Category Archives: Reading Lives

Taking the Diverse Books Pledge: Keep It 100

We Need Diverse Books has issued a challenge for all readers:twitter-100-pledge (1)

From the website:

By pledging to read, 5, 10, 15, 25, or even 100 DIVERSE books.

Books where people of color can be first-page HEROES rather than second-class citizens. Books in which LGBTQIA characters can represent social CHANGE rather than social problems. And books where people with disabilities can be just…people.

This is a challenge I can get behind! I’ll list and link to the books I and my darling boy read (and provide some brief annotations) in hopes that folks will read along with us.

Books Read:

  1. Joshua By the Sea, Angela Johnson: makes me long for summer; an African American family spends a wonderful day at the beach; Joshua explores; board book, beautiful illustrations
  2. Whose Toes are Those? Jabari Asim, board book, great way for babies to play along while they find their toes
  3. Whose Knees are These? Jabari Asim, board book, similar to Toes, funny and affirming
  4. Goodnight Baby, Cheryl Willis Hudson, board book, cute illustrations, short and great for trying to get a baby into some sort of bedtime routine
  5. Pretty Brown Face, Andrea Davis Pinkney, another affirming book, though illustrations remind me of something that came out of the 70s (the father has an Afro that’s pretty dope, lol), board book; there’s a mirror on the last page so the baby can look at him/herself. I love that.
  6. The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, Lucille Clifton: one of my all-time favorite books. Hands down. Two boys, one of whom is named King Shabazz, go out in search of spring. Their quest leads them through their urban neighborhood. Wonderful illustrations, great interracial boy friendship. Delightful.

    The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring

  7. Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children, Sandra L. Pinkney, Photographs by Myles C. Pinkney: a board book that describes shades of black and brown in creative, empowering language (my favorite “I am the midnight blue in a licorice stick”) that all kids need, black and brown kids, particularly. With photographs of actual children, some words you’re probably going to need to look up (well, I looked up Unakite, which is one of the words used as a descriptor), and the repeated phrase “I am Black. I am unique” this is a great book that depicts various shades of Blackness.
  8. So Much, Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury: A raucous celebration of family members who all come over to see the baby–well, so it seems. From uncle, to aunties, to others, this book is such fun to read. The language is reminiscent of, I’m thinking, Cooke’s cultural background, as some of the linguistic patterns seem West Indian (which makes sense given Cooke’s background). One visitor, the cousin, arrives and wants to fight with the baby, which did give me pause. Everyone else wants to hug and kiss the baby except the young cousin, who wants to fight. I imagine that we will have to have conversations about why hitting and fighting is inappropriate, eventually. However, for now, and even then, we will keep this book as one to read again and again because it is simply a delight: Black families, engaged in preparations for a great surprise, overly positive and loving.
  9. Ask the Passengers, A.S. King: I’m taking a course through a fantastic PD program called Teachers as Scholars. My seminar is about LGBTQI young adult literature in the classroom and this novel is one of the first ones I’m reading for my class. It’s an interesting concept: a young woman is in her senior year of high school, questioning if she’s a lesbian. She lives in a small town with awful parents (her dad’s a pot head and her mother is just…vile), plus her two closest friends are both in their own secret gay relationships. To get through it all, the main character, Astrid, sends her love out to passing airplanes. The book is cute for the first third but I was frustrated with Astrid and her seeming helplessness, though she gets an extra boost from Socrates and her supportive Humanities teacher. I also detested the mother. I found her so awful that she was beyond believable, but, that gives me something to talk about during my seminar. There are also two random mentions of people of color (I think Astrid’s girlfriend is Black and there’s a school board member whose race is mentioned), which absolutely confused me. Then, one of the characters disappears and reappears as the author is trying to tie up loose ends. Okay, so this book is one to add to a classroom library because it’s a portrayal of coming out, small town, lesbian. I’d imagine that this would be useful in a broader collection of LGBTQI stories.
  10. ABCs of African American Poetry, Ashley Bryan: I took to my bookshelves to start reading many of the books I’ve collected over the years to my son. This picture book has excerpts from the work of 26 Black poets. Sometimes the initial letter is not the first letter of the word (that threw me off a bit but once I realized that, it was fun to see where the letter would appear), promoting new discoveries. Additionally, the full information of the poets and their poems is at the end of the book for further reading. Bryan’s colorful, beautiful illustrations provide a wonderful pairing with the poems.
  11. Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan: I LOVED this book. The narrator–or Greek chorus?–felt like many of the friends I’ve known and loved. As the story played out, of two boys who wanted to break a record, of another couple that had been together for a while, of a different, new couple and of a lonely young man, I wanted to know every single story these kids had to tell. Every single one. I didn’t find any parts of the story contrived, and I think that’s because there’s also a part of this story that resonates with older readers, those of us who actually were around when AIDS took so many from us (and still is)…I could write forever about this book. For now, I’ll just recommend it wholeheartedly. An excellent young adult book that is also just write for grown-ups, too.
  12. Gracefully Grayson, Ami Polansky: Grayson is a boy who knows he is a girl. Living with his aunt and uncle in Chicago after his parents die, Grayson struggles to tell others what he has always known to be true. A great middle grade novel, largely because it is thoughtful and gentle and has some great examples of what it means to be an upstander when we see something wrong.
  13. Nino Wrestles the World, Yuyi Morales: In this delightful picture book, Nino wrestles various figures of his imagination in the custom of the Lucha Libre wrestlers. Nino is imaginative and Morales’ drawings are fantastic. Nino does meet his match at the end of the book, and it’s an even bigger challenge than a Lucha Libre!
  14. My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood, Tameka Fryer Brown: One worry I have is that Black boys get labeled as “angry” far too quickly. Rather than helping them to use their words to express how they are feeling, they are punished. More patience! I think this adorable book will help. The Black boy at the center of this picture book uses all kinds of wonderful adjectives to describe his various moods. Readers can’t help but be encouraged to try their own descriptive words to express the many moods they’re in.
  15. Adaptation, Malinda Lo: This science fiction novel grabbed me at the beginning when birds started falling from the sky. I found it to get my adrenaline pumping as I wondered why the protagonist, Reece, had wounds that seemed to heal quickly, why she and her bestie spent time out in the middle of the desert and can’t talk about what happened. She has an encounter with another young woman that lets her explore her sexual orientation, too. Engaging, compelling, fast read for those who love Sci fi and those who don’t. I am the latter and I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
  16. Too Many Mangos, Tammy Paikai: I love it when friends give us books as gifts! This delightful picture book helps understand the gift of sharing. The illustrations feature a varied cast of Hawaiian characters beautifully drawn. Readers will also get a joyful glimpse of life as they learn about mangos and much more. This book will be in our permanent collection.
  17. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, Isabel Quintero: Gabi reminds me of a well-developed Ugly Betty if you remember that TV show from the early 2000s. She describes herself at various times as “overweight,” “nerdy,” “Mexican,” but that doesn’t really scratch the surface. Gabi is also a loyal friend to her besties who have their own challenges (including coming out and teen pregnancy among other things), a father who battles substance abuse and a mom and aunt who don’t believe that she is actually a good girl. Oh, and Gabi is also a senior who has her mind set on going to UC-Berkeley. With an irrepressible sense of humor and a voice that rang amazingly true and reminiscent of young people I actually know, this book is one I’d consider reading as a whole class novel. It’s that good.

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Between Tweet Summaries, Shylock’s Defense and Sour Patch Kids: Places Where Learning Happens

I’ve been away for a bit to help with the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference, which was ultimately a wonderful success. While it was a good amount of work, the conference came at exactly the right time: my morale wasn’t particularly high, I was frustrated with administrative structures, annoyed that larger class sizes have slowed my ability to know my kids as well as I usually do, and concerned that the overall vibe of myself and colleagues was one of low morale, too.

Nothing like a conference full of good ideas, friendly faces, chats about books, favorite authors and everything else to change that! What is also important about conferences, and about this one in particular, is that NCTE got introduced to an entirely new audience of younger teachers, or teachers who had been teaching for years but had not been to a conference. I realized how much belonging to a professional organization matters. Already, being back in my school, the teachers who attended (my whole grade level team and most of the grade above me) have been simply ebullient about sessions they attended, new information they learned and are eager to try…there’s a spirit of re-invigoration.

Given that I’ve been away for a few days, I was not necessarily looking forward to returning to my classroom. I worried that my desk would be a mess, kids would have completed none of the work I’d left for them to do with their sub…overall chaos would await me. Luckily, none of that was the case. Desk was orderly, kids were happy to see me, wanted to know about the conference, if I brought them anything (books, books, books), and they turned in the work they completed. (That’s another story about how quickly I will get that all graded–I have to get better about these things).

My student teacher attended the conference. She’s been a great colleague because she actually has the time to observe what’s happening in class between students and me, between students and other students, etc. As is typical of a new teacher, most of her observations focus on behavior and classroom management. I don’t know if you remember, but this is the year I’m piloting a class with a group of sophomores that have a desire to enter Honors English classes but need some skills work (academic and habits of mind). While it’s by far my most difficult to teach, it is my joy every single day. I can see why she gets concerned with their behavior: they talk out, they get off task, they get me off task (I got caught up in a conversation about “Scandal” that was about 10 minutes too long, but it was so compelling…), they sometimes don’t do their homework, they can be resistant, they take everything personally…

So yesterday, on that first day back, after she voiced her thinking about students, I had to remind her about all the reasons I’m quite pleased that these kids are going to be ready to enter Honors in January. I had to give her a different way of looking at student progress that extends beyond classroom management.

In short:

  • We administered the Gates-McGinty reading assessment to get some sort of data about their current reading levels. Once I got the results, I asked the kids if they wanted to know their levels, reasoning that it’s just one type of data, and it’s good to be well-informed, because then you know where you can improve. While a few of them are reading on the post-high school level, many of them are hovering around middle school, but I told them that all they need to do is read more challenging books and write a lot, and they would raise those levels in no time. They just needed to be persistent. Add to that that I told them they needed to read 15 independent reading books over the course of the semester (why not set goals that are ambitious? If they read 10, I’ll be happy; what’s good to know is that they are all reading), in addition to the core texts. Lots of them like reading YA (who doesn’t?), but I told them that they needed to balance their reading diet with some more challenging texts (I have a great analogy that involves Doritos). Thing is, when you make such recommendations to kids who aren’t big readers, you best be ready to start pushing books at them. I’ve been bringing my books from home (I used to have a really great classroom library that I tend to donate to teachers when I leave schools, so I’m not at my current levels, but I still have some good ones), but we also have a fantastic school library. We read for 20 minutes to start every class, and kids go to the library when they need to. Yesterday, five kids needed to go, so I went with them. They wanted to read more challenging texts, and I was tired of them saying that and returning with YA, so we had a spontaneous trip, which yielded some new books and new interests. I also remembered that librarians don’t know all types of kids–my school librarian was recommending texts that I knew they weren’t going to read, or ones that were too challenging at the moment, or too…boring, so I had to pull books myself for them. But that’s progress! They want to read, they want to improve, they are on the path to becoming readers, and I need to step my own game up because they need my help.
  • To get some semblance of a status of the classroom, I had kids write a Tweet summary for an assigned act and scene from our current all-class text, The Merchant of Venice. After having arguments about characters and spaces, they summarized key points, used hash tags to emphasize the most important parts, and created a review sheet for their peers. More progress: they can distinguish between what is most important and what is interesting. 
  • On that same note, they then had to re-read Shylock’s defense and argue if he was a villain or a victim. It’s now become habit for them to remind themselves and each other to include textual evidence to support their claims, and to analyze that evidence. They would have just written their opinions and turned it in a few months ago.
  • I was at the candy store after school yesterday and ran into three of the kids from that class. It’s so great to see kids in environments outside of school, when they are themselves, and funny, and free. I made some fuss about scholars and Sour Patch kids and being happy to see them (why not make a fuss over them? Can’t be sure if anyone else will, so I make sure I do) before they wished me well and made their way into the evening. What is most important, too, is that they see themselves as part of a community of achievers that extends beyond what happens on the fifth floor. That community will see them through.

Progress happens, but sometimes it occurs on such a minute scale that we can miss it. I told my student teacher that we needed to remember those signs, and we spent a moment recounting those and others, just to make sure we don’t get so bogged down in the other stuff that we forget that these kids are moving forward, and that I just know they’re gonna do it. Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments over these last few months where I’ve wondered if it was going to work, but then, something like that happens: I either run into a kid outside of class who wants to show me something they’re reading, or invites me to come see her in the school musical, or submits what is a fantastically written paper, and I remember: we are going to do it, and for that, I’m grateful.

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Finding My Way Back to YA Lit: Aristotle & Dante

The best measure for me to determine if I’m reading a book that is weighty and meaningful (and please keep in mind that these terms hold various currency at different times in my life, dependent on what I’m supposed to be doing or attempting to ignore) is if I’m unafraid to read and cry on the subway.

I’ve read several titles that had me weeping, furtively wiping my eyes, wearing my sunglasses UNDERGROUND because I was overcome with something emotional about a text. I admit that I hope people don’t think I’m insane, but, when a book takes you, you don’t really quite care enough about what people might say. All that matters is, well, the book.

In this frenzied summer of teaching writing with high schoolers and literacy to preservice and new teachers, I have also been attempting to help all of them broaden their understandings of what it means to read and write. The teachers participate in a book club in hopes of remembering what real readers do (funny, they tend to want to impose all of these arcane rules on students that they would never do to themselves. I constantly remind them that, if they don’t want to complete particular activities after doing something,  then students don’t want to either). Given that the class is a mix of elementary, middle and high school teachers, of all subjects (no comment on how much of a challenge this is, but I will say that thoughtful, flexible groupings make everything better), I provided a list of books along the grade-level spectrum.

One of them was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Now, as much as this is a young adult novel about two Latino young men discovering who they are, falling in love, and being loved by such wonderful parents (oh, I wanted their parents to be my parents or to be parents of kids I taught, or just, I don’t know, hang out with them or go bowling or just be in the same room with them…) it is equally as much a book about literacy. The boys read to each other, share poetry, draw, write letters…I wonder if this is caused because the setting is late 1980s El Paso, Texas and how much things would probably be different (I had a moment when I wondered, why don’t they just text, which sent me rereading for the actual year), but I am so grateful that this novel is set in the time before technology changed everything.

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Aristotle & Dante: Two kids you should get to know

This, too, is a story about boys who love each other. Machismo aside, they cry, they hug, they are true to each other. While one boy’s father is struggling to be demonstrative with his love around his son, the other boy’s father is loving, gentle, kind in ways that encourage his peer to do the same.

It’s a wonderful model for what friendship might mean between two boys who love each other on multiple levels, and who want to be who they are within and without the confines of societal expectations, regional (mis)understandings, and, for lack of a better word, the universe. Don’t we need such nuanced stories, particularly when it’s so easy to think of young men as hard, as uncaring, as ones who definitely don’t cry?

Now, I’m back on the YA lit train and I can’t get enough of it. It’s been years since I really was able to immerse myself in the genre. It’s so well-written, so evocative, so important for young adults and the folks who try to understand them and who value them.

I’m ordering a few copies of Aristotle and Dante (side note: and I’m also happy the Printz award committee selected this book–let’s hear it for diversity!!) and I can’t wait for kids to say to me, “Dr. P, can you believe it when…?” and I’ll nod, and we’ll dig in to those conversations about loving texts, and young folks who figure it out, and who we love as much as if they were real people, too.

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