Learning Life Lessons Through a Love of Literature: A Personal Essay

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In sixth grade, I was not social. Instead of making friends and participating in class, I lost myself in stories. Most of my mornings in homeroom were spent ignoring the other students and downing a few chapters of my latest read. My homeroom teacher, eager to solve this problem, interrupted the classroom conversation one morning and announced that I was in need of an “intervention” (her words, not mine). Horrorstruck, I watched as every young face in the room turned to

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find me slowly shrinking behind whatever was my current book.

“Kayla, we just think you shouldn’t read so much,” she explained before herding me to the middle of the room. She encouraged the other students to surround me, and they all began to chant. Really. The words “put down the book” are permanently stamped into my brain, as well as a burning feeling of rejection, surrounded by people who disapproved of me and my habits. I clutched my book

like a paper shield to my chest, wishing that the classroom would disappear, that my teacher had never spoken, that everyone would just leave me alone.

It was only when one of the students in the circle reached forward and ripped the book out of my hands, tearing a page, that the teacher finally ended the game. Her nervous expression told me she felt her playful “intervention” had stepped a bit too far. We all returned to our seats and I sat, tearful and red-faced, feeling the angry ball in the pit of my stomach slowly ebb away.

I don’t blame my homeroom teacher. She was a very kind, silly woman and only meant well. After all, I had the social skills of a toaster and was terrified to make eye contact, let alone strike up a conversation with my neighbor in history class.  However, I’m almost 21 years old and still in love with stories. At the time, I thought something was wrong with me. Why did I read so much? Now, I think my teacher should have turned her worry toward the other students.

Since when was reading so uncool? I hear more kids exclaim that they hate reading and would rather die than work their way through “Huckleberry Finn” or “Where the Red Fern Grows.” For me, reading provided hours of vivid entertainment that extended beyond the length of a movie or the battery life of a handheld video game. It showed me more than my small, Midwestern hometown of Hays, Kan., would ever have to offer.

Reading isn’t just the interpretation of letters on a page — it stimulates creativity. It’s a lifestyle, a learned skill. According to Scholastic’s Reading Facts, two thirds of eighth-graders don’t read at their grade level. In 2005, 12thgraders scored lower in reading than they did in 1992 in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Reading was once a privilege, only accessible to the literate and wealthy. I work at the KU Writing Center, and I frequently help native, English-speaking students who don’t understand where a comma goes, or how to break up a run-on sentence. What happened to literacy?

My schoolgirl days were filled with other kids telling me that reading was weird. They called me a nerd simply because I would rather check out books from the library than sit and watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (although that show ishilarious). That label followed me through high school, despite the fact that I graduated with average grades. I was no valedictorian, though some expected me to be. And for what? Because I remembered the big words I read and used them? I don’t really know. But I do know that reading helped me in more ways than I can ever understand.

I’m glad I doggedly stuck with my reading habits, encouraged by a few beloved teachers and many family members. Even at such a young age, I explored the world and saw so much more than what lay in my closed-in hometown.  I wouldn’t take back a second of it, not even the weird, cult-esque intervention in homeroom. The lessons I learned from my favorite story characters stuck with me; they carved a path for me, showed me I could face my demons and told me to keep going. They showed me where to go. All I had to do was follow.

(This was originally posted on the Political Fiber website on December 13, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can read the original here.)

Popular Dystopian Books and Why We Like Them

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Books portraying alternate societies, post-apocalyptic worlds and failing governments have been extremely popular lately—in fact, the number of dystopian-themed books is at its highest point since the 1960s, according to an analysis by GoodReads. But these kinds of books date back much further and remain a typical choice for sci-fi readers. So, what about dystopian books makes them so popular?

“Apocalyptic stories allow us to express our fears, and, perhaps, serve as warnings to prevent such futures from coming to be,” said Chris McKitterick, director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.

He said that apocalyptic, dystopian fiction always seems to ask one central question: What if _____ happens? The blank could be something to do with technology, society, evolution or about anything else.

Many of these books focus on governments — corruption, cruelty or how very easy it is for them to break down — and become more popular during turbulent political times. Most recently, we’ve seen the rise of books like the Hunger Games trilogy, which surpassed Harry Potter as the bestselling series on Amazon.

Here’s a look at five classic dystopian novels that point out flaws in governments and societies that, in ways, aren’t so different from our own.

  •  Lord of the Flies by William Golding

“Lord of the Flies” tells a story about the formation and failure of government. Some question its categorization as dystopian; there are no zombies, end-of-the-world threats or post-apocalyptic environments. Instead, the stage is a lonely island for a group of stranded British boys who set up their own makeshift society. And, guess what? It eventually turns south.

KU senior Maria Juarez from Des Moines, Iowa, said the book exposes human nature when civilization falls apart.

“And best of all, children committed all the atrocities on the island,” Juarez said. “If the aliens were to visit Earth, I would put a copy of ‘Lord of the Flies’ in their welcome basket.”

  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

Welcome to a seemingly perfect society, one that strips its citizens of pain, suffering and choice. Only one lonely person must experience those: the Receiver of Memory. When 12-year-old Jonah steps into this role and learns what his community is hiding, his notion of the “perfect” town begins to come apart at the seams.

Kiley Dinkel, a freshman at Fort Hays State University from Hays, Kan., said the book’s theme of individuality is still memorable, though it’s been years since she first read it.

“The message that really stuck with me was how important it is to be different,” Dinkel said. “Being different isn’t a bad thing… it makes you who you are.”

  • 1984 by George Orwell

Arguably one of the most popular, classic dystopian novels of all time, “1984” focuses on a tyrannical government that is out of control. This political fiction exposes a society filled with never-ending war, constant government surveillance and public mind control. Individuality and independent thinking are considered “thoughtcrimes.”

Matt Lancaster, a junior from Basehor, Kan., says aspects of the novel — like the “telescreens” that spy into civilians’ lives — hit close to home and raise intriguing questions.

“[The book] praises the right kind of individuality, the kind that questions unjust establishments,” Lancaster said. “It is a great example of socialism gone too far.”

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

A nightmare for book nerds everywhere, “Fahrenheit 451” takes place in a society where books are burned and firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. Guy Montag is a fireman whose questions soon stick him in the middle of the censorship conflict.

Diane Mason, an English teacher at Hays High School in Hays, Kan. said that teaching material like “Fahrenheit 451” always raises questions of censorship in the classroom.

“Every couple of years, I encounter a student who refuses to read this or that book,” Mason said. “I think to myself, is this book so terrible that I should burn it? Get it out of your sight so that you never have to experience a thought that challenges your own?”

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This grim mixture of high literature and popular fiction depicts a father and son’s journey through a post-apocalyptic, broken world where survival is a struggle. Starvation, cannibalism and the constant threat of death all make this a grave read. This novel will pose at least one significant question to its readers: What’s the meaning of living an empty life?

Austin Schauer, a senior from Topeka, Kan., said themes in the book, such as cannibalism, are “terrifying, for obvious reasons.”

“It will make you reevaluate everything you’ve ever thought and the way you live your life,” he said.

(This story was published by Political Fiber on Thursday, Dember 6, 2012. I’m publishing it here to archive my work. Read the original post here.)