Op-Ed

Bookshelves

I wasn’t a very good reader as a kid. I struggled. But I loved books. The pages, the pictures, the covers, the smells all enticed the young me even as the words eluded me. I loved going to the library and walking down the aisles of shelves looking at the book spines and the volumes on display.

Eventually, I got the reading help I needed and those shelves became even more magical. I still visit the library and wander up and down the aisles looking at the books on the shelves. I still get the side-eye from librarians when they ask me if I need help. I also get the side-eye from kids in the children’s book section when I scour the bookshelves like an interloper in their world.

The Shelves

Books are magical things.

Bookshelves house that magic. Bookshelves arrange and display the magic, keeping it safe and accessible.

My son recently bought a house and moved out. I took over his old room as my office. My first real office! After the remodeling and painting, I moved in. Desk. Chairs. Rug. Bookshelves!

I can proudly say that I was able to move my book collection from the myriad of shelf spaces around the house to my new bookshelf setup. My wife even found an awesome little companion bookshelf at a garage sale to showcase the special books in my book collection.

Shelves of Power

All this shelf work got me thinking about how the books on our bookshelves say volumes about who we are as readers, writers, and human beings. 

What can our bookshelves tell us about ourselves? Do the contents reflect our personality? Our likes?

How about our goals and dreams?

Pause for a moment and look at the individual books on your bookshelf. Do they bring up a memory of a time or place? Did they teach you something new or how to do something better? 

I have books which have entertained me for years—books I’ve read half a dozen times and discovered something new each time. There are books on the shelf which remind me of family. Some titles I remember being on the limited bookshelf in the house where I grew up. There are the World Book encyclopedias and their companion yearbooks, circa 1971 thru 1987, my parents purchased for us six kids at a great financial sacrifice.

On my bookshelf, there are the books I read to my kids while they sat on my back on the bedroom floor and listened before falling asleep. There’s the complete hardback set of Harry Potter books, with the Goblet of Fire to Deathly Hallows books bought in the pre-dawn hours of their release days. Sports books, coaching books, writing books, classics, science texts, mentor texts, my growing Native American author section, etc. A seemingly random assortment of books in a myriad of subject matter, but books which reflect who I am and/or who I want to be.

  • Memories.
  • History.
  • Knowledge.

A whole life represented. A collection of hopes and dreams. Some of the threads woven into the fabric that has become my middle-grade-leaning writing voice. Each book on the shelf traveling in orbit through my personal universe.

How about your bookshelves?  Do they represent more of who you are or who you want to be? Or a nice mixture of both?

Library Shelves

Take a stroll down the aisle of your local library.

Can you get a picture of who your community is by the books shelved there? Is the personality of the community reflected in the titles on the shelves? Can you get a sense of place by walking the shelves of your local library?

If you have the good fortune to live near or have access to a college or university, have you ever visited its libraries?

From my experiences, I can honestly say they are marvelous places. The main library, the college-specific libraries, and the technical libraries, all work in concert to represent the institution and its mission. Liberal arts, engineering, medicine, agriculture, law, whatever the main focus of the institution is, it’s reflected on the shelves of its libraries.  

Furniture?

To lit-minded folks like us, a bookshelf is more than a mere piece of furniture. Much more.

Bookshelves house our life maps. They act as our compass for when we get lost. They’re our windows to the imagination. They contain magical doors to possibility and potential, knowledge and hope. As I sit here and look a the bookshelf I’ve put together, I’m reminded of the impact those books sitting on those shelves have on the formation of me as a human being. The sofa doesn’t do that. The rocking chair doesn’t. The end table is just an end table. A bookshelf just a piece of furniture? No way!

Please tell us about your favorite bookshelf. Share a photo or share what that particular bookshelf means to you. You can leave your bookshelf love in the comments below or on Twitter. Let’s have some fun with this and tweet your message to @mixedupfiles and hashtag it with #MUFbookshelf.

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Read. Write. Repeat.

 

Keeping Track with Personal Reading Records

I recently caught up with two former students to talk about – of course – reading! One is at a new school, and I still see the other around campus and in the library, though I’m not regularly in the classroom these days.

I heard from their mothers ( both book people, so of course we’re in touch) that Kenzie and Hannah keep reading records for themselves, and I was very curious to see how – or if – they continued on where their library class with me left off some years ago.

I kept a wall behind my desk depicting my own reading life: covers showing books i’d read and those I planned to read. In addition, a couple of my classes chose to track their reading lives on another wall of the library.I love that this particular wall grew out of these readers’ desires to follow their own lives as readers.

In our recent conversations, I started out by asking the girls why they keep track of their reading. Kenzie uses her list/page count system to prove a point to others and to show that she really is as well read as she says she is, and to see how far she has come as a reader. She also uses a list of books she’s read to keep track of where she’s been. I can relate to that. I remember where I was when I dug through Bronte’s Villanelle on summer in high school, and I opened Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the security line at Gatwick Airport. Kenzie also pointed out that she likes bonding with new friends over books they both love.

Hannah uses a journal to remember what a book was about, and to set and keep reading goals. She also finds that she can also track her taste in books.

I asked next how the readers keep track of their reading. Kenzie carries two lists. One is of books to acquire/to read. A book goes on this list when it’s recommended or when she decides to read it.  It gets crossed out when it gets added to her (physical) bookshelf.  A book goes onto the second list when she starts reading it, along with its page count. When she’s completed it, she marks it off.

Hannah makes lists of books she wants to read while she browses the library shelves, then adds them to her journal when she starts reading, with synopses, notes, and a rating system. I asked some other students about keeping track of their reading. Many of them simply try to remember what they read, except for those who are currently using their Humanities teacher’s Reading Bingo to track their reading.

I keep an occasional journal as well, noting books that inspire me in some way. Otherwise, I keep track using Goodreads and my library wishlist. If not for these tools, I would be lost.

Inspired by this conversation, I also asked my colleagues how they track their reading. They use  phone notes apps, Amazon and library wishlists, and Goodreads (many are actually on Goodreads but only a few use it, and those are mostly readers who are members of book clubs).

I asked Kenzie and Hannah how they choose their next read.  Kenzie chooses a book from a genre she’s interested in, then explores titles in that genre. A read-alike in that genre inspires her next read. Sometimes she needs a break from a certain type of book, though, like murder mysteries or books with heavier themes.

Hannah finds her next read by using eeny meeny miney mo, from 3-4 books she chooses from the shelves by turning a few pages, according to her mood, and referring to her list.

Asked how they read,  Hannah reads all in print, and Kenzie reads in print or on her phone if she’s out and about. Hannah has expressed that she is not at all an audio book lover (it is my main way to consume books these days, to be honest).

Finally I asked the girls what they’re reading now.

Favorite Genre:

Hannah: Realistic fiction and historical fiction – she feels that she learns more from them.

Kenzie: Mystery

One unforgettable book:

Kenzie: Under the Egg

Hannah: All the Light We Cannot See

A book to recommend to a parent:

Hannah: The Rhyme Schemer

Kenzie: Everything she thinks is good

Here we are with a few of our favorite books.

It was a blast to ask these questions of students I’ve watched grow from early readers through their middle grade years. It is especially rewarding to celebrate the readers we all are today.

Do you keep personal reading records? Why and how?

Dealing with Mental Health Issues in Middle Grade Literature

Mental Health in Middle Grade Literature

Mental Health in Middle Grade Literature

(EDITED TO ADD: Responsibility in these kinds of topics is of the utmost importance. There are many books that do NOT handle issues like these appropriately–and some that increase stigmas rather than assuage them–so please make certain that books are informed whenever they assert any kind of mental illness. Familiarize yourself with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, build relationships with professionals, and be careful that books you recommend are supportive and empowering rather than detrimental. 

It is important to represent these children in the fiction they read, but it is essential that they be represented well.)

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mental health and neurodivergence in children’s literature.

As a bit of background, I’ve worked with teens and tweens in various capacities for most of my adult life, providing mentorship and guidance to kids from all sorts of backgrounds. And I’ve seen all types; enough to know that neurodiversity—that idea that everyone’s brain works differently—is the order of the day. Every child is different.

But in those differences, I’ve also seen a lot of hurt. Social structures come easy for some kids, but not for others. Some excel at math, while others look at numbers and see Greek. Many, many struggle with deep insecurities when they see the difference between themselves and those kids who are celebrated by the culture at large. And sometimes those differences in cognitive function provide enough pain and disruption to a kid’s life that they leave any sense of normalcy behind.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (image by Sean Easley)

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (image by Sean Easley)

That’s a painful place to be. Students who find themselves on the margins of what we call “mental health” often experience an overwhelming sense of confusion and sadness as a result. They feel lost, adrift, and often, alone.

It’s part of our nature, I think, to believe that when hard times come, we are the only ones facing them. And when a child’s daily experience consists of a consistent string of hard times and marginalization—of any type—that sense of loneliness and hopelessness can grow even greater. As those feelings grow, so too does the gulf that these kids experience between them and the world at large.

This isn’t just something to only consider once a kid gets older and their “brain has developed,” as some might say. Statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness say that half of all mental health conditions begin by the time a child turns fourteen. Half. That means half of all people with these mental health issues are first experiencing these issues when they are readers of middle grade literature.

And yet, when I start seeking out books for this age group that feature these kinds of kids, the pickings are often slim. This is the time in these kids’ lives when they’re discovering what their life is going to be like—what they are going to be like—and they (and the adults in their lives) have to work hard to find examples of other kids coping with these experiences.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (image by Sean Easley)

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling (image by Sean Easley)

I’ve overheard parents say that they don’t want their kids reading “books like that,”—referring to those books that address mental health issues—because they don’t want their kids “exposed to that sort of thing.” This is exactly the problem, though. The kids whose parents want to shelter them from neurodiversity and neurodivergence often end up with distorted understanding of kids in their own schools who experience life differently from them. And a child who’s experiencing these feelings of differentness and otherness needs to know that their experience isn’t something to just discount. Their life has infinite value, even if they don’t realize or believe it yet.

That’s where the educators, librarians, and authors of middle grade come in. It’s our responsibility to give these kids access to books they can see themselves and learn that they fit in the world, just like anyone else. They need to know that it’s okay to claim a spot on the map and make it their own.

And I have been grateful to find more books and authors doing this lately. Books like the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look and Kenneth Oppel’s psychological horror The Nest give us a look at kids exhibiting some OCD tendencies. Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus centers on a girl with physical challenges, but her close friend deals with his Tourette’s throughout the book in a very positive way. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs, and Claire Legrand’s Some Kind of Happiness all give heartfelt portrayals of depression. Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin provides a deep rendition of a boy dealing with bipolar disorder. And Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy puts a beautiful fantasy twist on neurodiversity.

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (image by Sean Easley)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (image by Sean Easley)

These are still only the tip of the iceberg. It’s important that kids with cognitive differences be normalized because—in reality—the existence of these kinds of differences IS normal. These kids are all around us. They are us. Librarians and teachers know how common those differences are, and often do a wonderful job of celebrating those books that will reach these kids where they’re at. And putting those books in the hands of kids who don’t have those cognitive “differences” will go a long way to building compassion, understanding, and acceptance of kids who feel unloved, confused, and unaccepted.

What books have you loved or recommended because they gave honest, normalizing portrayals of neurodivergence? Add your suggestions in the comments below!