Quotes from books, IX

A hundred years ago, I used to participate in Top Ten Tuesdays, and then I started doing the occasional batch of Top Ten quotes from books I’d read. The last one of these was December 2017. For every book I read, I write a review in LibraryThing, and often include quotes. Since 2017 was five (5) years ago, there’s a bit of a backlog…but here’s a new batch of ten, from books read July 27-August 27:

  1. “You’re never going to make everyone happy….It’s more important to stand up for what you believe in.” (The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, Wendy Wan-Long Shang)
  2. “Think about what you want. Don’t just react.”(The Peach Rebellion, Wendelin Van Draanen)
  3. “I think sometimes comedians are able to tell the truth about things other people won’t talk about.” (The New One, Mike Birbiglia)
  4. …if you’re fluent in a language, there’s a place you belong.” (My Broken Language, Quiara Alegría Hudes)
  5. “The richness of our lives depends on what we are willing to notice and what we are willing to believe.” (Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire, Polly Horvath)
  6. “The problem is that these squirrels are definitely cats.” [Paraphrased] (Mina, Matthew Forsythe)
  7. “The past pulled us and the future pushed us.” (Sigh, Gone, Phuc Tran)
  8. The things we do to avoid difficult things are often worse than the difficult thing.” (Just Last Night, Mhairi McFarlane)
  9. “Did I have it in me to confront the past without getting stuck in it?” (Cult Classic, Sloane Crosley)
  10. Maybe that is what drives us to make art out of the worst things that happen to us. Maybe for some of us, that is how we survive.” (Mother Noise, Cindy House)

Update: Back to School

Bulletin board with WELCOME BACK message and paper hearts and rainbow border

As the veteran educators say, August is the Sunday of months – and now it’s back to school! (For this analogy to work perfectly, September would be Monday and school would not start until September, but here we are, starting school in August.)

This year I’ll be the Library Media Specialist at an elementary school for preschool through sixth grade. I’m looking forward to getting to know the people and the space, and developing the library program, from the curriculum to the collection. (Hat tip to the excellent library staff on the MSLA listserv, who have been so generous in answering my questions lately.)

Here’s one of my first displays, featuring books that have themes of kindness and friendship:

Display of books on Kindness and Friendship

Mid-year Reading Round-Up

In an effort to make my year-end reading wrap-up not quite so much of an effort, here’s a half-year check in: some of the picture books, middle grade, young adult, and adult fiction and nonfiction books I’ve liked best so far this year.

Picture Booksmagiccandies

  • The Leaf Thief by Alice Hemming, illus. Nicola Slater: The hilarious dialogue between the bird and the squirrel makes this one of the most fun fall read-alouds ever!
  • Acorn Was A Little Wild by Jen Arena: Would pair well with the above in a fall storytime. Just because you put down roots doesn’t mean you need to settle down!
  • El Cucuy Is Scared Too by Donna Barba Higuera, illus. Juliana Perdomo: Even the monster has worries about living in a new place.
  • Magic Candies by Heena Baek: Magic candies enable a boy to hear voices – of the couch, his father, his dead grandma, and the dog.
  • Sweet Justice (and many other nonfiction and nonfiction-ish books) by Mara Rockliff: Rockliff takes fascinating, less-well-known subjects and makes them interesting and accessible.
  • Little Witch Hazel by Phoebe Wahl: The richly illustrated story of the title character during all four seasons.
  • The Big Bath House by Kyo Maclear, illus. Gracey Zhang: In Japan, a girl and her mother visit the bath house with all their female relatives.
  • Endlessly Ever After by Laurel Snyder, illus. Dan Santat: This choose-your-own-adventure style fairy tale(s) is endlessly entertaining; it was a hit in Mother/Daughter book club.
  • Bathe the Cat by Alice B. McGinty, illus. David Roberts: A bath-averse cat scrambles the family to-do list, made in fridge magnet alphabet letters, creating ridiculous chores. howoldami
  • How Old Am I? 1-100 Faces From Around the World by Julie Pugeat: Black-and-white photo portraits of people at every age from 1-100 are accompanied by a few piece of information and a short biographical statement or quote from each person.
  • Washed Ashore: Making Art from Ocean Plastic by Kelly Crull: Sculptures made from ocean plastic are paired with small actions readers can take to reduce plastic waste.
  • I Love You Like Yellow by Andrea Beaty, illus. Vashti Harrison: This picture book poem has the cadence and message that make it a perfect bedtime book, night after night for years.
  • Don’t Eat Bees by Dev Petty, illus. Mike Boldt: Wise advice from a learned dog – just as funny as Petty & Boldt’s Frog books.

Middle GradeCover image of Different Kinds of Fruit

  • Beyond the Bright Sea and Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk: Wolk has a tremendous gift for setting, character, plot, and theme – all the elements that make up a powerful story.
  • Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky: Sixth-grader Grayson tries out for the role of Persephone in the school play, and finds a supportive community in the theater.
  • A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus: Three orphans are sent out of London during the Blitz and encouraged to find a permanent family to adopt them.
  • Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki: An unusual (for Americans) perspective on the generational effects of the atomic bombing of Japanese cities during WWII
  • How to Find What You’re Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani: Set in 1967 after the Loving v. Virginia ruling, this book examines interracial and interfaith marriage and learning disabilities.
  • A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
  • Garlic & the Vampire by Bree Paulsen: This charming graphic novel is a unique and appealing take on friendship and courage, with a sprinkling of humor.
  • Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac: A novel in verse, set on a reservation during the pandemic.
  • Better With Butter by Victoria Piontek: What better way to manage anxiety than with a therapy goat?
  • Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh: Korean-American Junie learns her grandparents’ stories from the Korean War while interviewing them for a school assignment, and they give her the courage to stand up to racism in the present.
  • The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera: Award-winning futuristic sci-fi that is also a firm declaration of the importance of stories.
  • A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks: Joy is crushed when her family must sell their house and move into an apartment – and they no longer have money for her to take piano lessons, so she starts a dog-walking business with her new friend Nora.
  • Marshmallow & Jordan by Alina Chau: Set in Indonesia, this graphic novel tells the story of former basketball star Jordan, who tries a new sport – water polo – and makes friends with a baby elephant who appears mysteriously.
  • The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat: A marvelous adventure with a determined protagonist.
  • New From Here by Kelly Yang: The story of a family that moves from Hong Kong to California during the pandemic and faces anti-Asian racism.
  • Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin: In Soviet Russia, young Sasha’s eyes are opened to reality when his father is taken away.
  • Linked by Gordon Korman: Anti-Semitic graffiti rocks a school community, but the narrator withholds certain truths for a surprising twist.
  • Where the Sky Lives by Margaret Dilloway: When developers threaten pristine land, an archaeologist’s daughter fights to save it.
  • Those Kids from Fawn Creek by Erin Entrada Kelly: A new kid upsets the balance in a small town.
  • Hurricane Child by Kacen Callender: A girl whose mother has disappeared is desperate to learn the reason for her absence; at the same time, she makes a new friend and begins to fall in love.
  • Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff: When new student – nonbinary Bailey – joins Annabelle’s class and they become friends, Annabelle learns a surprising family secret.
  • The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill: As magical as The Girl Who Drank the Moon, with similar themes about power and kindness.
  • The Witch Boy trilogy by Molly Knox Ostertag: These graphic novels follow Aster, a boy who wants to be a witch instead of a shapeshifter, and his family’s eventual acceptance of his identity.
  • Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr: What happens when you decide to “live each day as if it were your last”?
  • Star Crossed by Barbara Dee: A studious girl develops a crush on the British student playing Juliet in the eighth grade play – and then gets cast opposite her as Romeo.
  • The Best At It by Maulik Pancholy: Rahul desperately wants to fit in, but he is one of the few non-white kids at his school, and – he slowly realizes – he’s gay; the more realistic choice (championed by his white friend Chelsea) is to embrace his authentic self.

 YAwhentheworldwasours

  • The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix: “The Old World can be extraordinarily dangerous, and the greatest danger is not knowing what you’re dealing with.”
  • The Summer of Lost Letters by Hannah Reynolds: A Nantucket summer romance and a Jewish family history rolled into one, satisfying on both counts.
  • When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler: this is middle grade edging into YA; it starts in 1936 and goes through WWII, following three best friends from Vienna whose paths diverge dramatically during the war.
  • Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: “Forgetting is how the monsters come back.”
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman: An unlikely premise is spun into a richly imagined world where abortion is illegal but children can be “unwound” (essentially, harvested for parts) between the ages of 13-18.
  • I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys: In communist Romania in 1989, news of the crumbling Iron Curtain sparks a revolution.
  • Family of Liars by e. lockhart: Prequel to We Were Liars, and just as compelling.
  • This Place Is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tian: Two sisters react differently to racist graffiti scrawled on their garage door.
  • The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School by Sonora Reyes: Having come out once and lost her best friend, Yamilet uses a school transfer to start over.

Adult FictionCover image of True Biz

  • Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan: An Irish Christmas story about doing the right thing.
  • Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy: In a near future in which most birds are extinct, a woman fleeing her past convinces a ship’s captain to take her on board to follow what might be the last migration of arctic terns, arguing that the birds will lead him to fish.
  • The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: Fast-paced and overflowing with voice and strong characters, TCWB imagines an avatar for each borough, who must come together to face a slippery enemy.
  • Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: Alex has always been able to see ghosts, and this ability gets her recruited to Yale’s Ninth House, which oversees Yale’s other secret societies, but then Alex’s mentor goes missing.
  • Beautiful Little Fools by Jillian Cantor: A deeply satisfying feminist retelling of Gatsby from the women’s points of view (Daisy, Myrtle’s sister Catherine, and Jordan).
  • Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel: A speculative novel in which characters travel in time and space, face a pandemic and an anomaly; loosely linked to The Glass Hotel.
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: Space opera at its best, with high stakes and a fantastic ensemble cast.
  • The Candy House by Jennifer Egan: An ensemble cast populates this world where one’s unconscious can be uploaded and viewed by others.
  • True Biz by Sara Novic: Multiple narrators tell this compelling story, set at a school for the Deaf; mini ASL lessons are included between chapters.
  • This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub: In this time travel story set in New York, Alice travels back and forth between her 40th and 16th birthdays, trying to figure out if it’s possible to save her father.
  • When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill: Like in The Power by Naomi Alderman, women become more powerful than men: they become dragons. For a long time, the world chooses to deny this, despite the evidence, until a mass dragoning event in the 1950s.

Adult Nonfictionanimalvegetablemiracle

  • These Precious Days by Ann Patchett: Essays by Ann Patchett are reliably top-notch.
  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell: “The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.”
  • Once Upon a Time We Ate Animals: The Future of Food by Roanne Van Voorst and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver: Van Voorst makes a powerful, respectful case for veganism, while Kingsolver focuses on eating local. Both books made me think more deeply about the environmental and sustainable aspects of food.
  • Secrets of the Sprakkar by Eliza Reid: The Canadian-Icelandic wife of Iceland’s prime minister examines the ways in which Icelandic society has achieved gender equality, and the ways in which is still falls short.
  • Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson: White male American hubris lead to an avoidable disaster in 1900, when Galveston, TX, was slammed by a hurricane that Cuban weather forecasters knew was coming.

Picture book read-alouds to make you laugh

What makes a picture book funny? A sense of humor is unique and personal – what makes one person laugh out loud might elicit only a small smile from another, and vice versa – but there are a few themes. Slapstick, physical comedy is one; “potty” humor is another (the farting pony in The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton, Who Wet My Pants? by Bob Shea). Cleverness is appreciated, especially the kind that winks at the reader and lets them in on the joke; kids like the feeling of knowing more than the main character does (hide-and-seek books use this tactic). Interactive, fourth-wall-breaking humor often works equally well in storytimes and one-on-one reading, as kids are ready and willing to engage. Some readers delight in the absurd (the increasingly strange to-do list in Bathe the Cat, the pile of unlikely “solutions” in On Account of the Gum). A twist or surprise ending can be very effective as well, such as in A Hungry Lion or Tyrannosaurus Wrecks!, especially if it follows a sweet emotional moment of resolution.

Recently I ran into a friend who is a youth services librarian at a public library. She said that they’d just put up a display of funny picture books, but realized they were not a diverse bunch. She thought I might have some ideas, and…I do!

onaccountofthegumTo be quite upfront, the first picture book that jumped into my head in the “funny” category was Adam Rex’s On Account of the Gum, which I maintain is one of the all-time funniest books to read aloud, and which absolutely does not get old, no matter how many times you read it. Though adults tend to think of picture books as being for little kids, this one appeals just as much or more to older kids, and even teens and adults; they can use the rhyme scheme to anticipate what’s coming next, and they have more context (e.g. they know what Picture Day is). But littles enjoy the over-the-top illustrations and the pattern and flow of the story…it’s just, hands-down, a brilliant read-aloud. Rex also wrote Pluto Gets the Call, illustrated by Laurie Keller (just think about the title for a minute) and School’s First Day of School, illustrated by Christian Robinson. (This book, narrated by a brand-new school building, contains the phrase “nose milk.”) Rex is a funny guy, but let’s move along…

Cover image of I Don't Want to Be A FrogI Don’t Want to Be A Frog by Dev Petty, illustrated by Mike Boldt, is told entirely in dialogue between a young frog (who, you guessed it, would rather be a rabbit or an owl or a pig or anything but a frog), their dad, and…I won’t give it away, but this book really lends itself to the read-aloud experience, and it has delightful companions (I Don’t Want to Go to Sleep, I Don’t Want to Be Big, and There’s Nothing to Do). Dev Petty also wrote Claymates, which has some of the most unique illustrations (by Lauren Eldridge) I’ve ever seen, and plenty of humor.

wolfiethebunnyIf you can hear the title Wolfie the Bunny and NOT want to read that book immediately, then we probably don’t have much in common. Ame Dyckman’s words paired with Zachariah Ohora’s illustrations absolutely live up to the promise of the title. In a neighborhood based on Park Slope, Brooklyn, a family of rabbits finds a wolf pup on their doorstep, but only little Dot is freaked out by the new addition to the family (“He’s going to eat us all up!”).

Tyrannosaurus WrecksZachariah Ohora also illustrated Tyrannosaurus Wrecks! by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. (Every list of picture books has to have a dinosaur book, right? Pretty sure that’s a rule.) This is a sure-bet hit for the toddler and preschool set, and there’s a sweet social-emotional learning (SEL) component in addition to the slapstick humor. (While we’re talking about Zachariah Ohora, he also illustrated Who Wet My Pants? by Bob Shea, another very funny book, despite its serious-sounding title.)

herecomesvalentinecatDeborah Underwood and Claudia Rueda’s “Here Comes…Cat” books (Tooth Fairy Cat, Valentine Cat, etc.) star a cat that only communicates through signs (sometimes with words, often with images), facial expressions, and body language. The narrator is in dialogue with the curmudgeonly cat, and these books definitely tickle my funny bone; Valentine Cat makes an appearance at our house every February.

sparkyJenny Offill has produced such delightful gems as Sparky! (a book about a girl and her pet sloth; just look at the juxtaposition between the name – with an exclamation point! – and the sloth on the cover), While You Were Napping, 11 Science Experiments That Failed, and 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore. The titles are descriptive enough, I think, and any grown-up who has read Offill’s books for adults is in for something completely different with these.

Cover image of A Hungry LionA Hungry Lion, Or, A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins: The sheer genius of this title, oh my goodness. And the vocabulary. And the smile on the little turtle’s face. And the moment the lights go out. And the double twist ending. And, and, and….If you liked the slightly macabre humor of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back but you haven’t read this, go ahead and remedy that now.

grumpypantsGrumpy Pants by Claire Messer: “I’m grumpy,” declares a little penguin, and it tries a number of solutions to improve its condition, finally stripping off its clothes piece by piece and diving into a nice cold bath. Children (and adults, too!) might find that a bath, clean clothes, and a cup of cocoa are just the thing to soothe a grumpy mood.

stillstuckStill Stuck by Shinsuke Yoshitake: You’re getting undressed and your shirt gets stuck over your head – it’s happened to everyone, right? It happens to this kid, who definitely does not want assistance from Mom, and decides to accept their new state. In their imagination, they spin out what life will be like with a shirt over their head. Despite the kid’s adaptability (or resignation), Mom does swoop in to move the bedtime process along, but there’s another snag when it’s time to put on pajamas.

mightbelobstersThere Might Be Lobsters by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Laurel Molk: Poor little Sukie is afraid of everything at the beach, but when beloved toy Chunka Munka is swept out to see, Sukie must find her courage. This is an excellent read-aloud for summer storytimes for all ages – get kids to repeat the titular refrain together –  and if you happen to have props with you for this read-aloud (a stuffed lobster, say, or a beach ball) all the better.

Cover image of The Oboe Goes Boom Boom BoomThe Oboe Goes BOOM BOOM BOOM by Colleen AF Venable, illustrated by Lian Cho: A band director introduces instruments one by one, but little Felicity just can’t wait to bang on the drums and keeps interrupting – until she’s blown away by the sound of the tuba. There’s actually quite a lot of information in here about different instruments, and the way that Cho translates sound into a visual medium is outstanding.

notapenguinI Am Not A Penguin: A Pangolin’s Lament by Liz Wong: A poor pangolin wants to give a presentation, keeping its cool while confused audience members interrupt, until a penguin arrives to steal the show. One little girl remains for the pangolin’s informative presentation. (See also: The Angry Little Puffin by Timothy Young, which taught me permanently that penguins live “at the bottom of the world” (i.e. Antarctica) while puffins live “at the top of the world.”)

kingbabyKing Baby by Kate Beaton might be funnier for adults than for kids, but kids enjoy it too; it’s one of my go-to recommendations for families who are about to add a sibling. And let’s not forget Beaton’s other picture book, the crowd-pleasing The Princess and the Pony (pony farts feature prominently).

bathethecatBathe the Cat by Alice B. McGinty and David Roberts: A cat who definitely does not want a bath scrambles up a family’s to-do list as they rush to tidy before grandma arrives. Clever use of fridge magnet alphabet letters, plenty of pride, and increasingly ridiculous tasks all add to the joyful hilarity.

wedonteatourclassmatesWe Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins: Pink, overalls-wearing Penelope is nervous about the first day of school, and indeed, it doesn’t go as well as she’d hoped…she discovers that it’s hard to make friends when everyone is afraid you’ll eat them. Penelope learns to exercise self-control with the help of Mrs. Noodleman and a fearless goldfish named Walter.

Finally, every kid I know would insist that The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak be included on any list of funny picture books, and they’re right. BLURP.

What are your favorite funny picture books?

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.

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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!