Category: We Need Diverse Books

Winning a grant is a pretty great feeling… and then watching the impact of that grant on young children is just joyful.

When author Ana Crespo made an author visit via Zoom to the school where I work as a Literacy Coach on Cape Cod, the joy in classrooms was palpable. Most children in our K-3 school had never met an author before, and they were excited to meet Ana.

Crespo, a native of Brazil who lives in Colorado, is the author of several picture books, including The Sock Thief, Hello, Tree, and Lia and Luis: Who Has More? She made four presentations over the course of two days, presenting individually to each grade level at the M.E. Small School. 

Crespo’s author visit was provided by SCBWI’s Amber Brown Grant, which funds author visits to deserving schools. In my application for the grant, I wrote of the M.E. Small School, “The students at M.E. Small are an enthusiastic bunch. Give them a rich and layered read-aloud experience, and they hang on every page turn. Give them a place to dance, and they dance their hearts out. Provide them with art materials and their creations burst with color. They are ‘all in,’ ready to embrace any new experience given to them.”

More than half of the students at M.E. Small School are English Language Learners, and a significant portion of those students are from Portuguese-speaking Brazilian families. That’s what made Ana’s visit so special. An author of more than seven books for young readers, she began to learn English at the age of 12. She was an embodiment of Rudine Sims Bishop’s windows and mirrors for our students at M.E. Small. Crespo personalized her presentation to each grade, greeting students in Portuguese and calling out special details about children in each grade level. 

“I loved your book,” one student named Laura wrote to Crespo after the presentation. “I’m Brasilian too. I read Lia and Luis. Me and my brother are just like them. Obrigado.”

Another student named Cyrus wrote, “Thank you for teaching us a little bit about you and Brazil! I love your books!”

Funding from the Amber Brown Grant allowed each classroom in the school to receive a copy of two of Crespo’s books, The Sock Thief and Lia and Luis: Who Has More? I want to give a special shout-out to SCBWI’s Kim Turrisi, who coordinated all aspects of the grant and made the process so smooth!  The impact of the grant goes much deeper than one day’s joy, however. When I think about our young students, I believe the ripples of Ana’s visit will be felt for years to come.

Poetry Friday: What’s “Poetry PLUS?”

I’ve learned so much about what it takes to put together a poetry anthology by taking classes from Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell. “Poetry PLUS” is one aspect of the art and craft of assembling an anthology that fascinates me as a poet and an educator.

Sylvia Vardell & Janet Wong

On the Pomelo Books website, Janet and Sylvia define it this way:

We believe in “Poetry Plus”—poetry PLUS writing, poetry PLUS language arts mini-lessons, poetry PLUS curriculum connections for social studies and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), poetry PLUS mindfulness and movement, and poetry PLUS lots more fun!

There is even a packed page of Poetry PLUS treasures on their Pomelo Books website!

Janet and Sylvia’s latest anthology, THINGS WE DO, is a beauty. I may be biased since I have a poem in this collection! THINGS WE DO is an alphabetic book of playful poems bursting with children in action– from Ask to Zoom! Each spread in this book features a vivid photo of a child doing something active, accompanied by a poem such as Invent, Dance, Fly, and Type.

But beyond those 26 poems, there’s more! This is where the PLUS comes in. There is a section for parents, caregivers, and educators called “Tips for Readers” that details “strategies for sharing poetry with children” such as using props and “echo reading.”

The “Fun Activities to Try” section features suggestions on extending the poetic experience with movement, learning letters, writing poetry, reading a poem at breakfast time, and sharing with special family members. 

But there’s even more to the PLUS! So many gems are highlighted in the web resources, including Reading Rockets and We Need Diverse Books. And finally, there is an “About the Poets” section, with a tidbit of info about each of the poets. 

I have a poetry collection out on submission now (fingers crossed!), and I included “Poetry PLUS” by featuring juicy facts, almost like side-bars, to add some nonfiction heft to each poem. That’s one way to add more “Plus” power to poetry. But THINGS WE DO has inspired me to consider other ways of adding to the poetry experience for readers. 

What might you add to your poetry? Or what have you included? STEM connections, craft activities, maps, timelines, or something more? The possibilities are exciting! Thanks to Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell for the inspiration.

On Fridays, I love taking part in Poetry Friday when I can, where writers share resources about children’s poetry. 

Radio Round Table on Diversity and Children’s Books

It was a delight to be part of a (remote) round-table discussion this week on WCAI-FM (the Cape and Islands NPR station) about children’s literature and diversity. On “The Point” program hosted by Mindy Todd, I was joined by an educator from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe,  Jennifer Weston of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project. We were also be joined by two librarians and the co-owner of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Sara Hines. 

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!

You can listen to the recording on the link here.

 

A Note Meant to Silence

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.”

~~Rep. John Lewis

 

Does Your Child’s Bookshelf Reflect the World?

One of the best things about my recent article in the Cape Cod Times about Black Lives Matter and children’s books is that I’ve heard from parents and educators who are inspired about making mindful book choices for the children in their lives. 

One delightful spark is that I heard from a guy who was here on Cape Cod– the father of Marley Dias! He shared a diverse book list that Marley developed for Parade Magazine.

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!

As always, We Need Diverse Books is a great source for book titles!

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!