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Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley - Reading Group Guide

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley - Reading Group Guide

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The reading group guide for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley.

A beautifully written and darkly funny journey through the world of the allergic.

Like twelve million other Americans, Sandra Beasley suffers from food allergies. Her allergies—severe and lifelong—include dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Add to that mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool, and it’s no wonder Sandra felt she had to live her life as “Allergy Girl.” When butter is deadly and eggs can make your throat swell shut, cupcakes and other treats of childhood are out of the question—and so Sandra’s mother used to warn guests against a toxic, frosting-tinged kiss with “Don’t kill the birthday girl!”

It may seem that such a person is “not really designed to survive,” as one blunt nutritionist declared while visiting Sandra’s fourth-grade class. But Sandra has not only survived, she’s thrived—now an essayist, editor, and award-winning poet, she has learned to navigate a world in which danger can lurk in an unassuming corn chip. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is her story.

With candor, wit, and a journalist’s curiosity, Sandra draws on her own experiences while covering the scientific, cultural, and sociological terrain of allergies. She explains exactly what an allergy is, describes surviving a family reunion in heart-of-Texas beef country with her vegetarian sister, delves into how being allergic has affected her romantic relationships, exposes the dark side of Benadryl, explains how parents can work with schools to protect their allergic children, and details how people with allergies should advocate for themselves in a restaurant.

A compelling mix of memoir, cultural history, and science, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is mandatory reading for the millions of families navigating the world of allergies—and a not-to-be-missed literary treat for the rest of us.
The reading group guide for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley.

A beautifully written and darkly funny journey through the world of the allergic.

Like twelve million other Americans, Sandra Beasley suffers from food allergies. Her allergies—severe and lifelong—include dairy, egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Add to that mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool, and it’s no wonder Sandra felt she had to live her life as “Allergy Girl.” When butter is deadly and eggs can make your throat swell shut, cupcakes and other treats of childhood are out of the question—and so Sandra’s mother used to warn guests against a toxic, frosting-tinged kiss with “Don’t kill the birthday girl!”

It may seem that such a person is “not really designed to survive,” as one blunt nutritionist declared while visiting Sandra’s fourth-grade class. But Sandra has not only survived, she’s thrived—now an essayist, editor, and award-winning poet, she has learned to navigate a world in which danger can lurk in an unassuming corn chip. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is her story.

With candor, wit, and a journalist’s curiosity, Sandra draws on her own experiences while covering the scientific, cultural, and sociological terrain of allergies. She explains exactly what an allergy is, describes surviving a family reunion in heart-of-Texas beef country with her vegetarian sister, delves into how being allergic has affected her romantic relationships, exposes the dark side of Benadryl, explains how parents can work with schools to protect their allergic children, and details how people with allergies should advocate for themselves in a restaurant.

A compelling mix of memoir, cultural history, and science, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl is mandatory reading for the millions of families navigating the world of allergies—and a not-to-be-missed literary treat for the rest of us.

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Publish date: Jul 12, 2011
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ABOUT THIS GUIDE

At every gathering, someone will have firsthand knowl-
edge of food allergies—whether one’s own or those of a
loved one. In Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, author Sandra
Beasley writes about her experience of growing up having
more than a dozen major food allergies to staples such
as dairy, egg, and beef. She examines the many ways in
which food shapes not only our bodies, but also our sense
of self and our relationships. Looking beyond her own
life, she blends in material about allergies from the fields
of medicine, science, sociology, and popular culture. This
guide will help you jump-start the discussion of Don’t Kill
the Birthday Girl, leading into a broader dialogue about
how allergies are handled in today’s world and how they
might affect you, your family, or your friends on a daily
basis.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
1. The “big eight” allergens responsible for more than
90 percent of food allergies in Americans are dairy,
egg, soy, wheat, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish.
Which of these would be the most difficult for you
to live without, and why?
2. What are some of the ways in which the book shows
how food allergies can be understood—or misun-
derstood—by young children? What are your own
experiences translating medical issues into simplified,
i.e., kid-appropriate, terms?
3. In the first chapter, Beasley internalizes the lessons of
a Reader’s Digest column, “I am Joe’s...” What were
the regular magazine features you read in childhood
that might have been written for an audience beyond
your years and have stayed with you?
4. This book asserts that food serves not only as a source
of nourishment, but also as a means to ritualized
bonding. What are some of the culinary traditions
that united your family, classroom, or community
when you were growing up?
5. What are the benefits and disadvantages to bans on
the presence of certain food allergens, for example,
the “No Nut Zone”? What would your reaction be if
you encountered such a zone in your daily life?
6. Is it realistic for a mainstream media culture that rel-
ishes gourmet cuisine to regularly acknowledge those
with food allergies or other dietary restrictions? What
are some of the ways that awareness is—or should
be—signified in the media?
7. Should a chef be able to turn a patron away from his
or her restaurant rather than guarantee accommoda-
tion for food allergies or other medical conditions?
What if the issue is a voluntary dietary restriction,
such as vegetarianism? What if the restaurant offers
only a prix-fixe menu, versus a la carte options?
8. For a brief stint, Beasley freelanced as a restaurant re-
viewer despite her food allergies. Have you ever held
a job you seemed patently unqualified to do? Was it
an act of bravery or stubbornness?

READING GROUP GUIDE SANDRABEASLEY.COM
Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl
Tales from an Allergic Life
Sandra Beasley
9. The book explains how soy became a focal point
of American industry and agriculture. Does this
change your attitude toward soy products? How
so?
10. Food allergies can complicate the intimate situa-
tions associated with dating and romance. How
does the book show that medical concerns can
highlight issues of trust? How might these issues
evolve as a relationship matures?
11. The narrative repeatedly invokes the idea of what
is “hidden”—from unknown food ingredients to
masked allergic reactions. How does this fixa-
tion on secrecy change your understanding of the
mindset of someone with severe food allergies?
12. The author was born in 1980, in a suburban
neighborhood of northern Virginia. How might
her experience have been different if she’d been
born into a different generation, or in another
part of the country?
13. Based on examples given in the book, what are
some differences in how food allergies are under-
stood and studied outside the United States?
14. Beasley talks about choosing travel destinations
based on one’s comfort level in terms of indig-
enous cuisine or shared language. What is your
personal comfort zone for travel, and why? How
would this change if you developed a severe food
allergy or other physical disability?
15. Attending the AAAAI conference clarified the au-
thor’s understanding of desensitization treatments
regularly reported by the media as breakthroughs
or “cures” for allergy. If you suffered from food
allergies, would you opt to participate in an ex-
perimental trial? Would you encourage your child
to participate in a study?
16. Some phenomena reported to and subsequently
dismissed by doctors—a hay-fever sufferer’s itchy
mouth in response to fruit or an egg-allergic
child’s tolerance of a muffin containing baked
egg—later proved credible according to more
recent science. Have you had similar experiences?
How does this change our stance when seeking
advice?
17. Before writing a memoir, the author published
two collections of poetry. What do you see as
some of the more poetic or lyrical moments in the
book?
18. Beasley emphasizes the anxieties and sacrifices
visited upon any parent of an allergic child. If
your family dealt with such issues, how would you
balance asking your child to be careful while also
encouraging him or her to embrace life’s
adventures?
Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl
READING GROUP GUIDE
Reading group guide for Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley. Copyright © 2011 by the Crown Publishing Group. Distributed by permission of
the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this reading group guide may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.

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