Chatti Phal-Brown is an art therapist, a vibrational sound practitioner, and the founder of the natural skincare line Remy & Rose. She's currently in the midst of building a small studio space for her Denver area private practice, Mayura Healing Co. ( website coming soon!). As a child, Chatti immigrated with her family from Cambodia to the U.S. by way of Thailand and the Philippines. She is a voracious reader who's committed to reading broadly and diversely.
I had one of those funny internet experiences with Chatti where she entered my life digitally and then, by chance, I met her later that week. Chatti's episode of What Should I Read Next is one of my favorites. She speaks with such eloquence and bravery about her family's experience immigrating from Cambodia in the midst of genocide and the triumph she's found in literature. She also helped me think critically about Eleanor and Park, a book I blindly adored when I first read it, and she's the reader who inspired me to finally read Like Water for Chocolate (so good!!!). Maybe three days after I listened to Chatti's interview, I attended a Denver bookstagram meet-up, and there she was! I was so star-struck and a little nervous to talk to Chatti about books because of her sincerity and honesty. Of course, Chatti was absolutely delightful in person and now I love getting book recommendations from her on- and off-line.
Learning more about how Chatti became the reader she is has been a true privilege. Her insights are incredibly thoughtful and empathetic, and she's inspired me to see my students in whole new way. She has a true understanding of now just what books, but also what connections are missing from most classrooms. Keep reading to see what I mean!
Tell us about your current reading life. What types of books do you enjoy and where do you have conversations about books?
This year, I had to take some steps to find balance in my life. I made of goal of reading “0” books as somewhat of a joke, but, honestly, the pressure of bookstagram and keeping up with writing reviews on my blog was too much for me. I needed to step away a bit and evaluate why I enjoy reading in the first place. I also wanted to make a point of shopping from my personal library and reading from my unread bookshelf. I have over 200 unread books. I used to beat myself up over it, but I don’t feel any shame about it anymore. It was always a childhood dream of mine to have shelves and shelves of books. In elementary school we used to get those scholastic book catalogs and I would circle all the books I wanted knowing full well that we didn’t have money to get any of them. The eight year old me would be so happy to have a house filled with books; so many possibilities to get lost in during a lazy Sunday morning. Books are what I choose to splurge on instead of makeup or shoes.
Typically I read from 50-75 books a year, and I feel really good about my reading life now. I’m reading less but I also feel it is more abundant, fulfilling, and thoughtful.
I’m all over the place with genres and my reading life is often times dictated by the seasons. Typically in the fall and winter I read more mysteries and thrillers. Spring and summer are literary fiction, books I classify as vacation reads like cozy romance, and maybe some nonfiction (though, I’ve been known to skim through those). My absolute favorite genre is middle grade. I go there when I want to feel uplifted and hopeful. Funny enough, I don’t discuss books much with people in my life. Mainly my husband and maybe my older sister. I kind of like mulling the story in my head a bit before I talk to anyone.
As a teacher, I’m always curious about how people fell in love with reading. For you, was it in the classroom, or outside it?
I remembered always wanting to read when I was younger, but not having reading materials at home. I would read the same book over and over again. At that time it was a church book (perhaps from Jehovah’s Witness). I wouldn’t ever recommend that as your first book because, frankly, it was scary--all about doom and God as something to fear. We only had it in the house because missionaries came to our neighborhood and tried to get us into their church, which happens all the time in poor immigrant neighborhoods. I was perhaps 4 or 5 and my father took the book from them because I begged for something to read.
I remember going to the Salvation Army with my dad and siblings and my dad told us we could pick one thing in the store to buy. I picked out a small yellow book called, “God is Everywhere” which was more spiritual than biblical. When my father died earlier this year, we were sitting around sharing memories and my brother mentioned that book. He told me he loved it and snuck to read it every chance he got. No one else remembered what they picked out that day, but everyone still remembers my book. It’s one of my prized possession.
My love for books grew in third grade in Ms. Otterson’s class. She remains my favorite teacher because I felt seen and nurtured. She made me feel special and smart. I really blossom in that class. Prior to 3rd grade, we’d take home textbooks with short stories and answer the discussion questions. In third grade, we started to have additional reading time where we could check out books from the classroom library, and I started reading chapter books. I discovered Ramona the Pest, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown. We would read and act out the stories with puppets (like Winnie the Poo). I also remember my friends going to ESL class during the second half of PE and feeling left out. My PE teacher was mean so I begged the ESL teacher to let me in. She told me that I didn’t need additional help but there was no harm in reading more. So I would happily skipped over to ESL class read Shel Silverstein’s poems. I love his poems and still have a fondness for them.
Third grade was also the year I discovered the library and got a library card without any restrictions (I could check out anything and everything!). Once I wasn’t limited by what I could read, my world grew!
How did you figure out your personal taste in books?
The good thing about the library is that if you don’t like something, you can just return it and get something else. I don’t remember feeling pressured to finished a book like I do now, so I read a lot to figure out what I liked. In high school, my friends and I would sit and talk about books (mainly romance). My friend, Sunni, would actually tell me about the books that she was reading like oral storytelling. She was a great storyteller. I discussed a lot of Asian/Asian American lit with my friend, Melody. She had big opinions but it was always fun to connect with her about the books she passionately loved (and hated). Her one love (she was obsessed) was Gone With The Wind. Obviously, the story was problematic so we discussed the racist elements of it, but we also talked about how much we loved/hated Scarlett, how much we hated Ashley, and the stereotypical portrayals of Mammy and the other slaves. I was part of the Junior League of the Library and during book sales, we would get to take home boxes of old books. I’m not sure when they were written but most were hardbacks coming-of-age/romance, but the female lead never ends up with the male lead. Scarlett always put herself first and that may have helped balance the messages I was receiving from those raunchy romance I was reading.
Did you do your required reading in high school? Did you read outside of your classwork?
Yes, even the ones I had to fight through. I was a rule follower. The only one I remembered not getting past the first chapter was Heart of Darkness. I still can’t think about that book and not cringed a bit. I read a lot outside of assigned reading. Books that I loved were anything by Edgar Allen Poe, Pride and Prejudice, Like Water For Chocolate, romance by authors like Jude Deveraux, lots and lots of true crime novels like studies on Jack The Ripper. Then there was Sweet Valley High, Amy Tan, books I can't even remember but wish I kept a list. All of my outside reading came from the public library.
Did you have a teacher in your life who helped you learn something new about yourself as a reader or appreciate books in a new way?
I can’t recall any particular high school teacher who did that. I do think what helped was that I wasn’t made to feel bad about what I was reading. Reading was just encouraged by all of my teachers. In fact, we even read for our science classes. I remember reading Jurassic Park, and some other Michael Crichton books. We weren’t made to feel ashamed if our reading level was lower than our peers, if we brought in trashy romance, if we liked fantasy or read middle grade. Reading was encouraged and there weren’t restrictions. I felt like our teachers respected our reading choices and were encouraging but also hands off about our selections.
What is one book you LOVED reading in high school?
Senior year, Mr. Tilton’s class, we read The Haunting Of Hill House. We watched the film and also watched The House on Haunted Hill and discussed the difference between psychological thriller and horror. I hadn't read anything like Shirley Jackson before and was so drawn to this genre. I still love gothic, atmospheric novels as an adult. I don’t remember reading much by female writers in my high school years, but we also read The Color Purple and that was a heart punch.
What is one book you HATED reading in high school?
I was not a big fan of Heart Of Darkness. I had a hard time getting into this book, it felt dense and outdated. But honestly, since I never got through the book, I’m not sure what the themes were or anything else about it. I’ve stayed far away and never felt compelled to pick it up as an adult.
What is one book you would love to see introduced in classrooms now?
Anything written by Toni Morrison. I didn’t discover her till college but I find her books so important and relevant. The one that struck me was The Bluest Eye. I know it’s about an African American girl and I didn’t go through the horrific events Pecola went through, but there were some things I deeply connected with. The feeling of insignificance, not embodying the standard of beautiful, being made to feel small but also constantly being scrutinized and under a microscope. Frankly, I don’t think every teacher can teach this book well. It’s a skill to be able to recognize the social economical framework and internalized racism so prevalent in this book. As a child born in a refugee camp, sometimes I get the "you didn't go through the trauma (The Killing Fields) yourself, your parents did." Yes, that's true but you have to understand generational trauma and how it is deeply embedded in your bones. The trauma of your ancestors is built into you, so just imagine coming from ancestors who were enslaved and mistreated for hundreds of years. You cannot teach this book and bypass the trauma of slavery and racism in the past and currently today. You just can't. In this tiny book there is a lot to unpack; a wealth of hard things to discuss. You have to be up for the challenge.
What is one additional piece of advice you would give teachers to help their students enjoy their reading more?
Encourage reading, show real interest (kids will know if you’re faking it), and include diverse books in your class. Please keep in mind that intelligence don'ts always look like you read a book, you take a test (or write an essay), you get an A. Learning styles differ from child to child. Some may not even know a lot of English, but that doesn’t mean they’re not smart. It only means they are currently learning a new language. If you want to encourage reading, you’re going to have to think outside the box. Offer graphic novels as supplemental reading for those who are visual learners, audiobooks for those who need to read along to pick up new words or are auditory learners. Let kids make soundtracks/playlists for the books they are reading and listen to them when they explain why each song matters to the story. Let them write poems or rap. Let them draw a scene that evokes an emotion within them. Most of all, listen. These kids in front of you have stories to tell of their own and one day one of them is going to write a book and perhaps in the acknowledgement, you’ll be there.
All of this is going to take time to make them feel safe to explore in classroom and you might feel exhausted by the end of the day but dang it, you’re going to make a difference.
What are you reading now?
The Ten Thousand Doors of January (YA) and On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous
Shop for books mentioned in this post:
- Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
- Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquival
- Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
- Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene
- Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol
- Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Jude Deveraux
- Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal
- Amy Tan
- Jurassic Park by Michael Creighton
- The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
- On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong