“That’s Me” The Power of Visual Diversity in Graphic Novels and Comic Books

By Hannah Lever

Getting students and people of all ages engaged in books is not simply about a mastery of the mechanics of letters, words, and sentences. Reading is a valuable skill and a fulfilling hobby because human beings are created to create, to understand the world around us, and tell stories. We don’t read books only to improve our language processing skills or familiarize ourselves with grammar, we read to connect with our people, but to step outside of ourselves and to understand ourselves more completely.

When selecting literature to read, one aspect to consider is the idea of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. What this metaphor means is that some texts will be windows for readers to understand experiences different than their own, some texts will reflect the experiences of readers and provide insight into themselves, and others will invite readers to step outside their understanding of the world and expand it. Often this metaphor is used to explain how including books with a wide range of subjects is beneficial for all students. What texts are windows or mirrors will differ between readers, but ideally every book will invite readers into their world and so should be sliding glass doors. The trouble comes when we realize that some readers have more mirrors than others.

Often the fiction taught in schools and the majority of books in school libraries tends to feature the experiences of white people, men, and abled bodied people. This is inequitable to readers who don’t fight into these majority categories because they are denied works that reflect them, but also unfair to readers who do fall into these categories because they have few texts that can be windows and are denied the development of skills that come with reading to empathize and open their minds. A promising solution to this problem may be graphic novels.

Graphic Novels as a Tool for Inclusion

For a variety of reasons, graphic novels tend to showcase more diversity—both in terms of identities and experiences but also subject matters—than traditional novels, especially what’s dominating the best sellers lists for middle and high school readers. This may be because as a newer media, there are less traditions and standards to follow, so the graphic novel has so much room to grow and show all that the media can represent. Or it might be because the publishing industry is prioritizing graphic novels as it becomes more intentional about including diversity both in terms of what’s on the page and who’s writing the pages. Or maybe this media that has been dismissed and pushed to the fringes of literature for decades, attracts writers and artists who feel like outcasts in society. Either way, graphic novels are a valuable tool for showing that all students are welcomed in the class not just because of the quantity of windows and mirrors available but the quality.

My little sister was absolutely devastated when she got braces, crying in the car on the way home because she was terrified that the kids in her class would make fun of her. My stories about how I had braces too and the teasing at school really wasn’t that bad did nothing to make her feel better. A few days later she came home from the school library with Smile by Raina Telgemeier, finally grinning and showing off her teeth and braces as she showed me the main character doing the same.

When I was a teenager, I was no different than other kids my age. I was trying to find my sense of self, but it felt shifting, always slipping through my fingers the minute I felt like I had a hold of it. I read countless books, looking for a character that felt like I did, but it wasn’t until I read Nimona by ND Stevenson that I felt seen. Something about seeing the main character shift between wolf to girl to dragon to countless other things, all in bright pink, made me feel understood in a way that no other book could. A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes pictures say things that words could never.

Whether I’m in a school, library, or bookstore, I see this same thing happening in readers of all ages. You can’t truly understand the power of graphic novels until you see children pick up a book and see their eyes light up as they open the pages and point to a character inside and whisper to themselves, “they look like me.” And suddenly they are invited to step through a sliding glass door into the world of literature.

Not only do graphic novels offer an opportunity for readers to see themselves in a way completely unique to the media, I am also seeing the start of a shift in how graphic novels can be a vital tool to make readers feel heard as well as seen. Schools in Michigan and throughout the United States are seeing an increase in students who don’t speak English as their first language, often referred to as multilingual learners or English language learners (ELLs).

Many teachers struggle to engage these students in the classroom, especially when it comes to reading. One strategy some us is to provide translated materials—this is certainly an effective way to communicate to students the material as well as show they are welcomed in the classroom—but one drawback is that it creates a barrier between the main language used in the classroom and the primary language of the student. Most students get English texts and the ELL gets the text in their native language and the two languages don’t mix, the native language being slowly phased out in favor of English.

I recently read a comic book (and if all the issues of the comic were bound in a traditional book it would be called a graphic novel) called Blue Beetle: Graduation Day by Josh Trujilloand and was fascinated by its use of language. Typically, in comics and graphic novels, to show that a character is speaking a different language, their speech bubbles will be put in brackets with a little note at the bottom of the page that their language has been translated into English for the reader’s convenience. Blue Beetle made the bold choice not to do this, instead keeping the Spanish that the main character, Jaime Reyes, and his family speak untranslated.

This shows the power of graphic novels as a tool for developing reading skills because what the characters are saying can be inferred from the illustrations if the reader isn’t familiar with Spanish. But the opposite is true as well, if the reader only knows Spanish, they can infer the meaning of the English words through illustrations. If this work was used in a classroom with a Spanish ELL student, they can feel a sense of mastery because they have the precise meaning of the Spanish text as well as feel more comfortable in their understanding of the English text. In addition to this, students whose primary language is English are learning just as much language skills as the ELL students.

I’d argue that the most important impact of a text like this is showing ELL students that they belong in the classroom and that the language they speak and read is valuable. Not only do Jaime and his family, the Mexican American Immigrants, speak Spanish in this comic, but so does Superman, a symbol of American identity. Symbols have power and now more than ever are students plugged into pop culture, so graphic novels present an invaluable opportunity to engage readers, connect with them through pictures and language that reflects them, and tell them they belong.

Hannah Lever is a senior at Hope College studying English secondary education and has been an avid reader of all things, especially comics and graphic novels, for as long as she could read.

Choosing and Sticking to a Reading Goal

Setting a reading goal and actually sticking to it can be a hard thing to do. Even finding what kind of reading goal or challenge you want to try can be difficult. When I first think of reading goals, I tend to think of cramming as many books into a year as possible. However, there are many forms of reading goals that you can try out. Besides the classic goal of reading so many in a month or year, some reading goal ideas that you could look into are reading different genres, a certain amount each day or week, reading books you already own, or reading more awarded or classic books.

Story Graph is a great resource to find some reading goals and challenges that may interest you, but that you may not have thought about before. They have different categories like genre, geographical, pop culture, literary awards or authors. Click here to explore some of the options!

How to keep track of your goals:

Once you have decided what reading goal you want to challenge yourself to, the next step is finding a way to keep yourself on track and motivated.

Having an accountability partner is a great way to keep on task and get some motivation. Creating some sort of reward system to treat yourself as you reach milestones can both motivate you and keep the challenge from becoming a chore. As for keeping track of how your challenge is going, using an app to log your progress can help keep everything organized. Here are some great apps you can look into using!

Reading List

For anyone who is looking for a simple place to track their progress without all the bells and whistles, Reading List is a great place to start. It doesn’t have the social part of GoodReads and is very straightforward to use. To enter a book, you can manually enter the title, search it, or even scan the barcode to bring it up. It has a simple setting to keep track of when you started and finished reading your books but doesn’t offer all the other stats that some others do for free. You can still add notes and organize your books into groups to keep track of which books are in the challenge versus not.


To join GoodReads you have to create an account, but it gives you access to a lot of resources outside of tracking books. When you first join GoodReads it actually asks you if you want to join a reading challenge/goal. GoodReads also acts as a form of social media which allows you to follow your friends, family, and fellow book lovers. You can create specialized shelves in which you can track which books of the challenge you have read. It also suggests books that you might be interested in and provides other people’s reviews about them.


Bookmory works well as an electronic tracker, and it provides a lot of useful stats for various challenges. It has areas to add your current book and a TBR (to be read) list. It features a calendar that allows you to view what books you have read over the month.

Bookmory also has daily statistics where you can keep track of time, page, percentage, or book goal progress and you can log it very easily in the app. If you want to keep notes on the books you are reading, it has a whole section dedicated to anything you want to remember about these books as well.

Using these tools are just one way to set and stay with a reading goal. Reading goals should be a fun activity that keep you motivated and empowered in your reading. If the challenge or goal you choose turns out to be too much for you, take time to slow down or change what you are aiming for. There is no wrong or right way to choose and follow a reading goal, just find what works for you!

How to Pick Your Perfect Read

If you have ever stepped foot inside a library or bookstore or tried looking for a book to read online, you may have struggled with where to even start when it comes to finding a good book that will be a good fit for you. Luckily, there are many tips and tricks you can try to narrow down your options!

1. Start with a genre:

Looking at rows and rows of books can be intimidating, but narrowing your selections down to a genre or two that speak to you at the moment can be a way to start lessening the number you look at. If you are not feeling great about any books in the genre you usually read or are trying to select from, move on to another one! You’ll never know if you like a genre if you do not try reading a few selections from it.

2. Continue reading your favorite authors:

If you long for a book that fits you, try reading other books from the authors you already know and love. Often, they may have some lesser-known books that you may not find in every bookstore, but they could still interest you. You can also look into what writers inspired your favorite authors or who they are compared to in reviews.

3. Ask for recommendations:

Asking for recommendations is a great way to see what others around you are currently loving. Online platforms like #Booktok can be a great way to meet and get suggestions from other readers. Instagram and Facebook have great communities or influencers that could inspire you to read a book you would never have heard of otherwise. Goodreads is an excellent resource for getting book recommendations. On Goodreads, you can see what others think of books and look at reviews to see if a book you have heard of may interest you. After you read a book, you can also help by reviewing books for others! Goodreads also offers lists like this Best Books of 2023 List that may help you find new things to read!

4. Judge a book by its cover:

As much as the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover” has become universal, in this case, you totally can! Sometimes, the best reads are the ones you randomly find in your local bookstore that stick out to you for one reason or another. Look at displays that librarians or workers have put together and see what looks interesting to you.

5. Pick a story based on a country:

If you are interested in reading more from a specific country or are looking for a random book you may have yet to find, you can use Whichbook’s world map setting to find a book recommendation from across the world. This tool recommends books based on their settings, allowing you to explore diverse cultures and perspectives you may not have looked at otherwise. Click Here to try it out for yourself!

6. Find an award-winning book:

If you want to ensure you get a good quality book, looking for one with an award or award nomination could be an excellent place to start. There are countless award lists to look at, but some to begin with could be Pulitzer Prize (for Fiction and Nonfiction),
John Newbery Medal, Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Booker Prize, or the Michael Printz Award. New and upcoming authors and books often end up on these lists, which can be a great way to find a great book before it becomes super popular.

7. Trust yourself!

All of these tools are great, and their recommendations can be useful, but in the end, each person has their own taste. What others may rave about for months may be disappointing to you when you read it, and your favorite book may be underrated because it fits your specific taste and no one else’s.

These tips and tools can be a great starting point, but in the end, trust yourself, and you may find a new favorite book! Your reading preferences are as unique as you are, and what resonates with one reader may not necessarily appeal to another. Embrace your individual taste and trust that you will discover the perfect book.

What Makes a “Phenomenal Woman”

Women’s History Month was created to remember history, highlight issues women face, and showcase the talent and contributions of women that might otherwise go unnoticed. One of my favorite parts of Women’s History Month is the different ways women are empowered through this remembrance and the spaces created. When I think of an empowered woman, one of my first thoughts is Maya Angelou and her poem “Phenomenal Woman.” I do not recall when or why I first came across this poem, but it has stuck in my mind, especially when I need some encouragement.

Maya Angelou was a renowned American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. Born in 1928, her life was marked by resilience and a commitment to social justice. Angelou’s literary works, including her acclaimed autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and her poetry collection “And Still I Rise,” explored themes of identity, race, and womanhood. She became a prominent voice for marginalized communities, using her art to inspire and provoke change. “Phenomenal Woman” was first published in 1978 in her collection “And Still I Rise.” It came from Angelou’s experiences and thoughts on what true beauty was and has served as empowerment for women ever since.

Click Below to read the poem:

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou | Poetry Foundation

The speaker in the poem seems to have this “it” factor to her. Everyone around her can see it and is drawn to her, but they do not understand what it is about her that is so intriguing. In the poem our speaker says she tries telling others, but that they do not believe her answer or understand what she means.

Her beauty and allure comes from more than just physical beauty. The speaker says she does not fit the mold of a “cute” person or the size of a model. The attributes she starts to list have some physical elements to them, but it is not all the normal things associated with female beauty standards. She says it is things like “It’s the fire in my eyes” or “The sun of my smile” that contribute to how she is beautiful. The speaker is proud of her body, her personality, and who she is. She also does not need to compete or act in a certain way for the attention of others, but simply walking by seems to entrance others.

This is one of the reasons why I love this poem. She repeats over and over that she is a phenomenal woman, yet she shows she does not have to prove that to others. She is what she is, and that is what draws people in. The speaker is phenomenal and beautiful in her own way, and a large part of that is self-confidence in herself. She might not fit the expectations of those around her, but she is more loved for this rebellion against what she is told is the standard for beauty. To me, this poem is a great reminder that true beauty can come from a confidence, self-love, and authenticity that transcends age, size, or skin color.

Strong Female Characters in Period Television: Downton Abbey

By Alexandra Goodwin

“You are a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.”
Violet Crawley, Season 3, Episode 4

These wise words come from Violet Crawley, the matriarch of the Crawley family and the Downton Abbey estate. She takes no nonsense, and plays no fool. Her courage and genius influences all who cross her path, most especially her granddaughters Mary, Edith, and Sybil.

Their story takes place in England at the height of the Roarin’ Twenties. The Downton Abbey household (including the entire Crawley family and an extensive staff) are pulled through the decade in an avalanche of hope, misery, love, and misunderstanding, all while the world around them underwent tremendous social change. Women wanted the vote, the telephone and gramophone were changing communication, and the war put everyone on edge.

Being a part of elite British society isn’t all fun and games, especially when the culture of wealth and tradition comes up against a social upheaval. and the Crawley sisters prove that money and influence are not all that it takes to be a strong woman.

Violet Crawley: The Dowager Countess

Claims to Fame: Not letting anyone trick her, realizing (and yielding to) the improvements of the modern age

Violet Crawley, Downton Abbey Wiki

The Dowager Countess Grantham is known for her disdain for Americans, wise character, no-nonsense, and witty one-liners. However, at the heart of her many zingers is her desire to preserve the family honor.

As the oldest living member of the Crawley family, Violet feels the responsibility of keeping the family together and retaining possession of the Grantham estate. She does not shy away from saying exactly what she thinks, even if that means offending her guests. She is a confidante and role model to Mary Crawley, her spirited and somewhat entitled granddaughter, who also feels the weight of maintaining the family name. Violet cares for those around her, but will not let sentiment get in the way of business.

Mary Crawley Talbot: The Lady

Claims to Fame: Keeping the family and estate together, and later taking on the responsibilities of estate agent (a man’s job!)

Mary Talbot, Downton Abbey Wiki

Lady Mary Crawley is the oldest daughter of Lord Grantham (or Robert Crawley, Violet’s son), and spends much of her young adulthood trying to understand why she is unable to inherit the Downton estate. Since the family has no sons, the entail, or inheritance, will pass to a distant male cousin instead.

After fumbling through this troublesome time, and later falling in love with said cousin and marrying him (erasing her main trouble), Mary becomes a formal player in the future of Downton. Not only does she bear a son to carry on the family tradition, but she begins to partner with the estate’s agent to carry out business affairs. It turns out that being in an aristocratic family is not all fancy parties with important guests! She checks in on the renters, learns how the estate makes money, and helps manage the business side of the estate. The role of agent usually belongs to a man, and isn’t a family member. Mary is both and keeps Downton in tip-top shape.

Edith Crawley Pelham: The Outcast

Claims to Fame: Being a working woman when she can afford not to be, and raising her daughter as a single mother

Edith Pelham, Downton Abbey Wiki

Edith Crawley is the middle sister and has her work cut out for her. For much of the series, Edith struggles to find her purpose in her family and for herself. She is quite unlikeable, self-centered, and immature for the first several seasons, especially when compared to a headstrong Mary and loveable Sybil. She is desperate to be loved and appreciated, resulting in several unfortunate incidents with men, including a botched wedding ceremony, an illegitimate child with another man who is later killed, and an affair with a tenant farmer. Edith chases after other men in a way that disgusts Mary in particular, who would never bend to the will of a man for attention.

Nevertheless, Edith’s tragic history forces her to create a life that she can be a part of, one that does not hinge on being in a wealthy family or having little success with men. Amidst her confusion, she begins writing for a local newspaper and accepts a job there. Although working outside of charitable organizations or the estate creates a rift in the family, ultimately, her job is what gives her purpose. She does not have to rely on anybody for her happiness, but instead, chooses to find it for herself.

Sybil Crawley Branson: The Rebel

Claims to Fame: Becoming a home front nurse in WWI, and eloping with the family car driver)

The most rash of the Crawley sisters, and probably the most beloved, is Sybil, the youngest sister and the rebel of the family. Unhappy with the way of life she is expected to lead as the daughter of an aristocrat, Sybil throws herself into every charitable cause she can think of.

Sybil Branson, Downton Abbey Wiki

She has a heart for helping people, and is especially passionate about nursing wounded soldiers in WWI. Downton even turns into a convalescent home for a time, and Sybil is at the ready with aid for the recovering men. She secretly helps a family maid named Gwen get a job as a secretary (and out of service work) by distracting her father, and is the first woman in the family to wear pants in her day outfit!

But besides all of her supportive endeavors, Sybil is probably most famous for running away with the family’s car driver to Ireland. The family is so angry that no one attends her wedding. Her husband is an Irish Socialist, meaning they are poor, and their living conditions are often dangerous due to the impending Irish Civil War. Eventually fleeing Ireland and returning to Downton, Sybil dies in childbirth. However, her mark on the family is such that they accept her husband and daughter into the family, and her husband later plays a critical role in the management of the estate. Later, the maid Gwen returns to Downton as a guest, and the family finds out just how kindhearted Sybil was, even when her ideas didn’t always align with theirs.

Every family has a story to tell, and every person has a role to play. Strength is found in unexpected places, and, as shown with the Crawley women, often comes to light only in the face of adversity. Their stories can teach women today that they are strong, even if their circumstances make it seem like they are not. There are always ways to grow, even if the path is uncertain. Everyone’s story is in the middle of being written. Once you get to the end, you’ll see just how strong you are.

Alexandra Goodwin is a student intern for Big Read Lakeshore. She is pursuing a BA in Secondary Education at Hope College, and plans to become a social studies teacher in the West Michigan area. She also works for TRIO Upward Bound at Hope College, where her students inspire her every day to advocate for multiple literacy awareness. In her free time, she enjoys swing dancing, writing poetry, and spending time with her friends and loved ones.

A History of Women’s Pseudonyms

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of many celebrated female writers for the first time in history. Authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, and Mary Shelley published their books that are considered classics today. However, many female writers faced discrimination in their work, as only some types of writing were seen as acceptable for a woman to write. 

Some women found a way around gender discrimination in the literary world to publish their works. One-way women did this was by using a male pen name. Female writers often had more than one reason for using a gender neutral or male name to publish under. While there were many other women publishing under their real names at this time, these women often saw an advantage to using these names to get an unbiased view from publishers, keep their public and private lives separate, or write types of books that were different from what the public assumed female writers wrote. To continue celebrating Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at some female authors that used pen names to publish their works!

1. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) 

Mary Ann Evans went by the pen name George Eliot to ensure her works were taken seriously in the Victorian Era. She is mostly known for her seven books such as Adam Bebe, Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, but she also wrote poetry, short stories, non-fiction, and translations. 

She was enrolled into a boarding school for a few years, but had to leave at 16 when her mother died and she was expected to act as housekeeper. Luckily she was allowed access to the library of Arbury Hall which allowed her to continue her education in her own way. There she found a love for the classics which became apparent in her later works. 

Her introduction to the literary world was through translation work. While writing wasn’t always seen as a proper thing for women to do, translation work was generally accepted. She also found encouragement and support through the connections she made in the Rosehill circle. Started by Charles and Cara Bray, they were a group of people who held and debated radical views. Through this group she was able to make connections with people like Harriet Martineau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she was pushed to pursue her dreams for writing. Charles Bray helped Evans publish some of her first writing in his newspaper the Coventry Herald and Observer

In 1850 Evans began to write for The Westminster Review and became the assistant editor just a year later. During her time there she often commented on her views of society as a whole and the Victorian way of thinking. She believed that there needed to be more support for lower classes and criticized the ways organized religion was acting in light of contemporary ideas starting to arise.

One of her last essays for the Review was “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” She criticized the fact that most women writers at the time were writing stories that were simple and trivial in a time where she thought women could do much more. Through this essay, we get an idea of why she soon afterwards took up a male pen name. She saw that the association with women writers was that they all should be romances or lighter works that shouldn’t be taken seriously by the public, especially not men. 

Evans had other reasons for creating her pen name as well. She had made a reputation for her pieces for newspapers and her translation work, but was entering a new era of her writing. By creating a new name, her new works wouldn’t be seen through the lens of the work she had already done and could be seen at face value. She also was facing scandal in her personal life for being in a relationship with a married man, and she did not want her professional work to be scrutinized by people who were already judgmental of her life or morals. 

There were some struggles with having a pen name, and Evans ran into that issue. After she released her first novel, Adam Bede, there was a lot of curiosity as to who had written it. A man named Joseph Liggins tried to claim authorship of the book, and the increased pressure of the success of the novel led to the need of her acknowledging it was her work. 

The initial release under a pen name allowed her work to be a great success, though it is hard to say if this was due to her pen name. Her works even reached the royal family. Both Princess Louise and Queen Victoria read Adam Bebe and were so impressed with it that the Queen commissioned a famous artist of the time, Edward Henry Corbould to paint scenes from the book. While it is impossible to say if Evan’s pen name George Eliot was the key to her success, she is an example of one of the many women to find success by using another pen name. 

2. George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin):

George Sand, a French Romantic writer, is another author whose pen name allowed her to reach new heights in the literary world. Unlike some of the other authors, she chose to go by a whole new persona of George Sand in her public life. She has a huge amount of works credited to her name including 70 novels and 50 volumes of other various works including plays and political texts. Some of her most notable works include Indiana, Consuelo, and La Mare au Diable

Sand originally went by the pen name Jules Sand for the collection of articles she wrote in 1831 for Le Figaro. However in 1832, right before she published her first novel, Indiana, she changed her pen name to George instead. Indiana set the tone for the rest of her literary career as it protested social conventions of marriage and showed the main character leaving her marriage to find love. Sand was trapped in a loveless marriage of her own at the time, and some believe that is where she got the idea for the novel. It would also explain one of the reasons why she wanted to publish under a pseudonym.

She continued using books to make a political stand against social and class issues of the time. However her most popular novels were her rustic ones that focused on a love for the countryside and compassion for poor and less fortunate people. 

Sand was also famous for wearing male attire in public despite a police issued order that women couldn’t wear male apparel without a permit. She used her clothing to create a new identity that also allowed her into spaces that were usually banned from women. She became well known with mixed reactions to both her lifestyle and her works. Sand was connected to many well known figures of the time and even had a relationship with Chopin. 

Her writing was at times divisive, but she was very popular overall. She is credited to being even more famous than other popular writers at the time including names like Victor Hugo, who was a close friend of Sand. 

Sand’s choice to take on a male name and persona allowed her to have more freedom than other female writers at the time. Even after it was widely known that George Sand was a woman, she was able to hold a position that many women would have found hard to reach. By using George Sand to publish her writing, she was able to become a very influential writer both within and outside of France. 

Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë):

Charlotte Bronte and her sisters Anne and Emily all wrote under gender neutral names to publish their works between 1846 and 1848. Charlotte Bronte used the name Currer Bell, and even published her most successful work, Jane Eyre, under this pseudonym. Anne and Emily took on the names Acton and Ellis to publish their major works Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights during this time period as well. While none of the sisters took on directly male names for their pen name, they saw the advantages to having a name that wasn’t so apparently female. They also used their names as a way to publish without it intervening with their personal lives. They also chose names that allowed them to retain their initials as a way to still have some ownership of their work.

Charlotte Bronte along with her sisters attended Clergy Daughters’ School to learn subjects that would aid them in being governesses. However, the school had very poor conditions and was what Bronte ended up basing Lowood School Jane Eyre. All three sisters along with their younger brother started their writing careers as children, writing for their fictional magazine Blackwood’s Magazine which took place in their imaginary world Glass Town. 

All Bronte Sisters worked in jobs as teachers or governesses but continued to work on their writing. They tried opening a school but gave up after failing to get enough students. In 1846, they decided to try taking their writing more seriously and began to publish under their pen names. Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor, was rejected, but the rejection letter was encouraging, and she ended up sending in Jane Eyre a few weeks later to be published.

The three sisters also published a joint collection of poems the same year.  By 1848 they decided to claim their pen names and joined the literary community. In a statement about why they chose to not originally publish under their actual names, they stated that female authors were often looked at with prejudice and that critics either attacked their gender or gave them extra flattery for the things they were able to do as women. Charlotte saw the impacts of their decision as much of the criticism of Jane Eyre began to change after it was revealed the author was a woman.

These women and many more were able to use their pseudonyms to hide their identities and make a career in a world that might now have accepted them. While there were many reasons these women chose to write under another name, their works deserved to be celebrated and honored with them.

Black Female Artists We All Should Know

As February’s Black History Month transitions into March’s Women’s History Month, it offers a moment to reflect on the remarkable contributions of Black women throughout history. The theme for Black History Month this year was “African Americans and the Arts,” and this opened the door for conversations about Black icons in various areas of the arts throughout history and in the present day.

Here at Hope College, our Center for Diversity and Inclusion gave a talk for their Diversity Lecture Series on some of the Black icons of the past and present. Dr. Sonja Trent- Brown, a psychology professor at Hope and the Vice President of CDI, gave out some great examples of leaders in different areas of the arts and their contributions. Here at the Big Read, we wanted to re-highlight some of the great Black female artists and dive into some of the ways they had some huge cultural and society impacts. Hopefully you will learn something new or even find a new source of inspiration!

Nina Simone:

Nina Simone originally wanted to be a concert pianist, and only stumbled into becoming a jazz artist when she was told she had to sing her own accompaniment at a nightclub she played for in Atlantic City. It was a good thing she did, as she went on to record more than 40 albums between 1958 and 1974.

Nina Simone was not only a gifted singer, but a strong activist as well. She often used her music as a form of protest against things like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church or Jim Crow laws, and she supported the civil rights movement through both singing and speaking at meetings and marches.

Her most famous songs like “My Baby just Cares for Me,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Sinnerman,” and “Feeling Good” are still quite relevant today and are used as samples in more modern songs or on many TV shows or movies you may have seen. Her ties to the Black community were also very important to her, and her relationship to other large artists who were making statements like Lorraine Hansberry is apparent even through her songs. Simone’s song “Young, Gifted and Black” is a direct reference to one of Hansberry’s plays.

Lorraine Hansberry:

Lorraine Hansberry, best known for her masterpiece “A Raisin in the Sun,” broke through barriers to become the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Hansberry was born in Chicago to very politically active parents who encouraged her to fight against racial segregation and discrimination. The name “A Raisin in the Sun” comes from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem” which asks what happens to a dream deferred. This play gave critical representation into the everyday lives of a Black family, and looks into struggles with poverty, racism and the struggle to pursue the American Dream. Hansberry used the play to highlight issues in redlining and to challenge the stereotypes of African Americans at the time by presenting multidimensional characters with wants and struggles that everyone could relate to in one way or another.

Lynn Nottage

On the more modern side of things, Lynn Nottage also broke records as a black woman in the performing arts. She is the only woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for playwriting twice. She also had the unique opportunity and honor to have three of her shows playing in the same city in one night. Her plays like Ruined and Sweat help the audience to explore the complexities of race, class, and gender.

Ruined explores the lives of women living in war-torn Congo and offers a glimpse into the horrors of conflict while highlighting the resilience of the human spirit. Sweat, which came out in 2017 and is her other her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, takes a look into the decline of the American industrial working class and the impacts of economic hardships both on individual people and the communities around us. Nottage confronts uncomfortable truths and challenges her audiences to confront their own biases through her shows.

Another one of her shows, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark will be performed this spring by the Hope College Theatre Department. The play revolves around Vera Stark, an African American maid and aspiring actress, who is working for a white Hollywood starlet. The story looks into Vera’s struggle for recognition and dignity as well as what legacy is given to the African American performers of the time. If you are interested in seeing some of Nottage’s work in person, come to Hope the weekends of April 12th-14th or the 18th-20th to see a great show!

Click Here to get your tickets!


Beyonce is a globally renowned singer who first came into the spotlight in the 1990’s while in the group Destiny’s Child, which is one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. Her solo career has also been very successful, and she has won numerous awards which include her 32 Grammys, the most ever won. She uses her platform to promote representation and diversity through her songs, music videos, and visual albums.

She used her performance of “Formation” at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2016 to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and opened up areas for conversation on race and activism. Her music in general is amazing and so diverse that it is hard to choose just a few to highlight. Take some time to listen to a few!

Misty Copeland:

Misty Copeland is a professional ballet dancer who has made cultural impacts both in the world of ballet and beyond. Copeland began ballet training at the age of 13, which is considered a late start, yet after just three months she was en pointe. She made history in 2015 when she became the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, which is one of the leading classical ballet companies in the United States. Her position has helped to break down racial barriers in the predominately white world of classical ballet and encourage younger performers.

She also uses her platform to bring awareness to other issues, predominantly the housing crisis as this was something she had a lot of personal experience with growing up. Copeland is continuing to break through boundaries in many different ways and recently released her debut short film “Flower” about a young woman who sets her dreams aside to help take care of her mother with dementia. If you are interested in learning a bit more about it, here’s an interview with Copeland with some clips from the film as well!

All these women plus many more created beautiful examples of art that should be celebrated. There are a lot of great examples that could be added to the list, and we would love to hear about some great Black female icons that you look up to!

Enemies in the Orchard

By Greta VanDenend

The author of Enemies in the Orchard is Dana Vanderlugt, an ‘01 Hope College graduate and a former Hudsonville middle school English teacher. During her time as a middle school teacher, Dana worked on and received her MFA in Creative Writing from The Sena Jeter Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University. Dana currently works for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District as a literacy consultant and has continued her connections to Hope College throughout her career. She taught adjunct in the English department at Hope for several years and currently supports student teachers as one of the Education department’s college supervisors. Perhaps, most importantly, for the sake of this book review, is that Dana came from a family of apple growers in Michigan.

Enemies in the Orchard is a beautiful lyrical war novel in verse based on a true American history story during WWII. It contains a dual perspective between Claire, a Midwestern girl from Michigan eager to enter high school to then become a nurse. On the other hand, there’s Karl from Ulm, Germany. Karl is a German POW who is assigned to work on Claire’s family apple orchard.

We all have encountered moments of choosing which side to follow and how the other is wrong in our current political climate, in schools or campuses and even in our families. While it’s important to form our own beliefs and opinions, choosing harm against the other side is not beneficial.

This is easier said than done.

In the novel, Claire notes Karl’s kindness but struggles to respond,

“I look away,
pick up my pace,
pretend not to notice him.
More worried about being called a traitor
than willing to defend my doubts
than willing to take the risk
of being kind.” (p. 83)

As the story progresses, Claire learns how to see Karl in a different way. She starts to realize what they have in common instead and she starts to learn how to see him beyond what he represents.

She reflects,

“And I hear Karl,
his voice still heavy with regret,
but brave enough
to dare himself to do better.
He quietly prods me to consider
the idea of forgiveness,
the possibility of a fresh start.” (p. 269)

The beautiful thing about Enemies in the Orchard is it is more than just a story of two characters turning from enemies to friends. It convinces us, in gentle ways, to remember our shared humanity and not caricatures of what we are told about “others.” As humans, we are created in the image of God. This means we are more alike than different.

I think this book would be wonderful in middle school curriculums (though I think all of us should read it!), due to the structure of the novel in verse, and the powerful lessons that are taught. These lessons illustrate forgiveness, goodness, morality, and love.

Dana believes in the power of stories to reshape hearts and minds and she has written one that does just that.

Greta VanDenend, born and raised in Holland, Michigan, is a senior at Hope College majoring in Special Education with a minor in English Education and Youth Ministry. She is highly involved with Campus Ministries as a Bible Study Leader, and in Athletic Ministries. She is also on the Cheer team at Hope. Outside of Hope, you will likely find her at the KIN coffee shop in Holland, Engedi Church, or playing pickleball with friends!

Reflections on Leading Multiple Book Discussions

By Hannah Lever

I was fortunate enough to be involved in four different community discussions of the 2023 Big Read novel Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. I attended discussions at HASP, Third Reformed Church, Warner Norcross and Judd law firm, and Freedom Village, all of which granted different insights into the novel as well as how community discussions can benefit individuals as well as communities as a whole. While I have a lot of experience with literature discussions with teens and children, I had very little with adults before the Big Read, but what I’ve taken from this experience is that literacy is an ongoing skill and we can always be life long learners.

When I went to the discussion at the law firm, I was apprehensive because everyone in attendance was older than me. How much could I, as a college student, provide in terms of intellectual insight give to lawyers and paralegals? The discussion was fascinating to listen to because the professional setting brought insight that I hadn’t heard from other discussions with my peers. The people in attendance at this book club mostly focused on a larger—broad, but vague—application of the themes of the novel. Something that I kept coming back to was that this discussion was completely voluntary, which added a level of energy that I don’t always see from high schoolers. I did add a few points of discussion at the book club and despite being the youngest, people still responded well and respectfully. In many ways, young people underestimate what they have to offer to broader conversations. We all read the same book and live in the same world, in the same way I valued their older professional perspective, they valued mine.

HASP was a fascinating discussion because many of the elderly people used outdated language to discuss race, but they were incredibly honest about the way the world has changed in their time. One woman mentioned to me and our small discussion group that she remembered when she first saw a Black man in an advertisement and how it shifted her perspective of the world and made her more aware of biases in the world. I think everyone in society harbors biases and behaviors that need to be changed, but younger people are so caught up in trying to be perceived as good people that they can’t be honest about their biases. We need to voice our discomforts and biases so that they can be constructively corrected. When these older people were honest about the way the world used to be and the way they used to be, I became more aware of how recent changes in society are and how much still needs to be done, and that older generations are still willing to do the work. This is why I was really excited to go to the Freedom Village discussion because this older perspective helps create a meaningful timescale of how issues of race and its effects are still fresh wounds, but it also bridges the generational gap. I think there’s an us vs them mentality between younger generations and older generations, but if we approach people with intellectual curiosity, we can learn a lot from each other. And what was so exciting about these discussions is that I felt heard by the older people in the discussions and they seemed just as interested in what I had to say as I did them. A lot of people in my generation are too ready to dismiss the voices of older generations, believing that they are holding us back, but in many ways older generations are what propel us forward when we truly listen to each other.

I really enjoyed leading the Homegoing discussion at Third Reform Church. I’m unsure if it was an official Big Read event, but it was part of the church’s justice committee initiative. We were able to dig really deep into the history of racism in the United States as well as the effects Christianity has had on it and its role in colonialism. I was really disappointed this didn’t come up in any other discussion, but it was an incredibly interesting conversation. The devastating effects of missionary work in the periphery nation-states is something seldom talked about and it’s something that Christians don’t want to hear because we believe that saving a soul is the most important thing a person can do. But the way missionary work was done in Africa, as Homegoing painstakingly showed, and in other colonies was not saving souls, but erasing cultures and ruining lives. So it was very refreshing to have such an honest conversation with other Christians about it. We also got to talk about the good work that churches did for African Americans in America as well as the flip side that churches are some of the most racially segregated places. Discussions in different areas of the community about the same topic, highlight how much we have in common as well as our differences. Discussing the same book across the community does not mean we all have to approach the book in the same way, rather we can all see ourselves and our communities within the community in the text.

Power in Sharing Stories: the Lynda Lowery Lecture

By Nellie Wilcox

On Monday, November 20, Lynda Blackmon Lowery presented at Hope College, and she started her lecture with a story. In a dark crowded cell, meant for a total of two, packed with over fifty girls’ bodies, among the crying, hugging, and fear, an alto voice sings, “We will overcome.” Her tale is one of persistence and resilience, much like all of the Selma, Alabama children and teenagers who marched time after time, got thrown in jail, taken away from their home, and yet still continued in their courageous fight for equality and justice.

Witnessing and experiencing the racism at the young age of 7 made Lowery determined to fight for change. Her story starts with her mother dying due to complications with childbirth, where Lowery’s mother was unable to receive a blood transfusion because the white hospital in Selma would not give her blood because of the color of her skin. 

Lowery’s role as a changemaker started earlier than she had imagined. At the young age of 13, she was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to march for voting rights and change for her community. Lowery shared how “change comes with being consistent” and she embodied that whole-heartedly. On March 7, 1965 Lowery marched for justice in the murder of Jimmy Lee, a black teenager shot and killed by police. At this march, grown men— a trooper and a sheriff deputy—beat Lynda Blackmon, only 14 years old, senselessly over and over again with a small baseball bat while the other hit and kicked her over and over again. This brutal beating resulted in 38 stitches, producing not only physical scars, but also emotional trauma. Despite this experience, Lowery still decided to attend more marches, and ended up being the youngest registered marcher in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Her resilience and commitment to change is still an inspiration, and her story deserves to be told. 

At the end of her lecture, Lowery was asked what advice she would give to young people today, and she said these wise words: “put the word human back into humanity.” She expressed that everyone brings value to the table, regardless of color of their skin: “God made a rainbow; I’m a part of it, and so are you.” 

Lynda Blackmon Lowery’s story was well deserving of the enthusiastic standing ovation on November 20, 2023. To learn more about her story, please consider reading her book Turning 15 On The Road To Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March

Nellie Wilcox is a freshman at Hope College majoring in Elementary Special Education.