We Didn’t Learn That In School

This month we asked our librarians to share some books/movies/TV shows/etc. that taught them something important that they didn’t learn about in school.  Here are their responses:

I went to school a LONG time ago, so I’ve learned many things from books that I didn’t learn in school! Three books come to mind as great examples. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery, and The Overstory by Richard Powers were all great books about life on planet Earth. I learned so much about how complicated life on Earth is, and how much richer than I ever knew.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F Saad: This book opened my eyes to a lot of behaviors that are antiblack and racist. I’m Puerto Rican and my skin is white, and although I’m often treated as an “other,” I sometimes fail to acknowledge my own privilege. The book is heavy to read at times because it shatters a lot of erroneous perceptions and questions a long list of behaviors/thoughts we often choose to ignore. True change (specifically systematic) isn’t supposed to be easy.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann: I’m somewhat aware of many of the injustices Native Americans in this country have suffered, including unsolved murders (I still need to learn more). However, I didn’t know about this particular case involving land, oil, and the FBI. This was another eye-opening book.

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough: Although I have seen many of Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings, I didn’t know anything about her story/personal life. Even though the book is fiction, it places the painter on the spotlight and brings forward issues that women still struggle with today.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers: This is a YA book that was published in 1999 and is still relevant today. The main character is a black teen facing our justice system and all the biases and injustices that come along with it.

I mostly read fiction, and I really appreciate it when historical fiction is based on facts.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Fiction. A studious black kid, Elwood, ends up in reform school, where horrors await him. Based on a real place that let its Jim Crow minders do whatever they wanted to poor mostly Black boys. Horrifying and heartbreaking. The reform schools for Black, Indegenous and impoverished people were often hell holes, and this one was no exception.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. Fiction. Wonderful epic quest, with a motley group of orphans across Minnesota during the depression. Includes traveling evangelists, Native Americans on the run from their cruel “Indian School”, and great descriptions of Hoovervilles. The horrible realities of schools for Native and impoverished people are well illustrated in this novel, and also the hardships of the Great Depression.

Fire! The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge. Graphic novel non fiction. This fast paced graphic biography of Zora Neale Hurston is really structured like her life: peripatetic, with lots of unusual short chapters! She was perhaps the only Black woman writer at the time of the Harlem Renaissance who made her living by writing. Bagge introduces the reader to many of the artists active during this time, and shows their love/hate relationships with Hurston, who for the most part did not share in the left-leaning philosophy of the movement. The episodic structure of the book recognizes Hurston’s many friendships, lovers and mentors as they came and went in her life. The charming full color cartoons are reminiscent of early Robert Crumb, with an affectionate humorous feel. Includes extensive notes with photographs in the back matter, and a bibliography. I like that this biography doesn’t attempt to airbrush Hurston’s many peccadillos, but presents her in all her eccentric, fascinating glory.

I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi by Gina Siciliano. Graphic novel non fiction. An engrossing biography of the Renaissance woman painter, with many details around the politics and social realities of the time.

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: What we learned about race in school was along the lines of “There was slavery, which was bad but it’s over now, then there was a Civil Rights movement, and now everything is fine!” Needless to say, that is not the entire story.

Mayflower by Nathanial Philbrick: Speaking of things glossed over in school, what we learned about our country’s origins were overly simplistic and we could have done with a more nuanced and detailed history.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli: I can only blame myself for dropping physics to take music, but if our science curriculum was presented in such a beautiful and wondrous way I’m sure I would have been interested in learning more than I did.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We learned nothing about the history of any African countries, so this novel was my first exposure to the 1960s civil war in Nigeria, and was also an immersive dive into Nigerian culture at that time.

War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy: Come to think of it, we learned very little about any country outside of the United States and I knew nothing about the Napoleonic Wars until I read this doorstop of a novel. See also: Robert K. Massie’s fantastic biography of Catherine the Great for some excellent Russian history and culture.

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon: There’s no place in a school curriculum for this, but there should be. In it, Solomon examines parts of the population with identities different than the rest of their families (people who are transgender or have disabilities, for two examples) and it’s a real thorough set of lessons on empathy and compassion.

Much of what I learned in school focused on a very specific perspective and left me with gaps in my knowledge, especially around marginalized communities and cultures outside of the US.

Everything I’ve learned about queer history comes from learning outside school.  A few of my favorites are:
Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker & Julia Scheele
How To Survive A Plague (The book by David France & the documentary are both excellent.)
The Celluloid Closet
Everything I’ve read by Sarah Waters
Butch Heroes by Ria Brodell
Paris Is Burning
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded by Jim Ottaviani & Leland Purvis
Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda R. Hirshman

Learning more about my Puerto Rican heritage is something that’s important to me and a few recent books I’ve read that have helped me learn more are:
War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony by Nelson A. Denis
The Battle For Paradise by Naomi Klein
Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico by Ed Morales
Puerto Rico Strong edited by Marco Lopez, Desiree Rodriguez, Hazel Newlevant, Derek Ruiz, and Neil Schwartz

The countless anime & JRPGs I’ve watched & played are major contributors to my interest in learning more about Japan and its history. The Persona series and the graphic novel What Is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko are both places where I learned a lot.

Reading The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See sent me down a rabbit hole of wanting to learn more about Korea, and a few other great things I’ve read since are Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Human Acts by Han Kang, and White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht.

Death is often a taboo topic, and reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach taught me a lot about death, death rituals, and what can happen to our bodies after we die.

Even in school I was always suspicious of the lack of women that we learned about.  Women Warriors: An Unexpected History by Pamela D. Toler, Bygone Badass Broads: 52 Forgotten Women Who Changed the World by Mackenzi Lee, I Know What I Am: The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi by Gina Siciliano, and History Vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know by Anita Sarkeesian & Ebony Adams helped me learn more about memorable women throughout history.

The documentary 13th, the TV show Lovecraft Country, the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the memoir When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele are a few places I’ve learned about Black history and racial disparities.

Most everything I list has taught me a little bit about a topic, but even more importantly has piqued my curiosity and drove me to do further research on the topic.  I think that’s especially important to do with works of fiction to disentangle what’s made up, what’s exaggeration, and what’s true.



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