Legacy and the Queen created by Kobe Bryant

I really don’t follow sports so I had to play catch up on the national – maybe worldwide – mourning for the loss of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and the others who were involved in the terrible helicopter accident. I was quickly pulled in as I learned more about Kobe. He was a force and a light for many, but the part of his life that intrigued me most was the work he was beginning to do to encourage and lift up girls. He said, “I have four girls at home… It’s important that they see characters that look like them and that they see athletes.”

To do this, Kobe started Granity Studios, a multimedia original content company, which tells stories around sports, “bringing education and inspiration together.” Granity Studios produced the book Legacy and the Queen which I read, in part to better understand Kobe, and also in honor of Black History Month which is celebrated in the US, UK, and Canada during the month of February. The book concept and characters were created by Kobe and the story was written by Annie Matthew. The book is targeted for ages 10 and up. I’m older than 10 so I qualified.

The story centers around Legacy Petrin, a tennis player from the poorer neighborhood of the Republic of Nova. She is compelled to compete against “the elites” so that she can earn enough money to save her father’s orphanage. The book includes several diversity and inclusion themes. Because Legacy is from the poorer neighborhood, she looks and acts differently, and she often feels that people are watching her – waiting for her to make a mistake. She hasn’t had formal training like the elites have, and she doesn’t have mentors to help her navigate the politics of the high-profile tennis competition. The elites also need a lesson in inclusion. They don’t include Legacy in social activities and she frequently feels like an outsider. With the help of a couple of loyal friends, she is ultimately able to overcome her feelings of exclusion and succeed.

I highly recommend this book – for yourself or for kids in your life. As so many of us mourn the loss of Kobe and his daughter, Gianna, reading this book is a way to remember the many good things that he put into motion. He set out to #bethechange, and I have confidence that the people he surrounded himself with will carry forward the mission.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I had a hard time picking up this book. I thought that I knew a lot about Michelle Obama and that the book would fall flat for me. After all, she and her family lived in a fishbowl for all of us to watch for 8 years. I was wrong. What I didn’t know was the person behind the persona – the feelings and complexity inside the image of the former First Lady.

I always root for the underdog – the team that isn’t supposed to win and the person who isn’t supposed to succeed. By her own admission, Michelle Obama wasn’t supposed to end up in the White House and having heard her story, I agree that her journey was not nearly as straightforward as most others who have lived in that famous home. She grew up very modestly on the southside of Chicago, her family living on the second floor of a small home owned by her aunt and uncle. Her family was in many ways traditional, with her mom staying home during many of her growing up years, but her parents weren’t satisfied with the status quo for their children. They wanted change and progress for their children, or perhaps they hoped that their children would be the change and create the progress. Regardless, her parents sacrificed and looked for opportunities to help Michelle and her brother, Craig, succeed. They were both excellent students and amazingly, both graduated from Princeton University.

Michelle Robinson was successful before she met Barack Obama. After graduating from Princeton, she attended Harvard Law School, and was hired as an attorney at a highly regarded Chicago law firm. Because she had a strong desire to give back to her community, she eventually moved from the law firm to government and community service work. Making this move was bold and signified that she has more interest in life than just earning money – she wants to make a difference.

Throughout the book, Michelle shared that she is often made to feel that she is “other” and that she at times, doesn’t feel like she belongs. As a result, she has great empathy for people who are perceived as outsiders and those who are different. Beautifully, she said that “We grow up with messages that tell us there is only one way to be American. That if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong.”

We have all been made to feel “other” at some time in our lives. It’s a feeling that we are not welcome or that we don’t belong. It may have been that time when you were looking for someone to play with at recess or sit with in the school cafeteria. Or that time you started a new job and no one made you feel welcome. Or that meeting you attended, and there was no one in the room who looked like you – they were a different gender, ethnicity, or nationality – and they didn’t offer encouragement or other sign of acceptance. Michelle Obama shared that she too, has lived through those moments just like us, even as she assumed her duties as the first African American First Lady of the United States.

Becoming is a story that so many of us can relate to. If you feel like you or your ideas are different or unique, or the way you communicate isn’t always understood, or that finding acceptance is sometimes a challenge, then you should read this book. In the words of Michelle Obama, “Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.”

Discussion Questions:

In honor of Black History Month, I am reading books about African Americans. What are you doing to celebrate Black History Month?

Do you have a story you can share about a time when you didn’t feel accepted or that you didn’t belong? How did you overcome those feelings?

What other books have you read that really made you think about people who are different from you?

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness

Grace Will Lead Us Home was horrific and painful at times, but also such an important book to read. This true story begins at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, where members of an evening bible-study group welcomed Dylan Roof, a young white man, to join their discussion. Roof opened fire on the group, killing 9 African American members of the church, including the pastor. You will get to know each of the victims and the author tries to give readers a sense of what it was like to be in that church during their final moments.

The targeted church is one of the oldest African American churches in the US, and is known to be a center for human rights discussions and organization. From a variety of statements made by Roof, it is clear that the killing was motivated by his racism.   

Killing, particularly in any house of worship, is insidious. But the most remarkable part of the story is the forgiveness given by some members of the affected families just two days after the shooting. The grace publicly displayed by these families offered me hope – and maybe will for you too – that we can come together as a common humanity and word towards a greater good. The fact is that we are better together – whether we are bringing our diverse talents and ideas together to discover new innovation or continuous improvement in the workplace or we are using that same diversity to improve our neighborhoods, schools, churches, and other community centers.

The book was written by Jennifer Berry Hawes, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who works for the Charleston Post and Courier. Her articles have focused on religion for the last 10 years. Hawes interviewed survivors from the bible study, victim family members, first responders and others, ensuring that the story was captured as well as it could be.

My only negative comment is that the book was political at times. I understand that gun rights and gun violence is very much tied to today’s American politics. Being from the Midwest, though, I also understand that pulling politics into the discussion will turn some people away. Everyone, regardless of party affiliation, should read this important story – in my view, it would have been more effective for the author to tell the story and let readers draw their own conclusions about what we should do about guns in America.

I highly recommend this book. In the US, we are seeing too many acts of gun violence, and better understanding the stories of the victims and their families will help us come together and make positive change.

Discussion Questions:

In honor of Black History Month, I am reading books about African Americans. What are you doing to celebrate Black History Month?

Do you have a story that you can share about racism? How can we eliminate racism?

What other books have you read that really made you think about people who are different from you?

Strange Stones by Peter Hessler

I’m a new Peter Hessler fan. Hessler was born and raised in the United States, and as a young man he joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in China where he taught English. He stayed for 15 years, working as a freelance reporter for The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, and numerous other publications.

His fascination and adoration of the Chinese people and culture is evident throughout his writing. I listened to Strange Stones, one of the four books that he wrote about China. I chose this book in January in honor of the Chinese New Year which is on January 25 – Happy New Year to my Chinese co-workers!

Hessler befriended many during his years in China – factory workers, cooks, artists, farmers, and merchants – so that he could tell the story of ordinary Chinese people. Of course, China is a vast and diverse country, so one book cannot tell you all that there is to know, but still, there are plenty of interesting nuggets. You will hear about the importance of building relationships by face to face communications, the diversity of Chinese traditional foods, and how thriftiness has resulted in a focus on reusing and recycling materials.

His stories also weave in fun snippets of information, like the art of honking a car horn in China – including the single, double, long, stuttering, staggering, after-thought, and short honks – all of which have different meanings, according to Hessler. I have visited both Shanghai and Hong Kong, and I can attest that there is a lot of honking!

Hessler was particularly impressed by the Chinese people’s abilities to learn, innovate, and grow, resulting in their economy expanding at rates “never before seen in the developing world.” As to their history, Hessler reminds readers that the Chinese people made significant contributions to the world including inventing the compass, silk, paper, gunpowder, and seismoscope.

Hessler found many cultural similarities between the Chinese and Americans. “There was the same boundless optimism and energy. Both the Americans and the Chinese built wide roads across instant cities. They often had the quality of an upstart, and they believed that they could defeat time. In China, that characteristic sometimes seemed more American than the Americans.”

If you would like to learn more about China, then I recommend Strange Stones. I listened to the audio version. It was not read by the author (which is my preference), but it was very well done. Hessler’s humor is a bit dry, and I think that listening, as opposed to reading, would make for a more enjoyable book.

Happy New Year China! Stay safe and enjoy your friends and family during your holiday season.

Discussion Questions:

Have you read any book about China, and if so, what did you learn?

How is the Chinese culture similar and different from your own culture?

What other books have you read that really made you think about people who are different from you?

Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America by Dr. Ayaz Virji

I picked up Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America at my library because I don’t know a lot about being Muslim. Or being Muslim in America. I thought the book would help me better understand the Muslim faith and I was not disappointed. I highly recommend this book – it’s interesting, enjoyable, and you will undoubtedly learn something new.

Dr. Ayaz Virji felt called to help with the doctor shortage in rural America, and when an opportunity opened in rural Minnesota, he and his wife, Mussarat, moved their family from the East Coast to Dawson, Minnesota. The year was 2013. As the only doctor in Dawson, Minnesota, he became the medical director for the hospital, nursing home, and clinic. His family quickly adjusted to life in Dawson, a town of about 1,400 people.

I can relate to life in Dawson. I grew up in a Midwestern town of 1,200 people with no stoplights. The town doctor is an important figure in small towns, and it is easy for me to see how initially, Dr. Virji’s adjustment to life in a small town was simple. Small town people rely upon their local doctor, and the religion of their doctor is usually not important.

Dr. Virji is of Indian descent, born in Kenya, and raised in the U.S. He attended Georgetown University where he studied different religions. He said, “Christianity is a religion of love, of kindness, of peace, of justice. I am very proud and happy to have gone to Christian schools. It was my honor to do so.” He ultimately decided to practice the Muslim faith.

The world changed rapidly after the family’s move to Dawson. Local children began making anti-Muslim remarks to the Virji children, and the entire family began feeling unwelcome and disconnected from their new community. At that point, Dr. Virji and his wife had a decision to make – stay and help educate the community about the Muslim faith, or retreat to another place where people would accept and appreciate who they are. They decided to stay.

Dr. Virji, with the help of the Pastor of the local Lutheran Church, created a lecture called Love Thy Neighbor which is a factual but also deeply personal story of what it’s like for the Virji family to be Muslim in America. The lecture begins with “We can’t be scared of each other. We need to join together and build a foundation of love and respect. We don’t have to agree with everything, but let’s know first. I would hope we can do that. Let’s know.”

I have much more to learn, but I do feel as though I know more having read the book. For those of you wanting to know more about the Muslim faith, I highly recommend this book.

Discussion Questions:

Have you read Love Thy Neighbor, and if so, what did you think of the book?

If you had been in Dr. Virji’s shoes, would you have stayed in Dawson and educated the community about the Muslim faith, or would you have moved to a new community where you and your family would feel more welcome and safe?

What other books have you read that really made you think about people who are different from you?

Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Born A Crime is a FANTASTIC book about the life of Trevor Noah. As you may know, Trevor is the host of the Daily Show, an American late-night talk show and news satire program. He was born in South Africa during apartheid to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother when such a relationship was punishable by five years in prison. As a result of these laws, Trevor often had to remain in hiding during his early years so that his light skin would not land his parents in jail.

Nelson Mandela Statue in Johannesburg, South Africa

Often the role of the mother is pivotal in how a child grows into adulthood, but I can’t overstate enough how the strength and just pure guts of Trevor’s mother propelled him to where he is today. Trevor’s mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is a rock star. She is a strong, fearless woman who, while living in severe poverty, showed her son that there was a world beyond their neighborhood. Trevor says “we had a very Tom and Jerry relationship, me and my mom. She was the strict disciplinarian; I was naughty as shit.” And you see how this plays out over and over in stories that are both heart-felt and difficult to hear, but also funny beyond belief.

Trevor grew up in the Christian faith

Trevor’s mother is deeply religious, and church played an ever-present role for the family. “I grew up in a home with very little exposure to popular culture. Boys II Men were not allowed in my mother’s house. Songs about some guy grinding on a girl all night long? No, no, no. That was forbidden…. The only music I knew was from church: soaring, uplifting songs praising Jesus.”

Trevor’s stories are also a nod to the importance of diversity and inclusion. During apartheid, the South African leaders made every effort to control and hold down anyone who was not of European descent. Instead of appreciating that diversity can bring more ideas, innovation, and success to a society, they feared people who were different from them. Trevor, of course, is a success story, but convincing everyone of the benefits of diversity and inclusion is still a work in process. While apartheid has officially ended in South Africa, eradicating racism will be a challenge that multiple generations will need to work towards.

Erected in memory of those who suffered under Apartheid

Born A Crime will help you better understand South African culture, living in extreme poverty without electricity and running water, and racism. It is not a story that if you just work hard, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Instead, it is a story that if we give people a chance with a good education plus the right resources, anyone can be successful.

While Trevor credits many in his life, especially his mother, for providing him with the right combination of education and resources, I am still utterly amazed that Trevor Noah grew up as he did and at the ripe old age of 35, is now on television for a global audience. I both listened to and then read the book so that I could absorb all the rich detail. The audio version is excellent and read by Trevor. I particularly enjoy audio books that are read by the author, and this one hits the mark.

Discussion Questions:

Have you read Born A Crime, and if so, what did you think of the book?

If you could say one thing to Trevor’s mom, Patricia, what would it be?

What other books have you read that really made you think about people who are different from you?