Ah, my middle grade happy place! I'm sure you'll find something you love here, happy reading!
As I looked over the list of books I read this year, I pulled out some favorites to highlight and recommend. These are books I read in 2020, not just books published last year, but most are recent. Happy Reading!
A couple of weeks ago, my brother and parent to the world’s two cutest munchkins asked me for recommendations of books specifically about race. He already understands that his (white) kids should have bookshelves that reflect the world’s diversity and tell stories about all kinds of kids living all kinds of lives, so I knew this question was about helping start some conversations with his little folks, who are three and not-yet-one.
This list is in two parts. First, books that are about race and skin color, with an overall theme of celebration and acceptance. These are what I suggested for my brother’s preschooler. Second, books that discuss racism that are geared towards slightly older readers. To be clear, I don’t think three year olds are too young to learn about racism and other kinds of prejudice. However, the specific books I’ve found so far aren’t written for them, in terms of their length, the word choice, and the tone. Of course, children’s books don’t ever have firm age boundaries, and all kids are different! So while these didn’t seem to match the three year old in my life, they might feel just right for yours!
At all ages, it’s key that we talk to kids about race. White families may not think of it, because the power of white supremacy is that we’re made to feel like whiteness is the norm. Part of white privilege is the privilege of going through our day without thinking about our skin color and how it impacts our lives or the lives of others. (I say “our” here because I am a white person). And part of the work of dismantling white supremacy is facing what’s long been invisible to many of us: in our society that is rooted in racism, whiteness comes with systemic privileges, and blackness and brownness come with systemic oppression. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
And facing it starts with our littlest faces. So when I think about my niece and nephew, I want them to begin to understand that they are white, that not everybody else is, and that every person is valuable and lovable. I want them to develop a sense of equity, justice, and standing up for what is right. As they grow, I want them to understand their privilege, and learn how to spend it to break down our racist systems. (By the way, there is great stuff in Tiffany M. Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist about spending privilege, and the term comes from Black feminist and racial justice activist Brittany Packnett https://rantsandrandomness.simplecast.com/episodes/brittany-packnett-cunningham-PRgbJxWE/transcript ) By planting those seeds now, the roots of racism will be much less likely to take hold, and the kids will grow strong in justice, equality, love, and liberation.
Now the books!
A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about middle grade and YA novels that center, honor, and celebrate Black lives, and I want to follow up with picture book recommendations on the same theme. These are stories that aren’t about struggle and oppression, but about life and joy, everyday delights and challenges. These are books that would be at home in the libraries of both kids of color and white kids, serving as mirrors and windows for our readers.
Of course, this is a limited list. There are so many more great books out there, and more coming out every day. Social media is a great resource for book news and recommendations. Here are some of the folx that I definitely suggest following:
(These are Instagram handles, but most have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, too.)
Also: Can we talk about the Kidlit These Days podcast?! I can’t say enough good things about it! Each episode has a timely theme, a featured guest, and a joyful booktalk section by the two awesome hosts, Matthew Winner and Nicole Young (Karina Yan Glaser in earlier episodes). Highly recommended for anyone who is trying to get good books into kids’ hands!
Now, onto the books!
Native American and Indigenous voices are often under- or misrepresented in history. Many older texts are written by non-Native authors, so we want to make sure that we’re looking for books written by Indigenous authors so that we’re reading authentic stories of Indigenous history and culture. We also want to seek out contemporary texts that show Native Americans living today, so that kids don’t only see them in the past tense. This is a list I pulled together for a summer graduate class (hence the formal citations!), but I think it can be a helpful resource, so I wanted to post it here, as well. These are all #OwnVoices books.
“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” Kimberlé Crenshaw
Nicole Young shared this quote on a recent episode of the podcast Kidlit These Days on the topic of anti-racism, and when I heard it, I knew the next thing I wanted to write: a list some of the middle grade and young adult fiction I love that addresses racism and tells stories of Black lives. The fiction that is speaking to my heart right now.
“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” With this swell of discussion and interest in the work of anti-racism, there are tons of lists being shared with books to read, especially to help us white folks catch up and educate ourselves. The New York Times best-seller list this week for non-fiction is flooded with titles by Ijeoma Iluo, Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, and more. I am a voracious reader of fiction and a slow, cranky reader of nonfiction, so my work right now is to push myself to pick up these titles to deepen my understanding of the issues around racism and white supremacy.
At the same time, stories are my favorite way in to understanding. Last week, I read Nic Stone’s beautiful YA novel Dear Martin. I picked it up months ago at a used book sale, but it sat waiting towards the bottom of my TBR pile. It waited, in part, because I knew that it was about police brutality toward Black teens, I knew it would be hard to read, and I thought I knew how it would make me feel.
But here’s the thing. Until I enter into the story, and get invested in the lives of the characters, and let myself feel all the feelings through the narrative, I don’t really know. Not in my heart. There are studies that show that reading fiction cultivates compassion and empathy (like this one), and this has happened to me countless times. I opened Dear Martin knowing that it was about a Black teen who is a victim of police brutality. And knowing that, I still wasn’t prepared for how I would feel when I turned that page. And then beyond the gut-punch of that moment, reading Justyce’s inner monologues and the conversations he had with his best friend, his mom, his Black teacher, and his white girlfriend all gave me an even deeper understanding, in my heart, about what we’re talking about here. What white supremacy, systemic racism, and police brutality mean in people’s lives. In individuals’ lives, in their lived experiences. I’m not saying that we can’t develop understanding and empathy outside of stories, and from the real-life stories shared in the news, in talks and forums, or in conversations with loved ones. But reading is another way that my white self can find some of this understanding, without a Black person having to repeat their traumas and experiences for my education. Nic Stone did the work once as the author so that all of us can read it, as many people and as many times as we need to.
So. This list is for people, like me, for whom stories are a way in, and for those who might want to put these in the hands of their kids. Some are stories of racism and struggle, and some are stories that are, for a white reader, windows into Black lives. These are also all written by Black authors. (Thank you to Rudine Sims Bishop for the concept that reading provides windows into experiences that differ from our own, mirrors to see our own experiences reflected back, and sliding glass doors that we can look into and then step through as we learn and grow. Read more about it here or watch this video to see Dr. Bishop explain it herself.) I hope you find something that speaks to your heart, too.
I have been quiet. Not entirely silent, but quiet. And I have not written in this space. In part, it’s because I’ve been listening, reading, and processing. In part it’s because my voice as a white woman isn’t the one that needs to be heard right now. (It’s Black women. The answer is always follow Black women.) In part it’s because I’m worried about saying the wrong thing, which I know isn’t an excuse, but it is true.
In March, my best friend and I decided to check out the Teachers College Reunion, a twice-annual event hosted by the Reading and Writing Project at TC. We’re lucky to live pretty close by plus...Jason Reynolds was giving the keynote address, and that was something I didn’t want to miss. And he was incredible, just the most amazing storyteller. I felt really, really lucky to be there.
I went to a few other sessions. One was about diverse books, getting into the weeds of how to really be intentional about how we curate our classroom libraries. Another was with Lucy Calkins herself, fearless leader of the TCRWP. While I’d done my Masters at TC, I was in a very specific special ed program, and never crossed paths with Lucy or her program, beyond waiting while the elevator doors opened on the gorgeous TCRWP mural on their floor of the building. Her workshop that morning was about finding new energy in writers workshop in the spring, and it was a really inspiring hour in which she talked about really listening to our kids to hear what’s most important to them, and celebrating BIG when we publish pieces. My big take-away, in terms of classroom practice, was Flash Drafts, where students draft their whole piece in one shot. The idea is to spend a lot of time in thoughtful preparation, then write, write, write with joyful intensity, and then have energy and motivation left over to revise and edit once the words are on the page. This is so the opposite of how drafting usually goes in my classroom, and I couldn’t wait to try it.
Well, I'm a student again! It's been more than ten years since I was last in school, when I did my initial certification and a masters in special education (autism spectrum and developmental disabilities) all at once. After I got over the initial school burnout, which really took some time, I was slow to make moves to continue my studies. For one thing, I couldn't afford it, and I wasn't willing to take out more loans. And for another, while I knew I couldn't take isolated courses, and learn, and work towards my plus-15, I wanted to do something coherent. And it took a long time for me to figure out what that was.
As I was sure it would, my book-a-day life has slowed dramatically in the school year. And while I'd love to be reading more, it's okay. I have a couple of books to catch up on from the very end of the summer, as well as the few that I've read in September and October. So, onto the books!
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.