Finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize • “In all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading with Patrick.”—The Atlantic
A memoir of 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, 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 personal 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 truancy and even gun violence, she is inspired by some such as Patrick. Fifteen and in the eighth grade, Patrick begins to thrive under Michelle’s exacting attention. 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.
Then, on the eve of her law-school graduation, Michelle learns that Patrick has been jailed for murder. Feeling that she 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, Walt Whitman, W. S. Merwin, and others. In her time reading with Patrick, Michelle is herself transformed, contending with the legacy of racism and the questions of what constitutes a “good” life and what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.
“A powerful meditation on how one person can affect the life of another . . . One of the great strengths of Reading with Patrick is its portrayal of the risk inherent to teaching.”—The Seattle Times
“[A] tender memoir.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
About the Author
Michelle Kuo taught English at an alternative school in the Arkansas Delta for two years. After teaching, she attended Harvard Law School as a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow, and worked legal aid at a nonprofit for Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, on a Skadden Fellowship, with a focus on tenants’ and workers’ rights. She has volunteered as a teacher at the Prison University Project and clerked for a federal appeals court judge in the Ninth Circuit. Currently she teaches courses on race, law, and society at the American University in Paris.
“Penetrating, haunting . . . In all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading with Patrick.”—James Forman, Jr., and Arthur Evenchik, The Atlantic
“Reading with Patrick could be the most affecting book you’ll read this year. To experience such a spectrum of responses—from anger to admiration, disbelief to inspiration, helpless frustration to stand-up-and-shout-cheering—should be enough impetus to get you urgently ‘reading with Patrick’ as soon as possible.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“Three out of four stars!”—USA Today
“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.”—Kirkus Reviews
“This memoir of teaching literature in one of the poorest counties in America is a reminder of how literacy changes lives. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick is a strikingly candid and insightful meditation on the relationship between a young teacher and a former student as they read together while the student awaits trial for murder in a Southern jail. Compulsively readable, the book manages to do two extraordinary things at once: it offers a poignant and moving account of a specific relationship, and it grapples searchingly with universal themes around families, race, poverty, teaching, and the power of literature. The book will continue to resonate long after you have put it down and returned to the everyday—this is what the best books, the best teachers, do.”—Carol S. Steiker, Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law, faculty co-director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School
“Warmhearted but never sentimental, and acutely self-aware, Michelle Kuo’s memoir is the most profound, tender, and intensely moving portrait of a student-teacher relationship I’ve ever read. It shows how deeply a student and teacher can change each other’s lives. Kuo knows the complications and the limits of helping, but she is brave and generous and stubborn enough to do it anyway.”—Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning
“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.”—Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore
“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.”—Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs