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Book Review: The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood

Book Review: The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood

I have been on a memoir kick lately. Perhaps because the current state of my own life is such a mess, I’m in need of a little perspective or solidarity- that whole misery loves company thing. It’s quite an experience, reading the details of another’s life, and I am always in awe of these individuals who so bravely share their stories with us. A few months back I read The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood and this book has stuck with me. I have been wanting to write about it but I have put it off because, well, I don’t feel I’m very adept at writing reviews and I think this particular book deserves more reverence than my limited words will allow. It is also difficult for me to write about this book because it struck a nerve with me. Some of it hit close to home, even if our life experiences are not all that similar. Still, I think this book is deserving of  attention, so here’s my paltry synopsis.

I am only mildly embarrassed to admit that I first learned of Kevin Powell many years ago when that little show on MTV, The Real World, first began. My mom and I would watch it together, and aside from it filling what was (apparently) a need to pry into the lives of strangers, I was fascinated by this Kevin guy. Truthfully, I didn’t know what to make of him. He seemed so mad all of the time, but I frequently found myself agreeing with what he said. Or yelled. I couldn’t decide if he was courageous or crazy, but I knew I had never encountered anyone like him in my own life. When I learned all these years later he had written a memoir, I could not wait to get my hands on it.

Here’s the thing about Kevin Powell’s story: it is drenched in sorrow. He recounts his years of abuse and neglect in great detail, and vividly illustrates what it was like to grow up with nothing, his most basic needs having barely been met. Reading about his childhood made me weep, and not just for what he went through, but also because I know his upbringing was unlikely to play out any other way. This is what poverty does. This is what happens to people when we keep them entrapped in this loop of racism and classism, and force them to be victims of their own lives.

After the details of his traumatic childhood were covered, I felt like I was caught in a game of emotional Ping-Pong. Reading about his experiences as a young man was nothing short of frustrating. Just when I would think he was about to move beyond his past, something else would happen, sending him back into despair. Sometimes these events occurred through no fault of his own, other times they were self-inflicted, as he repeatedly allowed his anger to control him. I found myself sometimes desperately wishing someone had been there to protect him and hold him, to whisper, “You are so much better than what you believe about yourself.” Other times, his actions enraged me, and I would find myself shaking my head in utter disappointment.

Ultimately, Kevin Powell finds his way to self-acceptance. Moreover, he comes to take responsibility for his actions with complete honesty. It may sound trite to praise someone for this, after all, isn’t that just part of growing up? While that may be so, he has confessed to some repugnant acts, and I believe it is significant that he learned to forgive himself, refusing to allow his mistakes to define him. Admirably, he uses some of his most negative experiences as a catalyst for reflection and growth, and also as a way to give voice to populations who need it most.

On a more personal note, there is a theme throughout this book that really resonated with me. I could not help but be aware how often Mr. Powell seemed to be struggling with his innate abilities and talents countered by how he knew he was “supposed to be.” I am familiar with this struggle. Based on my personal history, I should have had a very different outcome. Someone with my background is not supposed to have a life this good. And Kevin Powell was not supposed to be intelligent, successful, and influential. It’s a subtle but constant question for those of us who have been marginalized: how much of what the world tells us about ourselves do we have to believe?

I am hesitant to put too much attention on his accomplishments, even though that is what makes Mr. Powell’s story so incredible. I fear focusing on his victories becomes some sort of proof of this lie we are told, this idea that we can all somehow go on to do amazing things. We are made to believe it is our own fault if our lives don’t mirror American ideals when nothing could be further from the truth. It’s completely arrogant and dismissive to believe good fortune is simply a matter of choice. I’m sure there are a multitude of reasons Kevin Powell’s life unfolded the way it did; perhaps it was the perfect combination of determination and luck. Whatever the reason, I am grateful for the work he has done and continues to do, and grateful that he shared his story.



Book Review: When Harriet Met Sojourner

Book Review: When Harriet Met Sojourner

This week’s book review is on When Harriet Met Sojourner by Catherine Clinton, Illustrated by Shane W. Evans

When Harriet Met Sojourner tells the story of the lives of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and creates a brief story of the time the two women met.  The story is told in an alternate pattern with one page sharing information about Sojourner, the next about Harriet, and so on until the two women meet.  The illustrations are rich with texture and visually striking.

Being a huge admirer of both of these women, I wish I could wholeheartedly recommend this book.  After being given brief biographical information on each of the women, we come to the point where the two women meet in Boston in 1864.  This is, of course, the point of this book, but it is entirely anticlimactic. The author notes that there were no recordings of this meeting, so what actually happened is anyone’s guess.  In this case, the author weaves together a lovely story of their “kinship of spirit.” I don’t dispute that this kinship may have been real, but it is well known that the two women were very different in their personalities and methods, and they had contrasting opinions on President Lincoln. Surely these things would have come up in their time together. The author omits this, though, opting instead for a more unifying message.

To my best knowledge, the background information in this book is accurate. However, the reader is led to believe that Harriet was more obedient than she actually was reported to be. Clinton notes that Harriet moved “from one master to another” but does not share that one of the reasons for that was because Harriet so often fought back against the cruelty she endured. I find this to be an unfortunate omission, as her early years of defiance is an empowering message.

Given the topic of this book, it obviously deals with slavery and the civil war.  It assumes the reader is already familiar with these things, and if they are not, this book would not make for a good introduction. While this would be an OK addition to your library, you are probably better off introducing your children to individual biographies of these two women.

Book Review: Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman

Book Review: Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman

Last week I wrote about our love of reading, and how much I enjoy finding multicultural books. Since we are reading these books anyway, I have decided to post reviews of them. If you have titles to share, please do so in the comments.


Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Talkin’ About Bessie is a real gem of a book. The illustrations are beautiful, and the narrative of Bessie’s life is definitely interesting. Until picking up this book I was unfamiliar with Elizabeth Coleman (which always makes me wonder who else don’t I know about), and after reading it I wondered how that could be so. If her name is also unknown to you, she was the first African American woman in the world to become a pilot.

This story is based on actual events and people, but Grimes does weave in some fictional details in order to give a more complete story.  It begins with Bessie’s loved ones mourning her death, and the story unfolds with each person recounting a tale of the Bessie they knew. We hear from her family members, her school teacher, and those who knew her as she was pursuing her goal of becoming an aviator, each contributing another piece of information about her. The effect is that we are given a broad and informative portrayal of Bessie’s life. More impressive, though, is that the author is able to give each person, each storyteller, if you will, real depth of character in so few words.

This is somewhat lengthy for a picture book and is definitely intended for older children.  Simi found some of the passages a little slow, as she was most interested in her life as a pilot, not the events leading up to that. (Although, there were a few tales from Bessie’s childhood that gave Simi a chuckle.) On the whole, Elizabeth Coleman’s life was amazing and inspirational, and I definitely recommend this book.

Book Review: When the Beat Was Born

Book Review: When the Beat Was Born

When I began teaching preschool so many years ago, the words “multicultural classroom” were unheard of.  I don’t know if this was unique to the school I was working in, or if this was a result of being in Texas where progress can sometimes be slow. Most likely the absence of multiculturalism was that society, on the whole, did not understand or was just not aware of how important it is for children of color to be represented in media. I know, even as a woman of color, that I did not give much thought to this. I think I had just accepted the whiteness of my world.

By the mid-1990’s the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) was firmly established as the go-to authority on how to create quality preschool classrooms. It seemed like preschools everywhere were going through the process of NAEYC accreditation. One of the requirements for accreditation was creating a multicultural classroom.  It seems so silly to think of now, but the fact that you could so easily expose children to other races, cultures, and ethnicities was a real awakening for me. Of course, I know that books and toys are not as good as actually having real life personal experiences, but it’s a really good place to start. Even though I have been out of the classroom for years, I am still really interested in what types of things are available to kids that may help them to see the world a little differently; a little more completely.

We do a lot of reading in our home, and I frequently try to find books that tell stories of all kinds of people. My daughter loves history so we end up reading a lot of biographies and non-fiction, and even though she has shunned picture books because she is “too old” for them, I still manage to sneak in a fair amount. Since we are both pretty opinionated, I thought I may as well use this blog to share some book reviews. I hope you are able to find things to add to your own library, and if you have titles to suggest, please do so in the comments.


When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III

As the title implies, this book tells the story of DJ Kool Herc. It begins with his life as a small boy in Jamaica, where he idolized DJ King George and wanted nothing more than to become a DJ himself. We learn of his move to New York City, how he earned his nickname, and most of all, how he changed the Bronx with his famous street parties.

This book will definitely go on my recommended list. While there were moments where I felt like the story didn’t quite flow well,  it still manages to be engaging. The illustrations work very well, even though the illustrator relies heavily on a handful of muted colors. I am most impressed that the author was able to portray a positive image of life in the Bronx at that time period, in contrast to what is typically heard. (On that note, there is mention of street gangs so if you don’t want have that conversation with your kids, then you might want to pass on this book for now.) I particularly enjoyed reading the author’s note at the end of the book, where a timeline of hip hop is included.

As for the girl, she liked it and said she may want to read it again, except for it being a picture book.  When we read about Kool Herc’s “monster sound system” she said, “And you think I play MY music loud?!?!” I am certain she will use this against me the next time I tell her to lower the volume.