Posts Tagged Diverse Middle Grade Books

Indie Spotlight: Ashay ByThe Bay, Black Children’s Bookstore Vallejo CA

Given the challenges of the pandemic, many independent bookstores have turned  increasingly to online sales to survive. Deborah Day, founder and CEO of  “The #1 Black Children’s Bookstore,” Ashay By The Bay, Vallejo, California, made hers an online shop from the beginning in 2000. It survived the recession of 2008 and is still going strong. Fittingly, Ashay is a powerful Yoruba word that means “it shall be so.” It is also Deborah Day’s given name.

So! Day has developed an engaging and user-friendly website (www.ashaybythebay.com) with over 800 titles, from  baby books to picture books to fiction and nonfiction for middle grade and young adult readers. Most have black American and African subjects, themes, and characters.  But since there is a large Latin American community nearby she also has school collections of Spanish and bilingual books for them. More about her school collections in a moment.

It’s exciting to see so many books for kids about black culture, people, and history gathered onto one curated site. I have now added several titles to my staggering must read pile. For instance, though I’m not a fantasy or science fiction fan at all, I can’t wait to read Tomi Adeywmi’s West-African inspired fantasy, Children of Blood and Bone.  Before the week is out I will probably also dip into Nnedi Okarafor’s imaginative and highly praised tale of magic and adventure in Nigeria, Akata Witch. As Day understands, good books for kids are good for everybody!

Before COVID, Day advertised grew her business by going to events, holding book fairs, and helping groups to conduct book fairs. She loved making in-person contacts that way. Now that those events are no longer possible she is relying more on social media ads, and she is hearing from people across the country.

The Pandemic also poses a challenge to her goal of getting children’s books about black subjects and black experience into the schools where they can have more impact on students’ understanding. Few schools are buying books right now and many students are doing distance learning. What an important time to build a home library, Day says. Of course there are many digital book available online, but the students are already screen-weary from school work. Day loves books and believes and holding a book to read is a more satisfying experience.

During shutdown, people can consult the Ashay website for the lists of the book collections, organized by age/grade e level, that Day offers to schools, and find ideas for books to order. These collections include many core curriculum books, but also give a chance for some independent publishers to become better known. Here are just a few of the many titles on her lists for middle graders:

Biographies: The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (Young Readers’ Edition) by Kamala Harris ; Portraits of African- American Heroes, by Tonya Bolden , including figures from dance, law athletics, science, and more. Who Was Jesse Owens? By James Buckley and Gregory Copeland; Brave. Black. First, 50+ African American Women Who Changed the World, by Cheryl Hudson; Hidden Figures, Young Reader’s Edition, byMargot Lee Shetterly; Black Women in Science: A Black History Book for Kids by Kimberly Brown Pellum;

Award-winning Fiction:

P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia; The Season of Styx Malone, by Kekla Magoon; Harbor Me by Jaqueline Woodson; Ghost and Look Both Ways, by Jayson Reynolds; A Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson;Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes; The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

Nonfiction:

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba;28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World by Charles R. Smith; The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love, and Truth, edited by Wade and Cheryl Hudson; Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men who Changed America, by Andrea Davis Pinkney.

The Arts:

Radiant Child: The story of Young Artist Jean Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe; Who is Stevie Wonder? By Jim Gigliotti; The Legends of Hip Hop by Justin Bua; The Rose That Grew from Concrete,by Nikki Giovanni and Tupak Shakur; Poetry for Young People: African American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersad and Marcellus Blount; Who is Stevie Wonder? By Jim Gigliotti and Who HQ’; Misty Copeland: Life in Motion.

December 2020:  an ideal time to get to know more about black culture from the excellent books being published for children.   It’s also an ideal time to give beautiful, real books to children who’ve been doing schoolwork online all day. And let’s please bypass the chains when we buy these books (Amazon will survive the economic crisis) and support independent booksellers like Ashay instead. A triple win!

 

 

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?