An Essay by Kate Schatz
As an educator, a parent, and a voracious reader, I’ve been endorsing reading in one way or another for much of my life. But OMG I have never wanted to endorse reading as much as I do Right. Now.
Books have always been my window into activism, into history, into feminism, into understanding myself and my potential in the world. Books have helped me cultivate empathy, enabling me to access and understand histories, realities, and people I might otherwise not have encountered. When I was in elementary school one of my absolute favorite books was In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord. I remember vividly the empathy that book brought out in me as I read and thought about how Shirley, the young Chinese immigrant protagonist, must have felt when her classmates mocked her accent. I was also obsessed with my mom’s tattered copy of Our Bodies Ourselves, and gave myself my own lessons in female anatomy and reproductive health, by sneaking it into my room and poring over it. I read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and Sounder and Number the Stars and gained insight into histories that my white, suburban upbringing didn’t allow—and that my public school was not teaching. Even books like Weetzie Bat had a huge impact, introducing me to queer and punk subcultures.
In high school I was dissatisfied with the limited narrative of History classes, so I read Howard Zinn for the first time. When I objected to dissecting a fetal pig for my Biology class, my wise teacher gave me an alternate assignment—knowing I was a reader and budding activist, he gave me And the Band Played On, exposing me to yet another struggle and history I’d known nothing about. I read Amy Tan and Edward Abbey and Margaret Atwood and Tim O’Brien and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker— through them I saw culture, war, feminism, activism, race, and America’s role in it all.
And then I went to college, and became a Women’s Studies and Creative Writing major. The books and authors I encountered there, with guidance from my incredible professors, still resonate today. It’s where I read Gertrude Stein and Hannah Arendt and Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton and Grace Paley and Joan Didion and Arundhati Roy and Audre Lord and Adrienne Rich.
These books shaped me as a writer, as a thinker, as a human. They have given me the intellectual and artistic tools to lead, create, and function in this post-election reality. We are plunging, headlong and horrified, into an uncertain American future. So much is unknown, but I feel very confident in saying that art, culture, and literature will not be a top priority for the incoming administration. In fact, they will very likely be seen as a threat.
So support your libraries, your independent bookstores. Give books as gifts. Set up a Little Free Library in your front yard. Buy or donate books to local schools, shelters, community centers. And read, read, read yourself. Read works by non-white writers. Read women, read queer writers, read works in translation. Ground yourself with historical non-fiction; envision new worlds with sci-fi and fantasy; escape and explore with fiction; access beauty and truths with poetry. Read to laugh, read to learn, read to lead. Practice reading as a form of self-defense.
The racist, misogynist, xenophobic messages coming down from the new American regime are unspeakable. More than ever we need to counter this with messages of empowerment, love, tolerance, and cultural, spiritual, and racial diversity. Writers must be even more vigilant about creating, and readers must be even more vigilant about reading. Regardless of the content, reading and writing are political acts—and acting is what we all must do.
Kate Schatz is the author of Rad Women Worldwide and Rad American Women A-Z, the New York Times bestselling feminist children’s books (for everyone). Her book of fiction, Rid of Me: A Story, was published in 2006 as part of the acclaimed 33 1/3 series.
Her work has been published in Oxford American, Denver Quarterly, Joyland, East Bay Express, and San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Her short story “Folsom, Survivor” was a 2010 Notable Short Story in Best American Short Stories 2011.
Written for Books Inc.'s December 2016 Newsletter