Posts Tagged middle grade books

Author Spotlight: Andrea Davis Pinkney… plus a GIVEAWAY!

Today, I’m beyond thrilled to welcome acclaimed children’s author Andrea Davis Pinkney to the Mixed-Up Files!

Andrea is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of nearly 60 books for young readers, among them The Red Pencil and A Poem for Peter, as well as several collaborations with her husband Brian Pinkney, including Sit-In and Hand in Hand, which received the Coretta Scott King Book Award.

Her latest book, Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It, is a series of dramatic monologues narrated by three members of the Little family, Loretta, Roly, and Aggie. B. The novel has received four starred reviews to date – from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and BooklistEntertainment Weekly called the book “prescient” and a must for your anti-racist reading list. The book is illustrated by Brian Pinkney and available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

A glimpse into Loretta Little Looks Back:

“Right here, I’m sharing the honest-to-goodness.” — Loretta

“I’m gon’ reach back, and tell how it all went. I’m gon’ speak on it. My way.”— Roly

“I got more nerve than a bad tooth. But there’s nothing bad about being bold.” — Aggie B.

Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B., members of the Little family, each present the vivid story of their young lives, spanning three generations. Their separate stories–beginning in a cotton field in 1927 and ending at the presidential election of 1968–come together to create one unforgettable journey.

Through an evocative mix of fictional first-person narratives, spoken-word poems, folk myths, gospel rhythms and blues influences, Loretta Little Looks Back weaves an immersive tapestry that illuminates the dignity of sharecroppers in the rural South.

Inspired by storytelling’s oral tradition, stirring vignettes are presented in a series of theatrical monologues that paint a gripping, multidimensional portrait of America’s struggle for civil rights as seen through the eyes of the children who lived it.

Q&A with Andrea Davis Pinkney

MR: A hearty welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Andrea! First and foremost, I must tell you how much I adored Loretta Little. Not only was the format highly original, each of the three narrators—Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B.—has a remarkably distinctive voice. As a writer, this is no mean feat. What’s your secret for getting inside a character’s head?

So happy to be here, Mixed-Up Files! Thank you for inviting me to your party. I’m glad you enjoyed Loretta Little Looks Back. Actually, I don’t get inside characters’ heads – they inhabit my thoughts. And they bury themselves in my heart, too. I feel like Loretta Little Looks Back wrote itself. These kids just started talking to me, each in their own brassy ways. One by one, they walked up, stared me down, and spoke. And they wouldn’t stop! That’s when the writing began. Roly, Loretta, and Aggie B. compelled me to share their stories with other kids like them who are passionate about what they believe is right.

Balancing fact and fiction

MR:  Speaking of Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B., I read in your author’s note that the characters are based on members of your family. Aggie B., for instance, is a composite of your aunt Katherine and your mother, Gwen.  Real-life historical figures are featured in your novel, too, including civil-rights activists James Forman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Charles McLaurin. The rural setting—Ruleville, Mississippi—is also real. What is the biggest challenge of blending—and balancing—fact and fiction?

Yes, this book’s branches come from the roots of my family tree. They spring from the lives and times of the kinfolk who raised me. I come from a long line of grass-roots civil rights organizers. When I was growing up, I heard my family’s stories on porches and at the supper table. Many of these ended up on the pages of this book. My late father marched with Dr. King, and my mom was one of the first Black members of the League of Women Voters, so blending fact and fiction came naturally.

Historical ground

MR: In this novel, you cover life-changing historical ground—particularly, the struggle for Black Americans to secure the right to vote. To point out one example, young social activist Aggie B. becomes one of the youngest members of SNCC (the student wing of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized by Ella Baker and SCLC’s founder, Martin Luther King, Jr.), and she later sustains a brutal beating as a result of her activism. What parallels do you see between the events you describe in Loretta Little Looks Back and the current call for racial equity via the Black Lives Matter movement?

One of my favorite scenes in Loretta Little Looks Back happens in 1964, when young Aggie B. accompanies her Aunt ‘Retta to a local SNCC meeting that is seeking volunteers to register to vote. It’s the Jim Crow south, so folks are reluctant. When they ask for a show of hands, nobody is brave enough – except Aggie. She says:  My hand had a mind of its own. It raised itself so far, I thought my palm and fingers would fly off the top of my wrist! I knew that being only twelve years old, I was too young to register to vote. But my hand didn’t care about the age a person needed to be to help make things better. 

This scene is punctuated by a painting of Aggie B. with an exaggerated hand that reaches its way off the page to bring visual power, affirming that the future is the hands of our kids. This is exactly what kids are doing today. They’re raising their hands to becoming change-agents. It’s young people who are out there right now on the sidewalks and streets, letting the world know their voices are important. These are the voters of tomorrow. It’s up to us adults to pull up a chair, and let them talk to us – and to listen!

Trust, hope, and stars

MR: Loss is an important theme in Loretta Little. The loss of a parent, of a spouse, of land, of basic human dignity, of hope…  As Aggie B. says, “You can only see stars when the sky is the darkest.” What is the message you are trying to convey?  

The Little family endures so much injustice.  They transcend and triumph, too. One of the narrative elements that appears throughout their stories is the concept of “can’t see,” which refers to the dark hours right before the sun rises, when there are still stars in the sky, reminding us of hope. Daybreak always comes. Trusting in that is what hope and stars are all about.

Brian Pinkney and “the three C’s”

MR: As most kidlit afficionados know, you and your husband, illustrator Brian Pinkney, have published nearly 60 books between the two of you — Brian is you collaborator in art, and in life. [The Pinkneys have been together for 30 years and have been dubbed a “Picture Book Perfect Author-Illustrator Couple” by NPR.] How do you maintain a work/life balance? Also, how do you and Brian decide which projects to tackle? I’m guessing arm-wrestling is not involved. 🙂

Working with the one you love can be a beautiful experience — or a fast track to disaster! Brian and I have come up with some great strategies for making books while staying happily married. We have a weekly “meeting” each Saturday at our dining room table to review our projects, and to sit down together to talk about them.

Before and after the meeting, we don’t discuss work at all. Our weekly meetings are when we brainstorm project ideas. We have a running list. The ones that keep bubbling to the top are those we work on first. Others can linger for as long as a decade, and then, suddenly, something happens and we move ahead with one or two of those. At every stage of the creative process, we abide by “the three C’s”  – Courtesy, Communication, Commitment. These simple words have been the key to keeping our love at the center of our creative lives together. We steer clear of arm-wrestling!

Andrea’s many hats

MR: In addition to writing children’s books, you are the Vice President and Executive Editor at Scholastic. This is a tricky balancing act as well. How do you separate “Andrea the Editor” from “Andrea the Writer”?

I like accessories, which is why I enjoy wearing a few different hats — author, editor, and publisher. These “hats” are all completely different. I’m seldom wearing more than one at the same time. As an early riser, I start writing when it’s dark outside around four in the morning, until around six, when the sun starts to rise. By full daylight, the “writer hat” comes off, and I slip into publisher/editor mode.

Writing is a solitary discipline that’s very introspective. As an editor and publisher, my primary purpose is to serve other writers. I’m the one who holds the flashlight while they do the digging. As a graduate school professor who teaches writing, I’ve become very accustomed to working with students, helping them tell their stories. The same rules apply with authors. I’m like the midwife. They’re the ones doing the hard work.

MR: And finally, I’m curious: There are three narrators in Loretta Little Looks Back. Why did you choose to single out Loretta in the title?

Loretta is the family griot, the storytelling presence that ignites the story, and keeps the narrative threads moving forward – she’s a powerful root of the Little family tree. Since the book is written as a series of theatrical monologues, Loretta is the first to present herself to the audience of readers. And she was the first to introduce herself to me on a cold early morning when she stepped up to my consciousness and said, “This is me, talking to you.”

MR: Oh! Last thing, Andrea. No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? A Red Delicious apple.

Coffee or tea? Scalding water with lemon.

Favorite song? This Little Light of Mine.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Big NAY!

Favorite word. Love!

 

Favorite place on earth? London, England.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? My husband and our two kids (who are neither “items” on “in my possession” but we have so much fun together, especially in island settings).

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Andrea—and congratulations on the publication of Loretta Little Looks Back. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

Thank YOU, and happy reading!

And now… a fabulous

GIVEAWAY!!!

For a copy of Loretta Little Looks Back, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account–for a chance to win! 

Andrea’s bio

ANDREA DAVIS PINKNEY is the New York Times bestselling an award-winning author of numerous books for children and young adults. Her work has received multiple Coretta Scott King Book Award citations. She is a four-time nominee for the NAACP Image Award, and has been inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Andrea is the recipient of both the Regina Medal and the Arbuthnot Honor Award for her distinguished and singular contribution to the field of children’s literature. She has been named among the “25 Most Influential People in our Children’s Lives” by Children’s Health magazine, and is listed among the “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business” by The Network Journal.

Andrea is the librettist for the Houston Grand Opera’s The Snowy Day, an opera based on the beloved bestselling children’s picture book classic The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. She has served on the creative teams for several theatrical and audio productions based on works for young people, including those drawn from her acclaimed books, Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, The Red Pencil, and Rhythm Ride: A Trip through the Motown Sound. Andrea lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and frequent collaborator, illustrator Brian Pinkney, and their two children. You can find Andrea on Twitter and Facebook.

Interview with Tod Olson, Author of Into the Clouds + Book Giveaway

Sean McCollum: This is my first blog post for Mixed Up Files, and I couldn’t be happier to be here, as well as an appropriate amount of nervous. What a cool, helpful crew working together to keep creating this website. I’m a long-time writer for youth and educational publishers, and being part of MUF helps keep me current with young readers and the MG universe, even as I live the life of a digital nomad. (House-sitting in Edinburgh, Czech Republic, New York, Phoenix, and Ecuador in the last year—Have Internet, Will Travel.)

I’m also MOST pleased to introduce Tod Olson to MUF-world. Tod and I go back nearly 40 years, to a small liberal arts college—Lawrence University—in the belly of Wisconsin, before working together at Scholastic. So as I considered what my first post might be, an interview with my best bud (having been his Best Man) immediately came to mind. He also happens to be one of the foremost authors of narrative nonfiction working in children’s publishing—so bonus! Hey T, welcome to MUF.

Tod Olson: Thanks, Sean! Wish we were doing this in person, but I’ll settle.

SMc: I loved Into the Clouds and its nuts and pitons description of the first attempts to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. How did you first learn about this chapter in mountain-climbing history and what attracted you to it?

TO: So, I really wanted to tell a climbing story, partly because the ethical questions are so primal: What’s your obligation to other humans when you barely have the resources to keep yourself alive? The 1953 expedition to K2 is legendary in climbing circles for the selfless—some would say suicidal—attempt to get a sick comrade home alive. But the story hadn’t yet found a wider audience. Plus, the contrast with the previous expedition to K2, which ended in disaster, raised interesting questions, not just about climbing but about life: What’s important about any endeavor—the summit or how you climb? The product or the process? Your achievement or the bonds you form along the way?

SMc: You and I have both done some expeditioning and climbed non-technical mountains. So why do people undertake such misery-causing forms of recreation?

TO: A lot of climbers talk about the mountains as a world apart from their workaday lives in New York or Peoria. It’s a place where the complications of civilized life are stripped away and your relationship with nature, with other people, with yourself, is somehow more basic, more pure. I think there’s also a mindfulness to climbing. The danger focuses the mind in the moment—the feel of the rock under the fingers; this foothold, then the next one. Besides, the burgers taste that much better when you get home.

SMc: Oh yeah, and the warm bed. Your writing is rich with sensory detail. How much of that is personal suffering and how much is imagination and empathy for your subjects? In other words, do you go out and risk your life as a way of doing primary research?

TO: Ha! Writing is the most exquisite form of suffering ever invented. Why would anyone feel the need to add to the misery? Actually, it does feel like an act of hubris to presume you can capture an experience you haven’t lived. But even if we tried to climb K2, our experience of the mountain wouldn’t match anyone else’s. We still need to find a way into the minds of the people we write about. I think of research as listening, whether I’m actually interviewing people or engaging with written sources.

In large part, I think I look for portals—observations, phrases, or anecdotes that suddenly admit me into the world of the other. For K2, for instance, one of the 1938 climbers talked about his reluctance to read mail from home on the rare occasions when it arrived at Base Camp. For some reason that made it real for me: Conditions on the mountain were so uncomfortable that in order to bear it, he had to block out the fact that some people in the world lived differently, even if it meant cutting himself off from the people he loved most.

SMc: How did you get interested in survival stories, like the four books of the Lost collection?

TO: When I was 11, I read Alive, the story of the Uruguayan rugby team that was stranded in the Andes by a plane crash and had to eat the bodies of friends and family to survive. I barely left my chair for two days, and I think I’ve been trying to recreate that immersive reading experience as a writer. I tell the Alive story on school visits, and it’s amazing how quickly the thought of eating your cousin can focus the attention of a couple hundred 6thgraders.

SMc: Why do you think young readers are so interested in such stories, whether fictional or not?

TO: Survival stories have an interesting history. Eighteenth-century Europeans were entranced by stories of people marooned with cannibals on remote islands. Robinson Crusoe was arguably the first novel in English, and it was a survival story. At that point, European settlers were spreading out around the globe, leaving everything familiar behind, colonizing places that felt alien to them. The stories were a way of working out their fears.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that survival stories do something similar for a kid anticipating her own entry into a complicated adult world. Besides, what is middle school but a three-year survival epic with really bad food?

SMc: I can still taste the liverwurst. In your mind, what distinguishes narrative nonfiction from fiction? And narrative nonfiction from history? What niche in our need for stories does narrative nonfiction fill?

TO: I love thinking about the first part of that question, but we could talk about it for hours and still fall short of an answer. When you really look closely, I think it’s hard to draw a clear line. So much mediates our knowledge of the past—the limitations of memory, cultural gaps, lack of documentation. Narrative nonfiction authors make decisions on every page about the relationship between their sources and the words on the page.

That said, I think we absolutely need to draw a line, and for me it’s that everything needs to be documented. As for the importance of narrative, I don’t write books primarily to teach, but I do think we learn best through story. We understand people at a deeper level, we empathize, and we retain what we read. If you need evidence, try Say Nothing, which I just finished. It’s an amazing feat of storytelling that made me understand the Troubles in Northern Ireland for the first time.

SMc: Could you describe your research process for Into the Clouds? How much time did you spend researching versus writing?

TO: Hard to say because the research continued after I started writing, but maybe a year of researching and six months of writing. I reached out to the family members of all the climbers I wrote about, and that can take a while because you’re following leads that lead to other leads, etc.

It’s really all about primary sources, and the turning point for me was when I found Dee Molenaar’s diary. He was one of the climbers on the 1953 expedition, and he wrote with disarming honesty about his struggles with pride and fear and insecurity on the mountain. That kind of candor was unusual for the era, and it gave me that portal I needed to get inside their experience on K2.

SMc: Tell us about your writing journey up to this point. What literary mountains are you still wanting to climb as a writer?

TO: I’m done with survival stories for a while. As much as I love them, there’s a sameness to the story arc, and after a while you run out of synonyms for cold, hungry, and miserable. I’m trying to write a novel, which is a lot harder than writing nonfiction. At any given moment, there are hundreds of viable choices instead of dozens.

SMc: What is something people would be surprised to learn about you, besides you and your dad once being national tennis champs in father-son doubles?

TO: I hate being cold. (How are things in Ecuador?)

SMc: Living and writing at 8,000 feet … please … send … oxygen. Advice for writers wanting to try their hand at narrative nonfiction?

TO: Be faithful to your sources, but make the story your own. You’re not building a day-by-day, minute-by-minute chronicle of lived experience. You’re telling a story. As you research, pay attention to the pieces that quicken your pulse, raise a lump in your throat, make you think. Those are the peaks in your mountain range; write up to them, down from them, and around them.

SMc: What are you working on now?

TO: That novel, but we don’t need to talk about that. During quarantine I made a really cool (I think) on-line scavenger hunt for Into the Clouds: https://todolson.com/scavenger-hunt/into-the-clouds/. It’s on my website, and anyone who completes it gets a chance to win a book. If the novel doesn’t work, I’m going to be a scavenger hunt writer. Is that a thing?

It is now! Thanks, T, for taking the time to share your adventures—writing and otherwise—with us. The best way to follow Tod is through his website: https://todolson.com/.

And here’s another chance to win Tod’s Into the Clouds—via MUF, thank you Tod. (Sorry, only available for MUF readers in the United States and Canada.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Home Learning: A World of Opportunities to Read & Think

by Aixa Perez-Prado

Last March schools across the world closed due the Covid-19 pandemic. Teachers, parents and students were unprepared. Many had difficulty with the online learning that was offered. Even under ideal circumstances, hours of daily screen time will not be feasible for many young learners. Therefore, some families have chosen to try their hand at home learning, otherwise known as homeschooling. If you are one of these families, or if you simply wish to augment the remote learning your child is receiving from school with books that will help you do it, this article is for you.

Out of school learning time can provide kids with a chance to acquire knowledge in a manner that is free and flexible. Allowing kids the freedom to explore topics of interest instills a love for learning and inspires curiosity. But this freedom is not always available in a highly structured school day. Thankfully, it can be available at home. Encouraging kids to nourish their personal passions is one way to help them thrive during this crisis. Giving them books that will help them discover those passions, is another. Does your kid love… Planets and Stars? Mysteries? Birds?  There are so many books to choose from!

Opening up the home learning experience to embrace problem solving and critical / creative thinking activities prepares kids for learning anywhere. Giving kids the power to direct some of their own learning will help them obtain the identified 21st century skills: critical thinking, creative thinking, communication and collaboration.

Parents need to provide guidance, resources, great books, and encouragement to kids learning at home. However, they don’t need to provide all of the answers. The best teachers encourage learners to ask interesting questions and discover the answers themselves. They give learners the freedom to fail and try again. Making interesting and informative books available to kids is a great place to start a critical and creative thinking home learning life.

Check out my homeschooling tips and accompanying books below. They will help you help your kids flourish as critical and creative thinkers while learning at home.

Learning at home tips, and books to go with them:

Tip 1: Do not set unrealistic learning goals. Start small and build rather than the other way around. It is better for encouraging learning to start with small successes than to overreach and start by experiencing failure. Short stories can deliver meaningful content and help kids feel a quick sense of accomplishment. They can also be springboards for inspiring kids to read longer texts.

The Hero Next Door Cover

The Hero Next Door by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (ed)

All the heroes in these stories make the world a better place. They do it by using acts of kindness to help others. Published in partnership with We Need Diverse Books, this vibrant anthology features thirteen acclaimed authors. Stories celebrate the hero in all of us. Authors includeWilliam Alexander, Joseph Bruchac, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Juana Medina, Ellen Oh, R. J. Palacio, Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ronald L. Smith, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Suma Subramaniam

Stories to Solve: Folktales from Around the World Cover

Stories to Solve: Folktales from Around the World by George Shannon

This collection of fourteen illustrated mysteries from world folklore give readers a chance to figure out the solution to a problem by thinking critically, before the solution is given. Backmatter includes origins of the tales and more information for further research.

Tip 2: Be present. Put away cell phones and turn off the TV as much as you can. Listen with empathy and understanding to kid’s concerns and ideas without being dismissive. Use what is happening in the world as material for your home learning.

.Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today Cover 

Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights and the Flaws that Affect us Today by Cynthia and Sanford Levinson.

For a nonfiction possibility, this book offers a fearless glimpse into the Constitution including its failures and flaws. The text can be used to inspire kids to think critically.

The Kid Who Ran for President Cover

The Kid Who Ran for President by Dan Gutman

A humorous and fast-paced account of a kid’s run for president as a third party candidate. A great book to inspire dialogue with kids about this election season. Kids learn how government works. and fails, while thinking critically and creatively about what makes a good president.

Tip 3: Answer questions while being honest with what you don’t know. Investigate unknowns together, encouraging kids to question and problem pose, exercising their critical thinking skills.

Song for a Whale Cover

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Iris is a creative and critical thinking tech wiz. She can fix computers and repair old radios. But she’s the only deaf person at her school. Sometimes treat her like she’s not very bright and she often feels unheard, even by her mom. Then she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales. Iris immediately feels a connection. She has an idea to invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. What can she do?

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate Cover

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kennedy

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is a critical thinker. She wonders about what she sees in nature. Calpurnia’s grumpy grandfather, a naturalist, helps her figure out why green grasshoppers get eaten more often than yellow ones. But Callie’s curiosity is not always rewarded by society. She struggles with society’s expectations of girls at a time when a girl interested in science is not well viewed.

Tip 4: Be flexible thinkers. Every family is different and diverse, you do not have to follow what any other family is doing. Kids learn in different ways. Families work together in different ways. Do what works for YOUR family.

.Millicent Min, Girl Genius Cover

Millicent Min Girl Genius by Lisa Yee

Millicent Min’s family is different from most of the families in her community. And so is the way she learns. Her classmates hate her for going to high school at such a young age. But Emily doesn’t know her IQ and actually thinks she’s cool. Millie decides to hide who she is and how her family works to finally make a real friend.

Music for Tigers Cover

Music for Tigers by Michelle Kadarusman

Violinist Louisa ships off to Tasmania to spend the summer with her mother’s eccentric Australian relatives. And she’s not too happy about it. Life at the family’s remote camp in the Tasmanian rainforest is very different. There’s a quirky boy, a strange uncle, old journals and a Tasmanian tiger problem. Louisa has her work cut out for her! Can her music save the day?

Books that make kids think are one of the hallmarks of great learning at home, and at school. Check the books you already have at home and can use in a new way, or try a few of these great books to add to your home learning library.