Summary and book reviews of Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo

Reading with Patrick

A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship

by Michelle Kuo

Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo
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  • Published:
    Jul 2017, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis

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About this Book

Book Summary

A memoir of race, inequality, and the power of literature told through the life-changing friendship between an idealistic young teacher and her gifted student, jailed for murder in the Mississippi Delta.

Recently graduated from Harvard University, Michelle Kuo arrived in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, as a Teach for America volunteer in 2004, bursting with optimism and drive. But she soon encountered the jarring realities of life in one of the poorest counties in America, still disabled by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In this stirring memoir, Kuo, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, shares the story of her complicated but rewarding mentorship of one student, Patrick Browning, and his remarkable literary and political awakening.

Convinced she can make a difference in the lives of her teenaged students, Michelle Kuo puts her heart into her work, using quiet reading time and guided writing to foster a sense of self in students left behind by a broken school system. Though Michelle loses some students to gun violence and truancy, she is inspired by students such as Patrick. Fifteen and in the eighth grade, Patrick begins to thrive under Michelle's exacting attention, rising to meet her rigorous expectations. However, after two years of teaching, Michelle feels pressure from her parents and the draw of opportunities outside the Delta, and leaves Arkansas to attend law school.

Years later, on the eve of her graduation, she learns that Patrick has been jailed for murder. Feeling that she had left the Delta prematurely, and determined to fix her mistake, Michelle returns to Helena and resumes Patrick's education - even as he sits in a jail cell awaiting trial. Every day for the next seven months they pore over classic novels, poems, and works of history. Little by little, Patrick grows into a confident, expressive writer and a dedicated reader galvanized by the works of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Marilynne Robinson, W. S. Merwin, and others. In her time reading with Patrick, Michelle is herself transformed, contending with the legacy of racism and the question of what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.

Reading with Patrick is an inspirational story of friendship, a coming-of-age story for both a young teacher and a student, an expansive, deeply resonant meditation on education, race, and justice in the rural South, and a love letter to literature and its power to transcend social barriers.

Chapter 1
A Raisin in the Sun

Where Helena sits on the banks of the Mississippi, the river is quiet, peaceable. Summer songbirds talk with frogs, with a tsee tsee tew tew cheer cheer. Wild dewberries bloom on the bluffs, where they dangle, ripe but unplucked. In the water below, catfish form shadows, ready to gorge on what the wind shakes in. For thousands of years the river routinely flooded these banks, building the most fertile soil in the world. In the mid-nineteenth century, plantation owners yielded from this soil a single crop—cotton—and cotton made it slave country.

Slave owners in the Delta were the richest moguls in the nation, and the wealthiest 10 percent of Arkansas's population owned 70 percent of its land. Steamboats competed with railroads to transport cotton from Helena. After the Civil War, the lumber industry took off, and the swampy hardwoods in the Delta offered yet another source of wealth. People flocked here for ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

From page one, Michelle Kuo's extraordinary memoir, Reading with Patrick, pulled me into a journey from Arkansas to Harvard, and places in between. It challenged my assumptions about the label "murderer" and reinforced my own professional experience teaching at-risk students. Kuo's entertaining writing style and honesty fuel a deeper conversation about education, race, and justice in contemporary America.   (Reviewed by Karen Lewis).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

Honest, thoughtful, and humane, Kuo's book is not only a testament to a remarkable friendship, but a must-read for anyone interested in social justice and race in America. Thoughtfully provocative reading

Library Journal

Starred Review. This memoir of teaching literature in one of the poorest counties in America is a reminder of how literacy changes lives. Highly recommended.

Author Blurb Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore
This book is special and could not be more right on time. It's an absorbing, tender, and surprisingly honest examination of race and privilege in America that helps articulate what is often lost, seemingly intentionally, in national debates over criminal justice and education: the inner life and imagination of a young person.

Author Blurb Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs
Every American should read Michelle Kuo's remarkable memoir. Honest, generous, humble, and wise, Reading with Patrick will endure as a defining story for our times and, abidingly, a testament to the power of language and of books.

Author Blurb Bill Moyers
I delighted in this book and read it in a single weekend. Reading with Patrick is a significant work that could swell the ranks of highly motivated and qualified teachers - people who understand they are not just transferring information but transforming lives.

Author Blurb Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them
Riveting...Reading with Patrick is an essential addition to our national conversation about institutional racism. It is also an empathic story of connection: between a dedicated teacher and her student, between history and our current times, and between literature and life. It is hard to imagine a more inspiring testament to the transformative power of reading.

Author Blurb Darcy Frey, senior lecturer on English, Harvard University, and author of The Last Shot
In Reading with Patrick, Michelle Kuo takes on the subjects of race, privilege, and the debt that the human community owes to its most disadvantaged members with a bracing intelligence, honesty, and self-scrutiny. This is a gorgeous, urgent, and heartbreaking memoir.

Author Blurb Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries and author of Tattoos on the Heart
Reading with Patrick could not be more timely. Kuo underscores the power of tender attention and shows us that if we go to the margins, we all find rescue.

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Beyond the Book

Teach For America

Teach for AmericaWhile finishing her undergraduate degree in 2004, Reading with Patrick author Michelle Kuo connects with a recruiter from Teach For America (TFA), which led her to teach in rural Arkansas. Each year, Teach For America places more than 5,000 pre-K – 12th grade teachers in high-need rural and urban schools across the United States through a network of 53 regional centers.

Teach For America began in 1989 as founder Wendy Kopp's undergraduate honors thesis, which articulated the possibility of creating a national teaching corps by recruiting recent college graduates. TFA affiliated with AmeriCorps in 1993. The programs are modeled after the Peace Corps and follow the legacy of John F. Kennedy who, in 1961, encouraged young ...

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