Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. To see the archive of past books of the month from this year, click here.
The current book of the month is…
March: The Kids by Hannah Lowe
You’ll probably have heard of this collection by Hannah Lowe, ‘The Kids,’ which just won the Costa Book of the Year award: the acclaim is well-deserved. The concept is fairly straightforward: a former teacher writing poems which reflect on her decade teaching at a sixth form college, and it does that skilfully, but the collection is about so much more than memories of school days.
The portraits of the kids she taught are often witty, recognizable and pleasingly familiar: confiscating phones, theatre trips, the struggle for teachers to communicate and students to concentrate. There are poems which recount the weirdness of bumping into former students after they’ve grown up, and in ‘The Unretained’ she wonders, “What happened / to Eliot who went to Feltham? And Martha, / five-months-pregnant, quitting for her boyfriend / and a flat?”. What stands out, though, is her constant sense of her own humanity. She is never portrayed as a pedagogic master, but as someone who gets things wrong, mispronounces “Pepys”, escapes class to “check [her] texts / or sneak between the stockroom shelving units / to eat a Twix,” and often as someone painfully affected by the struggles and frustrations of the young people she works with.
This idea is deepened in the middle part of the book which explores Lowe’s own experience of being a young student. Her own teenage frustrations and fantasies are brought to life and paralleled with those of the kids she teaches as an adult. The third and final section of the book focuses on Lowe’s motherhood, the learning curve of becoming a parent, and her child as he figures out the world.
At the heart of the book is an exploration of teaching and learning, all the ways that comes to pass throughout one’s life. It shows how teachers can come in the form of children, your parents, a traumatic event or bereavement – and how learning can happen when you least expect it. It is a collection which captures the complexity of all the different versions of the self held at once: Lowe seen as a teacher and an authority but feeling vulnerable, being a mother but remembering being a child, being perceived as in control but feeling nothing of the sort.
The sonnet form, which almost all the poems in the collection are written in, often enacts this. The two stanzas create a sort of point and counterpoint, setting up one idea in the first half, then re-exploring it in the second half. The final poem starts “The body is something like a poem,” and the second stanza, “A poem is something like a body.” Lowe recounts seeing her yoga teacher participating in another yoga class. It captures the idea that underlies this whole collection, a study in humility and an admission that no matter how much we see ourselves (or are seen as) “masters,” we all still need “kind and guiding hands” to teach us.