For Middle Grade Writers: 5 Gems from a School Counselor

If you write middle grade fiction, it can be difficult to keep track of the ebbs and flows of a middle schooler’s daily life if you are not the parent or teacher of kids this age.

I interviewed a middle school guidance counselor (I’ll call her Ms. Counselor) for insights—some granular details ranging from school day schedules to substance use to gender, sexual orientation, and the beginnings of romance.

…Read more here in my blog post on the Project Mayhem Middle Grade blog, a treasure trove of information about writing for this complex and often-misunderstood age group!

And remember: be kind to porcupines.

Fighting the Good Fight with Children’s Books

Can children’s books fight prejudice, oppression, and injustice? Absolutely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I presented a teacher training about structuring the read-aloud experience for maximum benefit to the young children. This gave me the chance to weave together two strands I am passionate about: early literacy and social justice.

It’s hard to keep my focus as an educator and writer when so much of what I love about this country is under assault: freedom, diversity, a value on the arts and sciences. I could go on. There was a bright spot this week, something that helped me to gather my strength: Mirah Curzer’s recent article on Medium, “How to Stay #Outraged Without Losing Your Mind.”

Curzer wrote about the various ways we can counter the intolerance and injustice we are seeing in the new administration:

“Don’t forget to play to your strengths… If you’re a writer, write articles shedding light on important issues, convincing the other side or rallying your allies to action. If you’re an artist, make art with a conscience. Teachers can bring social justice into your curriculum. Lawyers can volunteer at free legal clinics, write amicus briefs, do pro bono work. Like to argue? …Love to bake? Bring cookies to activist meetings and homeless shelters. No matter what your passion is, there’s a way to use it for good and have a great time doing it.”

So that’s what I did yesterday, which also happened to be Multicultural Children’s Book Day. I presented about the read-aloud experience to a group of passionate Head Start teachers, educators who spend their careers working with children from low-income circumstances. Many of the children in their classrooms have experienced trauma and major challenges. We talked about windows and mirrors and how vocabulary equals power.

We examined beautiful books and how to use them in the Head Start classrooms.  I left feeling a little less bleak, a little more energized. We can each wage this fight in our own way, with the tools we have at hand.

My tools are books.

From Brandon Stanton’s Little Humans

Let’s keep fighting.

Protecting our Young LGBTQ Athletes

“Thank God I’m gay.”

Cyd Zeigler
Cyd Zeigler

Those are words LGBT advocate Cyd Zeigler and his husband exchange each day. Part affirmation and part words of gratitude, Zeigler’s words electrified the audience of student-athletes, coaches, advocates, and educators. We had gathered in Hyannis, MA for a summit to discuss the intersection of student athletes, LGBTQ diversity, and anti-bullying.

mccz
I was thrilled to meet Cyd Zeigler!

 

Zeigler had returned to his native Cape Cod to share his own story: teased for being gay years before he came to the realization himself, Zeigler didn’t come out until well after his high school years. A lifelong athlete, Zeigler recognized after he came out that there wasn’t much overlap between the realm of sports fans/athletes and the gay community. He set out to do something about it by co-founding OutSports.com. You can read more about OutSports here.

lacrosse-pic
Braeden Lange on the cover of the program

Student-athlete Braeden Lange also presented. Imagine a thirteen-year-old boy holding a conference room in thrall with his positive message and poised responses to questions. A lacrosse player, Braeden spoke about coming out as a sixth grader, how ostracized he felt, and how connecting to Andrew Goldstein, a well-known gay lacrosse athlete who is out, saved his life and gave him hope. Braeden shared that those connections are what keep young LGBTQ students from feelings of despair and isolation. This is one of the goals of the short documentary about him and Andrew, The Courage Game, that was shown at the conference. You can view the ESPN feature here. (13 min.) It’s amazing!

My wife, school counselor Bonnie Jackman, and Braeden Lange
My wife, school counselor Bonnie Jackman, and Braeden Lange

Zeigler also emphasized the power of connection and coming out: he often hears from athletes who are deeply fearful of being ridiculed and ostracized by their teams. Often it is the opposite that happens, Zeigler recounted: athletes feel the support of teammates and coaches, and the liberation of no longer harboring a secret.

A school counselor, school safety office, and health teacher in attendance
From the Nauset district: school counselor, school safety officer, and health teacher in attendance!

As Braeden said, “living your truth…you don’t have to have that weight on your shoulders.”

State Representative Sarah Peake spoke about her own coming out process, her memories of being a student-athlete, and her appreciation for the positive messages of Zeigler and young Braeden.

Jonathan Peters, a senior at Sturgis Charter School who spearheaded the event, closed with words of gratitude and inspiration. He thanked Cyd Zeigler and Braeden for traveling to the Cape for the event that attracted participants from as far as Rhode Island. He spoke about his own process, saying that rather than using the term “coming out,” he prefers, “invite the world in.”

keynote-speakers

That’s exactly what happened in that conference room. The world was invited in. Student athletes, advocates, principals, coaches, educators, and allies came together. The power of connection was affirmed. And everyone left that room feeling a little braver, more connected, and optimistic about the intersection of LGBTQ diversity and sports.

Braeden Lange, Cyd Zeigler, and Jonathan Peters: rocking the pastels! (Thanks to Jonathan for the photo.)
Braeden Lange, Cyd Zeigler, and Jonathan Peters: rocking the pastels! (Thanks to Jonathan for the photo.)

Final note: book recommendations!

Here is one book for teens that was recommended by a friend, featuring a gay athlete main character. It’s TRUE LETTERS FROM A FICTIONAL LIFE by Kenneth Logan.

I’d love to hear more recommendations for middle grade and young adult books featuring  LGBTQ-athlete characters!

~~~~~

Talking about summer reading on NPR!

Getting an invitation to talk about children’s books and summer? No way I’d turn that down!

WCAI-FM in Woods Hole, MA
WCAI-FM in Woods Hole, MA

I had the chance to join host Mindy Todd and Falmouth librarian Jill Erickson at WCAI-FM (Cape and Islands NPR station) recently, and we talked about so. many. books!

guests 1

The topic was kids and summer reading.

Some highlights:

**the importance of letting kids make their own choices in the summer, to read exactly what they want to read

**the library is a parent and child’s best friend… a no-cost, community-oriented way to grow a reader

**taking on the Reading Without Walls Challenge is a great way to add some spice and excitement to your summer reading, either for a kid or an adult! The Reading Without Walls Challenge is brought to us by Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

Reading without walls

You can listen to the show by clicking here (it’s about an hour).

Here is a list of books I mentioned on the program:

Summer Reading Recommendations for WCAI- The Point

PIcture Books

  • SURF’S UP by Kwame Alexander
  • FRED STAYS WITH ME by Nancy Coffelt… divorce/separation story
  • LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET by Matt de la Peña
  • WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES (Poems for All Seasons) by Julie Fogliano
  • Deborah Ruddell’s TODAY AT THE BLUEBIRD CAFÉ (bird poem, including the cardinal poem I read)
  • THIS DAY IN JUNE by Gayle Pitman (Gay Pride)
  • POEM RUNS by Douglas Florian (baseball poems, including the first base poem I read)

Middle Grade book (for ages 8 to about 12)

  • DRAMA by Raina Telgemeier… (graphic novel, theater kids)
  • Donna Gephardt’s LILY AND DUNKIN…transgender character, “outsiders”
  • Varian Johnson’s THE GREAT GREENE HEIST… main character is Jackson Greene (a smooth operator), a middle school caper reminiscent of Oceans 11. Sequel is TO CATCH A CHEAT. Varian visited Falmouth library and schools this past fall.
  • PAX by Sara Pennypacker… an animal story… a boy main character…. local author.
  • DISTANCE TO HOME by Jenn Barnes… baseball, girl athlete main character, will appeal to fans of Cape Cod Baseball League
  • Kekla Magoon’s CAMO GIRL…. a story about popularity, loyalty, friendship, middle school
  • Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s FISH IN A TREE… a girl battles with reading difficulties, adopting a trouble-making personality as a smoke screen, until a teacher makes a difference
  • ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia…Three African American sisters go to visit the mother who left them, in 1968 Oakland, California….the first book in a trilogy.

 

Young Adult– teen books

  • Ellen Wittlinger’s LOCAL GIRL SWEPT AWAY… a juicy Provincetown story… a story of four friends, one of whom gets swept away in stormy weather…. a mystery unravels.
  • K. A. Barson’s CHARLOTTE CUTS IT OUT… two girls who are juniors in a cosmetology arts program enter a competition, and Charlotte makes a bet with her mother that she’ll win…her mom wants her to give up cosmetology for college.
  • SIMON VS. THE HOMOSAPIENS AGENDA by Becky Albertalli… Simon struggles to come out to himself and his wonderfully quirky family, approaches a new romance and unravels the mystery behind some secret messages.

There are some other books that I was prepared to talk about on The Point, but we ran out of time!

They are:

A few more picture books:

  • SLICKETY QUICK: POEMS ABOUT SHARKS by Skila Brown
  • DRUM GIRL DREAMS by Margarita Engle…the main character is told that girls cannot be drummers…but she dreams and practices and becomes a star drummer in this colorful picture book set in Cuba.

More middle grade titles:

  • RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE by Kate DiCamillo…a friendship story set in the South… three girls,  baton twirling and pageants, and more
  • GOODBYE STRANGER by Rebecca Stead… perfect for parent and kid to read together; captures the complexity of middle school so well
  • Mike Jung’s UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT…Chloe Cho, a Korean-American 7th grader, wants to get in touch with her family history…they are the only Asian family in town… funny, touching, great twist!
  • Laura Shovan’s THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY… 18 kids try to rescue their school from the wrecking ball… a novel in verse.
  • Kate Messner’s THE SEVENTH WISH… 12-year-old Charlie  catches a magical wishing fish and tries to use her wishes to solve some challenges, but her wishes go awry. Charlie is an Irish step dancer and wishes for a new dress for competition. On a more serious note, she longs for a solution when it’s discovered that her older sister has become addicted to heroin; Charlie grapples with the limits of magical thinking. This subplot is handled sensitively and may resonate with a lot of middle grade readers.

One more YA novel…

Sona Charaipotra’s SHINY PRETTY THINGS…Juicy ballet story, with three characters, it has been likened to  “Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars”…. it has a sequel, SHINY BROKEN PIECES. Diverse cast of characters and lots of drama for those who love ballet!

Mindy Todd, host of The Point
Mindy Todd, host of The Point

Thank you, Mindy Todd and WCAI-FM, for hosting this fun conversation about reading!

Book Launch by Ellen Wittlinger: Provincetown fun!

Watching a seasoned pro pull off a book launch with grace and hospitality is such a joy. That was the case yesterday in the beautiful Provincetown Library, when Ellen Wittlinger celebrated the publication of her latest YA novel, LOCAL GIRL SWEPT AWAY.

Wittlinger book cover

I’m a fan of Ellen’s writing, I love the Provincetown Library, and I look forward to the day when my own novel will be published, so I enjoyed this event on a lot of levels!

First, watching Ellen…she warmly greeted all guests as they entered the room. A bookseller from Provincetown Bookshop was in the back of the room with a stack of LOCAL GIRL SWEPT AWAY for sale.

Chatting to guests before the reading
Chatting to guests before the reading

Ellen chatted with guests informally before the presentation began in a very relaxed and genuine way. She showed how much she appreciated each person being there. It was also fun to see Ellen’s family members there, including her adorable granddaughter!

Ellen set up the novel well, explaining the inspiration for it (a long-ago event in Provincetown). She read Chapter 1 and a small bit from the middle of the book. They were the perfect excerpts to get the audience wanting to know more about this teen story set in Provincetown.

Wittinger reading

Ellen acknowledged the turnout (about 20 people), and said she was happy about that– she said she once had a reading where one person showed up! It was a reminder to me that even for a very seasoned and very published author, public readings can be a bit of a crap shoot. But this one had positive energy and a good number of people!

Wittlinger cake

Finally, Ellen ended with questions, a cake, and signing her books.

I was so happy to see Ellen!
I was so happy to see Ellen!

Again she warmly expressed gratitude to people for attending. It was over in an hour and we all left, books in hand and big smiles on our faces, happy to support this amazing author!

Ellen will have a few other local readings where you can meet her, hear her read, and buy this juicy Provincetown mystery:

Reading at Truro Public Library, Standish Way, Truro, MA, July 1, 3 p.m.

Reading at Straw Dogs Writers Guild, The Basement, Center Street, Northampton, MA, July 5, 7 p.m.

Reading/signing at Porter Square Books, Cambridge, MA, August 5, 7 p.m.

Congratulations, Ellen!

Radio interview: Instilling a love of reading in children

“Never the leave the house without a book.” That’s one of the tips we discussed yesterday on The Point, a morning program on WCAI-FM, the NPR station for Cape Cod and the Islands.

WCAI radio, overlooking the water in beautiful Woods Hole, MA
WCAI radio, overlooking the water in beautiful Woods Hole, MA

Host Mindy Todd and I discussed how to instill a love of reading in the home, creating an environment where reading with children happens naturally. We talked about creating a diverse book collection in the home, the power of board books, reading poetry to children, and more.

We had a fantastic conversation, and were later joined by a reading specialist who is knowledgeable about kids who have reading difficulties.  Listen here if you want to hear the program!

I couldn't leave Woods Hole without having a delicious scone at Pie in the Sky!
I couldn’t leave Woods Hole without having a delicious scone at Pie in the Sky!

How it’s done: author James Howe presenting to Middle Schoolers

I had the privilege of watching author James Howe present to Nauset Regional Middle School today– the whole school. (I have an inside advantage: my wife Bonnie is a guidance counselor there!) He spoke at two different schools today, and will give an evening presentation, too.

THE MISFITS by James Howe
THE MISFITS by James Howe

I was taking in Jim’s presentation on three levels:

  1. Enjoying the ethnographic research of being in a middle school– the drastic differences between 6th, 7th, and 8th graders… the ways of dressing, the height differentials, the hair.
  2. As a writer, it was delightful to hear Jim Howe talking about his writing process, the way he develops character, and his motivations to write.
  3. As someone who does school presentations and writing workshops, watching the ease and charm with which Jim presented was inspiring.

Some observations:

**Jim read a few pages from THE MISFITS first, to set the scene for his conversation. Many of the students had read the book and were familiar with the others in the series.

**Jim showed slides– but not too many. His commentary was relaxed, conversational. He showed some pictures of his own childhood, pet pictures (a big hit), photos of his process (spreading out his manuscript pages on a large table, the three-ring binder approach, and more). He shared a picture of himself and his daughter when she was at middle school age, and said that her struggles in middle school inspired THE MISFITS. He demonstrated a real empathy for how difficult middle school is– something that must be so powerful for his young audience to hear!

Jim Howe and his daughter. "A seed for a book is very often a question."
Jim Howe and his daughter. “A seed for a book is very often a question.”

**Jim talked openly and easily about being gay, about being married to a woman earlier in his life, and why it took him so long to come out. It was disarming, simple, direct, and related to his books. His books are responsible for the creation of No Name Calling Day across the country, and he spoke about being very proud of that. I kept thinking about the kids in the audience who were out, or coming out– how powerful to have this author and role model up there, being himself in such a natural and comfortable way!

Howe GLSEN

**Jim spoke about “interviewing” one of the characters in his books in order to get to know to the character more deeply. He showed pages of his interview notes and how they ended up as backstory in the novel TOTALLY JOE. He finished with a Q&A.

Totally Joe

Finally some kid notes:

**The middle schoolers weren’t playing it too cool. “There he is!” a boy stage-whispered as he entered the auditorium. Another boy literally jumped up and down with excitement as he had his books signed by Jim.

**Blue hair. Purple hair. Green hair.

**Wedge high-top sneakers are apparently a thing.

**Best middle-schooler’s shirt, in my estimation: hand-lettered with a Sharpie, “May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor.”

Meeting Jim Howe was delightful!
Meeting Jim Howe was delightful!

All in all, a perfect experience of a great author visit!