How middle grade has changed (in) a generation

Working in a middle school library for the past year, I have been more conscious than ever about what books I am putting into kids’ hands – and, if the match is right, into their heads and hearts. They might read a chapter and put it down, or they might slog through and forget it after they’ve finished a required project…or, they might remember it forever. With that in mind, I (a) always encourage kids to return a book they’re not enthusiastic about and try something else instead, and (b) am extra mindful of representation. When reflect on the books that stayed with me (list below), nearly all of them feature white, American kids, and the few books that centered Jewish characters were all historical fiction set during WWII and the Holocaust (except for Margaret. Thank you, Judy Blume).

  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
  • Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970)
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977)
  • The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel (1978)
  • The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop (1985)
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
  • The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen (1988)
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (1989)
  • A Horse Called Wonder (Thoroughbred series #1) by Joanna Campbell (1991)
  • The Boggart by Susan Cooper (1993)
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
  • The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
  • The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg (1996)

It’s a disservice to kids – to any readers – when only “mirrors” books or only “windows” books are available to them. Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in literature (and art, music, movies, TV, magazines, etc.). The presence of a character similar to you says You exist. You matter. But only reading about characters like yourself is limiting; reading about those who are different in some way provides a window into another way of experiencing the world: They exist. They matter.

I have read so many middle grade books in the past few years that I couldn’t have imagined existing a generation ago. There are books with trans and non-binary characters, like Kyle Lukoff’s Different Kinds of Fruit and Too Bright to See and Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson and Alex Gino’s Melissa. There are books with Muslim protagonists by S.K. Ali and Saadia Faruqi, Hena Khan and Veera Hiranandani, and books with Latinx characters like Meg Medina’s Merci Suárez, Celia Pérez’s The First Rule of Punk, and Pablo Cartaya’s Marcos Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish. There are books that address contemporary racism and microaggressions and police violence, like Blended by Sharon Draper. There are books by and about Indigenous people, like Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac and Ancestor Approved by Cynthia Leitich Smith and others. There are books that explore the histories and modern experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islanders, like Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh, Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, and Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai – the last two of which are in verse, a form I never encountered as a young reader but which is becoming more and more popular now (and with good reason). There are books about fat-shaming and fatphobia and body positivity, books that show what good therapy looks like, characters who experience mental illness or poverty, frank discussion of periods and endometriosis, and activism.

There is nothing inherently bad about the books I read and loved as a kid; I still re-read and love them, and am starting to share them with my daughter (and discuss parts that are sexist, racist, or otherwise problematic). But as a collection, they don’t show the dazzling breadth and depth of human experience that children’s literature illuminates now, from picture books through middle grade to young adult. I am so grateful to the authors and illustrators who create these works, let readers step into their characters’ shoes, learn about their lives, and grow in empathy, and I feel lucky to be able to put these books into kids’ hands.

 

 

MSLA 2022: Book Challenge Panel

Bonnie McBride, Anja Kennedy, Collen Simpson, Lizz Simpson, and Luke Steere are all librarians who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, some form of book challenge in their school libraries, whether it’s a formal challenge or “soft censorship.” Although national news has focused on widespread challenges in states like Texas and Florida, Bonnie said, “Book challenges have always been a part of librarianship….They are happening here.”

A few themes and solid pieces of advice were repeated throughout the panel:

  • Be prepared. Have a collection development policy that includes selection guidelines and a procedure for the request for reconsideration of materials. This policy should be approved by the School Board and the administration should be aware of it. “Your first line of defense is a strong policy that people can’t argue with” – not even the superintendent.
  • A challenge or ban in one part of the country affects us all: Fears of challenges may cause librarians to self-censor (avoiding purchasing or promoting certain texts), and may cause teachers to make changes to the texts they use in their curriculum.
  • Some good things can come from challenges: while one panelist said “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” she acknowledged that some good things came out of it: there was a good examination of policy (which was strong), thoughtfulness about what we present in our curriculum, teachers chose more current books (in collaboration with librarian), more voice and choice in lit circles, students came to school committee meetings, increased transparency, and school committee has educated itself on public forum measures and the law.
  • “Promoting and defending our books should be a given.” A majority of the books being challenged have LGBTQIA+ content, and “there are LGBTQIA+ kids and families in every community, whether you know it or not.” Luke said, “I like using the word ‘challenge’ because it’s something to rise to” and not something to work against. Libraries are for everyone.
  • Be proactive. When a new administrator is hired, go and talk to them. They might not know the history of the district, if there have been challenges in the past and how they were handled. Ask them, “Where do you stand on this? What do we do when this happens?”
  • Keep the focus on the book. If it’s a student bringing the challenge, offer to sit with them and help them fill out the form. This can be a learning experience, and it keeps the focus on the book, not the complainant or the librarian.

Resources:

  • Library Book Challenge Resources Wakelet, curated by Bonnie McBride
  • Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) online manuals
  • Massachusetts Library System (MLS) Policy Collection
  • ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (ALA OIF) Challenge Support
  • the MSLA listserv
  • Library Link of the Day: there has been an significant uptick in links that have to do with censorship, book challenges, and bans in school and public libraries over the past several months.

MSLA 2022: Cynthia Leitich Smith keynote “Brighter Days”

Author, teacher, publisher, and Muscogee Nation citizen Cynthia Leitich Smith delivered this morning’s keynote, “Brighter Days: Decolonizing Hearts, Minds, and Books for Young Readers.” She began by zipping through a number of essential fiction and nonfiction titles for young readers, from picture books through YA; children’s literature created by Indigenous authors shows that “we have a past, a present, and a future…[we are] 3D human beings with a full range of emotion.” Still, Native books make up just under 1% of books published for kids. “Why does that matter? Because we are still here….There are Native families in your communities whether you realize it or not.” Some of these families may “fly under the radar,” partly because of distrust of schools due to past experience. That makes it more important, not less, to seek out, include, and promote literature from Native authors, because “erasure hurts kids” and “Native kids deserve more from all of us.”

Cynthia acknowledged that publishing is a slow-moving industry and “it’s hard to shake up the conventional wisdom,” but with new imprints, new interest, and demand from readers, librarians, and booksellers, change is happening. Ellen Oh and the WeNeedDiverseBooks movement have been a force for positive change, as have conferences like LoonSong and Kweli. “A single voice…is not enough,” Cynthia said, referencing times that she had been told by people within the publishing industry that there was no room, or no need, for more Native voices beyond one or two established ones. But we need more: Cynthia said, “factual information won’t matter or stick if we don’t focus on humanity. Native people are modern people. Every kid, Indigenous or not, can benefit from exposure to Native values” like honoring ancestors, and protecting land and water. Young readers deserve a chance to read the work of many Native authors.

Librarians, Indigenous or not, have an important role to play; we are ambassadors to young readers. “We can’t do it without your continued support and activism,” Cynthia said. When purchasing and recommending books, she had a few tips: look for tribal specificity, contemporary settings, present tense, accuracy, and stories of daily life. It’s important to balance the historical with contemporary, tragedy with joy. “Unfortunately, much of what happened in the past is terrible”: Acknowledge oppression, integrate joy and achievement, address miseducation, and be aware that there is diversity within each tribal nation and “identity is nuanced.”

This is year-round work and should not be limited to Native American history month or just around Thanksgiving. Cynthia encouraged us to integrate Native books into year-round reading, and across the curriculum: “We are Native every single day…[it is] otherizing and marginalizing” to limit reading books by and about Indigenous people to one time of the year. “All kids deserve a truthful education.” She closed on a hopeful note, declaring, “We are seeing tangible progress” in the publishing industry and in Hollywood.

Resources:

MSLA 2022: Melissa Stewart, champion of nonfiction

Melissa Stewart gave an excellent presentation (“Tips and Tools for Nonfiction Read-Alouds“) at last year’s MSLA conference, so I was looking forward to hearing from her again this year, this time on the topic of “The Role of Equity in Creating Passionate Nonfiction Readers.” She started out by asking attendees to do an activity: jot down “five children’s books you love.” Then, put a check mark next to the nonfiction ones. No check marks? You’re not alone. However, we shouldn’t let our own preferences, biases, and assumptions get in the way: research shows that kids love nonfiction, both expository (nonfiction that explains, describes, and informs) and narrative.

Melissa’s talk was heavier on the “nonfiction” part than the “equity” part, but she made one crucial point that became my main takeaway from this session: Expository nonfiction is straightforward and gets right to the point, which is good for beginning readers; it is more accessible than fiction for kids who haven’t been read to (emphasis mine). For children not yet comfortable and familiar with storytelling conventions, nonfiction is more accessible. Plus, kids enjoy learning about specific topics (animals, things that go, sports, etc.) and it’s empowering for them.

Melissa asked us to consider what barriers exist between students and nonfiction books in our libraries. These barriers might stem from the organizational system the library uses (does it make sense to kids? Can they find what they want?), teacher assignments (are kids allowed to use nonfiction books as well as fiction? Do they know that?), or lack of communication between departments.

There are many things librarians can do to help kids find the nonfiction books they want: highlight them on displays, read them aloud, promote them in book talks. But the most important factor in helping students find nonfiction they love, Melissa said, is TOPIC: “the number one way” to turn “an expository nonfiction kid” on to reading is to give them a book – or some other resource – on that exact topic.

Resources:

Since Melissa’s presentation last year, I’ve been much more mindful of incorporating nonfiction into my displays, book talks, recommendations, and lists, and reading more of it myself (I particularly love picture book biographies). If/when I get the chance to work with younger elementary kiddos, I will be keeping this takeaway in mind.

“We can do something about it now”: Pablo Cartaya keynote at MSLA 2022

The Massachusetts School Library Association annual conference began tonight with a keynote speech from Pablo Cartaya, author of the middle grade novels Each Tiny Spark, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, and The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. The self-described “Cuban-American guy” spoke about the importance of reflection and representation. He talked about a code-switching childhood in which he spoke Spanish at home and English at school, and never saw a character like himself in the books he loved to read: “When I was growing up I never read one story about a Cuban-American kid.” However, as an author, Cartaya said, “We can do something about it now….I want to do something about the fact that those books didn’t exist for me.” How many people, he wondered, “imagined themselves as a hero that looked nothing like them?”

Cartaya shares a belief common among authors, librarians, and others in the book world: that books can ease transitions and increase empathy. He told our group, “You’re stewards of so many lives and so many stories.” And while it’s vitally important that kids see characters like themselves in the books they read (mirrors), the stories he and many others write are “human stories…about the human condition” (windows). Cartaya said, “I think if COVID taught us anything, it’s that we can have a little more empathy for each other….Books can do that.”  Books can show us what it’s like to “live in another person’s skin,” feel how another person feels; books are a way to experience and understand the multitude of people and stories in this world. Embracing multilingualism and multiculturalism, said Cartaya, is what makes our communities thrive.

Cartaya spoke about the importance of reflection as “integral to our way forward.” He is continually asking, “What went wrong, what can we do better, what did we miss?” He showed respect for young readers, and described how he changed his approach to in-person author events, saying, “I don’t think authors should presume” what kids are thinking and feeling, “we should ask them. They need a space to tell their story, not me telling them how they feel.” (In the chat, several librarians shared their pandemic prompts and writing projects they use with students.)

Overall, a great intro to MSLA 2022! I’m looking forward to tomorrow and Monday’s sessions, and will write about those here as well. For now, buenas noches.

Virtual event: Starfish author Lisa Fipps at the Newton Free Library

Cover image of StarfishBig thanks to the children’s librarians at the Newton Free Library for organizing, promoting, hosting, and moderating a delightful virtual author visit with Lisa Fipps, author of the novel in verse Starfish, a Printz honor book. Lisa was incredibly friendly and personable, doing only a short introduction before answering tons of questions from the Newton Free Library book club and other attendees.

Some snippets:

  • On the writing process: Lisa sees “movie trailers in my head”
  • On autobiographical fiction: Ellie got “the watered down story of my life” with authentic emotions
  • To those who say “things like that would never happen”: “They do.”
  • On growing up without seeing herself in books: “I didn’t know anybody like me” (#RepresentationMatters)
  • On wanting to make post-publication changes: “I don’t know any writer who doesn’t look back on a book” and want to change something. Lisa didn’t read Starfish until six months after it was published, and while there are small things she would change if she could, “I’m okay with it.”
  • On how to get published: “First you have to write the story.” Then find an agent (hers is Liza Boyce), who will help you find an editor (hers is Nancy Paulsen).
  • Will there be a sequel or prequel? The Printz committee asked this too! Not sure.
  • On future books: Nancy is editing book number two now, and Lisa is writing book number three.
  • How long does it take you to write a book? Starfish took eight months, the next book took six. Lisa is trying to write 2-3 books a year; “I want to be a full-time author and you need to write a lot to make that happen.” (Currently she works at the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library in Indiana)
  • On that stuff on the table behind you: the penguin collection is because Nancy Paulsen’s imprint is part of Penguin Random House (which at least two librarians agree should have been called Random Penguin when they merged). The “inspiration jars” (see photo) are full of good reviews, fan letters, kind words, etc. That’s a lot of warm fuzzies!Screenshot of "inspiration jars"
  • On the role of music in writing: Lisa creates a playlist for every book she writes, to get into the characters’ heads; when actually writing, she listens to music with no lyrics.
  • How have family members responded to Starfish? “I have no idea, I’m estranged from my [biological] family” (except for a nephew); “I have families of choice.”
  • Advice for young writers? Write. And read a lot. “I try to read 3-5 books a week.”
  • What time of day do you write? Evenings after work, with marathon writing sessions (8-10 hours!) on weekends.
  • Do you read other novels in verse? Yes! The first one she read was Stop Pretending by Sonya Sones. “I think verse is a way to tell a powerful story in a short amount of words.”
  • On Ann Patchett’s advice to read your work aloud to yourself: “You will hear any clunkiness in your writing like that.” Lisa even recommends doing this while wearing foam earplugs.
  • On the therapist character in Starfish: Lisa used the wisdom of therapists mixed with the personality of a critique partner. (Readers loved Ellie’s therapist. Librarian Ms. Bery included Starfish in her list of books that normalize therapy.)
  • On Catalina’s character: Catalina is a “composite character” (bits and pieces of different people).

Thank you so much, Lisa Fipps and Newton Free Library!

How reading shapes us

For many years I have loved this quote: “It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” I’m not sure where I first heard it, but it was attributed to Oscar Wilde. However, I’d never found an original source – it’s not in Dorian Gray or The Importance of Being Earnest – and somehow it didn’t quite sound like him. I searched online again recently and found this Quote Investigator piece from 2019, which gives a more likely source (Unitarian minister Charles Francis Potter) and explains how the mix-up occurred: Potter and Wilde each had a quote attributed to them in the “Reading” section of The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, & Famous Phrases.

I was able to request the 1965 reprint of this nearly 3000-page book from my library system and see for myself on page 1939:

section of page 1939 of

“If you cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.” -Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying (1889)

“It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” -Rev. D.F. [sic] Potter, Slogan, to encourage un-prescribed reading (1927)

So there we have it – the likely origin of the mis-attribution. But why is this quote important, and what does it mean? There’s also the poetry and rhythm and repetition of it; it’s almost iambic. But I think it’s stuck with me all these years because I didn’t completely understand it when I first heard it; of course, I heard it out of context, and the context helps.

Potter was urging students to read more than just what was assigned to them, to go above and beyond. Our assigned reading may not truly interest us; we’ve all had the experience of re-reading a paragraph several times without really absorbing it. As Samuel Johnson writes, “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention (Boswell, Life, 1777, quoted on page 1938 of Macmillan).

What Potter seems to be saying is that what you read in your free time determines what kind of person you will be. And I think these days we can expand the definition of “read,” or at the very least include all kinds of reading/listening/watching: car manuals, political podcasts, history books, sung-through musicals, fairytales, cookbooks, how-to books, game instructions, long e-mails from school superintendents, nonprofits’ annual reports. Everything we read, or consume, makes us what we are – or put another way, “you are what you eat.”

Some more quotes on reading from The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, & Famous Phrases:

Some read to think,–these are rare; some to write,–these are common; and some to talk,–and these form the great majority. (C.C. Colton, Lacon, Vol. ii, No. 9, 1820)

To read a book for the first time is to make the acquaintance of a new friend; to read it a second time is to meet an old one. (S.G. Champion, Racial Proverbs, p. 351, 1938, A Chinese proverb)

It is a tie between men to have read the same book. (R.W. Emerson, Journals, 1864)

‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book. (Emerson, Society and Solitude: Success, 1870)

Reading is the best medicine for a sicke man, the best musicke for a sadde man, the best counsel for a desperate man, the best comfort for one afflicted. (John Florio, Firste Fruites, fo. 52, 1578)

640px-Bates_Hall_-_Boston_Public_Library
Bates Hall, Boston Public Library. By Hari Krishnan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74145423

2022 ALA Youth Media Awards

It’s the Oscars of #kidlit! (And honestly, at this point in my life, I’m much more excited about the ALA Youth Media Awards than about the Academy Awards.) This year I was following the announcements on Twitter and relaying them to my co-worker while we prepared to teach a bunch of seventh graders how to find reliable results when searching the internet (pro tip: there are more results after the first result! O brave new world…).

SLJ posted the winners of all the awards, but didn’t include the honor books on the same page; American Libraries has a complete write-up. I was thrilled to see Watercress by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin, win the Caldecott medal (and a Newbery Honor and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature – Picture Book), and equally delighted to see Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff and Last Night at the Telegraph Club win the Stonewall.

Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter won the Morris, the Printz, and an American Indian Youth Literature honor for YA; other AILA honor books I cheered for included Christine Day’s middle grade novel The Sea in Winter, Traci Sorrell’s picture book We Are Still Here, and YA novel Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger.

Cover image of UnspeakableI can’t imagine anyone was surprised that Unspeakable by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, won two Coretta Scott King awards (for author and for illustrator), as well as a Sibert honor and a Caldecott honor. I’m looking forward to reading CSK illustrator honor book Nina, but I’m really surprised that Christian Robinson’s other 2021 book, Milo Imagines the World, didn’t get any official recognition.

By the time the Pura Belpré awards were announced I was busy in the library, but I was happy to catch up later and see that ¡Vamos! Let’s Cross the Bridge by Raul III won the Youth Illustrator award, Yuyi Morales received an honor for Bright Star, and Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet got a YA honor!

Cover image of StarfishOther Printz honor books included Starfish by Lisa Fipps (a novel in verse!), Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas, Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, and Revolution in Our Time by Kekla Magoon (the latter is the only Printz book I hadn’t already read, but it’s on my list now).

Also added to my to-read list:

  • Pura Belpré Children’s Author Award and the Newbery Award winner The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
  • Schneider Family Book Award winner My City Speaks, and honor books A Walk in the Words, A Bird Will Soar, and A Kind of Spark
  • Sydney Taylor Book Award Gold Medalist How to Find What You’re Not Looking For and Silver Medalist The Summer of Lost Letters
  • Theodore Seuss Geisel Award winner Fox at Night, written and illustrated by Corey R. Tabor
  • Sibert Award winner The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art

greatstinkI’d actually read a bunch of Sibert honor books, though not the winner; I was super excited to see The Great Stink on the list. We Are Still Here by Traci Sorrell and Unspeakable also got honors, as did Summertime Sleepers (which taught me the word “estivate,” which is like hibernating but in the summer).

Finally, I was so happy to see A.S. King receive the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement, Grace Lin receive the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, and Jane Yolen recognized with the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award. A.S. King’s particular brand of magical realism/surrealism is completely unique to her; her books are deep and weird and thoughtful. Grace Lin writes for children of all ages, and her novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a favorite in our house. And Jane Yolen is Jane Yolen.

Previous year’s incoherent ramblings about ALA YMA:

2021 ALA YMA

2020 ALA YMA

Edited 1/26/2022: Note to self: next year write a post more like Abby’s (ALSC blog).

Mother/Daughter Book Club: One Year Anniversary

In February 2021, not long after our move across the state, we started a mother/daughter book club for friends old and new. Now we’re celebrating one year of monthly virtual meetings full of picture books and arts and crafts!

Cover images of picture books in caption
What A Lucky Day, A Butterfly is Patient, Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao, My Best Friend, Laxmi’s Mooch, Hansel & Gretel, A Small Kindness, The Very Last Castle

Cover images of picture books
I’m Done!, Extra Yarn, The Halloween Tree, Thank You Omu!, On Account of the Gum, Jabari Jumps

Through these books, we’ve encountered instant best friendship; how kindness can spread and generosity comes back around; the importance of perseverance, courage, and open-mindedness; and how a unique twist on a mainstream perspective can make things just right. Here’s to more reading and togetherness in 2022!

Reading Resolutions and TBR for 2022

I don’t make reading resolutions every year, but past ones that I’ve set and achieved (eventually) include:

  • Read at least one nonfiction book each month (circa 2008)
  • If I’m not enjoying a book, and it’s not for an assignment or book club, put it down (circa 2014)
  • Stop using important things as bookmarks (more recently than I’d care to admit)

This year I want to focus on reading more diverse books by BIPOC creators. Last year just over 20% of my reading fell into the #WeNeedDiverseBooks category; I’d like to get to 30% this year. (It might be that I’m closer than I think, since I don’t always know how an author or illustrator identifies.)

And here are some specific titles I’m excited about, but I’m sure that plenty more will come along during the year:

Children’s/YA

  • Amari and the Night Brothers #2 by B.B. Alstonamari2
  • Luli and the Language of Tea by Andrea Wang
  • I’ll Go and Come Back by Rajani LaRocca
  • The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat
  • Endlessly Ever After by Laurel Snyder and Dan Santat
  • When I’m With You by Pat Zietlow Miller and Eliza Wheeler

Adult

  • Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel seaoftranquility
  • Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire
  • When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East by Quan Barry
  • Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American by Wajahat Ali
  • The Candy House by Jennifer Egan

Have you made any reading-related resolutions this year? Are there any books you’re looking forward to? Leave a comment!