An LA transplant by way of Chicago, Jeannette is a full-time 3rd grade teacher by day and creative by night. Teaching and shaping 8-year old minds gives her a purpose but her craving for the creative is supplemented with photography projects and working weekends at General Store in Venice, making LA her perfect platform for playful experimentation. Yet, whatever she does literature has always been a constant that centers her.
Photos by: Julia Stotz
Girls At Library: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Jeannette Lee: In all honesty, I didn’t really enjoy reading when I was young, but I clearly remember the first book that made me cry. It was called The Barn by Avi. It was a simple children’s book that I had to read as part of my local library’s reading competition called Battle of the Books. The book follows a young boy, his relationship with his sick father and his journey to accepting and embracing difficult life experiences. It left a huge impression on me because reading at the time was such a chore to me. So to have this book draw me in emotionally was when I began to recognize the power of books.
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
JL: Fictional texts, especially classics, have played a huge role in my life. I became a voracious reader my freshman year of high school when I was introduced to classic novels like Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I know most people find classics boring, but I really connected with the characters and the experiences they were going through, like Pip in Great Expectations. I saw a lot of myself in him. Growing up in a single parent household, things were not always so easy. I saw Pip experiencing the same feelings, wants and desires so reading texts like this became a cathartic experience. Also, classics are incredibly well written so you just have to respect it -- that’s the English major/nerd in me speaking.
GAL: Being that you teach third grade (which is awesome!), are there any books you would recommend to your students or to other kids around that age? Also, what books do you think they would recommend?
JL: There are so many books I would recommend as I read way more children’s books nowadays, but here’s just a few!
My class and I read Peter Pan this year, and they absolutely loved it. They are at the age (8-9) where their imagination is running wild and a place like Neverland makes perfect sense to them. It was amazing reading the book with them and hearing about their own Neverland. It made me a little sad to realize that as we get older our Neverland disappear like the parents in the book, but reading the book with them was a reminder of the magic in life!
I would also recommend Because of Winn Dixie. I teach in Huntington Park where a lot of my students face challenges everyday for a variety of reasons. A lot of them connect with Opal from the book and the experiences she goes through with making new friends, dealing with her mother’s absence, etc. As young readers, they learn lessons alongside their characters so it’s so important for them to read books with rich, complex characters.
They always recommend books! If they had to pick one though they would most likely recommend Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s definitely a kid favorite.
GAL: It's so insightful what you must learn from putting yourself back in the head space of these students and that you have the opportunity try to shape their view. I remember my 3rd grade teacher as one of my favorites. Are there any books that have helped guide you in better understanding these kids and how to teach them?
JL: There are so many great books I've read that have shaped how I approach teaching. But the one that has impacted me the most is Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. The reason I teach is to address social inequity in America. It's an ugly and often ignored reality, but it's exposed most clearly in our education system. This book chronicles students, teachers, and schools who have been impacted by this inequity. I remember being so broken hearted after finishing it. It reinforced the idea that our schools are a direct product of systemic influences of power and privilege that benefit some and harm others. I work with a population that is directly harmed by these systemic injustices and books like this one reminds me why I need to show up to school everyday and empower students to believe in themselves and their worth. Being a teacher is often seen as teaching a set of skills like adding and multiplying, but I see teaching as passing on a mindset to these students that they do not have to work toward greatness because that they already have it inside them.
GAL: How often do you find time to read?
JL: I read everyday with my students. Unfortunately, I probably only read for about 3 hours a week for personal enjoyment. I definitely plan on increasing that average as soon as summer break starts.
GAL: Do you have a current – or “forever” – favorite book?
JL: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
GAL: Who is your favorite author?
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to re-read for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
GAL: Do you have a current favorite reading spot?
JL: I love reading in my bed before going to sleep. During college, I loved going to used book stores and finding a private corner to read. I haven’t done that in a while but definitely plan to make that a routine again. I can read just about anywhere as long as it’s super quiet because I'm easily distracted.
GAL: What is the importance of a physical book?
JL: I really appreciate having a physical book to hold. For me, that’s part of the experience of reading. Turning the page builds the anticipation of what I’m going to read next.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction to fiction? If so, why?
JL: I mostly read fiction in high school and throughout college, but I’ve been drawn to non-fiction lately. I love reading about people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Malcolm X. It’s so critical to read books that awaken and challenge my consciousness. Fiction books will always have a special place in my heart though. I think they are just as important as non-fiction texts in challenging my thinking -- it just takes more reading between the lines.
GAL: If you read non-fiction, what genre do you prefer?
JL: I enjoy memoirs and biographies.
GAL: How do you choose the books you read? Are there any most memorable ways you have discovered a book or author?
JL: I choose books based on recommendations. Otherwise, I’m a little vain in the sense that I do judge a book by its cover and the first few pages. If it doesn’t hook me in the first few chapters I usually set it aside.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
JL: Everyone Wants to Be Found. Yes, this is the tagline for Lost in Translation, but it connects to my life in so many ways.
GAL: Please name at least three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
JL: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - For the existential individual. Ishiguro really presents challenging themes connected to morality, the impact of technology/science and just the human experience in general.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - I only really read this book because my roommate from Chicago nannied for the author but holy! It’s a page turner and one of those summer reads you’ll blow through (if you haven’t already read it).
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates - To understand institutionalized racism as it still exists in our country and the impact it has on people of color. I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves on this topic as it is a reality for so many people in America. It is also a beautifully written text. Coates is a wordsmith, and it reads like a work of poetry.