Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Pausing to Check the Weather, a guest post by Tanita S. Davis

The first series I published – on binder paper, bristling with staples – was The Police Academy Chronicles. Protagonist Deenie Brown was Black, book-smart, and at fourteen, the youngest cadet in her police academy – which was apparently like high school, but with adults. Together with sidekick Danny (whose long, thick lashes did nothing to hide his utter lack of characterization), Deenie Brown’s adventures were legion, and heavily derivative of Encyclopedia Brown (and with the amount of cookie baking going on, Trixie Belden). No gangs, drugs, or violence, Deenie’s cases dealt with priceless art theft and missing princes (commonly found in every suburb) and ended with a loud “atta girl” from Danny and the proud gratitude of the community.  These novellas paint a clear (and endearingly awful) picture of my writer’s mind between the ages of twelve to fifteen.

During this same period, I was frequently told I had “an attitude” in the way I interacted with adults. The object of adult speculation in the form of “teasing” about the number of kids I would have or how early I would marry, I was frequently asked by pediatricians – from the age of ten, as I recall – if I was sexually active. I was mortified when my seventh-grade tumbling teacher wouldn’t spot me one day because I was “too much of a big girl now” to necessitate that. Even as I saw myself as goofy and scattered, bookish and unsure, adults around me seemed increasingly able to see something in me which I hadn’t yet seen in myself.

In 2017 the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality released a study detailing what they called ‘adultification bias,’ the idea of Black girls as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers. The study revealed that even as young as five to nine years old, black girls are perceived as needing less nurturing, protection, comforting and care than white girls of the same age, as they’re considered more independent. This bias is strongest in girls ages ten – to – fourteen, which shapes ideas of innocence and experience. Until I read about this study, and the qualitative research conducted in 2019, I had no words for some of the experiences of my tweenhood. Like Deenie and many of my later teen characters, I was not particularly hip or worldly. Even as I leaned into the new requirements and abilities of young adulthood, I was still a child day-dreaming super sleuth adventures and solving imaginary crimes. Mine was not a graceful transition, and I went into teaching determined to grant girls like me more tools to make their liminal stage easier. All we needed, I reasoned, was a pause to check the weather before being expected to face the headwind on a new road.

Most of my first students had criminal records, social workers, parole officers, and a history of truancy. As a very junior teacher, I was to provide one-to-one tutoring and an educational approach that met them at their level, but which wasn’t insultingly infantilizing. With the supervisory support of the County’s independent study teacher, my little group home class struggled toward diplomas and GEDs.  Seeking any enticement to engage them, I hit on reading aloud. My kids would work, and better, urge each other to work, in exchange for a story – despite adultification bias’s claim that they should have “outgrown” that long ago.

We began by reading Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade, the story of fourteen-year-old, college-bound LaVaughn, babysitting seventeen-year-old Jolly’s two small children. Resonating with the characters’ fears and intentions, my students listened fiercely as LaVaughn observed, judged, learned and transformed. With her, they were frustrated with, charmed by, and terrified for others. Within the pages of those blank verse poems, my students lived and breathed. The day we finished, my learners, who had listened in near reverent silence, refused to even consider the sequel, voting unanimously that we read it again. They seemed to need to re-immerse themselves in the moments and decisions that led the novel to the powerful hope in its conclusion.

Publishing stories for girls like me, girls who were tender inside, and dreamers, wasn’t as simple. As other Black authors published to well-deserved success, my editors grew disappointed with my work. “She needs to be edgier,” was the most common criticism of my characters. I was encouraged to depict characters with more “street smarts” whose lives were “grittier.” “Your characters are too innocent,” one editor told me bluntly. I couldn’t understand – what did “too” innocent mean? Isn’t every teen, merely by virtue of their age, innocent of a remarkable number of experiences? Despite criminal charges and court dates, my students had limited experience with a world which had already judged them as ‘knowing better.’ When an editor suggested I was more suited to write chapter books for early readers, I was shaken. Much like Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the danger of a single story, I realized that much of publishing had, in essence, defaulted to another single story, that of poverty and pain, a Black girl on the brutal streets, bereft of innocence and old too soon…a story I wasn’t convinced that I was capable of telling.

Still, I reconsidered Partly Cloudy, a book originally featuring a first-year college student, the unwilling subject of a viral video, making a cross-continental escape to her great-uncle’s house on the West Coast. In my rewrite, seventh-grader Madalyn arrives at Papa Lobo’s in a slightly more organized fashion, though she remains conflicted by the push-pull challenges and growth of interracial, intercultural friendships at her new school. How do we make friends with others raised to think and react differently than ourselves? How do we decide what has value, where we should put our energy, what is worth fighting for, and what is best allowed to fade? Junior high friendships can be fast-changing and painfully fraught. In Madalyn I wanted readers to feel nurtured by her relationships, and with her, take a moment to pause and process, to determine what friendships feel like, and to grow deliberately into the adulthood they’re so often assumed to have.

And what comes of such deliberation? Clarity. I see now that like Deenie, I wanted strongly to fix things, and restore what was broken or lost. Like Madalyn, I wanted to safely and honestly navigate friendships, to cut through distraction and find genuine connection. And like them both, I wasn’t gritty and street smart – I’m still not. I had to learn pragmatism and resilience, neither of which come easily, especially if you’re seen as “grown” and not in need of comfort or help.

I hope that this September we welcome tweens of all colors into our learning communities in the spirit of honoring what is within them. We can lend them all our nurture, protection, and comfort. And as Black girls pause among the books to check the weather, I hope we’ll be on hand to give them a loud “atta girl,” as they choose to open the door and step into the storm.

Meet the author

Tanita S. Davis is the award-winning author of six novels for middle grade and young adult readers, including Serena Says, Peas and CarrotsHappy Families, and Mare’s War, which was a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book and earned her a nomination for the NAACP Image Award. She grew up in California and was so chatty as a kid that her mother begged her to “just write it down.” Now she’s back in California, doing her best to keep writing it all down.


Website: www.tanitasdavis.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/tanita_s_davis/

About Partly Cloudy

From award-winning author Tanita S. Davis comes a nuanced exploration of the microaggressions of middle school and a young Black girl named Madalyn who learns that being a good friend means dealing with the blue skies and the rain—and having the tough conversations on days that are partly cloudy. Perfect for fans of A Good Kind of Trouble and From the Desk of Zoe Washington.

Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it? After a terrible year, Madalyn needs clear skies desperately. Moving in with her great-uncle, Papa Lobo, and switching to a new school is just the first step.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, though. Madalyn discovers she’s the only Black girl in her class, and while most of her classmates are friendly, assumptions lead to some serious storms.

Papa Lobo’s long-running feud with neighbor Mrs. Baylor brings wild weather of its own, and Madalyn wonders just how far things will go. But when fire threatens the community, Madalyn discovers that truly being neighborly means more than just staying on your side of the street— it means weathering tough conversations—and finding that together a family can pull through anything.

Award-winning author Tanita S. Davis shows us that life isn’t always clear, and that partly cloudy days still contain a bit of blue worth celebrating.

ISBN-13: 9780062937001
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson

Publisher’s description

From New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Renée Watson comes a love story about not only a romantic relationship but how a girl finds herself and falls in love with who she really is. 

When Nala Robertson reluctantly agrees to attend an open mic night for her cousin-sister-friend Imani’s birthday, she finds herself falling in instant love with Tye Brown, the MC. He’s perfect, except . . . Tye is an activist and is spending the summer putting on events for the community when Nala would rather watch movies and try out the new seasonal flavors at the local creamery. In order to impress Tye, Nala tells a few tiny lies to have enough in common with him. As they spend more time together, sharing more of themselves, some of those lies get harder to keep up. As Nala falls deeper into keeping up her lies and into love, she’ll learn all the ways love is hard, and how self-love is revolutionary. 

In Love Is a Revolution, plus size girls are beautiful and get the attention of the hot guys, the popular girl clique is not shallow but has strong convictions and substance, and the ultimate love story is not only about romance but about how to show radical love to the people in your life, including to yourself.

Amanda’s thoughts

Everyone knows the best way to start a relationship is with a bunch of lies, right? I mean, what could possibly go wrong? And if the boy you’re lying to lists “liars” as one of his pet peeves, it will probably be okay when you DO fess up to lying, right? RIGHT?!

It’s the summer before senior year and Nala is excited to hang out with Sadie, her best friend, and Imani, her cousin-sister-friend (Nala lives with Imani and her parents). She’s got it all planned out. But, as so often happens, nothing ends up going as she planned. Imani and Sadie are spending tons of time with Inspire Harlem, an organization that does community projects and raises awareness about social issues. Nala isn’t part of the group, but through an Inspire Harlem event, she ends up meeting Tye, a cute boy who is super into activism. Nala tells what she feels are small lies, but those lies become the basis for their relationship and become increasingly difficult to maintain the more they hang out. Does Tye like Nala for who she really is or who he thinks she is? Can he even really know her when she’s keeping her real self hidden? And even more importantly, can Nala even know herself in all this mess?

I loved this book for a lot of reasons. It’s full of passionate, dedicated, activist teens. Though Nala doesn’t live with her mother, one of the best parts of this story is how much of a role family plays. From Nala’s relationship with her aunt and uncle whom she lives with to all the time she spends with her grandma (and her grandma’s hilarious and great friends) to the many family get-together scenes, family is important. But most important? The idea of learning who you are, of forgiving yourself for missteps, of loving yourself, of being confident in exactly who you are. Throughout the story Nala learns that it’s not important what a cute boy thinks about her—it’s important what SHE thinks about HERSELF. I love how she eventually prioritizes figuring herself out and loving herself.

You can never go wrong picking up a book by Watson, but this book is really spectacular for its emphasis on growth, love, family, and truth. A great story about finding yourself.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547600601
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/02/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

Publisher’s description

Becky Albertalli meets Jenny Han in a smart, hilarious, black girl magic, own voices rom-com by a staggeringly talented new writer.

Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.

But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.

The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s probably not enough to just write a little love note, like, “Dear book, I love you. Love, Amanda,” and consider this review done, is it? Or maybe it is. It gets across the point—I love this book. It’s cute, sweet, and fun while still dealing with serious and upsetting things. It made me remember all the best things about high school romances—the many firsts, the excitement, the joy, the fun.

The Twitter-like app Campbell Confidential catches every important bit of high school drama at Liz’s school. And now that she’s in the running for prom queen, she’s gone from an under-the-radar wallflower who’d rather evaporate than get attention to someone who’s suddenly SEEN by so many people. Liz has always felt so different from her classmates, who are mainly white and rich, and while she has a small, tight group of friends, she’s never been one to mingle with her peers. Until now. Liz finds herself teaming up with and becoming friends with classmates she never thought would like her, connecting with her old best friend, and, yes, falling for a super cool and interesting competitor for that prom queen crown.

But it’s not all fun and hijinks. Liz, who is being raised by her grandparents as her mother died from sickle cell and her dad was never in the picture, constantly worries about money. She worries about the health of Robbie, her younger brother (who also has sickle cell). She feels manipulated and betrayed by Gabi, her best friend, who takes this prom queen candidacy VERY seriously. And, Liz is gleefully falling for Mack, but since she isn’t out to anyone at school beyond her small group, she wants to keep things on the down low, especially because she’s worried that coming out in her small Indiana town would be met with homophobia that could keep her from winning the prom queen crown, and thus keep her from the scholarship money she so desperately needs.

The best thing about this book is how REAL it feels. Liz and friends all mess up. They make bad choices, hurt each other, apologize, and learn what true friendship looks like. The connection and acceptance and support that eventually shines through in this story shows all the best parts of high school and the best parts of people. As Liz fumbles her way toward the prom court, she learns that maybe playing the game differently is the key to it all. And with the encouragement of her friends and the eventual support of her peers, Liz comes to understand that if they won’t make space for you, demand it.

A smart, fun, and sweet look at navigating the unexpected moments and at celebrating being yourself.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338503265
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You! by Marley Dias

Publisher’s description

In this accessible guide with an introduction by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Marley Dias explores activism, social justice, volunteerism, equity and inclusion, and using social media for good. Drawing from her experience, Marley shows kids how they can galvanize their strengths to make positive changes in their communities, while getting support from parents, teachers, and friends to turn dreams into reality. Focusing on the importance of literacy and diversity, Marley offers suggestions on book selection, and delivers hands-on strategies for becoming a lifelong reader.

Amanda’s thoughts

marleyMarley Dias, creator of the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign, talks to young readers about social activism and what YOU can do in this engaging, visually striking new book.

The book looks at Marley’s backstory and the things that led to her creating a social action movement. As a fifth grader, she was disgusted that their reading list consisted of the same old tired classics featuring lots of white boys. She wondered where were the books with kids like her, with black girls, and thus the movement was born. We learn about her parents and their backgrounds, moments from Marley’s life that have shaped who she is (like a trip to Ghana and her involvement in the GrassROOTS Community Foundation), her fashion sense (including her glasses and her hair), her social media presence (and tips for managing a safe, sane life on social media), and so much more. Her book offers tips on how to be woke (and help others to be, too), how to make a difference in your community, how to be an activist, how to be a better reader, how to find books featuring minority characters, and how to effectively do book talks. The book ends with a handy list of about 500 books for middle grade and YA readers featuring black girls. For people who don’t live on Twitter and didn’t see this all unfold in real life, or who have somehow missed all of the media attention surrounding Marley’s project, this will be an especially inspiring read. Young readers will love seeing someone their own age make such a big impact and will be able to walk away from this book with plenty of ideas on how to undertake their own projects. Nicely laid out with lots of fantastic, colorful pictures of Marley and moments from her life, this book focusing on activism, literacy, and diversity is a must-have for school library collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338136890
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 01/30/2018