Discussing Identity and Privilege in Online Book Club with The Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart

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One of my summer classes this session is an online book club for 7th and 8th grade readers. While I’m eager for the chance to connect with middle schoolers after a spring semester of mostly focusing on my K-4 readers, I’ve never done an online book club before. I was excited, but worried it would be weird. And the truth is, it is kind of weird. We owned that on our first day, having a conversation full of “Well, this is weird” and “How does this work on Zoom?” and “Do I have to keep my camera on?” Turns out, if you just lay it all out and openly discuss how its weird and not ideal, letting the kids know that you feel it too, it can also be super awesome.

We spent our entire first day together choosing the book that the group wanted to read. Although with most book clubs I choose the book ahead of time, I wanted to try something new in this virtual format. It’s summer, the students went out of their way to take the course, we’re reading a whole book in just six meetings – I wanted them to feel invested and to love whatever text we landed on. I created a list of 11 possible options, all selected because they were age appropriate, high interest, and easily accessible from home. Each book got a slide on a Google Slides slideshow and we worked our way through all 11, looking at the covers and reading the summaries. Next, we used a DoodlePoll to vote on our favorites. From there, we listened via Zoom to the library’s audiobook sample of our top three choices, and voted on the winner.

Our group’s selection is The Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart. Here is a summary, from Bookshop.org:

It’s never too late for the adventure of a lifetime. In all the ways that matter, Mark is a normal kid. He’s got a dog named Beau and a best friend, Jessie. He likes to take photos and write haiku poems in his notebook. He dreams of climbing a mountain one day. But in one important way, Mark is not like other kids at all. Mark is sick. The kind of sick that means hospitals. And treatments. The kind of sick some people never get better from. So Mark runs away. He leaves home with his camera, his notebook, his dog, and a plan. A plan to reach the top of Mount Rainier. Even if it’s the last thing he ever does. The Honest Truth is a rare and extraordinary novel about big questions, small moments, and one incredible journey.”

I really like this book, and I also recognize its limitations. It fits firmly into the “white boy and his dog” trope, which can feel like a disappointment when there are so many beautiful stories by and about BIPOC available. But kids deserve to choose what they read, and a story is not immediately bad or offensive because it is written by a white, male author. The Honest Truth is a great book to share and discuss; it also is written by and features a white male. These two things do not have to be mutually exclusive. Any story can serve as a jumping off point for diving deeper and thinking critically, if the conversation is guided with thought and care. I’m working on a separate blog post where I detail our book club activities, highlighting the ways that sharing this book virtually actually makes our book club better. But for today, I want to share one specific discussion.

Readers completed chapters 4 and 5 for today. Together on our Zoom call, we slowly started talking about the facets of Mark’s identity that we know from the story. Mark is:

  • male
  • white
  • cisgender
  • from an upper middle class family living in Washington
  • a dog owner
  • a teen
  • a loving friend and son
  • living with cancer
  • able to hide his illness from others if he chooses to

Now that we know these things about Mark, we can consider: How do these facets of identity shape his story?

Here are a few of the guiding questions that I used to help the (sometimes camera shy and more comfortable on mute) group really dig in:

How would Mark’s journey be different if he needed to use a wheelchair as a tool to move?

Would he be treated the same and have the same experience if he had black or brown skin?

What would this journey look like if his family was experiencing homelessness or poverty?

What if Mark lived in another country?

How would any of these changes impact Mark’s privilege and make his story different?

 


 

Have you ever shared The Honest Truth with your readers? What kind of discussions did you have? How do you deepen discussions in your classroom or book club?

 

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