I love #bookaday!! And I'm so totally not finishing a book every day, but I'm reading a bunch (almost) every day. As we wind through August, I have a nagging bit of worry about how I'll translate it to the pace of the school year, because I don't only want to be reading seriously in the summer. But for the moment? Reading in the summer is so. Good. Here comes my second batch of books.
Gone Crazy in Alabama, by Rita Williams-Garcia (4th-6th grade interest, GRL V)
I'm so attached to Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, and I've loved all the time I've spent with them through One Crazy Summer, P. S. Be Eleven, and this third book in the series, Gone Crazy in Alabama. In this installment, the three sisters travel from Brooklyn to their family home in rural Alabama (travel by BUS) to spend the summer with their grandmother and great-grandmother. In one of those perfectly relatable details, Delphine brings Things Fall Apart to read on the bus, her first grown up book and a gift from her mother, only to find that she can't get into it. I love her description of her deep frustration at not having something to read (her other two books are trapped in the luggage under the bus), while Fern delightedly reads Charlotte's Web for the first time. This is always the fear, right?? That you'll be stuck on a trip not without a book, but without a book you want to read. Totally rationalizes why I chronically overpack books. I also love Fern's sudden, Charlotte's-Web-induced foray into vegetarian eating (and everything about Fern, to be honest). The rest of the book is full of perfect details and singing dialogue as we explore Alabama life with these city girls and delve into family history with their matriarchs. And Rita really had me on the edge of my seat through the crisis at the climax of the book, and I love when a book for young readers really has you wondering how it will be resolved. I highly recommend this one, I think it's my favorite of the series.
Word After Word After Word, by Patricia MacLachlan (3rd-5th grade level interest, GRL Q)
I was drawn to the idea of this as a book about writing. Not only that, but it's a novel for kids about writing! That being said, it felt a little on the nose to me, like the intentional writing assignment that the author's note says it was. It definitely does what it says, and it could be a good mentor text for a launching writing unit for upper elementary kids. It's the story of a fourth grade class who spends an extended period with an author in residency, it seems, in their writing class. It focuses on a group of four friends, and the details of their lives add richness to the story. I just didn't love it. One funny thing that I couldn't help but notice? When the writing teacher, Ms. Mirabel, shares some excerpts from books to highlight character, she didn't name them, but I recognized that one was from Sarah, Plain and Tall. Several pages later, I stopped as my brain processed that this book was by Patricia MacLachlan and didn't she...sure enough, a quick Google confirmed that she did in fact write Sarah, Plain and Tall. I guess it's your prerogative to quote your own books as mentor texts in your own books!
George, by Alex Gino (4th-7th grade interest, GRL Z*)
Oh, this book! I'd heard great things, and then bought it on a whim when I had a store credit to spend at my local bookstore's Harry Potter event, and I'm so glad I did. George is a fourth grader, and there's something that no one knows about George, which is that she is actually a girl. Over the course of the year, the burden of keeping her truth inside weighs heavier and heavier, and is highlighted when she wants more than anything to play Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte's Web. So many things are done well in this story. It's centered on George's identity, or Melissa, as she thinks of herself, and it's definitely informative for readers who may be unfamiliar with transgender experiences, but it never feels pedantic or veers into after-school-special territory. (As I'm writing that, it occurs to me that it might be a dated expression--have they made after school specials since I was a kid in the 80s and 90s??) The characters surrounding Melissa respond and react to her in a variety of realistic ways, and they develop through the story. I especially love her best friend Kelly, who is confused at first, takes about a day to process and do some online research, and then immediately dives into being a cheerful, staunch ally, and feels completely like a nine year old the whole time. All of the kid voices are great, and I appreciate the different adult voices, too. This book is also perfectly suited for younger readers in its handling of the topic. It's realistic and just detailed enough for the age group. There are a few references to "what's between my legs," a conversation about boy underpants, and one about looking at girls in magazines, but overall it focuses on Melissa's experience being a girl who is seen as a boy.
As a teacher, and an adult who loves kids, I had a personal take-away from George. This fourth grader presents as a boy, and at the start of the book hasn't said anything to indicate that she doesn't identify as a boy. There's an implication that some people thought she might be gay, but no one considered that she might be trans. I have to admit that I've never really thought about the likelihood that any kids in my life who are trans would still be presenting as their assigned gender, and that I'd have no way of knowing what was going on inside for them. AND the story highlighted the thousand ways that school life reinforces a gender binary at every turn, maybe especially in elementary school, where kids are put in boys' and girls' lines, sent in groups to the boys' and girls' room, and given parts, roles, and assignments based on assumed gender. There are so many things we say, too. It's one (big) thing to use assumed pronouns. It's another thing to constantly be saying things like, you're such a smart boy, or, good girl. In the story, it was comments like that that cut straight to Melissa's heart, shook her in a visceral way. In a scene early in the book, her teacher was trying to make her feel better about crying during Charlotte's death in the story, saying that it shows both imagination and compassion. Then Ms. Udell patted her shoulder.
"'Don't ever lose that, George, and I know you'll turn into a fine young man.' The word man hit like a pile of rocks falling on George's skull. It was a hundred times worse than boy, and she couldn't breathe. She bit her lip fiercely and felt fresh tears pounding against her eyes. She put her head down on her desk and wished she were invisible."
This scene hit me so hard because of how innocuous it would have felt to the teacher, and how often we say things like that. Ms. Udell wasn't making fun of Melissa, or even really reinforcing stereotypical masculinity; in fact, she was saying that George's ability to put himself in another's shoes and experience a variety of emotions would make him a "fine young man." But why should that comment be gendered at all? Wouldn't compassion, empathy, being in touch with one's feelings make them a fine person? A caring adult? A remarkable human? I already make an effort to use minimal gendered language in the classroom in addressing groups of kids; I use "friends," "team," and a variety of silly nicknames and terms of endearment, to the point where once when I was visibly preparing to open my mouth and wrangle the group, a third grade buddy interjected with a grin, "Are you going to call us 'team' or 'goofballs?'" And it was a perfectly fair question. But getting to know Melissa, and getting inside her head a little, reinforced how important it is to really commit to that, to use neutral language with individuals, and to spread it among teachers as much as possible. In addition to supporting individuals in our class, don't we all want to be part of smashing the gender binary? That's what I thought.
(*Just a note on reading level. Scholastic has George at Level Z, and so did a secondary online source, but that feels way too high to me. It's about fourth graders, and reads like many other realistic novels for kids that age. It comes up with a Lexile of 790, which would make it more like a P, and that feels right to me. It's interesting, because I usually find Scholastic's ratings to be right on target. It makes me wonder if this book was leveled artificially high because of the subject matter, because it's definitely not that difficult to read. Scholastic has included George in its Gold collection of "best-selling, award-winning, and critically acclaimed middle-grade paperback novels," where it's marked for ages 8-12, so they're featuring it, not hiding it. So, no real conclusion here, just thoughts and questions, but, it's not really a Level Z.)
The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, by Julia Finley Mosca (1st-4th grade interest, GRL P)
I'm just going to slide this one in here and whisper...I didn't like it. No, actually, I'm going to talk about it loud and clear because I think it's important. I wanted to love this book. I was so excited when I heard there was a picture book biography coming out about Temple Grandin, and I'd heard about it through trusted sources like A Mighty Girl. A biography for kids about a brilliant female scientist, in a field we don't hear about often, who has and talks about autism? Sign me up. Also, my kids love biographies so much. And I have so much respect and affection for Dr. Grandin herself. I think that's why I was so disappointed in this book, because I wanted so much from it. First, it's written in rhyming verse, which makes it feel a bit like we aren't taking the subject seriously. More than that, for me, is that I wouldn't read this to my kids because I find that rhyming informational text is usually way too hard to process. The writer has to finagle sentences just so in order to get the rhyme, which too often makes the syntax unnatural and really hard for my kiddos to follow. I've tried, and it usually means I spend as much time translating and explaining as I do reading. My second issue is with the content and tone. In parts it was fine, and in parts it felt really patronizing. I honestly didn't like the representation of disability, autism, and neurodiversity in this book. There was too much of a sense of, who would have thought a person with autism could have done all this?!? And even something verging on victim blaming, when it described how hard school was for Temple, and that she got kicked out of elementary school for throwing a chair, frustrated by the other kids picking on her day after day. And the summary of that episode was that the other kids didn't get Temple, "but well, then again.../The truth of it was,/Temple didn't get THEM." So the other kids taunted, chased, picked on, and teased her for being different, but when she reacted, she "SNAPPED," and it's because she doesn't understand other kids. I'm not okay with that. I found the tone of the Fun Facts and Tidbits section to be problematic, too. Across the six paragraphs of extra info, Dr. Grandin is quoted four times using the word "admitted." She "admitted" to being a Star Trek fan, to be told her appearance was messy, to using a visualization to easy her anxiety, and to not being a good public speaker when she first started. Are these things she should be ashamed or shy about? The word just seems to me to carry a lot of judgement from the interviewer, especially because its used so frequently in a two-page spread. So, as much as I love and admire Dr. Grandin, this book isn't a winner for me.
Marley Dias Gets It Done...And So Can You! by Marley Dias
I've been a fan of Marley's since I first read about her #1000blackgirlbooks campaign, in which she decided, at age 11, to turn a complaint into action. She loved reading, but grew tired of being assigned book after book about white boys and their dogs, especially when she knew there were so many stories out there about amazing black girls. (Also, I have so much love for a mom who hears that complaint and says, "That's an interesting problem, Marley. What are you going to do about it?") And so her social media campaign was born, and she indeed collected a thousand books with black girl protagonists, and donated them to kids in Jamaica. And changed the world along the way.
Her book is a joy to read. I was curious as I started about how much of it she truly wrote--honestly more in terms of time than anything. This kid is still an eighth-grader, with school and homework and family and friends! How could she find time to write a book?!? Puts the rest of us to shame. And I can see how her co-writer might have offered support, structure, suggestions, but throughout, this book is the voice of a smart, articulate, funny thirteen year old. I'm so lucky, because Marley is a fellow Jersey girl, so the first reading of her tour was in New Jersey, at MY amazing local bookstore, and I was able to go and hear her speak (interviewed by her amazing mom), so I can confirm, the book is really written in her voice. It's passionate and accessible, practical and inspiring. It tells her own personal story, and gives tons of tips, advice, and encouragement for other young people who want to make something happen. While her project is quite specific, her advice can be applied to any endeavor that the reader cares about. I want to write a book like hers when I grow up.
The Lotterys Plus One, by Emma Donoghue (4th-6th grade interest, GRL X)
Not to oversell it, but this might be my favorite book of the summer. And of the past I-don't-know-how-long. This is a book that I want to move into and live in, as well as a book that nine year old me would have adored and read a thousand times. Part of the appeal is the big rambly family, in this case seven kids, four parents, assorted pets, and a very disgruntled grandpa. Part is the warm, sweet, realistic and idealistic tone of the whole book. Part is the endearing setting, a huge quirky house called the Camelottery, where every nook and cranny has a clever, funny name. And a huge part is the way that the author absolutely nails kid voices. It bugs me to no end when kid voices are off in stories, and when they're on, it's such a delight. The kid voices in The Lotterys are perfect, from teenage ennui to narrator Sumac's nine year old earnestness. My favorite, though? Was four year old Brian. When the family adopted her, they gave her the name Briar, but at age three she announced that her name would be Brian. (Sidenote, she goes by Brian, but uses female pronouns, so I will, too. A few different moments in the book, without getting deep in the weeds of it, make it seem like Brian's experience is more gender nonbinary than transgender.) So Brian is four, and there are some references to a difficult experience before her adoption, and possibly some developmental delay. Her speech is a little disordered, and is so familiar to me, and I don't know how this writer got it so pitch perfect. It's tiny little details, like when she wants to know how long she floated on her back in the ocean, she demands, "How much of seconds? A million of seconds?" Ugh, my heart, it's so perfect. I love Brian's little self. And this whole book. I might put it in the running for a read aloud this year, although it might be a little too realistic for my kids; if there's not exciting levels of fantasy, they seem to prefer their realistic stories to come with a side of mystery. But we'll see, because this would make a delightful read-aloud.
Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson (4th-6th grade interest, GRL W)
Roller Girl has been on my to-read list for a long time, and I was excited to find it at the library recently. (My branch of the public library has an absolutely amazing children and young adult department. #golibrarians) I definitely want to add it to my classroom collection of graphic novels, because my older students love that these more grown-up books are so accessible, and keep asking for more. This is the story of Astrid, a fifth grader, discovering a sudden, passionate interest in roller derby and signing up for a derby summer camp...despite the fact that she hasn't quite mastered skating yet. Over the course of the book, she faces the challenges of roller derby, persevering when things get really hard, solving her own problems, and navigating a changing relationship with her childhood best friend as they start to move in different directions heading into middle school. I can see kids at this age level enjoying it a lot, and I particularly liked the combination of relatable friendship territory of early adolescence with the unusual, empowering world of roller derby.
Piecing Me Together, by Renée Watson (6th-8th grade interest, GRL Z)
This is one of the YA reads that falls a little into guilty pleasure territory for me, because it's both too difficult and too mature for my readers. But I've read so many good things about it, and seen it pop up so many places that I really wanted to read it. I liked it's style and structure, as Jade told her story in short chapters, moving through the school year and each titled with a single English word and its Spanish translation. I also came to care so much for Jade, a high school sophomore living in North Portland, Oregon. Jade has a scholarship to a private school far from her home, and talks candidly about the experience of navigating two very different worlds, and how it feels when she's offered opportunities that seem based on a presumed deficit or disadvantage. This is another story, like George, that enters into timely, complex topics with grace and authenticity, where the issues serve the narrative rather than the other way around. I loved watching Jade find and practice using her voice, and empower others as she did so. This was a lovely, beautifully written book. (And the cover is gorgeous.)
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.