Cross-Curricular

Book Gratitude: 18 MG Authors Share Their Favorites

I was eight, or maybe nine, when I discovered a mysterious blue box in my parents’ medicine cabinet. The box was labeled “Tampax,” and I had no idea what it was. Curious, I asked my mom.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she said, moving the box to a higher shelf. “You don’t need to worry about this now.”

I wasn’t worried… just intrigued. So as soon my mom left to make dinner, I peeked inside the Tampax box and discovered an army of tubular, paper-wrapped soldiers. What on earth were these things? And how was I going to find out?

Luckily Judy Blume had the answer. Okay, not Judy Blume herself, but her classic MG novel, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which explores puberty and periods, with candor and care. The book wasn’t a replacement for a much-needed talk with my mom (that would come later), but for the moment, Margaret was the next best thing. I was grateful for this honest, informative, and true-to-life novel. I still am.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, and giving thanks to great books, I asked 18 middle-grade authors to share a book they’re most grateful for. Here’s what they had to say…

SUPRIYA KELKAR, author of Ahimsa, The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, and the upcoming American as Paneer Pie (5/12/20).

“The one book I’m most thankful for is Hot, Hot, Roti for Dada-Ji (Lee and Low Books) by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min because it was the first time my kids saw themselves in a book.”

CHRIS BARON, author of the MG debut novel in verse, All of Me.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson taught me that it was completely okay for me to be friends with a girl, something so important for the environment I was in. Even more deeply, it helped make a little more sense of the complex and difficult world I experienced at that age. It taught me that grief and hope are not enemies; that challenges are an important part of life, and that we are never alone.”

JANAE MARKS, author of the soon-to-be-released MG debut, From the Desk of Zoe Washington (1/14/20).

“I loved The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin as a kid, and in elementary school wrote Ann M. Martin a letter! I got a very nice form reply back, which made me so happy. What I loved most about these books was the friendships. I’m an only child, so friendships were really important to me. Reading about the books’ characters and their close relationships with each other was both entertaining and comforting. One of my best friends at the time was also into the books, and we bonded over our love for them.”

DEBBI MICHIKO FLORENCE, author of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series and the upcoming Keep It Together, Keiko Carter (5/5/20).

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee was one of the first books my daughter and I read together that had a contemporary Asian-American character. I had craved books like that when I was in middle school, and  it gave me hope that the stories I wanted to write might find a publishing home some day. And my dreams came true!”

RONALD L. SMITH, author of HoodooThe Mesmerist, and Black Panther: The Young Prince.

“The book I’m thankful for is The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by British writer Eleanor Cameron. I think I discovered it in middle school, and it swept me away to Mars, with two kids who build a spaceship in their basement. When I do school visits, I like to show a slide of the cover and point out how old I am by the price being only fifty cents. I have a vague memory of being home from school one day, perhaps I was sick or just feigning. Rain was pattering on the window. The book put me in a state of mind I had never experienced before. I now know that experience as “falling into the page,” something I try to do today with my own writing. Over the years, I have found readers of a certain age who still have fond memories of the book. It’s a timeless classic!”

SANDY STARK-McGINNIS author of Extraordinary Birds and the The Space Between Lost and Found (4/28/20).

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros was the first book I read where I said to myself, ‘I want to write like that.’ For me, it’s the perfect balance of accessible but layered, lyrical prose. When I need a reminder of why I love to write, I always come back to this book.”

JONATHAN ROSEN, author of Night of the Cuddle Bunnies and From Sunset Till Sunrise.

“I devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure series as a kid, because the hero was always me. The books were written in second person: “You did this,” and “You thought that,” making it easier for me to picture myself in the various situations. Plus, my dad would always buy me the next one in the series whenever we went to the bookstore, so it makes me think of him and that time in my life.”

CELIA C. PEREZ, author of  The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton came into my life when I was a seventh grader. Friendships were changing, and I was beginning to think about myself on a deeper level, to think about identity, about how others saw me and how I saw myself. Pony Boy was the first fictional character I remember identifying with. Like him, I felt that the world labeled me and made decisions about who I was without knowing me. I was a dreamer and lived in my head, like Pony Boy did. And like Pony Boy, I appreciated the power of writing; of the stories I read and of the stories I could someday write. I’ve read the book many times since I first read it decades ago, most recently to my eighth grader. The story is timeless, and I’m grateful for its lasting impact on my life as a reader and writer.”

HENRY LIEN, author of Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword and Peasprout Chen: A Battle of Champions.

“There are few books that make me feel true joy, wonder, and peace like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s a wordless, illustrated book done in beautiful, sepia-toned drawings and paintings that echo vintage photographs. It starts out looking like it’s going to be a historical piece, and that the main character is leaving some European country in the early twentieth century and emigrating to a new country. But when he arrives in the new country, you realize this place is like nothing you’ve seen before.  It’s like stepping into Oz, except Oz stays gloriously sepia-toned.

What Tan has done is given every reader the experience of being an immigrant, because everyone feels bewildered and lost. But it’s also a bright, warm immigration story because for every intimidating or strange encounter, there is an act of kindness and gentleness to remind the viewer that they might not be from here, but that they are welcome here. And here’s my greatest testament to the book’s power: I gave it to my father who came to America by himself, before the rest of our family followed. When he finished the book, he simply said, ‘This is exactly how it was for me.'”

SALLY J. PLA, author of The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine.

“My elementary school library had this biography series, sort of a prehistoric version of today’s “Who Was” books (I was a kid in the 60s/70s, so yes, prehistoric). Marie Curie. Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosa Parks. Helen Keller. Thomas Alva Edison. I lived for these books. Not because of the fame of the people, but because they were people, explained. Their struggles laid open, thoughts, actions and experiences illuminated. Their stories gave me hope, because I felt as if I were struggling all the time. When I found them on the shelf in room 5B, I felt like I’d stumbled on this treasure trove of field guides into the mystery of how humans worked (or should work). I know that sounds weird, like I was some kind of robot alien child. Maybe I sort of was!”

ALICIA D. WILLIAMS, author of the MG debut, Genesis Begins Again.

Blubber by Judy Blume was one of my favorite childhood books. Not only is Ms. Blume’s writing very funny, but that book spoke to me simply because I was Blubber. I was rather chunky, and horribly teased, and reading that story made me know that I wasn’t alone. I so identified with the characters and how bullying affects friendships. You can say that I’m both Linda and Jill.”

WENDY McLEOD MacKNIGHT, author of It’s a Mystery, Pig-FaceThe Frame-Up and The Copy Cat (3/10/20).

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery entered my life when I was nine years old, and sick with a nasty cold. My mother, anxious to get me away from the clutches of Midday Matinee, a local program that aired exquisitely bad movies, passed me a green hardbound book that would forever change my life.

Why am I thankful for Anne? Anne gave me permission to let my spunk flag fly. She was eccentric, romantic, brilliant, all the things that I either was or desired to be. She loved her friends and family unabashedly. She loved her community. She loved her books. She made mistakes and owned up to them, even if they weren’t hers (hello, amethyst brooch). She wasn’t beautiful, but she was better than beautiful: she was interesting and clever, a beacon for every interesting and clever girl.

A confession: I wasn’t sick the next day, but I faked sick, because I couldn’t bear not to know what happened. As I sobbed uncontrollably during that awful scene toward the end, Anne taught how important it is to love and be loved, whatever the cost. So thank you, Anne. You continue to be my north star, the literary light that reminds me that being different is a pretty swell thing to be.”

MELISSA SARNO, author of Just Under the Clouds and A Swirl of Ocean.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett taught me that there is magic in the natural world and magic within myself. Its message is one I take with me every day: we can help one another grow.”

GREG HOWARD, author of The Whispers and the upcoming Middle School’s a Drag, You Better Werk! (2/11/20).

“I’m grateful to have discovered Sounder by William H. Armstrong at a young age. It taught me empathy, and helped me better understand a culture I was completely unfamiliar with. Not only that of a different race, but of a level of poverty for which I had no concept because of my privileged upbringing.”

MELANIE SUMROW, author of The Prophet Calls and The Inside Battle (3/3/20).

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is probably the first example of a middle-grade book that felt edgy to me in the best way possible. A true coming of age story, Brian is forced to cross the precipice from childhood to adulthood in order to survive. I adore Brian’s story because, in spite of his fear, self-pity and doubt, he discovers his own resilience—an important lesson for all of us.”

RYAN CALEJO, author of Charlie Hernandez and the League of Shadows and Charle Hernandez and the Castle of Bones.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is the first book I remember reading in school, and the first book I fell in love with. It’s a story about friendship, compassion, and accepting one another. I can’t think of a book more in the spirit of Thanksgiving than this gem.”

ROB VLOCK, author of Sven Carter & the Trashmouth Effect and Sven Carter & the Android Army.

“Having just lost my dad, who taught me to love reading and books, I’d say I’m grateful for every single book he read to me at bedtime. These were those magical moments that made me realize how amazing the experience of reading books could be. Among the hundreds of titles we loved together: The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Treasure IslandThe HobbitAlice in WonderlandWar of the Worlds20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and David Copperfield. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t be an author today. Thanks, Dad! I’m more grateful than I can express.”

JESSICA KIM, author of the upcoming MG debut, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (3/17/20).

“I am also so thankful for Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius because it was the first middle-grade book cover I ever saw that featured a contemporary Asian-American character! I also appreciated that it was a hilarious, heartwarming story about friendship, and the plot did not have to revolve around her “other” identity.”

MG Novels in Verse: 5 Authors Share Their Love for the Genre

If you’ve read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, or Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, or Laura Shovan’s The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, or Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree — or any other beautifully crafted novel in verse — you know how powerful this form of the written word can be. Here, five authors of middle-grade verse novels, Thanhhà Lại, Chris Baron, Aida Salazar, Skila Brown, and Ellie Terry, share their love for the genre…and why verse speaks to them in ways prose can’t.

Meet the authors and their books:

Thanhhà Lại is the New York Times bestselling author of INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN (2011), her debut novel in verse, which won both a National Book Award and a Newbery Honor. Praised by Kirkus as “poignant and unexpectedly funny,” INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN is inspired by Lại’s experience as a refugee, fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama. Lại’s other books include the YA debut BUTTERLY YELLOW (HarperCollins, 2019), and LISTEN, SLOWLY (2015), a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year. Learn more about Lại on her website.

Chris Baron, a poet, and professor of English at San Diego City College and director of the Writing Center, is the author of the novel in verse, ALL OF ME (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, 2019). Described by Booklist magazine as “[A] beautifully written and psychologically acute debut,” ALL OF ME follows 13-year-old Ari Rosensweig on a journey of self-acceptance as he battles with his weight, self-harm, and bullying; witnesses his parents’ rocky marriage; and deals with his burgeoning feelings of attraction for his elusive friend, Lisa. Learn more about Baron on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Aida Salazar is a writer, arts advocate, and home-schooling mother whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. Her MG debut novel in verse, THE MOON WITHIN (Scholastic, 2019), was hailed by Kirkus as “a worthy successor to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” and the first-middle grade novel to reflect menstruation from the Latinx perspective. Salazar’s forthcoming novel, THE LAND OF THE CRANES (Fall, 2020), and picture book JOVITA WORE PANTS: THE STORY OF A REVOLUTIONARY FIGHTER (Spring, 2021), are also published by Scholastic. Salazaar lives with her family  in Oakland, CA.  Learn more about Salazar on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Skila Brown is the author of verse novels CAMINAR (2014), inspired by events during Guatemala’s 1981 civil war, and TO STAY ALIVE (2016), told from the viewpoint of one of the members of the Donner Party and described by Horn Book as “a nuanced and haunting portrayal of the indomitable human spirit.” Her two books of poetry, SLICKETY QUICK (2016) and CLACKETY TRACK (2019), are also published by Candlewick. Brown, who received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee and now lives in Indiana where she writes books for readers of all ages. Learn more about Brown on her website.

Ellie Terry is the debut author of FORGET ME NOT (2017, Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan), a novel in verse that centers on astronomy-loving Calliope June, a 12-year-old who struggles with Tourette syndrome—all the while navigating seventh grade at a new school, in a new town. A novel of self-acceptance and the meaning of friendship, School Library Journal hailed Terry’s debut as one that “will stay in the hearts and minds of readers for a long time.”  She lives in southern Utah with her husband, three kids, two zebra finches, and a Russian tortoise. Visit Terry’s website and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

And now, without further ado, the questions…

MR: Authors, your debut novels are written in verse. What is it about this form that appeals to you?

Thanhhà Lại:  I struggled for years writing in prose about a refugee family. Still, the voice never rang true because my long sentences couldn’t convey what it’s like to think in Vietnamese. Once I found prose poems, where sentences were broken into a cadence and where images could be infused into thoughts, I knew I had happened upon the best way for English words to land on a page for my characters.

Chris Baron: Poetry speaks to the heart. We see with more than just our eyes, and the music of poetry helps words sing directly to us. I have always loved the way poetry says more with less; the way the images evoke the emotion in unexpected ways that are sometimes stunning, sometimes subtle. Personally, I feel the most comfortable writing poetry.  I don’t think the world always flows in a linear way all the time anyway, so the idea of finding the right imagery and language to explore what is going on around us, and then articulating the images we see in order to convey meaningful emotion and connection, is a very powerful way to discover stories.

Also, I am drawn to images, and I love the idea that a single image can be foundational to a story. I have always been someone who records things, images, and ideas. When I was a middle grader, I was captured by the Narnia stories–and then I read this C.S. Lewis Quote: ‘The Lion all began with a picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself, ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.'” Something clicked for me then, and I thought: I better write stuff down because you never know when a simple image might become the next story!

Aida Salazar: The first pages I wrote came in verse and in my main character Celi’s voice as clear as day. I had recently read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s verse novel, The Red Pencil. It reminded me to trust my origins as a poet. I remembered that poetry, like love, is powerful and deepens the meaning in our lives. The story I wanted to tell about the blossoming of brown and queer kids lent itself perfectly to the form. I followed the muse in this way until I finished the manuscript.

Poetry is my manantial, the spring from which all my writing flows. Though I also write prose, I always aim for my prose to be infused with poetry and lyricism. This is the kind of writing I like to read and find most intriguing — writing that is rich in metaphor, imagery, and unusual phrasing; writing that enters the emotional essence of a character to show us a truth about humanity that we don’t often see. I love verse novels for these very same qualities. There is a tension at play between elements poetry gives us (economy of words, metaphor, simile, line breaks, white space, etc.) and the standard elements in crafting a story (conflict, plot, character arc, etc.). I love the hybridity of this space. I love this tension. With verse novels you can’t spend too much time waxing poetic because you do have a story to tell but you can bring the poetic point of view into every speech, action and plot point as you go. Verse novels are a wonderful space from which to tell a story that is unique, vulnerable and compelling at once.

Skila Brown: I think poetry is a great way to narrate something that’s hard to digest. Starvation and genocide are tough topics for any reader. Using a poet’s tools, such as white space and symbolism, allow readers of all ages to process what they are able to process in a way that suits them best. Poetry makes these stories more accessible.

Ellie Terry: I love working with words on a smaller scale and getting to literally play with them and arrange them however I want; you know, being able to show readers how the story develops in my brain.

MR: What are the biggest challenges of writing in verse? The biggest rewards?

Thanhhà Lại:  I naturally think in verse because I grew up listening to my mother recite poetry all day. That is how she talks. It is much easier for me to write in prose poems. The challenge lies in using verse for characters who are not thinking in Vietnamese. I haven’t found a way to do that yet.

Chris Baron: I think there are practical challenges. While there are the core elements of fiction at work, plot, character setting, etc., they don’t always function in a traditional way. Dialogue, for example, can often feel uneven compared to the internal thoughts. Or, form… I like to use free verse, but I use many different poetic conventions: syllabics, figurative language, accentual meter. This is all joy, but it can also be challenging because if it isn’t measured or cared for, it can create a sort of anti-rhythm that challenges the reader in an unwelcoming way. I have to spend a lot of time crafting and “performing” the poem out loud to hear the cadences and breaths in the writing. Each poem (or section) must be strong enough to stand on its own. This is true for any chapter, but there is a lot of pressure on the already compressed and concise words in a novel in verse, so even though fewer words are being used, this can sometimes take a lot of time.

I think there is a lot of power in the idea that author is not only focusing on the use of words but also use of all the empty space on the page. Every part of it matters, so authors writing in verse contend with the entire page, the placement of words, and how they come together everywhere. Also, the form allows for the reader to hopefully jump right into the action since the language is so concise. I try to make sure that every poem carries its weight, moves the story, can stand alone, and supply value for the reader–not just in the overall story, but in the immediate moment of reading that specific poem.

Aida Salazar: The challenge in writing a verse novel is to synchronize story and verse so that one does not overshadow the other; to craft them in such a way that they dance beautifully together. In my process, after the initial draft of the story is done, I go back and ask myself a series of questions pertaining to poetry. What is the rhythm of the line? Is there metaphor? Is there figurative and unusual use of language? How do the lines break? Do the line breaks serve the piece? Do the lines perform the text…? When I’ve answered all of these questions exhaustively, and made corrections and enhancements, that is where I find the biggest reward.

Skila Brown: I think dialogue in verse is tricky. Most of us don’t authentically speak in poetic ways in everyday conversation, so writing what our character says aloud can be tough. The biggest reward of writing verse novels for me is definitely hearing from teachers how much reluctant readers and ENL students lovereading verse novels. The smaller word-count and quick page-turns go a long way to keep some readers engaged in the story.

Ellie Terry: The biggest challenge/frustration for me is revision. When writing regular prose, I can easily remove/rearrange words, sentences, but when I’m working with verse, changing just one word often affects the entire stanza/page/poem and then I have to re-work everything. The biggest reward is when a poem comes together to explain exactly how the character is feeling . . . and it hits the reader in the heart.

MR: Somehow, the novel-in-verse form is able to capture characters’ emotions in a way that prose often cannot. What is it about this form that strikes such an emotional chord with the reader?

Thanhhà Lại: Fewer words loaded with images. I combed through INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN and deleted every unneeded word, much like boiling gallons of sap to get a pint of syrup. Without having to wade through a dense fog of sentences, readers can breathe and feel the words allowed on a page.

Chris Baron: There is room in a poem to be raw, vulnerable, and completely imperfect. I think that the novel-in-verse form creates an intimacy with a reader that is immediate, personal, and allows them to hear the tone and cadence of a character’s voice. I think this can create even stronger connections for readers because the form provides greater access to the internal landscape of a character. Poetry also relates to all kinds of readers. There is space on the page, measured breaks, pacing, music, and movement of lines that a reader of almost any level can find their way into. The imagery in a poem is not just about giving the setting but about the way the setting directly interacts and connects with characters’ minds, actions, and emotions.

Aida Salazar: As with all writing, the relationship between the reader and the text is ultimately personal. The power of story is profound. However, with verse, a more intimate layer is accessed because it is one focused on artistry. Through selective and precise language, the poet brings the reader into feelings and thoughts such as a vivid childhood memory, a trivial or deep idea about the world, the helplessness of falling in love, or a struggle with the spirit. The goal is not only to communicate a conflict and a plot but to create art that ignites the senses and the heart and speaks to the humanity in us all.

Skila Brown: I think dialogue in verse is tricky. Most of us don’t authentically speak in poetic ways in everyday conversation, so writing what our character says aloud can be tough. The biggest reward of writing verse novels for me is definitely hearing from teachers how much reluctant readers and ENL students lovereading verse novels. The smaller word-count and quick page-turns go a long way to keep some readers engaged in the story.

Ellie Terry: This kind of goes along with what I was saying above. Poetry is meant to make the reader feel an emotion. If it doesn’t make the reader laugh, cry, get angry, jealous, feel like they got punched in the gut, etc. it isn’t poetry. Also, you know that saying, “Sometimes less is more?” I think that’s true for verse novels. Sometimes less words = more emotional impact.

MR: What advice would you give to aspiring writers of novels-in-verse? Does one need a background in poetry to write one?

Thanhhà Lại:  I didn’t study poetry. I don’t call myself a poet. I write inside a character and if prose poems represent an authentic way to convey that character’s thoughts, then I write in verse. So I am not the best person to detail the preparations involved in a poet’s craft.

Chris Baron: So many kidlit authors have incredibly poetic, lyrical lines in their prose, so the gap isn’t always that wide. I think what has helped me the most is to read novels-in-verse, learn from what master authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Margarita Engle, Joy McCullough, Nicky Grimes, Thanhhà Lại, Kwame Alexander, and others. It always helps to be in a writing community that appreciates and understands the genre. And, I think taking a class or a poetry workshop never fails to inspire, and at the very least, help us to produce more work!

Skila Brown: To me, a “background in poetry” is really about experience with poems. If you’re wanting to write a verse novel, you should obviously read some of the great verse novels that are out there. Lots of them. But you should also spend time absorbing poems. Poems that rhyme. Poems that don’t. Poems for small children and poems for pretentious adults. Songs are great to study too, not just for the lyrics but also for the sound of putting it all together. Hearing the words beat out a rhythm in your soul—that’s poetic training.

Ellie Terry: I don’t think it’s necessary for an aspiring verse novelist to have a background in poetry, but it would certainly be beneficial! Verse is so much more than adding random line breaks to regular prose. It’s about creating white space and directing the readers’ attention to specific words. It’s about syntax and using poetic techniques such as alliteration and metaphors. Reading published verse novels and becoming familiar with poetic devices would be a great place to start!

MR: Thanhhà, Chris, and Ellie: Your debut novels are loosely autobiographical. What are the main differences between you and your protagonists? The similarities?

Thanhhà Lại: Hà [in INSIDE OUT & BACK AGAIN] and I both were born in Vietnam and dropped at age ten into this strange land called Alabama. We both have fathers missing in action. Our mothers are especially similar. Fictional Hà is much spunkier than I ever was. She envisions an upward trajectory within one year whereas it took me a decade to feel like I will be fine. And she’s much funnier. I don’t remember being funny. Mostly I stood alone and shot laser eyes at everyone while trying to make sense of life among Alabamians.

Chris Baron: Ari [in ALL OF ME] is definitely a character born from my experiences, both internally and externally. Like Ari, I have an artist mom, and my parents were just very busy parents. And I had to deal with my weight issues. I had a lot of fun growing up, but it was really hard. I think Ari learns a lot faster than me, though, and he does a good job of listening and learning from his friends. I wish I had done that.  Also, I think Ari is really brave. (I’m working on that too.) The other side of Ari is that he is more of a gentle soul, and I’ve known so many kids like this growing up; kids who would adventure, take risks, challenge themselves, but don’t necessarily want to step on anyone as part of it. I wanted to give some voice for them too.

Ellie Terry: FORGET ME NOT is definitely a work of fiction; however, I did use parts of my life (especially the tics and compulsions and the feelings that go along with those) and incorporate them into the novel and into my main character, Calli. We have a lot in common, but we have a few differences too. For example, Calli is an only child, while I have seven siblings! Calli is also much braver that I was at her age.

MR: Skila: You have published two books of poetry as well. Do you feel as if you need to inhabit a different headspace to write poems?

Skila Brown: Yes. Absolutely. I don’t think in poems usually, so when I’m trying to write a poem, I have to open my mind and loosen my thoughts and really think about a subject from an “outside the box” angle. I need to think not just about content, but about sound and the physical appearance of the words on the page. It’s much more complicated than writing in prose, from that angle. But the precision of it feels very freeing.

MR: Aida: THE MOON WITHIN focuses heavily on issues that often accompany puberty: body image, self-acceptance, sexuality, and sexual identity. What prompted you to explore—and celebrate—these vitally important topics?

Aida Salazar:  I was inspired to write THE MOON WITHIN as my eleven-year-old daughter began to ask questions about her changing body. As a Xicana feminist, I wanted to offer her a different way into the understanding of this important transformation than I had been given. I wanted her experience to be grounded in body positive self-knowledge and self-love, in a connection to her ancestry, and the power that is inherent in all of that beauty. I’ve been a moon disciple for decades — marveling, exploring, and ritualizing our connection to her — through astrology, astronomy, spirituality, and the study of pre-colonial Mexican history. We held a ceremony to honor my daughter’s menstruation that was informed by this love of the moon. As a writer, I wanted to share our experience of this magical ritual through story with other children. I was very intentional about sharing ideas of the beauty and power of menstruation Mesoamerican traditions teach us that departed from the often-negative views of our current patriarchal and colonized society. I wanted to reframe the conversation around menstruation by showing what would happen if we, in fact, honored and revered these processes instead.

To follow up on what you said Aida, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was written almost half a century ago (eek!). Why do you think it’s taken this long for the topic to reappear?

Aida Salazar: This reality is really absurd. How is it that every single person on this planet came from a menstruator and yet, the topic of menstruation is virtually absent in middle grade fictional literature? This is arguably the time when it is most life-altering, when it matters most. It is clear to me that this gaping hole in literature but also in the larger dialectic has to do with the colonial, patriarchal, and puritanical beliefs that are dominant today. These inform how societies, the world over, view menstruation and the feminine body. Girls, women and menstruators of all genders have internalized these predominantly negative views relegating nearly every aspect of our cycles into secrecy and shame.

When I went to search for books to help me present puberty to my own daughter, I found dozens of non-fiction books for adults and girls that were written from a Western European perspective and only a couple from a US indigenous lens. When I looked to fiction, I rediscovered Judy Blume’s novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret– a personal favorite of mine when I was a child. There were no books that spoke to it from a Latina perspective and certainly none from a Mexican indigenous perspective in either fiction or nonfiction. So, I set out to write a novel that would fill that gap for her and other Latina girls. I wanted this book to be “the book” that they passed among friends, as I did with Judy Blume’s book in the 80’s, because they saw themselves in it as girls but especially as Latinas. I wanted to invoke the beauty and magic that happens during such a tender time but one that was grounded in ancestral tradition. My intention was to have Celi’s story help redefine the conversation – the dominant narrative that girls bodies and menstruation in particular are dirty, to be feared or loathed – into a conversation that celebrates our bodies, honors our natural cycles and our natural connection to the moon. I hope this is only the beginning of this reframing.

STEM Tuesday — Chemistry ROCKS! — In the Classroom

 

Having majored in chemistry in college and then going on to teach the course a couple of times, I know how difficult this topic can be for students to understand. But really, chemistry is just the science of what matter is made up of and how it interacts with other types of matter. See? Not so hard at all. 🙂  I get it. Some students need to have more to help them become more comfortable with chemistry.

Here’s a list of things you can try:

Hands on Interaction:  I like to tell my students that the best way to understand chemistry is to think of it like cooking. Say you’re going to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies. You need the ingredients: the flour, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, and chocolate chips. Those are all different parts of matter. Then you mix them together with a certain amount of force by stirring or using a hand mixer. That gives you the cookie batter– a different kind of matter, but the chemical change hasn’t happened yet. Finally, you put the pan of cookie batter into the oven and voila you have cookies. Can’t you just smell the warm chocolate fresh out of the oven and imagine the first bite of gooey chocolate-y goodness?

 

 

During the whole process you are mixing and combining different kind of matter, but it isn’t until you apply heat that the chemical change takes place and you have cookies. Yum! This is a great way to get your students comfortable with chemistry.

 

Unfortunately, it’s not  possible to make cookies with your students in the classroom. Is there a substitute? Yes! Use these books. While it won’t get  you a warm chocolate chip cookie to eat in the end, you can do some pretty cool experiments with food.

Edible Science by Jodi Wheeler-Toppen (NGKids, 2015) is chock full of awesome food experiments! Many of these can be done in the classroom. Try the “Inflatable Marshmallow” on page 42. Kids learn about air pressure by watching a marshmallow expand and contract.

Another awesome one is watching how plants get water (page 9) by placing pieces of lettuce into bowls with different colored water (from food coloring). After a few hours students will see how the lettuce absorbed water through its leaves

My favorite one, though, is making slime (page 60). Your students will love it! This book is also great for homeschoolers since you can do a lot of the experiments in your very own kitchen. Happy experimenting!

 

Kathy Ceceri’s Edible Inventions: Cooking Hacks and Yummy Recipes You Can Build, Mix, and Grow (Maker Media, 2016)  also has some amazing experiments for kids to do with chemistry. She, however, goes a little more out-of-the box and discusses how kitchen gadgets can be used to make butter makers. She ventures into creating gelatin dots, and even agar noodles (don’t eat those!).

Finally, there is a whole discussion of 3D food printing and she gives you instructions on how to use your name-brand building blocks to make your own 3D food printer! Wow! This one is definitely for the more adventurous chemistry cook in your house. It will provide hours of fun.

After they perform each experiment have them analyze their outcome and discuss what happened. This is exactly what real scientists do. 

Questions could include:

  1. Did you get the outcome you wanted
  2. If not, why do you think this happened
  3. Could you repeat this experiment and get the same result? Why or why not?
  4. How is your result different from another team’s? Explain

By asking questions of your students you can help them to create a model to explain what happened. Perhaps they will end up changing the procedure or adding some requirements of their own, ie. use a hand mixer not a spoon to get a smoother consistency for the product.

 

 

2. Add some Fun Facts to your Experiments

Looking for a way to give your students a little more explanation of chemistry terms, and maybe a little history of the subject? Check out these titles, Explore Solids and Liquids! with 25 great experiments  by Kathleen M. Reilly (Nomad Press, 2014) and Explore Atoms and Molecules! with 25 great experiments by Janet Slingerland (Nomad Press, 2017)  have awesome experiments, but also contain explanations to describe the different parts of chemistry.

They have timelines the show the discovery of important scientific events, and also easy-to-understand definitions of words such as atom, molecule, solid, liquid, gas, states of matter, and mixtures and compounds.

These highly energetic texts and enthusiastic illustrations will grab your student’s attention and the experiments are all easy to do. Just follow the directions and you will have a great time in your classroom or homeschool environment.

After reading this book and doing some of the experiments, have students come up with their own examples of matter, molecules, and solids, liquids and gases. 

  1. Ask them to identify these different parts of matter in the things they see around the room or around their house
  2. Did they come up with something that can be both solid and liquid? How would they classify that?
  3. Discuss the types of conditions that might cause these substances to change from one to another.
  4. What types of evidence do they have to indicate the change

 

3.  Tie Chemistry to Literacy

If you have older students who are ready to learn more about chemistry, have them read The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean (Little, Brown BFYR, 2018).  This book gives a lively and interesting history of the scientists who discovered the different elements of the periodic table.

Discovering an element is not as easy or amazing as you might think. In fact, it can be downright dangerous to your health. Ask Marie Curie. Many of these stories are about scientists who defied all odds to come up with a new element or perhaps stumbles upon it accidentally. It is a compelling read for anyone who is interested in becoming a scientist as it gives a behind-the-scenes look at real-life challenges many of the scientists faced.

After reading this book, have your students break up into discussion groups.

  1. Each group can choose a scientist or element and come up with a way to present it to the rest of the class.
  2. Maybe they dress up as the scientist and have them talk about their challenges
  3. Infographics or posters can show their process
  4. Be sure to include the pros and cons of each element (some of them are quite dangerous to humans)
  5. Have them show the element as it is used today (hint: it’s not just a two-letter symbol on a chart)

This is a great way to promote discussion about the periodic table in a place other than the science classroom!

 

Whatever way you choose to introduce chemistry into your classroom or homeschool, remember one thing, HAVE FUN with IT! Students will get enthusiastic about a fun, interactive, presentation and who knows, you may just inspire a future generation of STEM/STEAM careers.

 

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Science ROCKS! And so do Jennifer Swanson’s books. She is the award-winning author of over 35 nonfiction books for kids. Jennifer Swanson’s love of science began when she started a science club in her garage at the age of 7. While no longer working from the garage, you can find Jennifer at her favorite place to explore the world around her. www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com