Posts Tagged We Need Diverse 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 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


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.


Cinco de Mayo, Middle-Grade Style

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated by many in the United States, but does everyone who celebrates know what the holiday commemorates?  A popular myth is that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, similar to America’s Fourth of July.

But, it isn’t. Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16th.

Here’s the real story:  On the 5th day of May in 1862, though out-numbered and poorly equipped, Mexican soldiers held off French soldiers in the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. This stopped the the French from progressing to Mexico City. It was a victory worth celebrating!

Also worth celebrating are some great middle-grade titles that feature Latina/Latino characters.  But first, two words of caution as we think about diversity in our reading selections:

Not just today. Cinco de Mayo (or any holiday of cultural significance) is a great time to move readers toward more diverse book selection. But, let’s not limit that practice to the “culture of the month.”  Each and every day, we should strive for diversity in our home, classroom, school, and public libraries.

Not just the classics. There will always be that treasured and timeless book we adore. We love it for its heart and for its story. And, because its characters helped us learn more about a given culture (in this case, think Esperanza Rising), we tend to gravitate toward it again and again.  I say, Great! But, don’t stop there. Look for and champion new middle grade titles, like the ones below.

Click the book to go to the publisher’s page to read more about it.

Comment below with a book featuring Latina/Latino main characters that you’d like to read on Cinco de Mayo (or ANY day!)

Books with Biracial Characters


images-3In the US census between 2000 and 2010 people identifying as more than one race increased by 32%. It is, by most methods of calculation, the fastest growing racial group in the county and one that also needs representation in children’s books.

I didn’t set out to write a book about a biracial child, but I grew up in a neighborhood that seemed outwardly monocultural. As I got to know my classmates and their families over time, I learned that my neighborhood was far more diverse than it appeared. Several friends spent part of  the year living in the Middle East. I regularly babysat for a family with white and Native Alaskan parents.  One of my childhood friends spent every summer in Japan with his grandparents. He was fluent in Japanese and English, passionate about martial arts, and sometimes misunderstood by classmates who found his pride in his grandparent’s culture silly. He bore a strong resemblance to his American father and I remember watching him, and other biracial classmates, navigate the balance between body language, speech patterns and cultural convictions that set them apart and the convenience of looking white enough to blend in.

In writing a story with a biracial character  and thinking through my childhood experiences with an adult’s perspective I’ve found that biracial characters are magnets for conflict in ways that make them useful for story-making though not easy in the actually living of the biracial experience. Here are some avenues of conflict you might explore if you are considering writing biracial or bicultural characters.

1. “But you don’t look Indian!” I actually heard someone say this to an accomplished Native American author recently and she responded with what I felt was the perfect balance of firm resolve and compassion. It’s a terrible thing to say to someone–essentially, “you are not who you are.” That comment, and a dozen equally offensive variations, confront biracial people regularly. The relentless explaining of your identity is soul-wearying and makes a great plot point because even the most confident and well-nurtured biracial person can develop doubts of ever find a place where they belong.

images-22. “Shouldn’t you be more_____?” Is another phrase a biracial person frequently hears. Many minorities feel a pressure to behave in the expected mold of their culture, the intellectual Jew or the violin playing Korean child or the athletic black teenager, for example. imagesIt is hard enough to live up to the imagined-by-outsiders standard of one community, let alone trying to meet the expectations of two or even several. images-1The burden of living up to an impossible standard makes for great internal conflict in a story.


3. For many biracial people the aspect of their racial and cultural identity that comes to the fore varies with circumstance. So a family might choose to emphasize the heritage that blends most readily with the community at hand. Or the most advantageous one. For example, if the local schools are substandard, and a Jewish day school with better resources is available, then a family might choose to identify more strongly as Jewish and become more observant than they might have otherwise.  For the biracial child this can feel like  playing favorites with one parent over another or one set of grandparents over another. The tension between wanting the advantage the easy racial identity provides and wanting to see justice done for the disadvantaged racial identity is great food for complex story telling

4. I had a fascinating conversation with Pico Iyer a few summers ago about raising biracial and bicultural children. He’s found that both his own kids and those he knows from his many travels are masters of observation and highly attuned to cultural nuance. Not that the insights they have are unavailable to others who take the time to be attentive and make connections, but that the connections others overlook are blindingly obvious to a biracial or bicultural child. A keenly observant child always makes for a more interesting viewpoint character and the kind of observations readily available to the child who straddles a number of cultural groups is particularly valuable.

5. And here’s the tough part (at least from my perspective as a bicultural but not Unknownbiracial person). Often what white people do to acknowledge and respect cultures other than their own is so awkwardly done that it makes matters worse rather then better. The dressing up as pilgrims and indians in one glaring example. Here’s another. I recently heard hip-hop poet Merlyn Hepworth perform a poem about his 8 year old self and the school fiesta. He is Mexican-American and grew up in Idaho, a state well known for active white supremacist groups. Nonetheless, his 2nd grade teacher wanted to  broaden her students’ world view, so they had a class fiesta. Young Merlyn, all excited, asked his abuela to make tortillas, his favorite food. So she did and on fiesta day he brought them all fresh and warm, with the delicious little scorch marks that hand-made tortillas have. He set this treasure on the table alongside an array of Ortega products, Fritos, salsa in a jar, and chips with melted cheddar cheese. His whole class and teacher and school principal came to the table to eat and not one person would touch his grandmother’s tortillas. And for the first time in his young life Merlyn was ashamed to eat them himself. And so the whole event had the opposite effect from the one the teacher intended. She had wanted to celebrate Merlyn’s culture and ended up making him feel ashamed in a way he  hadn’t before and might not have ever been if he hadn’t brought real Mexican food to a pretend fiesta.

Here are just a few stories with biracial characters you might enjoy.

Misad51C5YsK3BLL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_ventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Levy9780688173975

Rain is not my Indian Name
by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones

Operation Redwood 9780385755528by S. Terrell FrenchUnknown

Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon51Q-2FElUvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

I’d love to hear about books that you felt did a good job of representing the biracial experience.  Let me know what books I should be highlighting and I’ll add them to this post and ask the buyer to get them for my bookstore.