Reading: It’s What You Do


I have observed many families where reading is simply what people do. In one, a favorite family story is of a little girl (a toddler) whose parents and older brother were sitting in the living room, reading. No one told anyone else to read; this was simply something people did. The little girl was so young that she was holding her book upside-down, but she was doing her best.

This family does not consent to be identified by name, but I do have permission to describe the scene above. There are thousands of families like this — in the USA alone. May they increase in number.

When reading is simply what you do, it has a huge impact on who you are.

A Scenario I Would Like to See: Friendly Competition, Between Teachers’ Unions and School Administrators, to Help School Libraries Everywhere

school libraries

During the Cold War, the usual way nations compete (direct warfare) was taken off the table by the invention of the hydrogen bomb. With the alternative being mutually-assured destruction, the two sides, led by the USA and the USSR, had to find other ways to compete. Some of those ways were harmful, such as proxy wars, as happened in Vietnam. Others, however, were helpful, such as the space race. The United States put men on the Moon in order to beat the Soviet Union there, as this iconic 1969 photograph makes evident (source: NASA).

planting the flag

We are all still reaping the benefits of the technological and scientific advances made during this period, and for this purpose. The most obvious example of such a benefit is the computer you are using to read this blog-post, for computer technology had to be advanced dramatically, on both sides, in order to escape the tremendously-challenging gravity-well of the Earth.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if other conflicts in society took beneficial forms, as happened in this historical example?

This could happen in many ways, but the one that gave me the idea for this post is the conflict between teachers’ unions and school districts’ administrators, now taking place in school districts all over the place. I think it would be awesome if this previously-harmful competition changed, to take a helpful form: book drives, to help school libraries.

Please do not misunderstand, though: I’m not talking about taxpayer money, nor union dues. My idea need not, and should not, affect the budget of any school district, nor union budget. All that need happen is for individual people — teachers and administrators  — to go home, look at their own bookshelves, and help students directly, by donating some of their already-paid-for books to school libraries.

While I make no claim to represent any organization, I am a teacher, and a member of the NEA (the National Education Association) in the United States, as well as my state and local NEA affiliates. In an effort to start this new, helpful way to compete, I will give books to the school library where I teach, next week, which is the second week of the new school year. That’s a lot easier than, well, putting men on the Moon. 

This is something we can all do. All of us in the education profession, after all, already agree that we want students reading . . . and this is something we can easily do, to work together towards that goal. School libraries need hardcover books which are student-friendly, meaning that they appeal to a young audience, on a wide variety of subjects. Both fiction and non-fiction books are helpful.

Lastly, in the hope that this idea catches on, I will simply point out one fact: helping turn this idea into a reality is as easy as sharing a link to this blog-post. 

Explaining China, Part II: What Do I Know, About China, and How Did I Learn It?

PRC and ROC and Barbarian Nations

In the map above, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is shown in red, while the Republic of China (ROC) is shown in yellow. “Barbarian” nations (from the point of view of the Han, or the ethnic group we call “Chinese” in English) are shown in orange, and both oceans and large lakes are shown in blue. The third (and only other) majority-Han nation, the island city-state called Singapore, is not shown on this map, as it is too far to the South to be seen here. From the point of view of the Han, “barbarians” have been, historically, those humans who were not Han, while “the Han” can be translated as “the people.”

This historical xenophobia I just described among the Han is hardly unique; it is, in my opinion, simply human nature. The British rock band Pink Floyd explained this, quite well, in the following song, “Us and Them,” from 1973’s classic Dark Side of the Moon. This album, in the form of a cassette tape which had to be purchased by my parents (for I would not let go of it in the store we were in), happens to be the first musical album I actually owned, back when it was newly-released (I was born in 1968). If you choose to listen to this song, please consider this idea of xenophobia, as simply being a human characteristic, while it plays.

Ancient Greeks had the same “us and them” attitude about those who did not speak Greek, and the English word “barbarian” is derived from Greek, with a meaning which parallels what I have described in China. Eurocentrism, in general, in the study of “world history,” is well-known. Moving to another continent, the people where I live, the USA, are famous for learning geography one nation at a time . . . as we go to war with them, of course. Only a tiny percentage of Americans knew where either Korea was located until we went to war there, and we (as a people) did not know where Vietnam was until we went to war there. More recently, Americans learned — twice! — where Iraq is, though many of us still, inexplicably, confuse it with Iran. This list of xenophobic nations is far from complete, but these examples are sufficient to make the point.

When, in 1939, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill uttered the famous phrase, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” he was referring to the Soviet Union (or USSR), although the proper noun he actually used was “Russia.” However, this quotation applies equally well to the PRC, which has one indisputable advantage over the USSR: the People’s Republic of China still exists, while the Soviet Union does not. In the last post here, I began an ambitious series, with the goal of explaining China. I promised, then, that my next post in the series would explain my qualifications to write on the subject of the PRC, the ROC, Greater China, and the Han — so that’s what I need to do now.

I am currently working on my second master’s degree, in an unrelated field (gifted, talented, and creative education). However, my first master’s degree was obtained in 1996, when Deng Xiaoping, while no longer the PRC’s “paramount leader,” was still seen as its most prominent retired elder statesman. It was Deng Xiaoping, primarily, who made (and defended) the decision to send the tanks in, and crush the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, in June of 1989, which I watched as they happened, on live TV. I was horrified by those events, and this has not changed.

During the early 1990s, I began studying the economic reforms which made the era of Deng Xiaoping so different from Chairman Mao’s China, trying to figure out the solution to a big puzzle: how so much economic growth could be coming from an area dominated by a huge, totalitarian, country which, at that time and now, was one of the few remaining nations on Earth which still claimed to be Communist. This study was done during the time of the “New Asia” investment bubble, as it was called after it “popped” (as all investment bubbles do, sooner or later). New Asia’s economic growth was led by the “Four Tigers” of Hong Kong (still a British colony, at that time), Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. South Korea is, of course, Korean, but the other three “tigers,” all had, and still have, majority-Han populations. What money I had, I invested in the Four Tigers, and I made significant profits doing so, which, in turn, led to a general interest in East Asia. 

Motivated by simple human avarice, I studied the Four Tigers intensely, leading me to focus (to the extent made possible by the course offerings) on 20th Century East Asian history, during the coursework for my first master’s degree. There was a problem with this, though, and I was unaware of it at the time. My university (a different one than the one I attend now) had only one East Asian history professor, and he was very much a Sinophile. Sinophiles love China uncritically, or with the minimal amount of criticism they can get away with. When we studied the rise to power of Mao Zedong, and the PRC under the thumb of Chairman Mao, I heard it explained by a man who viewed China, and Chairman Mao, through rose-colored glasses, even while teaching about others who made the same error, to an even greater degree. I had already read one book about the Cultural Revolution, earlier in the 1980s, so I was skeptical, but he was also my only professor. The result was confusion. This was the book I had already read, along with a link to a page on Amazon where you can purchase it, and easily find and purchase the Pink Floyd music posted earlier, if you wish to do so. This is Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, and you can buy it at

Son of the Revolution

This book was read for an undergraduate sociology course, at my first college, during the Reagan years. The important thing to know about Liang Heng, the book’s primary author, is that he was, himself, of the Han, as well as being from the PRC itself. The professor for this course wanted us to see the horror of a mass movement gone horribly wrong, and she chose this insider’s view of the Cultural Revolution, during which I was born, to do that. What I heard from my East Asian history professor did not mesh well with what I was taught by my East Asian history professor, and so I left that degree program confused. This professor’s argument, in a nutshell, was Chairman Mao was a figure of tremendous importance (true) who had good intentions (false), and tried to do amazing things (half-true, and half-false by omission, for these were amazing and horribly evil things), but had them turn out wrong (true), with many millions of his own people dying as a result, over and over (definitely true; Mao’s total death total exceeds that of Hitler or Stalin, either one). The “good intentions” part was what confused me, of course, for Mao was a monster, yet, from my later professor, I was hearing him described as a Great and Important Man.

I would have remained in this confused state, has I not also read this book, also written, primarily, by a person of the Han: the amazing Jung Chang, who has her own page on Amazon, at (On that page, I notice she has a newer book out, which I have not read, and she is such a fantastic author that I am buying it now.) This, by contrast, was her first well-known book, and the one I read as an undergraduate:

wild swans

Wild Swans tells the story of three generations of Han women: Jung Chang’s maternal grandmother (who had bound feet, and could barely walk, for that reason), then the author’s mother, and then finally Jung Chang herself, who found herself a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution at the age of 14. This book tells their story, and is riveting. It has nothing nice to say about Chairman Mao, and contains much criticism of “The Great Helmsman,” as his cult of personality enthusiastically called him, yet he is not the focus of Wild Swans. The author’s family, over three generations, is.

I did my master’s degree work from the Sinophile professor described earlier, and then, later on still, I encountered Sinophobes. The opposite of Sinophiles, people who have Sinophobia have nothing nice to say about China, nor the Han. They hate and fear things Chinese because they fear the unknown — in other words, Sinophobia is a more specific form of xenophobia. 

So, first, I read Liang Heng, and then, later, I started reading Jung Chang. Next, I heard the Maoist viewpoint explained quite thoroughly by my Sinophile professor, while my reading of Liang Heng and Jung Chang had exposed me to an anti-Mao, but non-Sinophobic, point of view, which is a direct consequence of the fact that both authors were actually of the Han, and had direct exposure to Maoism. Later came the Sinophobes, and their written and spoken, anti-Chinese, case for . . . whatever. (Actually, the Sinophobes never make a case for anything, unless one counts hating and fearing China and the Han as being “for” something. I do not.) Later still, one of my close friends studied ancient Chinese history and philosophy extensively, and we had (and still have) many talks about both ancient and modern China, including Chairman Mao, and the silliness of the Sinophobes, but this friend is more interested in talking about, say, Confucianism, rather than Maoism, or Mao himself. I was primed to learn the truth about Mao, but had to wait for the right opportunity.

Think about this, please. How many books have been written that accurately describe Stalin as a monster? How many exist about Hitler? I should not have had to wait so long to find out something about Mao I felt I could believe, and that described him as the monster he was, but wait I did, for no such book existed . . . until Jung Chang came to my rescue, with her next book, after 1991’s Wild Swans. All 800+ pages of it.

mao the unknown story

It took her many years to write this tome, and it was published in 2005. She grew up under Mao, having been born in 1952, not long after the revolution of 1949, which established the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao finally died in 1976. Two years after that, Jung Chang was sent to Great Britain as a college student, on a government scholarship. Being highly intelligent, and not wanting to return to China, she went on to become the first of the Han to receive a Ph.D. at any British university. This book, focused on Mao’s formative years, rise to power, and tyrannical rule, all the way to his death, is, as its subtitle states, “The Unknown Story” of this historical period. Jung Chang was uniquely qualified to write this story, having lived through so much of the events described in her book. She knew how expendable people were to Mao, having witnessed it, and survived. To the extent possible (and she was quite resourceful on this point) she used primary sources. This is why I give her much credibility. 

These are the ways I have learned about China: from three books by two of the Han, long talks with a personal friend, and two college professors with different points of view on China, and Mao in particular. I have rejected the points of view of both the Sinophiles and the Sinophobes, and now I try to learn what I can from other sources, especially sources who are, themselves, of the Han — although I am weakened in this respect by the fact that I am only bilingual, with my two languages being mathematics and English, in that order. If you think this approach makes sense, I hope you will read my other posts, past and future, about China and the Han.

A Proven Method for Getting Teenagers to Read


Although I am a teacher, I am not an English teacher — but I also believe that, as a teacher of anything, I have an ethical and professional responsibility to promote literacy.

Many such methods for doing so exist. This is the one I use. The authors I have gotten teens reading most often, with this method, are Richard Feynman, Robert Heinlein, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jung Chang, Flannery O’Connor, and Stephen Hawking. If a teenager in a science class, a subject I do teach, completes his work from me, with a high level of accuracy, and in an unusually short time, I keep books by these authors on hand as my set of “emergency back-up teachers.” Turning bored students into engaged and interested students is, I am learning, the key to avoiding teacher-burnout — at least for me.

Next on my list to add to the books I use for this ongoing project: multiple copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I haven’t read it since I was in high school myself, and its impact still lingers.

Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009


The best ways to celebrate Banned Books Week (which is going on now) are to read/buy/give away banned books, and/or donate money to libraries which deliberately put banned books in the circulating collection, as all good libraries do.

I’ve color-coded the list below. Books in red, I have read in their entirety. Books in blue, I have read some of, but have not (yet) finished. Also, now that I know they’re on this list, I’m likely to add some of the books in black, which I have not yet read, to my “books-to-read” list. There are few things I hate as much as censorship.

1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling

2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell

5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz

8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman

9. ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle

10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

11. Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers

12. It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris

13. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey

14. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

15. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

16. Forever, by Judy Blume

17. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

18. Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

19. Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

20. King and King, by Linda de Haan

21. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

22. Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar

23. The Giver, by Lois Lowry

24. In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak

25. Killing Mr. Griffen, by Lois Duncan

26. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

27. My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier

28. Bridge To Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

29. The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney

30. We All Fall Down, by Robert Cormier

31. What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones

32. Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya

33. Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson

34. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler

35. Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison

36. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

37. It’s So Amazing, by Robie Harris

38. Arming America, by Michael Bellasiles

39. Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane

40. Life is Funny, by E.R. Frank

41. Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher

42. The Fighting Ground, by Avi

43. Blubber, by Judy Blume

44. Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher

45. Crazy Lady, by Jane Leslie Conly

46. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

47. The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby: The First Graphic Novel by George Beard and Harold Hutchins, the creators of Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

48. Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez

49. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey

50. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

51. Daughters of Eve, by Lois Duncan

52. The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson

53. You Hear Me?, by Betsy Franco

54. The Facts Speak for Themselves, by Brock Cole

55. Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Green

56. When Dad Killed Mom, by Julius Lester

57. Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause

58. Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going

59. Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes

60. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

61. Draw Me A Star, by Eric Carle

62. The Stupids (series), by Harry Allard

63. The Terrorist, by Caroline B. Cooney

64. Mick Harte Was Here, by Barbara Park

65. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

66. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor

67. A Time to Kill, by John Grisham

68. Always Running, by Luis Rodriguez

69. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

70. Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen

71. Junie B. Jones (series), by Barbara Park

72. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

73. What’s Happening to My Body Book, by Lynda Madaras

74. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

75. Anastasia (series), by Lois Lowry

76. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

77. Crazy: A Novel, by Benjamin Lebert

78. The Joy of Gay Sex, by Dr. Charles Silverstein

79. The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss

80. A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Newton Peck

81. Black Boy, by Richard Wright

82. Deal With It!, by Esther Drill

83. Detour for Emmy, by Marilyn Reynolds

84. So Far From the Bamboo Grove, by Yoko Watkins

85. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher

86. Cut, by Patricia McCormick

87. Tiger Eyes, by Judy Blume

88. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

89. Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissenger

90. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle

91. Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George

92. The Boy Who Lost His Face, by Louis Sachar

93. Bumps in the Night, by Harry Allard

94. Goosebumps (series), by R.L. Stine

95. Shade’s Children, by Garth Nix

96. Grendel, by John Gardner

97. The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende

98. I Saw Esau, by Iona Opte

99. Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

100. America: A Novel, by E.R. Frank


Finally, what I am reading, myself, during Banned Books Week is Sam Harris’s latest, Waking Up. It’s a safe bet that all books by Sam Harris are banned in quite a few places.