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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
One student sat on a table, reading one of my favorite lines of the day.
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!
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.
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!
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!
Lively conversation and great questions added rocket fuel to our presentation yesterday on Writing about Characters with LGBT Parents.
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.
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.
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!
“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.
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)?
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!