Rarely have I encountered a book crafted to offer a story that engages middle grade readers, offers sage wisdom for adults who wish to empower these readers, and also lays out a flexible, yet easy to implement, plan for project based learning that can be experienced in the classroom or at home. Renée Watson’s Some Places More Than Others offers it all.
Amara’s story – what it accomplishes for middle grade readers
2019 has taken me on many middle grade realistic fiction journeys. These journeys have been insightful, candid, painful, funny and representative of many of the lives of the children I serve. When I read any children’s book I wait for it to whisper to me, which of my readers needs this particular story first, I am always searching for connections. So many stories unavoidably lead me to see my children as the face of the characters I journey with.
Over the past few months I have been left with a burning question: how many children in the situations I read in MG lit suffer uncertainty, fear, loneliness, because they avoid expressing their feelings, asking questions, bringing to the attention of others how their words or actions are affecting them? The burning question was growing in intensity, book after book, making me wonder if it’s the nature of relationships or if there was perhaps a way to offer kids a seed of hope, an alternate model that showed them what braving communication could do to improve their lives.
I had just begun the journey with Amara, a 12 year old girl who is a “sneakerhead”, a reader, a beloved daughter, who is about to have a baby sister, and knows very little about her extended family, when the opportunity to attend a presentation of Some Places More Than Others author Renée Watson at the Irving Public LIbrary in Irving, TX, arose.
The night of the presentation I had only read up to chapter five but I had learned that Amara’s lack of a relationship with her extended family seemed to be due to geographical distance; Amara lives with her parents in Oregon, and many of her family members live in Harlem, NY. Although Amara and I had just begun our journey, and the premise, trying to convince her parents to let her celebrate her birthday by accompanying her dad on a business trip to New York and stay in Harlem with her dad’s family to get to know them better, had me excited, details began to emerge about her family life and history that brought the question that many of the stories I had read this year had left unanswered. Amara had questions about the coincidence that her father and her Grandpa Earl had stopped speaking to each other 12 years ago, at about the same time she was born. Amara had so many concerns about her new baby sister and if she would be more like the daughter her mother wanted Amara to be. The questions multiply and the need to know about her family’s past intensifies when at school Amara is assigned “The Suitcase Project”, which requires learning about her history and roots.
During the author’s presentation attendants were invited to ask questions and I’m sure you can guess which question immediately sprung into my consciousness.
I couldn’t help it, I had to ask. I shared that I wasn’t even sure it was a fully formed question but I was in need of knowing why, why do so many young characters stop themselves from asking the questions that are causing them pain and discomfort, why do they avoid voicing their concerns because from the reader’s omniscient standpoint it seemed that so much heartache could be avoided. Ms. Watson was amazing at understanding my muddled question and shared that maybe for young people it’s not only fear of the answer, but fear of causing pain, especially to a loved one that makes them hold back. She also shared that through Amara she hoped to give readers a look at what asking those questions might lead to and that she crafted Amara’s journey to “learn her family’s secrets with the end result of bringing the family together.” What Ms. Watson shared that night gave me a jolt of hope and a need to finish reading Amara’s journey and who it might whisper I need to share it with next.
Amara’s Family- Interactions that Empower
Some Places More Than Others offers readers a window to look through and experience what the possibility of not keeping it all inside, how asking those questions that are causing fear, pain or loneliness might turn out to be the best decision they make. Amara shares with us the anxiety of causing pain or learning an unexpected truth, through asking difficult questions or retellings of past family events, but she also shows us how the need to know gives her courage. Readers get to experience what asking those difficult questions and sharing her thoughts, brings to her life and the lives of her family.
Adults who read Amara’s story will find actionable ideas to lead discussions that empower children from marginalized communities to reconsider the motivation of those who came before them. Those who fought for civil rights and social justice not just for themselves or the world and life they were leading at the time of their fight, but for the children that would be standing in the here and now.
The Suitcase Project – Exploring Identity, Social Emotional Learning and Research
Amara’s humanities teacher, Mr. Rosen, invites his students to go on a journey to “explore your past, present, and future.” This project is the catalyst that not only changes Amara’s parents’ determined “no” to going to New York for her birthday into a yes, but also the vehicle that helps heal years of pain, gives Amara a wider perspective of her place in the journey and struggle for civil rights and equality of African American and Afro-Latin leaders, and uncovers family secrets that are part of her history.
As I read about the Suitcase Project and learned what Amara decided should be part of hers, I hoped for more detail about this assignment, but of course that would slow down the action of the story. Thanks to Ms. Watson’s generosity, questions, writing prompts and artifact ideas to help any educator or parent confidently embark their children on this journey are included at the end of the book.
Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson is a story that middle grade readers and adults can enjoy on their own, but it can be experienced fully and more deeply when shared as a family, as a community, to grow closer and stronger individually and as a unit.
Ro Menendez is a picture book collector and teacher-librarian in Mesquite, TX. After thirteen years in the bilingual classroom she decided to transition to the library where she could build relationships with ALL readers on her campus. She enjoys the daily adventure of helping young readers develop their reader identity by connecting them with books that speak to their hearts and sense of humor! Ro’s favorite pastimes include reading aloud to children and recommending books to anyone who asks! She is also very passionate about developing a diverse library collection where all readers learn about themselves and those around them. You can find her on Twitter at @romenendez14.