Review: DEAR RACHEL MADDOW by Adrienne Kisner

dear rachIn Adrienne Kisner’s debut novel Dear Rachel Maddow, high school isn’t going particularly well for Brynn Harper. Her family barely exists and provides scant support. Her approach to academics has led to placement in the “Applied” track, and her Honors student girlfriend Sarah has dumped her. Then English teacher Mr. Grimm assigns his students to email a well-known person. Brynn chooses MSNBC political analyst Rachel Maddow.

Maddow graciously responds to Brynn’s first email, and Brynn continues to write frequent “Dear Rachel Maddow” emails, although they remain unsent in her email’s Drafts folder. Writing unsent emails to Rachel Maddow becomes Brynn’s method of dealing with life’s stresses, but it also gives Brynn a way to articulate her views on what goes on around her through a political lens. This is one of the beauties of Dear Rachel Maddow. Brynn Harper’s high school becomes a microcosm of American life in the time of Trump where bullies blatantly bully, and thoughtful, brave people try to maintain a sense of humor while resisting authoritarian policies and dogma.

Some resist on the down-low, but not Brynn. She has nothing to lose by bringing all the sass, and she isn’t shy about speaking truth to power, whether it’s her teacher, her principal, her mother, or bullies. Dear Rachel Maddow is the funniest YA book I’ve read in a long time. Of course, the humor may depend on whether a reader agrees with Brynn’s political stance.

Although many of the YA tropes are here—popular kids vs. the others, a wicked step-parent, breaking up and finding new love—Dear Rachel Maddow feels fresh because of Brynn’s voice, the email format, and an obvious connection to today’s headlines. Another surprise I appreciate is that author Adrienne Kisner portrays teachers and administrators who are wise, passionate, and generous. Too many YA books unfairly demonize educators.

Every class has at least one reader who will love this book. Give it to readers who like Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, and those left-leaners interested in journalism, politics … and sass.

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Five More New Picture Book Biographies (and an Invitation)

Take a look at these five recent titles offering a variety of life lessons drawn from the experiences of remarkable men and women. Some of them are well-known; others are less-heralded. Three of these titles are related to New York City and may be worthwhile for readers interested in exploring that great American city. Each of these books can be used to help young readers examine aspects of their own lives and environments, and how they can generate positive changes in the world.

Abraham Lincoln's Dueling WordsAbraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words by Donna Janell Bowman

In 1842 a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln started a political spat with another local attorney named James Shields. Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel, an illegal but not uncommon solution in those days for affairs of honor. Donna Janell Bowman’s nonfiction picture book Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words tells this little-known Lincoln tale in appealing, folksy language that will capitalize on young readers’ prior knowledge about Lincoln. Dueling is a subject that many find interesting and may be familiar due to the current fascination with all things involving Alexander Hamilton. Bowman’s book is an excellent choice for a read-aloud because of its strong narrative voice –“Before you turn the page, you might want to cover your eyes”—and the inherent drama of the episode, which is resolved by cleverness rather than violence. The life lessons here include the importance of accepting responsibility for one’s mistakes and avoiding either/or thinking when solving problems.

 

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World: A True Story about an Accidental Invention (Really!)The Boo-Boos That Changed the World: A True Story about an Accidental Invention by Barry Wittenstein

As a newlywed, Josephine is accident-prone, especially in the kitchen working with knives. Luckily, her husband Earle knows early 20th Century medical supplies, so he can help Josephine with first aid for her “boo-boos.” Earle wonders if there might be a simpler way to bandage small cuts. This curiosity launches the narrative of Barry Wittenstein’s The Boo-Boos that Changed the World, a picture book biography about the inventor of the Band-Aid that highlights the creative process involved in inventing, manufacturing, and marketing what is now a common household item.

This book’s narrative voice is full of fun exclamations and false endings that make it an excellent choice for a read-aloud. The details here make the learning “sticky”—pun intended—as readers will remember the back story each time they reach for Band-Aids. The Boo-Boos that Changed the World includes extensive back matter, including an especially useful “Other Medical Inventions from the 1920s and 1930s” timeline to provide context for Josephine and Earle’s story.

 

Just Being JackieJust Being Jackie by Margaret Cardillo

“Jackie saw the potential in everything,” writes author Margaret Cardillo in her new picture book biography of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Even as a child, Jackie saw how to make a situation better, and she had the resolve to make it happen. Just Being Jackie covers most of Jackie’s life, from her scrappiness as a young equestrian to her early years as a journalist, from her work as First Lady in refurbishing the White House’s historical glories to her strength after President Kennedy’s assassination, and her later years as an editor and preservationist. (No mention is made here of Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis.) Cardillo uses the canvas of so many years to artistically reveal how themes from Jackie’s early years provide depth, context, and continuity for events that came later. This continuity is also an important aspect of Julia Denos’s illustrations as the adult Jackie is clearly the same person as younger versions of Jackie. (In too many picture book biographies, the person shown as a child looks nothing like the adult version of the same person.) Denos’s images evoke a popular illustration style from the 1960s that perfectly accompanies Cardillo’s narrative of events from that era. The back matter includes interesting author and illustrator notes, a useful timeline, and lists of print, video, and online resources.

 

Walking in the City with Jane: A Story of Jane JacobsWalking in the City with Jane: A Story of Jane Jacobs by Susan Hughes

Walking in the City with Jane is a nice tribute to Jane Jacobs as it reflects on her activism related to maintaining cities as healthy ecosystems that put the quality of human life ahead of traffic patterns and architectural sprawl. Some of the text is dense, and the colors are not particularly bright, so this may be most useful for upper elementary readers. My favorite image is the notion that crowds of people in cities like New York or Toronto are “a sidewalk ballet.”

 

Up in the Leaves: The True Story of the Central Park TreehousesUp in the Leaves: The True Story of the Central Park Treehouses by Shira Boss

Up In the Leaves: The True Story of the Central Park Treehouses is a charming picture book biography of arborist Bob Redman. As a child, Bob longs to escape the crowds of New York City and the drudgery of his school days, so he begins building treehouses in Central Park. Bob loves seeing the city from this new perspective and especially enjoys the freedom of being surrounded by nature while still in Manhattan. As soon as Bob’s treehouses are built, however, park maintenance workers remove them. Then one day, after a particularly elaborate treehouse of Bob’s is discovered, park administrators make Bob an interesting offer.

Shira Boss’s narrative tells Bob’s story in poetic sentences that lend themselves to reading aloud. Jamey Christoph’s illustrations effectively use foregrounds and backgrounds to convey Bob’s individuality set against the masses of people in New York City, as well as Bob’s place among the Central Park foliage.

Up in the Leaves is nicely designed with attractive end papers and a brief epilogue showing a current photo of Bob Redman. Although this book has no back matter, the author’s bio on the cover flap reveals an interesting connection between the writer and her subject.

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And now here’s the invitation!  Everyone interested in using picture book biographies with young readers is invited to participate in a panel discussion this November at the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention in Houston, Texas.  I’ll be moderating “Building Persistence with Picture Book Biographies” at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Room 362 ABC, from 2:00-3:15 p.m. on Friday, November 16, 2018 with these amazing authors:  Chris Barton, Nancy Churnin, Heather Lang, Andrea J. Loney, and Duncan Tonatiuh.  Please join us for fun, discussion, tools, and strategies!

 

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Guest Blogger: Natalie Anderson on Pericles, Don Griggs, and Every Person’s Value

Rolling Meadows High School in suburban Chicago was devastated with the sudden passing of beloved security guard Don Griggs. Don was an amazing human and a vital part of the school. Rolling Meadows High School is resilient though, and they honored Don’s memory in several ways, including the Donald Griggs Memorial Scholarship provided by the school’s newly-formed chapter of the National English Honor Society under the sponsorship of dauntless educator Caleb Parnin. Students applying for the scholarship wrote essays on the importance of language. The winning essay was written by senior Natalie Anderson. (Although Natalie and I share a last name and a neighborhood, we are not related.) Natalie’s reflection on the timeless connection between our language, our actions, and their impact on others is inspiring, and I’m proud to share it here. 

natalie anderson

Natalie Anderson

I imagine that in 431 BC, Pericles looked across the graveyard of Athens with weary eyes, surveying the coffins of his city’s dead soldiers. After a moment, his gaze would have turned to the living, and the exhaustion within him would deepen as if he were absorbing the weariness of their sunken faces. And still, even after Athens’ unsuccessful year of fighting in the Peloponnesian War, Pericles stood up and spoke to his city regarding their dead companions: “You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field [as they did].” Through his speech, Pericles conveyed one undeniable message to his people: they must continue to fight for their city.

Language is the cornerstone of shifting perspectives, of evolving attitudes, of social change. But every leader faces one problem while using language: it is an inherently complex tool. Every word has many definitions and connotations. Every metaphor adds layers of meaning. Every phrase adds another variable to an increasingly muddled equation.

Language must be transformed from chaos into order to create change. But in the hands of the right person, language can be a very simple thing.

In the hands of Pericles, language was molded from a jumbled mess into one undeniable message. War became a simple matter: the people of Athens had no choice but to fight. Victory and defeat, joy and pain, companionship and loneliness—Pericles’ words simplified these complexities of war and created an unprecedented social change. After shouldering the intense hopelessness of a single year of fighting, the soldiers renewed their efforts to protect their city.

In the hands of the right person, language can be a simple thing. Every day that Don Griggs came to work at Rolling Meadows High School, he used language to shout one unquestionable message, far and wide, to both students and staff. Whether he talked to us every day for four years or he’d never seen us before, Don shouted this to us: we are worthy. To him, every person had value.

And to him, it was important that every person understood that they had value. Pericles died two years after he addressed the Athenian citizens. The war efforts continued on for 26 years after his death. If a message truly reaches its audience, then something as insignificant as death can do nothing to hinder its success. The sense of worth Don has shared with every person he’s interacted with will stay with us far longer than just 26 years.

I feel honored to have the opportunity to apply for a scholarship in his name, answering a question that is so relevant to his life. The language he used every day transformed our messy identities into a simple but unquestionable confirmation of our worth. He created change in all of us, and therefore in our whole community. I hope that each and every one of us can honor Don’s memory by listening to his message, by understanding, as he did, that every person has value.

don 2

Please join me in sharing Natalie Anderson’s wise words with others, and as a model essay or mentor text.

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Seven New Picture Book Biographies

Several new picture book biographies provide windows into the lives of remarkable women and men. I especially admire how the authors of many of these books present their subjects as resilient children who persevered through difficulties to become extraordinary adults in a wide range of fields.

The Funniest Man in Baseball: The True Story of Max PatkinThe Funniest Man in Baseball: The True Story of Max Patkin by Audrey Vernick

With The Funniest Man in Baseball: The True Story of Max Patkin, Audrey Vernick delivers another wonderful nonfiction baseball picture book. After other excellent titles such as Brothers at Bat, The Kid from Diamond Street, Vernick continues to find fascinating baseball stories and deliver them in appealing books for young people. Her newest focuses on Max Patkin, The Clown Prince of Baseball.

Max Patkin, born in 1920, dreams of a career as major league baseball player. During World War II, Patkin pitches to Joe DiMaggio in an exhibition game. DiMaggio hits a home run, and Patkin chases him around the bases to the delight of the fans. When injuries derail Patkin’s dreams of becoming a baseball player, he remembers how his clowning brought such enjoyment. For the next few decades, Max Patkin performs at more than 4,000 major and minor league games without missing a scheduled appearance until his retirement at age 75. (Older readers may remember Patkin’s cameo in the 1988 Bull Durham film.)

Audrey Vernick’s text explains the historical context of Patkin’s life but also conveys the hilarity of his antics in a rollicking narrative voice. Jennifer Bower’s bright comic illustrations effectively support Vernick’s descriptions of Patkin’s physical comedy. Baseball fans will revel in The Funniest Man in Baseball, and it will also entertain those who enjoy stories with generous doses of humor.

Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left BehindWrite to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind by Cynthia Grady

The internment of innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II is one of our country’s darkest self-inflicted bruises. Among those imprisoned were Japanese-American children from San Diego whose local librarian, Ms. Clara Breed, sent them away with books and stamped postcards so the children could stay in touch with her. As Ms. Breed received postcards telling her where the children were being held, she sent more books and more postcards, heroically maintaining correspondence with dozens of children throughout their plight.

Cynthia Grady’s nonfiction picture book Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind is a remarkable testament not only to Ms. Breed but also to how the power of reading and writing can sustain us in difficult times. Young readers will relate to the children who are presented with sensitivity by illustrator Amiko Hirao as we see them reading their books and writing to Ms. Breed: “The youngest children wrote to Miss Breed about what they saw around them. The older children wrote about their living conditions and how they spent their days.”

Write to Me is an excellent window into an episode of American history too important to forget, expertly developed for children. In addition to Grady’s accessible text, Hirao’s drawings are realistic enough to foster empathy for the children without delving very far into the rawness of being torn away from their homes. Most page spreads include renderings of some of the brief notes written to Ms. Breed allowing readers to experience the postcards as primary texts. The book’s endpapers feature photos of Japanese American children traveling to and living in prison camps. Thorough back matter includes historical background on the internment program, Clara Breed’s life, “Selected History of Japanese People in the United States,” source notes, bibliography, and suggestions for further reading.

Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America SingIrving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin

In Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made American Sing, Nancy Churnin delivers another inspiring picture book biography. Beginning with young Irving arriving in New York on a boat from Russia, readers understand that for Irving, music and his love for America were inseparable. As with most immigrants, life in America was at first difficult for Irving, but by following his passion for music, he eventually found success and made important contributions to America through his songs.

Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made American Sing can be used as a stand-alone biography, and is also useful for building background knowledge related to immigration, fine arts, New York, and patriotism. With its thorough back matter and especially fine binding, this is a worthwhile addition to school and home bookshelves.

Ella Fitzgerald (Pequeña & GRANDE, #7)Ella Fitzgerald by Mª Isabel Sánchez Vegara

Ella Fitzgerald is the first title I’ve read in the Lincoln Children’s Books series “Little People, Big Dreams” focusing on the childhoods of those who achieved cultural importance. Author Mª Isabel Sánchez Vegara finds the elements with kid appeal in Ella’s story: trouble in school, loss of a parent, and making new words and sounds with her voice. The discrimination faced by Fitzgerald and other black artists is downplayed but still signified by an illustration showing a sassy Ella posing by a “White Only” sign. Bàrbara Alca’s colorful illustrations reinforce the hopeful, uplifting message of this book and presumably the “Little People, Big Dreams” series.

The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World's Coral Reefs: The Story of Ken Nedimyer and the Coral Restoration FoundationThe Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs by Kate Messner

Kate Messner’s nonfiction picture book The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs wraps the science of coral reefs around a biography of conservationist Ken Nedimyer. Young readers will easily understand Messner’s clear explanation of a natural coral reef’s growth process, although the human-assisted grafting process for establishing a new coral reef is more complex. The biographical treatment of Ken Nedimyer emphasizes how his professional commitment to coral reef conservation began with boyhood curiosity. Matthew Forsythe’s pastel paintings convey both the vibrant colors of a healthy coral reef and the fading glory of a coral reef as it begins to die. The back matter provides more details about coral reefs and a “How Can Kids Help?” section with suggestions for becoming involved in coral reef restoration.

The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell: Based on the Childhood of a Great American ArtistThe Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell: Based on the Childhood of a Great American Artist by Candace Fleming

Joey whimsically collects unrelated objects that strike his fancy. Eventually, he realizes that he can make art by juxtaposing those items in surprising ways. Although Joey’s creative mind comes through in this picture book biography, readers may have a hard time understanding and empathizing with him. While the illustrations focus on the materials of Joey’s collection, the facial expressions are repetitive and inauthentic. Readers also need help knowing how to look at and appreciate the originality of Joey’s imagination, but when Joey’s artistic creations finally appear, they don’t look much different from the stuff sitting haphazardly in the barn. The explanations and small photographs of Cornell boxes in the back matter are helpful in explaining why Joseph Cornell is regarded as such an important artist, but I wish the main narrative provided more of that exposition.

Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing FriendshipRescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky

Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship tells the side-by-side nonfiction stories of a service dog in training and a young woman recovering from the loss of her legs. Rescue, the service dog, initially doubts his abilities but eventually becomes confident in the wide range of ways he supports Jessica. Similarly, Jessica struggles emotionally and physically with the loss of her legs, but with Rescue’s help she bravely copes and adapts to the changes in her life. The back matter reveals that Jessica’s injuries were incurred in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, but that aspect isn’t mentioned in the main narrative, concentrating instead on how a mutually beneficial relationship develops between Rescue and Jessica. Their story definitely has moments of drama, but the big lessons here involve empathy and resilience.

Many thanks to the authors and illustrators who teach important life lessons through the true stories of people who inspire them!

Some of these reviews originally appeared on Goodreads and elsewhere in slightly different form.

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Review: HOW TO GET YOUR SCREEN-LOVING KIDS TO READ BOOKS FOR PLEASURE by Kaye Newton

Kaye Newton’s How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure is geared toward parents frustrated with how the reading lives of their children are hijacked by the allure of cell phones, iPads, and other screen-based devices. Although Newton acknowledges that screen-based engagement is here is stay, her new book is full of ideas about how to develop a culture of reading at home.

Newton has done her homework. Drawing on experiences with her own children, as well from reading research, and the work of experts such as Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Jim Trelease, Newton emphasizes the importance of kids choosing the books they read.

Beginning with background to help parents understand why pleasure reading is critically important for kids, and how it looks and feels to today’s students, Newton notes that “the time they spent reading for pleasure dropped off at age eleven, when they entered middle school.” Newton explains how school and personal technology frequently generate barriers for the reading lives of young people.

How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure then takes readers through a variety of reading-related scenarios filled with strategies for parents to try based on Newton’s sixteen-month journey of successfully encouraging her own children to spend more time with books and less time with social media. These pages have tips galore, more than it is possible to employ, and that’s one of this book’s beauties: an awareness that the best education is highly individualized. Newton wisely acknowledges that “a tip that worked for one of my children wouldn’t necessarily engage the others.”

Other topics Newton discusses include approaching pleasure reading with children who have learning differences, the value of graphic novels and audiobooks, reading in the summer vs. reading during the school year, ways to think about rewards and incentives, book clubs for different age groups, why nonfiction matters in the “fake news” era, and how to talk to schools and teachers about their reading cultures or lack thereof. The “Frequently Asked Questions” chapter includes responses to questions that I’ve heard many times, as well as a few new ones. For example, is it OK if my child reads the ending of the book first?

Newton also includes many specific title recommendations for a variety of reading needs. As the 2018 copyright indicates, the suggestions are up to date, including Nic Stone’s Dear Martin and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.

My only quibble with How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure is that it goes too easy on those schools and classrooms that choose not to develop lifelong readers. Newton says, “public-school teachers are pressured to teach to state requirements and don’t have much time to encourage reading for pleasure.” I don’t accept that. As Donalyn Miller said in a Nerdy Book Club post, “No matter our professed pedagogy, our consistent actions and behaviors reveal what we truly value. What do our rituals and routines communicate to students that we value about reading?” Saying that the curriculum is too full or that test preparation requirements preclude inculcation of pleasure reading is too easy. I’ve seen and helped dozens of teachers make the turn from no-choice to choice, and each educator who has stuck with it reports that students develop stronger reading habits when they choose their own reading material and have time to read them in school. In my own classroom, ten minutes a day of reading self-selected books made a bigger positive difference than anything else I’ve ever done. Parents and teachers need to work together on this issue.

Kaye Newton gives readers clear, practical advice about the world of today’s developing young readers. How to Get Your Screen-Loving Kids to Read Books for Pleasure is an excellent resource for parents, but I hope educators will also read it. Many of the strategies and recommendations apply to school as well as home, or can be easily adapted for classroom use. Today’s ubiquitous technology has some advantages, and it’s not going away, so leveraging it or balancing it to enhance the reading lives of children is a pressing need both at home and at school.

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Review: WHERE MY BODY ENDS AND THE WORLD BEGINS by Tony Romano

where-my-body-ends-and-the-world-begins.w300In Tony Romano’s Where My Body Ends and the World Begins, readers are immediately immersed in a Chicago neighborhood of the late 1950s and 1960s. The community is still devastated by the fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in 1958 that claimed the lives of 92 students and three nuns. Everyone was affected by the fire, but everyone was affected differently. The fire tragically changes the Lazzeri family, and Anthony Lazzeri, a childhood survivor of the fire, now twenty years old, navigates his Italian neighborhood and impending adulthood with a complex mix of cynicism, humor, confusion, and courage.

Tony Romano makes the inner life of his main character as vivid and dynamic as the dramatic action going on around him. In the opening scene, Anthony is reeling from being struck by a car. As the scene unfolds, readers meet many of the inhabitants of Anthony’s exterior world: Nonna, his quirky, omnipresent grandmother; Lipschultz, a retired cop; and Maryanne, Anthony’s on-again-off-again girlfriend who never quite fills the role he envisions. We also glimpse Anthony’s interior struggle where is tormented by a leg that he cannot sense as part of himself.

The Our Lady of the Angels fire is a devastating historical backdrop for this novel. The fire gave rise to ghosts, rumors, and suspicions that haunt the neighborhood and its characters a decade later. These Tony Romano characters are at once archetypal and unique. Mrs. Mazzolini, for example, “dressed in her usual mourning black, keeps the neighborhood stocked with bread and soup and summer tomatoes from her backyard.” Perez, Anthony’s catcher from their baseball days, is shipping off to the military. Then there is the retired Chicago cop who knows more than he should about his neighbors. That is Lipschultz, Anthony’s nemesis. Crusty old Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko even shows up in this novel.

These relatives and neighbors fill Anthony’s life, but he wants more, although he isn’t sure exactly what he wants. The plot involves Anthony trying to understand why certain things happened and why things are the way they are. (Please excuse this vagueness for the sake of avoiding spoilers.) Although some situations seem unexplainable, Anthony uncovers secrets and discovers information that help him unknot the intricately woven fibers of his family, neighborhood, and self. Tony Romano artfully places readers with Anthony on his psychological journey, as well as during his neighborhood sleuthing and confrontations.

The title is intriguing, isn’t it? Where My Body Ends and the World Begins seems philosophical, and the book indeed subtly dabbles in questions about life’s meaning, but the title is also a metaphor for how this novel explores many lines of demarcation: where the past ends and the present begins, where grief ends and where what-comes-next begins, where secrets end and truth begins, where fiction ends and reality begins.

Although reading this novel is its own reward, supporting independent publishing is a bonus. Where My Body Ends and the World Begins is published by Allium Press and is a finalist for the Foreword Reviews Indies Book of the Year in the Historical Fiction category.

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Asher, Alexie, and Dashner: Believe the Women and Ban the Books?

7982497829_0125989382_kI’ll start by saying as clearly as possible, I believe the women (and others) who have accused young adult literature authors Jay Asher, Sherman Alexie, and James Dashner of sexual harassment and other bad behavior. These popular writers have each accepted varying degrees of responsibility for their actions, and each has received criticism and shaming from various corners of his business and fan bases.

All of this comes into play for me because they are the authors of three books that dozens of students have read with my encouragement: Thirteen Reasons Why, The All-True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and The Maze Runner. These three books have little in common except that they are extremely popular with young readers, and each has ignited a passion for reading in many of my students.

Considering the recent developments involving these authors, I don’t know what to do about these titles. Should I withdraw my endorsements of the books? Should I still encourage students to read them, but temper that encouragement with words of warning about the authors? Should I keep promoting the books and not mention anything about the authors?

It’s easy to say there are plenty of other books available for young readers, and these authors don’t deserve a readership. Although I tend to agree with the second part of that sentiment, I’m not ready to agree to the first part. Yes, there are a lot of other compelling books, but I know for a fact that these books work. They are my go-to books for certain readers, and I’m reluctant to let go of something that works. And after all, the books are not their authors (or are they?).

I understand that encouraging students to read these books means more copies of them will be sold, and Asher, Alexie, and Dashner will gain more monetary profit. That bothers me. However, students who read the books are not sexually harassed by what they find in the pages, and the books do not promote sexual harassment. On the contrary, students derive benefits from reading these books as they engage with the characters, stories, and ideas.

Another aspect of this quandary is that pulling the books from my list of recommended titles feels like a violation of a deeply-held principle of mine: Students should be allowed to read whatever they choose, and all books should be available to them. These books themselves are not worthy of censorship. In fact, in the past I’ve argued with others about the value of not censoring Thirteen Reasons Why and All-True Diary. It seems hypocritical to now shield students from them, not because of their content but because of their authors’ behavior.

But is keeping the books in circulation a slap in the face of the authors’ victims and others? If the answer is Yes, then the books must go. Are readers who have been subjected to this kind of harassment re-humiliated when their teacher promotes a book by a perpetrator? If the answer is Yes, then the books must go.

After thinking through this, I’m forced to admit that maybe the books’ meanings are different now. Is it possible to read the books the same way knowing what we now know about their creators? Probably not. I recently read Jay Asher’s newest book, a graphic novel entitled Piper (recommended to me by a student). I had to read Piper through a new lens, and that lens caused me to see it differently than I would have six months ago.

“What’s best for students?” is usually the guiding question for my educational decision-making, but the answer is not clear this time. What aspects of this dilemma am I missing? How have other educators handled books by these authors? Do you still approve students who want to read Thirteen Reasons Why? Are The Maze Runner and its sequels still on the shelves of your classroom and school libraries? Is The All-True Diary of a Part-Time Indian still in your curriculum? How did you decide?

Thank you for reading, and especially for your insights.

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Review: ANYBODY’S GAME: KATHRYN JOHNSTON, THE FIRST GIRL TO PLAY LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL by Heather Lang

lang game

Anybody’s Game: Kathryn Johnston, the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball by Heather Lang is a terrific new nonfiction baseball picture book and a great way to celebrate the upcoming baseball season.

“Girls don’t play baseball” is the book’s opening line, announced to twelve-year-old Kathryn by her brother Tom. Right away, readers get a sense of Kathryn’s spunk when she answers, “Why not? I’m better than you.” And she’s right. Kathryn is the best player around, but when Little League teams form in the spring of 1950, she is excluded because she’s a girl. Then, with her parents’ support and ingenuity, Kathryn makes the team and becomes not only the first female Little League player, but also the best all-around player on the King’s Dairy Little League team.

Anybody’s Game is irresistible because of Kathryn’s persistence and because both the text and the artwork get the baseball right. Kathryn’s upper cut swing and pitch delivery would be the envy of any player, and her willingness to slide headfirst says a lot about her approach to baseball and life. Heather Lang’s engaging narrative voice delivers Kathryn’s story in text rich with dialogue and lively sentence constructions. Cecilia Puglesi’s artwork effectively evokes the 1950s with attention to authentic period details while the characters’ large, stylized eyes convey an impressive range of facial expressions.

Young readers will relate to Anybody’s Game because the heroine is a kid. Picture book biographies frequently include the childhood of a resilient person who grows up to do something amazing. In this book, it’s a kid who does something amazing. Although Kathryn’s love of the game motivates her to do whatever it takes to play, her defiance of expectations imposed by her gender blazed a trail for today’s determined female members of their schools’ football and wrestling teams.

The useful back matter is framed by Heather Lang’s reflections as a baseball fan and includes photos of Kathryn Johnston along with details about how she has stayed involved in the game, as well as a clear “Women and Girls in Baseball” timeline.

Heather Lang’s Anybody’s Game is an excellent addition to classroom or home libraries. Its important lessons will stick with readers as the new baseball season slides headfirst into summer.

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Review: SPEAK: THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll

speak graphic

When I learned a few months ago that Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 YA classic Speak was being adapted as a graphic novel, I assumed it would be just that, an adaptation. The new version of Speak is more than that though. Way more.

Speak: The Graphic Novel is still the story of Melinda, a freshman who was raped at a party and is now ostracized at school because she summoned police to the party. The art teacher is still here, and the tree is still significant. This re-telling of Speak retains all the essence of the original, but some aspects are updated, including the presence of cell phones and the internet. A few other plot elements are different, and readers familiar with the novel will notice and appreciate the variations.

The graphic novel format brings many new dimensions to this story as the artful arrangement of text and images takes us inside the mind and emotions of this brave, damaged young woman. We see the surreal images swirling in Melinda’s mind. We visualize somewhat disorienting juxtapositions in ways that text doesn’t allow. Artist Emily Carroll’s black-and-white renderings effectively convey the drama of a victim who will not use words in most situations, although the last few pages do more than speak—they shout!

Speak: The Graphic Novel stands alongside the original novel as a powerful alternative way of telling Melinda’s story. It will absorb both new readers and those who have long known the relevance of Laurie Halse Anderson and Speak.

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Review: CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT by Nancy Churnin

churnin charlie

Most Americans know the story of Jackie Robinson, the black baseball player who broke his sport’s color barrier in 1947. Charlie Sifford, the first black PGA golfer, could be called the Jackie Robinson of golf, but Charlie’s situation was different. Golf is an individual sport with no teammates. Golf is frequently played at private clubs with significant leeway to determine who can play on their courses. Because of his persistence, and with the support of Jackie Robinson himself, Charlie Sifford became the first black PGA golfer in 1961.

Charlie Takes His Shot is Nancy Churnin’s new picture book biography of Charlie Sifford. Focusing on his life in golf, Churnin takes readers from the 1930s when Charlie is not allowed to play on the courses where he caddies, to 1967 when Charlie dramatically wins his first PGA tournament. Along the way, readers see how different types of prejudice keep Charlie out of professional golf, even when he wins the National Negro Open so many times they tell him to keep the trophy. Sometimes the bigotry takes the form of blatant harassment; other times the discrimination is more insidious. The narrative text invites readers to simultaneously imagine being a superior athlete and the victim of such racial injustice. When Charlie’s ball drops in the cup in the final scene, readers understand that the game of golf and American society are forever changed.

The life lessons in Charlie Takes His Shot are clear: stay true to your game, whatever it is; keep practicing and getting better at what you do; and find the people who will support you in your cause.

John Joven’s illustrations not only impeccably accompany the text, but they also strikingly capture various physical actions involved in golfing. In many picture book biographies, the older version of the subject bears little resemblance to the younger person, but as Charlie Sifford ages during the decades covered in this story, Joven masterfully portrays him at various stages of life.

The back matter includes an author’s note that discusses Charlie Sifford’s life in more detail and a thorough timeline contextualizing Sifford’s life and accomplishments.

Charlie Takes His Shot is a worthwhile addition to any collection, alongside Nancy Churnin’s other excellent picture book biographies, The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game and Manjhi Moves a Mountain.

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