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Toni Morrison’s Middle-Grade Legacy

Honoring a Middle-Grade Legacy

Toni Morrison (1931-2019) left an essential legacy for middle-grade readers, even though she didn’t write directly for them. You won’t find her books in the MG section of the bookstore, nor are they on the reading lists for the 4th-8th grade set, as are the novels we talk about here on this blog. And yet, many of her characters were middle-grade children, and most of her themes had to do with the formative experiences of those years, experiences that ground and shape us as adults. So, when she died on August 6th, I gave myself permission, based on those reasons, to pay homage to her here.

Doors and Mirrors

I wanted to honor her brilliant and groundbreaking work as a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and her crucial role in bringing forward many of the threads of the African-American narrative to the larger American conversation. But even more than that, I wanted to talk about how she opened doors for a new generation of passionate, creative authors who write a wider, more diverse world for young readers. By doing that, she lifted up mirrors for children to see themselves in a rainbow world. She painted a world in which we could all be beautiful. As a writer and a woman of color, I am deeply grateful to her for the path she forged.

We could all have beauty

It’s Personal

The truth is, my gratitude is both professional and personal.

When I was in college in the mid-eighties, I read  THE BLUEST EYE (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1970), and I cried over Pecola and her desire for blue eyes.

The Bluest Eye book cover

My deep sadness wasn’t just for Pecola though–it was also for me and my own secret childhood desire: I too wished I had blue eyes. Like Pecola, I bought into the standard of White beauty that didn’t include my mixed-race identity, and certainly not my brown eyes, hair, or skin. I actually wished away my Black heritage.

And because, like any self-respecting young teenager, I vigorously rejected everything my parents told me, I didn’t believe them when they told me I was pretty. I knew I wasn’t. To be pretty, I needed to have not just blue eyes, but also straight, blonde or at least light brown hair. Hair that did what Farrah Fawcett’s or Jaclyn Smith’s did. Not curly, unmanageable, humidity-challenged like my own. Fawcett and Smith were my version of Pecola’s and Frieda’s admiration of Shirly Temple.

 

Definitions of Beauty

Fortunately, finally, I evolved and learned to identify and reject my own racism. I lived in Africa for a few years and discovered a treasure trove of literature that celebrated dark skin and curly hair. I reexamined THE BLUEST EYE and saw more clearly what Morrison was saying about what beauty is, and what it isn’t.

Morrison clarified even further when she said, in an Afterword published in 1993, “…the novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her (a friend who, like Pecola, wanted blue eyes)…The assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common on all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.”

Attitudes about beauty can be destructive.

I wasn’t necessarily “cured” of my own internalized assumptions, but that’s a whole different story. I did, however, continue to grow, and as I did, other writers of color were adding their voices to the joyful noise: Ntozake Shange, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, bel hooks, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker.

Middle-Grade Genre Growth

Over the glacial timeline that is publishing, the middle-grade genre has exploded as a viable commodity, as has the demand for diverse books and #ownvoices authors. Today, it’s delightfully harder to assume the “white default” with many fictional characters because they’re not the only ones on the tableau. I’m not saying the characters-of-color have reached parity – not by a long shot. But their numbers increase every year, and I’m thrilled to witness and be a part of that growth.

Thank You

I believe we owe that in large part to Toni Morrison, and so for that, I say, THANK YOU. Thank you, Ms. Morrison, for being the light, the creative force, the energy, passion, and intellect that will continue to shine long past the years you were here with us.

“And so here I am now. Here we all are. Toni Morrison as light, as way, as ancestor. And the many writers she has left in her wake, and the many writers coming after, and those after them, will hopefully always know this: that because of her, we are.” – Jacquelyn Woodson, from her tribute essay in the Washington Post,  August 11, 2019

And because here at the Mixed-Up Files … of Middle-Grade Authors, we do booklists, here’s one for Toni:

Book List in Honor of Toni Morrison

brown girl dreaming book cover

BROWN GIRL DREAMING, by Jacqueline Woodson

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.

 

Moon Within Book Cover

THE MOON WITHIN, by Aida Salazar.

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

Genesis Begins Again book cover

GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN, by Alicia D. Williams

There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant—even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see. When your dad is a gambling addict and loses the rent money every month, eviction is a regular occurrence.

shadowshaper book cover

SHADOWSHAPER, by Daniel Jose Older (Actually YA, but appropriate for older MG readers)

With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one. Now Sierra must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.

A Good Kind of Trouble book cover

A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE, by Lisa Moore Ramée

twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

One Crazy Summer book cover

ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia

Eleven-year-old Delphine is like a mother to her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. She’s had to be, ever since their mother, Cecile, left them seven years ago for a radical new life in California. But when the sisters arrive from Brooklyn to spend the summer with their mother, Cecile is nothing like they imagined.

Karma Khullar's Mustache Book cover

KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE, by Kristi Wientge

Karma Khullar is about to start middle school, and she is super nervous. Not just because it seems like her best friend has found a newer, blonder best friend. Or the fact that her home life is shaken up by the death of her dadima. Or even that her dad is the new stay-at-home parent, leading her mother to spend most of her time at work. But because she’s realized that she has seventeen hairs that have formed a mustache on her upper lip. Read author Kristi Wientge’s interview here on this blog.

Mexican Whiteboy Book Cover

MEXICAN WHITEBOY, by Matt De La Peña

Danny is brown. Half-Mexican brown. And growing up in San Diego that close to the border means everyone else knows exactly who he is before he even opens his mouth. Before they find out he can’t speak Spanish, and before they realize his mom has blond hair and blue eyes, they’ve got him pegged. But it works the other way too. And Danny’s convinced it’s his whiteness that sent his father back to Mexico.
That’s why he’s spending the summer with his dad’s family. But to find himself, he may just have to face the demons he refuses to see–the demons that are right in front of his face. And open up to a friendship he never saw coming.

 

Go Visual-Spatial with Maps and Middle Grade Books

I came across the phrase “carto-literate” in an article last week. The author was referring to geography skills, but it made me think of all the cool map-based activities one can offer readers of middle grade books. Maps, globes, and online mapping tools maintain a strong role in the study of history, geography, science, and math; however, the great benefits of using maps as learning tools can be extended to the reading experience, as well.  If you haven’t thought about utilizing map activities for literature selections in your classroom, home school, or library, consider these awesome benefits:

  • Maps immediately call up the use of Visual-Spatial skills, and might engage readers who are not quite as Verbal-Linguistic as others.
  • Maps promote flexible, creative thinking through the use of to-scale renderings and symbols.
  • Maps directly connect to math, science, technology, and research skills, and they promote discussions on cultural topics of inclusivity and acceptance. They also encourage an understanding of history, as borders and place names change over time due to migration, conflict, and political transition.
  • Maps also inspire the imagination with the notion of travel and adventure; after all, it’s easy to envision yourself as an explorer or treasure-seeker when you have a map in hand!

These activity ideas involving maps might inspire a more fulfilling reading experience, and will promote thinking and discussion on these and other titles.

1. Using a world map, locate and mark the literary settings of books that might be new to your library or books on suggested or curricular reading lists. Settings can be approximate or specific; sometimes, while specific names of roads or towns are fictionalized, the state or region is identified—giving students just enough context to pinpoint the setting on a map. For example, these recent MG books have specific or general settings that are “mappable”:

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman (Chennai, India)

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier (Northern CA)

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Medieval France)

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (Chicago, IL)

North to Benjamin by Alan Cumyn (Dawson, Yukon)

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (South Florida)

2. Use Google Maps to explore a realistic, named setting and discuss plot conflicts in terms of the story’s geography. Students can zoom in on locations, study city layouts, and even “drive around” neighborhoods in Street View. For example, when reading Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ninth Ward, students can investigate through Google Maps the geography of New Orleans, and make connections to the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

3. Pinpoint the settings of books that share a historical time period on a map, and consider the ways in which location and culture impacted the plot and characters. For example, on a map of the world, mark the literary settings of books like these that take place in the time of WWII:

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli (Warsaw, Poland)

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (London, England and vicinity)

The End of the Line by Sharon E. McKay (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Lily’s Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff (Rockaway, NY)

 

4. Maps can help promote comprehension and increase the emotional value of a story when used in conjunction with the travels of a character. For example, readers can use a world map to trace the journey of Ebo, a refugee from Ghana, in Illegal, a graphic novel by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano.

 

5. In an exploration of their own world-building skills, readers can create maps for middle grade fiction with geography context clues. For example, readers can use close reading skills, logic, and imagination to draw a map of locations in Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, or for works that have a fantasy or purely fictionalized setting. Many MG fantasies showcase beautiful maps of the story’s settings, like Jaleigh Johnson’s The Door to the Lost. Readers can use these already-created maps to note plot points and trace the paths of characters.

6. A start-of-the-year icebreaker I’ve tried with success involves a world map, displayed in the classroom: each student shares the location farthest from home to which he or she has traveled and pins a marker on the map. Put a literary spin on this idea, and have readers share the book title they’ve read with a setting that is farthest from home. Each student can mark the map with the book title and author. A longer project idea might involve individual student presentations of plot summaries or book reviews.

Perhaps you’ll find a map activity here that suits your reader or students! Good luck to parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and readers of MG as we all head back to the classroom this school year.

Dear Michael Northrop, An Author Interview and Giveaway

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgDoes Superman ever make mistakes? What was Wonder Woman’s eleventh birthday like? These are just a few of the questions that eager fans ask DC superheros in Michael Northrop’s Dear Justice League. At the Mixed-Up Files, we had some questions of our own for Mr. Northrop, and just like the Justice League, he was super to answer them.

MUF: Dear Justice League is your first graphic novel. Have you always wanted to write graphic novels?

MN: As a kid with dyslexia, I wasn’t much of a reader or a writer. Comic books were huge for me because I was hesitant about reading, and comic books were the first thing that I could read both for fun and socially. As each issue came out, I could read them and participate in the discussion. So, writing Dear Justice League was like coming full circle. There’s a visual storytelling to graphic novels that was already there for me because comics were so formative for me.

MUF: Wow, from a reluctant reader, to an author. You started out at Sports Illustrated Kids. What was that journey like?

MN: I chose the most perilous of paths. I became an English major, and jot just English, but poetry. Poetry is also great for dyslexia or struggling readers because it’s something that is read and written slowly and carefully. I became the poetry editor for the literary magazine in college. My editor recommended me for a job with the sports section at World Almanac, which is how I got into journalism and Sports Illustrated Kids, which really helped me to develop the middle-grade/YA voice.

MUF: Was there anything from your time at Sports Illustrated Kids that informed or inspired Dear Justice League?

MN: The interaction with the athletes, and how they responded to questions from young fans as opposed to questions from me. There was just a direct connection between the kids and these larger than life figures.

Michael Northrop is the New York Times bestselling author of Scholastic’s new multi-platform series, TombQuest. His first young adult novel, Gentlemen, earned him a Publishers Weekly Flying Start citation, and his second, Trapped, was an Indie Next List selection. His first middle-grade novel, Plunked, was named one of the best children’s books of the year by the New York Public Library and was selected for NPR’s Backseat Book Club. He is originally from Salisbury, Connecticut, a small town in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains, where he mastered the arts of BB gun shooting, tree climbing, and field goal kicking with only moderate injuries. After graduating from NYU, he worked at Sports Illustrated Kids magazine for 12 years, the last five of those as baseball editor.

MUF: Since you mentioned that comics helped you overcome your dyslexia, is that something that you thought about while writing Dear Justice League? Helping struggling readers build their skills?

MN: I did write with readers like myself in mind. I wanted to write for a lot of different levels, and to make Dear Justice League as accessible as possible. That’s why the story is broken up into a different chapter for each hero. It gives the reader more ways into the book. So, if someone only wanted to read about Wonder Woman, they could read that chapter, and get into the story that way. It’s also why I chose to start the story with Superman. He’s one of the biggest stars, and that chapter is also wordless with a lot of physical comedy. It’s like the first rung on the ladder, making it easy for reluctant readers to get into.

MUF: Speaking of heroes, who are your favorite heroes? Who were your favorite heroes growing up?

MN: Growing up, it was teams that really captivated me, particularly the Legion of Superheroes. The comics had a kind of soap opera feel to them, but in space. They had a dazzling array of heroes, like Lightning Lad, whose power I loved, and Mon-el, who felt like my own personal Superman because he had all the powers of Superman but not as many people knew of him. But what I really loved about the teams was the variety.

MUF: Now, I feel like I need to read some Legion of Superheroes. But if you had to choose one hero. All-time favorite?

MN: Superman. He made a huge impression on me. He’s the perfect superhero in that he’s not perfect. He’s a complicated character with great stories about doing what’s right and being responsible with power.

MUF: How did you come up with the questions that your young fans ask their favorite superheroes?

MN: The fun part was the mix. Finding a mix of serious and funny questions that would get into who the hero really was and bring out those relatable human qualities.

MUF: Hawkgirl was one of my favorite chapters because it was just funny and caught me completely off-guard.

MN: Hawkgirl was a choice. I mean, I had to include the founding members of the Justice League, like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, but I got to choose some of the other members, and Hawkgirl brings a young teen kind of energy to the group, and she really carries the through line of the story. She was a super fun character and super fun to write.

MUF: Speaking of fun characters, the Flash is a pretty fun character, and he’s the only hero in Dear Justice League that deals with bullies. Did you always want bullies to be in the story? And why is he the hero that you chose to address bullying?

MN: I knew that bullying was a topic that I wanted to deal with because it’s something that a lot of kids deal with, and initially, I had a really serious bullying situation in the story, but I didn’t want it to be heavy-handed. So, I gave the most serious topic to the most free-spirited character.

MUF: Last question. I’m sure that you have a lot of young readers writing to you, much like the fans do in Dear Justice League. Do you have any advice for young readers and writers out there?

MN: For young readers, there are so many kinds of stories. There are no wrong answers. For me, comics came first. Then, it was rule books for Dungeons and Dragons, which led to fantasy novels because I felt like I was already inside the story. Any kind of storytelling is valid. Find the stories that work for you. For writers, it’s similar. Everyone has their own way of doing things. There’s really no wrong answer. The only thing that’s really important is to finish something because it’s in revision that you learn how to become a better storyteller.

MUF: Thanks, Michael! This was a lot of fun.

Dear Justice League is out now, and one lucky reader will win a Dear Justice League prize pack, enter here! A winner will be chosen randomly on August 15th.

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