Diversity in MG Lit #28 June: Summer!!

wild horsesFriends, it has been a long and challenging year. I feel equal parts hope and exhaustion going into the summer break. Mostly I’m looking forward to being outside. I will be spending my summer going to wilderness to research my future stories. I’m so grateful for public lands and all the advocates who have made access to the wilderness possible.
At the same time I’m keenly aware that wilderness spaces can feel very unwelcoming to some communities of color and very inaccessible to the disabled. We all need open spaces. People of every race and continent have worked to defend the wilderness. I have just one book recommendation this month. If it were in my power I’d give this to every family in the world to encourage them to enjoy the wilderness and to do the work of protecting the earth.
Cover of The Wild World HandbookThe book is The Wide World Handbook: how adventurers, artists, scientists–and you–can protect earth’s habitats by Andrea Debbink, illustrated by Asia Orlando (Quirk Books). It introduces nine world ecosystems: mountains, forests, deserts, polar lands, ocean, fresh water, cities, rainforests, and grasslands.
Each ecosystem chapter includes biographies of people whose work impacted that ecosystem positively. A few of the people were well known: Wangari Maathai, Ansel Adams, and Jules Verne for example. Most were new to me. They included Bob Coomber, a wheelchair-using advocate for accessibility in the wilderness. Junko Tabei, a pioneering Japanese mountain climber and the first woman to summit Everest. And Rue Mapp, a black woman who created the blog Outdoor Afro. She encourages Black people to learn about the ways they have been denied access to public lands and encourages them to engage fully with the wilderness. She launched a movement towards inclusion that now numbers 35,000 members in 80 locations across the US.
I would have recommended this book if it only had biographies, but it is so much more. For each ecosystem there is a facts page, a natural wonder, and an environmental success story. I particularly appreciate this focus on the positive. Though we do need to learn all the ways we are harming the earth, we will never get to the changes we need if we don’t also include the things we’ve done that help.
high desert flowersThere are DIY projects for each ecosystem, including practical things like hiking sticks and bird houses, and also art projects using natural materials. Best of all there are suggestions for field trips and stewardship opportunities. I hope you read this book but more than that I hope you get outside this summer and spend sometime taking in all the wilderness has to offer. And I hope you all, teachers, students, and parents, return to school next year with renewed vigor and a heart for all the wild things of the earth.

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.