For Teachers

A tribute to E.L. Konigsburg

The eyes of the children’s literature world will be on Philadelphia on Monday, January 27 as the year’s most outstanding books for children are recognized at the American Library Association’s annual Midwinter Meeting.

Beginning at 8 a.m., more than 20 awards will be announced, including the Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Printz, Schneider Family, Pura Belpre and Stonewall awards.

The eyes of the authors and illustrators whose works are in contention will be on their phones, waiting for that predawn phone call, from one of the committee members involved in this momentous decision.

According to Newbery Medal winner Linda Sue Park, who received the award in 2002 for her beautiful story, A Single Shard, there are only five authors who have received that life-altering phone call twice. Yep, you read that right. Twice.

They are;

Joseph Krumgold, And Now Miguel, (1954) and Onion John (1960)

Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1959) and The Bronze Bow (1962)

E.L. Konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968) and The View from Saturday (1997)

Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia (1978) and Jacob Have I Loved (1981)

Lois Lowry, Number the Stars (1990) and The Giver (1994)

And, there is just one author who, when she picked up the phone in 1968, learned that she was not only the Newbery Medal winner, but also a recipient of the Newbery Honor book award as well for her title, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth.

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That person is none other than the author who inspired and continues to inspire this group of middle-grade authors, E.L. Konigsburg.

She was born Elaine Lobl in New York City, one of three daughters. The family moved to various mill towns in western Pennsylvania. Elaine, who graduated at the top of her high school class, made a nontraditional choice (for women of that time) and attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) and studied chemistry. She continued her graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh. A job opportunity in Florida for her husband led to a science teaching position at a private school. The nature of her career path changed as she both became a mother to three children, born between 1955 and 1959, and her growing family moved to Port Chester, N.Y. Elaine felt inspired to pursue a more creative path, revisiting her childhood passions for writing and painting. As Elaine offered in an interview in a piece in Reading Teacher in 1998, she wanted to “write something that reflected my own children’s growing up.”

The rest is history.

In The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Claudia says to Mrs. Frankweiler that “you should want to learn one new thing every day.”

Mrs. Frankweiler responds, “I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”

Here’s to allowing all that we know to swell up inside of us until it touches everything.

As a side note, having written, Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller, note that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Mark your calendar to follow the ALA’s awards via live webcast on Facebook or by following #alayma on Twitter.

 

Diversity in MG Lit #13 A Look At the Numbers

I am so happy to be back at the Mixed Up Files after a hiatus of a few months. I wanted to kick off the new decade of my series Diversity in MG Lit with a look at the numbers. Many of you are familiar with this infographic from Reflection Press by Maya Gonzalez. I like this one because it shows both where we are and how far we need to go to achieve something that looks like equity.

The number of books published in a given year don’t tell the whole story. Here are some other statistics that give both a fuller and a more encouraging picture.
  1. The NY Public Library recently published its list of the 10 most checked out books in NYPL history. Obviously this structure gives great advantage to the oldest books. Even so the number one spot went to The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats first published in 1962.  Fifty-eight years ago it was the first picture boy to feature a black boy as a main character. It was popular immediately and has been ever since As a bookseller I listen to authors and illustrators a lot. Hundreds of them over the years and many of our most prominent POC writers and illustrators, black men in particular, have pointed to The Snowy Day as a seminal influence on their work and their belief that there was a place for them in the world of books.
  2. The Flying Start feature of Publishers Weekly is designed to highlight up and coming authors and illustrators. In 2019 the Spring Flying Start list featured  2 of 5 or 40% diverse writers including Tina Athaide for Orange for the Sunset and Carlos Hernandez for Sal & Gabi Break the Universe. The Fall Flying Starts included 4 of 6 or 66% diverse creators: Brittney Morris for Slay, Christine Day for I Can Make This Promise, Joowon Oh for Our Favorite Day, and Kwame Mbalia for Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,
  3. Our newest National Ambassador for Young Peoples Literature is Jason Reynolds, a brilliant choice. Even better, his selection makes 4 of the 7 people (57%) to hold this position Persons of Color. The others are Walter Dean Myers, Gene Luen Yang, & Jacqueline Woodson. 
  4. The American Booksellers Association holds its Children’s Institute every spring. In 2019 five out of seven (71%) keynote or featured presenters were POC. Of the 67 authors and illstrators that publishers brought to the conference to meet independent children’s booksellers from all over the country, 38 or 57% were of diverse backgrounds. (including disabled and LGBT+)
  5. The National Council of Teachers of English was held in November of 2019. Seven of their 10 keynote speakers were diverse. If you looked at all 28 of their featured speakers, you’d find 57% of them were POC.
  6. And finally the 2020 midwinter American Library Association will meet in just a few weeks. This year all six of their featured speakers are diverse. 100%!
I find those data points encouraging. We still have a long way to go, but it is nice to see that teachers, librarians and booksellers are taking leadership in demanding a more diverse representation at our professional conferences. And if you are wondering what you can do—just one person—to make a difference I have three suggestions.
  • Buy diverse books from an independent bookstore. Big box and on line retailers are never going to care about the welfare of authors or readers of any demographic. Indie booksellers do care and they have consistently over decades proven the best venue for making best sellers of little known or debuting authors.
  • Take a moment on social media to call out the folks that are working hard to help diverse books find parity. I’ll start: Hey fellow Portlanders our 2020 Everybody Reads author is Tommy Orange who wrote There There. He is Cheyenne and Arapaho and lives the urban Indian experience in California. His book is amazing! I can’t wait to talk about it with my neighbors and friends.
  • If you don’t see a diverse book you love in your school or library or bookstore, ask for it. Ask regularly. Schools, libraries and bookstores are here to serve you, the public. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about what you want and what you need. Help us out! Change comes when we stand up and say something.

Writing Exercises—Ways to Warm Up Your Students’ Brains

A lot of times we talk about using writing exercises as a warm up for our “real” writing. But I was curious: Do most writers really do this? I don’t typically warm up by doing a writing prompt. Instead, I enjoy going for a run on a wooded trail before I sit down to write in the morning. It’s not just the exercise but being out in nature that inspires me. I often solve some writing snag while I’m in the thick of the forest. I stop and look around, soaking up the feel of the wind, the sun, the sky.

I thought I’d throw the question out to other children’s book writers: How do you wake up your brain before diving into your work? Here’s what they said:

  • Listen to music
  • Go for a walk
  • Stretch
  • Reread what was written the day before
  • Listen to a poetry podcast
  • Journal
  • Eat a good breakfast
  • Look at a photo and write about it
  • Create a word bank
  • Review research related to the topic of the book (for nonfiction)

You might want to help your students become mindful of what gets them warmed up to begin writing. Maybe they do like beginning with a writing prompt. Or doodling. Or passing out the writing folders to the other students to get up and moving. Here’s a way to help you (or your students) find out.

Have your students do an experiment: As a class, come up with four different ways to wake up the brain before beginning a writing assignment. A few you could try include:

  • Listen to soothing music
  • Stretch or do simple yoga positions
  • Write from a writing prompt
  • Free journal
  • Take a walk around the school (if possible, outside)

Each day, have the class try one method followed by their usual writing assignment. Afterward, have each student write down how they felt about it:

  • Did you feel your writing flowed more or less than usual after the activity?
  • Did you feel more or less energized?
  • Did you feel more or less focused in your writing?

After the experiment concludes, discuss as a class what students learned about what helps them warm up for writing. Which method was most useful? Why? They may be surprised!

Need some writing prompts? Here are some good ones:

https://www.journalbuddies.com/prompts-by-grade/fun-writing-prompts-for-middle-school/

https://www.dailyteachingtools.com/journal-writing-prompts.html

https://www.lindsay-price.com/playwriting/the-ten-best-writing-warm-ups/

https://www.writingmindset.org/teach/2018/3/24/how-to-rock-a-focused-writing-warm-up