How middle grade has changed (in) a generation

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

MSLA 2022: Cynthia Leitich Smith keynote “Brighter Days”

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

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

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

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

Resources:

2022 ALA Youth Media Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also added to my to-read list:

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

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

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

Previous year’s incoherent ramblings about ALA YMA:

2021 ALA YMA

2020 ALA YMA

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

Reading Resolutions and TBR for 2022

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

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

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

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

Children’s/YA

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

Adult

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

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

2021 Reading Wrap-Up

Here is 2020’s reading wrap up. Many of those books are ones I’m still talking about, thinking about, and recommending, especially:

  • The picture books On Account of the Gum by Adam Rex, Lift by Minh Lê and Dan Santat, My Best Friend by Julie Fogliano and Jillian Tamaki, and Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina and Sonia Sánchez
  • Early reader and chapter book series (Elephant & Piggie, The Princess in Black, Ivy & Bean, Dory Fantasmagory, Clementine)
  • Nearly all of the middle grade books I listed, including Show Me A Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte, The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead, and Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Adult novels The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, and The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
  • Nonfiction: the History Smashers series by Kate Messner. Even more titles came out this year and I’ve been recommending them all to students and teachers alike.

Now, on to 2021. This year was another good year for reading, even if it wasn’t good by (m)any other metrics. Betsy Bird did her marvelous and comprehensive #31Days31Lists again, and though I’ve read many of the titles she mentions, I requested a bunch of others from the library – they’re already starting to roll in!

Total number of books: 743. Yeah, this is a lot, even for me – I was surprised when I counted them up, especially since the number of picture books stayed approximately steady from last year to this year. Early readers, chapter books, and YA went up a bit, while middle grade dropped some (that was a surprise, too); graphic novels went way up.

Partially read or started-didn’t-finish: 19. Again, a cookbook, a book of poetry, and some children’s books that the kiddo wasn’t into (or took away to read by herself).

Picture books: 327.

Note: I’m limiting my list of standout picture book titles to those published in 2020 and 2021, because…327 books! In the other categories below, I haven’t limited myself to books published in 2020-2021, though many of them were.

  • When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith, illus. Nicole Neidhardt Cover image of What A Lucky Day
  • What A Lucky Day! by Jashar Awan
  • Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho
  • The Polio Pioneer by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illus. Lisa Anchin
  • All the Way to the Top by Annette Bay Pimentel, illus. Nabi Ali
  • A Small Kindness by Stacy McAnulty, illus. Wendy Leach
  • Laxmi’s Mooch by Shelly Anand, illus. Nabi Ali Cover image of Laxmi's Mooch
  • Scarlet’s Tale by Audrey Vernick, illus. Jarvis
  • The Midnight Fair by Gideon Sterer, illus. Mariachiara DiGiorgio
  • Avocado Asks: What Am I? by Momoko Abe
  • Oh Look, A Cake! by J.C. McKee (reminded me of I Really Want the Cake!)
  • I Am Not A Penguin: A Pangolin’s Lament by Liz Wong (reminded me of The Angry Little Puffin)
  • Watercress by Andrea Wang, illus. Jason ChinCover image of The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom
  • Don’t Hug Doug (He Doesn’t Like It) by Carrie Finison, illus. Daniel Wiseman
  • A Map Into the World by Kao Kalia Yang, illus. Seo Kim
  • Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford, illus. Floyd Cooper
  • The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom by Colleen AF Venable, illus. Lian Cho
  • Dad Bakes by Katie Yamasaki
  • Maybe… by Chris Haughton

Early readers: 42.

  • “Living In…” series by Chloe Perkinsflubby
  • Disgusting Critters series by Elise Gravel
  • Elephant & Piggie by Mo Willems
  • Fox & Chick by Sergio Ruzzier
  • Pea, Bee, & Jay by Brian Smith
  • Chick & Brain by Cece Bell
  • Flubby Will Not Play With That by J.E. Morris

Chapter books: 55.

  • Zoey & Sassafras series by Asia Citrotwigandturtle1
  • Twig & Turtle series by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
  • Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke
  • Ruby Lu by Lenore Look
  • Unicorn Rescue Society series by Adam Gitwitz and others
  • Princess Pulverizer series by Nancy Krulik
  • Lunch Lady series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (graphic novels)
  • Book Buddies: Ivy Lost & Found by Cynthia Lord

Middle grade (some overlap with YA and GN): 56.Cover image of Starfish

  • Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar
  • Starfish by Lisa Fipps
  • Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
  • The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book by Kate Milford
  • The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
  • A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold (all three Bat books)
  • Chance to Fly by Ali Stroker and Stacy DavidowitzCover image of Imaginary
  • The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz
  • The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo
  • Imaginary by Lee Bacon
  • The Boys in the Back Row by Mike Jung
  • Flight of the Puffin by Ann Braden
  • Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
  • Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRoccatroubledgirls
  • No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen
  • The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu
  • Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff
  • Simon B. Rhymin’ by Dwayne Reed
  • Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
  • Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero by Saadia Faruqi

YA (some overlap with MG and GN): 51.

  • The Selection (series) by Kiera CassCover image Firekeeper's Daughter
  • I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest
  • Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia (re-read)
  • Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Ashley Woodfolk, Nicola Yoon, Angie Thomas, & Nic Stone
  • Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
  • The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Graphic novels: 88.

  • Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Gareth Hinds (YA)Cover image of Witches of Brooklyn
  • Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte (MG)
  • Haylee & Comet by Deborah Marcero (early reader/chapter book)
  • Hildafolk (series) by Luke Pearson (MG)
  • Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani (MG)
  • Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (YA)
  • Blancaflor by Nadja Spiegelman and Sergio García Sánchez (children’s)
  • Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse (MG)sanitytallulah
  • Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks (MG)
  • Bear by Ben Queen (?)
  • All Summer Long by Hope Larson (MG/YA)
  • Friends Forever by Shannon Hale (MG/YA)
  • Act by Kayla Miller (MG)

Adult fiction: 34.

  • Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculiacloudcuckooland
  • We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
  • This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith
  • Skye Falling by Mia McKenzie
  • We Are the Brennans by Tracy Lange
  • Matrix by Lauren Groff
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Nonfiction (adult): 28.

  • You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coesaynothing
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami
  • Candyfreak by Steve Almond
  • From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
  • Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law by Mary Roach
  • Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
  • Learning in Public by Courtney E. Martin

Nonfiction (children’s): 87.

  • The Great Stink by Colleen Paeff, illus. Nancy CarpenterCover image of If the World Were 100 People
  • Rescuing Titanic by Flora Delargy
  • If the World Were 100 People by Jackie McCann, illus. Aaron Cushley
  • Secret Engineer: How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Rachel Dougherty
  • Drowned City by Don Brown
  • Yummy: A History of Desserts by Victoria Grace Elliott (GN)
  • Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas by Cheryl Bardoe, illus. Jos A. Smith

Short stories/essay collections: 13.

  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (stories)
  • The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken (stories)
  • Ancestor Approved by Cynthia Leitich Smith et. al. (linked stories)
  • Calypso by David Sedaris (essays)
  • The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green (essays)

Audiobooks: 16.

  • Starry River of the Sky and When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin, narrated by Kim Mai Guestboycalledbat3
  • Elana K. Arnold’s Bat books, narrated by Patrick G. Lawlor
  • No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen, narrated by Nissae Isen
  • Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff, narrated by Jax Jackson
  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, narrated by Graeme Malcolm
  • The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, narrated by Judith Ivey
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, narrated by Jim Dale

Five-star ratings: 33. Sometimes I’m blown away by a book when I finish it but it fades in my memory; others stay vivid. There were some of each this year; those that made a sustained impact include (in order from picture books to adult books) Sootypaws, All the Way to the Top, The Polio Pioneer, Haylee & Comet, Castle Hangnail, Amari and the Night Brothers, Red White & Whole, Imaginary, Winterkeep, The Firekeeper’s Daughter, Piranesi, Braiding Sweetgrass, Say Nothing, and Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Re-reads: Not so many this year, other than familiar series (Ivy & Bean, Lunch Lady, Clementine) and picture books (we revisited This Is A Dog, Bo the Brave, Binny’s Diwali, A Small Kindness, On Account of the Gum, The Last Loose Tooth, The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution, and others), and the graphic novel Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: 161. That’s about 20% of the total, which feels low to me – better next year. I use the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag any time the creators of or characters in a book are outside the dominant narrative (white, straight). These stories are essential.

LibraryThing has changed their “stats” page to “charts and graphs.” As in previous years, I read more female authors/illustrators than male ones, and more living authors (1,560) than dead (304). And as the genre chart below shows (no surprise), I read a lot of children’s books!

Screen shot of LT genre statistics

LT also provides a map of authors’ nationalities. I read mostly American, Canadian, Australian, and UK authors, but some Iranian, Indian, Pakistani, Mexican, Japanese, Russian, Nigerian, and others as well. If anyone has books to recommend by authors from outside the US/Canada/UK, please share your suggestions!

Screen shot of LT

And that’s the 2021 reading wrap-up. Onward to 2022! What books are you looking forward to this year?

What to read next?

How do you find the next book you’ll read, especially when you need a new book every one to four days? I gather suggestions from many places, adding titles to my to-read list faster than I can read them (even picture books!). Here are some of my best resources for finding books:

  • Recommendations from friends and colleagues: True, a lot of my friends are librarians, or teachers, or simply bookworms. After years of trading recommendations, we’ve learned each other’s tastes, so we have a good idea who will love a certain book (or not) and why. I also add to my to-read list monthly(ish) during my Adults Who Read Children’s Books Club meeting; it’s a group of school and public librarians, and their recommendations are incredible.
  • Reviews in trade publications: School Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus are my go-to sources. Even if you don’t have access to these, most public library online catalogs have at least one or two review sources built into them, so if you look up a book, you can see a review (or two or three).
  • Other reviews: Larger public libraries often have free-to-the-public copies of BookPage, and there are a handful of sites I check in on occasionally, like BookRiot.
  • Wowbrary: Some public libraries use this service; I get a weekly e-mail from mine with a list of new books in different categories.
  • Book Twitter: I joined Twitter when I was in library school, and I mainly follow authors (and illustrators), bookstores, libraries, publishers, agents, editors, and other bookish accounts. It’s the one social media app I have on my phone, and often enough I’ll see book news there before anywhere else.
  • Publisher newsletters: What with one thing and another, I’ve ended up on a lot of publishers’ newsletters: I get notices from Candlewick, HarperCollins, Little Brown Young Readers, Penguin Random House, Chronicle, and more. These tend to promote upcoming titles or those that are topical in some way (e.g. for Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month).
  • Publishers Lunch: An industry newsletter I started getting in 2007 when I began working at a literary agency and never unsubscribed from. I no longer read it every day, but often find something good when I do.
  • Edelweiss and NetGalley: These two sites offer digital Advance Reader’s Copies (ARCs, or galleys) to librarians; they’re a good place to browse for upcoming titles and get an early look.

  • LibraryThing Early Reviewers: As an active LT user, I browse these offerings monthly and often request (and receive!) an ARC of a book I’m excited about.
  • Library Link of the Day: This is more for library news than specific book recommendations – and lately, sadly, a majority of the links have been about attempted challenges or bans at schools and public libraries throughout the country. (Then again, these are recommendations, in a way, since I’m definitely the kind of person who will seek out a book others are trying to limit access to.)
  • Library patrons: Working in a library, I’m not only surrounded by books, I’m surrounded by readers! Readers are happy to tell you when they think that you, too, would enjoy their most recent favorite book. And isn’t it my professional responsibility to see what all the fuss is about?
  • Logo of 31 Days, 31 Lists from Fuse8End-of-year lists: For #kidlit people, Betsy Bird’s “31 Days, 31 Lists” is a treasure trove; I think at least three-quarters of the books on my kitchen table right now are because of her. I also enjoy NPR’s Book Concierge, which has been renamed Books We Love; there are lots of filters to play with along the left side, so you can narrow down the many recommendations, or search past years (it goes back to 2013). Of course, every trade and popular publication does its own end-of-year list(s) as well.

Where do you get your book recommendations? Is there a fantastic source I could add to my list?

Edited 1/8/2022: Bookshops! I can’t believe I left them off my original list, but I’ve discovered many, many wonderful books through in-person browsing and recommendations from booksellers (especially at the Carle Museum shop) and bookstore e-mail newsletters. If you haven’t already, sign up for your favorite local bookstore’s newsletter.

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.

“The more we look, the more we see”: Wordless picture books

Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books (images from exhibit)

I have been eagerly awaiting the new exhibit at the Carle Museum, “Speechless: The Art of Wordless Picture Books” (July 17-December 5, 2021), and today I got to go and hear guest curator (and Caldecott-winning wordless picture book creator) David Wiesner give a tour of the exhibit, from the earliest wordless picture book published in the U.S. (What Whiskers Did by Ruth Carroll) to some of the amazing work contemporary creators (Jerry Pinkney, Marla Frazee, Chris Raschka, Suzy Lee, Christian Robinson!) are doing now.

Screenshot of exhibit text and image from the Carle website

Wordless picture books taught me how to read pictures. Before wordless picture books, my visual literacy simply wasn’t very sophisticated: when reading comics, graphic novels, picture books, or any other format or medium that mixed text and visual art, I focused on the text, only glancing at the images or searching the art for information if the text was confusing. Wordless picture books forced me to slow down and absorb the story another way – by reading the pictures. As it said on the wall next to Tana Hoban’s photographs, “The more we look, the more we see.”

One of the first wordless picture books I read as an adult – and still one of my favorites – was Journey by Aaron Becker. Journey is the first in a trilogy (Quest and Return are the others, and equally entrancing). Becker’s art isn’t included in this exhibit, except on the timeline (see photos below), but plenty of other wonderful artists’ work is: Molly Bang, Peter Spier, Barbara Lehman, Shaun Tan, Peter Sis, Molly Idle, Raul Colon, Matthew Cordell, and others.

Together, the group discussed how wordless picture books can be wonderful springboards for English learners, and generate far more language between adult readers and child listeners than picture books with text, because both readers are using their imaginations to co-create meaning. The art and stories in wordless picture books are “put out there for any reader to respond how they want,” says Wiesner; wordless books release readers’ imagination. For adult readers who may be new to wordless picture books and wonder when to turn the page, Jerry Pinkney (Lion & Mouse) advises, “When you’re ready!”

Below, I’ve included pictures of the “Timeline of Notable Wordless Picture Books” from 1932 to the present. There’s also a helpful document on “Tips for Reading Wordless Picture Books” that was included in the exhibit.

timeline1932-1971
Timeline 1932-1971
timeline1973-1978
Timeline 1973-1978
timeline1979-1994
Timeline 1979-1994
timeline1995-2010
Timeline 1995-2010

timeline2011-2021

TipsForReadingWordlessPB

If you live in (or are traveling through) Western Massachusetts, I highly recommend this exhibit. If not, I encourage you to check out wordless picture books from your local library (or buy them from your local bookstore!) and truly spend some time paging through and reading the pictures. Here is my collection of wordless picture books I’ve read and reviewed in LibraryThing.

Enjoy the journey.

journey

Updated 7/24/21 to add link: “Louder Than Words: A History of Wordless Storytelling” by David Wiesner

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!)