SLJ Best Books 2021

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‘Tis the season of giving and gratitude, and we at MUF are grateful to spy several of the authors we admire most make the School Library Journal Best Middle-Grade Books of 2021 list.

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The prestigious list includes 139 titles from seven categories, this year including “a breakout list of poetry.” (SLJ)  Many congratulations to all the authors. We’ve been lucky to feature two of them on our We Need Diverse MG Mixed-Up Files series and we’d love to feature more stars from the rest of this list in the coming year.

Chad Lucas

WNDMG Letting Boys Be Boys

Thanks A Lot, Universe Book Cover

Saadia Faruqi

Saadia Faruqi author photo

9-11 Book List and Yusuf Azeem is not a Hero book cover

Chrystal Giles

Take Back the Block book cover Chrystal D. Giles author photo


Shakirah Bourne

Josephine Against the Sea book cov erShakirah Bourne author photo



WNDMG-Interview With Ann Clare LeZotte

I am delighted to welcome Ann Clare LeZotte to The Mixed-Up Files blog to talk about her award-winning book, SHOW ME A SIGN and her new release, SET ME FREE. I’ve never met Ann in person, but we are Twitter friends, and I’m a big fan, so I jumped at the chance to get to know her a little better.  

Let’s do this! 

Lisa: Tell us about Show Me A Sign and Set Me Free.

Ann: They are the first two books in a trilogy about a girl named Mary Lambert who lives in Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1800s. Mary is deaf, but that’s not unusual. In her town of Chilmark, hereditary deafness is common (I in 4 are born deaf) and all the descendants of English colonists speak a special form of sign language, which we now call Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). But we see that people outside of her community view deaf people as inferior. Both books include members of the Wampanoag Nation who are fighting to keep their land. Mary is very curious and independent and had many exciting and some frightening experiences. The books are a combination of (if I may say so) well-researched historical fiction and adventure stories.

Lisa: How did you come to learn about the deaf community in Martha’s Vineyard?

Ann: I lived on Cape Cod in the 1990s and I visited Martha’s Vineyard for the first time in the winter. It was a cab driver from the airport to my bed and breakfast who told me about the island’s history of deafness. I became immediately fascinated!

Lisa: How did you research this project?

Ann: On that first trip, I visited the Chilmark Free Public Library and local bookstores. I asked a lot of questions—using my pen and pad, I wasn’t using oral speech at the time. Everyone was very friendly. From there, I visited the island other times. I walked the land I was going to write about. I studied many texts and old maps. I had sensitivity readers whose input was crucial in understanding all the perspectives in the community. I believe in showing characters in an engaging but also realistic way, prejudices and all.

Lisa: How do your life experiences impact the stories you tell?

I grew up on a different island—Long Island, New York. Like Mary, I was a beachcomber from a young age. I’m Deaf, and it’s important for me to share my history, language and culture in books. Deaf people experience a great deal of prejudice, called ableism or audism, which must be acknowledged and dismantled. There are some painful personal echoes in the books. Like Mary, I lost my brother too young. Like Ladybird, I was the victim of childhood abuse and neglect.

Lisa: How did you decide the best way to translate sign language into written text?

Ann: Many people describe what signs looks like. I think that’s fine, but I try not to do it too much. Sign languages are fluid languages and I prefer to describe character’s styles of signing. It shows the individual personality. Like Ezra Brewer whose hand are “old and gnarled” but he “gathers words out of the air.” Anytime I was stuck in a conversation (and I have to always remember to situate everyone correctly and have an interpreter in sight) I’d put myself in the scene and it naturally worked out.

Lisa: What books did you like to read when you were growing up? Do those books influence your writing?

Ann: I was language deprived as a small child. That’s not uncommon, especially as I was born deaf in the 1960s, but, sadly, even today. My parents tried to include me in the reading experience in creative ways—like the ways Mary and Ben find to communicate nonverbally. I had a book of Aesop’s fables from my grandmother. I was fascinated by the not exceptional illustrations of the animals—Jerry Pinkney did them perfectly later in my life– and made up my own story. But I was a poor student, and it took years for me to catch up. Oddly, the first middle grade novel I could easily read from cover to cover was Daniel Pinkwater’s Lizard Music.

Lisa: When did you decide you wanted to become a writer and why children’s books?

Ann: I said I was going to become a writer before I could do it—very daring! I started writing short, lyric poetry in college. That was the first time anyone told me that I could write. Once I started working at the library, with a focus on marginalized kids and teens, I saw what was and what wasn’t on the shelves. I saw kids searching for themselves and not finding good representation. Then I realized (many years later) what I’d do with that initial Martha’s Vineyard research and how I could share Deaf history with all young readers.

Lisa: What advice would you give twelve-year-old Ann?

Ann: Don’t give up! Twelve was an awful year. I was so badly bullied and ill from my pulmonary disability that the school paid for me to stay home with tutors. I felt alien, like the world somehow disallowed me. I never thought any of this was possible. It took a long time, but I somehow didn’t give up. I’d tell myself that my experiences and my story mattered and eventually someone would see it.

Lisa: What do you hope readers will take away from Show Me A Sign and Set Me Free? 

Ann: One thing I’ve asked kids for years is, which is the problem? That I can’t hear or how people treat me because I can’t hear? I want to create not just compassion but respect for d/Deaf kids. We’re capable (even remarkable) if given the chance. I like that Mary is a helper. She could stay at home after Show Me a Sign and hide from the outside world. But she learns of a deaf girl who is in a terrible situation, and she feels she has to go. She’s not a perfect tutor, by any means. At age fourteen, she’s more stubborn and passionate than ever. But she can and does make a difference. Make the leap, especially in service to others. You can be a hero too.

Lisa: What are you working on now?

Ann: There will be a third and last Show Me a Sign book in 2023, if all goes as planned. I’m working in a totally different medium, which is challenging and exciting. I can’t say anything yet. Keep your eye out.

Thank you and kiss-fist!

About Ann:

Ann Le Zotte is completely deaf and a bilingual-bicultural (ASL/English) member of Deaf community. Ann supports every kind of D/deaf person and the choices they make in terms of communication (she is oral and lipreads) and assistive hearing devices (she doesn’t wear any).

She has worked in public library youth services for over twelve years, with a focus on intergenerational ASL literacy and inclusive programming. An inclusive cis lesbian (she/her), she was a pioneer in working with LGBTQIAP+ teens in her district. She loves helping young patrons find books they like and they’ve taught her how to play Minecraft.

Born and raised in Long Island, NY, Ann has travelled widely and lived in Athens, Greece and Cape Cod, MA. She currently resides with her family in Gainesville, FL. She had a Hearing Dog named May who worked at the library with her for many years. Her bundle of joy is a small rescue dog named Perkins. He rarely barks, because he knows it won’t get Ann’s attention.

Ann’s Social Media Links:






WNDMG — Interview and Giveaway with Karla Arenas Valenti

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We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado



Cover art by Dana Sunmar

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Karla Arenas Valenti, author of the extraordinary new MG novel, LOTERIA. This story blends the magic with the real in the spirit of much Latin American literature, and takes places in Mexico. As a writer who strives to celebrate diversity in language and culture in my writing, I found this book especially inspiring and had lots of questions for Karla.

Diversity as a Transformative Experience

APP: Karla, I very much enjoyed reading LOTERIA! Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions.

I love it when authors mix languages and incorporate diverse cultural perspectives in literature. Is that something that you feel was important to this story, and to your other writing.

KAV: Absolutely! In fact, this was one of my objectives in writing “diverse” literature. I see diversity in storytelling as having two prongs: (a) writing or illustrating stories in which all readers can see themselves (diversity serves to ground the reader in the familiar) and (b) writing or illustrating stories that diversify the reader’s experience (diversity serves to transform the reader).Of course, I hope that readers will see themselves in LOTERIA (as I do), but I also wrote this book with the intent of diversifying the personal experience of non-Mexican readers. My goal was to plunge readers into life in a Mexican city: experiencing sounds and sights that are familiar to children in Mexico; exploring culture themes and ideas that are common and beloved in Mexico. By immersing readers in this “diverse” world, I hope they will be transformed, incorporating aspects of this new world into their existing one.

Exploring Big Questions

Illustration by Dana Sunmar

APP: I love that idea, literature as a transformative experience.This book is about one girl but it is also about a philosophical question – whether or not there is free will. How did you come to write about that and why?

KAV: I am a philosopher at heart and am always exploring big questions. As a writer for children, I always try to pose some of these big questions in my stories. This one (the one about free will vs fate) was one I had been trying to write about for many years.

I wanted to find a way to pose the question and present both sides of the argument in a thought-provoking and engaging manner for children. It occurred to me that a game of chance would provide a perfect setting. The question was, which game?

As it turned out, my father provided the answer when he came to visit us and brought a reminder of home: a LOTERIA game set. As we laid out the boards and shuffled the cards, the story began to take shape in my mind and before I knew it, Life and Death had made their grand appearance.

APP: As a  critical and creative thinking teacher, I love the idea of introducing big questions through stories. When you are writing, how important is it to you that your stories make your readers think?

KAV:All of my stories explore some “big” question, whether in a picture book format or a novel. In fact, my biggest challenge as an author is not straying too far in the weds with the big ideas. But making sure there’s enough of a plot to keep my readers engaged.

Extraordinarily Ordinary


Illustration by Dana Sunmar

APP: There certainly is plenty of plot to keep readers very much engaged in Loteria! I enjoyed the relationship between Life and Death, both of whom are characters in the book. Did you base these characters’ personalities purely on your imagination or are they grounded in Mexican folklore and/or belief systems?

KAV: Catrina is a beloved Mexican figure that I cannot take credit for. And in a way, she created Life, for he needed to be her equal – as riveting and wise as Death – in order for the story to work.

APP: I found their relationship very interesting. Yet, they are not the main characters in the story. The main character is an eleven year old girl named Clara. Was it important for you that Clara not be particularly good at anything or have any special talents or abilities?

KAV: Thank you for pointing this out. Yes! This was a deliberate choice. I wanted Clara to be “extraordinarily ordinary” precisely to show that her transformation from ordinary to heroic was not the result of a special trait but rather the ordinary magic that lived within her.

Twists and Turns

APP: I love the idea of being ‘extraordinarily ordinarily’ and still being the main character in a book. As it turns out, her experience is anything but ordinary. Clara is the focus of an extraordinary game played by Life and Death. Did you invent the game of Loteria as it is played in this book, or is this based on an actual game that is played by people?

KAV: It is an actual and very popular game in Mexico. The game is a bit like Bingo with a board that has a grid of sixteen boxes on it. Each board has different images printed on each of the boxes (instead of numbers as is traditional in Bingo).

The game master (cantor) will flip a card from a deck of 54 cards and call out a riddle that relates to that image. Once the players figure out the riddle, they must find it on their board. If they have that image, they place a token on that square. The first person to get four squares in a row wins the game.

APP: Well, now I really want to play the game myself! Solving the riddles sounds like fun. On another note, I was quite surprised at how the story ended. Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us if you changed your mind about how the story would end while writing it? Or did you know the end from the beginning?

KAV: I knew pretty early on how I wanted the story to end. However, I needed the philosophical justification to make sense. So, I was very deliberate in how I built up the arguments for free will vs fate along the way, such that by the time the reader got to the end, it would all make sense. Unfortunately, that was not at all how things panned out in my first draft.

Ironically, the fate I had planned for Clara did not unfold as I intended. And I had also argued Life and Death into a philosophical conundrum that I could not resolve. What did I do?

You’ll laugh, but I had to give Clara free will to tell the story as she wanted it told. To my great surprise (and relief!) she came up with an answer to the question of free will that I had not anticipated. And it also led to the surprise ending!

Challenge by Design

APP: Wow, that is amazing and it really works for the story. Congratulations on a masterful plot! Ia m wondering about the challenges you faced as you wrote this story.

KAV: The biggest challenge I had was making sure the philosophical debate lined up with the plot, and that every argument (for or against free will) unfolded seamlessly in Clara’s life. My second challenge was making sure I didn’t get too lost in the philosophical aspects of it all. Fortunately, my brilliant editor (Katharine Harrison), was able to give the right amount of guidance to make this work!

APP: Yay for brilliant editors, and editors who are willing to take on books that explore stories from diverse perspectives that may not quite fit mainstream narratives. I find that much Latin American children’s literature is a bit edgier than what is often published in the United States. Did you feel that your book was pushing the limits a little bit or were you confident that it would appeal to a US audience?

KAV: Yes, and that was by design (part of my attempt to diversify the experience of non-Mexican readers).

What’s Next?

APP: I think you definitely accomplished your goal! What’s next for you as a storyteller?

KAV: I am currently working on a second book for Knopf. This is not in the LOTERIA world but will have similar elements: a big philosophical question, magical realism, set in beautiful Mexico. I also have a number of picture books coming out in the next two years with Knopf and Chronicle. As well as a number of story drafts in the pipeline.

And here are some upcoming events:

APP: That is wonderful! I look forward to all of them!

And now for the giveaway! Karla and her publisher have generously agreed to give away a copy of LOTERIA, with beautiful illustrations by Dana Sunmar, to one lucky winner – U.S. entries only please.

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