Showing Children Our World – Good and Bad – Through Books

As a mother, nothing comes close to my primitive urge as a mom to protect my child. So, I thought it ironic to visit a playground in North Carolina when my son was young and see a warning sign of alligators nearby.

This sign hit me with the realization that while we can provide our children with the resources to defend themselves and make good choices, ultimately we have to let them go out there to frolic amongst the good guys and the gators. This includes opening their eyes through media and books to not-so-nice things that go on in the world.

Especially books. They can open up our child’s eyes to events in history, just and unjust. Books have opened up many dialogues with my son about slavery, civil rights, religion, women earning the right to vote, the Holocaust, bullying, and terrorism.

When my son was six we got a wonderful book called The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein (since made into a movie). In 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit threw a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center and spent an hour walking, dancing, and performing high-wire tricks a quarter mile in the sky.

This book paved the way for us to talk in depth about the twin towers and terrorism. My son said at the time he hoped that the bad man would be caught and the towers would be rebuilt.

One out of two so far. I was able to report to my son not long after that the bad man had been caught. My son wanted to know how he was found, what happened to his children, his wife, and if his being caught meant this kind of thing would never happen again. How I wished I could have said ‘yes’ to that. But, I hope in having these discussions (as I hope parents are having everywhere) that we are changing the world for the better—one discussion at a time.

As my son got older, middle grade books opened up discussion for us. Here are some of them:

Wonder by R.J. Palacio: about being a disfigured kid in a “normal” world.
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper: what it could be like to have a voice but not be able to communicate.
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs: the difficult decision of choosing where you belong.
Rules by Cynthia Lord: on autism and asking “what is normal?”
Holes by Louis Sachar: about friendship and believing in yourself.
Surviving Bear Island by Paul Greci: about being separated from your family and having to survive in a strange, dangerous place all alone.
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen: on endangered animals and ecology.
Duck by Richard S. Ziegler: about standing up for yourself when the one person who protects you is gone.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney: fearing middle school and then finding out how cool it really is.

Books. They open us up to new worlds and help us as parents relate the good and bad of the world to our children. They reveal the beauty and the darkness that co-exist in our world—and within us. They inspire feelings of sadness, joy, compassion, or outrage.

Books. They open up conversations with my son about life and death and right and wrong. I watch him as he struggles with these issues even as he becomes a young man now and tries to figure out his place in the world.

And while I empower my son with information and send him out there to navigate the battle field of life with as much armor as possible, I hope the good guys outnumber the gators. I hope he witnesses more glory than gore. And even if the gators in disguise try and get him, I hope it’s “just a flesh wound!”

Are there books you’ve read with your children that opened up discussions about the world around them?

And if you’re looking for a fun, heartfelt adventure to read with your kids, check out the next books 6-10 in my Unicorn Island series, Secret Beneath the Sand, out today! There are new characters, new creatures, and new adventures to enjoy. In the next part of the series, when a mysterious scourge spreads among the unicorns, Sam and Tuck must face a long-buried secret to protect the herd. It releases on Epic, the leading digital library for kids 12 and under, in a 5-part serial May 2021 with illustrated hardcover out winter 2022 by Andrews McMeel.


Diversity in MG Lit #26 Moving and Migration April 2021

Moving is a watershed experience in a young person’s life whether it is across town or across the world. Here are six recently published or soon to be published diverse books about moving and migration.
book cover Letters from CubaOne of my favorite things about historical fiction is the window into seldom studied chapters in history. Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar is an epistolary novel about a Jewish refugee putting down roots in Cuba while working to bring the rest of her family out of Poland during the horrors of the Second World War. Twelve year old Ester narrates her new and mostly welcoming life in Cuba in letters to the sister she left behind. It is based on the author’s own family story. (Published Aug 2020. Nancy Paulson Books, PRH)
Land of Cranes by Aida Salazar is a contemporary refugee story set along the US-Mexico border. In spare and haunting verse, nine year old Betita tells the story of her family, fleeing the drug cartels of Mexico to find refuge in Los Angeles, only to fall into the hands of ICE and suffer detention and deportation. There are a few graceful line drawings to fill out the pages with the shortest poems. It’s not an easy story to read but the format encourages taking it slow and asking questions along the way. Though the narrator is on the younger end of the MG spectrum I’d recommend this one for older readers. (published Sept 2020, Scholastic Press)
book cover While I Was AwayWhen I was in in the late 70s and 80s I had a friend who, like debut author Waka T Brown, traveled to Japan to stay with grandparens regularly in order to keep his language skills and connection to his family culture fresh. I remember his complex feelings about the whole thing. Pride in his culture, love for his grandparents who seemed fiercely strict to me. But sadness at missing summer camp with his scout troop. I remember that kids teased him about his proficiency in martial arts in an era before martial arts were popular. But I also remember how impressed we all were by his fluency in Japanese and the way he drew kanji with a brush pen. I loved how While I was Away by Waka T Brown captured all the beautiful complexity of being a bicultural kid moving between Kansas and Japan and finding things to love in both places. A very promising debut.  (published Jan 2021, Quill Tree Books, HC)
The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold is another debut novel. This one centers on ten year old Gabrielle who has moved to New York from Haiti. She faces the usual struggles, living with relatives she doesn’t know well, learning English, navigating the usual schoolyard teasing. What makes this one stand out is a fantastical element. An encounter with a witch who offers Gabrielle the ability to assimilate by magic. Though she knows better she makes the bargain only to learn what it cost to lose her heritage. A sweet story with a satisfying conclusion. (published Feb 2021, Versify, HMH)
book cover UnsettledUnsettled by Reem Faruqi is a novel in verse about the experience of coming to America from Pakistan. One of the things I appreciated about this book is the role sports played in helping Nurah and her brother feel at home and gain new friendships. There are many reasons to support sports and the arts for children in schools, one of them is the role they play in helping our diverse student populations find common ground and things to strive for together. I was happy to see a glossary in the back along with a recipe for Aloo Kabab. (soon to be published May 2021,
You may have noticed that so far every protagonist I’ve reviewed has been female. I’ve been paying more attention to gender balance on the bookstore shelves at Annie Blooms in the last year. I’d been hoping for more than this one new book about a middle grade boy on a great life journey. However, Ahmed Aziz’s Epic Year by Nina Hamza is the only recent book on this theme I could find. (If I’ve missed a good one please mention it in the comments.) It’s a charmer though. Ahmed was a bit a slacker in his old school in Hawaii but in Minnesota, he’s challenged in ways he wasn’t before. I especially enjoyed how the author weaved in the characters thoughts about three MG classics I’ve loved all my life–Holes, Bridge to Terebithia, and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Diversity in MG Lit #25 March 2021 Early Chapter Books

Early chapter books are an often overlooked section of the middle grade book world. Yet they are a vital link in getting children from sounding out words and sentences to reading with real fluency. Early chapter books are read by kids as young as four and readers–particularly English language learners as old as ten or eleven–though the sweet spot is six to nine years old. Some kids breeze through early chapter books in a few months. Others spend years building the reading muscle.  Below are a handful of new chapter book series with diverse characters.
cover zoey & sassafras'sZoey & Sassafras: dragons and marshmallows by Asia Citro pictures by Marion Lindsay (first of an 8 book series available now) Zoey and her precocious cat Sassafras have the ability to see magical creatures just like her mother who is a scientist. She uses her ability to help sick or endangered magical creatures who come to her barn for help. Each book features Zoey using the scientific method to figure out how to help the magical creature. Though Zoey & her parents are depicted as an African American family, there is little to mark that identity beyond the pictures. Because Zoey’s interactions are all within her own family, it doesn’t feel unnatural as it might if she were at school or in the neighborhood. The Zoey and Sassafras  website has dozens of handy printable resources for teachers. The series is from a small publisher in Seattle, WA, Innovation Press. It’s geared toward the younger end of early readers.
cover ways to grow loveWays to Grow Love by Reneé Watson pictures by Nina Mata (second in a 2 book series so far, on sale April 2021) I admit I am especially fond of this series because it is set in Portland OR, my hometown. It features favorite places from my own childhood including the Saturday Market, Oaks Park, and my beloved county libraries. I also liked how the faith of Ryan Hart’s family is depicted in the moral lessons they impart and the summer bible camp they attend. Ryan spends a summer preparing for the birth of her baby sister and adjusting to all the changes that entails from doing more chores to choosing a name. This series is longer and more complex than the others making it best for 6 to 10 year olds. A good companion for readers of Clementine, and Ramona.
And now a personal aside. The majority of children of all races in this country are religiously observant. The entire culture of worship, vacation bible school and summer camp, church based sports teams and scout troops, social justice activities, youth groups, rites of passage, and sacraments, all of it, gets left out of children’s books. There’s absolutely no justification for it. Even in conversations specifically about diversity we seldom include religion. That’s a blind spot that could use some attention.
Wind Riders: Rescue on Turtle Beach by Jen Marlin pictures by Izzy Burton (first in a series of unknown length to be on sale July 2021)
This new series is very much an heir to the Magic Treehouse books. In this series Max and Sophia find a magic sailboat and are transported to Hawaii. They solve a light pollution problem in order to save hatchling sea turtles. The series proposes to feature a new animal and ecosystem with each book and the heroes solve an environmental problem each time. In the illustrations Max is portrayed as a white boy and Sophie is dark-skinned though neither is identified by ethnicity, race or religion. Like Zoey & Sassafrass, this zippy text glazes over racial differences without remark. This one is also geared for the 4 to 8 year old end of the chapter book audience. There is back matter with more information about sea turtles and a helpful diagram showing the parts of a sailing ship.
Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey, words & pictures by Erin Entrada Kelly
I have seldom read a chapter book as emotionally true as Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey. Our hero is the delightfully cautious and introspective Marisol, a Philippine -American girl living in Louisiana. The two things I appreciated most about this book was the main characters disarming honesty about her many fears, and her steadfast best friend Jada. So many chapter books address the problem of the mean, snarky, bullying girl.  It’s easy to forget that children–even girls–are as capable of kindness as they are of cruelty. I loved Jada’s unquestioning acceptance of Marisol’s many quirks. I loved their imaginative play and the hilarious names they gave to household appliances. And I loved the girls unwavering faith in their friendship.  I also appreciated the leisurely pace, which meandered from one summer activity to the next while Marisol thoughtfully addressed her fear of climbing the magnolia tree in her back yard. This is a perfect choice for a tender-hearted reader.
JoJo MacCoons by Dawn Quigley (first book in a series of unknown length)
JoJo MacCoons is Ojibway living on her reservation. There’s much all kids will find familiar about this cat loving, overly literal, and wonderfully earnest first grader navigating the friendship challenges of school for the first time. There’s a sprinkling of Ojibway words and elements of her culture in the text making it a gentle introduction to one of the principle tribes of the upper midwest.  Plentiful illustrations capture Jojo’s spunky personality perfectly.
There is a Glaring Problem with the books I’ve reviewed above. None of them have POC boys for main characters. It’s not just a problem among diverse chapter books. There are very few white boy main characters in early readers. Jack from The Magic Treehouse and the Waylon series from Sara Pennypacker are the only two that spring to mind.  Unless you count series that have been around since the 70s like Nate the Great and Encyclopedia Brown. Boys in this age group have to settle for animal proxies in The Bad Guys, Dogman, The Dragon Masters. We can do better and if we hope to get boys of all races and ethnicities hooked on reading. It would help to have a few characters as well developed as Ryan Hart and Marisol Rainey to usher them into the world of books and show them it’s a place they belong. If I’ve missed a solid chapter book series with a boy protagonist, please drop a comment.