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.

The Seed of Something Great – An Interview with Story Seeds Podcast Creator Sandhya Nankani

A few weeks ago I was visiting a writing class and mentioned a podcast called Story Seeds. At first I thought maybe I was doing a bad job explaining it, but then I realized the collective silence of the room wasn’t confusion – it was utter amazement.

Photo credit: Marj Kleinman

“Is this real?” someone finally asked.

Is it ever! And today I’m sharing my interview with Story Seeds creator and executive producer, Sanhya Nankani. She told me all about the development of this quite amazing project, as well as her path toward producing content for young readers.

CL: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Sandhya! Let’s start with your journey to children’s media – can you give us a glimpse into the path that led you to the work you do now?

SN: Well, I have a pretty non-traditional background and don’t quite fit into a box or a linear path in terms of my path! I studied history, got my masters degree in International Affairs, and once upon a time, planned to work in international development…but I was always passionate about the written word, media, and communication. I finally joined the “publishing” world in 2004 when I was almost 30 – at Weekly Reader Classroom Magazines, where I was part of the literacy magazines group. I edited a magazine called Writing for Teens and also got to work on some proof of concept digital experiments; this was the time when digital magazines were just making inroads.

From there I moved to more formal educational publishing at Scholastic, where I worked in the English Language Arts group on some iterations of their successful product READ 180. This is where I cut my teeth on developing curriculum and teacher materials and parsing standards and began thinking about how to create engaging kids content that can also support curriculum.

Then, in 2008 or so, I ventured out on my own and started my studio Literary Safari!

I’ve always been interested in the intersection between print and new media and how innovations (whether it’s POD, digital content, audio, or apps) can be applied to the content that children engage in and consume, I guess — and playing and experimenting with it. 

CL: What a cool journey! So one of the things coming out of your studio is Story Seeds, which is all about taking an idea and helping it grow into something bigger. That seems to be true of the podcast itself, as well – can you take us through the beginnings of that idea and how it blossomed into a fully produced show?

SN: As an editor of Writing for Teens magazine, I worked with lots of young writers and authors, and there was one project I’d helped launch called The Weekly Writer where an author started a story and kids helped them continue it on a weekly basis — we would pick a paragraph each week. This was a web-based project, but I’ve always thought about the collaborative nature of it and loved working on it. Then, a few years ago, Literary Safari worked as vendor for an educational publisher where we commissioned diverse trade authors to write leveled chapter books for the classroom market. Ideas (what I called story seeds) were provided to us by the publisher and I worked closely with authors to help them grow the seed into a story. During this project – we created 75+ books, including graphic novels – I started thinking about this wonderful author network that I had built over the years and what joy I derived from it, as well as about how the seeds were sometimes not that great and one day I remember saying to myself, “I wonder whether kids would have better ideas than this!”

When we finished the project, I was eager to continue working closely with authors – I had enjoyed it so much, especially the process and challenge of matching authors to story ideas – we worked with Jerry Craft, Derrick Barnes, Traci Sorell, and several more award-winning authors on that project —  and I was eager to find a way to do that for a wider audience.

CL: So collaboration has obviously had a big role in your creative life – can you share a bit more about the role collaboration has played in your various pursuits?

SN: When my daughter was little, we used to do what I called “studio” time, where we would collaborate — she would tell me a story or the beginning of a story, and I would ask her guiding questions and she would talk and I would write and she would draw. I’ve always looked back on that experience and thought about how it was empowering for her as a child to be heard, to get to illustrate and think out loud even when she couldn’t write, and what it meant for us to put our heads together and collaborate — and all of those things definitely inspired the “seed” for Story Seeds – because as a mom, as a creative, as a producer and as an educator, I really believe that young people need spaces where they can be empowered and have their voices heard and centered. 

I’m also very interested in interdisciplinary collaboration – as I’ve seen how people from different technical backgrounds and fields create rich experiences when they come together. I’ve created some apps for kids such as HangArt, for example, and the development of that was driven by the intersection of art & words in the formation of literacy, and showing how they are not separate from each other but support one another in learning and in play. 

CL: Well, your list of collaborators in Season 1 of Story Seeds is pretty impressive – names like Dan Gutman, Jason Reynolds, and Veera Hiranandani just to name a few. How did you connect with so many talented people?

SN: I have always had a radar for noticing new talent and diverse voices. Early in my career I received a grant from the Asian American Writers Workshop for example to help diversify a collection of grades 9-12 Language Arts textbooks published by then Holt, Rinehart and Winston Elements of Literature textbooks. Since then, I’ve also worked with authors, commissioning them to write original works for the publishers that employed me.

Connecting with authors took a bit of digging and detective work to figure out how to reach them and who would be a good match for what. That was something I always loved, but mostly it takes being brave enough to bring an idea to them and ask them if they want to be a part of bringing it to life. That is what I did with Story Seeds – once we had selected ten story seeds and kids to feature on our first season, I made a list of authors who would be good matches for them (it was a bit like matchmaking) and then tracked down the authors or their agents and shared the idea about the show. We were super lucky to have uber librarian Betsy Bird as our podcast host, and she was an incredible

Story Seeds host Betsy Bird | photo by Sonya Sones

resource to us in the match-making process as well, with suggesting authors when as well. I feel very fortunate that most of the authors we approached signed on right away and felt connected to our mission of empowering kids and were excited to collaborate with them.

CL: So with that said, do you have a favorite episode of the podcast?

SN: That is like asking a mom to name her favorite child!!! I love them all and each one, like one of your favorite books, had a special story behind the story – whether it was how the kids were matched up with authors, a production adventure, or the way in which the author and kid connected. What I found amazing was the deeper level of connections each of our “matches” had when they finally met up — that was something none of us could have predicted.

For example, Jason Reynolds and Irthan both had a deep love of music and commitment to social justice which you hear on Episode 10, and Sulaf and Susan Muaddi Darraj both love Agatha Christie on Episode 8, on Episode 1, Dan Gutman and Hannah were finishing each other’s sentences, and on Episode 7, Carlos Hernandez and the twins Siri and Zarana collaborated in a way that went beyond what we had imagined as producers of the show, and well, Veera Hiranandani and Willa were such deep thinkers who shared a common experience of school on Episode 2 and so on. 

CL: Well, one of MY favorite things about the podcast in general is the activity book that goes with it. Can you explain a bit about what the activity book is and how it works?

SN: Yes! IMAGINATION LAB: Experiments in Creativity is a companion to Story Seeds and features QR codes that kids can scan to listen to an episode of the podcast, then launch their own creative experiments in writing, reading, and STEAM. It’s techie yet screenfree! For each episode, we have created activities and printables that go hand in-hand and that showcase themes, author’s craft and tips, and draw listeners into their own imaginations. We tried to tie the activities to different disciplines because we strongly believe that storytelling is a doorway to learn about EVERYTHING in the world. It has made me immensely happy to hear early praise for the book from many teachers and parents, as well as Geek Dad!

CL: As you know, our focus here at Mixed Up Files is middle grade books and resources for the middle grade audience – do you have a favorite middle grade book? How has it shaped your thinking as you work on projects in the media world?

SN: The middle grade books that I’ve recently been drawn to are ones that tell stories that I never had access to as a young person growing up in the United States – or as an immigrant coming here at age 12. Over the past few years, it has been extremely gratifying to read the books of authors Saadia Faruqi (A Place at the Table), Rajani LaRocca (Midsummer’s Mayhem), Veera Heeranandani (The Night Diary), Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington), Roshani Chokshi (Aru Shah series), Varian Johnson (The Parker Inheritance) whose stories reflect my experiences, my middle grade dreams and ambitions (mystery solver, sleuth, etc.!). But I would have to say that the book I most recently read that just knocked me over is Daniel Nayeri’s Everything Sad is Untrue which I wrote about here at my Instagram.

CL: SO many great books! My TBR list is already a mile high, but I may have to climb up there and add Daniel Nayeri’s new book to the top 🙂 So what’s next for you, Sandhya? Any new seeds you’re planning to cultivate this coming year?

SN: I always have my thinking cap on about new ways to meet kids & families at the interaction of print and digital media — and am brewing some ideas that are growing out of this pandemic experience and my thinking about where we can go from here in terms of the lessons and opportunities around storytelling and learning.

I’m also actively working to figure out how to make a second season of Story Seeds. The response to the show has been so incredible – it does require resources to continue producing a show that has this production value and to continue to bring authors of this caliber together with kids and to have a host like the wonderful Betsy Bird. So we are looking for sponsors who see the value in reaching kids and families and understand that the power of a podcast is not just as a new media form that is growing, but also that it provides the opportunity to reach listeners directly in their ears and to communicate with them in a meaningful way. We are also shopping around some ideas for an “interactive” book series that features  the original  stories that appeared on Season 1.

At my studio Literary Safari, we’ve been creating a collection of culturally responsive lessons to support teachers in literature instruction for McGraw Hill Education. That has been very gratifying and it’s good to be involved in a project that will have impact and give teachers a permission slip to talk about race, social justice, and inclusion in a meaningful way.


Many thanks to Sandhya Nankani for taking the time to chat with me! If you haven’t already, I highly recommend checking out Story Seeds, Literary Safari, and Sandhya on twitter/instagram.

Until next time!