Allison's Book Bag

The Chalk Circle by Tara Masih

Posted on: August 17, 2013

The Chalk Circle grew out an Intercultural Essay contest held by editor Tara Masih. After she’d finished reading the submitted essays, Masih decided that they needed to be published. I’m not sure how many young people will pick up The Chalk Circle without the guidance of an adult, but I do think Masih was correct to make public the voices of the authors who won her contest. Their essays will invoke a wide range of emotions in you, from laughter to anger, and raise needed questions in your mind about culture, race, and a sense of place.

What first caused me to pick up The Chalk Circle by editor Tara Masih is its format, which fulfilled my current need for the delicate balance of quick but substantial reading fare. Because it’s a collection of essays, I could read a few pages here and there without losing the flow. The twenty essays are all grouped by subjects, and each category includes only two or three essays, which allowed me to comfortably read a couple of categories each day and finish within a week. As for the essays themselves, they lived up to my hope for substantial reading fare. Consider the essay, Fragments, which is about Third Culture Kids. Its author, when she heard the term, felt relieved to have a shortened version of: “Well, I am American but I never lived in America until college. I went to high school in Thailand and before that I lived in Belgium and in Morocco before that. Yes, I was born in the United States but we left for Uganda when I was seventeen days old.” This one essay alone shows the humor that sometimes sparkles in the essays collected in The Chalk Circle, while also showing the depths you’ll dive with its authors.

One well-established magazine listed the target age of The Chalk Circle as fifteen and up. Well, as I think about the average reading fare of most teens today, I suspect many will find The Chalk Circle a heavy book to read both because of style and subject. For example, here’s the start of one of the essays: “These were the first words of response to starting my autoethnography. I felt almost ashamed; you can’t admit to using email in a research paper.” As for subjects, Tightrope Across the Abyss is an essay written by the grandniece of a Nazi who seeks redemption by facing a Holocaust survivor. I’m not saying that teens can’t grasp and learn from such content. Without guidance of an adult, however, I wonder how many will actually pick up The Chalk Circle of their own accord? That’s why I think it helps that the book is a collection. Of anything. Stories would probably be preferred. But essays can work too.

You see, the nice thing about collections of short writings, in contrast to a full-length novel or reference book, is that one can pick and choose. While a young person who feels inclined to skim The Chalk Circle might feel turned off by the more academic essays, they might find themselves pulled into the memoirs. Okay, I admit, these were my favorite too. 🙂 I also appreciated that no one group was highlighted. Yes, there was an essay about relations between Whites and Blacks. Yes, there was an essay about the intermingling of Jews and Christians. But there were also essays about being Cherokee and American, being Asian and American, and other cultural mixes. There are also essays about an American living in Africa, and another who visits Guatemala, and other adventures in new places.

Editor Tara Masih selected a range of voices because she felt they all needed to be heard “in order to find understanding and be truly intercultural’. In doing so, she made The Chalk Circle a different sort of reading fare, but definitely one worth seeking out.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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