Posts Tagged Diverse Middle Grade Books

Toni Morrison’s Middle-Grade Legacy

Honoring a Middle-Grade Legacy

Toni Morrison (1931-2019) left an essential legacy for middle-grade readers, even though she didn’t write directly for them. You won’t find her books in the MG section of the bookstore, nor are they on the reading lists for the 4th-8th grade set, as are the novels we talk about here on this blog. And yet, many of her characters were middle-grade children, and most of her themes had to do with the formative experiences of those years, experiences that ground and shape us as adults. So, when she died on August 6th, I gave myself permission, based on those reasons, to pay homage to her here.

Doors and Mirrors

I wanted to honor her brilliant and groundbreaking work as a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and her crucial role in bringing forward many of the threads of the African-American narrative to the larger American conversation. But even more than that, I wanted to talk about how she opened doors for a new generation of passionate, creative authors who write a wider, more diverse world for young readers. By doing that, she lifted up mirrors for children to see themselves in a rainbow world. She painted a world in which we could all be beautiful. As a writer and a woman of color, I am deeply grateful to her for the path she forged.

We could all have beauty

It’s Personal

The truth is, my gratitude is both professional and personal.

When I was in college in the mid-eighties, I read  THE BLUEST EYE (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1970), and I cried over Pecola and her desire for blue eyes.

The Bluest Eye book cover

My deep sadness wasn’t just for Pecola though–it was also for me and my own secret childhood desire: I too wished I had blue eyes. Like Pecola, I bought into the standard of White beauty that didn’t include my mixed-race identity, and certainly not my brown eyes, hair, or skin. I actually wished away my Black heritage.

And because, like any self-respecting young teenager, I vigorously rejected everything my parents told me, I didn’t believe them when they told me I was pretty. I knew I wasn’t. To be pretty, I needed to have not just blue eyes, but also straight, blonde or at least light brown hair. Hair that did what Farrah Fawcett’s or Jaclyn Smith’s did. Not curly, unmanageable, humidity-challenged like my own. Fawcett and Smith were my version of Pecola’s and Frieda’s admiration of Shirly Temple.

 

Definitions of Beauty

Fortunately, finally, I evolved and learned to identify and reject my own racism. I lived in Africa for a few years and discovered a treasure trove of literature that celebrated dark skin and curly hair. I reexamined THE BLUEST EYE and saw more clearly what Morrison was saying about what beauty is, and what it isn’t.

Morrison clarified even further when she said, in an Afterword published in 1993, “…the novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her (a friend who, like Pecola, wanted blue eyes)…The assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common on all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.”

Attitudes about beauty can be destructive.

I wasn’t necessarily “cured” of my own internalized assumptions, but that’s a whole different story. I did, however, continue to grow, and as I did, other writers of color were adding their voices to the joyful noise: Ntozake Shange, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, bel hooks, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker.

Middle-Grade Genre Growth

Over the glacial timeline that is publishing, the middle-grade genre has exploded as a viable commodity, as has the demand for diverse books and #ownvoices authors. Today, it’s delightfully harder to assume the “white default” with many fictional characters because they’re not the only ones on the tableau. I’m not saying the characters-of-color have reached parity – not by a long shot. But their numbers increase every year, and I’m thrilled to witness and be a part of that growth.

Thank You

I believe we owe that in large part to Toni Morrison, and so for that, I say, THANK YOU. Thank you, Ms. Morrison, for being the light, the creative force, the energy, passion, and intellect that will continue to shine long past the years you were here with us.

“And so here I am now. Here we all are. Toni Morrison as light, as way, as ancestor. And the many writers she has left in her wake, and the many writers coming after, and those after them, will hopefully always know this: that because of her, we are.” – Jacquelyn Woodson, from her tribute essay in the Washington Post,  August 11, 2019

And because here at the Mixed-Up Files … of Middle-Grade Authors, we do booklists, here’s one for Toni:

Book List in Honor of Toni Morrison

brown girl dreaming book cover

BROWN GIRL DREAMING, by Jacqueline Woodson

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.

 

Moon Within Book Cover

THE MOON WITHIN, by Aida Salazar.

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

Genesis Begins Again book cover

GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN, by Alicia D. Williams

There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant—even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see. When your dad is a gambling addict and loses the rent money every month, eviction is a regular occurrence.

shadowshaper book cover

SHADOWSHAPER, by Daniel Jose Older (Actually YA, but appropriate for older MG readers)

With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one. Now Sierra must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.

A Good Kind of Trouble book cover

A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE, by Lisa Moore Ramée

twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

One Crazy Summer book cover

ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia

Eleven-year-old Delphine is like a mother to her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. She’s had to be, ever since their mother, Cecile, left them seven years ago for a radical new life in California. But when the sisters arrive from Brooklyn to spend the summer with their mother, Cecile is nothing like they imagined.

Karma Khullar's Mustache Book cover

KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE, by Kristi Wientge

Karma Khullar is about to start middle school, and she is super nervous. Not just because it seems like her best friend has found a newer, blonder best friend. Or the fact that her home life is shaken up by the death of her dadima. Or even that her dad is the new stay-at-home parent, leading her mother to spend most of her time at work. But because she’s realized that she has seventeen hairs that have formed a mustache on her upper lip. Read author Kristi Wientge’s interview here on this blog.

Mexican Whiteboy Book Cover

MEXICAN WHITEBOY, by Matt De La Peña

Danny is brown. Half-Mexican brown. And growing up in San Diego that close to the border means everyone else knows exactly who he is before he even opens his mouth. Before they find out he can’t speak Spanish, and before they realize his mom has blond hair and blue eyes, they’ve got him pegged. But it works the other way too. And Danny’s convinced it’s his whiteness that sent his father back to Mexico.
That’s why he’s spending the summer with his dad’s family. But to find himself, he may just have to face the demons he refuses to see–the demons that are right in front of his face. And open up to a friendship he never saw coming.

 

Meet Jess Butterworth, Author of Running on the Roof of the World

Our next middle grade spotlight is directed on a book brimming with adventure, intrigue, and culture. And it’s written by an incredibly sweet author! Let’s meet her now.

Jess Butterworth – As a child Jess wanted to be many things, including a vet and even David Attenborough, but throughout all of those ideas, she always wanted to write. She studied creative writing as a BA(hons) at Bath Spa University, where she won the Writing for Young People Prize in 2011. She then completed a Master’s in Writing for Young People, also at Bath Spa University, and graduated in 2015. Her first two novels, RUNNING ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD and WHEN THE MOUNTAINS ROARED are set in the Himalayas. Find her on Twitter & her Website.

Welcome to our Mixed-Up site, Jess! So glad you stopped by.

Thanks for having me here.

Let’s begin with when you were a child. Did you have a special someone read to you? And was reading a big part of your life as a middle grader?
As a young child, my grandmothers and parents would read to me often, which I adored. Apparently I refused to go to bed without having several stories read to me beforehand. My absolute favorite books were The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Dear Zoo and Where the Wild Things Are.
When I was a middle grader, it was Matilda by Roald Dahl that accelerated my love of reading. Just like in Matilda, books transported me to different worlds and countries from the comfort of my own home and you’d often find me in the library in search of adventure stories.

You chose great reads as a child!

What motivated you to write this story? Where did you find your inspiration?
As a child, I grew up between India where my dad’s family lived, and the UK, where my mum’s family lived. In India, our home was in Dharamsala in the Himalayas, where the Dalai Lama and a Tibetan community in exile live. Growing up I had lots of friends who were Tibetan and whose family had made the journey over the mountains from Tibet into the safety of India. Writing has always been my way of making sense of the world around me and when I was visiting my dad in the Himalayas in 2013, I learnt about the current abuse of human rights within Tibet. Tashi’s voice soon appeared in my head and I started writing.

Wow, what an intriguing childhood environment to grow up in. It’s very touching how Tashi’s voice came to be.

Speaking of Tashi, there’s a violent act that plunges her into a new story and completely changes her world. How did you decide to use this act and the oppression of her people, and did the violence of it give you concerns for your readers?
I try not to avoid the difficult situations within the world in my writing, but rather make sure that there’s a sense of hope in the story. I aim to show that it’s possible to go on, even after a terrible thing has occurred, by focusing on universal aspects such as friendship, kindness and love. Running on the Roof of the World is grounded in real events and settings which made me feel it’s important to keep that moment in. I also included moments of lightness and laughter and even though there are political undercurrents throughout, it’s very much a middle grade adventure story too.

I really love this answer. 

This story gives vivid insight into the Tibetan daily life and culture. How much research did you do and how much of that research made it into the book?
When I realized I wanted to write this book, I returned to Dharamsala and did six months of research. During that time, I studied Tibetan Buddhism, attended Dalai Lama teachings, trekked into the Himalayas and went in search of yaks. I also interviewed many Tibetan people. There was definitely a lot of research that got cut along the way, but I think it still helped to have that knowledge in the back of my mind, especially with writing in a first person viewpoint. My favorite research moment was spending time with the yaks!

Very cool! And your efforts in research definitely show throughout this book. What do you hope readers take away from this story?
A small insight into a part of the world they not have been aware of before, and a sense of hope and wonder.

Are you working on anything new? What can your readers expect from you next?
My second book is another middle grade adventure called When the Mountains Roared and is inspired by my Grandma, who in the 1960s rescued a baby kangaroo joey as she was leaving Australia, and took it with her by boat to India. The story is set in the present and follows Ruby, who’s devastated when her dad uproots her from Australia to set up a hotel in the mountains of India. Not only are they living in a run-down building in the middle of the wilderness surrounded by scorpions, bears and leopards, but Ruby is sure that India will never truly feel like home—not without her mum there. Ever since her mum died, Ruby has been afraid. Of cars. Of the dark. Of going to sleep and never waking up. But then the last remaining leopards of the mountain are threatened and everything changes.

Your family has lived such interesting lives! I love that you’re touching upon that to share them with the world through your books. It’s been such a pleasure having you visit. Thank you!

RUNNING ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD

There are two words that are banned in Tibet. Two words that can get you locked in prison without a second thought. I watch the soldiers tramping away and call the words after them. ‘Dalai Lama.’

Tash has to follow many rules to survive in Tibet, a country occupied by Chinese soldiers. But when a man sets himself on fire in protest and soldiers seize Tash’s parents, she and her best friend Sam must break the rules. They are determined to escape Tibet – and seek the help of the Dalai Lama himself in India.

And so, with a backpack of Tash’s father’s mysterious papers and two trusty yaks by their side, their extraordinary journey across the mountains begins.

Join 12-year-old Tash and her best friend Sam in a story of adventure, survival and hope, set in the vivid Himalayan landscape of Tibet and India. Filled with friendship, love and courage, this young girl’s thrilling journey to save her parents is an ideal read for children aged 9-12.

Readers, do you know any fun facts about Tibetan life? Have you read any other stories about it?

Indie Spotlight

Our Indie Spotlight shines today on Barstons Child’s Play, in McLean, Virginia.

The combination toy/bookstore actually has four locations in the Washington, D.C. metro area, and has been around for about 30 years.  MUF spoke to the whole team responsible for curating their wonderful book collection: Molly Olivo (Book Buyer for all 4 stores), Sara Hemming (McLean Book Manager), Bregette Poore (McLean Store Manager), and Steven and Simmie Aarons (Owners/Founders).

MUF: What does your bookstore (within a toy store) offer that makes you a special place to for readers to go buy books?

As a company, we are big believers in the importance of finding the joy in childhood reading (and play).  We pride ourselves on finding the right book for every child and building relationships with our customers. We focus our attention on the kid reader- what they find interesting and what they want out of their reading experience.  If we can spark a love of reading in a child with a book picked especially for them, we have completed the most important step in creating a lifelong reader.  We have worked hard to create a book store that is solely for the kids.

– Molly Olivo

We are able to capture a unique audience of kids that includes avid readers and kids who might never step into a more traditional book store. It is a real joy to see both sides of the store evolve and grow with our customers.

– Simmie Aarons

MUF: What’s your favorite part about this job?

The kids! Being able to discuss Ron Weasley with a 10 year old who just finished Harry Potter or discovering a giggling 6 year old with their head stuck in the Day the Crayons Quit is incredibly rewarding.

– Molly Olivo

Talking to the kids every day makes the job not feel like work. The real reward for me, however, is having a child that we almost lost as a reader come in for their second or third book that week. It sometimes takes setting aside all projects for the day and sitting with a child, reading the first page of stacks of books to find the one that ignites the spark. Not every child will love reading every book, but our goal is to get every child to love reading.

-Bregette Poore

MUF: What are your strategies for competing with big bookstores and online retailers?

Big bookstores and online retailers can never give you the indie experience.  We are providing customers with high quality service, staff that care about their kids, and individualized recommendations that have nothing to do with publisher marketing budgets or algorithms.  At the end of the day, our passion for books and kids has helped to set us apart, and we hope that our customers continue to value that and keep coming back.

– Molly Olivo

MUF: One of the many things to love about your store is the obvious care you take with making books look interesting. Browsing is so much fun here!

One of our favorite features is that we’re always changing the department and displays. One of the considerations in our displays is representation and diversity. We had a kindergarten teacher come in whose student was not engaged in reading because none of the stories were about anyone like her. She was shocked at how many options we had to build up her classroom library. We sometimes forget the importance of representation until you hear a kid exclaim, “Finally! Someone who looks like me!” when picking up a book. Every year I’m surprised by the emotional response to our Black History and Women’s History month displays when we think that is the bare minimum for a bookstore to cover.  We were also proud to promote the Children’s Book Council’s Reading Without Walls Challenge last year that awarded children for reading outside their comfort zone.

– Sara Hemming

MUF: Another fabulous new feature is the “blind date with a book”— books already wrapped up with just a few clues about what’s inside. What fun, to guess what’s inside the packaging and then get to read it!!

MUF: As middle grade authors, we’re always curious to know what titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending the most to readers ages 8-12? Which books seem to be flying off the shelves right now – on that same age range?

Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid has been one of our favorites recently.  Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis work so incredibly well together, and it is such a fun adventure with something for everyone.  

Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic from Armand Baltazar is really fun and unique. 

Graphic novels have also been super hot recently.  Amulet and Nimona are always favorites at Child’s Play.

One of our favorite underappreciated backlist titles is The Seventh Most Important Thing, by Shelly Pearsall.  It is empathetic, surprising, and incredibly interesting. It also has the added bonus of being set in DC and based on a piece of art that is at the Smithsonian.

 

MUF: We’re so glad to get to know you all. Congratulations on your continued success and huge thanks for being such a strong supporter of books and kids.