Curriculum Tie-in

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.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit Still Relevant

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

When beloved children’s book author Judith Kerr passed away in May at the age of 95, I’d been about two weeks into reading to my two sons her classic and still relevant middle-grade novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

This was a seminal book for me as a child: I read it over and over again and vividly remember parts of it to this day. I had great feelings—and memories— for the book, but never particularly thought about who wrote it. When I moved to London 25 years later however, I discovered that in fact its author, Judith Kerr, is the creator of some 30 picture books. This includes one of the most classic children’s books here in England: The Tiger Who Came to Tea which I had immediately fallen in love with.

Two Sequels

In that first year we lived in London, I made another surprising discovery, at least to me: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit actually has two sequels—Bombs on Aunt Dainty which is more upper middle grade or possibly YA, and A Small Person Far Away, which I would also classify as YA or possibly even adult. They’re all fictionalized versions of Judith Kerr’s own story of being a refugee from Germany as Hitler came to power. 

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit starts when its main character, Anna, is nine, and ends when she is 11 going on 12, which is roughly my own age range when I read this book over and over again. Now an adult myself, it was fascinating to read the continuation of Anna’s life into adulthood. And in essence the three books together are a bildungsroman: the story of the artist as a young woman. But while I greatly enjoyed discovering and reading the two sequels, something held me back from re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as an adult. I think I was probably afraid—what if it didn’t hold up to how I remembered it? And when considering a beloved childhood book to read to my kids there is always the extra risk of them hating it, not getting what’s so great about it, or finding it BORE-ING!

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit Still Relevant

But the story in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which was first published in 1971 and takes place in 1933-36, seems highly relevant right now and I sensed my sons were at a good age for it —at least to try. In any case, I needn’t have worried. The two boys, ages eight and ten, were enthralled. Every night they would literally beg me to read, and read more! In fact, the book not only holds up to how I remember it, but is even deeper.

There were several occasions on reading it—and not ones that I remembered from childhood—in which I was moved to tears. And reading the chapters each night with my sons provoked great questions and discussions. The story is not only so relevant now because of the refugee crisis, but it introduces children to Hitler coming to power and to anti-semitism—as well as the idea of racism—in a forthright and age-appropriate way. It “talks up” to them in a way that both the ten-year-old and the eight-year-old could handle and appreciate.

Pink Rabbit and Writing Craft

But it’s as a writer now myself that I marveled most.

Children's Book Still Relevant Today

I can’t find the cover image I remember from childhood but I adore this one from the edition I read with my sons

Judith Kerr expertly crafted When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit yet with the lightest of touches so it’s only now that I realize what a feat the book is.

She is telling the story of her life and her family’s experiences, but instead of it being a series of “this happened,” “and then this happened,” it is all harnessed to a cohesive story that has a beautiful narrative shape. She writes in an afterward that although she “filled in the gaps with invented detail” and was writing in the third person about a girl called Anna (because she felt that as a middle-aged English woman she was no longer the same little German girl that had fled the Nazis) she decided early on in the project “that all the important things must be true—the things that happened, how I felt about them, what we, our friends and the places we lived in were like.”

I have recently been reading many books on writer’s craft as I work on a major redrafting of my novel, and I am struck and awestruck at how Judith Kerr accomplished this. For one thing, there is an efficiency to each vignette so that no episode is random (even if it might delightfully seem that way at first) and each comes together in service of the greater story or theme—which is that Anna doesn’t feel like a refugee because as long as her family has stayed together that is her home.

For another thing, Judith Kerr has a way of mining the quiet moments for their drama and humor, while what is truly frightening or deeply upsetting (especially read through the eyes of an adult) are handled with a feather-weight dexterity so that they are not made light of but they are not so scary so as to no longer be appropriate for a children’s book. I think a lot of this comes down to her success at seeing everything through a child’s eye and staying true to that perspective. She doesn’t shy away from depressing moments, that sometimes one feels low, or that bad things happen. But through it all there’s a general positivity and the assurance of grown ups.

Overall, re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit with my sons, I experienced both nostalgia for how I felt about it as a child, a re-ignition of my love for it, and an all-new feeling of admiration and aesthetic connection. It gave me great joy to read. I wish I could write like her! I will continue to study her novels and figure out just how she did it. Judith Kerr’s work is a huge inspiration to me and children’s literature is richer for her legacy.

 

World Press Freedom Day

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, which celebrates the importance of a free press in a functional society. First organized by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, it’s a day to commemorate journalists around the world who have fought with integrity for a free press.

Here at The Mixed-Up Files, we’d like to celebrate by shining a light on middle-grade books about real and fictional investigative journalists. If you have your own favorite middle-grade book about a star reporter, tell us about it in the comment section!

 

The News Crew, (Book 1: Originally The Cruisers) by Walter Dean Myers
The is the first in a series, which included: Checkmate, A Star is Born, and Oh, Snap! Zander and his crew are underdogs at DaVinci Academy, one of the best Gifted and Talented schools in Harlem. But even these kids who are known as losers can win by speaking up. When they start their own school newspaper, stuff happens. Big stuff. Loud stuff. Stuff nobody expects. Mr. Culpepper, the Assistant Principal and Chief Executioner, is ready to be rid of Zander, Kambui, LaShonda, and Bobbi – until they prove that their writing packs enough power to keep the peace and show what it means to stand up for a cause.

 

 

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter by Beth Fantaskey

It’s 1920s Chicago—the guns-and-gangster era of Al Capone—and it’s unusual for a girl to be selling the Tribune on the street corner. But ten-year-old Isabel Feeney is unusual . . . unusually obsessed with being a news reporter. She can’t believe her luck when she stumbles into a real-life murder scene and her hero, the famous journalist Maude Collier. The story of how Isabel fights to defend the honor of her accused friend and latches on to the murder case makes for a winning middle grade mystery.

 

 

 

The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan by Patricia Bailey

Life in a Nevada mining town in 1905 is not easy for 13-year-old Kit Donovan, who is trying to do right by her deceased mother and become a proper lady. When Kit discovers Papa’s boss at the gold mine is profiting from unsafe working conditions, she realizes being a lady is tougher than it looks. With a man’s hat and a printing press, Kit puts her big mouth and all the life skills she’s learned from reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to work, defying threats of violence and finding that justice doesn’t always look like she imagined it would.

 

 

 

Adam Canfield of the Slash by Michael Winerip

Adam Canfield has to be the most overprogrammed middle-school student in America. So when super-organized Jennifer coaxes him to be coeditor of their school newspaper, THE SLASH, he wonders if he’s made a big mistake. But when a third-grader’s article leads to a big scoop, Adam and his fellow junior journalists rise to the challenge of receiving their principal’s wrath to uncover some scandalous secrets. From a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and NEW YORK TIMES columnist comes a funny, inspiring debut that sneaks in some lessons on personal integrity — and captures the rush that’s connected to the breaking of a really great story.

 

 

 

The Truth About the Truman School by Dori Hillestad Butler

When Zebby and Amr create the website thetruthabouttruman.com, they want it to be honest. They want it to be about the real Truman Middle School, to say things that the school newspaper would never say, and to give everyone a chance to say what they want to say, too. But given the chance, some people will say anything—anything to hurt someone else. And when rumors about one popular student escalate to cruel new levels, it’s clear the truth about Truman School is more harrowing than anyone ever imagined.

 

 

 

Clara Voyant by Rachelle Delaney

Clara can’t believe her no-nonsense grandmother has just up and moved to Florida, leaving Clara and her mother on their own for the first time. This means her mother can finally “follow her bliss,” which involves moving to a tiny apartment in Kensington Market, working at an herbal remedy shop and trying to develop her so-called mystical powers. Clara tries to make the best of a bad situation by joining the newspaper staff at her new middle school, where she can sharpen her investigative journalistic skills and tell the kind of hard-news stories her grandmother appreciated. But the editor relegates her to boring news stories and worse . . . the horoscopes.

Worse yet, her horoscopes come true, and soon everyone at school is talking about Clara Voyant, the talented fortune-teller. Clara is horrified — horoscopes and clairvoyance aren’t real, she insists, just like her grandmother always told her. But when a mystery unfolds at school, she finds herself in a strange situation: having an opportunity to prove herself as an investigative journalist . . . with the help of her own mystical powers.

 

 

Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told by Walter Dean Myers, illus. Bonnie Christensen

This picture book biography introduces the extraordinary Ida B. Wells. Long before boycotts, sit-ins, and freedom rides, Ida B. Wells was hard at work to better the lives of African Americans.

An activist, educator, writer, journalist, suffragette, and pioneering voice against the horror of lynching, she used fierce determination and the power of the pen to educate the world about the unequal treatment of blacks in the United States.

In this picture book biography, award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of this legendary figure, which blends harmoniously with the historically detailed watercolor paintings of illustrator Bonnie Christensen.

 

 

 

Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids by Ellen Mahoney

In the late 1800s, the daring young reporter Elizabeth Cochrane—known by the pen name Nellie Bly—faked insanity so she could be committed to a mental institution and secretly report on the awful conditions there. This and other highly publicized investigative “stunts” laid the groundwork for a new kind of journalism in the early 1900s, called “muckraking,” dedicated to exposing social, political, and economic ills in the United States. In Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids budding reporters learn about the major figures of the muckraking era: the bold and audacious Bly, one of the most famous women in the world in her day; social reformer and photojournalist Jacob Riis; monopoly buster Ida Tarbell; antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells; and Upton Sinclair, whose classic book The Jungle created a public outcry over the dangerous and unsanitary conditions of the early meatpacking industry. Young readers will also learn about more contemporary reporters, from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to Amy Goodman, who have carried on the muckraking tradition, and will get excited about the ever-changing world of journalism and the power of purposeful writing. Twenty-one creative activities encourage and engage a future generation of muckrakers. Kids can make and keep a reporter’s notebook; write a letter to the editor; craft a “great ideas” box; create a Jacob Riis–style photo essay; and much more.