Posts Tagged middle grade books

Great Reads for Young Music Lovers

Here are seven great reads for young music lovers, both fiction and nonfiction.  These books feature—in unusual ways— musical theatre, young players of instruments, and the great eras of the musical past You’ll encounter a wheelchair actor and a time-traveling jukebox.  You’ll also discover a life-changing family secret. A not-so-extinct tiger. Tales-out-of -school about the Beatles!

Just out from Abrams this month is THE CHANCE TO FLY, by Tony-Award winner Ali Stroker and acclaimed author and playwright Stacy Davidowitz.  Ali Stroker made history in 2019 as the first actor in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway. 13-year-old Nat Beacon, her  main character in the THE CHANCE TO FLY, also gets around with a wheelchair. Nat is obsessed with Broadway musicals. When her family moves from California to New Jersey, she auditions for a kids’ production of Wicked. She not only gets into the ensemble, but she gets to know the cute male lead. Then a week before opening night, things get really challenging! Kristin Chenoweth, Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress and singer,  says of this story: “The perfect read for any dream chaser . . . You’ll realize how unlimited your possibilities are.”

BROKEN STRINGS, by Canadian children’s writer Eric Walters, and Katy Kacer, award-winning writer of Holocaust fiction and nonfiction, (Puffin Canada, 2020).  It is a story about the power of music. Shirli Berman, the best singer in her Jr. High, auditions for the lead in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” She gets the part of the old Jewish mother instead. But she decides to make the best of it, so she rummages through her grandfather’s attic for props. She shows him an old violin she finds, and he becomes angrier than she has ever seen him be. Shirli is determined to find out the reason, and an old family secret comes to light.

JUKEBOX by Nidhi Chanani (First Second, 2021) is a time-bending magical family quest story. Shaheen’s father disappears, leaving behind only a mysterious juke box, some old vinyl records, and some notes on music history. When Shaheen and her cousin Tannaz try to figure things out, they turn to the jukebox, which begins to glow. It transports them back through to other eras of music, decade after decade. Will they find Shaheen’s father?

For some nonfiction time travel through the great eras of music, read TURN IT UP!: A PITCH-PERFECT HISTORY OF MUSIC THAT ROCKED THE WORLD (National Geographic Kids, 2019) It traces the origins of all genres of music, from tribal, to classical, to folk, to jazz and blues, to rock, to rap and hip hop. Other topics  include instruments, sounds, and styles.  There is a wonderful glossary of musical terms at the end.  (Not as ‘new’ as most other titles in this post, TURN IT UP! is a timeless treasure for young musicians and music lovers).

In Michelle Kadarusman’s MUSIC FOR TIGERS (Pajama Press, 2021), Louisa, a passionate young middle school violinist, has to go off for the summer to stay with eccentric Australian relatives. There she learns about a mysterious place called Convict Rock, a sanctuary  her great-grandmother set up for the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tigers.  Convict Rock is now under threat from a mining operation. The last tiger must be moved, but it hasn’t trusted any human since her great-grandmother. The more she learns, the more Louisa thinks her own music may be the key to saving the tiger.

Twelve-year-old Rose Brutigan and her twin brother Thomas couldn’t be more different. In GIANT PUMPKIN SUITE by Melanie Heusler Hill (Candlewick, 2021), serious-minded Rose focuses  on winning the upcoming Bach Cello Suites competition,  Her brother is just trying to grow a giant pumpkin in their neighbor’s yard. An accident causes Rose to reexamine her priorities and connect with the community.  Subplots abound in this well-told coming-of-age story.

THE BEATLES COULN’T READ MUSIC? is Dan Gutman’s latest in the series, WAIT? WHAT? (Norton Young Readers, 2023), illustrated by Allison Steinfeld. With Gutman’s famous madcap humor, the sibling narrators of this unique biography, Paige and Turner, reveal little known facts of the rock stars’ lives, from their childhoods through their years of world fame as a group. Both accurate and hilarious.

Apologies in advance if I’ve added to your already tottering must-read pile!

Author/Illustrator Spotlight: Carole and Jeffery Boston Weatherford

You’ve in for a special treat, Mixed-Up friends! Joining us on the blog today are Carole Boston Weatherford and Jeffery Weatherford, the author-illustrator/mother-son duo behind the middle-grade verse novel, Kin: Rooted in Hope. The novel, which explores the history of Carol and Jeffery’s family tree, shaped by enslavement and freedom, has been hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a layered text that highlights the perseverance of the Weatherfords’ ancestors and the horrors that they endured,” and by Kirkus as “a striking work that reshapes the narrative around enslavement.” It’s out tomorrow, September 19, from Simon & Schuster.

A Summary of Kin: Rooted in Hope

Carole and Jeffery Boston Weatherford’s ancestors are among the founders of Maryland. Their family history there extends more than three hundred years, but as with the genealogical searches of many African Americans with roots in slavery, their family tree can only be traced back five generations before going dark. And so from scraps of history, Carole and Jeffery have conjured the voices of their kin, creating an often painful but ultimately empowering story of who their people were in a breathtaking book that is at once deeply personal yet all too universal.

Carole’s poems capture voices ranging from her ancestors to Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman to the plantation house and land itself that connects them all, and Jeffery’s evocative illustrations help carry the story from the first mention of a forebear listed as property in a 1781 ledger to he and his mother’s homegoing trip to Africa in 2016. Shaped by loss, erasure, and ultimate reclamation, this is the story of not only Carole and Jeffery’s family, but of countless other Black families in America.

Carole and Jeffery Boston Weatherford: The Interview

Carole and Jeffery… Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files. It’s honor to have you here! Carole: Kin is told from a fascinating array of perspectives. In addition to accounts from your ancestors, the Copper family, key figures include: Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; your ancestors’ enslavers, the Lloyd family; an archeologist; Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Non-human narrators are represented, too: Wye House; the Chesapeake Bay; a cemetery. How did you inhabit each character as deeply, and as authentically, as you did?

CBW: I realized after writing my first verse novel, Becoming Billie Holiday, which was in first person, that I had this ability to channel the voices of my subjects. I ask my characters to speak to and through me. It helped that I grew up visiting my great-grandparents’ house in the area. So, I was already rooted in the land long before writing Kin.

The Magic of Scratchboard Art

Jeffery: While we’re on the subject of illustrations, Kin features more than 40 black-and-white pieces of scratchboard art. Can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers more about this medium? What made you choose scratchboard for this particular book?

JBW: Certainly! Scratchboard art is a distinctive and evocative medium, offering a visual dance between darkness and light. At its core, scratchboard is a form of direct engraving where the artist scratches off dark ink to reveal a white or light-colored layer beneath. It’s a medium that requires precision, foresight, and an intimate understanding of light and shadow.

For Kin, I felt that scratchboard was the perfect choice because it mirrored the book’s underlying themes—the contrasting narratives of hardship and hope, of oppression and freedom, of the dark past and the light of progress. Much like our own stories where we strive to find clarity amidst confusion, scratchboard art involves meticulously carving out light from the darkness. It’s about finding and showcasing beauty, no matter how deeply it’s buried. The medium’s inherent contrasts and textures brought depth to the narrative, providing readers with not just a story to read, but an experience to feel.

Additionally, the tactile nature of scratchboard echoes the raw, visceral emotions and historical touchpoints present in Kin. Just as the book delves into the intricate tapestry of ancestry and legacy, the scratchboard technique, with its layers and intricacies, became a metaphor for the multifaceted journey of discovery and understanding.

(For more on the fascinating medium of scratchboard art, click here.)

I Call Their Names

Carole: Much of the material for Kin came from the Lloyd family’s ledgers, including the names of your ancestors, which you call out frequently—almost like an incantation: Yellow Molly; Chicken Sue; Prissy; Daphne; Old Suckey; Charity; Nurse Henny; Barnett; Peg Shaw… How do these names resonate with you? 

CBW: Wye House, the Lloyd’s flagship plantation, was once home to more than three hundred enslaved people. Their marginalized voices begged to be amplified and their stories to be told. I invoked the names of the enslaved residents of Wye House. Perhaps that was my way of asking their permission to channel their voices and conjure their stories.

Remembering… And Forgetting

Carole: Early on in the book, you reveal that your great grandfather never talked about his father-in-law, Isaac Copper, who fought in the Civil War after his enslavement at Wye House. You then pose the question: “Was forgetting less painful than remembering?” Could you elaborate on this?

CBW: I don’t know whether my great-great-grandfathers told my great grandparents about enslavement. History can be heart-rending—even traumatizing—especially when it comes to enslavement. As one formerly enslaved woman said in the 1930s, “My folks don’t want me to talk about slavery.” Sadly, many firsthand recollections of enslavement vanished before ever being passed down. On one hand is a reluctance to recall painful memories; on the other, the grief over what is forgotten or unknown. I wish I had inherited more stories.

Poetry in Motion

Jeffery: In addition to being a children’s book illustrator, you’re a performance poet. How has your experience as a poet guided your work as an illustrator—and vice-versa?

JBW: My journey as a performance poet has deeply enriched my perspective as an illustrator. Engaging in spoken word and poetry, I’ve been exposed to the raw, unfiltered emotions of an audience, and I’ve felt the weight of words in a room—the palpable tension, the riveting silences, and the roaring applause. This intimate dance with emotions and public vulnerability has emboldened me in my artistry.

It’s often said that public speaking is a fear greater than death, and if that’s true, then through my countless performances, I’ve confronted and embraced that fear many times over. This recurrent act of braving the stage has translated into an audacious spirit in my illustrations.

Art, much like poetry, is an act of audacious vulnerability. It necessitates the courage to mar a pristine canvas, to take risks, and to lay one’s soul bare for the world to witness. My poetry has taught me to speak, while my illustrations have taught me to visualize; and together, they’ve allowed me to weave narratives that are both visually and emotionally resonant. The synergy between both realms is profound—while my poetry gives voice to my emotions, my illustrations provide them a visual stage.

Fertile Ground for Creativity

Carole: You wrote many of the poems for Kin on your family’s farmstead in Copperville, Maryland. What was this experience like for you? Did this rural location help you feel connected to your ancestors in any way?

CBW: I sense ancestral spirits there. My great-great grandfather Phillip Moaney co-founded Copperville during the Reconstruction. The village is less than two miles from Wye House where my forebears were enslaved. My family’s small farm in Copperville is fertile ground not only for agriculture but also for creativity.

African Homecoming

Carole and Jeffery: In 2016, you travelled to Africa to learn more about your ancestors—some of whom descended from royalty. How did this trip deepen your understanding of your family’s history? How did it affect you personally?

CBW: The purpose of our African homecoming was to share our debut collaboration, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen. At the time, we had not begun work on Kin. Off the coast of Dakar, Senegal on Goree Island, we toured Maison des Esclaves (The House of Slaves). Shortly after our return, I learned from an art exhibition that my great-great grandfather descended from royalty and was known as the Royal Black. That knowledge filled me with pride and inspired me to research our roots.

JBW: The trip was NWA NWA, which means incredible, amazing, magnificent!  I felt like I was returning home. Getting to stand on the Goree Island I could feel the power of my ancestors and the light of their smiles. It returned something to me that I cannot explain.

It’s All in the Research

Carole: As a follow-up, what sort of research did you do for Kin? Without birth records, marriage licenses, and death certificates available to trace your family’s genealogy, it must have required a tremendous amount of time, patience, and skillful detective work.

CBW: I was researching family history long before I envisioned Kin. Once, I began work on the book, I studied plantation ledgers, letters, military records  archeological reports, the landscape and material culture to reconstruct my ancestors’ milieu. I also read Frederick Douglass’s firsthand account of enslavement at Wye House. Last but not least, I visited the burial ground for the plantation’s enslaved residents. Amidst unmarked graves in a grove of trees, I broke down and cried.

Jeffery: How did the research affect, and enrich, your artwork?

JBW: The research process has been instrumental in shaping the authenticity and depth of my artwork. By delving deep into historical accounts, personal narratives, and cultural contexts, I’ve been able to tap into a reservoir of emotions, experiences, and textures that might have otherwise remained elusive.

Family Affair

Carole and Jeffery: This isn’t your first children’s book collaboration, but I suspect it’s the most meaningful. How has Kin brought you closer, both as collaborators and mother and son? Also, how has this project differed from other books you’ve created together?

CBW: Kin was truly a family affair, conceived with collaboration in mind. Kin is the book of our hearts, an offering to our ancestors and to our offspring, born and unborn.

JBW: We have been working together for a long time, this book has allowed us to dive into family history on an entirely different level and share that experience with the rest of the family.

On the flip side, how do you handle disagreements when it comes to creative decisions? Does the mother-son dynamic ever get in the way? When it does, what are your strategies to resolve the problem?

CBW: I can’t recall a disagreement, maybe because I’m the boss. Joking! Seriously, I consider myself an illustrator’s author. My words are evocative enough for illustrators to express their vision for the art. I was blown away when I saw Jeffery’s art for Kin.

JBW: We don’t particularly argue about the process, to be honest–just about chores that need to be done for tidying up spaces. Kidding. I don’t have many chores from my mom anymore. All jokes aside, it’s been a wonderful experience working with her, and going all over the world to enrich the youth.

It’s Personal

Carole: You have written more than 70 award-winning books, but my research reveals that Kin is your most personal one yet. Was there a watershed moment, or inner force, that impelled you to share your family’s history?

CBW: In late 2016, I went to an exhibition of Depression-era paintings by Ruth Starr Rose, a white artist who came of age at Hope House, the former plantation where my great-great grandfather was the gardener. I was awestruck that Rose’s paintings depicted my relatives, whom the curator referred to as Maryland’s founding families. I suspect that one painting shows my father as a boy. The exhibition also featured a photograph of my great-great grandfather, whose face I had never before seen. The exhibition underscored for me the significance of my family’s history.

Carole and Jeffery: Thank you for chatting about KIN today. I know your book will resonate with readers as much as it did with me.


Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole has written many award-winning books for children, including You Can Fly, illustrated by her son Jeffery; Box, which won a Newbery Honor; Unspeakable, which won the Coretta Scott King award, a Caldecott honor, and was a finalist for the National Book Award finalist; Respect: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award; and Caldecott Honor winners Freedom in Congo SquareVoice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement; and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. Carole lives in North Carolina. Visit her at

Jeffery Boston Weatherford

Jeffery is an award-winning children’s book illustrator and a performance poet. He has lectured, performed, and led art and writing workshops in the US, the Middle East, and West Africa. Jeffery was a Romare Bearden Scholar at Howard University, where he earned an MFA in painting and studied under members of the Black Arts Movement collective AfriCobra. A North Carolina native and resident, Jeffery has exhibited his art in North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, and Washington, DC. Visit him at

Educational Intimidation Bills

Middle Grade Authors

A new report released by PEN America documents a rise in laws that are designed to intimidate educators and librarians. The aim of these laws is to promote self-censoring. Rather than making headlines for banning books, those who wish to promote certain ideologies by limiting students’ access to books are using intimidation tactics. Their objective is to evoke fear that prompts educators and librarians to disregard topics and materials that might cause controversy. 

Educational Intimidation Thumbnail PEN America

What are intimidation laws?

According to, “Educational intimidation bills are part of the broader, ongoing ‘Ed Scare’—a nationwide effort documented by PEN America to foment anger and anxiety about public education; to restrict or prohibit instruction about race, sexuality, and gender; and to ban books that address these topics.”

In a report titled Educational Intimidation: How “Parental Rights” Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn, the organization examines the rise of educational intimidation bills, “a category of legislation that has the effect of prompting self-censorship in schools through indirect mechanisms, rather than direct edicts.” While PEN America has documented some intimidation bills affecting higher education, the majority of these laws target K-12 educators.

In its Index of Educational Intimidation Bills, PEN America identifies nearly 400 such bills that have been introduced in state legislatures between January 2021 and June 2023, and they have categorized bills by their intent. These bills generate fear, intimidation, or insurmountable obstacles in the following ways:

  • Requiring teachers to post all instructional or professional development materials on public websites so that citizens can easily access these materials and issue objections  
  • Restricting students’ access to school libraries or empowering individual parents to gain control over which materials are allowed in school libraries
  • Inviting parents to opt students into or out of certain content, greatly complicating school schedules and creating individually designed curricula that tears away at the unifying fabric of public school environments
  • Expanding the definition of obscenity beyond its existing legal definition, and threatening educators and librarians with criminal penalties for violations
  • Requiring teachers to monitor and report students’ gender expression

Many laws are making it easier for a single parent to disrupt the educational opportunities afforded to all students. From telephone tip lines to the filing of anonymous complaints, individual parents are being given increasing control over the professional decisions of educators and librarians. 

How are these laws affecting teachers and librarians?

In an article titled “New Intimidation Laws Lead to Classroom Censorship,” PEN America’s editorial director, Lisa Tolin, provides specific examples of teachers and librarians who have lost professional autonomy over curriculum and reading material based on intimidation. 

For example, an art teacher in Tennessee removed major figures from her teaching of art history because of laws that prohibit the teaching of concepts related to race or sex. She was merely introducing the artists and their work to her students, but because of the personal lifestyles of these artists, she knew she would face opposition. This teacher also noted the elimination of Black History Month observances and reported that third graders who have traditionally taken a field trip to a civil rights museum are now going to a baseball game instead.

There’s the case of a Virginia librarian who was subjected to a library inspection and received challenges that originated from a Moms for Liberty list. A teacher in Georgia was fired after reading My Shadow is Purple, a book that was available at the school book fair and was requested by her students.

In addition to legal actions, teachers and librarians also face personal harassment for defending students’ right to read. An Oklahoma teacher who informed her students about Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned program was removed from the classroom, but that was only the beginning. She was harassed online with graphic suggestions of violence, imprisonment, and even execution. 

In Louisiana, a librarian who voiced opposition to the proposal of book banning was threatened and harassed to the point that she lived in fear and was unable to sleep. According to the article, “Strangers called her a ‘pedophile’ and a ‘groomer.’ One person filed a public records request for her employment history. Another sent her a message saying, ‘You can’t hide, we know where you live. You have a target on your back. Click click.’”

The battle is becoming exhausting for many teachers and librarians. Facing termination of employment, legal actions, and unrelenting harassment is unhealthy and unsustainable. In short, intimidation is effective because the consequences are overwhelming.

What can be done to battle intimidation laws and their effects?

The first step in addressing intimidation bills and the undue stress they place on teachers and librarians is to become informed. To more fully understand the issue of educational intimidation bills, read PEN America’s full report.

Next, find out what’s going on in your local school district. If you become aware of a book ban, you can report it to PEN America via this online form. PEN America and Penguin Random House have joined parents and students from Escambia County, Florida, in filing a federal lawsuit to challenge the removal of some books and the restrictions placed on many others.

Learn more about specific state challenges and PEN America’s #FREETHEBOOKS campaign. At this link, you’ll find many issues addressed in detail, and each has an “ADD YOUR VOICE” link that opens instructions for interested parties who want to take action.  

Most importantly, as the surge in educational intimidation bills continues to grow, be a voice of support for the individual teachers and librarians who take a stand for students’ right to read.