejection of the sci-fi label, the copyright page deems that it is, in fact, sci-fi.), the premise is not too far from reality: it was just announced that the first head transplant is slated for 2017.

Noggin is a beautiful story of loss and second chances.   It’s about the dangers of looking backward instead of looking ahead. More than anything, it examines the science of love and friendship, and it proclaims that the bonds of love are stronger than any passage of time or catastrophe.

Now go on and read it.



We Read: Vol.4

kartelescopeThis is Karson.  Karson is in the 9th grade.  Karson is a gamer, an amateur astronomer, a musician, and an athlete.  Karson used to be a reader.

Karson is also my son.

When he was in elementary school, Karson struggled with learning to read.  I didn’t know how to help him, as I didn’t go to school to teach kids to learn to read; I went to school to teach them how to analyze literature.  However, that did not keep me from feeling like a helpless failure.  The story of my life…

Fortunately, Karson went to a Title 1 school at the time, so he received Title 1 reading intervention with a wonderful interventionist, Ms. Norrell.  She worked her magic on him for about a year and then dismissed him from the program.  Her work was done, because her work was successful.

By the time Karson was in 2nd grade, he was reading with a 4th grade reading group because he had advanced rather quickly, and that was one way in which they were differentiating for him.  He loved it and it seemed like he was feeling successful.

Back then, you would never see Karson without a book.  He read voraciously; he read anything I would buy him or that he could check out from the library.  If I was going to Little Rock, he would ask if he could go with me so that we could go to Barnes and Noble.  It made my heart happy.

But then something happened during his 8th grade year, after he finished the Harry Potter series just before Christmas break.  He came up to me after he closed book 7 and wrapped his arms around me.  His eyes were red and damp.

IMG_5958“It’s over,”  he said.

After spending months immersed in the magical world of Hogwarts, he didn’t think anything else could stand up to Harry Potter.  He watched the movies over and over.  He was in the midst of a major book hangover.  He said things like, “There aren’t any other good books out there,” and “I’d read if there was something worth reading.”  Then he would sulk off with a frowny face.

It’s been a year since Harry, and I’ve seen Karson read nothing for pleasure since.  He reads only what’s required for school.  To Kill a Mockingbird has been the highlight of his required reading over the past year and a half (He had read it before.), but he wasn’t impressed by last year’s required reading for English.  He says that The Year of the Hangman was his least favorite book because it was “awful.”

“The story was okay, but I predicted the ending within the first 5 pages,”  he smugly proclaimed.

His excuse as of late is that during the school year he has limited time to read recreationally because of extracurricular activities, homework, and chores.  However, he somehow has time for video games and YouTube.

Karson is interested in books about sci-fi and fantasy, and his favorite book is any from the The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series.

The worst book he ever read was Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  He says, “It wasn’t a good story, and I got bored with it.”

If Karson were to write his own novel, he says that it would be a sci-fi graphic novel, probably.


KarsonBibleKarson reads at the 11-CCR Lexile level, and he feels that as long as there is a good book to read, he will be a life-long reader.  But he says he will not waste his time on “crappy books” because “there’s no time for that.”

When asked how long he gives a book before he deems it “crappy,” he says that he will usually give a book around 50-100 pages before he abandons it.  The last book he abandoned was The Mark of Athena, book 3 of the Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan.  He says that he loved the series when he was younger, but he feels that he got “too old” to read this series, and he got bored with it.

The last book he wanted to abandon was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but he couldn’t abandon it because it was for a self-selected, non-fiction reading school assignment.   This made me especially sad because I recommended this book to him because of his keen interest in science.

funny_book_hangover_definition_book_lover_postcard-rb8de43fa8d10452bb55768f4bce4d62b_vgbaq_8byvr_512(1)Since writing this, Karson has been given 2 books to check out, one from me and one from his dad.  I’m hoping that he will read one of them over the Thanksgiving break and finally get relief from his massive book hangover.


We Read: Vol. 3


This is Sara.

Sara is pretty cool.

Sara is a reader.

I recently had the wonderful privilege of talking to Sara to pick her brain about why she considers herself a reader.  While she can be seen as an anomaly–being a teenager in 2015 who loves nothing more than to have uninterrupted nightly reading time–Sara says not much has changed for her since she was a child.  Sara has always been a reader; her mother used to read voraciously to her as a child.

When asked why she enjoys reading, Sara says that she loves immersing herself in circumstances and worlds that are a bit foreign to her.  Thus, she prefers sci-fi.  Science Fiction provides her a lens to see beyond the world she knows, and she says that it helps educate her and challenge her to see things differently, a skill she feels will help her throughout life.

Not too many teens promote literacy in the traditional sense, and the biggest promotion one might do is to allow others see one reading in class or at lunch.  However, Sara says that she actually communicates the benefits of reading to her friends.  Some advantages she sees are gaining vocabulary to sound more educated, being in the know, and having something to talk to others about.  With a Lexile level of 11th grade-College & Career Ready, she certainly has the ability to inspire others, and her fun-loving personality and kind spirit are shiny lures at the end of the hook.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a writer, she knows her passion for literacy is within the literature she consumes, at least for now.

IMG_5907Thank you, Sara, for bravely promoting literacy and fighting ignorance by gaining intelligence.

Favorite books: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Beginning of Everything.

Last book finished: The Shining by Stephen King

Currently reading: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

We Read: Vol. 2

As I mentioned earlier, I’m trying to get a handle on ways to promote literacy at my school.  As a literacy instructional facilitator for a campus of around 1500 students, that can be a bit tricky.  In some ways, I feel removed from the students because I don’t have students assigned to me that I see every day.  If I did, I could talk to them personally, get to know their likes and dislikes, gauge their attitudes toward reading and writing (mainly for pleasure…because if they read for pleasure, they will likely succeed in class when they are required to read for a grade).

But getting data isn’t as difficult as it used to be.  And it turns out, getting data didn’t depend upon my getting face time with students.  Reason?  Google.  Google is great, and the teachers I work with share my vision, so I created a Google Form survey that the English teachers allowed their classes to take.  In around 10 minutes time, BAM!  Responses galore!

I’m fascinated with the results.  They are very telling.  I’ve provided some samples of what we are seeing.  See for yourself:

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.44.10 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.44.42 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.45.17 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.45.28 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.45.52 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.46.59 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.47.52 PM

I love this next one (#8).  I suspect they’d say “yes” to just about anything here.  😉

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.48.04 PM

However, I’m tempted to believe their response below:

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.48.48 PM

Our schedule is such that we have an extra few minutes in 4th period.  I’ve wondered if offering recreational reading time (with certain perimeters) would be beneficial.  Therefore, I wanted feedback from the students:

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.49.05 PM

And then the good stuff:

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.50.31 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.51.54 PM

And just because I think it might matter:

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.52.09 PM

Next, I wanted to see how they would rank spending their recreational activities.  Here are 2 of the 7, which broke my heart a little bit:

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.53.19 PM

So what about writing?

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.53.31 PM

And then having the remnants of my broken heart shattered even more:

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 5.53.39 PM

Is it a perfect survey?  No.  But it was a place to start.  Any info right now is good info when you’re in the beginning stages of a full on war for literacy.  😉

We Read: Vol. 1

--what teachers aren't--
–what teachers aren’t–

Educators are bombarded with new research, it seems daily, which is great but is also overwhelming because it means that they have to constantly adjust what they are doing to meet the demands of a changing world.

Not only do teachers have to plan their curriculum (a lot of time during their off-contract hours), teach 7 hours out of the day, attend countless meetings during their prep time or on-contract time, attend many workshops during the summer (No, they do NOT get summers off!), grade papers at home when they could be spending quality time with family, attend their students’ extracurricular activities, etc., they also spend limitless hours reading about current research, changing and modifying the plans they’ve already made…and the cycle stays in motion.  Then they go straight to Pinterest to gain insight into how others are doing it in order to draw inspiration.  What did we do before Pinterest? 😉

--what teachers are--
–what teachers are–

It’s a thankless and highly criticized job, but one with extrinsic rewards that are minimal compared to the intrinsic ones.

It is a calling.

Vast amounts of research shows that students are not reading recreationally.  Sometime around 4th grade is where it starts to drop off.  Then it continues to spiral downward.

This year my school elected to assess every student’s reading level.  Lexile measures give the text complexity level (reading comprehension) of a particular individual.  This number matches a reader to texts that he/she can read comfortably, yet with just the right amount of challenge to keep increasing their number.  Assessing our entire student body was a pretty big feat considering that we have 1500 students in just 2 grade levels.  It took great planning and organization.

First, we thougLexile Rangesht it would be advantageous to have our teachers take the reading assessment so they could help the students troubleshoot any issues that could potentially arise.  Not only did this give teachers a leg up, but they also received their own Lexile measures.

Next, we assessed our students, and looking at the data was very telling.  We had many students in the 9th grade reading on 1700+ Lexile!  On the other hand, we had some 8-9th grade students identified as struggling readers.

This new information gave us a place to start with how to help these struggling students, as well as how to challenge our better

And it gave me a purpose.  The research I’ve done personally has inspired me to promote literacy different from ways we’ve promoted before.  I want to document some of it here on this blog.  In other ways, I’ll promote it more subtly within the walls of my school, among the teachers I have the pleasure of working with and the students I’m fortunate to see daily.  I hope it will help our teachers see an increase in our reading levels, inspire other students to read, and create a literacy-rich culture at my school that will continue throughout the year and beyond.

Here’s to the beginning!