Posts Tagged debut novel

WNDMG – Guest Post – Christina Li Why Kids Need Diverse Middle Grade

Christina Li
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

 

Happy New Year,  from all of us at We Need Diverse MG … and WOW, are we excited it’s finally 2021!

For our first entry in 2021, we’ve got a real treat: a guest post from debut author Christina Li. We’re excited to tell you all about Christina’s debut novel, CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins) … but first, a great reflection from Christina on why kids need diverse middle-grade books.

Christina Li

Photo credit: Bryan Aldana

Guest Post: Christina Li

See it and Be it: Why Kids Need Diverse Middle-Grade books 

By Christina Li

One of the texts I read at the beginning of high school was Emily Style’s piece, “Curriculum as Window and Mirror”, in which she described literature taught in education as a series of mirrors and windows. Later on, I also read a piece in which Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop added that literature can be viewed as not only mirrors and windows, but also sliding glass doors. More often than not, literature is made of books that are “windows”—in which you can peer through and see the experiences of others, or “sliding glass doors”, in which you can walk in and experience the author’s story as a participant. Sometimes, literature ends up being a “mirror”, in which you can view experiences that reflect your own identity, culture, and upbringing.

Growing up, I never had thought of literature as mirrors or windows or sliding glass doors—books were simply just escapes for me. I grew up as a shy child–the kind who, when the teacher called on the class to share their answers or their work, would silently hope to not get picked because even the thought of reading a paragraph aloud to the class terrified me. And so, naturally, I fell into books. I read about kids going on epic quests and facing down fearsome monsters and saving the ones they loved. I read about them standing up to bullies and finding a voice.

((Like Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s sliding glass doors perspective? Read this archived MUF post here which also investigates windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.))

Seeing Through Windows

It didn’t really register in my mind that for the most part, the books I were reading had main characters who didn’t look like me. I didn’t realize that for the most part, I was looking through windows, until I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. It was a Chinese mythology-inspired middle grade novel about a young girl named Minli who, upon hearing magical tales from her father, sets out to change her family’s fortuneIt wasn’t just that I fell in love with the book itself, with its enchanting magic, the sweeping quest of crossing lands to find fortune for one’s family, and the talking dragon (because who doesn’t love talking dragons?). It was that Minli was the first Asian protagonist I’d ever come across, and looked like me and spoke the language that I spoke and was clever and resourceful and caring. It was that the story referenced the cultural details that I also grew up with. It was that I was, for the first time, finally looking into the mirror.

Being the Hero

I didn’t realize for so long that I was seeing myself only passively portrayed in books—if at all—until I finally saw myself actively reflected in a story. I saw myself as someone who could be the hero of the story—someone who could take charge and speak up, someone who could go on her own adventures and actively shape her destiny. And moreover, I saw myself as someone who could write those stories as well. I raced through the rest of Grace Lin’s books, and just weeks later, I began slowly brainstorming story ideas of my own. And the following year, when the teacher asked for volunteers to share their pieces during the creative writing unit, I was one of the first to speak up and volunteer.

In my experiences as a reader and a writer, seeing yourself—your identity and background and culture—reflected in books is one of the most validating things in the world. You’re no longer a passive observer; you actively relate to the narratives in the story. You see little cultural elements and details included in the book that you’re familiar with and you feel a small, comforting connection. You see characters who look like you take on struggles and challenges and epic adventures with bravery and resilience, and you think, I can be brave too.

Serving as Mirrors

Over the years it’s brought me so much happiness, as an Asian reader and writer, to see and read more and more diverse middle grade books with protagonists of Asian descent. And it’s been such a validating experience to write Asian middle grade stories of my own. In my own debut novel, Clues to the Universe, it was an absolute joy to write one of the main characters, Ro, a biracial Chinese-American girl. I loved including small details from my own Chinese-American upbringing, from pastries to jasmine tea to having Ro’s mother address her with the same endearing term that my own mother addressed me with. And moreover, I loved having Ro’s character shine on the page, with her hopes and fears and dreams. She was a fearless and inventive scientist. She had sky-high ambitions but was also struggling with grief and loss. She embraced her Chinese culture. She wasn’t afraid to speak out on behalf of her friends and her family. And most importantly, she was unquestionably and uncompromisingly the hero of her own narrative.

And that is truly what diverse books do, and what I hope to accomplish with my books: to include narratives that help serve as mirrors. That can help readers feel seen. That help kids feel like they can—and deserve to be—the heroes of their own stories.

About CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE

Clues to the Universe

On the surface, Rosalind Ling Geraghty and Benjamin Burns are completely different. Aspiring rocket scientist Ro normally has a plan for everything. Yet she’s reeling from her dad’s unexpected death, and all she has left of him is a half-built model rocket and a crater-sized grief that she doesn’t know how to cope with. Artist Benji loves superheroes and comic books. In fact, he’s convinced his long-lost dad, who walked out on his family years ago, created his favorite comic book series, Spacebound–but has no way to reach him.

Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners. But when a mix-up turns the unlikely pair into friends, Benji helps Ro build her rocket, and Ro helps Benji search through his comics—and across the country—to find out where his dad truly could be.

As the two face bullying, loss, and their own differences, Benji and Ro try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.

CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE publishes next week … on January 12, 2020.

Christina Li

Christina Li is a student studying Economics at Stanford University. When she is not puzzling over her stats problem set, she is daydreaming about characters and drinking too much jasmine green tea. She grew up in the Midwest but now calls California home. You can find her here:

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Exploring THE PLACES WE SLEEP with Author Caroline DuBois

I have a new guest for you, today! She’s written a tender, moving tale in verse that journeys a young girl through everyday details while living during a time of national crisis. The first words of this story made me pause and take notice. And the rest, poked me right in the heart to the end. The writing is beautiful and real, the story is important, and the growth of the main character is hopeful. I’m very excited to share The Places We Sleep with you and welcome Author Caroline DuBois to share her thoughts about the book.

Hi Caroline! It’s wonderful to have you visit our Mixed-Up Files family. Let’s share your beautiful cover and story with readers first.

THE PLACES WE SLEEP

by Caroline DuBois

A family divided, a country going to war, and a girl desperate to feel at home converge in this stunning novel in verse.

It’s early September 2001, and twelve-year-old Abbey is the new kid at school. Again.

I worry about people speaking to me / and worry just the same / when they don’t.

Tennessee is her family’s latest stop in a series of moves due to her dad’s work in the Army, but this one might be different. Her school is far from Base, and for the first time, Abbey has found a real friend: loyal, courageous, athletic Camille.

And then it’s September 11. The country is under attack, and Abbey’s “home” looks like it might fall apart. America has changed overnight.

How are we supposed / to keep this up / with the world / crumbling / around us?

Abbey’s body changes, too, while her classmates argue and her family falters. Like everyone around her, she tries to make sense of her own experience as a part of the country’s collective pain. With her mother grieving and her father prepping for active duty, Abbey must learn to cope on her own.

Written in gorgeous narrative verse, Abbey’s coming-of-age story accessibly portrays the military family experience during a tumultuous period in our history. At once personal and universal, it’s a perfect read for fans of sensitive, tender-hearted books like The Thing About Jellyfish.

If you would, share with our readers one book from your childhood that has stayed with you, and how can children’s authors in today’s unsettled world achieve this same unforgettable feel?

Mary Norton’s The Borrowers sparked my imagination as a child. My librarian mom introduced it to me. Norton’s world-building of tiny people living in the walls and borrowing from the people with whom they lived was pure escape for me from the big complicated world.

Children’s authors in today’s uncertain world can achieve this same unforgettable feel by either delivering children to a rich land of imagination, or by providing children a story in which they can see themselves. Then they can envision and dream of ways they can be and all the things they can achieve.

What made you decide to write “The Places We Sleep” in verse?

Abbey’s story came to me naturally in poetry, perhaps as a lyrical way to process 9/11 and my brothers’ deployment, but also likely because I’d recently completed my MFA in poetry. It began as more of a character sketch through poems and eventually turned into a story. I wanted to write about how world events have rippling effects on individuals and familial relationships in unexpected ways. The snapshots or scenes that poems allow you to write provided me with the perfect medium.

Your description of poems being scenes is fascinating and also beautiful. It definitely worked. How much of the novel is inspired by your own experience growing up in the South in a military family?

Although I did not grow up in a military family, both of my grandfathers served in the military, as well as both of my brothers, my brother-in-law, and my sister-in-law. Abbey’s story is about being a military child, but it’s also about many other things—identity, loss and grief, creating art in the face of tragedy, tolerance and acceptance, and friendship. It’s about how world events can touch individuals in large and small ways.

That they do. ♥ This couldn’t have been an easy story to write. What was the most difficult part?

I faced two specific challenges in writing this story. One was creating full, round characters through poems. And the other was making decisions about how to approach a national tragedy age-appropriately and sensitively. Having a great editor at Holiday House and a sensitivity reader helped with both.

Why do you think this story is important for the middle-grade audience?

Middle grade students I’ve taught often have had only a fuzzy understanding of the events of 9/11, and the nonfiction texts they’ve typically enjoyed the most in my classroom were almost always couched in a narrative story. I hope Abbey’s story will spark curiosity in young readers about 9/11 and the monumental lessons we learned and are still learning from that tragedy. I hope the book will leave readers with a memorable story about a girl who may not be all that different from themselves. Furthermore, I hope student readers are gently nudged to learn the names of others with whom they share classes and hallways and to act with kindness and dignity to those they may not know or understand. Maybe it will even inspire some young reader to choose to deal with life’s challenges through art or poetry or other forms of creativity.

Inspiring young readers to engage in conversation about the events of 9/11 is a wonderful.

How much research did you do for the story?

I lived through 9/11 and began writing and reading about it immediately thereafter. Additionally, I’ve had various family members in the military as well as taught students who experienced and still experience islamophobia. I conducted research as I was writing the story, as well as mined the living resources around me to create as authentic a portrayal of the historical backdrop to the story as I could.

What can young readers expect from your main character Abbey?

I hope that young readers can see themselves in Abbey as she navigates challenging world events along with the struggles of middle school and adolescence. Currently, teens and children are facing their own difficult world events. I hope readers see how Abbey perseveres and strives to be a good friend, to be kind, and to express empathy and tolerance to others.

All extremely important traits, especially in today’s world. Do you have any advice for librarians and teachers on how to encourage middle schoolers to give in verse books a try?

Books in verse make great shared read-aloud opportunities. You’re never too old to be read to or to enjoy reading aloud to someone else. Another way to inspire and hook a child on the joy of reading is by giving a book talk. Where an educator may not have time to read an entire chapter, there’s always time for a poem or two. And once one student starts reading it, the likelihood is that his or her friends will pick it up too. Books in verse create more white space between scenes as well as playful or dramatic visual messages with syntax, punctuation, and form, which can motivate adolescent readers.

Circling back to my first question, what do you hope stays with your readers after they read this story?

Perhaps The Places We Sleep will spark curiosity in young readers about 9/11 and the monumental lessons we learned and are still learning from that tragedy. I hope student readers are gently nudged to learn the names of others with whom they share classes and hallways and to act with kindness and dignity to those they may not know or understand. Maybe it will inspire some young reader to choose to deal with life’s challenges through art or poetry or other forms of creativity.

Here’s a little bit more about Caroline:

Caroline Brooks DuBois found her poetic voice in the halls of the English Department at Converse College and the University of Bucknell’s Seminar for Young Poets. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, under the scholarship of Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Tate, among other greats in the poetry world.
DuBois’s writing infuses poetry and prose and has been published by outlets as varied as Highlights High Five, Southern Poetry Review, and The Journal of the American Medical Association and has been twice honored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her debut middle-grade novel-in-verse, The Places We Sleep, is published by Holiday House and to be released August 2020.
DuBois has taught poetry workshops, writing classes, and English at the middle school, high school, and college levels. In May 2016, she was recognized as a Nashville Blue Ribbon Teacher for her dedication to her students and excellence in teaching adolescents.
DuBois currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she works as an English instructional coach and sometimes co-writes songs for fun with her singer-songwriter husband. She has two teenage children and a dog, Lilli, and she enjoys coaching soccer and generally being outside.
WEBSITE | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM

Thank you for sharing some of your writing journey with us, Caroline! All the best with The Places We Sleep.