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  • Writer's pictureElzbieta Gozdziak

Our favorite books of 2023

The New Year is a time for taking stock, reflecting, and looking ahead. Today, we are reflecting on our readings in 2023. As always, we have read numerous academic publications to inform our research and our own writing on children with migration background in Polish schools. However, in addition to perusing pertinent academic literature, we have also read books for pleasure and entertainment. Below you will find reflections on both kinds of books.

Katarzyna Byłów

In his recent contribution “Ethnography and ethical life,” Michael Lambek noted that reading is an important part of ethnographic practice:

“I have in mind a core tradition of ethnographic practice as intertwined arts of fieldwork, writing, and reading. Ethnography is at once the practice of fieldwork and the product of writing (“an” ethnography), but equally the product of fieldwork and the practice of writing. Reading is a further ethnographic practice and the main way in which ethnography—and what one might call an ethnographic perspective or sensibility—is taught.”

For me, one of the most impactful readings over the last year was the recently published Cywilizowanie dzieci? Społeczno-kulturowe badania dzieciństwa w perspektywie teorii Norberta Eliasa, edited by Zofia Boni and Marta Rakoczy, addressing a wide array of aspects of childhood(s) in the overarching context of ‘civilising efforts’ and - inevitably - schooling. Overall, I feel that the book is an excellent example of scholarship offering necessary temporal analytical depth, bringing into focus the history that illuminates our current research into the experience of children with migration background in Polish schools. I also found the chapter by Ada Tymińska on the contemporary ‘social life’ of legal regulations on schooling obligation and right to education especially inspiring, as the author focused on the negotiations between individual children and specific elements of the environment within which they operate, paying close attention to the emergence of the children’s self-knowledge as members of society as part of these negotiations.

Since my current fieldwork involves exploring institutional aspect of educational opportunities available to migrant children and looking into the characteristics of local institutional arrangements and agency of specific actors, it was also interesting and illuminating for me to read about the political circumstances and the institutional set-up in other countries. The case of France and Morocco, discussed in the recent report by Maria Hagan and Sébastien Bachelet, served as an ominous reminder that the self-image projected by states may coincide with a very different “ground reality”:  

“Solidarity actors working on contentious issues (such as migration) operate in repressive political circumstances in both France and Morocco. Although both countries promote discourses of hospitality and humanitarianism, and have laws in place to protect the right to protest, the space for civil society action is in practice constantly being squeezed. The ground reality undermines protective frameworks and the beneficent self-image these states seek to project.”

My most recent reading, and another highlight of 2023, is Crisis for Whom: Critical global perspectives on childhood, care and migration, the bilingual (English and Spanish) volume edited by Rachel Rosen, Elaine Chase, Sarah Crafter, Valentina Glockner, and Sayani Mitra. Papers are presented in sections introduced by ‘Art in Dialogue’ features created by artist Meera Shakti Osborne in dialogue with chapter authors and attendees of a series of online seminars during the writing process. Reflecting on the link between ethnographic practice and ethical life, I concur with the editors, when they declare that: “Art is formed in knowledge and is a form of knowledge. But it does not tell viewers what to think. Art opens a space of possibility.” I also appreciate the focus on positionality and the dialogical dimension of research into childhood(s), which are an inherent part of most papers in this volume.

It was especially interesting to see the description and findings of photo elicitation and artwork used in combination with participant observation and interviews in the chapter “The wrestlers: the tactics and practices of care of young African ‘unaccompanied minors’ in Italy” by Sarah Walker. Ever since I came across Wendy Ewald’s Secret Games: Collaborative Works with Children 1969-1999, I have been intrigued by the potential and the eliciting power of creative collaboration and artwork in social science research and I am always on the lookout for such studies.

In case, you want to read these books yourself, I include references:

Bachelet, S., & Hagan, M. (2023). We know who you are: hostile migration politics and the criminalisation of solidarity actors in France and Morocco.

Boni, Z., Rakoczy, M. (Eds.) (2023) Cywilizowanie dzieci? Społeczno-kulturowe badania dzieciństwa w perspektywie teorii Norberta Eliasa, Oficyna Naukowa: Warszawa. Seria Dzieci / granice / etnografie

Ewald, W. (2000). Secret games: Collaborative works with children 1969-1999. (No Title).

Lambek, M. (2023). Ethnography and ethical life. American Ethnologist.

Rosen, R. et al (eds). 2023. Crisis for Whom? Critical global perspectives on childhood, care and migration. London: UCL Press.

Wiktoria Moritz-Leśniak

While doctoral school and my research project provide plenty of opportunities to read pertinent academic literature, I have less time to focus on books not directly related to my current academic pursuits. However, there were a couple of books which fascinated me in 2023. They sparked my curiosity and provoked me to ask further questions.

The first book I want to mention is “Chłopki” written by Joanna Kuciel-Frydryszak. The book has not yet been translated into English, but I hope it will be soon. The author writes about Polish peasants, with a particular focus on peasant women’s lives. She invites the reader to look at old diaries, newspapers, and interviews she conducted with relatives of women she describes in her book. I really liked the way the book was structured and the numerous sources of information the author used to keep the reader intrigued.

I also read “Another Kyoto” by Alexander Kerr. I found myself really interested in Japanese culture, which I have had very limited knowledge about. After reading some books written by Japanese authors in recent year, I thought I would love to deepen my understanding and read more. Therefore, the book by Alexander Kerr turned out to be exactly what I needed. The book was structured in a way, which enables the reader to slowly get to know different symbols and elements of Japanese culture. He guides the reader through the streets of Kyoto, presenting some anecdotes from his life in Japan. Moreover, the author compares this information with his knowledge about China and indicates cultural differences between the two countries.

Finally, I want to mention “ Irlandia wstaje z kolan” by Marta Abramowicz. It’s a great reportage, which presents socio-cultural changes in Ireland, with a particular emphasis on religious and social transformation in Ireland. She writes about terrifying practices of the Catholic Church, on the one hand ,and absolutely brilliant activism and activists' agency, on the other hand.

"Izrael już nie frunie" by Paweł Smoleński turned out to be one of the most important books for me this year. This great piece of non-fiction let me learn that things are hardly ever black or white. Life is filled with lots of greys.


Even though 2023 brought me fewer books to read (or less time to read), I still keep on reflecting on the books I did read. May 2024 bring us interesting and thought provoking literature as this one!

Izabella Main

Among the diverse books I read in Polish and English language in 2023, I would like to recommend “The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World's Imagination” by Jens Andersen. LEGO is a global toy that children and adults use for play around the world. The book presents a story about three generations of a Danish family engaged in designing and producing first wooden toys and then the plastics bricks. It also shows the changing attitudes towards children’s right to play and the importance of playing as well as changing views about childhood and family. Migration was an important experience for Ole Kirk Christiansen, the inventor and the founder of the Lego company. The company today sells toys, manages amusement parks (Legolands), and transforms perceptions of childhoods and societies (with collections and programs referring to gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights and neurodiversity).

Larysa Sugay

Scholars read all the time --books, articles, blogs -- on topics related to their research, interests, present or futures. Reading is a habit for me, which often helps me to escape the reality or to immerse myself into it.

Two books helped to keep my mind clear and functional during this very hard year of 2023.

The first one is Controling Mental Chaos by Jaime A. Pineda, Professor of Cognitive Science and Neuroscience. The book is written partially from a psychological and partially from a medical point of view. It shows how our brain is functioning in different (especially, in challenging) situations.

The practical part of this book helped me to understand whether I am ready to practice “Present Moment Centering” by applying rules of social interaction, encouraging curiosity, focusing not on why-questions, but on why-not.

What did I learn from that book? We all need to be sensitive to our own needs and undertake the developmental steps at our own pace.

The second book, How to Deal with Difficult People by Madison Taylor, appeared spontaneously among my readings, probably even accidently – I wanted to help one of my teen friends to overcome difficultness in communication with her classmates, but ended up reading it myself a few times during last year.

What did I know before reading this book? There are plenty of difficult or rude people in our lives. Oftentimes I thought that if I could act/react/answer differently – it would help me to have “untroubled life without difficult people.”

What do I know now? Difficult people of all kinds are inevitable in life and their rudeness may be bred out of habit. What is important is to not let the behaviour of other people change who we are. We cannot change difficult people, but don't want to become one of them.

Do you want to have a good new year? Then stay focused on purpose of your actions, keep the final destination in mind – and let “them” watch you speeding up to your goal.

Elżbieta M. Goździak

Where to start? I read 44 novels in 2023; not as many as some of my friends and colleagues, but I a fair number....

I continued my interest in Korean literature. The two Korean novels that made the biggest impression on me were: Togani by Gong Jiyoung, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, and The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong.

I read Togani (The Crucible) because I first watched Silenced, a 2011 South Korean crime drama, directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk and starring Gong Yoo and Jung Yu-mi. The novel was the basis for the screen play. The book is based on events that took place at Gwangju Inhwa School for the Deaf, where young deaf and mute students were the victims of repeated sexual assaults by faculty members over five years in the early 2000s.The lawsuit against the abusers launched by a new teacher and a human rights activist ultimately lead to the change of law, known as the Dogani Law, in South Korea. The new law was designed to provide greater legal protections for children and vulnerable adults under state care and harsher penalties for those convicted of their abuse.

At a time when Korean popular culture drives cultural production worldwide, Togani reminds us of the power of fiction to affect societal change. The book testifies to the legacy of neo-Confucian class conflict, gender disparity, and the vulnerability of those near the bottom of the social ladder. It is a heart-wrenching and provocative work that helped bring about change to a system it dared to challenge.

The prose of the book is truly masterful and so is the camera work in the film. Both capture the intense emotions of the protagonists. The film has powerful closeups, but wide range and blurry shots were used in the most disturbing scenes.

The Waiting, a semi-autobiographical tale of a Korean family separated by conflict, is a graphic novel. Not my usual fare, but I decided to give it a shot and did not regret my decision.

The Waiting continues Keum Suk Gendry-Kim's unflinching portrayal of the displacement caused by war, migration, and bias. The book reveals the longing and resentment suffered by those whose lives are held hostage by the past.

The Waiting also represents the painfully slow pace of bringing gender equality to Korean society. Gendry-Kim's former dislocation has become a catalyst for her artistic endeavor: "Because I'm a woman and I've grown up watching my mother and sisters face gender discrimination in a patriarchal society, I feel determined to tell stories that center on women," she said in a recent interview.

In my attempt to expand my knowledge of Asian literature, I read a few Japanese novels, both in English and Polish translation.

At the suggestion of my Japanese friends, I started with Yukio Mishima's Confessions of the Mask. It is a coming of age story of Kochan, an adolescent boy tormented by his burgeoning attraction to men. Kochan is not only a homosexual but a weakling in a world of wartime machismo. He spends the novel keeping his true identity hidden, much like Mishima in his early life.

The novel takes place during WWII but Mishima devotes literaly one sentence to the attack on Hiroshima. I found that very surprising, especially given his political views and his romantic/erotic attraction to warfare and combat found in his later books.

I read several other Japanese novels, including Yōko Ogawa's Ukochane równanie profesora (The Housekeeper and the Professor), translated into Polish by Anna Harikoshi; Zanim wystygnie kawa (Before the Coffee Gets Cold) by Toshikazu Kawaguchi; and several non-fiction books by Haruki Murakami.

I ended 2023 by reading Kawabata’s Snow Country and began my 2024 reading adventure by starting Calvino’s If on a winter's night a traveler …

Happy reading in 2024!

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