Book Reviews

Beeline: review! // a fascinating look into spelling bees and the gen z 🐝

Hello, pals! Today I’m bringing you a review of a book I absolutely adored: Beeline by Shalini Shankar. It brought me out of my reading slump due to how engaging and gripping it is — which isn’t always easy, given that it’s a nonfiction book!

Title: Beeline
Author: Shalini Shankar
Genre: nonfiction, social sciences (anthropology)
Page count: 336 pages
Published on April 30th by Basic Books
Rating: 🐝🐝🐝🐝

The National Spelling Bee has become more competitive than ever. The kids who participate are all part of the new emerging Generation Z. While at first glance this generation seems to be made up of overachievers and Tiger Moms, Shalini Shankar takes the reader on a more in-depth exploration of the youth born after 1997. What are their goals and aspirations? Where does their drive to win the Bee come from? How has the world they grew up in shaped their willingness to compete?
Through interviews and academic research, the author unveils a diverse America with a focus on Asian American families eager to bet on human capital.

Note: I received an electronic copy of Beeline for review from the publisher. This has not affected my thoughts and opinions.

There are so many things I loved about this book! For starters, it pulled me out of a massive slump and always kept me interested. Any book that can do that has already scored brownie points as far as I’m concerned!

Firstly, I loved how in-depth Shankar did her research. You can really tell she put a lot of work into preparing this book. At the beginning of the book, she walks us through the creation and origins of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. We’re also explained how spelling competitions in the United States (and the world) started. I learned SO MUCH with Beeline. Did you know that spelling competitions have prescriptive linguistic attitudes at their core? And that the first recorded competition of this nature took place in 1808?

Then, we’re also shown around how the competition actually works. Things like what words can be chosen, who judges the spelling, and the fact that ESPN streams the event during prime time (!!!!) are all explained in a really clear and organized manner. This is a great introduction to what the core of the book is. I knew nothing of this competition, and now I know so much more!

But what’s truly fascinating about Shankar’s look at the Bee is how she is concerned with the children competing in it. I (like many) was sure only language nerds (like I was) entered the Bee competition. My very dim mind thought that they probably locked themselves in their rooms (or worse, had their parents lock them!) and studied intensely. That is so not true! Shankar tells us that while that was the case — children with antisocial tendencies used to compete in the Bee — it isn’t so anymore, and I totally see that now! These children are actually so complex in their goals and interests. While they do devote a lot of time to studying and practicing for the Bee, they have such interesting hobbies. It was really nice seeing how wrong and misinformed I was.

To get an insight into what the Bee is like, the author interviews a bunch of Bee competitors of all ages, as well as their parents, coaches, ESPN staff, and former winners. This adds a lot of credibility and substance to Shankar’s anthropological analysis of the competition and those who keep it alive. We hear directly from these kids what it’s like standing up on a stage, having your spelling skills tested, and be judged by millions of people watching the broadcast from their homes. It felt very authentic.

The best part of the book is Shankar’s analysis of the Generation Z (the youth born after 1997) — which is what she sets out to do from the title. First, we’re taken on a tour of what generation studies are. When did they start? What can they tell us? Are they even useful?

A crucial point she makes is that we need to rethink the way we study generations. Given that the population of the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, of course we can’t think of how all children access the internet and how they conceptualize their lives and future plans. There has to be a way of separating groups into not only birth date but also ethnicity and social class. As the author says, we tend to think of Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials as “white, middle-class,” and simply that. And from this point of view, the author manager to decenter the whiteness from the generation debate. Hats off to her, really!

US-born minorities such as African Americans and children of immigrants are not acknowledged but lumped into white middle-class norms. This creates very narrow definitions of generations, especially as cohorts grow in racial and ethnic diversity.

Beeline, Shalini Shankar (2019)

Shankar describes the Generation Z in a really neat, careful, and studied way. Despite starting her analysis from the children who compete at the Bee, she doesn’t make any generalizations that are oversimplified and broad. I really appreciated this, as I hate polarizing arguments.

The main characteristics she identifies in the Bee contestants are really awesome and interesting. I mean, these kids are incredibly bright and fascinating. Somehow, they have the grit to pursue the passion for language and actually stick to it even when their childhood activities (such as playing with their friends or just doing ‘nothing’) get in the way. For someone like me who blogs as a procrastination exit, that is unfathomable!

At a certain point, the author goes into exploring what skills are needed to succeed in the Bee, and where they come from. They include being social media savvy, having digital literacy skills, time management, persistency, poise, and being able to cary themselves with calm and cool, even in front of several cameras! This was truly one of the book’s highlights, in my opinion. Shankar writes:

“These kids are not simply displaying raw talent that will one day allow them to become accomplished adults. Rather, they are showcasing well-developed skills that make them experts as kids.”

Beeline, Shankar (2019)

This expertise comes into analysis later on in Beeline. The issue of professionalization of childhood is one that draws a lot of attention — and rightfully so! Many of these children are instantly placed in the spotlight and their skills are used as a source of entertainment. Training children to perform well at the Bee takes a real toll on children, one way or another. They have less time to devote to their studies at school, less time for their family, and oftentimes become “internet celebs,” even if only for a few weeks (see the iridocyclitis kid who became a meme — and was actually interviewed by the author). Is it right to insert ferocious competiton into these children’s lives? Or is it robbing them of a ‘normal childhood’?

The author comes with several answers to this question. One of them revolved around the very skills needed for Generations Zers to succeed in life. In a market with more and more highly qualified people fighting over the same limited number of jobs, those born after 1997 need to invest not only in the same human capital that Millennials did, but be even more resourceful than ever. After all, a degree and basic computer skills are not enough anymore to secure a good position on the social ladder.

All this need for more investment in skills leads the author to conclude that the Generation Z is very entrepreneurial (just like Millennials are), but goes a step further to be extremely distrustful of financial institutions (thanks a lot, 2008 crash). I thought this was such a thoughtful and accurate depiction of my generation, really. This is a very interesting point that ties in perfectly with the professionalization of their childhoods. In a world so fast-paced, every second that can be used to further their future seems of extreme importance.

“Gen Z kids are aware and intensely involved in the activities available to them. When opportunities present themselves — far earlier in childhood than with other generations, it seems — young people are increasingly recognizing and taking advantage of those moments.”

Beeline, Shankar (2019)

Something that needs to be mentioned is how graciously the author discusses the relevance of race when it comes to the Bee. Why are most winners Indian-American? Why is the group of children who reach the finals mostly of ethnic backgrounds? These are important questions with complicated answers, but Shankar dives deep into this issue and comes up with very interesting conclusions and hypothesis.

The one that jumped out to me the most was the fact that non-US-born parents, especially if they come from India (a country whose citizens were rewarded for their education in terms of immigration opportunities), look at investing in human capital the same way the high-class white society looks at building trust-funds. As they cannot leave behind hefty inheritances, their goal is to educate their children the most they can, and that starts from the early days of childhood. If this isn’t one of the most clever arguments I have read on the topic, I don’t know what is true anymore.

Final Verdict — Do I recommend it?

YES YES YES AND YES! If you’re interested in learning more about the Generation Z, pick this book up. It delves into interesting arguments, is well paced out, and does not feel boring at all. Even if non-fiction isn’t your cup of tea, you won’t regret picking this baby up.

🐝🌼 Let’s Chat 🌼🐝

How would you characterize the Generation Z? Do you agree with Shankar’s views? What other books about generation studies would you recommend to me?

7 thoughts on “Beeline: review! // a fascinating look into spelling bees and the gen z 🐝

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