First, a word of disclosure. This particular Oaks is my husband’s second cousin. We think. We’re nearly certain about it, in fact. He could be a first cousin once removed. At the very least, I’ve definitely met him at a family reunion; at the time, his precise connection to my mother-in-law didn’t come up in conversation (which is surprising, given how much her family enjoys discussing genealogy). As the product of two only children, I have given the technicalities of cousin-hood very little thought, and the only reason I mention it is because I feel it’s important to highlight any hint of author bias I might have when discussing a book.
That being said, I suspect I’m a lot more biased about authors I’ve been reading for years than I am about one who is, at best, tangentially “related” to me. Also, if you really wanted bias-free reviews, you would only have to read a small sampling of my posts to know you’re in the wrong place. I am nothing if not opinionated about books…
The funny thing is, I actually put off reading this one for a long time because I thought it was a biography. I have no idea where I got that idea. Sometimes at those reunions, I’m so exhausted by the end of the day, I only half-listen to the conversations around me; when that happens, I fill in the blanks with complete gibberish that I hopefully never get asked about. I’m about ninety percent certain that’s what happened here. The other ten percent is reserved for the possibility that another family member – one who hadn’t read the book but was trying to be encouraging – inadvertently gave me some false information. (My money’s on the gibberish theory, for the record.)
So, yes. I’m not a huge fan of biographies. I’ve only managed to read five or six in my entire life, and I was afraid that I would start J’s book and find that I couldn’t finish it. In my mind, that was the most disastrous thing I could do, because inevitably I would run into him again, and then how would I play it off? I can be exceptionally awkward when forced to lie, and what usually comes out instead is an ugly and blunt form of the truth. (You cannot even imagine the train wrecks I have endured when epically failing to lie.) In writing my character for Ten to One, however, I have started to do some research on bare knuckle boxing and the gambling that surrounds those fights. It occurred to me about a month ago that Why I Fight might be a great resource, so I girded myself and leapt in.
As it turns out, it is a great resource, but it’s not a biography. I managed about two years of avoidance for nothing! Instead, it was a fast-paced YA/MG novel that I suspect could have great appeal for young readers who are struggling to find an appealing book. I don’t often find stories like that, and I’m always incredibly excited to be able to recommend one.
Honestly, I can write a ten page list of books that are great for kids who love to read, but it’s much more difficult to narrow down the titles that can hold the attention of a child being forced to do it. I think one of our base desires is that we want other people to love the things we love; unfortunately, that just isn’t possible, and reading is often ruined for children (and adults) because those of us who are passionate about books have a hard time understanding where they’re coming from.
The thing is, I’ve met plenty of people who don’t like to read (for a variety of reasons), but I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who doesn’t like stories. Some people prefer to get them from video games or movies, in the news or at the water cooler. They may prefer an auditory experience, or they may find themselves transported more easily into another world when they can take part in shaping the narrative.
Personally, I like the privacy of the written word. I take great joy in soaking in the nuance of language, and I don’t have to struggle to create a world in my own head. Both nurture and nature were on my side there though. I never had to struggle to learn how to read, and I always had plenty of books available to me. My parents modeled a love of reading, and they encouraged me to read anything I wanted. I have such positive associations with books that it makes complete sense I would grow up to be a reader.
Every person in the world doesn’t have to be like me in order to enjoy the occasional great book though. The trouble is, for many non-readers, books have often been thrown at them haphazardly without a side note of “Hey! This is a great book, but let me know what you think – if it’s not your thing, we can keep looking.” Many school librarians have told me this is especially problematic in their line of work; once children start falling behind on reading comprehension, books become the enemy. The thing that breaks my heart is that they miss out on stories that could mean so much to them – books that probably won’t be assigned on any curriculum, but which capture a cathartic experience.
Why I Fight probably won’t end up on many summer reading lists, and that’s a shame because it’s a wonderful read. Its hero is passionate, and violent, and optimistic in his struggle against isolation and invisibility. It’s the kind of story I find myself wanting to give to kids who think there’s nothing for them in books.
We sat, and I watched Nana bow her head to pray for us. Then we ate, not talking, and I was happy for the quiet. Nobody in my family made any sense. Ma wore this gold cross on a chain but never went to church. Her and Fever and Spade all said their Jesuses and Christs like they was cusswords. And now, the first time anybody was talking God stuff, I was getting hollered at. Nothing was ever just said. It was either shouting or quiet. As I chewed, I got to thinking maybe I wasn’t really related to a single one of them. Only problem was we all had the same pasty white skin, leaf green eyes, and scraggly black hair. But how could I feel so different on my insides? I didn’t want to holler at anybody. I didn’t want to be hateful. I just wanted people to be happy, maybe smile sometimes, you know? And I didn’t want to be alone, like everybody else wanted to be. I was so scared of being left on my own, but right then, feeling so peeved and confused, I just kept staring at the kitchen window, picturing busting out, running as fast and as far as I could. (p 24)
For more about J Adams Oaks, go here.