Interview: Hena Khan

Hi there, Hena! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to chat about your new novel, MORE TO THE STORY.

Thank you for having me. I’m honored!

Before we get to the new book, would you care to share a bit about yourself and your previous books?

Sure! Although I started writing for kids with Scholastic book clubs about space and spies, when I became a mom I couldn’t find any books that represented my son, so I set out to change that! I was an avid reader as a kid, but never saw myself in books, and realized how important it is. I’ve written a few picture books that highlight Muslim traditions and culture, like Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns and Under my Hijab. And I loved delving into middle grade fiction with my debut, Amina’s Voice and my personal favorite, a series called Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream about a kid who is obsessed with basketball modeled after my husband and sons.

You write picture books, chapter books, and – like MORE TO THE STORY – Middle Grade novels. Is your process and/or approach different for each format? Do you usually know the shape a story will take before you begin writing it?

Yes, it’s definitely different for each! I find writing picture books to be like working on an imaginary puzzle. I keep the page flow and turns in mind as I write, and try to make sure there is something to inspire the art on every page. For my chapter books and novels, I always outline first and know where I want the story to go. But once I start writing, I often veer off the path as the story takes shape and my characters become real to me—and sometimes don’t end up behaving the way I initially intended! I’ve also written choose-your-own path style novels and those are a different beast altogether, with elaborate flow charts, word count, page tracking, and more.

Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

So many things! I love that middle grade readers are so thoughtful, open, and curious about the world. And while they understand a lot and are pretty aware, they still have a lot of innocence and natural empathy. I remember how the books that I read and loved when I was that age managed to live in a corner of my heart somewhere, where they still remain today! And the idea that something I write could have a special place in a reader’s life is incredible to imagine. I still enjoy reading middle grade fiction more than any other genre—I appreciate that it’s usually really great storytelling without getting too complicated.

Okay – let’s get to the new book. What’s MORE TO THE STORY all about?

It’s centered around Jameela, a girl living in Georgia, who is part of a big loving family, and passionate about being an award-winning journalist someday. She’s thrilled to be selected as Feature Editor for her school paper, but disappointed to learn the editor-in-chief is a kid who she butts heads with and who always shoots down her ideas. Jameela’s life gets a welcome addition when Ali, a cute family friend from London, moves to Atlanta, but turns upside down when her dad has to take a job overseas, her sister becomes seriously sick, and she has to learn what matters most to her.

One thing that I loved about the book was your frank exploration of anger, in particular the positive, healthy ways in which that energy can be harnessed and used. Is this something you thought about a lot while crafting Jameela’s story?

Thank you! It’s something I think about in general, because it’s something I grapple with myself. Like Jameela, my default emotion when I’m stressed, frustrated, or scared is anger. And it’s something that I’ve had to recognize and work on over the years, and still haven’t mastered yet! I liked the idea of Jameela confronting her anger and learning to recognize that it isn’t the best way to react to things.

Another thing that MORE TO THE STORY tackles head-on are microaggressions. Why do you believe it’s important to get your young readers learning, thinking, and talking about them?

I thought it would be helpful for readers to understand that microaggressions are often unintentional, but that they can still hurt people or make them feel bad. Many people experience them in day-to-day life, including my own kids, and I think it helps to know that there is actually a name and a category for the little things that people say and do that make us feel icky, or misunderstood, “otherized,” or less in some way.

You’ve said elsewhere that this novel was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN. Would you care to talk about what that book meant to you as a young reader, what it means to you now, and the role it played in the creation of MORE TO THE STORY?

Yes! I was obsessed with Little Women as a child and teen, and I read it and reread it over and over, and even had parts memorized. Jo was in many ways my idol, and I found aspects of my personality in each of the sisters (as much as I didn’t want to associate with Amy, I’m pretty sure my older sister would say I was a lot like her!). And apart from the characters and losing myself in their daily dramas and relationships, I think I understood and could even relate to some of the societal and gender norms they faced as a child of Pakistani immigrants.

I always thought the story lent itself well to a retelling from a Pakistani American perspective, and I initially envisioned writing a story that would be more of a remix. But in the end, the story I wrote, which I aged down to middle grade, is inspired by the classic but very much its own story. Readers who loved Little Women like me will find parallels, but those who haven’t read it will hopefully grow to connect with another multifaceted and strong family. I consider More to the Story a love letter to my favorite book!

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from MORE TO THE STORY?

I hope they are inspired by the love Jameela has for her family, and her sister in particular, along the passion she has for getting people to care about things that matter. I hope readers feel a strong connection to the Mirzas and can relate to them, the way I did to the March family and other characters I grew up with. And I would love for them to recognize and appreciate that while Jameela and her family are connected to a different culture that is a part of their daily lives, and to their Muslim faith, they are as American as anyone else.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add MORE TO THE STORY to their classroom libraries?

Most of all, THANK YOU! I can’t tell you how much it means to me to hear that middle grade teachers are sharing my books with readers. There’s really no bigger compliment. I’m especially grateful at a time when people seem more divided than ever, for a chance for stories to bring us together and help us to see the positive in everyone. I know many teachers are committed to inclusion and representation, and to providing windows and mirrors, and I love that my stories are among the ones chosen to offer to kids. And I especially appreciate teachers who are mindful of choosing a variety of books and balancing heavier issue books about marginalized groups with regular stories about their daily lives. Also, I want to share that I have wonderful educator guides available for all of my books! You can find them and download off my website: www.henakhan.com.

When can readers get their hands on MORE TO THE STORY, and do you have any exciting events or upcoming blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

Today is pub day! I am excited to be traveling a bit this fall to celebrate the release with readers around the country. I’ll be doing several book launch events. If you’d like to attend and connect in person, please check out tour details on my website and social media, where I’ll be updating!

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?



My website has details about my books, school visits, and events: www.henakhan.com. Plus you can find me on instagram, facebook and twitter: @henakhanbooks. I’d love to be connected!

Thank you so much for chatting with me!

Benefits of Rereading & A Conversation with Deimosa Webber-Bey: Books Between, Episode 75

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for educators, librarians, parents, and everyone who loves middle grade books!  My goal is to help you connect kids between 8-12 with fantastic reads because I believe that a book can change the trajectory of a child’s life.  And I want to help you introduce kids to those amazing, life-shaping books and bring you inspiring (and fun!) conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two tweens, a 5th grade teacher, and just back from an awe-inspiring visit with my family to Niagara Falls. If you have ever have the opportunity to go, there is nothing quite like standing on a rocking boat within the mist of the roaring horseshoe falls and gazing up 170 feet at over 3,000 tons of water thundering over those cliffs every second. Do go you if  you can – it’s impressive, we learned a TON, and it’s one of those things that should be experienced at least once in your life.

A quick reminder to help out your future self and set yourself a reminder for Monday nights at 9pm EST so you can catch the #MGBookChat Twitter chat – we have scheduled some great topics and hosts later on this summer and fall. So I will see you there. 

This is episode #75 and today’s show starts with a discussion about the benefits of rereading and then I bring you a conversation with Scholastic librarian Deimosa Webber-Bey. 

Main Topic – The Benefits of Rereading

Let’s start with the top 20 books that my 5th grade students loved and recommended this school year. Because it’s one thing for an adult to enjoy a book, but for it to really make an impact, it has to connect with its intended audience. There have been plenty of books that I loved, but for some reason didn’t seem to resonate with middle grade readers.  Honestly, I think THIS list is way more valuable than ANY list that any adult puts out.

Our main topic today is a discussion around rereading books. Over the years, my own thinking in this area has evolved a lot. As a young teacher who wanted to make the most out of absolutely every precious second of classroom time, I had a rather negative view of students reading a book for pleasure that they had already read before. If a kid was picking a novel for a book club or a book report, I wouldn’t let them select a book they had previously read. Thinking back, that really did seem to be the norm among my colleagues. Like them, I viewed it as cheating a little bit!  As if they wouldn’t be as engaged in the text a second time around or they weren’t challenging themselves enough. Basically – I considered rereading a book in school as a waste of a learning opportunity.

It wasn’t until about 5 years ago that a friend had a conversation with me that changed my mind. We weren’t even debating the merits of allowing kids to reread books, we were just chatting. She asked me, “Corrina, what’s your favorite movie?”  And I said, “Oh! The Princess Bride! I’ve watched it like 50 times…..”  Oh. Ohhhhh…….

And that’s when it hit me. It was that one friendly person inadvertently holding up a mirror to myself that made me reconsider the misconceptions I held and start to realize there are huge benefits to experiencing a text, a film, multiple times. 

I mean – if you think about it – watching a movie or tv series over and over again – is a commonly shared and even celebrated social phenomenon.  I hear lots of people talking about how many times they’ve watched The Office or Black Panther or Star Wars. In my house, it’s a running joke how many times my husband’s Facebook status is “watching Casino Royale

So today, I’d like to explore with you some reasons why rereading is so satisfying, some academic benefits, and a few ways to enhance the rereading experience for the kids you work with.

Why Rereading is so Satisfying

Let’s start with why rereading is so satisfying. 

  • First – it’s fun! If you love a book, you get to spend more time with favorite characters and relive those climactic moments in the story. It’s like going on your favorite roller-coaster again. Yeah, you already know when the twists are turns are, but also – here come those twists and turns and I can’t wait for them!
  • Another way that rereading can be satisfying is that there’s less pressure to finish the book. Maybe you just want to skim it or reread your favorite scenes. It’s a lower commitment situation than starting a new book.
  • Having books around that you enjoy rereading or reading parts of, can enhance your overall reading life. Because dipping in to a favorite book when you are in between other reads or you don’t have have a big chunk of time to start something new is a good way to keep reading momentum going through those tricky times in your life. Or when kids are struggling to find that next book they really want to read.  Often, my students will pull out those tried and true favorites like Sunny Side Up or Guiness Book of World Records or the Minecraft Handbooks when nothing else had really hooked them yet.
  • Another excellent reason to reread a book is to prepare for the next book coming out in the series. A parallel to that is the binge-watching that happens when a new season of a favorite TV show starts. When season three of Stranger Things dropped on July 4th, my family spent a few weeks prior rewatching the previous seasons to catch us up to speed on the plot. And also because being familiar with the back stories of the characters made watching season three so much better. 
  • And finally, when I consider why a child may be rereading a book again – or maybe over and over again – I have to think that there may be something comforting in that text. It might be providing a sense of stability and order and a sense of knowing what’s coming next during a time in their life when they need that.

Academic Benefits

Aside from simply making you happy, rereading texts multiple times does have academic benefits that can boost reading skills. For example – 

  • Reading a text a second or third or fourth time can really increase one’s fluency. Even if that rereading is just in your head and not out loud, you’ll start to have a smoother experience without halting on tricky vocabulary or getting lost in complex sentence structures. You might start to mentally add more expression and read with tone in mind now that you aren’t spending mental energy figuring out who the characters are and what’s happening. Last year, I read Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always out loud to my class, which was about the fourth read for me – and it had taken me that long to start to pick apart the different speech patterns and personalities and emotions of the characters in order to even start to read that out loud well.
  • Another huge benefit to children when they reread is that they will notice far more on the second or third time through the text.  I’ve already mentioned picking up more vocabulary, but catching on to the author’s foreshadowing or their use of symbolism or how they are developing a theme across chapters is one of the joys of rereading.  And it’s also fun to pick up those little clues along the way of character development. To use a common example, when you reread Harry Potter a second time, you realize – Oh! Harry could talk to and understand the snake in the zoo – that comes up later when they realize he’s a parseltongue. And knowing the motivations and backstory of Snape makes for such a rich reread of those earlier books. Aspects of the story that you are never going to appreciate or even understand unless you reread it. To throw in an adult example, I recently rewatched The Good Place with my husband and whoa – knowing what you know now and going back and watching the interactions between the characters and picking up on all the references and appreciating that Yogurt word play is just… perfection. 
  • The other noticing that can happen on a reread – is that you start to pick out problematic aspects of a book that might not have been in your realm of awareness the first time you read it. For example, when I reread Harry Potter with my class last year, I noticed those early chapters were full of offensive references to character’s weight. In a way where fatness was used to elicit disgust with certain characters.  Lately, in order to get a better grasp on the society we live in and the challenges we’re facing, I’ve been reading some adult nonfiction books that have impacted the lens with which I view all stories and well, life!  Just to name two – first, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne, and I just finished Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (which is amazing and please, please go read that book next if you have not.)  What I’m getting at is that your perspective and what you notice in rereading a text is influenced by the learning you’re doing in other areas of your life.  
  • Another way that rereading can have the power to improve a child’s reading is that those skills and observations they are honing during their 3rd read of New Kid or Front Desk transfer to other new books. Once they’ve started to notice what foreshadowing looks like or how the author uses language to set up a certain mood, or the way infographics in that shark book give you more information, they’ll catch on to those maneuvers as they work toward comprehending more unfamiliar or complicated books.
  • And  – of course – reread can boost their own writing. When they start to notice and identify more of those author’s techniques through multiple rereading of a text, students can try out those writerly maneuvers in their own writing. This reminds me of when Kate DiCamillo was on the show last year and she mentioned (as she has elsewhere) that she rereads Charlotte’s Web every year. Both as a fan and also to orient herself to how that story is constructed.  

How to Enhance Rereading for Children

Clearly, there are some huge benefits when children reread, and I think with the right approach we can enhance that experience for them.  

  • One way to do that is to simply ask them about that book they are reading over and over again! Acknowledge it, let them know you get it, and let them talk about why they love it so much.  Honestly, most of the time, people love to be asked about the TV shows and films and books and fandoms they are into. Right now, I am slightly obsessed with Good Omens and I would love for someone to say, “Corrina, why are you so into that show?” and have an excuse to talk about Aziraphale and Crowley and how their relationship evolved over 6,000 years.  So – just start by asking them about it.
  • And then… go a little further and angle some questions toward those deeper elements. Some of the questions I like to ask when a child is reading a book for the second time are: What are you noticing that someone reading this book for the first time might not catch? What characters have you changed your mind about?  When you reread that first chapter again, what do you notice the author doing that sets up something later on in the book? 
  • Another thing that I like to do when I notice a student reading a book over again is to introduce them to other similar media.  For example, if they like Wings of Fire, I’ll share with them the graphic novels based on that series or we might explore an author’s website, or I’ll share some fan art with them or some fan fiction pieces. (Although a quick caveat there – I would not let a child loose on a fan fiction site because things can take some unexpected turns.)
  • However, if possible – connect them to other fans either in person or online and encourage them to create some fan art or fan fiction. And if you are looking for a safe place to publish that, MGBookVillage does have a Kids’ Corner where we share book reviews and fan art and fan fiction created by children. 

As I wrap up my summer and think ahead to how I want to support readers this school year, embracing rereading and helping students harness the power of experiencing a text more than one time is going to be a larger part of that.

I’ll end this section with some wise words from Dav Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants and Dog Man who has said,

“Nobody complains when musicians play the same songs over and over or when basketball players run the same plays over and over. So why do we complain when children read the same books multiple times?”

Well said.

Deimosa Webber-Bey – Interview Outline

Our special guest this week is Scholastic Librarian Deimosa Webber-Bey! We chat about encouraging kids to read more over the summer, what books she’s been loving lately, and what Scholastic is doing through their Summer Read-a-Palooza challenge to get more books in more kids’ hands. And there is absolutely still time for you and the kids in your life to help out with that. I will drop a link to the 2019 Scholastic Summer Read-a-Palooza in our show notes and right on the MGBookVillage website so you can check that out. Also – a big part of the conversation that I have with Deimosa is around the results of the latest Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report and the link to that is right there as well and definitely worth your time to explore. 

Take a listen…

How did you come to work for Scholastic?

Something that has been on my mind lately as I’ve wrapped up the school year with my students is the knowledge that if they don’t read over the summer, they are going to lose so much of the progress they’ve gained this past year.  And what has helped me articulate that “Summer Slide” research to our parents is the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report. Could you tell us a little bit about that report and share some of the findings that really stood out to you?

Scholastic has done so much research in this area!  From your point of view, what do you see as the main things that educators and families can do to keep kids reading over the summer?

I love that Scholastic always has a fresh reading campaign for kids every summer – and I love that this year the campaign is supporting a great cause. Can you tell us about the Scholastic Summer Read-a-Palooza?

What are you reading right now? And what are some titles that are on your TBR list for the summer?

Thank You!

Links:

Deimosa’s website – http://runawayquiltproject.org

Deimosa on Twitter – @dataquilter

Deimosa on Scholastic – http://oomscholasticblog.com/post/summer-reading-imperative-commentary-deimosa-webber-bey

Books we chatted about:

Five Nights At Freddy’s: The Silver Eyes (Scott Cawthorn)

Transformed (Megan Morrison)

Internment (Samira Ahmed)

Puerto Rico Strong: A Comics Anthology Supporting Puerto Rico Disaster

Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 (Sharon Robinson)

Miles Morales (Jason Reynolds)

Closing

Alright – that’s it for our show this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they will love or an idea about a guest we should have or a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org.  And, if you are liking the show, please help others find us too by telling a friend, sharing on social media, or leaving a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.

Talk with you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

 

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Top 20 Student Favorites & A Conversation with Rajani LaRocca: Books Between, Episode 74

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for educators, librarians, parents, and everyone who loves middle grade books!  My goal is to help you connect kids between 8-12 with fantastic reads because I believe that a book can change the trajectory of a child’s life.  And I want to help you introduce kids to those amazing, life-shaping books and bring you inspiring (and fun!) conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two tween girls, a 5th grade teacher, and finally beginning my summer vacation!! Before we begin, I have a few quick announcements!

First – a reminder that Monday nights are the #MGBookChat Twitter chats with some really amazing topics coming up this summer like STEM in Middle Grade, Inspiring Kids to Write, Grief in Middle Grade, and several Open Chats where you can bring your own topic to discuss. So if you are like me and have a tendency to forget those sort of things, set a reminder on your phone for Mondays at 9pm EST and check out #MGBookChat on Twitter.

Second – I will be at NerdCampMI this July 8th & 9th – so if you are headed that way this summer, please please do say hi.

And finally – I am really excited to tell you that I will be rejoining the All the Wonders team as their Podcast Network Developer to produce a new array of shows cultivating a wider variety of perspectives and stories in the world of children’s literature. First up is All the Wonders This Week –  a brief, topical show released every Tuesday where a guest and I will chat about all things wondrous and new in the world of children’s literature. So stay tuned for that this summer!

But – no worries – Books Between isn’t going anywhere!This is episode #74 and today’s show features the top 20 books that my students loved this year, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong for me this last school year, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Rajani LaRocca – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem.

This is episode #74 and today’s show features the top 20 books that my students loved this year, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong for me this last school year, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Rajani LaRocca – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem.

Top 20 Student Favorites

Let’s start with the top 20 books that my 5th grade students loved and recommended this school year. Because it’s one thing for an adult to enjoy a book, but for it to really make an impact, it has to connect with its intended audience. There have been plenty of books that I loved, but for some reason didn’t seem to resonate with middle grade readers.  Honestly, I think THIS list is way more valuable than ANY list that any adult puts out.

I couple notes before we begin. My students have pretty much free choice to read what they want in class and for homework at night, but we did have two book clubs this year – one in the fall featuring immigrant and refugee experiences and then we just wrapped up our fantasy book clubs. So that context likely influenced what books they had most exposure to. Also – our four main read alouds this year were Home of the Brave, a non-fiction title called When Lunch Fights Back, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Thief of Always.  Only two of those made it into this Top 20.

And there are only six graphic novels on this list, which might surprise some adults who like to complain to me that “all kids read these days are those graphic novels”. (Can you hear my eyes rolling?)

I also want to be transparent about how I calculated this “Top 20”. So, at the end of the year, we did various wrap-up and reflection activities. In mid-June, I send out a quick survey one morning asking them for their top reads of the year. They also worked on an end-of-the-year reflection celebration slideshow and one slide was devoted to sharing their favorite books. Also, each student worked on a “Top 10 List” (or” Top 5 List” or whatever – an idea I got from Colby Sharp) listing their most highly recommended books of the year – recommended for their current class and to be shared with the incoming 5th graders. So… I tallied up each time a title was mentioned in any of those places. And here are the top 20 titles my 5th graders loved and recommended.

20. Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi

This graphic novel is still a strong favorite with my fifth graders. Maybe slightly less so this year, but I think that’s because a LOT of them already read it in 4th grade.

19. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Still going strong! Admittedly, not every mention was book one, but the series is a perennial favorite among my students and one that they love to reread in between other books.

18. Ghost by Jason Reynolds

The Track Series has gained a lot of momentum this year – and mainly through word of mouth. It was one of our school’s ProjectLIT selections so there was some buzz around that, but only one of my students was able to make it to those meetings so the popularity of this title is due strictly to kids recommending it to other kids.

17. Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

This title was one of the immigrant /refugee themed book club selections from the fall and even though just four kids read it in that club, it was quickly passed around after that. If you know children who enjoyed books like Refugee or Amal Unbound, Escape from Aleppo is a great next book to introduce them to next.

16. Ghost Boys  by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Every child that picked this book up and read it, ended up calling it a favorite.

15. The Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West

This title was one of our Fantasy Book Club options and it really lends itself to fabulous discussions if you’re looking to round out that genre.

14. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

I will admit – I was totally surprised this made the top 20. Not because I don’t like it – I LOVE this book, but I didn’t really witness it being read or talked about a lot past September or October. But clearly it made a lasting impact on those that did read it.

13. Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

In the same vein as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this series of books are the go-to rereads when a student isn’t sure what they want to read next. It’s one of those comfort reads that always winds up back in their book boxes.

12. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

This graphic novel was passed from kid to kid this year with so many of them reading it multiple times.

11. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Which was a second shocker to me because this novel is a class read-aloud in 3rd grade. So all the love for this one came from students who remembered it fondly and reread it. Maybe because I happened to have a few copies in our room? Which reminds me to make sure to have those previous year’s titles available in our classroom library.

10. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Another one of our hot fantasy book club picks – this series is a winner. Year and after kids fall in love with the characters! And it will make you fall in love with a cockroach. That’s some powerful writing!

9. Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Still…. after all these years. This book has that special spark.

8. Crush by Svetlana Chmakova 

When this graphic novel came out in this past October, I bought one copy and immediately the kids grabbed a pen and paper and started their own waiting list.

7. The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix 

The credit for this book’s popularity falls squarely to a book trailer that our school librarian showed our class. It got us all sooo hooked that I splurged a bit and bought three copies for our classroom. And it just took off from there. In fact, I haven’t even read the darn thing yet because I could never get my hands on a copy. And actually, I think it’s the only title on this list that I haven’t read.

6. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Because…. of course!  And actually, our classroom copy of this book didn’t even make it past March. The spine cracked and then the pages started falling apart, so I’ve got to get another copy for the fall. It was clearly well-loved.

5. Blended by Sharon Draper

Whoa did this novel take my class by storm!  And it wasn’t part of a book club, it wasn’t a read aloud, it didn’t have a snazzy book trailer – it just really resonated with kids. And they just kept recommending it to each other.

4. Front Desk by Kelly Yang

This was THE hot title this fall!  It was one of the choices for our immigrant/refugee book clubs but unlike some of the other titles, this one had a huge resurgence after the clubs ended with kids rereading and passing it along to their friends all through the year. It was constantly in someone’s book box.

3. The Unicorn Rescue Society by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

This was another fantasy book club option. And I think, the popularity of this book is really due to the fact that it had a phenomenal book trailer that hooked kids with it’s humor. It was also a shorter book with lots of great illustrations so kids quickly finished it, passed it along and were on to the next in the series. 

Okay – we are down to the top two. And not surprisingly, they are both class read alouds. It makes sense that the books every child read or listened to would be high on a list of class favorites. But as I said before, two of our read alouds didn’t make the cut so these two truly did connect with the class.

2. The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

Oh my word is this book amazing!  And for many students – it’s their first foray into horror. The chapter illustrations are gruesome and disturbing and wonderful…. If you know kids that like scary books with that paranormal twist… who like something a little weird – this book is perfect!  And it makes a really great read aloud.

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

I added this one as a read aloud this year since it was the 20th anniversary, and I honestly wasn’t sure if the kids were going to like it.  That first book does have a slow start, but it was by far their top rated read aloud and the title most frequently found on their favorites lists and their recommended lists.  Harry’s still got the magic.

Reflection

One of the most important aspects of our last few weeks together at school is time for student reflection and feedback for me and my own reflection on what went well this past year and… what did not. 

First, let me share with you 5 things that stood out in my students’ final feedback survey. And yes, this is information from a particular class, but I think you’ll find something useful to take away from their responses as well.

  1. When asked what they liked most about class, the top responses were Flash-light Fridays (where we turned off all the lights and they got to read with flashlights anywhere in the room), the read alouds, all the Harry Potter activities (house sorting, trying Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, I sent them acceptance letters to Hogawarts, etc.), and doing the one-pagers.
  2. When asked what changes I should make for next year, they suggested more book clubs, students getting to vote on our read alouds, and… many of them said they don’t like sitting in groups. That they wanted to be spread out more and have their own space. (Which is interesting – because a couple years ago I came REALLY close to doing away with individual desks and switching to tables and mainly flexible seating options that have been very popular and whenever I have brought that up, my students have consistently told me – they like their own desk and their own space.)
  3. When asked “Did you read more or less than last year?”, 33% said a little more and 50% said a lot more. And only one child said that they read less this year. 
  4. When asked how I could be a better teacher, the most common responses were to give more reading time, read more books aloud, and a suggestion to ask kids to read even more each night.
  5. When asked what books we should have more of in our classroom library, they wanted more scary books, more books with magic, more books in a series, more poetry, and of course, more graphic novels.

So those were some big takeaways from the feedback from my students. And of course, as I reflect and revise and look for professional development opportunities over the summer, I pair their feedback with the things I saw going well and also things that did not. Here are some “wins” and some “fails” from this past year.

  • A win – the book clubs centered around immigrant and refugee stories. Students learned a lot, had a new perspective on events they may see in the news, and bottom line – just really enjoyed those books.  Since many students requested more book clubs, I am considering adding another round or two – perhaps centered around neurodiversity and understanding ourselves and others. 
  • A fail – not reading nearly enough poetry and nonfiction. So if I think about expanding book clubs, perhaps shifting a little to a poetry reading club or clubs that want to explore a particular nonfiction topic might be a way to go. 
  • A win – read alouds kicked butt this year.  After three times reading aloud Thief of Always, I had the voices down, and I finally felt like I knew that story inside and out and could take them places this year that I never would have even realized the first time we read it together. That just reinforces to me how much can be gained be rereading a text multiple times.   
  • A fail – not reading enough shorter texts – picture books and short stories. And also, every single one of our read alouds this year featured a male protagonist. And I am NOT letting that happen again next year. Or ANY year! Nooo way!
  • A win – when a student told me she wanted to read books with gay, trans, and queer characters, within 3 minutes I was able to gather a huge stack from our classroom library to plop on her desk so she could find something that might appeal to her. 
  • A fail – she didn’t know we had that many titles! I had book-talked many of them, but next year – maybe I’ll have a “Read with Pride” bin to rotate some of those titles in and out.  I want to be careful to not “other” those stories and separate all of them, but I do want students to be able to find them easily. 
  • A win – students read far more diversely this year than any prior year. And I had many, many boys who without much reservation read Baby Sitter’s Club books, and books about girls getting their periods, and other novels with female protagonists that in year’s past might be met with push-back and laughter.  I am maybe seeing a possible cultural shift there. Maybe. I’m hoping. 
  • A fail – not taking enough time to explicitly explore bias and structural racism, the impact of social norms and honestly – all the things that are tricky to talk about but that NEED to be talked about.  And that was better this year, but still not enough.

And I know this is not the work of a summer but the work of a whole career, a whole lifetime. And as always, we are learning together so I’d really love to hear from you about any feedback you received from the children you work with, what your successes and misses were this past year, and what books your kids loved. You can connect with me on Twitter or Instagram – our handle is @books_between or email me at booksbetween@gmail.com and I’d love to share your ideas.

Rajani LaRocca – Interview Outline

Joining me this week is debut author Rajani LaRocca! We chat about baking, Shakespeare, the novels that influenced her as a child, writing ideas for kids, her unparalleled skill at finding the perfect GIF, and  of course – her debut novel Midsummer’s Mayhem!

Take a listen…

Midsummer’s Mayhem

For our listeners who have not yet read Midsummer’s Mayhem – what is this story about?

You novel has so many elements that I love – a bit of mystery, a dash of earthy magic,  – it’s like The Great British Baking Show meets Shakespeare! And the recipes are so mouth-watering, so unique! Did you actually make all of the recipes in the book?

Can we talk about Vik?!  I had no idea until the very end which way he was going to go. I love how you created this mystery surrounding him that was multi-sensory – not just visual, but musical, and the earthy scents of the forest….

Mimi is very inspired by Puffy Fay – her celebrity chef idol. Who is your celebrity writing idol?

A very important question – do you say “JIF” or “GIF”?   However you say it, you are the QUEEN of the Gif!!

Your Writing Life

You said recently, “Often when I sit down to write a chapter, something surprising happens, and things go in a completely different direction than I’d planned.”  What was one of those moments in Midsummer’s Mayhem?

My students and kids are always eager to hear writing advice from authors.  What’s a tip or trick that you’ve picked up along the way that has helped your writing? 

What are you working on now?

Your Reading Life

You’ve mentioned before that the books you read as a child helped shape who you are today. What were some of those books?

What are some books that you’ve read lately that you’d recommend to our listeners?

Thank You!

LINKS

Rajani’s website – https://www.rajanilarocca.com

Rajani on Twitter – @rajanilarocca

Rajani on Instagram – @rajanilarocca

Books and topics we chatted about:

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)

Meet the Austins (Madeleine L’Engle)

The Arm of the Starfish (Madeleine L’Engle)

The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)

The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)

Amar Chitra Katha graphic novels

The Simple Art of Flying (Cory Leonardo)

Seventh Grade vs the Galaxy (Joshua Levy)

Caterpillar Summer (Gillian McDunn)

Planet Earth Is Blue (Nicole Panteleakos

Super Jake and the King of Chaos (Naomi Milliner)

All of Me (Chris Baron)

Closing

Alright – that’s it for our show this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they will love or an idea about a guest we should have or a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org.  And, if you are liking the show, please help others find us too by telling a friend, sharing on social media, or leaving a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.

Talk with you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

 

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Finishing Strong & A Conversation with Tina Athaide: Books Between, Episode 73

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hello and welcome to Books Between –  a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – 5th grade teacher, a mom of two girls (10 and 12), and muddling through some allergies. So if you are wondering why I sound “off” – we can blame all those plants trying to have babies!  A quick reminder before we get started that you can find transcripts and interview outlines of every episode – along with lots of other great middle great content over at MGBookVillage.org.

This is episode #73 and today’s show starts off with a discussion about strong endings to the school year and then I share with you a conversation with Tina Athaide- author of Orange for the Sunsets.

Main Topic – Finishing the Year Strong

Our main topic today is ending the school year with your students with strength and purpose. And wrapping up those final weeks together in a way that allows for both reflection on their reading lives and a way to step forward into a summer that builds on the successes of the previous year.

It’s like the school year is the runway and the summer is the solo flight after take-off! If you haven’t been building those reading habits all year long, then… well that lift off is going to fall flat.  But – there are some things that we can do to plan for a strong transition from that supportive classroom reading community to a strong independent reading life. For me, my school year up here in New York doesn’t end for another five weeks but lots of my friends are already wrapping up their school year so I thought it would be a good time to discuss this topic. And whether you are a parent, or a librarian, or a teacher there will be something in today’s show that you will find useful.

First, we’ll talk building in time for reflection and what that can look like. Then, I’ll discuss some ways for students to celebrate and share the reading they’ve enjoyed during the past school year. And finally, I’ll chat about how to usher them into summer with a solid reading plan and hopefully some books in their hands.

Reflection

One of the most effective ways to cap off your school year is with some time for reflection and feedback. And there are a few options for you to consider.

  1. A student survey for YOU to grow as a teacher. So this would involve asking your students questions to help get feedback to help you improve. These  questions might be – What was your favorite read aloud this year?  What strategies helped you grow the most as a reader? Did you prefer partner reading or book clubs and why? What types of reading responses helped you get the most of your reading?  Should we read more nonfiction? What books should we get for our classroom library? Pernille Ripp uses these types of surveys exceptionally well, and I’ll link to her website to get some ideas for you to try and to tweak.
  2. It’s also really important that students get the opportunity to write about and discuss their own reading habits and growth – for their own self-reflection. In that case, since the purposes are very different, the questions you ask your students will be different. And if you’ve helped them build that habit of keeping good track of their reading, this will be a thousand times easier. These questions might be along the lines of – How many books did you read this year? How does that compare to last year?  Of the books you’ve read, how many were non-fiction? How many were graphic novels? Written by a person of color? Written by a man? Were historical fiction? What was your favorite book you’ve read? How many books did you abandon and why? Those questions that dig a bit deeper are so powerful – especially when given the opportunity to share those thoughts with others.
  3. Another way that you can have your students doing some powerful thinking and reflection about the books they are offered is by guiding them through a diversity audit of your classroom collection or library. If you want details about this, I’ve discussed it in more depth in episode 28 (which I will link to in the show notes), but I highly recommend you try this at least one time with your class. And it doesn’t have to be an analysis of all the books in your library. Maybe it’s just a 15 minute check of the biographies together with two or three guiding questions.  At the end of the year -it’s all about using the time you have flexibly and well.BB28Banner2
  4. A great self-reflection method I just bumped into again recently was Pernille Ripp’s post (called “On Reading Rewards”) about having students create an award for themselves to celebrate their own achievement – whether that’s reading 35 books, or discovering a new genre, or just finding one book they really liked. I’ll link to her post with the full description and to the site where you can get those free Reading Certificate templates for students.  

Celebration & Sharing

Along with opportunities for self-reflection and thinking about their own reading accomplishments during the previous year, I think it’s also so important to give students a chance to show off those accomplishments!

  1. One educator that I follow on Twitter (Cassie Thomas – @mrs_cmt1489), had her students gather a stack of every book they’ve read during the year and took a picture of them with that book stack! What  powerful way to see how what a year’s worth of reading looks like!Screen Shot 2019-05-28 at 12.15.35 AM
  2. Another popular (and powerful) way to have students both reflect on their reading and share it, is to have them create a top ten (or so) list. I’ve absolutely modified that to a Top 5 or Top 3 list for those kiddos who were rather daunted by coming up with ten titles.  It could be something as simple as the Top 10 Books I’ve Read This Year. Or maybe Top 5 Sports Books, 7 Books To Make You Laugh, Top 8 Books That Made Me Cry, Top 10 Books If You Like History – really the options are endless! And lend themselves well to having those quick finishers make a couple of them. In a recent video by Colby Sharp, he mentioned that he has his class share the lists with him in a Google doc where he complies them, prints out all the lists, and then sends the lists home with the kids for the summer!  So if they are ever looking for a book suggestion, they have a ton of options from their classmates right on hand. I’m definitely doing that this year! (I’ll link to Colby’s video so you can check out his other ideas.)
  3. A third way to celebrate and share their reading? One-pagers! If you have not tried these yet – the end of the year is the perfect time!  Essentially, students go into greater depth with one of their favorite books by creating a one-page presentation. Typically they are very colorful and include strong visual elements to illuminate aspects of the book like drawings of symbols, characters, or represeScreen Shot 2019-05-28 at 12.18.35 AMntations of the book cover.  And the sections depend on your goals – often things like a character analysis, favorite quote, rating, or summary. My students really loved doing these and even had the idea of hanging some in our local public library. And I recently came across a great episode of The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast with guest Betsy Potash that offers some great tips and templates to use. I’ll also include a link directly to Betsy’s site if you want to see those great examples and snag those templates.
  4. One other idea to help students celebrate and share their reading is to harness the technology skills they’ve already practiced during the year for that purpose. For example, if your students are already using Flipgrid, have them use that tool to do a book talk for a favorite book, share their top ten list, or discuss patterns they noticed about their reading during the past year. If the kids are more comfortable with SeeSaw, they could do similar things with the video tool or do some annotating of their favorite books and make booksnaps about favorite books or characters.  Powerpoint or Google Slides has some cool features – especially to make charts and graphs. One piece of advice here – use technology that they are already familiar with and can work independently on. That way, while they are working, you can take care of those important, time-consuming end-of-the-year tasks like conducting final running records on each student or wrapping up some final scoring on assignments.  

A Plan & Books in Their Hands

A summer reading plan:

Let’s talk about the plan first. This could be a formal, written plan – but honestly, at the end of the year that might be just a little too structured for summer. Instead, I like to share various ideas and options for kids to boost their reading life over the summer. And then have us all share with each other how to overcome some common obstacles. So here’s what that will look like for our class over the next couple of weeks before school ends:

  • Creating their summer TBR list. Maybe this is based on the Top 10 Lists your class presented or maybe they build a TBR list during a trip to the library, but having that piece of paper is really helpful.
  • Invite our wonderful children’s librarian from our local public library to come in and share with our class the awesome summer programs they have planned.  If the timing doesn’t work out for them to travel, a virtual Google Hangout visit or Skype could work, too. Our local library also used to allow for off-site library card sign-ups so check into that as well.
  • Give the kids a list of any summer reading programs or activities you can find in your community.  Does your local bookstore have any cool book signings or summer events planned? Is there a Children’s Book Festival happening?  Does your community have a traveling library? Is there a summer book club offered at your school? Where are the locations of the Little Free Libraries in your  area? Will the local library have a booth at the Pride Festival this June? (Mine will!!!!)
  • Introduce them to some virtual spaces where they can get reading ideas and share their reading life.  If they are old enough for social media (13 years old) – perhaps share some accounts to follow. Or encourage them to sign up for a Goodreads account. But honestly – they are most likely going to be on YouTube. So a list of great YouTubers to follow would probably be the most appreciated and actually used by your students.
  • And if you think your students would use it, you could set up a summer reading Fligrid or SeeSaw or other digical space to them to share. I tried this last year and it was a bit of a bust, but maybe I’ll give it another go.

Alright, so…. Ideally, I’ll have those resources and ideas compiled into one document for students to take home at the end of the year. And then we’ll have a quick discussion together about which ones they want to participate in, and what are going to be obstacles.   Perhaps they can share a brief and flexible plan in their reading journal or on SeeSaw or Flipgrid.

Getting books in their hands:

And finally – the all important getting books in their hands before they leave for the summer! There are a few ways to do this.

  • Have your end-of-the-year gift be a book. Right now I am in a self-contained class and have 21 students. So I can swing this by saving up Scholastic points and entering a lot of giveaways on Twitter and Goodreads.  Next year I’ll be teaching all the 5th graders, so this option might be less doable.
  • One idea I’ve considered instead of selecting a new book for each child based on what I know of their reading life, is to let them pick out one book from our classroom library to take home to keep.
  • Another option is to suggest your PTO/PTA give the graduating class a book as they leave the school. My PTO has done this for the last few years. And it sends a powerful message about what is important and what is valued in our school. Last year is was 365 Days of Wonder and this year will either be New Kid or a picture book like Rock What Ya Got.
  • Another idea that I have seen be very successful is to have a book swap by encouraging families to bring in gently used books for kids to exchange. Our middle school kept them all in a brightly colored kiddie pool with a beach chair next to it.
  • More and more libraries are doing summer check out – which I LOVE!!  So if your school is not yet one of those, maybe arm yourself with some great research and start putting a bug in the ear of the powers-that-be to make that change.
  • Allow kids to check out books from your classroom library is another way to get books in their hands for the summer. My 5th graders are leaving to a new school. So instead, at the end of the year we had an opportunity to meet our incoming 4th grade class. And after some quick introductions, I let each child pick 2-3 books they wanted to take home and read over the summer.  Before they left, I just took a quick picture of them with their stack so I knew which books were out. But other than that, there was no check-out procedure. I like this for a few reasons. One, it shows them right away that our classroom library is the heart of our class and that I want to get to know them as people and as readers. And that whatever book they picked was fine by me. It’s all reading. Also – we’re starting from a place of trust. I trust them to take those books home and return them.  And sure, some didn’t come back. But as Donalyn Miller has so often said, “I’d rather lose a book than lose a reader.”

I hope that no matter if you are a teacher, a librarian, or parent that you have found something useful in today’s discussion that will help you foster more independent readers. And no matter what time of year you may stumble across this episode, building in time for reflection, celebrating and sharing our reading lives, and making plans to read more on our own is always a great idea.  

And as always, we are learning together so please share with us your ideas and successes for ending the year strong. You can connect with me on Twitter or Instagram – our handle is @books_between or email me at booksbetween@gmail.com and I’d love to share your ideas.

Tina Athaide – Interview Outline

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This week I am thrilled to bring you an interview with debut author Tina Athaide! We chat about her research process, the novels that influenced her as a child, writing tips to pass along to the young authors in your life, and of course – her debut historical novel set in 1970s Uganda –  Orange for the Sunsets.

Take a listen…

Orange for the Sunsets

Welcome! I’d like to start by giving you an opportunity to introduce yourself to our listeners…

I’m an educator by day and writer by night. When I started teaching in Southern CA, I was 51JRwk61JeL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_amazed how little information my students had about other cultures and ethnic groups and always thought they could learn so much from books. Thankfully these days we are seeing an increase in books written about marginalized groups by marginalized writers.

What is Orange for the Sunsets about?

It set in 1972 and tells the story of Asha-an Asian Indian girl and her best friend Yesofu a Ugandan boy and how their lives are turned upside down when President Idi Amin announces that Indians have ninety days to leave the country.  Asha comes from a life of privilege, but even then it isn’t as privileged as the Europeans. Yesofu’s family works for Asha’s parents. They are servants in their own country. Idi’ Amin’s expulsion means different things for these two characters, which creates a conflict that threatens to tear apart their friendship.  This was a period in history that very few people knew about, especially here in North America and I felt it was important to share this story.

What was your research process like to make sure you were getting not only the history correct, but the 1970’s details accurate?

Without dating myself, I have to confess that I have personal connections to this story. I was born in Entebbe, but my family left just before the expulsion.. Growing up I heard many stories about life in Uganda and subsequently the horrors of the expulsion. Early drafts were solely from Asha’s point of view. Yesofu had a role in the book, but I never delved into what the expulsion meant for him. An editor that was interested in the story actually recommended that I write the book from both Asha and Yesofu’s POV.

BACK TO THE DRAWING board and revisions. Actually…rewriting the entire book!

I was Asian, writing about the Asian Indian experience. I had some knowledge about the Uganda experiences, but not enough to really give Yesofu an authentic and honesty voice. That involved research.

I spoke to Indians and Ugandans about their experiences during that period of history, beyond just family and friends. I wanted to know their opinions about Idi Amin’s expulsion, how their lives were affected.  I travelled to Kenya and spoke to Kenyan and Ugandan Africans about this time period.

What was also very helpful wasI read articles written during those ninety days from newspapers around the world. When Idi Amin originally expelled Asians, he kicked out those Indians holding British passports and citizenship.  But when he ordered all Asian Indians out of the country, the UN asked countries to open their borders and accept refugees….That included the United States.

Although your story is set over 40 years ago and in a country across the globe, it has so many parallels to what’s happening in America now with the rise of populist anti-immigrant sentiment that veers in violence. Did you intentionally want to capture some of those similar sentiments?  

It saddens me that in this day and age there are such close parallels between the story in Orange For the Sunset and the strong rise of anti-immigrant sentiment across the globe.  It wasn’t intentional on my part to capture those similarities, but that period of history with Idi Amin and the brutality toward Indians unfortunately mirrors current sentiments.

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: We discuss the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 38:12 mark.

How has this book changed from your earlier drafts to this final version?

Were there parts that you loved but you had to edit out?

Your Writing Life

What are you working on now?

I have a picture book coming out in 2020 about a young child, Sita and her grandfather, Gandhi. She is spirited and full of vigor and he teaches her to give how slowing down opens you up to see and appreciate so much more in life.

I am working on a MG fantasy book about a young boy who is destined to be keeper of the Pancha Maha-Bhoota–the five great elements of nature. It weaves in elements of Hindu mythology with flying garuda and naga cobras. What is most exciting is the character travels through time to real places in India so readers will get to visit these spectacular sites.

My students and kids are always eager to hear writing advice from authors.  What’s a tip or trick that you’ve picked along the way that has helped your writing?

When I finish writing the rough draft, I go through the manuscript and use different colors to highlight emotional points, plot points, dialogue.  Then I will read through the story focusing on each color and it give me a narrow and wide lens as I revise.

Your Reading Life

What are some books or authors that influenced you as a child?

Growing up, there were no books in the local library or school library with people of color, so l went on adventures with Trixie Belden, Anne of Green Gables, and Anastacia Krupnik. Each in their own way those writers influenced me, even if it was to show me how books took you places different from your own world.  I loved the Narnia series by CS Lewis and Harriet the Spy and the Outsiders.

What are some books that you’ve read lately that you’d recommend to our listeners?

Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krisnaswami

The Bridge Home by PadmaVenkatraman

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

 

Thank You!

LINKS:

Tina on Twitter – @tathaide

Mae on Instagram – @tinaathaide

 

Closing

Alright – that’s it for our show this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they will love or an idea about a guest we should have or a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org.  And, if you are liking the show, please help others find us too by telling a friend, sharing on social media, or leaving a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.

Talk with you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

 

 

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Interview: Jo Knowles

Where The Heart Is final cover.jpg

Hello, Jo! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to celebrate the release of Where the Heart Is and to chat about the book. You write both Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction. How early on in your process do you know which category a story idea will fit into? Do you think about it at all before or while writing? 

Thanks for having me! I do think about how old my character is when I first start writing, mainly because age is often how I introduce my characters. But… I admit that often after I’ve written several chapters I realize the voice sounds either too young or too old for the original age I thought they were. At that point, I need to decide which is stronger: the voice, or the need to have my character be a certain age to tell a particular story. But I don’t think in terms of, “My next book needs to be middle grade.” It’s the story idea that comes first. Then, I starting writing and let the story tell me what the book will be. 

Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?

I love writing about 12-13 year olds because it’s fun to straddle childhood and adolescence. I realize I may be the only one who feels this way! But I think it’s such an emotional and exciting time of life to write about. Kids are on the cusp of gaining independence and developing their own identities, and I love going through that growing-up experience with them. It can be both hysterical and heartbreaking. 

Okay, let’s get to the new book. Can you tell us a little bit about Where the Heart Is?

It’s about a girl named Rachel who just turned 13 and is looking forward to a fun summer with her best friend, Micah. But her parents are going through a financial crisis, and it’s causing lots of stress at home. In addition, she’s questioning her sexual identity and it’s causing a rift between her and Micah, who has had a crush on her since they were little. 

One thing I especially love and admire about your writing is your use of humor – in this latest book and your previous ones. You tackle some seriously heavy, tough topics, yet still manage to infuse humor into your stories. Does this come naturally? Is it something you are conscious about including?

Thank you! I try really hard to keep my stories “real” in that they reflect every day stuff as well as the bigger, looming issues in their lives. I don’t think about it in the sense of, say, “OK, you just wrote a sad scene now you need to balance it with something funny.” I guess I think of it more in terms of a necessary part of character and world building. When I walk my characters through their worlds, there’s just naturally some funny stuff that plays out. And maybe as a writer, I need comic relief just as much as my readers. 

I know there are both large and small elements of Where the Heart Is that were inspired by your own life experiences. Did you set out to write about these? Can you talk about what it’s like to transform such “facts” into fiction?

The book emerged from a writing prompt a friend of mine gave at a pop-up lecture. He said to think of an object that held a strong memory, and I thought of a sweater of my dad’s that I used to wear. As soon as I started writing, the memory of losing our home came to me very clearly and powerfully. I shared what I wrote with my friend, and he encouraged me to keep going. The problem was, I didn’t want to write a memoir. I decided to select some of the most important things that happened to me during that time, and try to weave them into a story that would work as a middle grade novel. Turning “facts” into fiction is a challenge for sure, because it’s hard to let go of what really happened. But once you do let go, you can see that by allowing yourself to create the emotion of what happened rather than the thing itself, you’re still essentially telling the same story, just in a way that’s hopefully more accessible to more people. 

Before they even pick up Where the Heart Is, readers will notice that the word home has been “taken away” from the title. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that word. Home. What does it mean to you? How do you define it? Has your understanding of it changed over time?

I’m glad you noticed! The process of writing this story, and further back, losing my own home, led me to rethink about how I define home. So often when we meet people they ask, “Where do you call home?” What if we changed it to “Who do you call home?” The lesson for me, in all of this, is that it’s the people in your life that give you a sense of belonging. Home is something deep inside us. It’s more than walls, it’s the invisible structure of love we create through the people we care about, and who care about us.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add Where the Heart Is to their classrooms and libraries?

Some teachers who have read advanced copies have said they are excited to use the book to open up discussions about poverty and identity with their students, which I love. I also have a discussion guide available on my Web site: https://www.joknowles.com/where-the-heart-is

Where can readers find more information about you and your work?

http://www.joknowles.com lists all of my books and information about school and library visits. Thank you!

Jo-Heart.jpgJo Knowles is the author of several young adult and middle grade books including See You At Harry’s, Still a Work In Progress, and Read Between The Lines. Her newest book, Where The Heart Is, has been called “an immensely appealing, hard-to-put-down story about friendship and love, heartache and bravery” by Newbery Award-winner, Rebecca Stead. Jo’s awards include a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable, the PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award, an ALA Notable, Bank Street College’s Best Books for Children, YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, and two SCBWI Crystal Kites. Jo’s books have also appeared on numerous state award lists. She teaches writing at the Mountainview MFA program through Southern New Hampshire University.

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Tomorrow, April 2nd, is also the publication day of the paperback edition of Jo’s Still A Work In Progress, the cover of which is above!

A Conversation with Alyson Gerber: Books Between, Episode 71

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – an elementary school teacher in Central New York and mom of two daughters – a 9 year old and a just turned 12 year old. Yesteday we celebrated her birthday with the most amazing cake – white with whipped cream frosting and layers of cannoli filling and raspberry filling inside. And just in case you are wondering – no, I did not make it.  But if you live near a Wegmans, you can order one!

This is episode #71 and today and I’m sharing with you a conversation with Alyson A1MEhcDj3NLGerber – author of Braced and the recently released Focused. Her latest novel is about a gutsy, chess-loving, 7th grader named Clea who is learning to cope with her ADHD.

So….do you know that slightly disorienting feeling you have when you are looking out a window & suddenly the lights shifts, your perspective shifts, and you realize you are seeing your OWN reflection? That is the experience I had when reading Focused.  Like so many other people, Dr. Rudine Bishop’s analogy of books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors has always resonated with me.  And I picked up Focused anticipating that I would get a window into the experiences of a young girl with ADHD – that it would help me become a better, more empathetic teacher. And while Focused absolutely did that – it also helped dispel a lot of the misconceptions I had about ADHD, particularly how it tends to manifest in girls and women.  And launched me on a path to discovering that I have ADHD. I opened Focused thinking I was reading a window book – and it turned into a mirror book for me.

I know that books can change minds and can change lives. But rarely has a novel changed my life for the better so completely and so soon. And by extension – the lives of my family and students. And when that happens – you just have to let the author know! And so, I emailed Alyson and thanked her and asked her to come on the show to talk about Focused, chess, her experiences with ADHD, her writing process, and so so much more.

Take a listen.

Interview Outline – Alyson Gerber

Focused

For our listeners who have not yet read the Focused, can you tell us a bit about it?

In what ways is Clea’s situation and experiences similar to your own and in what ways did you angle her story so that it was different from your own?

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 11.39.05 PMAnother thing that I think you do masterfully in Focused is how you show Clea’s relationship with her therapist evolving over time from her denial and distrust to an eventual positive relationship. I think so many kids can benefit from that peek inside a therapist’s office…

Is the testing you describe Clea doing things you’ve experienced or did you do some research to get those aspects of the story right?

One of the other parts of the story that really rang true were the conversations around medication…

One of the things that made me fall so hard for this book was the CHESS! My husband and daughters are all big chess players though not competitively.  Do you play?

So…. there is some romance in this story!!

Your Writing Life

What are you working on now?

My students and kids are always eager to hear writing advice from authors.  What’s a tip or trick that you’ve picked along the way that has helped your writing?

Is there a piece of feedback that you got that changed Focused?

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Your Reading Life

One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and parents inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books.  Did you have a special person who helped launch your reading life as a child? And if so, what did they do that made such a difference?

What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked? What do you hope that readers take away from reading Focused?

Thank You!

Links:

Alyson’s website – http://alysongerber.com

Alyson on Twitter – @AlysonGerber

Alyson on Instagram – @alysongerber

Alyson on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/AlysonGerberBooks

Resources about ADHD:

https://chadd.org

https://www.understood.org/en

Books & Authors We Chatted About:

The Science of Breakable of Things (Tae Keller)

Barbara Cooney

Merci Suarez Changes Gears (Meg Medina)

New Kid (Jerry Craft)

The Serpent’s Secret (Sayantani DasGupta)

Eventown (Corey Ann Haydu)

Closing

Thank you so much for joining me this week.  You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org.   And, if you have an extra minute this week, reviews on iTunes or Stitcher are much appreciated.

Books Between is a proud member of the Lady Pod Squad and the Education Podcast Network. This network features podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit edupodcastnetwork.com

Talk with you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

 

 

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Interview: Jennifer Robin Barr

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First off, Jennifer, thank you for stopping by the MG Book Village to celebrate Goodbye, Mr. Spalding and to chat about the book. Before we get to the new book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Thank you for having me! I’m a big fan of MG Book Village. Happy to introduce myself – I am a writer from the Philadelphia area. I spend my days on a local college campus working with students, and my free time writing for young readers.

At the start of my writing journey, I spent a short career writing how-to style guide books, publishing The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Bridal Showers in 1999 and The Everything Scrapbooking Book in 2002. These experiences were a great introduction to the publishing industry, and helped me to see where I wanted to spend my writing energy. I then joined SCBWI, found a great writing group, and have been writing stories for children ever since. I especially love writing Middle Grade, and about little-known nuggets of history.

One other question, before we get to the book. I know your journey to the printed page has been a long one, as it is for so many. I learned from your Acknowledgements that you worked on Goodbye, Mr. Spalding for eight years! Kids – and adults! – are often shocked to learn how long it takes to finish a book. Is there anything you’d like to share about your journey? Do you have any advice or wisdom for those still working toward publication?

There was one big difference-maker outside of the actual writing, and it all has to do with having a strong support system and dedicated writing group. That’s the biggest piece of advice I can give – to surround yourself with people who have your back, whether that’s family, an online community, an in-person group, or a combination. My family was so encouraging, and my three critique partners definitely pushed me when I wanted to pack up, motivating me to take the manuscript out of a figurative drawer several times. They all believed in Goodbye, Mr. Spalding from the start, and they gave me the confidence to continue. 

Okay, on to the book – Goodbye, Mr. Spalding. Can you tell us a little about it? 

I love talking about it! First some historical background:

Early baseball in Philadelphia consisted of two major league teams – the Phillies and the Athletics. The A’s played in Shibe Park, and one of its most unique was a short 12-foot right-field wall. The row homes across the street had an incredible vantage point of the field. In fact, they were closer than some of the right field stands in ballparks today. Homeowners sold tickets and built bleachers on their flat rooftops, and it became a source of income for the neighborhood.

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The Shibe Park owners never really loved the “freeloaders” in right field, and with diminishing ticket sales and the Great Depression, in 1934 they decided to build a wall to block their view. 

Goodbye, Mr. Spalding explores characters Jimmy and Lola, best friends who live in the homes and have a perfect view of the field. Their families and others on the street make extra money by selling tickets to rooftop bleachers. When they learn that a wall will be built before the 1935 season, Jimmy and Lola come up with a variety of ways to stop it.

As Jimmy becomes more and more desperate, he finds himself wondering how far he’s willing to go – including conspiring with the neighborhood bullies and creating a deep rift between him and Lola. Jimmy must work to repair their strong bond, and what started out as a fight against the ballpark owners, ends as a fight to save a friendship.

In recent years, it seems both the quantity and quality of Middle Grade historical fiction has been on the rise. What do you think accounts for this? What does historical fiction uniquely offer its readers?

I agree, the quality of MG historical fiction right now is really incredible. I’m not sure I can pinpoint why it’s been on the rise, although I do feel like school curriculums are doing an excellent job of using historical fiction books to crossover between language arts and social studies. That kind of instruction resonates so well for this age group.

Did you read historical fiction as a kid? Are there any more recent historical fiction books you’d count among your favorites?

I don’t remember reading historical fiction as a kid, but I will plug my all-time favorite childhood MG book, The Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett, and illustrated by Helen Stone. I even have an original first-edition goof – printed upside-down!

I’d consider Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson and Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool among my favorite historical fiction middle grade novels. For a more recent title, I just read The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, a powerful and heartfelt book that I would highly recommend.

Now, when it comes to writing historical fiction, how do you balance fact and fiction? Do you have your own set of rules or guidelines when it comes to taking artistic liberties? Do you ever “fudge” some facts for the sake of making a scene more compelling?

The accuracy of the history can set one book apart from another, and I took it very seriously – although it definitely is a balance of wanting to be as genuine as possible, and also wanting to move the story forward. Lucky for me, the baseball community has always done such a fantastic job with archiving their history, which made it easier to be authentic.

What drove you to write a story about America’s Pastime? Are you a baseball fan? Have you always been?

I am a lifelong baseball fan. I even collected and traded baseball cards in the late 1970s, and the 1980 Phillies World Series win is one of my best childhood memories. I have witnessed a no-hitter in person (Kevin Millwood, 2003), and October 29, 2008 was one of the best nights of my life.

Truthfully though, it’s all Philadelphia sports. If we had a little more time, I’d go on about my deep love for the Philly Special, how I still Trust the Process, and how Gritty is misunderstood.

Something I particularly loved about Goodbye, Mr. Spalding was the sense of community you depicted. There’s a real closeness between everyone in the families and the neighborhood at large – for better or worse! Was it important for you to show this? 

Thank you! I’m so happy you feel that way. Early in my journey – I think it was 2009 – I interviewed Dr. John (Jack) Rooney, an original resident of the bleacher seat community. He would have been about the same age as my main character, Jimmy, in 1934. He talked so passionately about the neighborhood community surrounding the ballpark, and it was very important for me to try and capture that aspect of the story.

None of my research in books and newspapers were as strong as that interview, and it really showed me the importance of primary sources when writing historical fiction. I’m not sure I would have been able to genuinely show the sense of community without speaking with him.

What do you hope your readers – in particular the young ones – take away from Goodbye, Mr. Spalding?

On a smaller level, I hope one of the takeaways is that history can be pretty cool. I also hope they get something out of it that they did not expect. For example, if they pick it up for the baseball, maybe they leave with an appreciation of the friendship, or visa versa. And I hope everyone starts making their own set of rules of their own.

On a larger scale, there are life-lessons. The most obvious is that things will not always go their way – and that’s okay. Even more important is that young readers will witness a character make poor decisions, see the consequences of those decisions, and how they have to work hard to make it right.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add Goodbye, Mr. Spalding to their classroom libraries?

Only that I’m so grateful. I’ve had a great response from the school and library community so far, and I’m so impressed by the creative ways they are planning to use it in the classroom and communities. My favorite so far is a teacher and little-league coach planning to tie it into summer reading incentives for his team.

I am very eager for school and library visits, and I should have some teacher guides on my website before the launch in March. Feel free to reach out anytime!

Where can readers find more information about you and your work?

jrb1.jpgYou can find me at www.JenniferRobinBarr.com, on Twitter at @JenniferRBarr, and reach me directly using the contact form on the website. It’s definitely a work-in-progress, so keep checking.

Also, if you are in the Philly area, I’m having a book launch at Children’s Book World on March 31, 2019 at 1:00. Please join us!