Nothing About Us Without Us: Writing #OwnVoices Fantasy in The Age of Black Panther

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I, like much of movie-going America right now, want to move to Wakanda.

By this I both mean the specific Wakanda imagined into being by the box-office busting cultural sensation Black Panther, and the Wakanda-as-idea that to me represents a time, space and place where brown, Black, and other historically marginalized heroes don’t just survive, but thrive.

Growing up as a daughter of Indian immigrants to the U.S., I didn’t know such places existed. More to the point, I didn’t know such a place could be permitted by mainstream America to exist. A place where someone like me could be magical, powerful, brave – a place where someone like me could save the universe.

There are two reasons for this. One of them is that when I was young, I rarely saw myself celebrated, or even portrayed at all, in books, media, or the wider culture. As the saying goes, “it’s hard to be what you cannot see,” and since I hardly saw myself at all, I almost became convinced that maybe I shouldn’t even be – in other words, that I should make myself small, quiet, and nearly invisible.

If it wasn’t for my long summer vacation trips back to my grandparents’ homes in West Bengal, India, I might have continued on my quest to erase myself from my own story. It was during those trips that I could see people who looked like me, and sounded like me, and celebrated me. Through them I learned to celebrate myself. What also helped were the stories of my own cultural Wakanda — my grandmothers’ folktales that transported me to a magical place called ‘the Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers.’ These were fantastic stories of flesh eating rakkhosh demons, evil serpent kings, brave princes and princess, and wise talking birds. I loved these stories so much, I first translated a number of them into a volume called The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (Interlink, 1995) and later used them to inspire my debut middle grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic 2018), which is the first in the middle grade fantasy series, Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond. 

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In addition to the neglect afforded by cultural invisibility was the experience of venomous, purposeful, cultural erasure. From almost daily racist microaggressions – like kids in the schoolyard who rubbed at my skin to see if my ‘tan’ would come off — to macroaggressions like tar in our family mailbox, when I was a child, I got the message loud and clear that I – who had been born in the U.S. – would always be a perpetual foreigner, that my family and my community had no place in the xenophobic, racist, homogenized story mainstream America insisted on telling about itself. Luckily, I had a model of resistance at home, activist parents who helped me name my demons. While my character Kiranmala fights multiple long-toothed, sharp clawed, carnivorous rakkhosh, my personal rakkhosh was racism. It wasn’t until I learned to recognize this monster as something systemic, and not something that was inherently wrong with me or my community, that I could defeat its hold over me.

Art by Vivienne To.

When my own children, who are now teenagers, were middle grade readers, the cultural representations available to them were a bit better than during my childhood. But it wasn’t true across all genres. Middle grade (and YA) fantasy in particular has been far slower than other genres to make space for Indigenous and LGBTQIA heroes, heroes of color and heroes with disabilities. And yet, middle grade fantasy is the genre which is all about radical imagination — in which children can fly, and do magic, and save the universe. And so, I wrote The Serpent’s Secret as much for my children as for myself, in answer to Toni Morrison’s famous call, “If there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That said, I would add an addendum to Morrison’s call – if there is a book you want to read, and need to write, you must also ask yourself whether you are the right person for the job, and why you want to write it. What I’ve outlined above is my own self-examination in regard to this question. All I ask is that my fellow authors of all backgrounds do the same.

In my ‘day job,’ I work in the field of Narrative Medicine, also known as the Health Humanities, an interdisciplinary field dedicated to honoring the role of story in healing. In my teaching, I urge my students to ask questions like “Who speaks?” and “Who is spoken for?” as well as “Whose stories count?” and “Whose stories are discounted?” We discuss the potential violence of more socioculturally powerful tellers speaking for less socioculturally powerful communities. In her essay “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff has suggested that, “the act of more privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for.”

The truth of the matter is, my personal Wakanda – The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers — was decades in the making. It does not come from me thinking that diversity is a trend or that it might be interesting to explore an Indian American character. It comes from my own many experiences – with invisibility and visibility, with racism and anti-racist activism, with stories and with silence. In the same way, the magic of the Black Panther film is born from its nearly all-Black cast and African American director. It might be considered, if it were a novel, consistent with the notion of #ownvoices, or, as the phrase goes in disability activism, “nothing about us without us.”

This doesn’t of course mean that all writers shouldn’t populate their worlds diversely – reflecting the real world around them. But it does mean that they should think about their own power, and their own reasons for telling any particular story. It means that all us writers must work collaboratively, giving and receiving input, to get our stories ‘right’ – particularly when we are seeking to tell stories of those communities whose stories have been erased or willfully silenced.

We are living in a time where, more than ever, we need cultural spaces like Wakanda, and cultural stories like those imagined into existence by #ownvoices fantasists. We need the warriors of Black Panther, immigrant daughters who are superheroes and little girls of color who travel through time and space, like Meg Murry in Ava DuVernay’s forthcoming A Wrinkle in Time. We need to recognize that these stories are paralleled in real life by the heroic teen survivors of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting, who are speaking out and telling their story because it is their story to tell, and they refuse to let anyone else write their lives out of existence.

Wakanda is a fictional place, but Wakanda is also an idea. It is an idea about liberation, and fantasy, and who among us gets to imagine themselves into the future. Indeed, #representationmatters, not only because it heals traditionally marginalized people, but because the healing of our hurting world is going require as many superheroes of as many backgrounds as we can get.



Sayantani DasGupta grew up hearing stories about brave princesses, bloodthirsty rakkhosh and flying pakkhiraj horses. She is a pediatrician by training but now teaches at Columbia University. When she’s not writing or reading, Sayantani spends time watching cooking shows with her trilingual children and protecting her black Labrador Retriever Khushi from the many things that scare him, including plastic bags. She is a team member of We Need Diverse books and can be found on Twitter at @sayantani16 or at

Writing Like a Doctor, Doctoring Like a Writer

When I tell people I write stories for young people, they are inevitably pleased, but also sometimes surprised and bemused. Really, they ask. Why?

Part of the reaction to my writing life comes from the fact that I’m a practicing internal medicine doctor. I have the honor of being a primary care physician, which sometimes feels like being everybody’s mom. I take care of everything from stomachaches to headaches to heartaches, and I love it. I love medicine, I love my colleagues, I love my students, and I especially love my patients.

But I’m also a writer. I write because I have to. I can’t stop. I write because books have always been essential to me, my best friends. And I write for kids because the books I read as a child helped shape who I am today in significant ways. Plus, I might still have the mind of a 12-year-old.

To me, medicine and writing have a lot in common. And I’m not just talking about the long list of famous writers who happened to be doctors – Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Carlos Williams, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese – the list goes on and on.

I’m talking about the similarities in process between medicine and writing. They involve flexing many of the same muscles…uh, brain cells.

The Years of Training Sequence

Think of your favorite hero movies. The best ones have a thrilling montage of the hero training to prepare for the big battle: Rocky punching frozen sides of beef and running stairs in Philly; Daniel-San painting fences and waxing surfaces and practicing crane technique; Katniss honing her archery skills and trying to learn to relate to other humans.

Medicine has a particularly long and not particularly glamorous Years of Training sequence. Four years of college followed by four years of medical school in which students essentially learn a new language and enough science to make their heads explode, all while trying to perfect taking a great medical history, performing an excellent physical exam, generating the proper differential diagnoses, and still relating to other humans. That earns the MD. But after that comes the grueling residency (yes, the root is the word resident, since they essentially live in the hospital) that lasts a minimum of three years but can extend to five or more, followed by fellowships for those who decide to subspecialize. Oh, and lots and lots of tests! It’s a very long road, not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for those who don’t love medicine with every fiber of their being.

Writing has a Years of Training sequence, too. Great writers are made, not born, and it takes years and years of practice to hone one’s skills. Unlike medicine, this doesn’t necessarily require formal education – MFAs are great, but you don’t need one to write well, and you don’t need a license to write either. But good writing doesn’t just happen overnight, and it’s a myth that some people just “have it” and spit out best-selling, award-winning novels without working hard. Writers put in hours and hours perfecting the craft by reading, writing about reading, reading about writing, talking, reflecting, and just plain writing. We take classes, participate in critique groups, attend webinars, conferences, workshops, writing retreats … and we write. And write, and write.

Which leads me to another similarity between medicine and writing: the learning never ends. I’m required by my state medical board to devote a certain number of hours to Continuing Medical Education (CME) in order to stay up to date with the latest advances. Trust me, you don’t want your doctor to still be practicing medicine like it’s 1958 or 1998…or even 2008. Similarly, even the most accomplished writers I know are constantly pushing themselves to improve their craft every single day. Each book we write is written differently, and requires different skills. The learning really never ends. And that’s a good thing!

Which brings me to…

Science vs. Art

Everyone knows that medicine is a science. It’s also an art.

You can read all the books, take all the exams, and complete the training, but there’s nothing that teaches like experience. The best doctors listen as much as they talk, and take into account a patient’s body language and tone to elicit both what the patient is worried about, and what they care about – their values. This, more than anything, is what helps a doctor guide a patient through a difficult decision. Now that I’ve been practicing medicine for over 20 years, I find myself listening more, panicking less, and understanding my patients better than I ever could as a younger doctor.

Meanwhile, everyone knows that writing is an art. But it’s also a science.

There are plenty of ways to find inspiration, and sometimes writing is just about putting something (anything!) down on a page, but I love it when I devise or discover a strategy for getting my writing unstuck. This is not to say that writing is ever cookie-cutter, or one-size-fits-all…it never is. But to me, having a structure is extremely helpful. Classes and workshops and books have taught me practical approaches to developing an outline, deepening a character arc, or revising a scene. In the world of plotters vs. pantsers, I fall squarely on the plotter side…but it’s impossible for me to cut out pantsing entirely, and sometimes it’s absolutely essential! Often when I sit down to write a chapter, something surprising happens, and things go in a completely different direction than I’d planned. In any case, focusing on the structure and the science of storytelling can be a huge help when staring down a blank page. And sometimes, when I’ve worked on a piece forever and I can’t tell up from down, it’s helpful (and even fun!) to just focus on the nitty-gritty aspects of writing — like line editing!

And when things get tough, in medicine and in writing…

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Practicing medicine can be high pressure, perplexing, and emotionally exhausting. Sustaining a life in medicine would be impossible without my colleagues – everyone from other doctors to nurses, nurse practitioners, medical assistants, and administrative folks. Not to mention the security guards, technicians, translators…without the whole team, we wouldn’t be able to take great care of our patients. And when I’m confused or excited, upset or elated, I can go to any of them with my questions/concerns/thrilling news, and they help. They always do.

Built into our system of medical education is a brilliant way of paying it forward: as a faculty member at a teaching hospital and medical school, I have the privilege of helping to teach and train the next generation of doctors, who go on to teach and train the ones who follow them.

And at the heart of it all is our sacred duty: to care for our fellow human beings, to advise them as honestly as we can, and to tend to them when they need us.

I never thought I’d ever meet a group of people as brilliant, hard-working, mission-driven, and generous as the medical community I’ve been fortunate to be part of.

And then I met writers.

I’ve met writers in person and online, in my hometown and across the country. They are published, pre-published, and almost published, women and men, young and old, newbies and mentors. And in them I’ve found another group of brilliant, hard-working, mission-driven, generous colleagues. We read each other’s work and cheerlead each other and serve as confidantes and counselors and promoters in the best possible way. Writers are constantly learning from fellow writers, and they pay it forward all the time.

And at the heart of it all is our sacred duty: to care about our fellow human beings, to tell our stories as honestly as we can, and to tend to each other when we need it.

Because people are at the heart of both medicine and writing. Beautiful, infuriating, wonderful, awful, glorious, ever-changing, transcendent people. People who make terrible choices. People who are braver than we can fathom. People who face impossible odds and keep trying. I’m so very lucky to care for real people who tell me their stories, and have these experiences inform the stories I spin in my mind. And fictional people, in the books I read and the books I write, inform how I take care of my patients. They make me a better doctor, and a better human being.

Stories matter. They always have. They always will.

So that’s what I try to do: write like a doctor, and doctor like a writer. Keep my chin up during the never-ending Years of Training. Keep my team close, and let them help me. Use science and art in my writing and my doctoring. And keep my heart open to all kinds of people with all kinds of stories. To listen to theirs, and tell them mine.

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Rajani LaRocca writes (middle grade and picture books), doctors (adults), and bakes (as much as possible) in eastern Massachusetts. Her home team includes her superhero husband, two brilliant kids, and the world’s handsomest dog. You can learn more about her at and on Twitter @rajanilarocca.

Cover Reveal: SVEN CARTER & THE ANDROID ARMY by Rob Vlock


For the second Saturday in a row here at the #MGBookVillage, we’re hosting a cover reveal! This week, it’s for SVEN CARTER & THE ANDROID ARMY, the sequel to Rob Vlock’s SVEN CARTER & THE TRASHMOUTH EFFECT!

Rob’s debut was one of my favorite reads of all last year. It had me laughing out loud, gnawing at my fingernails, and canceling plans just so I could keep on reading. Sven’s first adventure is a total blast, and I can’t wait to see what he gets up to in the second installment of his story.

Read my brief interview with Rob below, and then check out the cover of SVEN CARTER & THE ANDROID ARMY!

~ Jarrett

. . .

First of all, Rob, thanks so much for hosting your big reveal at the Village — we’re all super excited about it. As we are about SVEN CARTER & THE ANDROID ARMY! Now, the first SVEN novel was one of the wildest, craziest, most action-packed books I’ve ever read. How do you follow THAT up?

Thanks, Jarrett! You’re making me blush! To be honest, it was kind of tough to follow up the first book. I had already thrown clown snakes and murderous roast chickens and a kid who has a face where his butt should be into Sven’s first adventure, so I definitely had to get creative to keep up the craziness. But it was worth the all the effort, because there are plenty of new freakish Ticks to keep readers shaking their heads!

Before we get to the new cover, can you tell us a bit about the new book?

SVEN CARTER & THE ANDROID ARMY picks up right where the first book left off. Sven, Alicia, Will and Junkman Sam discover that Dr. Shallix’s evil plan to wipe out humanity goes way beyond Sven. There are six other Ticks out there just as deadly as Sven himself and they could extinguish the human race at any time. So Sven and his friends need to track them down and stop them before they carry out their missions.

Did you have the same illustrator who did the first cover do the second? What were your thoughts and feelings when you first saw the sketches and/or final product?

Yes! Steven Scott is the fantastically talented London-based illustrator who did both covers. He also did the art for the Sven Carter trading cards that I’ve been giving out at events. Steve totally captured both books with his cover art. I was really lucky in that I had the opportunity to come up with the idea for the second cover. And what Steve ended up drawing matches what I had in my head perfectly!

When you talk to kids about SVEN CARTER, what do you tend to hear from them?

It’s funny, when I describe the first book to kids, I see a ton of jaws drop every time! Especially when I get to the part where Sven’s arm falls off and then reattaches itself. I think they’re just surprised to hear that a grownup is writing the kind of silly absurdity that can only come from channeling one’s inner 10-year-old. Which is great for me, because that’s pretty much my maturity level (much to the embarrassment of my kids!).

Finally, I have to ask: you seem to know an awful lot about sophisticated androids masquerading as human beings. Are you, yourself, a sophisticated android masquerading as a human being?

What? No, that’s absurd. I’m just a regular human.

But wouldn’t an android posing as a human say that same thing?

Well, yeah. I guess. But I’m not an android.

Which is exactly what an android would say! By saying you’re not an android, you’re proving that you actually are one!

Wait! I… I’m… uh… you see… Illogical! Illogical! Does not compute! Does not compute! System overload! Shutting down in 5…4…3…2…1…………….

I guess that’s it for my interview with author Rob Vlock. So we’ll go ahead and share the cover now!


If you haven’t read SVEN CARTER & THE TRASHMOUTH EFFECT, hurry up and do so. And be sure to pick up a copy of Rob’s new book, SVEN CARTER & THE ANDROID ARMY, coming out October 18 from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin and available for pre-order now!



Rob is the author of SVEN CARTER & THE TRASHMOUTH EFFECT (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin) and SVEN CARTER & THE ANDROID ARMY (October 16, 2018, Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He writes fun, funny, fast-paced kids’ books that are perfect for reluctant readers. And when he’s not writing, you can usually find him somewhere in the greater Boston area trying to make his trumpet sound like something other than a dying goose. It’s a work in progress.

Writing a Story That’s Not Yours

It happens unexpectedly, like a slap on the face by a friend. You wake up one morning to read an announcement on social media: a new book about a (insert minority group here). This should be great news, especially if you belong to said minority group. But it’s not, because the author is white.

The same often happens in a religious context as well. Muslim stories are frequently co-opted by writers who are non-Muslim. (So are black stories, native stories, LGBTQ stories.) The bulk of western publishing has leaned white and Christian for centuries, so the fact that this occurs as often as it does shouldn’t be surprising. We’ve been complaining about this for the longest time, but has anyone been listening?

Now, however, Muslims have a voice amplified by social media and more publishing weight through imprints such as Salaam Reads. Increasingly, Muslim stories are being told by big-name authors (Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series comes immediately to mind) and also newcomers who have gained quick popularity (Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, for instance). As a result, the noise is loud and immediate when Muslim authors wake up one morning and see another story written about them.

Sometimes the author in question withdraws with apologies, at other times he or she insists there is nothing wrong with what they’ve done. At the end of the day, two camps exist, and neither is happy.

For authors who may be tempted to write a story about a Muslim main character, consider this: do you truly have unique insight into another religious group? Is that story so important to tell that you cannot wait for a Muslim writer to tell it? Do you have any stories of your own to tell, or are you simply jumping on a bandwagon to get some quick publicity because the political climate is ripe?

All these are very probing questions, and they may garner a shocked or offended reaction. Of course I’m not trying to get publicity! Of course this is an essential story to tell! Perhaps. The important thing is being honest about it to yourself before you begin writing. If the answers to all these questions are yes, then go ahead, but do know that others along the publishing journey will question your decision every step of the way.

You may think it’s important for everyone to hear Muslim stories. I agree. In an era of Muslim travel bans and refugee crisis, the need for authentic stories about Muslims is critical. But those stories must come from the people who experience them, not from someone who is looking at them from the outside. Consider this: if you write a Muslim main character, do you know what culture she will belong to? Will she eat chappati or hummus or pizza? Will she speak Urdu or Bengali or Arabic or English? Will she wear the dupatta or chador or abaya, and do you even know what those are, or do you use the catchall term hijab which actually doesn’t mean a head covering at all?

Does it really matter?

If you’re an author who thinks that telling a good story is the only important thing, and to heck with the details, then nobody can dissuade you. But if you are the sort of writer who thinks it’s the details which bring richness and depth to the character (and the story), then you’ll realize how important it is to not tell an inauthentic story. Not to use stereotypes you don’t even recognize as stereotypes. Not to create cardboard cutouts instead of the real thing because all you know of Muslims has come from Disney’s Aladdin.

We live in an era when Muslims in the U.S. and abroad have the ability, platform and willingness to tell their own stories. Be their ally and their loudspeaker. When they get published, share their books on social media, buy them for all your friends, and shout about it from the rooftops. Isn’t that a better (and easier) way to tell a true Muslim story than go write your own?


Saadia Faruqi is Pakistani American author of the early reader Yasmin series by Capstone. She also writes fiction and essays for adults and is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim writers. She was profiled by O Magazine in 2017 for her interfaith and intercultural sensitivity trainings. Visit her website at

MG at Heart Writer’s Toolbox: Using Sentence Length to Create a Voice-like Cadence

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The MG at Heart team is back again with a mid-month post about our February pick, Jack Cheng’s See You in the Cosmos. Eleven-year-old Alex Petroski narrates the entirety of this charming debut novel to the aliens he hopes to teach about Earth via a series of conversations recorded on a golden iPod. He got the idea from his hero, Carl Sagan, who created the Golden Record, which was launched into space in 1977.

An entire book narrated to aliens sounds like an unusual choice for a middle-grade novel, but Cheng’s incredible voice makes See You in the Cosmos a heart-warming and compelling read. It really sounds like Alex is telling us the story. And one of the reasons for that is Cheng’s use of sentence length to create a very realistic voice-like cadence. In some parts of the story, Alex’s voice comes through as breathless because of the long, stream-of-consciousness sentences, while in others, the use of ellipses and em-dashes reflects the tense or deeply upsetting scenes.

American author and writing instructor Gary Provost had this to say about varying sentence length in writing:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

It’s no surprise that he uses terms like “music,” “lilt,” “drums,” “cymbals,” and “harmony,” because varying sentence length is a way to add musicality to your writing. But it can also convey both pace and character. And that’s what Cheng does so well in this story.

If you’re joining us in reading See You in the Cosmos this month, you know this is a book that can make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same scene. See if you can spot instances of Jack Cheng using Alex’s somewhat quirky voice and perspective in combination with varied sentence length to evoke a certain emotion. And please share other examples in the comments on this post or on Twitter at #mgbookclub.

From the very first page, the story uses interesting sentence and paragraph structure to engage the reader:

“Who are you? What do you look like? Do you have one head or two? More? Do you have light brown skin like I do or smooth gray skin like a dolphin or spiky green skin like a cactus? Do you live in a house?” (3)

Sentences from one to 22 words not only convey a LOT of information about Alex’s personality, but they create an inviting and conversational tone.

Look at how the series of “and…and…and…and” here creates a sense of a building storm:

“Sometimes the clouds inside my head get big and gray and swirly and then I hurricane through my eyes. Except I don’t literally hurricane through my eyes—I don’t actually have a weather system in my head.”

And how the stream-of-consciousness format of the following quote shows us real-time how Alex grapples with the tough emotions that are explored in this story. You can almost hear his mind whirring as he figures things out:

“Have you ever lost someone you love?...Maybe you don't have that problem because you're never separated from anyone you love. Maybe as soon as you love someone you're physically connected to them with a tube that's kind of like a leash, except it's made out of flesh and it grows out of your belly button and you call it a fleash."

Whether you’re writing something of your own or working with kids on their creative writing, look for ways that you can use sentence length to convey emotion and voice in your writing. In See You in the Cosmos, Jack Cheng often uses this technique to create the voice-like cadence that is one of several interesting and unique things about the story.

Happy reading and writing, and make sure you’ve subscribed to the Middle Grade at Heart newsletter so you won’t miss this month’s edition, which goes out on February 26th and will include an author interview, an activity, a recipe, and other great content for See You in the Cosmos. And we look forward to chatting with you about the book on our Twitter book chat on March 6th!

Happy International Book Giving Day 2018

February 14th is not only a day of hearts, it’s also a day of books! International Book Giving Day is celebrated each year on this date, with an aim “to get books into the hands of as many children as possible.” You can find a link to their website here (, and the following information is taken directly from the site:

“International Book Giving Day’s focus is on encouraging people worldwide to give a book to a child on February 14th. We invite individuals to

1) gift a book to a friend or family member

2) leave a book in a waiting room for children to read

3) donate a gently used book to a local library, hospital or shelter or to an organization that distributes used books to children in need internationally.”

In the spirit of the day, Urja (aka The Book Chief, and a contributor to the Village with her favorite MGLit picks from India) and I chose to do a book exchange. Books are excellent windows to see into other places and cultures, and make us more open and inclusive, so we chose sharing MGLit titles from our respective countries as one way to do that. Urja is from India, and I am from Canada, so the logistics were a bit complicated. We shared a couple of titles with each other from our own country that we had enjoyed, purchased a gift card for each other, and we are currently in the process of getting the books delivered to us. My first book has arrived, and so today, I will be starting MAYIL WILL NOT BE QUIET by Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran (Tulika Publishers, 2011). I will add it to my library’s collection when I’m finished reading it so my young patrons can enjoy it, too. Urja and I will share more about our exchange with you once we’ve both read each other’s selections. In the meantime, you can hear Urja’s thoughts about MAYIL WILL NOT BE QUIET, and some of her other favorite Indian MGLit here.


Happy International Book Giving Day to all!


Making Social Studies Not the Worst Subject Ever


Ten years of teaching social studies has alerted me that most incoming 8th graders view my subject with:

  1. Apathy
  2. Extreme boredom
  3. Deep and abiding hatred
  4. All of the above

Yes, I have gaggles of honors and PEN nerds who LOVE history—but mostly they just love being nerdy. Rarer still is that social studies buff who adores the past for the past, stumbling close to that mother lode of factual euphoria.

Obliterating this boredom has become my primary goal as a history teacher, both in and outside the classroom. In fact, it’s why I started writing modern novels laced with history: I want my students to see how the past can and does impact their lives TODAY. Here’s how I attempt to do this in teaching and writing.

I Must Get Amped About the Past

If I’m bored, then so are the kids. This truth prevents me from becoming the stereotypical teacher who recycles lessons year after year (and FYI that type of teacher is actually super rare). My undiagnosed ADD helps here, but the key is to dig deep, to tunnel down and hardline into the good stuff. I do this by inhaling academic monographs steeped in primary sources on the unit I’m about to teach. Not only can I haul out handy nuggets for the kids, but this digging deep reignites my passion for the topic.

This has to bleed through on my book pages too, or the reader—also middle-school aged, also likely eye rolling at social studies—will be bored. My forthcoming novel, THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY, is about some middle school kids doing a social studies project—i.e. the characters are set up to encounter just such boredom. Gearing up to write a novel aimed at such drudgery, I head dove into a treasure trove of Civil War soldier letters, diaries, and super nerdy things called muster sheets (regimental records of enlisted soldiers). Doing this stirred up my understanding and affection for the millions of men and women who endured this nation-defining event, fueling my next task: transmission.


I Must Communicate the Past In A Not-Boring Way

Oliver, my main character, is a hardcore Civil War nerd. He knows every general, battle, and casualty statistic; unsurprisingly, he’s also a reenactor in his local regiment, the PA 104th. But most kids today get mildly ill at the concept of reading and studying such facts to be later regurgitated on a terrifyingly gargantuan test. (The kinds of tests I took and hated myself, and refuse to give my students.)

So the key is to teach in a not-boring way.

For example: Instead of just reading about the Northern and Southern armies, what if the entire grade became the Northern and Southern armies? What if each table group was assigned a state regiment, and every graded activity—homework, project, test—counted as points in a grand, collective competition? What if instead of learning about soldier life just through diaries, we went outside and drilled like they did? What if we built tents of canvas and wood and hung out in them for a class period? What if we played the same early version of baseball that they did?


In short: What if we participated in the past, rather than just studied it?

I try to do the same with my books. PRIVATE NOBODY involves some potentially boring scenes (this is a history project after all), so I had to situate them within the hilarious context of middle school mayhem. I wanted my readers to participate in the work of history with the characters, and not get put to sleep by it—harder than it sounds. For example: how do you make a scene at a historical society not be a snoozefest? By incorporating a trio of kids whose hilarity and awkwardness endear them to the reader. In a weird way, PRIVATE NOBODY isn’t really a book about a Civil War project; it’s a book about some great kids with authentic obstacles doing a Civil War project.

Conclusion: The Past Matters (And It Also Happens to Rule)

Obliterating this boredom allows students to make connections that can impact the world. Want to understand racial tension in 2018, and perhaps fight against it? Study the Civil War—its cause (slavery—the answer is always and forever slavery) and the unrealized outcome of African American enfranchisement. Confused where to line up on the hot-button issue of Confederate monuments? Study who built them and when. The connection between a nation’s past and present is not ethereal—it exists. But it is tenuous, stretched thin over years and years of additional impacts and players, readily forgotten by the modern observer. We must encourage students to make these connections, but they will never do that if they’re bored.

THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY is a book taken directly out of my daily life, and from deep within my heart. It is the prime of example of having my cake and eating it too—writing about teaching history to middle school students. Please feel free, but not obligated, to purchase enough copies that allow me to begin buying the next size up Starbucks coffee. Or perhaps (another) Civil War rifle.

website finalMatthew Landis teachers 8th grade Social Studies outside of Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son whom he named Washington after George Washington (duh). He has five chickens, whose egg production has fallen off as of late. He is the author of the YA thriller LEAGUE OF AMERICAN TRAITORS (Sky Pony), and the MG contemporary novel THE NOT-SO-BORING LETTERS OF PRIVATE NOBODY (Dial/Penguin), which Junior Library Guild made a 2018 selection. He hopes to one day reach a level of literary success that allows him to summer in Cape Town and go on endless safaris.

You can find more about Matthew, his books, and his taco obsession at