Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley university. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. Before we begin today's episode, we originally recorded this conversation last year when author Junot Diaz was under investigation for inappropriate conduct. That allegation prompted a discussion that you'll hear toward the end of the podcast. While MIT has since cleared Diaz. We felt that the discussion was an important one and still relevant beyond this particular case. Okay. On with the show.
Hi, my name is Georgia Sparling. I work at the Lesley University Office of Communications. Today, we're doing something a little different with the Why We Write podcast. Instead of talking to the authors, we're talking books with the Lesley professors behind the Classroom Bookshelf, a blog on children's and young adult books, hosted on the School Library Journal website, all of the members of the Classroom Bookshelf are former classroom teachers, experts in literacy, and avid readers of books for young people. Today, I'm speaking with two members of the team, Professor Mary Ann Cappiello and Associate Professor Grace Enriquez. Professor Erica Thulin Dawes isn't able to join us today. Kate Cunningham, an associate professor at Manhattanville College, is also a member of the team. Mary Ann and Grace, thank you for being here with me today.
Grace: Pleasure being here. Thanks for having us.
Georgia: First off, will you guys tell me, how did the Classroom Bookshelf get started and what is it?
Grace: The Bookshelf started eight years ago in the summer, where over the course of the summer, without speaking to one another, Erica, Grace, and myself all came back to Lesley in September saying, “We need to blog.” I think it was at a time where blogs were really thriving. They were no longer a brand new form of communication and we all felt that we wanted a way to keep in touch with our students, and so we taught our children's literature survey course and we were really excited about the ways that we saw our students thinking about literature in the classroom.
We wanted them to know that there was a place they could go to where they could get up-to-date information about new books, but a window into our thinking about those books and the role those books could play in the classroom, which at the time there really wasn't another blog that had that focus.
Mary Ann: Right. I think it was really serendipitous that we all came together that fall each having these separate thoughts about blogging and we also knew during that first conversation we didn't want it to be like all the other blogs that are out there about children's books, and there are some fantastic ones out there. We knew we didn't want it necessarily to be just about our opinions. I think the majority of them that are out there are excellent reviews of books, but primarily the expressed opinion of the blogger or bloggers, and we knew that what we are trying to cultivate or what we have been trying to cultivate here at Lesley is that it's not just being able to identify good books. That's one thing and that's one critical skill that we want teachers to have, but we also need to be able to help them figure out ways to use them with their students in their classrooms for curricular purposes, for meaningful and authentic curriculum purposes. We knew that that was the angle that we wanted to really highlight.
Grace: In some ways our blog is like the anti blog because blogs were really known to be these very personalized environments and more often than that, I would say probably 98% of our entries, you were not using the first person and we're not talking about ourselves. We really have always wanted it to be about the work and the work that can happen in the readers’ classroom, and so we took this sort of informal format and appropriated it to create content. We really like to think of the metaphor of the message in a bottle and that once a week during the school year, we're sending out this message in a bottle and we don't know, well we have our numbers and our statistics, but we don't know exactly who it's reaching. We don't know exactly what they're doing with it, but that it's the act of sharing as that matters most to us to get it out there so then it can take a life of its own.
Georgia: Can you talk about the format of it? It is the anti blog, did you call it? so what does it look like for people who haven't seen it yet?
Mary Ann: We follow pretty much a template. Every week, we begin with a book review. I should say that one of the most important criteria that we look at is that it has to have been published within the last year because we really want to highlight recent books for teachers so that they know there are just such rich resources out there. They don't need to keep using the same books over and over again. We highlight a book that has been recently published and we look for actually the teaching potential of the book, the utility, classroom utility, and so in that sense, we're not always looking at the book that's won the most literary awards or the illustrator awards because sometimes they don't translate well to classroom teaching.
They may be wonderful read-alouds or books for independent reading, but we're really thinking about how one book can serve multiple purposes in a classroom. Not just for independent reading or read-aloud. We look at the author's craft. We look at content of the book. We look at the illustrations, if it has any, and we look also at ways that the book can link or service. We think about the multiple ways that book can be used in the classroom. After the book review, the next section of the blog is what we call teaching ideas and invitations.
We just list, it's also applying to our thinking of ways that these books can be used for rich and authentic and meaningful learning experiences in any classroom. Then we follow that up with the section that we call further explorations and so you've got a list of online resources, mostly websites, then weekly podcasts, videos, all sorts of a multi-model resources that teachers can use to support the learning that's going on with the book. Then any other books that we can think of that could be used to further the exploration in the conversation?
Grace: We each have a different strategy. We have a yearlong calendar that we put together. So we start building last summer the books that we're anticipating, working on through the course of the year. That's partly to try to balance out the types of books. We don't want too many books for younger readers, too many books for older readers. Our audience focuses on the K-eight classrooms. That's still a pretty wide range, and then for some of us, like when I know for myself when I'm reading the book, and I'm not sure if it's just the case for all of us, different ideas are popping up about how we can use it in the classroom. I've got my sticky notes or I'm writing in the inside of the book about the teaching ideas that then my next step is always to look at the different resources I can find online.
It might be, if I'm writing about a science book, I might be looking for graphs and info graphics, statistics, photographs, videos that are connected to that scientific topic. If it's a book that relates to a time period, then we'll be looking for artifacts and photographs or paintings or primary source documents from that time period. Sometimes what you find that becomes a catalyst for some of those teaching ideas. Some of the teaching ideas we're coming up with as we're reading and they're really actually coming out with the book and sometimes it's these other texts that either really fit beautifully with the book or that jar and allow us to think in very different ways about how the book can be used in the classroom.
We really try to emphasize that the same book has many different roles to play. One book could be wonderful for language arts, but it also could be really valuable for teaching science content and vice versa. A book about science you might want to do as a read aloud because there's such incredible language that you're going to be using it for kids to understand the concept of the simile and a metaphor. It could be both at once in the classroom and we want teachers to see that. Or in turn the same book can be used one way with younger readers, but then you can appropriate it and maybe use that picture book with middle school students in a very different context.
Georgia: How do you guys decide who is going to cover what book and how do you even know what books are coming out?
Grace: That process has evolved. We began the blog like eight years ago or so. We thought we would stick to some sort of rotating schedule where we would do a non-fiction book and a fiction book, chapter book, then a picture book.
Mary Ann: Then a free option, which is often poetry.
Grace: Right? Yes. We initially thought we were going to do that. Then as the first year progressed, we realized that by putting these restraints on what we could blog about, we were missing a lot of the really great books that were coming out. I think what has essentially happened is that we've been following a lot of the trends of publishers, but also paying really close attention to what is going on in the world that when we think teachers should be addressing with their students, what students are going through, what children are experiencing in their everyday lives.
We're not necessarily focused on genre anymore and not necessarily on academic content, but things that matter to kids and to teachers and helping teachers nurture the students who are in their rooms to be full adults in all sorts of ways. This year, in particular, our colleague, Katie, did a really nice summary of the themes and patterns of our entries across the year. We paid a lot of attention to these social crises that have been happening, not just in the US but across the world. We've blogged about books about refugees.
Mary Ann: A couple of years ago, we did a general entry on the Syrian refugee crisis, but then that has become a trend throughout where this spring Katie did an entry looking at experiences of children internationally and looking at global literature and trying to bring in some books. The United States doesn't translate a lot of books. We don't bring in as many books from other countries as other countries import US children's literature. We were seeing some slow changes with that and that's really exciting because I think we're missing out on so much.
Bringing attention to international literature and follow that with Escape From Aleppo, which is a book about the Syrian refugee crisis or the Syrian civil war essentially and about getting out of Aleppo. That's a topic that unfortunately has been with us for a long time now and so we keep returning to it as those books are coming out and hearing the concerns of the global community.
Grace: As far as publishing trends, I know that the last two years we've seen a rise in biographies and in particular biographies about women.
Georgia: Awesome. [laughter]
Grace: We're not complaining about that [unintelligible 00:12:52]. Why not?
Grace: Yes, they're finally here, so let's highlight them for teachers as tools and resources in their classrooms. When they're doing their bibliography, why does it have to be about the same five men? Why can't it be about women?
Mary Ann: I think that when you asked about how we decide who's doing what books, part of it is that we all have different genres that we love and are passionate about. I tend to do a lot of historical fiction and non-fiction entries. That said, for the past four years I've been on the Orbis Pictus Committee and I decided that I didn't want to blog about non-fiction books while I was reading them for the committee cycle. Erika chairs a fiction book award. She made that same choice.
What's interesting is that I pulled back and stopped writing about non-fiction until a couple of months after the award is given and before the new books start coming in and then I start blogging about my favorites. We weren't blogging any less about non-fiction books because Grace and Katie were blogging about that because there's so many really wonderful and exciting titles. We often talk about Erica as our environmentalist because she's often doing picture books about the natural world.
She was an early childhood educator and she just knew that valuing of being out in the natural world and exploring the natural world is something that she brings into that decision making. There are times where we're really focused on very particular interests or topics and so we choose based on that. The Night Diary, which I most recently wrote about is about the partitioning of India and Pakistan in the 1940s. For me, it was a learning opportunity.
I love history and I love being able to enter the past and then come out on the other side of it and think about how do I help teachers and kids understand this history, know this history. I can't know it as well as the author of the book, but if I can offer windows into another time period because of both my passion and this great work that someone has written, I'm happy to do that and want to do that. I'm much more likely to do chapter fiction and non-fiction or picture books with the historical stints because of those passions and interests.
Grace: I am thinking about books that I blogged about this past year and in the past couple of years. In my own reading life, I love mysteries. I love puzzle mysteries especially. Sometimes those are really hard to translate to classroom teaching. When I find a good one, I want to blog that right away. Especially there are some fantastic ones that have been published in the last couple of years that are art history mysteries and so there's the content right there. We do try to go beyond just the conventional content areas - science, history, math. I honestly wish that there were more, more areas. Whenever we can get into music and art, we go for it.
Mary Ann: One very intentional decision I made this year, one of our Orbis Pictus books was Fault Lines In The Constitution, which was written by Cynthia Levinson and her husband and her husband is a constitutional scholar. He's a lawyer, a constitutional scholar. She's an author of children's and middle grade non-fiction. It's about the constitution but it's a book that's constantly asking the reader to think about the constitution over time.
It presents some issue, a constitutional dilemma maybe that happened in the very recent past. Maybe something that goes back a couple of hundred years. It presents a dilemma where the judicial system had to think about the constitution and how to interpret it to make a decision. Then she goes back to discussing what the framers originally intended and what maybe some of those initial arguments were regarding either the constitution, the articles, or the amendments. Then it talks about the ways in which that is relevant in our lives today.
It goes through a number of issues. I wrote about that on February 19th. The Parkland shooting very much influenced the way that that blog entry ultimately got published. I read the book over the course of the previous year because it was something that we considered for Orbis Pictus. I had time to think about the book a lot, but then the current event in that moment really made me want to pursue the second amendment conversations there. That's another way where there's the vote in the content and then there's the ways in which current events frame, how we think about that role in the classroom.
Grace: We do feel a responsibility as well to talk about the books that the teachers are hearing about. Whenever the American Library Association announces their awards for children's and young adult literature so the Newbury, the Caldecot. We do feel a responsibility as teachers are hearing about these books and looking for ways to bring them into the classroom to present them through that lens. This past year, one of my favorite books on the ones that I thought, yes, truly deserved the Newbery. [laughter] Sometimes I don't always agree with what the committees chose.
Grace: With Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly, what I love about that book is that it addresses the tween audience, which there are not many high-quality books that address that audience. Here's one that won the Newbery. What I love about it is that it is a story about four kids and they are kids who have very particular personalities and I would say idiosyncrasies and are charming, but the story doesn't really say anything about and it doesn't address anything that- One of the words that I always cringe, whenever I hear, is the word relatable. Are you assuming that certain populations are monolithic? You've got the protagonist who is Filipino. You've got another character who is Japanese. You've got another character who is Caucasian, and they're all coming together, but what they're going through is very common and very familiar. I'd rather use those terms than relatable to a lot of the tween set. We're seeing this really neat- I don't want to say that the pendulum is swinging back because I still think it needs to be swinging towards books about diverse representations and authors and illustrators and storylines and experiences, but it's also nice to see that there are these books that I think perhaps teachers or communities, parents, obviously, play a huge role in what kids are able to read in their schools, but we're seeing this nice movement of stories that can be shared widely, but have diverse representation in it and are written by authors and illustrated by [laughs] illustrators of diverse backgrounds.
I think that by addressing some of these and highlighting some of these, we are also acknowledging the fact that the vast majority of teachers are white middle-class females who may or may not know how to approach some of these other books that we are trying to highlight as well.
Mary Ann: It's interesting too how some of the books, I'm thinking about Windows by Julia Denos, that I blogged about in the fall. She's a Lesley
Grace: Lesley grad, yes. [laughs]
Mary Ann: It was published by Candlewick, a local publisher, and the whole book is a love song to Somerville. Both the author and the illustrator have lived in Somerville at various points. For me, what I loved about that book is that it's this window into this one place, but it's really a window into so many places. Through the local, you can move more towards the global. Because I'm local here, I know that, "Oh, they're writing about Somerville, and this looks a little bit like the streets that we walk." The reality is if you live in a city and dusk is falling and you're walking around and you're peeking into people's windows, and you see into the restaurants and the storefronts, and you arrive back home, that is this almost universal experience.
That I love, when a book captures something that feels so common and ordinary, and yet extraordinary all at the same time and is so rooted in one place, but also can be so many places based on where the reader is. That feels really special to share those books. I remember way back maybe in our first year of blogging, I blogged about a book called Meadowlands by Tom Yezerski. It was this wonderful piece of non-fiction about the Meadowlands in northern New Jersey, which mostly people make fun of if they know about them at all, because they've been so polluted and so many things have been built up around them, but it's this amazing history. It's a story really of resurgence and rebirth in terms of that wetlands and what happened in response to the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act in our own evolution as a society and a culture to tending to the earth, how that has come back and the reintroduction to so many species or the resurgence of so many species.
That's another book that, by blogging about it, I felt that it's a book that a lot of people could look at and say, "Oh well, I don't teach in New Jersey. Why would I use this book?" But rather, this is a book about wetlands, so this is a book about one place, but how you use this then as a launch to go take your kids out and go look at your local swamp, or marsh, or river, or lake and see what's happening in that water and look at the history of that body of water, and what are people in your community are doing, and how do you bring them into your classroom and get your kids to that water body? I find those experiences really satisfying to be able to share.
Georgia: Do you think that classroom teachers, in general, are thinking like you guys are thinking about books like how it can be a bigger teaching moment or provide their students with a bigger worldview or is it something that their heads are down, they have a ton of stuff to do, so this is a way to really help them get in there where they wouldn't maybe have the time to do the research themselves?
Mary Ann: I think it's a little bit of both.
Grace: Yes. I think it comes in waves around testing times. [laughter] It's a little more about the million other things that they have to do, but at the start of the year, it's really exciting. I think we give a lot more thought to how we want to begin the year, which books we want to highlight at the beginning of the year because I think at that point, everybody's excited. The energy is back up. Everyone is a little bit more rested and has had time to think about what worked well last year, what didn't, and what are my goals for this year or what are my goals for my students? We usually begin the year, and our year is a school calendar year, so September through June, August sometimes I think.
Mary Ann: Yes, usually the last week of August.
Grace: Last week of August, right. We really try to think about how we want teachers to frame the year, how we want to frame the year through books, and we usually write a collective entry. Some of our entries are collectively written. We share our hopes for our teachers. I think that that is really what drives us. We know that they're bombarded with so many other pressures throughout the year, so we hope that we can be- or I hope at least, that we can be this presence that teachers can go to whenever they have time and know that we're here to help them and that we provided them with all of these resources that they can go to.
Mary Ann: I think that when we have students in our children's literature courses here at Lesley, we're always working to give them the skillset to look at a book to look at a book very flexibly and to say this is not a second grade book. There is no such thing as a second grade book. This is a book that does A, B, C, and D. Well, who is that good for? What could happen in the classroom with those kids and this book and for what purpose? We're often having that conversation with them because they don't know what grade levels they'll work at. You could spend four years in second grade and all of a sudden find out, guess what, now you're teaching fifth grade. That's a very different set of circumstances, so we want to make sure that we're introducing that very flexible thinking with them when they're in our care, in our master's programs. The reality is once they're in their classrooms or if they're already in their classrooms when they're working with us, they have to be very practical because they're so busy. There's not enough time in the day. They have too many standards, and they don't have the access to the books the way that we do.
Georgia: We're sitting in a room full of books. [laughs]
Mary Ann: Exactly.
Georgia: Thousands of books. This is just your office. [laughs]
Mary Ann: Exactly. The privilege that we have of having access to these books is the flip side of that is this responsibility, so when we write our entries we'll say, "Some books might just be pre-k to second grade," and we'll really see the book working at that level. Sometimes we'll have books where we'll say, "This is a picture book that works pre-k to eight, and here's why." Then within our teaching ideas, we'll say k-two. These are k-two teaching ideas. Then we might have three-five teaching ideas and then six-eight teaching ideas. In that respect, we layer the different ways that you can use the book into developmentally appropriate activities.
We try to provide that support, recognizing that if we can demonstrate how a book can be used very broadly. That's really easy with picture books to be very flexible and to think about how to harness that potential because to write a really great picture book, to illustrate a really great picture book, you're really smart. Sometimes it takes a lot of research, and it takes a lot of years of revision, and the research that illustrators now do for historical fiction in picture books, for non-fiction picture books and biographies. They need to know it's not the author did, so we try to harness not just the text itself, but the research, the writing, and the creative processes used by the authors and illustrators, and pull that in as mentor processes for teachers to explore with their children. That's where sometimes the picture books have really incredible value with upper elementary and middle-grade students because it's an easier way to unpack the writing, revising, and illustrating process and that's really exciting.
Grace: Along those lines, as you were talking I kept thinking about how it's not just the multiple ways that a book can be used for rich classroom learning, but we also make it a point to pick out books that we would consider to be literature. Again, making that distinction between a children's book and children's literature. I think sometimes when students enter our classrooms, they might not be aware necessarily that there is that distinction. The field of children's literature has always been fighting this upward battle to be recognized as being a legitimate form of art, to be a craft.
Georgia: How do you define children's book versus children's literature?
Grace: Right. Maybe we tend to converge overall the way we think about as we look at literary quality. Something that just isn't written by anyone. Someone who has really taken time to hone the craft of writing and to use precise words and figurative language and all of those things that we think of that teachers are teaching students in English language arts class. What makes a book a good book? How is the plot arc? What is the character development like? That's speaking about fiction.
Mary Ann: An authentic representation in fiction is really important, really living, breathing people that they're experiencing.
Grace: Then in terms of the artwork, if a book does contain artwork we look for the illustrations, the artwork to actually enhance what is being said in the text and that could be enhancing by expanding upon it, by perhaps subverting what's on the text, or by completely contradicting so that students, readers need to pay attention to both and realize that they are working in tandem. That you don't get the full picture, the full information, the full story by doing that. I tend to use the-- When I think about picture books, I tend to use the chart picture books written as one word rather than two. I think it was Perry Nolan. I might have first written it that way decades ago.
To really draw the distinction between books that are merely illustrated and often have illustrations that just mirror what's in the text. Nice to look at, but really don't do anything else. It just presents a pretty picture and books with illustrations that really push the possibilities to what the book is telling [crosstalk].
Mary Ann: Sometimes that's like a really postmodern [concept] where the book itself is very self-conscious of itself as a book and/or is playing with space and the reader's experience of the space within the pages across the two-page spread. What happens when you turn the page? Are you surprised, startled as a reader? There are books that are continuing to push this visual envelope of what the book can offer and provide. I think we all work with that same basic definition of a picture book. A picture book is a book where no words and the pictures both vary responsibility or it's a wordless picture book and it's all the pictures.
From a non-fiction standpoint that means that there's to make it a literary non-fiction. We want to know that the illustrator has done the same kind of research as the author because information is being shared and conveyed. A world is being built, that maybe existed in the past or the natural world is being represented in some way that we want to know is as accurate and authentic as it can be given the knowledge that's available to us. We carefully look at those illustrations for representation. Also, we want to know the path that illustrator followed through the knowledge that is being researched, the theories that are being researched as much as the author.
We'll look for the back matter of the book. What authors know, it's there, what illustrators know, it's there. Where's the bibliography or the reference list? If it's non-fiction and it doesn't have back matter, I'm not going to blog about it but that's problematic to me because I know that author and that illustrator are now clearly to me that they really don't own that material. I want those verifiable sources. It's interesting because in getting non-fiction now for four years, getting tons of books for four years now, the number of science non-fiction books that are published in the new educational level, it's the majority of the books that are science related non-fiction and then biography is probably a close second.
Maybe biography may be becoming cool at this point. Books about historical events, I don't find them in historical fiction or non-fiction. They're very rare that we just don't have a lot of them. Biography really seems to be the form in the fictional format, the vehicle for learning about the past. I think it's really important that we demonstrate to kids and teachers that the authors, the illustrators and the publishers that have made this commitment to telling us where this information came from and what's uncertain and where are they may be filling in gaps where their questions couldn't be answered. Where did they get hit a dead end?
Do they use language—getting back to Grace's point about the stylistic choices that writers are making. In non-fiction, when are you telling me when there's disagreement amongst scientists or historians about this topic? I don't want to just know what one person think. Are you sharing with kids the fact that there isn't total agreement? What's a new idea that's just popped out that you might be the first person writing about this particular interpretation? That too I think becomes a really important part of the literary conversation that we have with one another. We rely on one another. When we're mapping out our year, we're saying, "No. I changed my mind. I've heard about this. I'd like to do it."
Part of that is that I know Grace is going to tell me if she's heard things or she's seen things in the book that I'm not seeing. I depend on her perspective and point of view. I don't want to just make my own assertions.
Grace: Sometimes we will blog about a book that we want to cause a little bit of a stir because we've all had conversations about this and I know that one of the pivotal pieces of our teaching and the way we approach books and literacy, in general, is that we want readers to be critical consumers of what they read. Very rarely do we just present a book and say, "This is the authoritative expert on this topic." Oftentimes, we will include what we call critical literacy ideas and invitations to get teachers and students to think perhaps from another perspective, to think from a marginalized perspective about what this book is telling us, whose voices are left out, has the story been represented throughout history.
Does this align with that or does this try to push things? There's some books that don't lend themselves well to these critical literacy explorations or discussions. I feel that given the way that information is being presented to the wider population and how some pieces are deemed authoritative and some are deemed weak. We have a huge responsibility to helping students figure that out and read things critically and not just rely on one resource, one book for all the knowledge about a particular topic.
Mary Ann: For example, The Night Diary about the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947, my critical literacy activity was to bring students into the oral history projects that have been done. Memory is certainly faulty and many people who are alive today who are sharing their memories of that experience were children during that time, but it was this largest mass migration of people. Historically, it happened in a very brief period of time. Very little time if any is spent on it in schools particularly for our audience and the audience of this book, which would be a middle school audience, so the critical literacy idea was okay, "Now listen. You've read this book and you've heard different perspectives of this experience within this one book, and some of the other teaching ideas have other types that can be looked at as well." This one is look at oral histories, look at documents. What are people's memories of this time and how does that jar with what you read about in the book?
How does it make you think more deeply about certain characters? Whose voices are you hearing in the oral histories that are excluded from the book? What voices are in the book that you're not finding those people in these oral history collections? Part of that is again, we live in a global society. It’s an opportunity to learn about this event that is so important to global history, and to look at it more deeply but also to look at the resources that other countries aren't creating to record their past. I think it's really important for young people in America to have access to that. I don't think we always, well, we aren't globally minded in the ways that I think we can be in the classroom at all levels. I think part of that critical literacy work that Grace was talking about is giving people the tools to see in different ways. That it's funny because we've blogged one book at a time because that's the easiest way to do it and do not overload people.
Here’s this new book. There's a long you know about it. Here's the ways of thinking about it and use and the classroom. The way we advocate working with books in the classroom is that there are always so many texts that you're using at once.
Grace: We do on occasion peer texts and we blog about two at once. If there are two incredible ones that happen to be about the same topic or about the same person, it’s a biography and sometimes that's a lot of fun to see how two different authors are representing the same person with the same topic. When that happens, we like to do that. Every once in a while, we will break the form and blog about that particular theme or particular topic as we mentioned earlier in the beginning of this podcast. Then list a bunch of books or bunch of texts, a bunch of resources that teachers could use to create a set that can help them dig deeper and expand their knowledge about a particular topic.
Georgia: You guys on the blog, you do have a variety of topics that you write about or books that are about a variety of topics. Is anything sort of off limits for you guys?
Mary Ann: Yes, that's a really great question.
Grace: Can you talk about Loving Versus Virginia?
Mary Ann: Yes.
Grace: About it was last year. Yes, it was the end of last year when some incredible book came out called Loving Versus Virginia about the series of trials that the documentary novel of the landmark civil rights case. There were questions as I blogged about this and as I was going on, I kept thinking there were so many rich and fantastic and robust teaching opportunities with this book. It’s so important and it needs to be shared with teachers. However, there is this part when it doesn't shy away from the fact that the- I'm sorry, I'm blanking right now. Mildred, that's her name? Was just 18 years old. Millie was just 18 years old when she married Richard and they had their first son before marriage. I thought, okay, this is the K-to-eight blog and we're going to be talking about pregnancy out of wedlock.
Does that mean that this book is off limits? One thing that we always do is each week we share our drafts of our blog entries with each other and we get feedback from each other. Erica, Katie, Mary Ann, will all give me feedback about an entry, and I raised this issue. We didn't know what to do. I think none of us, Katie’s husband is an administrator and deals with middle school, teenage populations. She asked him and he weighed in. I asked my husband, who was a former high school teacher and he weighed in
Mary Ann: I think you might asked my husband.
Grace: We reached out and we used our own resources and we came back and agreed that we believed that the message about civil rights and marriage equality were what we believed in so much more, and wanted to advocate so much more that little part, that little part of this incredible story was something that was true and real.
We can't ignore. We turned it into the teaching invitation. That's what they are, they're invitations to teachers. We are not saying that if you use this book in your classroom, but usually the activities that you must do, right, hey, here it is. We're not going to shy away from it. If you are comfortable and you know your community, and you know your administration and you know your students and you feel this is appropriate to address with them, here's one way that you could do it.
Mary Ann: Yes, and I think we don't blog about books that would definitely be defined as YA, and there's this whole boundary line what is middle grade versus what is YA.
Georgia: What does that mean?
Mary Ann: YA books and middle level, and you know, middle school kids of course they're going to be reading YA books and middle school teachers using YA books, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Part of it is, I used to teach middle school and I used to teach high school. Teenagers should be able to read books in school about teenagers. The idea that somehow developmentally appropriate books goes out the window when you suddenly magically turn 14, that makes me crazy. There is such an important role for YA books in high school classrooms. We stay confined to more middle grade books.
Last spring, I blogged about Felix by Lisa Bunker and I was so excited about the book because it was a book for tweens that had a middle grade character named Felix, who's gay, who lives in a family with a gender fluid grandmother and also has an alien being fused inside of him. Naturally. This book, which is really, it's a coming of age story, it's an identity story. It's got a very sweet first crush storyline, but the main story is, I've got an alien being fused inside of me, what am I going to do? He faces this-- this operation that where they won't survive if they are separated. It shows a diverse family of loving, beautiful, funny, smart family, this incredibly likable male protagonist and also just bringing in a book for LGBTQ tweens to see themselves. It felt really important to have a book like that and to seize that opportunity to share with teachers all the different ways that you can use that in the classroom.
Georgia: Do you get a lot of pushback on the books that you post or are people pretty accepting whenever you have to share?
Grace: We haven't got much pushback. We'll get the odd comment. No, we'll get a lot of spam in our comments as well. Most of the feedback has been tremendously positive.
Mary Ann: Yes.
Grace: Thank you for these resources, thank you for these ideas and when we are able to connect with teachers on a one to one basis, I know I've asked and I think you've asked as well, please tell us how you're actually using this book in the classroom. Have you tried these ideas? Have they worked out? Have they not? Could it be tweaked? What of it have you made your own? What else have you been doing? We try to get those conversations going, but usually those are in, five, 10 minute bursts when we're at conferences.
Grace: Yes. I would love to know.
Mary Ann: Yes. I think that's the challenge that we've created this thing where we've tried to be invisible as the four of us in our personalities. It's not an identity or a personality driven blog. It's about the work but because of that, I think maybe we've created a context where people aren't going to comfortably comment saying, "Hey, I tried this out, it was really hard." Or, "Hey, this worked really well." Or "I've got this one question." Because we don't put ourselves in it. Maybe it may feel hard to comment and to tell us. I think that's something that we'd like to figure out. I think it's really important that the work stays about the work and not about us, but at the same time to create some sort of line of communication that's more comfortable for teachers to be able to share and ask questions. I'm not sure what that is, but exactly.
Georgia: Before the podcast started, you guys were saying that people come up to you, like teachers, I assume parents as well, and they're like, "What should I read?" Or “Any recommendations?” Can I ask that question or how you respond when you get that question because it's inevitable for anybody who reads a lot or talks about books.
Grace: When they find out that's our field. We were just talking about how that is not an easy question and it should not be an easy question to answer because then that makes the assumption that all readers are the same, that all kids are the same, that they have the same interests or reading abilities or-- it's a…
Georgia: It's a host of things. [cross talk]
Grace: Yes. I think my response is just that and not making assumptions, but tell me more about if it's your son or your daughter. Tell me more about that or some of my friends who still teach, who do classroom teaching, K to eight will ask me, I need a new book to do the read aloud with my classroom, what should I use? I need to know who the students are first. We need to know their identities, we need to know their interests, we need to know what genres they are…
Mary Ann: What's the purpose of the read aloud?
Grace: What's the purpose of the read aloud? What's going on in the world? What really matters to them? By asking those kinds of questions we begin to narrow down the possibilities. We never say oh you we must read and then say a title.
Georgia: Do you have any book which you can say that you've recently finished, that just really stood out to you that was really outstanding?
Grace: I can tell you an author that I'm really enthralled with
Georgia: That would be great.
Grace: Erin Entrada Kelly who wrote Hello Universe that won the Newbery. For both personal and professional reasons, her stories are about my childhood and I never had any of those stories growing up. I read about kids on farms, I read about white middle-class kids. I loved stories so I still love reading but these were stories that were not happening in my life. All of a sudden, here is an author who writes about being Filipino in Louisiana of all places and being like, what in the world is going on in my life and how do I make sense of it? How do we just get through the day and know who I am? How do I establish friendships? How do I stay true to what my interests on my loves are?
She's written a couple of books. Her fourth one, I believe, a novel which came out this past spring, which I signed up to blog about when we start up again in September. They move me. They speak to me on so many levels and they think that they speak to lots of kids on so many levels. These are books that I pick up. I tend to gravitate towards fiction childhood books, novels. I can't put it down. I weep and I laugh and I nod my head a lot because I get what she's saying. I would recommend her books to people like me.
Georgia: And other people who don't know about that experience.
Mary Ann: Exactly. I'm totally paralyzed by that question. [laughter] In part because I'm reading a lot of non-fiction right now. This is my last year on the award committee and I don't like to talk about it. I don’t like to signal anything. We're really working that way. Actually and this is whatever. One book that I feel like I want to talk about, but I don't really know how to talk about now is Islandborn by Junot Diaz it was illustrated by Leo Espinosa, because it came out in March and I blogged about it soon after it came out. I think the week after it came out.
I kept telling everybody I know, this is the perfect picture book. This is beautiful. This is powerful. This book allows kids to fill in the gaps where they know something that they don't need to be told it. They just know it and they understand it from the pictures, from the context. It really powerfully captures that [unintelligible] history. It's beautiful as this love story I think urban neighborhoods to the Dominican diaspora. Now, what do we do? What do we do with that book? Leo Espinosa's illustrations are glorious. This is a book kids need.
What are the implications when we know the author has issues? Has been accused of sexual abuse and exploitation by others over a sustained period of time. What is our obligation and the art versus the artist? I don't know what to do about that book. Because we don't have a lot of books that do what that book does. That's on my mind. We had another book that I blogged about that was historical fiction over time. After it was published, it got great reviews, I loved it. I saw a moment in the illustration as well that private moments between a mother and child and many, many people in the children's book community and beyond, felt like it was a racist portrayal of an enslaved African woman and her child being portrayed as too happy in this moment.
My job was to listen. I wrote this entry on the book and I wrote teaching ideas. Then a few weeks later, after this emerged, I went back and I didn't take the entry down, because I felt that was not helpful or moving the conversation forward either. I just wrote a note to our readers about just owning the misstep. This was how I interpreted it. That's not what's the most important thing to think about right now. The most important thing is really to listen to what other people are saying, what they see when they read this book. I just left that up there. I haven't yet written a note for Islandborn because I don't know morally what I think the right thing is to do or to happen. Because there's just so many kids who need that book.
Georgia: That's a question that bookstore owners are having right now. Readers, in general, are like, well, if I like something, but the person is questionable, what do you do with that? Because a lot of people do a lot of questionable things but also have just amazing stories to tell. How do you reconcile that?
Grace: How do you love your father who also says pretty offensive things? How do you love your favorite sports star who suddenly has some shady stuff going on?
Georgia: No easy answer on that one. Maybe that’s a good place to stop. We’ll let all other people debate that as well. Thank you so much for talking with me today. I hope we can have you back for other topics in the future.
Grace: Thank you for the opportunity.
Georgia: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. For more information on the Classroom Bookshelf blog and educators behind it, please visit our podcast page. The link is in the show notes. We'd also appreciate it if you would rate and review our podcast.
Next week, we're speaking with children's author and veterinarian Sara Levine who writes science non-fiction books. Here's a clip from our conversation.
Sara: That's what most of those essays are written between two or four in the morning. It's a nice time to write because your judging brain is sleeping. So you can write anything and then when I wasn’t as exhausted I could edit it and put it together.