What do Queer Kids Want to Read? Book Talk with the Middle School GSA

Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) are becoming more and more common in high schools; they’re less frequently seen in middle schools. Yesterday I had the chance to visit a local middle school as a visitor to the GSA. The students (mostly ages 12 and 13) were articulate, lively, and engaging.

Moving at lightning speed, the conversation jumped all over the place after the kids made their introductions, saying their names and pronouns. Within the first five minutes of the meeting, they brought up this week’s Supreme Court ruling,  the “This is America” video by Childish Gambino, trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, and  Stonewall. Then we got down to talking about books!

I asked them what books they would like to see, or see more of.  Here is a good sampling of their responses:

  • Stories where being queer is not the central problem.
  • Stories where kids cross social groupings: a jock falls for an artist, two kids from very different points in the social order join together in some kind of venture.
  • Stories about younger kids coming out…. in elementary school, middle school.
  • They are looking for stories that defy stereotypes; ie not all gay kids are artists or theater kids, for example. Gay guys do not necessarily have to be very feminine, or queer girls very masculine.
I laughed so much when one kid said, “Can we all pause for a minute to recognize Mary’s awesome sneakers?”
  • They criticized stories where the overly defining characteristic of the kid is that they are gay; give them other strong interests and characteristics.
  • They want books in which the main character is a “regular person who’s not in love with anyone”—not in a romance at all. (We discussed the challenge this may face if editors want to see a “romance” to validate that it’s a queer character.) They are looking for stories that are not romance-centered.
  • A book for parents about kids coming out. This was poignant, as it was clear that a lot of kids are facing this issue. It was a reminder that “coming out stories” are still relevant, necessary, and desired by this age group!

  • One idea offered: two different people, coming out in two different time periods, providing a contrast about coming out, being out.
  • One kid said, “Give me ‘Earl and the Dying Girl’ and ‘Heathers’ in middle school, but it’s gay.”
  • A trans boy talked about what it feels like to inspire others to be themselves; a girl told him that “you being free to be yourself” helped in her coming out process. He would love to see that dynamic represented in stories, placing the trans kid as a leader.

  • Stories with parental friction… a kid who is not out yet. Several kids nodded their heads in agreement. Stories of kids who are scared to come out; family dynamics or cultural context adds complications and layers to the coming out process.
  • Stories where a kid is living in a tolerant, liberal community and then moves to one that is not so accepting.
  • They want more middle school stories, not all high school stories… not all romance.

  • Stories that show that “you’re never too old to change,” ie coming out later, changing one’s identity.
  • A friendship based on contrast…. one queer kid has lived in a very accepting family and community, and one has not. How do they reach each other?
  • Friends who keep being told they would be a good couple… awkward!! (There was lots of laughter on that one!)

I left the meeting brimming with inspiration and blown away by the intelligence, depth, and clarity of their comments. I’m happy to share this with my fellow writers and educators during Pride Month. These articulate students give us both hope for the future as well as a challenge: how do we make sure they get the stories they are seeking?

When a Poetry Workshop becomes a Slam

It started out with a curve ball. And that was before the table flipped.

When I head to the South Bronx each year to lead a poetry workshop at St. Luke School, I expect that I’ll teach the 7th and then 8th grades. The classrooms are right next to each other, I know both teachers, and it just flows.

This year, the kids were combined. That meant 50-60 kids, in one room, in chairs (no desks). On a Friday afternoon. They did have notebooks. Maybe it was a scheduling glitch. Who knows? I rolled with it.

I told them a little about my background and my connection to the school. (My mother went there as a child.) I did a quick book talk and make a small display of the books I had brought to them as gifts to the classroom.

I brought books by Sharon Flake, RJ Palacio, Jackie Woodson, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Varian Johnson, Judith Robbins Rose, and Marcia Wells.

We talked about poetry, about word choice and sensory details. And they started writing. They wrote most powerfully about family members… cousins, parents, unnamed objects of wrath and affection. And then they started reading.

The first few were tentative. Then the performance level got more dramatic. There was laughter; there were moments you could hear a pin drop.

There was pacing and labored delivery.

Don’t be fooled. He brought the house down.

One student sat on a table, reading one of my favorite lines of the day.

Amazing line: “Her insecurity shines like the light of a thousand suns.”

And then the table flipped.

The laughter nearly blew the windows out. The rowdy factor was up to ten. But we rode the waves, the poet righted the table and kept on reading.

She ended with a flourish.

You can start a fire with poetry, and you don’t always know where it’s going to go. It was wild, it was uproarious.

It warmed us but didn’t burn.

It was amazing.

Wishing you a wild and wonderful National Poetry Month!

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 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.

Marching on Washington

Our country has a rich history of marching on Washington, to defend rights, to protest, to resist.  Two picture books I have been reading capture this dynamic perfectly for young children.

The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson portrays the energy and idealism of children standing up for justice in the civil rights era. To counteract the cultural dissonance of our current President-elect criticizing civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, read this book to your children. Young Audrey Faye Hendricks participates in the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama, offering a powerful example of youth activism. With beautiful illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton, this book was just published this month by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster.

We March by Shane W. Evans shows a family rising early, traveling by bus, and participating in a civil rights march in Washington DC. Its spare words and vibrant illustrations leave a lot of room for the child reader to ask questions or let the story weave its spell. A perfect picture book (Roaring Brook Press, 2011).

The Women’s March is in one week. May it contribute to the great history of marches on Washington to rally, protest, and resist!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Writing abt Characters w/LGBTQ Parents- our presentation!

Lively conversation and great questions added rocket fuel to our presentation yesterday on Writing about Characters with LGBT Parents.

SLIDE 1.nescbwi

The New England SCBWI* Conference is broad and deep– 700 attendees, many workshops on all aspects of the writing life, and powerful keynote addresses. I co-presented with my wife Bonnie Jackman, an LICSW and middle school counselor.

Can you tell we've been together 29 years? Active listening! :)
Can you tell we’ve been together 29 years? Active listening! 🙂

Here are a few points from our presentation:

**In a diverse country such as ours, with LGBT rights and protections shifting in real time, SETTING is critical to any story with LGBT characters. Setting can be an antagonist, a support, a mix of the two– think about where your character/family lives and consider the political/social climate for LGBT people there.

**LGBT adults have had to make their peace with living outside the  margins of dominant culture/mainstream paradigms of relationships. Where are their children in this process? Age is critical here– a kindergartener may love having her two moms come in to the classroom for a celebration; an older kid might ask to be dropped off two blocks from school.

**Kids of LGBT parents have to explain their existence all the time. Who’s your real mom? Where’s your dad? What do you mean you don’t have a dad? Wait, what? There are many dissonant moments our kids just deal with as a matter of course. How does this affect their character, their quest, their relationships, their school experience? This is rich material for character development.

Famed New Yorker cartoon by Harry Bliss, beloved by lesbian families!
Famed New Yorker cartoon by Harry Bliss, beloved by lesbian families!

I’ll post more soon… in the meantime, I’m enjoying the post-conference glow. A few people have asked if we’d consider presenting with workshop elsewhere– the answer is yes!

*SCBWI- The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

Writing about characters with GLBT parents

“Who’s your real mom?”

“What do you mean you don’t have a dad/mom?”

“Please bring these permission slips home to your moms and dads.”

Life is just different for kids of GLBT parents. They navigate awkward questions, tricky social situations, and heteronormative language on a daily basis.

That’s just some of the territory we’ll be covering in our presentation at the New England SCBWI conference at the end of the month in Springfield, MA. My wife Bonnie Jackman and I will be discussing sparks for inspiration as well as seeds of conflict in Re-imagining Families: Writing about characters with GLBT parents – a morning workshop on Sunday, May 1.

Bonnie and I presenting at the 2015 NESCBWI conference
Bonnie and I presenting at the 2015 NESCBWI conference

We’ll offer insights and strategies for writing about families with same-sex and single parents, focusing on gay and lesbian-led families as well as those with bisexual and transgender parents. How can writers realistically portray characters with parents who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? How will these various family structures affect our characters (from early childhood to middle grade through adolescence)?

Our flag rainbow

Bonnie is a seasoned therapist and school counselor, with lots of anecdotes, developmental info, and insights to share. I’ll bring the craft perspective to the conversation. It should be a fun and lively session. Hope to see you there!

Read more about the conference here.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Raising a Reader: my class for parents/early educators!

Raising a Reader! I’m offering this community education class in May 2016 at the Cape Cod Campus of Bridgewater State University.

Stack of bks

Raising a Reader is a non-credit course aimed at parents and caregivers who want to infuse a love of reading and books into their children’s lives. Preschool teachers and home daycare providers may also enjoy this course.

Topics covered in Raising a Reader include: reaching a wide range of learning styles; early literacy skills; book selection; overview of genres and types of children’s books; anatomy of a picture book; putting together a diverse and rich home library; boosting literacy skills during read-aloud; and engaging reluctant readers of all ages.

PBs

Participants will also come away with literacy resources, book lists, and on-line resources. Raising a Reader is open to the community (participants do not need to be registered college students or college graduates).

Poetry

The class will meet on four Wednesday evenings: May 4,11,18 and 25, 2016 from 7-8:30 p.m. at Bridgewater State University/Cape Cod Campus in Yarmouth, MA. Cost: $149.00

Mother Goose

It’s going to be fun!  Register here. GOOD NEWS: Bridgewater-Cape Cod has just announced a “bring a friend” special. Register for the class ($149) and you can bring a friend. You can split the cost!

 

MARY LIB PHOTO

Author and educator Mary E. Cronin teaches Early Childhood Education, Children’s Literature, and Creative Writing at a wide array of institutions including Cape Cod Community College, Bridgewater State University, Barnstable County Correctional Facility, Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, and more. Mary is a passionate advocate for children’s literacy and the joy of reading. Read more about her at www.maryecronin.com, or on Twitter at @maryecronin.

 

 

 

 

 

Connecting Through Kids’ Books: A Prison Writing Project

Like a plane coming in for a landing, I am settling back in to work and writing after the excitement of the holidays and a January trip to Ireland. Thanks to local arts funding, I will be teaching a new version of my creative writing class in the women’s unit of the Barnstable County Correctional Facility here on Cape Cod, and I’m very excited!

Here’s the description:

Mary E. Cronin will lead a ten-week writing workshop, “Connecting Through Kids’ Books,” in the women’s unit of Barnstable County Correctional Facility, where 80% of the female inmates are mothers. In each 90-minute session, Mary will bring a children’s book, which will be read aloud and used as a creative writing prompt. As participants appreciate and write about children’s books, they will improve their own literacy, become newly aware of the power of reading aloud, and add to their parenting skills in anticipation of their release and reunion with their children.

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It’s been well-documented that when parents are incarcerated, it places enormous stress on their children, impacting child development and the parent-child relationship. Connecting Through Kids’ Books: A Prison Writing Project aims to address those needs on several levels.

First, it will boost the literacy skills of the adult participants by sparking appreciation of high-quality children’s books, building vocabulary, and strengthening writing skills through creative writing.

Second, the program will bolster parenting skills by giving  participants a window into the joy and stimulation that children’s books can provide, especially if they themselves were not read to as children. Connecting through Kids’ Books also will give the women an awareness of titles they can read to their children once they are released from prison, and appreciation for the access that the public library can provide.

One of the books we'll be reading and writing about
One of the books we’ll be reading and writing about

I’m thrilled that two Local Cultural Councils from Cape Cod have supported this project, and I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. It starts next week!