What a dynamic conversation touching on race, LGBTQ+ people, native stories, and windows and mirrors. I was able to share rich conversations I’ve had with my students at Cape Cod Community College. We received great comments and suggestions from listeners, too. Thank you, WCAI, for hosting this important conversation!
I don’t think it’s an accident that I received a strange note in the mail recently. It was postmarked on the day after my article appeared in the Cape Cod Times.The headline in the print edition was “Black Lives Matter: does your child’s bookshelf reflect the world?”
I like to think that my appeal to teachers and parents to think critically about what books we offer our children might have rattled someone’s defenses a bit. Might have perforated their comfort zone or upended their sense of order or privilege. Apparently my essay advocating that we place stories with Black characters front and center was a bit too much for someone, prompting them to take pen to paper (nice stationery, though!).
The letter, mailed to my workplace, isn’t threatening, exactly– just unsettling in an off-kilter way. It made me think of the quote by activist Maggie Kuhn:
“Leave safety behind…Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” –Maggie Kuhn
I know there are authors and artists, political leaders and journalists who receive hate mail and threats every day. This isn’t that. To me, it’s simply a reminder of how important this work is– educating the rising generation to be actively engaged in a multi-racial and just society. That’s what I do, as a community college educator who teaches about children’s literature, about early education, about writing.
It might unsettle me, but it won’t keep me from the joyful intersection of social justice and children’s literature.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The article also led the owner of a new bookstore (about to open) to contact me, and ask if I would consult with her about making rich and diverse choices for their children’s section. I’m excited to collaborate in the birth of a new bookstore on Cape Cod. More on that soon!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
Getting an invitation to talk about children’s books and summer? No way I’d turn that down!
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!
The topic was kids and summer reading.
**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.
Here is a list of books I mentioned on the program:
Summer Reading Recommendations for WCAI- The Point
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!
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!
Thank you, Mindy Todd and WCAI-FM, for hosting this fun conversation about reading!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Finally, Ellen ended with questions, a cake, and signing her books.
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.
“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.
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.