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!

Imagine the story continuing: virtual author events and book launches

“Because sometimes the better the story, the greater the restlessness that comes when it ends and the listener has to go on, imagining the story continuing somewhere, but untold and out of sight.” -Kate Milford, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book

Probably no author envisioned that one day, a book they’d worked for years on would be released…during a pandemic. When libraries and bookstores are open on a limited basis, and certainly not hosting in-person events. However, authors, booksellers, and librarians are all making the best of it, and in some ways, author events and book launches have become more accessible: plenty of readers who couldn’t attend an in-person event in New York or Boston or San Diego in ordinary times can now attend via zoom, crowdcast, or other platforms – and attendance isn’t limited by fire code! Lots of authors are still doing signings and working with independent bookstores to get books to readers. Here are summaries of three author events – one adult, one YA, and one middle grade – I’ve attended in the last few months:

Deb Gorlin and Eula Biss at Hampshire College, December 2020

OnImmunityI’ve been following Eula Biss’s writing since I got a galley of On Immunity: An Inoculation back in 2014 (she said during this interview that she “would love for that book to become obsolete,” but if you know anyone asking themselves “to vaccinate or not to vaccinate?” please buy them a copy). Eula joined writing instructor and Emerita Senior Faculty Associate Deb Gorlin to discuss her writing career and her newest book, Having and Being Had.

They talked about “personal foundational texts,” books you return to over and over again, books that become part of you, that guide you. (I wrote about some of my personal foundational picture books recently, and am mulling over a piece about non-PB foundational texts.)

Eula said, “I do better and more interesting thinking when I believe that I’m in the margins.” She said that if Hampshire teaches any one thing to all its students, it may be how to draw connections between any two (or more) apparently disparate things. (I can say from my own personal experience that this is true, and led more or less directly to my invention – while waiting for the R train – of a game called Guess the Thing. In short: Person 1 thinks of a thing. Person 2 and 3 each guess a thing. Person 1 says which thing is closest to the thing they were thinking of, and why. The person whose thing was chosen gets to pick the next thing. Repeat until train arrives.)

Kristin Cashore and Malinda Lo in conversation with Tui Sutherland at Mysterious Galaxy, January 2021

Hearing from Kristin, Malinda, and Tui was perhaps less academic but more fun. I was thrilled to hear that Kristin was publishing a new Graceling Realm book; I have since read Winterkeep and it is amazing. Fans of the original three books will likely love it, and I think it works as a stand-alone as well: it’s got amazing world-building, complicated characters, and plenty of action. (And, yes, telepathic foxes.) I requested Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, from the library, and while I was waiting for my copy to come in, I read her brilliant essays on the craft of writing on her blog, Lo & Behold. I read Tui’s first Wings of Fire book as well, The Dragonet Prophecy – I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, because that series was incredibly popular at the last library where I worked – as it is in many places – and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Now I see! More excellent world-building, strong characters to root for, and a lot of action (and violence – like, Hunger Games levels of violence). I could have sworn I took notes on this event – I take notes on everything – but I can’t find them anywhere. However, I can recommend these books, as well as any future author events these three do together – it was so fun to be a fly on the wall.

Books from Other Worlds: A Conversation with Kate Milford & Melissa Albert, March 2021

raconteurscommonplaceIf we’ve met in real life, probably I have talked your ear off about Kate Milford’s Greenglass House books. Her kind of world-building is one of my favorite kinds: our world, but different. And the ways that it’s different are so inventive and compelling to me, from Nagspeake’s shifting iron and the Skidwrack river to the existence of roamers, a culture of smuggling, and an evil catalog company. Plus, the structure of her books is excellent, and nearly always features an ensemble cast of interesting characters, many of whom cross between books – basically, David Mitchell for middle grade, but completely her own. And her newest book, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, is actually the book that Milo (main character of Greenglass House) reads – so Kate invented a book-within-a-book, then wrote that book. And like Greenglass House, it’s an Agatha Christie-style strangers-stuck-in-a-house-together setup.

TalesHinterlandMelissa Albert pulled off a similar trick with Tales of the Hinterland, which she first dreamed up within the context of The Hazel Wood. Tales is a book of dark fairytales that is out of print and hard to access, adding to its mystery and allure. As a reader and a writer, I am in awe: it’s hard enough to invent a creative work that exists for your characters within the world of the book, like Nick Hornby does in Juliet, Naked and David Mitchell does in Utopia Avenue. This piece of art exists for the characters, and grows in the reader’s imagination until it has nearly mythological status. So then, to write that book – and have it meet or exceed expectations – takes immense bravery and talent. Brava!

SCBWI Winter Conference follow-up

Because I am not in possession of a Time Turner like Hermione, I couldn’t attend all of the sessions of SCBWI during the weekend, but fortunately – yet another silver lining of virtual conferences! – the recordings of all of the sessions are available to attendees for the next month. Here are my notes on the three keynotes and panels that I didn’t cover last weekend (and here are my notes on the sessions I attended last weekend).

Genre Breakout Sessions: Two Editors Discuss What’s Hot, What’s Not, What They’re Acquiring and the Rules of the Road . Picture Books: Elizabeth (Liz) Bicknell (editorial director at Candlewick), Joanna Cárdenas (senior editor at Kokila, imprint of Penguin Young Readers) and Andrea Welch (executive editor at Beach Lane Books, S&S)

I Want My Hat Back

  • Liz Bicknell is drawn to stories about (in)justice, nature, and stories that show human foibles in a humorous way. “In all of these subject areas, I hope that the storytelling and the art will be compelling and arresting so that the underlying messages will be absorbed…I hope that readers will grow up to love the world and to embrace all those who inhabit it.”
    • Fun fact: Liz said that she was the only editor who didn’t want to change the ending of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, which she acquired for Candlewick. Can you imagine it with a different ending?! And that is why you need the right editor for the right book.
  • Joanna Cárdenas said that Kokila’s mission is “centering stories from the margins” to “more accurately reflect the world that we live in and we add depth to the way that readers see the world and their place in it.” They publish “Books that make an impact…Books for children and teens across genres and formats… [Books that] entertain and inspire. [Books that] push against harmful, entrenched narratives.”
  • Andrea Welch is looking for books that “help children of all backgrounds see the world in new and exciting ways.” She said, “When I’m reading new projects, I always pay attention to my gut reaction primarily.” She asks, Am I intrigued by a story or a concept or a topic? Does the manuscript feel different or unusual in some way? Does the writing/voice capture me? Do I find myself wanting to read the story aloud? Do I feel excited to sit down and share the work with a child? Are artist/illustration possibilities popping into my head? Then, does market/audience exist for this book? Can I get the rest of my team excited about it?
  • Andrea said that in her role as an editor, “Those conversations [with author/illustrators] move a project forward. I have a vision for each book, but ultimately my job as an editor is to help author/illustrator tell the story they set out to tell in the most impactful way.”
  • Joanna said, “Great picture books are entire worlds captured in 32 or 40 pages…really good picture books help a young reader orient themselves in space…and in time.”
  • Joanna also said that rather than try to identify or follow trends (it takes so long to make a picture book that trends aren’t as much of a thing in that format), “What is helpful is for creators to read current picture books. Read every year things that are coming out… Be aware of what’s coming out, who are your contemporaries… Understand how your work might fit somewhere in there. Read, read, read, read, read.”
  • For illustrators, Joanna is looking for someone who can tell a whole story in one picture. “Something that makes me ask questions not because I’m confused but because I’m intrigued.”
  • For authors, Andrea is looking for that feeling of “the author has taken my hand and led me into the story, the story is executed in such a way that I’m on board and in from the beginning.” It can be a strong voice, an unusual topic – that feeling of being swept up by a manuscript. What doesn’t work is “when I feel like I’m just dropped into action right away,” there’s dialogue between characters I don’t know yet. “I like to be led and not just thrown in.”
  • Joanna’s advice: “Creating stories for young readers is a huge responsibility. Picture books are an introduction to the world, to interpersonal relationships, and how things work.”
  • Liz’s advice for writers: “Take some picture books that you really admire and reverse-engineer them – type up the text of that picture book.” You’ll get a sense of length, pacing, page turns, and what illustration brings to the story that isn’t in the text.

Keynote Address: Looking Back to Move Forward, Tami Charles

  • “Life is like an arrow: sometimes you get pulled back only to get launched into something beautiful.” (Quote unattributed)Tami Charles author photo
  • Growing up, “I never really saw myself, my friends, or my community” reflected in literature. Now, we have Jacqueline Woodson, Carole Boston Weatherford, Meg Medina, and many more – “I would have loved to have had their books as a child….REPRESENTATION IS EVERYTHING….I wanted to add my voice.”
  • Over the years, “My writing grew stronger, and my rejections grew nicer.”
  • “The word ‘no’ has empowered me, broken me, and put me back together again. The word ‘no’ holds power, but on the flip side, the word ‘yes’ holds beauty. And somewhere in the middle of that, there exists hope. And it’s that hope that keeps us going…”
  • “Collectively, this work that we do is bigger than us.”
  • “Celebrate the yeses, learn from the nos. Allow them both to launch you…”
  • Re: writer’s block after rejection: “There’s a beauty in pausing. If you’re not writing, there’s a reason for that. And the reason is probably that you need to be reading, you need to be studying.” Especially read the genre that you want to write in. “I write as widely as I read. And I read a lot.”
  • “Don’t give up on the stories that you shelve.” May be wrong format or wrong time.
  • “In this journey…success is going to look different….Your path is your own. Don’t look at what someone else is doing to compare how you’re doing in your own journey.”

Mock Acquisition Meeting: Wendy Loggia and Delacorte Publishing Team

Delacorte is an imprint of Random House Children’s, with a focus on MG and YA fiction (“where commercial + literary intersect”). There are nine members on the Delacorte editorial team; four of them, including Wendy Loggia, were on the panel (Hannah Hill, associate editor; Ali Romig, editorial assistant; and Lydia Gregovic, editorial assistant), along with Kelly McGauleyfrom marketing, Adrienne Weintraub from school and library marketing, Jillian Vandall from publicity, and Kim Wrubel from subsidiary (sub) rights. Delacorte is invested in their authors in the long term; “we’re acquiring authors, not books.” Looking for books that reflect our (editors’) personal taste and that have hungry readers in the marketplace. Wendy said, “Every acquisition is unique” – editors discuss, and loop in other departments as necessary. In this mock meeting, they discussed five titles, and revealed whether they acquired them or not, and why. It was a fascinating fly-on-the-wall experience, hearing about appeal factors and other considerations, like summer reading, audiobook rights, school library and classroom potential, and the Scholastic book fair.

  • Reasons to say YES to a manuscript: authentic emotions, relatable, discussion-worthy themes, strong commercial voice, good hook(s), fresh, emotionally resonant, standout quality/breakout potential.
  • Reasons to say YES to an author: positive, clear communicator, engaged in their community, familiar with genre tropes, flexible and open to change, social media presence.
  • Reasons to say NO to an author/manuscript: not strong or unique enough, a glut of that type of book in the marketplace, point of sale (POS) numbers on previous similar titles not encouraging; if the author had an opportunity to revise and the revision isn’t as strong as the editors had hoped. (It’s hard to break someone out if they’re writing the same kind of book for a different publisher; “Maybe consider writing something completely different and give yourself a fresh start.”) If an editor decides not to make an offer, in most cases, “We give feedback to the agent/author, information about what worked for us and what didn’t.”

Did you attend SCBWI Winter Conference? What were your most important takeaways?

SCBWI Winter Conference

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is usually held in New York, but this year, of course, it’s virtual. Ordinarily, there are about 1,000 attendees, but the online format hosted 4,000 attendees – many of whom were illustrators who contributed to the Virtual Portfolio Showcase, which is full of incredible art! (Not sure how long that link will be live.)

This is my first time attending (#SCBWIBIRD, per Jolie Stekly) and in many ways it’s similar to the many library conferences I’ve attended (except: there were ASL interpreters and closed captioning in every session!). The Golden Kite awards were Friday night, and the weekend was packed with sessions from 11:30am through the evening (EST). In a few time slots there were multiple choices for sessions, but all of them were recorded and will be available to conference attendees through March; I plan to catch up on those I missed over the next week, but in the meantime, here are some quotes and takeaways. (Note: I use quotation marks when I’m pretty certain I’ve got the exact quote. If there are no quotation marks, it’s close to the actual words used, but not exact.)

#NY21SCBWI badgeFriday, February 19

Orientation for first-time conference attendees: Jolie Stekly

  • “This is an industry full of turtles.” Slow & steady.
  • “If you’re able to be yourself, you have no competition. All you have to do is get closer and closer to the essence.” (Quote unattributed)

Golden Kite Awards Presentation & Gala

Saturday, February 20

Keynote Conversation: Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, The Picture Book as a Perfect Marriage Between Author and Illustrator

  • Matt read their new picture book, Milo Imagines the World. “Maybe you can’t really know anyone just by looking at their face.”MiloImaginesTheWorld
  • “I try to enter every picture book through [children’s] point of view…. What is it like if you don’t have all the information and the only thing you can really read is the adults?” (Matt)
  • “I don’t think good writers go into a story with a message…but I do think good writers go into a story with a point of view.” (Matt)
  • “I’m curious, how many wizards do you have at your school?”(Matt, pushing white teachers/librarians to make sure all book collections are diverse)
  • “Drawing and making pictures was my way of making space for myself.” (Christian)
  • “Talent can get you a job but character can help you keep it.” (Christian)
  • “Play well with others…. You have to make compromises and you have to trust that everyone has the same goal in mind – to make the best book possible and get it to the most readers possible.” (Christian)
  • “Authors of picture books have two jobs: you have to get the story right and you have to get the music right.” (Matt)
  • “A true collaboration is putting your collaborator in the best position to succeed.” (Matt)

State of the Industry Keynote: The Hard Questions and the Truthful Answers: Jean Feiwel with Lin Oliver

  • Jean Feiwel on adapting to the culture of each company she worked for: What do they want from me, and what can I accomplish for them?
  • On combining fiction and science in the Magic School Bus series: My answer to people who say “you can’t do that” is “of course it wasn’t the way it was done, but I did it anyway.”
  • Children are humans with information needs. “Rather than keep content away from kids, I think it’s important to expose them to many different types of books.” Adults should be “not gatekeepers, but ambassadors.”
  • “The market is crying out for diversity and expansion… The real growth and opportunity is in doing NOT what you did last year…but to change the landscape.” If publishers have a limited perspective, they’ll have a limited list.
  • Children today don’t have the prejudice against pictures anymore. Artists are incredibly varied and sophisticated. Illustrations add to the story. “Those boundaries don’t truly exist.”
  • Creators (authors, illustrators) should “be in the world,” be on social media, be well-read.

Behind the Scenes at a New York Publishing House: An Insider’s Tour of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers with Laurent Linn, Katrina Groover, Chava Wolin, and Paula Wiseman

Diagram of a book's circle of life

  • Art Director Laurent Linn’s “circle of life of a book” graphic (right)
  • Publisher and Editor Paula Wiseman offered an analogy: “the editors are the beads and the publisher is the chain”
  • “Backlist is frontlist to those who haven’t read it.” Paula Wiseman pointed out that children’s literature gains new readers every few years.
  • Laurent Linn described Katrina Groover, Managing Editorial Director, as both an air traffic controller and orchestra conductor. In her words: “What I am responsible for is meeting deadlines.”

Genre Breakout Sessions: Two Editors Discuss What’s Hot, What’s Not, What They’re Acquiring and the Rules of the Road 

  • I watched the middle grade session with Tricia Lin (Random House) and Krista Vitola (S&S), but plan to watch the picture book session with Elizabeth Bicknell, Joanna Cardenas, and Andrea Welch ASAP!
  • “Editorial opinions vary. If we don’t fall in love with a voice, it doesn’t mean another editor won’t fall in love with that voice.” (Krista)
  • You’re always going to write more than what ends up in the finished publication. “You still [need] to write those pages, because they’re gonna help you later in the story.” (Krista)
  • Series is the bread-and-butter of middle grade. Character driven, concept driven. (Krista)Screen shot of Writing Middle Grade slide
  • “A second pair of eyes is always super important. Someone not as close to your project as you are can really bring fresh eyes, things you would never be able to catch on your own. We get second readers all the time on our end…. Open yourself up to that feedback. Receive it with an open mind.” (Tricia)
  • There’s this idea of success in publishing…it’s important to keep in mind is that everything is subjective – what you choose to write, what I choose to acquire, what the customer is going to buy…every step of the way, it’s so subjective. You’re here, and you’re writing. With every idea you brainstorm and every word you write. … We’re trying to reach people, we’re trying to do good. (Tricia)

Keynote Address: Looking Back to Move Forward, Tami Charles (I was zoomed out and needed a break, I will watch this one ASAP as well. The tweets from her talk were ecstatic!)

Zoom Peer Critique: Picture Book: Despite a few technical difficulties – handled with grace and perseverance by April Powers and Julian Petri – a huge number of us eventually got into breakout groups for a useful critique, employing the “sandwich style” (praise, constructive criticism, praise).

Sunday, February 21

Keynote Conversation: Jerry Craft and Victoria Jamieson, moderated by April Powers

  • “All children need to see all children in their books.” (April)
  • “It’s hard to know which feedback to take and which feedback not to take.” (Victoria)
  • “If I don’t have to put words in a panel, I don’t.” (Jerry)
  • I like to have the pictures say one thing and the words say another…. That’s one of the beauties of graphic novels…that makes it a really sophisticated art form. Kids have to read something visually and in words and put them together. (Victoria)
  • Story arc for picture books: introduce character quickly, then they start having problems; a little denouement at the end.
  • Timeline for making a graphic novel? (1) brainstorming/developing, (2) sketches/writing, (3) final art (Victoria)
  • Every author/illustrator collaborator is different. At one point Victoria wished aloud to “phone a friend” (Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham), so I found a couple of interviews with them: School Library Journal and Publishers WeeklyScreenshot of story arc

Mock Acquisition Meeting with Wendy Loggia and Delacorte Publishing Team (planning to watch recording)

Mock Book Cover/Book Design Production Meeting with Yaffa Jaskoll and Scholastic Publishing Team (Stephanie Yang, Baily Crawford, Maeve Norton)

  • “There are a lot of opinions to consider and it takes time to make everyone happy.” (Yaffa)
  • On designing a series (e.g. Baby Sitters Club): Each book has to look individual and also look like part of the series (Yaffa)
  • Key takeaways (for illustrators): Keep your social media updated. Reply to email quickly (within 24 hours). Do your research, stay current, keep your work fresh. The conceptual solution is as important as execution; try a few different designs. Find where your style fits naturally and build on that. Be flexible: it can take a bunch of tries to get the art just right. Show variety in your artwork. “You never know what we’re going to gravitate to.”

Real Talk with Four Agents: A Deep Dive Into the Children’s Publishing Business: Kirby Kim (Janklow & Nesbit), Kevin Lewis (EMLA), Erica Rand Silverman (Stimola), Saba Sulaiman (Talcott Notch)

  • “I’ve always felt like I could be a good advocate for others.” (Kirby)
  • “It’s never too early to get engaged in the industry…. You don’t have to wait to have a book published.” (Erica)
  • “Children are really, really receptive to difference… Characters who don’t look like them, think like them. They embrace silliness, absurdity, the unexpected.” (Saba)
  • “You should be encouraged if you’re unpublished, that’s not a bad thing.” (Erica)
    • Or “pre-published,” per Lin Oliver.
  • “You have to care about something, and you have to engage in that thing you care about…. Find that thing that you can do, and do it!” (Kevin)
  • “Go by your compass, not your clock.” (Kirby, quoting Alvina Ling)

Keynote Address: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera: Writing for the Contemporary YA Audience, introduced/moderated by Kim Turrisi

  • Something that surprised me as an author…You end up hearing from readers all around the world and you find out that there are people who have something in common with you that you thought you were totally alone in feeling. It’s the most bizarre, surreal, and wonderful experience to have. (Becky)
  • “It’s really hard to keep in mind that our specific experiences can be night and day from other people… There are a lot of people who need a lot of different kinds of stories.” (Becky)
  • To some people it might feel like only marginalized stories are getting attention right now, and it’s like no, we’re gathering steam for sure, but there’s still so much catching up to do…. Not reading widely is doing a disservice to your worldview and your reading experience. (Adam)Screen Shot 2021-02-21 at 5.19.49 PM
  • Writing tips from Adam: I create a list of 10 random things/details about a character to get to know them. Helps get closer to the heart of the character. “All these choices lead to that authenticity.” There’s world-building in a contemporary space as much as there is in a fantasy space.
  • How to create high stakes if the main character is not facing a huge, life-changing problem? “The stakes are how badly your characters want the outcome that they want.” (Becky)
  • Re: social media: Authenticity is so important to me but also really scary…Privacy gets really complicated. It’s part of the job to figure out those boundaries. (Becky)
  • I was not prepared. I wasn’t prepared for being talked about in a public way. There’s a big difference between being a writer and being an author. (Adam)

My Life in Children’s Books: A Rare Appearance by the Legendary Patricia MacLachlan, in Conversation with Lin Oliver

  • “I like books that allow me to enter them, and if there are too many words, I don’t know where I’m going.”
  • A book should speak to all readers: “Something for the adult to hold, and something for the child to grab onto.”
  • Landscape: “It matters where a book takes place, and what’s going on and where it is.” Recognize your landscape: where did you come from, where have you been, where are you going, what is your great sadness and great joy?
  • Children know everything. They’re also very direct. “They believe everything and they want to know everything.”
  • Quoting her father: “The title taps you on the shoulder and the first line takes you by the hand.”
  • “Children matter.” They see everything, they know everything, they don’t always understand it. It’s nice to be able to reach out and touch them, even if it’s to ask them a question, or show them someone else going through what they’re going through. We owe them…quality of attention.

And that’s a wrap! It was a great first SCBWI conference experience, even if it wasn’t in person. (On the plus side: I didn’t have to travel; I got to do yoga stretches, hang out with my kid, and eat snacks between sessions; and I could be in sweatpants the whole time. On the minus side, I actually like meeting people in person.) Overall: pandemic sucks, technology is a good workaround – and made the conference more accessible – children’s books are here to stay, everyone involved in the creation of children’s books is pretty cool.

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!).

2020 Reading Wrap-Up

Well, 2020 was a year. (As Sloane Crosley wrote in The Clasp, Was there a worse compliment than the one with no adjective?”) At many times during the year, the only good news was news from the publishing world: wonderful new books from debut authors and illustrators, and eagerly- (impatiently-) awaited new books from established authors and illustrators.

As always, I read many new books this year, as well as many new-to-me books published in previous years. In this post, I’m going to highlight only my favorites published in 2020, because this was a tough year for authors and illustrators and I want to cheerlead their books as best I can. Betsy Bird at SLJ is doing a superb and even more detailed/themed job of this over on her blog; see “31 Days, 31 Lists.”

Here’s my 2019 reading wrap-up. And now, on to 2020’s reading:

Total number of books read: 619. Fewer than last year! But we did a lot of re-reading.

Partially read/started-didn’t-finish: 12. Some cookbooks, some poetry, some children’s books that were over the head of the kiddo so we only read sections, or I skimmed.

Picture books: 324. There were so many outstanding picture books published this year. We also re-read many of the picture books we discovered last year and the year before, but I’m focusing on 2020 titles especially:

  • My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
  • One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey by Henry Cole
  • Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez
  • Maud and Grand-Maud by Sara O’Leary, illustrated by Kenard Pak
  • If You Come to Earth by Sophie Blackall
  • On Account of the Gum by Adam Rex
  • Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar, illustrated by Khoa Le
  • Don’t Worry, Little Crab by Chris Haughton
  • Lift by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat

Early readers: 31. I still love Laurel Snyder’s Charlie & Mouse with my whole heart. We also discovered Saadia Faruqi’s fabulous Meet Yasmin this year. (If you are in charge of a school library or children’s section of a public library and don’t have Yasmin – get them!!) Mo Willems’ perpetually popular Elephant & Piggie books are even more fun now that the kiddo reads, so we each choose a part (I’m usually Gerald) and read aloud together.

Chapter books: 21. Abby Hanlon’s Dory Fantasmagory was a huge hit with everyone in our family this year, in audio and print. We also read Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace, more Ivy & Bean by Annie Barrows (with illustrations by Sophie Blackall), and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty.

Middle grade (some overlap with YA): 88. A few standouts published in 2020:

  • The Thief Knot (A Greenglass House Story) by Kate Milford
  • Show Me A Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
  • Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
  • The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
  • Wink by Rob Harrell
  • We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly
  • When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
  • Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson (novel in verse)
  • Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
  • A Place at the Table and A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi (of Yasmin fame)
  • The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman
  • Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar
  • Three Keys by Kelly Yang (sequel to Front Desk)
  • Of Salt and Shore by Annet Schaap
  • King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender (National Book Award)

YA/teen (some overlap with MG): 41.

  • Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles
  • Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (graphic novel memoir)
  • Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X, With the Fire on High)
  • Parachutes by Kelly Yang
  • Again, Again by E. Lockhart
  • Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone

Adult fiction: 51 (including about 16 romance novels, because if there was ever a year where a HEA was required, it was this one).

  • The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
  • The Book of V by Anna Solomon
  • A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
  • Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • The Searcher by Tana French
  • The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
  • The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams
  • Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore
  • Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (2019)

Nonfiction: 35ish (some overlap with other categories; not including 9 how-to books; 87 total nonfiction books, including books written for children). A few standout 2020 titles in this category:

  • Having and Being Had by Eula Biss
  • How You Say It by Katherine D. Kinzler
  • You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy
  • The Genius of Women by Janice Kaplan
  • The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantú
  • The Black Friend by Joseph Frederick
  • The Story of More by Hope Jahren
  • How to Be A Conscious Eater by Sophie Egan
  • It’s Not About the Burqa, edited by Mariam Khan (2019)
  • Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
  • History Smashers: The Mayflower by Kate Messner (middle grade)

Graphic novels: 17. I heard New Kid author Jerry Craft speak (virtually, of course) and he mentioned that there are several storylines that are only depicted in the illustrations of his books, not in the text at all; careful readers (or re-readers) will pick up on those. Visual literacy is literacy! A few more 2020 titles to mention:

  • Stepping Stones (Peapod Farm) by Lucy Knisley (middle grade)
  • Snapdragon by Kat Leyh (middle grade)
  • Twins by Varian Johnson (middle grade)
  • When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson (MG/YA)
  • Go With the Flow by Karen Schneemann and Lily Williams (MG/YA)
  • Class Act by Jerry Craft (MG/YA)
  • Flamer by Mike Curato (YA)

Short stories/essay collections: 14. I have a whole separate post about this coming up, but to highlight just a few more 2020 titles:

  • Disability Visibility, edited by Alice Wong
  • A Map is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary
  • A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott
  • Why Did I Get a B? and Other Mysteries We’re Discussing in the Faculty Lounge by Shannon Reed
  • Come On In, edited by Adi Alsaid
  • Once Upon an Eid, edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed

Audiobooks: 15. We also do a lot of re-reading on audio – for example, the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker, narrated by Jessica Almasy; the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary, narrated by Stockard Channing; the Dory Fantasmagory series by Abby Hanlon, narrated by Suzy Jackson; the Princess in Black series by Shannon and Dean Hale, narrated by Julia Whelan.

Screenshot of LibraryThing Author Gender pie chart

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: 132. And our reading life – and life-life – is so much deeper and richer for having these mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. More faces, more stories, more variety.

Five-star ratings: 17. (There are an awful lot of 4.5 and 4-star ratings as well.) Several of these were picture books, but there’s also a cookbook (Pastry Love by Joanne Chang, which I happened to have checked out from the library when everything shut down in March and kept – and baked from – for months) and Alix E. Harrow’s smashing new novel, The Once and Future Witches.

Re-reads: 8 according to LibraryThing, but I don’t have an accurate way of tracking this, other than to note “re-read” in my review. It was definitely more than eight, but they were mostly picture books, early readers, or chapter books. I did read Seanan McGuire’s In An Absent Dream twice this year – it’s my favorite of her Wayward Children series. And I’ll likely re-read Kate Milford’s Greenglass House or one of its companions between now and New Year’s, as is my December tradition – I just bought a copy of Bluecrowne.

None of us can be sure what 2021 holds, but I feel reasonably certain that whatever else, there will be books. Thank you to everyone involved in that process: the authors, illustrators, agents, editors, publicists, publishers, booksellers, librarians, teachers.

Spooky Storytime

This morning I recorded a “spooky storytime” for my library to post to our website. We’re offering some live programs and some recorded ones, because as all caregivers (and program planners) have figured out by now, you can’t always get kids to show up at a certain time, even if it doesn’t involve leaving the house.

It wasn’t quite the real thing, but I pretended some of my usual “Step Into Storytime” kiddos were there and brought my best storytime energy.

  • Welcome to Spooky Storytime!
  • Here is my Pumpkin, Round and Fat” (to the tune of “I’m A Little Teapot”) from KCLS
  • Skulls! by Blair Thornburgh and Scott Campbell, published by Atheneum (Simon & Schuster)
  • Pumpkins on the Ground” (to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle”) from KCLS
  • The Halloween Tree by Susan Montanari and Teresa Martinez, published by Sourcebooks
  • Goodbye friends, have a spooky day/evening!

And here are a few other “spooky” books (some mention Halloween, some don’t):

  • Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds
  • I Love My Fangs by Kelly Leigh Miller
  • Monster Needs A Costume by Paul Czajak
  • Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson
  • Stumpkin by Lucy Ruth Cummins
  • The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams
  • I Want to Be in a Scary Story by Sean Taylor

What are your favorite picture books to read this time of year?

Books I Wish I Could Read at Storytime

Back in March, I began checking out WAY more books than usual to prepare a stockpile for when the library closed – and I was glad I did. I was able to refresh my stash of library books once while the library was operating with very limited in-person staff, and since August I’ve been going to work in the building twice a week, so I have more or less regular access again.

But while I love reading books one-on-one with my kiddo, I miss doing storytimes for two- and three-year olds! And we’ve read some picture books that I can’t wait to read to a live audience of kids.

For laughs:

  • Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups by Tadgh Bentley (2015): And what’s the best cure for hiccups? A good scare! Maybe you can help… [Note: your fake hiccup game has to be on point.]
  • I Love My Fangs by Kelly Leigh Miller (2020): What happens when a little vampire gets a loose tooth?
  • I Can Be Anything by Shinsuke Yoshitake (2020): Fantastic if your audience has even the most basic grasp of charades.
  • Nothing Rhymes With Orange by Adam Rex (2017): Poor Orange feels left out of the rhyming fruit game, but when the others see they’ve hurt Orange’s feelings, they find a way to include them. Full of snarky commentary and even a Nietzsche reference.
  • Bo the Brave by Bethan Woolvin (2020): Turns classic fairy tale tropes on their heads in a most delightful way.
  • Unstoppable by Adam Rex (2020): Animals who envy/admire each others’ abilities (flying, swimming, etc.) team up, and then work together to save their habitat. Environmentalism and civics with a huge dose of humor.
  • Don’t Worry, Little Crab by Chris Haughton (2019): This instantly became one of my favorite summer books, along with Jabari Jumps and There Might Be Lobsters. Little Crab is excited about leaving their tidepool and going to the ocean, but once they see the ocean, they aren’t so sure….and then, once they’re there, they don’t want to leave!
  • This Is A Dog by Ross Collins (2019): My kiddo loves what she calls “cross-out books” – books where part of the title is crossed out and written in differently – and this scene-stealing dog was no exception. See also Z is for Moose.

Touching/thoughtful/interesting:

  • No Ordinary Jacket by Sue Ellen Pashley (2020): This definitely has echoes of Something From Nothing: a beloved jacket is passed down from elder sibling to younger.
  • Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali (2020): At the beginning of the school year, a teacher asks each student in her class to share about their favorite day of the year, so everyone learns what is special to their classmates. A cut above regular show-and-tell, especially in the way that holidays are introduced and made familiar.
  • The House Full of Stuff by Emily Rand (2020): Beauty – and usefulness – is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Under the Lilacs by E.B. Goodale (2020): A little girl, failing to get attention from her mother and sister, runs away to the lilac in the yard and recreates her home there.
  • Trees Make Perfect Pets by Paul Czajak (2020): Her parents probably expected her to choose a cat or a dog, but Abigail defends her choice beautifully. An especially good choice for older preschoolers in springtime, around Earth Day.
  • Goodnight Veggies by Diana Murray (2020): Do you have an evening storytime at your library? This is a unique take on a bedtime book, set in a rooftop garden in Brooklyn.
  • Rita and Ralph’s Rotten Day by Carmen Agra Deedy (2020): Repetition is used to great effect in this story of how friends hurt each other, apologize, and forgive – but it’s an up-and-down journey.
  • Only A Tree Knows How to Be A Tree by Mary Murphy (2020): If you like to incorporate yoga into your storytimes, there are natural  opportunities here.
  • Play in the Wild: How Baby Animals Like to Have Fun by Lita Judge (2020): This is a nonfiction picture book with primary and secondary text, and great big illustrations of the baby animals at play. For a storytime with younger kids, I’d stick to the primary text and make it as interactive as possible, acting out the different animal behaviors.
  • Lifesize by Sophy Henn (2018): Henn shows animals (or parts of animals) life-size in this large trim book. Try on a toucan’s beak, compare your toes to an elephant’s, look through the eye of a giant squid!
  • Imogene’s Antlers by David Small (1988): OK, I’m late to the party on this one, but I saw that there’s a sequel coming out this year and I had to read the original…and it’s wonderful. Imogene’s mom has fainting fits, but Imogene cheerfully rolls with the sudden appearance of her antlers – and the twist at the end is priceless.

Books as gifts for the classroom

Many daycare, preschool, pre-K, and elementary school teachers have their own classroom libraries. They usually develop these libraries out of pocket, or through donations; adding a new book is a way to build that library and increase the number of books kids have ready access to.

Here are a number of relatively new books that would be great additions to classroom libraries – and the majority of the authors and illustrators are BIPOC. I’ve separated them into categories by age, but please don’t treat that as a hard-and-fast rule.

Ages 2+

Hello, Hello by Brendan Wenzel

Carrot & Pea by Morag Hood

Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora

Dim Sum for Everyone by Grace Lin

A Parade of Elephants by Kevin Henkes

Rain! by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer

Ages 3+

Saturday by Oge Mora

Want to Play Trucks? by Ann Stott, illustrated by Bob Graham

Hank’s Big Day by Evan Kuhlman, illustrated by Chuck Groenink

Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

Ralph and Rita’s Rotten Day by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Pete Oswald

The Adventures of Beekle: the Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

Lift by Minh Le, illustrated by Dan Santat

Dreamers by Yuyi Morales

Don’t Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed, illustrated by Stasia Burrington

Ages 4+

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes

Owen by Kevin Henkes

Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall

My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

The Someone New by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EJ Keller

Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed, illustrated by Anoosha Syed

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illustrated by Charlene Chua

World Pizza by Cece Meng, illustrated by Ellen Shi

Unstoppable! by Adam Rex

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

First Day of School

The Class by Boni Ashburn, illustrated by Kimberly Gee

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex

Truman by Jean Reidy

The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins

 

As an additional resource, Tinkergarten pulled together a list of “24 Books with Black Protagonists by Black Authors.” Representation matters – all kids need to see themselves reflected in literature (positively!). And if your students are homogeneous, then diverse books can serve as “windows” to show them that the world is full of all kinds of people. (The “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” analogy was coined by Rudine Sims Bishop; Debbie Reese, founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, would add “curtains” as well, that certain stories may be kept within a culture.)

Teachers, please chime in on the topic of classroom libraries. Do you welcome donations? Do you keep a wish list? Do you (or your students) have favorite titles, either for read-alouds or reading alone? What else should parents/caregivers/guardians/volunteers know about classroom libraries?