Banned Books Week 2021: Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us

Banned Books Week – misnomer though it may be – is probably my favorite display to put up every year, because I believe so strongly in the freedom to read (which is what we should probably call this week). This year’s promotional materials from ALA  feature the phrase “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us.” I made a small sign for the display with this logo and phrase and a quote (“The freedom to read is essential to democracy”); then Tall spinner rack display with challenged booksI looked up the ALA’s Top 100 Most Challenged Books by Decade and Top Ten Most Challenged Books List (top 10 by year) and pulled as many of those titles as I could find in our library to put on display.

I also put a small display on the desk near where students check out and return books: my “books change lives/books change lives” jar. This is something I’ve made part of my Banned Books/Freedom to Read display in public libraries for the past several years (see my 2017 post for the Robbins Library here, and the 2016 post here). With the jar, I invite patrons (students, this year) to write the title of a book that has meant something to them; the jar fills up with evidence of the importance of books to people’s lives. This year, I accompanied the jar with a quote from Ban This Book by Alan Gratz:

Mug with censored text, sign, glass jar, copy of Ban This Book“How do you say why you like a thing? …How do you explain to someone else why a thing matters to you if it doesn’t matter to them?” (Alan Gratz, Ban This Book, p. 39)

Whiteboard with date, due date, and First Line Friday quote from Ban This BookThis whiteboard stands near the checkout/return desk; it always has today’s date, the due date of books checked out today, and a First Line Friday – the first sentence of a book. I change it out every week, and visitors to the library can guess the book or peek underneath the flap to find the source. This week – spoiler alert! – the quote is from Ban This Book by Alan Gratz. Ban This Book is about a girl named Amy, who, when she discovers that her favorite book, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankeweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, has been removed from the school library – over the protest of the school librarian and against the school library’s own established request for reconsideration policy – begins a secret “banned books library” in her locker at school. This builds into full-blown activism by Amy and her friends; they realize that “if you can ban one book, you can ban them all,” and they all show up at a school board meeting to advocate for their books’ return to the library shelves.

Below: Rotating spinner display rack featuring Speak, Monster, George, Bridge to Terabithia, Blubber, The Giver, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Golden Compass, Stamped, Ban This Book, Goosebumps.

Picture Book Biographies

When I was little, I had a set of picture book biographies. I haven’t been able to find them since, but I remember that the series included books about Beethoven, Ben Franklin, and maybe Nellie Bly (the set skewed heavily white and male, but there were a few women included).

While I know that hardcover sets like this still exist*, I love the beautiful, creative stand-alone picture book biographies (and collective biographies) that have been published with what seems like increasing frequency in the past few years. Our reading at home skews toward fiction, but I’ve always felt that biography, while technically nonfiction, has fiction’s appeal: it’s the story of someone’s life. Plus, you usually learn something else – about history, or outer space, how to make a vaccine, or the latest in bridge-building.

*I like the Little People, Big Dreams series; they’re pitched to a younger audience, and they do a good job introducing young readers to a diverse array of historical figures, like Agatha Christie, Josephine Baker, Wilma Rudolph, Stevie Wonder, and David Bowie.

This list is not at all exhaustive, but includes many of the picture book biographies I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. I’ve separated them into a few loose categories, and some books appear in more than one category.

Authors

Just Like Beverly: A Biography of Beverly Cleary by Vicki Conrad & David HohnCover image of Just Like Beverly

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Suzanne Slade & Cozbi A. Cabrera

You Are My Friend: The Story of Mister Rogers and His Neighborhood by Aimee Reid & Matt Phelan

Science, Engineering, Technology, and Mathematics (STEM)

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed & Stasia Burrington

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett & Diana Sudyka (Maria Mitchell)Cover image of The Spacesuit

The Spacesuit: How A Seamstress Helped Put A Man on the Moon by Alison Donald & Ariel Landy

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker & Tiemdow Phumiruk

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins & Lucy Knisley

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly & Laura Freeman

Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How A Chemist Saved Our Planet by Elizabeth Rusch & Teresa Martinezmarioholeinsky

The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine by Linda Elovitz Marshall & Lisa Anchin

Dr. Fauci: How A Boy From Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor by Kate Messner & Alexandra Bye

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret by Jess Keating & Katie Hickey

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs by Kate Messner & Matthew Forsythe (Ken Nedimyer)

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Rachel Dougherty

Musicians, Dancers, and Artists

Cover image of JosephineDancing Hands: How Teresa Carreno Played the Piano for President Lincoln by Margarita Engle & Rafael Lopez

Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World by Kim Tomsic & Brett Helquist

Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson by Leda Schubert & Theodore Taylor III

Firebird by Misty Copeland & Christopher Myers

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell & Christian Robinson

The Noisy Paintbox: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock & Mary GrandPre

Activists and Politicians

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel & Melissa Sweet (Clara Lemlich)Cover image of All the Way to the Top

All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel, Nabi Ali, & Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins

The Next President: The Unexpected Beginnings and Unwritten Future of America’s Presidents by Kate Messner & Adam Rex

The First Woman To…

Cubs in the Tub: The True Story of the Bronx Zoo’s First Woman Zookeeper by Candace Fleming & Julie Downing

Her Fearless Run: Kathrine Switzer’s Historic Boston Marathon by Kim Chafee & Ellen Rooney

herfearlessrun

What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett & Diana Sudyka (Maria Mitchell)

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed & Stasia Burrington

The Spacesuit: How A Seamstress Helped Put A Man on the Moon by Alison Donald & Ariel Landy

Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean’s Biggest Secret by Jess Keating & Katie Hickey

Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Rachel DoughertyCover image of Secret Engineer

Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 by Helaine Becker & Tiemdow Phumiruk

Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins & Lucy Knisley

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly & Laura Freeman

Favorites of January-June 2021

To make my year-end recap a bit easier, I sometimes do a mid-year recap of favorite books I’ve read so far. “Favorite” is defined loosely (I’ve never been able to stick to a top ten), but these are books that I really enjoyed, that I will recommend enthusiastically to others, and that I think will stay with me. Over the past few years, my reading has skewed heavily toward middle grade fiction and picture books (as is obvious below), and as always, the books I read between January and June 2021 were not necessarily published in 2021 (though some were).

Adult FictionCover image of Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

  • Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia: If you liked The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin as a kid, your grown-up self will love this.
  • We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
  • Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
  • The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
  • Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
  • Afterlife by Julia Alvarez
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: If you liked Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller but wondered what the women in the story were up to…Cover image of Piranesi
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: Like unreliable narrators, journal-style narrative, and portal fantasy (e.g. Slade House by David Mitchell)? Enjoy.
  • The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken
  • Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher: Wildly inventive fairytale fantasy adventure, both gruesome and hilarious. (T. Kingfisher = Ursula Vernon)
  • The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Adult Nonfiction

  • You Never Forget Your First by Alexis CoeCover image of Braiding Sweetgrass 2020
  • The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri (see also: Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri)
  • Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen
  • Save the Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody
  • Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami
  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Young AdultCover image of Winterkeep

  • The Enigma Game by Elizabeth Wein
  • Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (see also: The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri)
  • A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
  • Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
  • Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore
  • Kent State by Deborah Wiles (audiobook)
  • Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulleyfirekeepersdaughter
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
  • Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
  • Switch by A.S. King
  • Kate in Waiting by Becky Albertalli
  • Pumpkin by Julie Murphy

Middle Grade

  • Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte (graphic novel)
  • Hamster Princess (series) by Ursula Vernon: Do not be silly like I was and avoid these books because of the glitter on the covers. Ursula Vernon is a genius, and these fractured fairytales with their hamster hero are perfection.
  • From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
  • Ruby Lu (3-book series) by Lenore Look: Ramona and Clementine, make room.
  • The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
  • Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk
  • History Smashers (nonfiction series) by Kate Messner
  • The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
  • Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan
  • Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable (graphic novel)
  • The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book by Kate Milford
  • Starfish by Lisa Fipps (novel in verse)
  • Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
  • The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park
  • Ancestor Approved by Cynthia Leitich Smith (ed.)
  • Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Hilda (series) by Luke Pearson
  • Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field by Angela Ahn
  • The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung
  • The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga
  • Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden
  • Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston: The magic and adventure and world-building of Harry Potter, but imagine if Harry was as smart and resourceful as Hermione (and Black and American)
  • Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
  • Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  • Cece Rios and the Desert of Souls by Kaela Rivera

Early Readers

  • “Living In…” (series) by Chloe Perkins (nonfiction, geography/history)Cover image of Haylee and Comet
  • Fox & Chick (series) by Sergio Ruzzier
  • Haylee & Comet by Deborah Marcero

Picture Books

  • There’s A Skeleton Inside You! by Idan Ben-Barak & Julian Frost
  • When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith
  • Sootypaws by Maggie Rudy: A brilliant and beautiful Cinderella retelling
  • Lonesome George, The Giant Tortoise by Francine Jacobs & Jean Cassels
  • The Polio Pioneer by Linda Elovitz Marshall & Lisa Anchin
  • All the Way to the Top by Annette Bay Pimentel & Nabi Ali
  • Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham
  • Everyone Gets A Say by Jill Twiss & EG Keller
  • A Family Is A Family Is A Family by Sara O’Leary & Qin Leng
  • Just A Minute by Yuyi Morales
  • What A Lucky Day by Jashar Awan: Gives stereotypes a poke in the eye.
  • Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho
  • Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Anand & Nabi Ali
  • Amy Wu and the Patchwork Dragon by Kat Zhang & Charlene Chua (sequel to Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao)
  • This Is the Rope by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Scarlet’s Tale by Audrey Vernick & Peter Jarvis: If there was a Kid’s Choice Award at my house, Scarlet’s Tale would have the picture book category locked down. See also: Imogene’s Antlers by David Small.
  • The Farmer trilogy by Marla Frazee
  • A Small Kindness by Stacy McAnulty & Wendy Leach
  • Animals Brag About Their Bottoms by Maki Sato: A perfect storytime book for all ages.
  • Neville by Norton Juster
  • Watercress by Andrew Wang & Jason Chin
  • Dozens of Doughnuts by Carrie Finison & Brianne Farley
  • Let’s Dance by Valerine Bolling & Maine Diaz
  • My Tiny Life by Ruby T. Hummingbird by Paul Meisel
  • Dessert Island by Ben Zhu
  • Oh Look, A Cake! by J.C. McKee: It’s I Really Want the Cake meets A Hungry Lion, Or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals.
  • I Am Not A Penguin: A Pangolin’s Lament by Liz Wong: See also The Angry Little Puffin by Timothy Young
  • There Must Be More Than That! by Shinsuke Yoshitake
  • Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas by Cheryl Bardoe & Jos. A. Smith
  • In the Half Room by Carson Ellis
  • The Oboe Goes BOOM BOOM BOOM by Colleen AF Venable & Lian Cho: There are many wonderful picture books about musical instruments, but this one is louder than all the others, and I mean that in the best way possible.
  • Bird House by Blanca Gomez
  • A Second Is A Hiccup by Hazel Hutchins & Kady MacDonald Denton
  • Avocado Asks: What Am I? by Momoko Abe: For those that don’t fit neatly into checkboxes.

It’s been an excellent half-year of reading. What are some of your favorite books that you’ve read/listened to so far this year? What are you looking forward to? There’s going to be a great batch of new books published this fall (including, even, a few written for adults, from authors such as Lauren Groff, Sally Rooney, Amor Towles, Ann Patchett, and Mary Roach). Whatever else happens this fall, at least there will be books.

Homeschooling in Middle Grade Fiction

Tonight in my #kidlit class (“Collections and Materials for Children”), we discussed two middle grade novels that featured homeschooled characters. I started building a list of others (see below), but I’m sure there are more out there. What did I miss? And what do you think of these portrayals of homeschool education in fiction?

Libraries, museums, and parks are all valuable resources that support lifelong learning for all ages. As a public librarian, I was always happy to see homeschool groups come in to use the library resources.

  • The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (sequel: The Lotterys More or Less)
  • All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson (graphic novel)
  • Schooled by Gordon Korman
  • The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy (the main characters are not homeschooled, but they have some friends who are)
  • For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
  • Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord
  • The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
  • Sunny by Jason Reynolds (part of the Track series, but works as a standalone)
  • The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss
  • Just Breathe by Cammie McGovern (decidedly YA and not MG!)

Moving and Grooving: Picture Books About Music and Dance

pokkoThose of us who do storytimes for little kids know that we shouldn’t expect them to sit quietly, hands folded in laps, listening ears on – not at all! The best storytimes I’ve attended or led incorporate movement, singing, and plenty of wiggling. (Directed movement is better than chaotic movement: one of the best tips I got when I was new to leading storytimes was that if things got rowdy, to sing “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” – with motions – because it’s soothing and works as a good reset. You can also sing any short rhyme three times: first regular, then loud, and finally very softly.)

Here are some picture books about music and dance that work for storytime or sharing one-on-one. Most are just right for the preschool set, with some fine for toddlers (Punk Farm, Pokko and the Drum) and others (The Piano Recital, Jingle Dancer) best for early elementary. They range from silly to poetic but all show an appreciation for music and the various ways of making it.

88 Instruments by Chris Barton, illus. Louis Thomas88instruments

Because by Mo Willems, illus. Amber Ren

We Will Rock Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins (sequel to the deservedly popular We Don’t Eat Our Classmates)

Pokko and the Drum by Matthew Forsythe

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! by Lloyd Moss, illus. Marjorie Priceman

The Orchestra Pit by Joanna Wright

Punk Farm by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (gives “Old MacDonald” a fresh treatment)punkfarm

What A Wonderful World illustrated by Tim Hopgood (a picture book version of Bob Thiele and George Weiss’s song, popularized by Louis Armstrong; best for those confident in their singing voices, though of course you can read it without singing)

The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

Music for Mister Moon by Philip and Erin Stead

The Piano Recital by Akiko Miyakoshi (translated from Japanese)

How Do You Dance? by Thyra Heder

Let’s Dance! By Valerie Bolling, illus. Maine Diazletsdance

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illus. Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (this one has more text and would likely sail over toddlers’ heads and test preschoolers’ patience, but it would be a great read-aloud for early elementary)

This isn’t an exhaustive list and I’m sure I’ve missed some great ones. What are your favorite picture books having to do with music or dance?

Picture perfect families

A few picture books we’ve read recently started me thinking about the theme of families. Once I started making a list, one book quickly led to another – and this is not an exhaustive list! Many of these books include grandparents and extended family; a couple include foster parents (Just Like A Mama and A Family Is A Family Is A Family); one explains “what makes a baby” in a way that includes all kinds of families; and many are multicultural and inter-generational.

I have a separate list of books about when new siblings are added to a family, which I’ll share in a future post.

How families get started…

  • What Makes A Baby by Corey Silverberg, illus. Fiona Smyth
  • Nine Months by Miranda Paul, illus. Jason Chin

GrandparentsCover image of Grandma's Tiny House

  • Grandma’s Tiny House by JaNay Brown-Wood, illus. Priscilla Burris
  • Maud and Grand-Maud by Sara O’Leary, illus. Kenard Pak
  • Between Us and Abuela by Mitali Perkins, illus. Sara Palacios
  • I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illus. Julia Kuo
  • A Morning with Grandpa by Sylvia Liu, illus. Christina Forshay
  • Drawn Together by Minh Lȇ, illus. Dan SantatCover image of Mango Abuela and Me
  • Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina, illus. Angela Dominguez
  • Just in Case by Yuyi Morales
  • Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells
  • The Button Box by Margarette S. Reid, illus. Sarah Chamberlain

Mamas

  • Saturday by Oge MoraCover image of Saturday
  • Pecan Pie Baby by Jacqueline Woodson, illus. Sophie Blackall
  • City Moon by Rachael Cole, illus. Blanca Gomez
  • Me & Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera

Dads

  • Jabari Jumps by Gaia CornwallCover image of Jabari Jumps
  • Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illus. Vashti Harrison
  • The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl

Families together

  • A Family Is A Family Is A Family by Sara O’Leary, illus. Qin LengCover image of A Family Is A Family Is A Family
  • Home Is In Between by Mitali Perkins, illus. Lavanya Naidu
  • When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith, illus. Nicole Neidhardt
  • Just Like A Mama by Alice Faye Duncan, illus. Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
  •  All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illus. Paul O. Zelinsky
  • Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illus. Charlene ChuaCover image of Just Like A Mama
  • A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams (1983 Caldecott Honor)

Early readers/beginning chapter books

  • Meet Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi, illus. Hatem Ali
  • Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy by Laurel Snyder, illus. Emily Hughes

I hope you discover something new on this list that you come to love and share. And please, feel free to add your favorite family books in the comments!

Mid-April, middle grade

It’s been a little while since I wrote about middle grade novels, which I continue to inhale because they are so good. Middle grade characters are at an age where they’ve got a little bit of independence, they’re figuring out their identities and their friendships and their feelings. They’re making mistakes, they’re learning, they’re having ideas, they’re testing boundaries. In short, middle grade is absolutely fascinating, and although publishing is still overwhelmingly white, it’s getting more diverse (and therefore more interesting) by the year. Reading fiction has always been one of my favorite ways to learn about history and about other cultures; I read nonfiction too, but it tends to be the stories in novels that stay with me. Here are a few recent (2019-2021) middle grade novels I’d love for more people to read:

Wash your hands and grab your aprons…

  • Cover image of A Place at the TableA Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan: Pakistani-American Sara’s mom runs a cooking club at school, and that’s where Sara meets Elizabeth, who’s Jewish, and whose mother is also studying for the U.S. citizenship exam. The girls orchestrate a study group of two for their mothers, and become friends in the process.
  • Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu: In this graphic novel, twelve-year-old Cici, who has just moved from Taiwan to Seattle, enters a cooking competition, but is unsure if she can win by cooking Taiwanese food.
  • From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks: After receiving a letter on her birthday from her father in prison, Zoe strikes up a secret correspondence with him, enabled by her grandmother, and decides she must clear his name – all while winning a baking competition, and (maybe) making up with her best friend next door.

Now put on your dancing shoes (or not)…

  • Cover image of Lupe Wong Won't DanceLupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera: If “Chinacan/Mexinese” Lupe gets all As, she’ll get to meet her hero, pitcher Fu Li; but her A in P.E. is threatened when Coach announces that the next unit is…square dancing. Lupe goes on a campaign against it, roping her friends into helping her. Readers will see that it’s possible for kids like them to be activists and make change that’s meaningful to them. I did not get hooked immediately, but I kept going, and toward the end there was a part that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t talk for several minutes.
  • Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina: Anything new by Meg Medina is cause for celebration in my book, and Merci doesn’t disappoint. Adolescence keeps tossing Merci curveballs (“If I’m too young for it all, why is it happening anyway?”): her beloved grandfather Lolo has Alzheimer’s, her older brother is away at college, she’s stuck working in the school store with Wilson, and Edna Santos won’t shut up about the Heart Ball. Merci makes some big mistakes, but she still has the support of her family and friends.

On the road and Underground:

  • Clean Getaway by Nic Stone: Scoob’s dad cancels their vacation when Scoob gets in trouble at school, so when Scoob’s grandma swings by in a new RV, he hops in – and leaves his phone behind. But the road trip turns strange, with G’ma, who’s white, telling Scoob, who’s Black, about using the Green Book when traveling with his Black grandfather decades ago. Scoob learns some family truths before he returns home.Cover image of Planet Omar
  • Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian: Middle child Omar introduces his British Muslim family in a funny, relatable way. Sketches accompany the story, which includes getting lost in the Underground on a field trip with only the school bully for company.

New York and New Jersey:

  • Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable: Katie’s two best friends go off to camp, leaving her stuck in sticky New York, so Katie tries to earn the money to join them for the last week of camp. She gets a sweet cat-sitting gig for an upstairs neighbor, but begins to wonder…is Madeleine actually the supervillain known as the Mousetress? Super fun; I read it in one sitting.
  • Cover image of Like VanessaLike Vanessa by Tami Charles: Vanessa is elated when a Black woman is crowned Miss America for the first time, and a white teacher encourages her to participate in the first-ever Miss King Middle pageant, even though her skin is much darker than Miss America’s. Vanessa is skeptical, but Mrs. Walton isn’t the typical white savior, and she understands Vanessa better than Vanessa expects. Throughout, Vanessa writes in her diary, and works to solve the mystery of her mother’s absence.
  • Cover image The Year I Flew AwayThe Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold: Ten-year-old Gabrielle’s parents send her from their home in Haiti to live with relatives in New York, where she promptly makes an ill-advised deal with a witch called Lady Lydia. Gabrielle’s new friends – a talking rat called Rocky and a Latina classmate called Carmen – help Gabrielle regain what she’s lost. Readers willing to go with the flow will love this magical book about identity, language, culture, and what it means to be American.

Historical fiction (1930s, 1970s):

  • Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk: When the Great Depression hit, Ellie and her family move from a town to a mountain in Maine; Ellie and her father take to it, but Ellie’s mother and older sister haven’t adapted as well, and when Ellie’s father is injured and lies in a coma, the burden falls on all of them. Ellie takes the initiative to explore and meet others on the mountain – some of whom are already connected to her family in surprising ways. This immersive book reminded me a bit of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly.
  • Cover image of Dawn RaidDawn Raid by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith: Thirteen-year-old Sofia’s diary entries show a dawning awareness of anti-Polynesian racism in Wellington, New Zealand. She writes about McDonalds and go-go boots, the Polynesian Panthers and dawn raids (police raiding Pacific Islanders they suspect are “overstayers,” though the 60% of overstayers who are white are never targeted), and eventually makes a speech at her school recounting her first-hand experience. A time and place rarely written about for the middle grade audience in the U.S.

Poetry/Novel in verse:

  • The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park: A teacher asks the class to think about the one thing they’d save in a fire (assuming people and pets are safe). The class muses, then shares; grayscale illustrations of their rooms and possessions accompany the modern Korean sijo poetic style.
  • Cover image of StarfishStarfish by Lisa Fipps: Ellie doesn’t mind that she’s fat – she minds that almost everyone, including her own mother, bullies her for being fat. Luckily for Ellie, she has two good friends – one old, one new – and a skilled, kind therapist to help her realize a way forward in the world.

Pacific Northwest, Native American #OwnVoices:

  • The Sea in Winter by Christine Day: During a week of spring vacation in the Pacific Northwest, Maisie goes on a hiking trip with her family, but struggles with a healing ACL injury and with the idea that her dream future as a ballet dancer might not come to pass. Maisie’s family – mom, younger brother, and stepdad – are all Native American; both Maisie’s parents support her, gently explaining that “dreams change.”

Fantasy, Newbery Honor:

  • Cover image of A Wish in the DarkA Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat: Is life fair, or unfair? Characters’ beliefs change in this dreamy yet fast-paced Les Miserables-inspired Thai fantasy novel. Pong, born in prison, and Nok, daughter of the warden, start out on opposite sides but move toward similar conclusions. Absolutely original, hard to put down once you’ve started.

MSLA 2021, Part 2

If you missed the first half of this write-up about the Massachusetts School Library Association conference, it’s here (Part 1). Now, on to the excellent sessions from Monday, March 22.

Morning keynote

Cultivating Genius and Joy: Culturally and Historically Responsive Education for Equity, Excellence and Joy, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad

Cover image Cultivating GeniusDr. Muhammad is the author of Cultivating Genius, and an amazing speaker with an inspiring message, a deep understanding of history, and the expert delivery of a slam poet (the live chat was full of librarians planning to buy her book or see if she was available to speak to their schools or other organizations). “STORIES MATTER,” she said (it sounded like it was in all caps), and she referenced the danger of a single story (see: “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk). In this case, the story she was referring to was one of “at-risk, confrontational, defiant, unmotivated, non-readers.” Instead, “We must not call readers struggling until we call systems struggling.”

Dr. Muhammad delivered a fast-paced history of Black educators in U.S. history, much of which has been forgotten or intentionally erased: “When you have an erasure of Black genius in education, we see it transfer over to our schools and our communities.” She referenced the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), which consistently produces data showing that children’s literature overwhelmingly is produced by white creators and features white characters. She asked, If our books are supposed to be windows to the world, how come only one kind of kid gets to see themselves as astronauts, superheroes, etc.? “It is a human agenda when some people’s stories matter more.”

Dr. Muhammad talked about multicultural education and social justice: “Our schools must have justice at the center….If the system does not help all, it helps no one.” And finally, she described and gave examples of the five lenses/pursuits she uses to examine a text or teach a lesson: Identity, Skills, Intellect, Criticality, and Joy. Most assessment – especially standardized testing – only focuses on skills, but that is only a piece of learning. Dr. Muhammad asked, “How will you make it impossible for students to fail?” (and, “Is it ethical to keep doing the same things we’ve been doing?”).

After the [Diversity] Audit, Liz Phipps-Soeiro

Phipps-Soeiro is an elementary school librarian in the Cambridge Public School system, as well as a consultant and a community organizer. She had an excellent, break-all-the-rules slide show that led with the statement, “I am learning and unlearning every day.” (The second piece of this is so important. Librarians often claim the identity of “lifelong learners,” but much of the new knowledge is really updating and improving on the old.)

Before beginning a diversity audit, a librarian should ask themselves the following questions:

  • What does “diverse” mean to me?
  • How am I using that word?
  • Am I still centering a dominant cultural narrative?
  • Am I only thinking about race?
  • How does my identity affect what I value and judge as “diverse”?
  • What might I consider? (race, region, power, urban/rural, gender, class, sexuality, religion, ability, chronic illness, neurodivergence, oppression/liberation, collectivism/individualism

A diversity audit is a good first step, but move beyond quantitative data. “Stories are our profession.” Look beyond the identity of the character and creator, while acknowledging that “no one book can do everything.” Books can uphold some stereotypes/tropes/myths and break others at the same time.

Engage in self-reflection, hone your critical lens, and beware of “tourist curriculum” (a superficial approach, often featuring holidays or food, then returning to the “regular” curriculum, which further centers a white identity). Be aware of which narratives are amplified or erased.

And involve your students! Give them the vocabulary they need, demonstrate that it is okay to ask questions. The librarian can engage and facilitate powerful book discussions with children (“Does this book support or challenge any stereotypes?”). Analyze books explicitly; kids bring that vocabulary and willingness to discuss out of the library and into classrooms and home.

During the Q&A, a high school librarian commented, “Audit for bias, not just diversity.”

Here is a tool for selecting diverse texts from Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance).

Beyond Books: Supporting English Learners in Your School Library, Emily Houston, Kendall Boninti, and Paige Graves

Houston, Boninti, and Graves all work at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (CRLS), and their presentation was about a concerted effort they’ve made to bring English Language Learners (ELL) into the library and make it a welcoming space for them. They’ve done that by focusing on the physical space, partnering with community-based nonprofit Enroot, and using a Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach.

  • Physical space: You want students to be able to “feel that joy” of navigating the space independently. Are there spaces to meet different needs (independent study vs collaboration vs socializing)? Are signs in multiple languages, are they color-coded, do they include images? CRLS has created an Inquiry Lab/Makerspace with lots of donated/upcycled materials for hands-on experimentation.
  • Student-centered space: Once you’ve identified an underserved group, how do you get them to come into the library? The CRLS Library partnered with Enroot to develop a monthly series: “Lunch & Learn: Building Community Through Playful Learning.”
  • Project-based learning: PBL is an equitable and authentic approach to teaching and learning; it connects students to issues that matter to them and gives them an opportunity to do something. Best practices for PBL: student-centered (voice and choice), authentic and complex problem/challenge (do not simplify, amplify), builds community (social aspect of language), tap into students’ fund of cultural knowledge, explicitly teach vocabulary, scaffolding, lots of visuals, hands-on, play and joy, reflection (include in every lesson with ELL), equitable assessment. All of this is good for ELL and good for every student! “To ignore important issues [in our country, the world] in school makes school irrelevant.”

Tips and Tools for Nonfiction Read-Alouds, Melissa Stewart

Melissa Stewart has written so many nonfiction books for kids. She is a rockstar! And her website has a ton of resources, including this whole section on nonfiction read-alouds. Stewart made the case that kids love read-alouds, and kids love nonfiction! The most recent data (1996) suggests that at least 40% of the books kids check out for pleasure reading are nonfiction; if that’s the case, shouldn’t read-alouds mirror that percentage? (She wants to do an updated study/survey of how much of kids’ pleasure reading is nonfiction; if you work in a library and want to help her out with that, get in touch!)

What are some of the barriers to reading nonfiction aloud?

  • Locating appropriate nonfiction titles
  • Reading aloud in a way that engages students
  • Encouraging and facilitating student responses to nonfiction read-alouds

Spoiler alert, it turns out that these “barriers” are easily overcome! To start, Stewart offers guidance on choosing appropriate nonfiction titles. And, each year, she writes a nonfiction roundup, so you can search her blog for “best nonfiction of” and get annual lists. As for making your reading engaging, “There’s no reason you have to read an entire book,” and sometimes with nonfiction it works better not to. If there’s primary and secondary text, you could just read the main text (especially for younger students); you could also just share one part, or a little bit at a time, rather than reading cover to cover in one sitting. Students will get excited and respond, especially if you’re enthusiastic about it.

Some teachers and librarians just need the nudge that “nonfiction read-alouds can tie in to curriculum, but can also be ‘just for fun.'” When I was doing storytimes for two- and three-year-olds, I admit I didn’t use many nonfiction picture books at all (exception: Skulls! by Blair Thornburgh), but the next time I get in front of a read-aloud crowd, I’m definitely going to include more nonfiction picture books.

Author Panel: M.T. Anderson, Heather Vogel Frederick, Janae Marks, Mitali Perkins

This was just so fun. I’ve read books by all of these authors (Feed, The Mother-Daughter Book Club, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, and Forward Me Back to You, respectively) and they all really seemed to enjoy talking about books and writing together. A few quotes:

  • You learn something from writing every book even if they don’t end up on shelves. (Marks)
  • You just never know what you’re going to discover. (Anderson, re: traveling and research)
  • “Stories written long ago are not all good or all bad but a mix of both.” The books you read early in your life are formative. Eras shaped people (and authors). (Perkins)
  • “So many of our books grow from our own lives.” (Frederick)

Whew! So, that was my first MSLA conference. And while I’m excited to meet all these librarians in person someday, the virtual conference experience was very smooth and enjoyable (and the coffee and meals were excellent. And I got to be in my sweatpants and slippers the whole time. There’s a silver lining to Zoom for sure). Thank you again to all of the presenters and conference committee, and thank you if you’re reading this!

MSLA 2021: What can we help you discover today?

Banner: School Librarians at the Crossroads: Be the Hero of Your Journey

This was my first year attending the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) annual conference. It was entirely virtual this year, and it was great! Between an app (Whova) and various platforms (zoom, YouTube), everything worked smoothly. I noticed that most attendees were chatting when live chat was enabled, but not many were tweeting, even though several are on Twitter. As usual, I took compulsive notes, which I’ve tried to consolidate here into useful takeaways. Thank you to the MSLA Conference Committee, who did amazing work, and to all of the presenters, keynote speakers, and panelists, who delivered inspiring and thought-provoking ideas.

Saturday, March 20

Jarrett Krosoczka, Awards Night Keynote

Cover image Hey KiddoKrosoczka is the Massachusetts-based author of the popular Lunch Lady series of early graphic novels, as well as the award-winning graphic memoir Hey, Kiddo. He talked about his long history of virtual author visits and book launches, and how his model has changed over the years as technology has changed. He asked himself, “I don’t want to be just a talking head, how can I make this more interesting?” When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, he began “Draw Every Day with JKK,” a popular series of drawing sessions. His home setup has improved with time; he noted that phone cameras are usually better quality than computer cameras, and if you mount one on a tripod, it doesn’t hurt to put googly eyes on it so you know where to look. Krosoczka closed with, “Students just want to be heard. They just want an adult to listen.”

Sunday, March 21

Books and Bytes Keynote: The School Librarian as Information Specialist, Jennisen Lucas (AASL president-elect)

When it comes to libraries – school or public – there is a huge equity issue. Generally, affluent towns and cities have library buildings staffed with qualified professionals who manage a collection of a variety of materials and offer a range of services. Poorer towns’ libraries aren’t as well-funded, may not have the same number of open hours (an access issue) or amount of materials or the same program offerings. In school libraries, the inequality is even starker, if possible, and it seems as though the barely-adequate staffing levels can be slashed at any time. School libraries might not have a budget at all, or they may have an insufficient budget; libraries might be staffed only by paraprofessionals or parent volunteers, or by a certified librarian serving several schools at once. This knife-edge existence is frustrating for a profession that knows its vital importance to student learning outcomes, yet constantly has to explain and defend itself. School librarians don’t just check books in and out; SLs nurture a love of reading, teach research skills, support the curriculum, and teach media and news literacy. “We are vital,” Lucas said. “We are trying to be everything to everybody.”

Lucas addressed the common misperception that “what we do is read to kids and check out books”; that now that there’s the Internet, librarians aren’t necessary anymore. Lucas argued that we have workout videos – and yet we still have gym teachers. We have calculators, and yet we still have math teachers. “We teach things that no other teachers teach.” Lucas said, “Our school library ensures learners become effective and ethical users and producers of ideas and information.” All learners deserve libraries with certified librarians.

A few more takeaways:

  • Recommended books: Start With Why by Simon Sinek; Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; The Information by James Gleick; Our Enduring Values Revisited by Michael Gorman
  • “It is not the amount of knowledge that makes a brain. It is not even the distribution of knowledge. It is the interconnectedness.” -James Gleick, The Information
  • “Information” is one of those words like “research,” we use it all the time to mean a lot of things. Information is directly tied to communication.
  • Ask students: “What is research?” (Their answers will surprise you!) Research is answering questions: start with a question. Teach learners how to ask a question. 
  • Many hats: School librarians are “a guide, instructor, facilitator, coach, administrator of programs.”

Fostering Diversity in the Library, Felicia Quesada Montville

Felicia Quesada Montville works as a middle school librarian in the Newton Public Schools. Her presentation focused on diversity, inclusion, equity, and antiracism. Librarians have many tools to move past “superficial” representation and build an antiracist library.

  • Collection development: Prioritize diverse voices. Seek multiple review sources. Weed, weed, weed! Know your community and assess their needs. Analyze your collection and identify gaps. Do a diversity audit. Identify priority areas (e.g. summer reading lists, books taught in classrooms). Examine the images in your space and on your website.

  • Displays, and a student-centered environment: “There’s a lot of power in the books that we choose to put on display.” Students and teachers and people coming into your space see the books that are there. Make the library a safe space for everyone by centering students. What professional practices can you improve to help your students?
  • Advocacy outside the library: Librarians have power – use it for good. Advocate for inclusive and diverse texts outside of the library. Use position in school as a leader to help move social justice forward. Advocate for equitable school policies. Lead by examples – lead by doing. Speak up.

Using Picture Books in High School, Susan Harari, Morgan Keohane, Blake Barich

Blake Barich, and English teacher at Boston Latin, developed an assignment for her 12th grade students to find and examine “existentialist themes” in picture books. School librarian Susan Harari helped find the picture books, using both her own library collection and the Boston Public Library to provide 150 texts for the students to choose from. She also taught a lesson on picture books, covering Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of windows & mirrors, what is(n’t) a picture book, types of children’s books, the role of author/illustrator, audience, design elements, and interplay between text/illustrations. Thus equipped, students chose their picture books and began work on a 4-6 page essay.

But the unit didn’t end there. In a fantastic example of inter-school collaboration, the 12th grade students took a field trip to a BPS elementary school, where each was paired with a younger student (K-1) and read their book aloud. Elementary librarian Morgan Keohane got teacher buy-in by presenting the many arguments in favor of the collaboration: it’s a chance for students to get personalized, individual attention from an older peer (who is very familiar with the picture book – not a typical guest reader). It models the value of 1:1 reading time (child:adult). In their diverse community of learners, a lot of volunteers are white; this is a chance for students to see themselves in successful older roles.

“The value of this project is that it’s a learning experience for both sides.” High school students gained an appreciation for visual literacy, an understanding of windows and mirrors, and increased literary criticism skills. Younger students (who completed simple book reviews with a star rating and a sentence or drawing about their favorite part of the story) got one-on-one attention from enthusiastic older peers who were deeply engaged in the book they had brought to share.

Cover image of I Want My Hat Back

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post on Monday’s sessions.

2021 ALA Youth Media Awards

The ALA Youth Media Awards were announced this morning. Last year, I was doing storytime for 2- and 3-year-olds at my library during the announcement and caught up right after; today (like many others), I watched in my pajamas with my five-year-old next to me or in my lap, waiting impatiently through the YALSA awards for the ones she really cared about…the Pura Belpré and the Caldecott! (When We Are Water Protectors was finally announced as the winner, she said, “That’s the one I would have picked, too.”)

“We stand
With our songs
And our drums.
We are still here.”
-We Are Water Protectors

“A cure is not about what we want. It’s about what we need. The same is true for stories.” – When You Trap A Tiger

“When you believe, that is you being brave. Sometime, believing is the bravest thing of all.” – When You Trap A Tiger

I was excited about the books (and authors and illustrators) in every award category, starting with the Asian/Pacific American Awards: I loved Danbi Leads the School Parade (picture book honor) and Prairie Lotus (children’s literature honor), and When You Trap A Tiger (children’s lit winner – and Newbery winner!).

School Library Journal has already published an article and a complete list of the honor and award books, so, like last year, I’ll continue with the books I’ve already read in each category. I’ve already requested several of the ones that I missed (including three of the Caldecott honor books, I am embarrassed!) from the library.

  • Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim (Asian/Pacific American picture book honor)
  • Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (Asian/Pacific American children’s literature honor)
  • When You Trap A Tiger by Tae Keller (Asian/Pacific American children’s literature winner)
  • Welcoming Elijah by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Susan Gal (Sydney Taylor picture book winner)
  • I Talk Like A River by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith (Schneider Family Book Award winner for young children)
  • When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (Schneider Family Book Award honor for middle grade)
  • Show Me A Sign by Ann Clare LeZott (Schneider Family Book Award winner for middle grade)
  • You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson (Stonewall honor)
  • King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender (Coretta Scott King author honor, Stonewall award)
  • Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson (Coretta Scott King author winner)
  • Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh (Alex Award)
  • Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (Odyssey honor)
  • Sharuko by Monica Brown, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri (Pura Belpré illustrator honor)
  • ¡Vamos! Let’s Go Eat by Raúl Gonzalez (Pura Belpré illustrator winner)
  • Honeybee by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann (Sibert award winner)
  • Ty’s Travels: Zip, Zoom! by Kelly Starling Lyons (Theodor Seuss Geisel honor)
  • What About Worms!? by Ryan T. Higgins (Theodor Seuss Geisel honor)
  • Outside In by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Cindy Derby (Caldecott honor)
  • We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade (Caldecott winner)
  • Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Newbery honor)
  • We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly (Newbery honor)
  • When You Trap A Tiger by Tae Keller (Newbery winner)

Travis Jonker over at SLJ invites readers to fill out a 2021 “Caldecott Comment Card.” Since I only read two(!) out of the five Caldecott honor/award books this year, I can’t say how the handful of titles I was hoping for compare, but I was sad not to see Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Lift on the list at all (I think Sophie Blackall’s If You Come to Earth was tremendous also, but she’s already won twice). As a wise librarian friend said this morning, “I don’t envy the committees. Such hard decisions.”

So, thank you to everyone who served on any committee; thank you to all of the authors and illustrators who created books last year, and their publishers; and thanks to the booksellers and other librarians who are going to get these (and many other) books into the hands of readers, one way or the other (hurray for contactless pickup!).