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BOOK CLUB KIT: Reading Cynthia Smith's Hearts Unbroken

Updated: Jun 19


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Hello! If you’re reading this, it means you’re probably hoping to find ways to explore identity and tolerance with a group of peers in an entertaining and engaging way. You’ve found the right place! Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith was a perfect way for us (Tatiana, Emma, Meagan, and Harrison, students in the Fall 2019 Social Justice in K12 Education course at Portland State University) to do just that. This was such a fun read, and was such a great way for us to learn and grow together in a space that was much more pleasant and engaging than poring over article after article of interesting and important yet lengthy content. This book had something in it that we could all relate to—be that high school struggles, young love, or small town problems!


As we went through this book, we naturally developed a series of questions that we then used to guide our own discussions. What we learned is that identity is not just what you are or who you are. It’s so much more than that. Identity is about how you experience the world around you, how you move through life and through space, and how your personhood shapes the life that you live. This book reaffirmed for us that while in your identity can be power, community, and belonging, your identity can make your life so much more complicated. Identity affects everything you do, say, think, and feel. Our group discussion gave us a space to explore these concepts and see what they mean in action for the characters of Hearts Unbroken, as well as a space to think about what they mean in our own worlds.


We hope that you’ll take the time and energy to explore this book. The questions that we used to guide our own discussions were the baseline that we used to develop the questions presented in the following lesson plan. Grab your book, a blanket, maybe some tea, bring your open mind and heart, and come ready to unpack everything you’ve ever thought about identity and tolerance. Enjoy!


Book Club Plan Layout

Hearts Unbroken reveals controversial topics pertaining to identity recognition and discrimination against Indigenous People and people of color. To evaluate and assess the content of this book, our group complied reading questions that help guide conversations and reflect on the book. This lesson is intended to be completed by a reading group or in a class setting, however, can be completed individually as well. These questions can help guide your discussion and create opportunities to further your conversation toward personal growth and understanding. Take the conversation in whatever direction it may go, but remember to respect your peer’s opinion, listen with intent, and value your own beliefs!


An Overview of the Questions

This lesson contains four pre-reading/ preliminary questions, three midpoint questions to be answered after the 1st half of the book, three questions for the 2nd half of the book, and four post-reading questions. The preliminary questions are intended for readers to reflect on their own identity and experiences. Self-reflection will allow readers to get in the mindset of this book and prepare for the content. The midpoint questions refer to the 1st half of the book (through the end of “Deliciously Divine” chapter). These questions are specific to the book content and are structured to be discussion-based with a reading group or to be answered individually. Questions referring to the 2nd half of the book are structured in the same format as the 1st half questions. Lastly, the post-reading questions are structured similarly to the pre-reading questions however, rather than self-reflection, these questions are geared toward book evaluation and analysis. Readers can use their self-reflection from the preliminary question to further guide the post-reading questions as well.


Pre and Post Reading questions were developed using the Teaching Anti-Bias Framework.


Hearts Unbroken Summary

Entering her senior year, Louise Wolfe is faced with not just the complicated, messy parts of a high school first love, but what it means to be a teenager and fall in love while Native American. When confronted with the decision to keep or dump her first real boyfriend after he openly mocked and disrespected her Muscogee heritage, leaving him behind was a no-brainer. For Lou, her Native ancestry and her chance to make her mark as reporter of the school paper, the Hive, seem like more than enough to make her senior year the best that it can be. But when the editors of the paper pair her with the new ambitious photojournalist Joey Kairouz to cover the school production of The Wizard of Oz, Lou is forced to not only come to terms with her feelings towards a new love interest, but the politics of her mostly-white, middle-class Kansas town.


Following the school musical director’s colour-conscious approach to the play’s casting, silent, long-held prejudices begin to surface in the form of vandalism, anonymous threats, and hostilities among students, faculty, and the community at large. With Lou’s little brother at the centre of the controversy after being casted in one of the lead roles as the Tin Man, Lou and her family became the targets of backlash and racism. With Joey by her side she not only covers, but lives the front page story. Lou is forced to use what she knows and who she is to understand and overcome two things: “dating while Native” and the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater.”


Rich in colour and rawness, Hearts Unbroken is a realistic depiction of the life of a Native teen and the trials and tribulations that come with identity, love, and hate. This novel illustrates the lived realities of Native young people while providing us with an opportunity for introspection of ourselves, while opening a critical dialogue about equity and inclusion that draws in young and adult readers alike.


Discussion Questions:

PRE-WORK QUESTIONS

  • Identity- What is/are the most important aspect(s) of your own identity? How might those aspects affect the way you navigate through the world?

  • Diversity- Reflect on the diversity that you see in the communities around you. Describe how that diversity has shaped your experiences. How do you think that diversity has affected your community as a whole?

  • Justice- Have you experienced a time when someone tried to relate with you as the group you identify with rather than yourself as an individual?

  • Action- How can you as an individual stand up to bias or injustice in your community? Do you have any personal experience with fighting injustice in your community?


QUESTIONS FOR THE FIRST HALF OF THE BOOK (through the end of “Deliciously Divine” chapter)


Lou seems to feel heavily connected to her identity and is very conscious of vetting the people in her life as best as possible to ensure that they will be accepting and supportive of her experiences and her identity.

  • Can you think of times in the book where you noticed Lou experiencing heightened consciousness of her identity while she was going about her life?


In the very beginning of the book, Lou broke up with her boyfriend, Cam, following some derogatory remarks made by both Cam and his mother at a family function. Shortly thereafter, while giving Lou a ride to the gas station, Peter made a comment alluding to the stereotype of many Native people experiencing alcoholism.

  • How have you seen Lou processing and responding to these situations?

  • Do you feel as though Lou handled them appropriately? How might you handle situations such as these?

  • What was your reaction to reading about the letter (reading “There’s no place like home, go back to where you came from”) that was left in the mailboxes of the families of Lou, Hughie, Chelsea, and AJ?

  • How might you respond if you found such a letter in your family’s mailbox?


QUESTIONS FOR THE SECOND HALF OF THE BOOK

While attempting to have a conversation about their relationship, Lou made a comment to Joey that Joey took as insensitive, which resulted in a temporary falling out.

  • How do you think both sides handled the situation as the book progressed? Do you see any similarities between Cam and Lou’s interaction that resulted in their break-up and Cam and Joey’s interaction that resulted in this falling out? Differences?

At the very end of the book, multiple families of different backgrounds gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving.

  • Where do you see similarities and differences compared to some of the themes presented in the rest of the book?

At the end of the book, Joey and Lou walked past Lou’s garage door with the message reading, “There’s no place like home, go back to where you came from” painted on it. It was clear that Lou had spent a lot of time processing the message, and at this point, she was able to act very nonchalantly about it and just walk right past it.

  • Reflect on the growth that Lou has experienced through the book in regards to the intolerance that her family has experienced.

  • What do you think it means for Lou that she is able to ignore the message on her garage door?


POST-READING QUESTIONS

  • Identity- Do you see any parallels between your own experiences to those of the characters in this book? What aspects of your identity or personhood might have played into that?

  • Diversity- How has Lou’s identity as a marginalized person affected her relationship with peers and her community? Thinking specifically about the characters that were targeted by PART, how do you think their experiences were affected by the diversity specifically within that group of students?

  • Justice- How did power and privilege play a role on the institutional and interpersonal level in the book?

  • Action- What kind of considerations had to be taken into account when the families were being harassed by members of PART? What about when Hughie decided to pull out of the production? Reflect on how the individuals involved handled the situation. Was this the right decision? How would you have handled it?

Like Hearts Unbroken? Check out…


Rain Is Not My Indian Name, Cynthia Leitich Smith


Give Me Some Truth, Eric Gansworth

Apple in the Middle, Dawn Quigley




An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese, Jean Mendoza

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