When I first visited The Providence Children’s Film Festival website, I felt like a teenager who had just been told to clean her room. In short, I wasn’t really into it—at first. But it didn’t take long for a sense of joy to creep in as I watched some of the trailers. Then I got excited. The trailer for the movie Wadjda captured my attention. In fact, my interest was piqued enough to head over to my local public library to check this movie out in its entirety. Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed.
Check out the trailer for Wadjda here:
According to the notes (Providence Children’s Film Festival), Wadjda is the first film ever to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. But even though the story is about a particular 11-year-old girl coming of age and trying to forge her own self-identity in a very specific (Saudi Arabia) country and cultural context—the trailer, and ultimately the movie, succeeds in presenting this struggle as universal. As a viewer, the first thing we see is Wadjda’s shoes: Chuck Taylors in a sea of Mary Janes. Her quest to earn the money to purchase the green bicycle is not only delightfully anachronistic and subversive in a country that doesn’t even allow women to drive cars, but it also conveys a sense of Wadjda’s fierce optimism. Despite the limitations and constraints of her environment, Wadjda maintains hope in the possibility of change. And although this movie feels like an authentically rich, and nuanced representation of the contradictions and complexities of a young girl’s life in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda’s struggle for self-affirmation, self-determination, and self-understanding would be instantly relatable and recognizable to young people anywhere on the planet.
It is Wadjda’s relatability that makes the movie a terrible catalyst for the design of traditional curriculum. A teacher could use Wadjda to develop a unit exploring the culture of Saudi Arabia. In this scenario, the mystery or otherness of Saudi Arabian culture might be the hook. There are a lot of ways to do this wrong. Moreover, this type of approach does not take advantage of the movie’s primary strength: Wadjda’s story resonates on an individual and personal level because we all have dreams and we all struggle to reach our goals and maintain our sense of self in a confusing and often unfair world. For me, this is the kind of movie that would have gently reminded me as a teenager that I was not alone. With that in mind, I am designing my book talk to encourage independent reading, and appeal directly to teenagers in grades 9-12 who enjoyed the movie Wadjda, and might be in the market for an empowering, coming-of-age-story featuring a strong female lead who struggles to overcome the constraints and pressures of her environment. For my book talk, I chose True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff.
This is a book I read for the first time about ten years ago. It came to my attention because it was a Printz Honor book back in 2003, and it also won the National Book Award. Like Wadjda, True Believer is essentially a coming-of-age story that explores a serious topic in a gentle and warm-hearted way. Written in verse and told through first-person narration, True Believer unfolds through the eyes of LaVaughn—a 15-year-old girl living in an unnamed inner-city who aspires to rise above the poverty and violence of her surroundings and go to college. Like the character Wadjda, LaVaughn is not broken by her environment. The choice of narration is perfect here because the focus is not on the failings of LaVaughn’s inner-city environment, but on LaVaughn’s rich inner life as she experiences first love, feelings of isolation, pressure to conform, religious doubt, along with disappointment and confusion as she struggles to maintain focus on her goals. This book has universal themes that will appeal to most young adults. And as LaVaughn moves from doubt and confusion to understanding the reader will be right there with her.
In preparing my book talk for True Believer, there were a few basic principles and ideas that I thought were important. Because I work in a book store and I spend at least a portion of each day discussing books with store patrons, I am convinced that the most effective way to promote a book is simple: allow your joy and excitement for the particular book to shine through. This is a two-way street. In the book store, I am not interested in positioning myself as the authority on books, but rather in establishing a community of readers who support and tell each other about good books to read. If a customer tells me about a book and they have a certain light in their eyes—I pay attention. I suspect this is as true for libraries as it is for book stores. Although I feel a bit self-conscious in front of a camera, I really hope my passion for the book True Believer comes through in the video.
As a future school library media specialist, I am also not interested in creating a power dynamic that positions me as the authority on books. I have a sneaking suspicion that most teenagers tune these kinds of adults out anyways. To create a student-centered environment that supports independent reading, I believe it is important to respect students, intellectually and individually. Consequently, I made special effort not to talk down to students in my book talk, and to be more conversational (maybe interactive?) in my approach. In this regard, I consider my book talk as part of a larger whole—with the intent of creating a community of readers and users of information. Fingers crossed I can pull this off!
Here is my booktalk: