Sometimes, you pick up a book, read the blurbs on the back cover, and buy it just because of the luminaries who have written the praise. Sometimes, a book will completely fail to measure up. But Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America lives up to, and often exceeds, the praise on the back cover.
Tough’s impeccable research, compelling storytelling and graceful prose deserve the rave reviews: “a warm and immaculately reported piece of journalism…” (Dave Eggers); “cogent, provocative and original thinking…”(Alex Kotlowitz); “Not to be missed” (Michael Pollan) as well as soaring praise from Elizabeth Gilbert, Marian Wright Edelman – and President Clinton. This is narrative journalism at its finest.
The subject of the book, Geoffrey Canada, is a rare visionary who is not afraid to tackle issues and problems that generations before him have found to be impossible. He grew up in poverty and chaos, but took advantage of the educational opportunities that were offered to him. “My success was less a testament to my brilliance than a tribute to the hard work of professors and students who believed in me, challenged me, molded me, and finally sent me out into the world to do what I had to do,” he wrote in Daedalus, a few years ago.
And “what he had to do” was, whatever it takes.
Through his experience and his education, Canada saw that children raised in poverty far too often ended up poor as adults. He recognized that to change a child’s chances, he had to change the whole environment – not just the school or education programs (because at the end of the day, those kids go home to dysfunctional families and unhealthy neighborhoods) but the whole environment – from ‘cradle to college’ as he puts it.
Canada created the Harlem Children’s Zone not just to help out one or a hundred or even a thousand children, but as a way to change the whole culture – starting by educating parents before a baby is born, and then tucking that child into a cocoon of services impacting every aspect of his or her life. By changing the whole culture of Harlem, these children now can see the world differently – as a place of possibility, of potential.
Through his brilliant reporting, through the research he uses to back up the narrative, what Paul Tough shows, what Geoffrey Canada has proven, is that in order to save the next generation of children, we not only can, but we must, do “whatever it takes.” Tough has a new book that just came out last month: “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why” — I can’t wait to read it!