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WE NEED MORE HEROES OF COLOR IN MIDDLE GRADE FANTASIES: A SOUTH ASIAN PERSPECTIVE, a guest post by Payal Doshi

As a kid, any free time I got, I devoured books. I read about kids who traveled to fantasy lands through a wardrobe, carried out investigations as amateur detectives, navigated the politics of school, had crushes and heartbreaks, and became heroes who saved realms with their magical powers. Oh, I loved these books! And yet, not one of them had characters who looked like me: a brown Indian girl.

India alone has a population of 1.3 billion people. Add in the diaspora which is spread across the world and that’s about another 18 million people. When there are so many of us, why do I rarely find South Asian kids on the cover of books especially those who are magic-wielding, realm-saving main characters?

Payal age 11-12

Thanks to initiatives for diverse books, the statistic is changing, and we are seeing more books with South Asian main characters (although there is a long way to go). However, a majority of the books being published center on stories of struggle. These stories delve into important subjects such as the immigrant experience, finding one’s identity in a foreign land, fitting in while sustaining microaggressions, tackling racism, learning the language, or escaping poverty and hardship for a better life. These stories are vital. These stories are needed. These stories open a door into a life many haven’t seen.

But these are not our only stories. The South Asian narrative is multifaceted with myriad, if not a countless, stories.

When I first began writing my debut novel, Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, I wrote all 70,000 words of it with white characters who lived in the English countryside. I was an adult, nearly 24 years old when I wrote the first draft. Never having seen myself in ‘happy’, ‘joyful’, ‘adventurous’, or ‘magical’ stories as a kid, my subconscious led me to write about characters who I had read about umpteen number of times doing those exact things, except they looked nothing like me. The plot of my novel was not based on the immigrant experience or rooted in the challenges of living in poverty or war (in the case of historical fiction), so I assumed no one wanted to read a book about a girl like me from India, going on an adventure, discovering she had magic, and being the ‘chosen one’ to save her brother and a magical realm.

I didn’t think my Indian background was interesting enough to be the driving force of an exciting, heroic story. Since I had only ever read children’s books with white characters, it had trained my mind into thinking that those were the stories worth telling. That my own story, one that I hadn’t ever read about or seen portrayed, was not worth telling. Without my knowing it, this diminished my identity, my experiences, my uniqueness, and my self-worth.

When my writing teacher in India asked me with great disappointment why I hadn’t chosen to write about Indian kids (it was clearly not the first time she had come across a young Indian writer who had written about white characters), I felt deflated. I loved my life in India. I loved the food, the culture, the clothes, the deep sense of family, my years of schooling and university. I realized I should be proud of writing about my experiences and celebrating them with the world. If Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, and Nancy Drew can have incredible adventures, why can’t an Indian kid have them too? A girl like me never got to be the hero, have magic, or save a realm.

Right then, I knew I wanted to change that. So, I wrote a fantasy story rooted in Indian culture with Indian kids going off on thrilling adventures and becoming heroes. It’s a story I would have loved to read as a kid and one in which I saw myself.

Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is a mission close to my heart. I believe all kids should see themselves represented in books because each kid should know that they can be the heroes of their own stories. I want South Asian kids to feel seen when they read my book, feel joy and pride for their culture, and believe that their stories can be fun, fierce, and empowering too. Themes in children’s books about family, friendship, discovering your identity, the trials of growing up, dealing with complex emotions like grief, loss, death, as well as the exhilaration of escaping into fantasy lands and being a hero are themes every kid can relate to no matter the color of their skin, the location of their home, or their race and nationality.

My hope is for all types of narratives from underrepresented minorities to be brought to the forefront. Kids from marginalized backgrounds shouldn’t have to be typecast into having only one kind of story define their whole existence. We need to see kids from marginalized backgrounds in every avatar: from neurotypical, neurodiverse, queer, to disabled kids being portrayed as heroes, leaders, realm savers, popular kids, magic-wielding rebels with a cause, sci-fi explorers, and those who fall in love.

We, each, have our own hardships, struggles and insecurities but we also want to share joy, feel special, and be the ‘chosen ones’. Only by sharing varied narratives of marginalized groups will we create a world where people see each other without bias against the culture or the color of their skin.



So, let’s break stereotypes. Let’s broaden the perspectives of our young readers. Let’s unshackle our minds from the boxes we put others into without fully knowing their stories.

And until this revolutionary change comes, I’m going to write stories with flawed, fierce, and fabulous South Asian characters who go on adventures, solve mysteries, find love, be heroic, wield magic, and are unapologetically themselves.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Rachel Nadeau

Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing from The New School, New York. Having lived in India, the UK, and US, she noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR, her debut middle grade novel. Raised in Mumbai, India, she currently lives in Minneapolis, MN and can be found daydreaming about fantasy realms to send her characters off into. Learn more at www.payaldoshiauthor.com, @payaldoshiauthor on Instagram and @payaldwrites on Twitter.

About Rea and the Blood of the Nectar

It all begins on the night Rea turns twelve. After a big fight with her twin brother Rohan on their birthday, Rea’s life in the small village of Darjeeling, India, gets turned on its head. It’s four in the morning and Rohan is nowhere to be found. 

It hasn’t even been a day and Amma acts like Rohan’s gone forever. Her grandmother, too, is behaving strangely. Unwilling to give up on her brother, Rea and her friend Leela meet Mishti Daadi, a wrinkly old fortuneteller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling and secret quest. In the shade of night, they portal to an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There with the help of Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, Rea battles serpent-lilies and blood-sucking banshees, encounters a butterfly-faced woman and blue lizard-men, and learns that Rohan has been captured. Rea also discovers that she is a princess with magic. Only she has no idea how to use it.

Struggling with the truth her Amma has kept hidden from her, Rea must solve clues that lead to Rohan, find a way to rescue him, and save Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking. Can she rescue Rohan, save Astranthia, and live to see it all?

ISBN-13: 9781645437635
Publisher: Mango & Marigold Press
Publication date: 06/15/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

A Life Already Saved: The Power Librarians Hold, a guest post by B. B. Alston

I was the quiet kid with the big imagination. I lived inside my head so much that often times people would be talking to me and I hadn’t heard a single word. When you grow up in situations where you don’t have a whole lot, where every day looks like the one before it and you stop hoping things will change, because they never do, sometimes retreating into yourself is the key to surviving. Because in your head there’s no one looking down on you and there aren’t any limits. The world can become more. As much as you need it to be. More fantastic. More incredible. More exciting than what you’re used to. And then I found a library.

First my elementary school library where the teacher who noticed that I couldn’t even afford to buy one book at the book fair handed me a copy of Where the Wild Things Are and even though I was older than the target age, much older, I can remember having that “Oh” moment. That moment that said for as hard as I had imagined to that point, I had not come close to conceiving creatures so wild as Maurice Sendak. It said to me that I could borrow the imaginations of others and exist in worlds I couldn’t even fathom yet. And I longed to feel that feeling, that “wild rumpus” in my heart and mind. To have my imagination so thoroughly expanded as that.

B. B. Alston in elementary school

And then that same librarian handed me Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In fact, she had set it aside for me knowing I would come back eager for more. And in Charlie I found somebody I could wholly relate to because he was a kid who did not have much and yet he still hoped for grandness in his life. He dared to hope. There is a certain audacity that comes with hope, especially in bad times because you are essentially saying to your surroundings that you no longer see them. You are daring to see something else, a different place and circumstance even as your current circumstance laughs in your face. And when Charlie learned about that golden ticket, he went for it. And that told me that I could try too. That I should try.

I grew up. Went to college. Flunked out. Got married. Worked minimum wage jobs. Went back to college. I kept reading. And one day a friend I knew handed me Twilight. I was the typical guy about it, and like so many who bag on it and say it’s beneath them for this reason or that…I ended up reading all four books. I bought them the day they released. I had passionate discussions with my future wife about why Team Jacob was Team Settling. And it was sometime while reading those books, and defending those books, that it occurred to me that the most important job of a storyteller isn’t flowery words or perfect grammar. It’s to make the reader feel something. I looked back on all the books I’d loved and that idea seemed to check out.

And for the very first time, I thought, well maybe I could do that. I was certainly no wordsmith but I felt like I had read enough to be able to communicate what I was feeling onto the page and maybe just maybe have the reader feel it, too. I wrote an awful book, and then several more. They exist on shredded notebooks and files on my computer named “Kill it With Fire.” But I kept writing because once upon a time I had read a book that sparked my imagination, and another that taught me to dare to dream. And so I kept writing.

Eventually I’d be sitting down watching a movie I’d watched countless times before. Men in Black. And out of the blue I thought, well what if it wasn’t just aliens, what if all supernatural creatures existed? Not long after, this twelve-year-old girl with a big curly afro jumped into my head and told me in no uncertain terms that this was her story. I debated whether it really was her story because I had never read a fantasy book about a Black kid and was that even allowed? And even if it was allowed, who would want to read about a Black kid like me?

Somehow I found myself back at the Richland Public Library with my mom, and the librarian kept going on about this book she loved. It was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. But all of their copies were checked out. So I went to Amazon and read all of the praise and the great reviews. When I went to check out, it said people who buy this book also buy Dear Martin by Nic Stone. So I bought that, too. I devoured those books because for the first time I was reading about Black kids, and I knew the lingo, and the inside jokes, and they spoke the thoughts I was having every time I saw an unarmed Black person shot on the news. Every aspect of me was covered. And I had another “Oh” moment because I realized that I could leave in all the parts of myself I was taking out. It was freeing and thrilling and the next thing I knew I had written a book that got a book deal, and a movie deal, and would be published in 25 countries around the world. And I’m still reading.

I write this not to say that you as a teen librarian could hand a book to a future author but that, far more importantly, you could be handing some kid their survival. Their confidence. Their dream. I’m asking you to reach out and engage with that shy kid, that person who looks like they shouldn’t even be there, that kid who clearly would rather be anyplace else in the world. Because you have the power to change lives. To save lives. And I don’t say that to be hyperbolic, I say it as someone whose life was impacted most profoundly from people sharing with me a book they thought I might like. I say it as a life already saved.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Joshua Aaron Photography

B.B. Alston started writing in middle school, entertaining his classmates with horror stories starring the whole class where not everyone survived! After several years of trying to break into publishing, he had just been accepted into a biomedical graduate program when a chance entry into a twitter pitch contest led to his signing with TBA, 20+ book deals worldwide, and even a film deal. When not writing, he can be found eating too many sweets and exploring country roads to see where they lead.

B.B. was inspired to write AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS because he couldn’t find any fantasy stories featuring Black kids when he was growing up. He hopes to show kids that though you might look different, or feel different, whatever the reason, your uniqueness needn’t only be a source of fear and insecurity. There is great strength and joy to be found in simply accepting yourself for who you are. Because once you do so, you’ll be unstoppable. Learn more at https://www.bbalston.com and follow on social on Twitter @bb_alston and Instagram @bb_alston

B.B. recommends buying your books from The Book Dispensary.

About Amari and the Night Brothers

(check out Amanda’s review here.)

Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

ISBN-13: 9780062975164
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/19/2021
Series: Supernatural Investigations , #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Judge a Book By Its Cover — Sometimes, a guest post by Pintip Dunn

“Never judge a book by a cover,” the old saying goes. After all, a book and its cover are two separate works of art. They’re usually created by two different individuals. A beautiful cover doesn’t necessarily mean a beautiful story and vice versa. And yet, since I’ve been in the publishing industry, I’ve noticed a few curious phenomena: 

1) Readers will gladly admit that they’ve bought books based on the cover alone; 

2) Authors routinely receive the advice to change their covers if their books aren’t selling; 

3) When I’m complimented on my own book covers, I beam and exclaim, “Thank you so much!” — even though I had little to no say in their actual design.

What accounts for these events?

First, I don’t think it’s fair to claim that covers are wholly independent from the stories inside. After all, if the designer did their job properly, then they would’ve been inspired by the manuscript itself. Even if the details aren’t exact — I’ve been known to change my story to match the cover! — the designer should’ve tried to capture the feel and vibe of the novel. 

Moreover, covers are the ambassadors of books, a quick and easy visual representation that tells readers in an instant what to expect. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then one of my book covers is worth…70k to 90k words. I seek, within those words, to create an experience for my reader, to whisk them away to another world, to bottle up emotion and preserve it. And yet, I don’t have thousands of words to convince a reader to give my book a try. My only tools are the cover and a brief synopsis.

Finally, every once in a while, a cover comes along that transcends all of the above, that creates meaning in and of itself.

I’ve had some beautiful, knock-out book covers over the years. I’ve heard, on more than one occasion, that I’ve been blessed by the cover gods. And yet, none of them have touched me in the same way as the cover of DATING MAKES PERFECT.

I am a first-generation Thai American who grew up in a tiny town in southeast Kansas. While I visited my family in Thailand every summer, I spent the rest of the year in Midwest America, where I hardly saw anyone who looked like me — in books, on the television, or in person. Rightly or wrongly, from my own insecurity as well as my peers’ micro- and outright aggressions, I came to believe that I was “other.” And because I was “other,” I was therefore ugly. 

At the same time, I’ve known ever since I was six years old that I wanted to be an author. Because of my childhood experiences, however, I fully believed that in order for me to achieve my dream, I would have to write books about white characters.

Fortunately, I was wrong. The strides the publishing industry has made over the last few years have been tremendous. To be sure, a lot more needs to be done, but even a few years ago, there was immense pushback about having an Asian girl on a book cover.

The twelve-year-old me never dreamed that I could one day have a book cover like this, and it would’ve meant everything for young Pintip to have seen this gorgeous cover centering a gorgeous Thai girl. 

Dating Makes Perfect

Maybe I wouldn’t have felt like such an alien in my own skin. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone through my childhood feeling like I didn’t belong — could never belong. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken until well after college for me to feel attractive. 

Or maybe, I would’ve just owned a book with a beautiful cover. But when that sixth-grade boy sneered in my face, laughed at my “squinty” eyes, and asked how anyone could be so ugly, at least I could’ve gone home and hugged this book close to my heart. At least this cover would’ve given me hope that life would one day be different, be better.

This story is for the teenage me — and for every other teenager who feels like they don’t belong. I wish I could go back in time and tell twelve-year-old Pintip, “Your story matters, too. Your existence has value. Your difference is something to be celebrated and embraced.”

I can’t, and so this book – and its cover – is the next best thing.

So, yeah. Maybe it’s okay to judge a book by its cover — at least some of the time.

Purchase a copy of DATING MAKES PERFECT at my local indie bookstore, ONE MORE PAGE!

Meet Pintip Dunn

A first-generation Thai American, Pintip Dunn grew up in a tiny town in Kansas. She went on to graduate from Harvard University, magna cum laude, with an A.B., and to receive her J.D. at Yale Law School.

Pintip is a two-time RITA® award winner and a New York Times bestselling author of young adult fiction. Her books have been translated into four languages, and they have been nominated for numerous awards, including the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award and a Kirkus Best Book of the Year. 

She’s obsessed with penguins, and her childhood dream was to marry someone whose last name is “Gwynn” — so that her name could be “Pin Gwynn.” Alas, she got stuck with Dunn instead, but her husband and three children are worth the sacrifice. 

They all visit Thailand yearly in order to stay connected with her family.

Social Media Links:

Website  Facebook  Twitter  Instagram  Goodreads

About Dating Makes Perfect

Dating Makes Perfect

The Tech sisters don’t date in high school. Not because they’re not asked. Not because they’re not interested. Not even because no one can pronounce their long, Thai last name—hence the shortened, awkward moniker. But simply because they’re not allowed.

Until now.

In a move that other Asian American girls know all too well, six months after the older Tech twins got to college, their parents asked, “Why aren’t you engaged yet?” The sisters retaliated by vowing that they won’t marry for ten (maybe even twenty!) years, not until they’ve had lots of the dating practice that they didn’t get in high school.

In a shocking war on the status quo, her parents now insist that their youngest daughter, Orrawin (aka “Winnie”), must practice fake dating in high school. Under their watchful eyes, of course—and organized based on their favorite rom-coms. ’Cause that won’t end in disaster.

The first candidate? The son of their longtime friends, Mat Songsomboon—arrogant, infuriating, and way too good-looking. Winnie’s known him since they were toddlers throwing sticky rice balls at each other. And her parents love him.

If only he weren’t her sworn enemy.

ISBN-13: 9781682814970
Publisher: Entangled Publishing, LLC
Publication date: 08/18/2020
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Turner Syndrome and Representation, a guest post by Sarah Allen

I was born XO, which does not stand for hugs and kisses.

Lots of things became chaotic when I was born. I had something called omphalocele, which means my intestines were sticking out through a hole in my stomach where my belly button should have been. I was rushed to surgery before my mom was able to hold me. In the NICU, recovering from surgery number one, doctors discovered that there was another problem, one even more life-threatening. There was a constriction in my aortic valve, causing my heart to pump so hard it was growing way beyond safe size. This meant another surgery.

Oddly enough, it was something as simple as my uniquely puffy hands and feet that tipped one of my many incredible doctors off to the real underlying cause of all the medical drama. They ran some tests and confirmed the doctor’s suspicion. My dramatic entry into the world was the result of a genetic disorder called Turner syndrome.

An average person is born with 46 chromosomes. In girls, two of those chromosomes are XX. Not in girls with Turner syndrome. Turner syndrome means you are born with only one X instead of two. A missing X, for a total of 45 chromosomes.

XO.

There are a few core things that come with having Turner syndrome. Short stature is one, and I took growth hormone shots starting at age eight that helped me reach my happy five-foot-four. Another aspect is infertility. Many also deal with heart or kidney problems, some vision or hearing loss, and physical characteristics such as low-set ears, wide neck, and barrel-shaped ribs. It can also come accompanied by learning disabilities such as Non-verbal Learning Disorder.

Here’s the thing, though. With some support and determination, there’s nothing in this unique set of challenges to stop a Turners girl from living a normal, happy, even thrilling life of her choosing. My parents signed me up for the best school they could find, and put me in extracurriculars the same as all my other siblings. They expected self-sufficiency and hard work, and I learned from them that nothing could stop me from achieving what I wanted in my life. (Like publishing a book, maybe?)

But here’s the other thing: I never once saw myself represented in the books I read, or in any other media for that matter. I loved spunky girls like Ramona and Anne Shirley, but none of the characters ever looked quite like me, or was thinking about the uncommon challenges I was facing.

To be honest, this is not terribly surprising. Only 1 in 2500 girls is born XO. Only 1-2% of embryos with monosomy X are even carried to term, resulting in 10-20% of all miscarriages. But I knew girls like me were out there. In my gut I believed our stories mattered just like anyone else’s.

It took several other novels and help from professors in my MFA program at Brigham Young University, but I finally felt ready to tell a story about a girl with Turner syndrome.

And this is how Libby and WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF was born. I didn’t see my physical story, my body, represented in any of the books I read. Honestly, I felt like a pretty normal kid, a pretty normal person, and I would have given anything to find a book that told me, yeah, I was. I wanted to offer that to other readers.

STARS is about a girl who loves with everything she has, and never stops trying to help the most important people in her life despite her challenges. STARS is about the value inherent in every individual, no matter their circumstances or limitations, full stop. I wanted to reflect that individual worth to anyone who happened to pick up my book, no matter who they are, where they live, or what they look like.

C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” This has always been my writing mantra. I wrote this book for the girls like me, and for any kid who feels themselves on the fringes of “normal.” I wrote it as a celebration of weirdness and individuality. I want every reader who picks up this book to leave assured of one important thing: you are what stars are made of.

Sarah grew up in Utah and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. Like Libby in WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF, she was born with Turner syndrome. She has an MFA from Brigham Young University, and in her spare time can be found writing poetry and watching David Attenborough documentaries or Pixar movies. She is a hardcore fan of golden retrievers, leather jackets, and Colin Firth.

WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
FSG Books for Young Readers
On Sale: 03/31/2020
ISBN: 9780374313197
Ages 10-14

Sarah would love it if you could support her indie, Third Place Books, which is offering signed copies of WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF.

My Agenda for Middle Grade Books, a guest post by Greg Howard

“Never before have I thrown a book away, yours is the first.”

That’s how the email began.

It was last summer, about eight months after the release of my debut middle grade novel, The Whispers. I’d been riding pretty high on positive reviews from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and others. I’d received a number of emails from kids and parents the world over telling me how much they loved the book and how the story touched them deeply. But all that was momentarily overshadowed by this new website contact submission form in my inbox.

If you haven’t read The Whispers, trust me, it’s a sweet and pretty innocuous story. Riley, the eleven-year-old protagonist, is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he likes boys instead of girls (there is a crush on an older boy and chaste – even comical – kiss between two boys). But that’s not the main story, not even close. It just happens to be who Riley is and what he’s going through at that moment in his life.

I was Riley—a lonely kid growing up in the deep South knowing that I wasn’t like the other boys around me. I never saw myself represented in the books I read, or on the TV shows I watched and that made me feel like I was the only boy in the whole world who was desperately attracted to other boys. The glaring lack of representation in books, television, and movies only compounded my sense of isolation and loneliness, making me feel even more like a freak than I already did. I can’t imagine the anguish I would have been saved if I’d had access to even one book at that age in which I saw another boy like me. It would have given me something I severely lacked at that point in my life—hope.

The email I received last summer was from a father whose son was reading The Whispers. Apparently when he asked his son to talk about was going on in the book, the boy’s response sparked his curiosity, so he read “a chapter or two” only to find, in his words, “references that project your own sexuality onto the lives of others,” and “you couldn’t resist having this projected onto my boy.”

The man went on to say, “…the moment you cross into my world and suggest to my kids your sexuality – you are pushing your own homosexual agenda. Your story didn’t need this. Your story didn’t need to mention that the character was straight, or gay. Just tell your story and have kids enjoy it.”

To emphasize his disgust, he was also kind enough to send me a picture of my book in the trash.

A picture containing indoor, bed, white, sitting

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The first thing I thought when I saw this picture was, if this man’s son is gay, he just saw his father reject him and throw him in the trash, and the mere possibility of that breaks my heart.

But what this father was clearly saying in his email was that the mere suggestion of my existence, and the existence of kids like Riley, was and affront to him, his family, and his beliefs. And that in simply living my truth and even “mentioning” that Riley was attracted to other boys, I was pushing my “homosexual agenda.” I suppose all those books I read as a kid in which the boys were attracted only to girls and girls were attracted only to boys were pushing a heterosexual agenda on me. No one asked me how I felt about that, or if I was offended to have to read about such things, but I digress.

After the initial shock and deflation from reading the man’s email, I became more motivated than ever to write stories for and about queer kids. I was in the process of writing my new book when I received the email. Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! is a contemporary story set in Charleston, South Carolina, in which twelve-year-old Mikey—gay but not out publicly yet—starts a junior talent agency and signs a thirteen-year-old drag queen, Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem, as his first client. (Drag kids exist, too! Google it.) The man’s email also motivated me to make Mikey’s parents overwhelmingly accepting and supportive—sometimes annoyingly so, in Mikey’s opinion. Mikey has a crush on another boy at school, but as in The Whispers, that’s not what the story is about it. It’s just a part of who Mikey is. Queer kids exist and (News Alert!) they have crushes just like straight, or cishet, kids do.

Other than a handful of homophobic bully characters in Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! Mikey’s world is somewhat of a middle school gaytopia. I wrote it that way on purpose. Because even if that’s not the norm in some parts of the South or in other parts of the country, don’t queer kids deserve that kind of hope too? The hope that one day they can be themselves openly and without fear of backlash for simply existing. The hope that they won’t be marginalized and othered in their daily lives. And the hope that they’ll have access to a plethora of books in which they see themselves represented, accepted, and celebrated.

Having been gay for some time now (read: always), I have yet to discover this elusive and seemingly subversive “homosexual agenda” that I’ve heard so much about over the years and have been accused of “pushing” onto kids in my books. But this man’s email inspired me to create my own, simple as it is. So, I thank him for that.

GREG HOWARD’S HOMOSEXUAL AGENDA FOR MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

Write good books in which queer kids feel seen and represented.

Give queer kids their happily ever afters.

And most importantly, give them hope.

That’s it.

Meet Greg Howard

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Born and raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Greg Howard’s love of words and story blossomed at a young age. Originally set on becoming a famous songwriter and following that dream to the bright lights of Nashville, Tennessee, Greg spent years producing the music of others before eventually returning to his childhood passion of writing stories. Greg writes young adult and middle grade novels focusing on LGBTQ characters and issues. He has an unhealthy obsession with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and currently resides in Nashville with his three rescued fur babies–Molly, Toby, and Riley. Connect with Greg at www.greghowardbooks.com or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @greghowardbooks

About Middle School’s a Drag, You Better Werk!

In this heartfelt and hilarious new novel from Greg Howard, an enterprising boy starts his own junior talent agency and signs a thirteen-year-old aspiring drag queen as his first client.

Twelve-year-old Mikey Pruitt—president, founder, and CEO of Anything, Inc.—has always been an entrepreneur at heart. Inspired by his grandfather Pap Pruitt, who successfully ran all sorts of businesses from a car wash to a roadside peanut stand, Mikey is still looking for his million-dollar idea. Unfortunately, most of his ideas so far have failed. A baby tornado ran off with his general store, and the kids in his neighborhood never did come back for their second croquet lesson. But Mikey is determined to keep at it.

It isn’t until kid drag queen Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem (aka eighth grader Julian Vasquez) walks into his office (aka his family’s storage/laundry room) looking for an agent that Mikey thinks he’s finally found his million-dollar idea, and the Anything Talent and Pizzazz Agency is born!

Soon, Mikey has a whole roster of kid clients looking to hit it big or at least win the middle school talent show’s hundred-dollar prize. As newly out Mikey prepares Julian for the gig of a lifetime, he realizes there’s no rulebook for being gay—and if Julian can be openly gay at school, maybe Mikey can, too, and tell his crush, dreamy Colton Sanford, how he feels.

Full of laughs, sass, and hijinks, this hilarious, heartfelt story shows that with a little effort and a lot of love, anything is possible.

ISBN-13: 9780525517528
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 02/11/2020
Age Range: 10 – 12 Years

The Life Saving Slogan: You are Not Alone, a guest post by Shelley Sackier

Credit: Robin Gott

Credit: Robin Gott

The term “winter break” easily conjures the images of families rushing toward a round of winter skiing, a child-friendly cruise, or a palm-shaded beach. We see ourselves festooning the halls and holiday tables, and carefully honing those once a year meals. We picture a throng of college students dashing home toward the warm embrace of family, far removed from the windowless lecture halls they’ve occupied those first harrowing months of school.

But one year, winter break was anything but the above. For me, that is. And for my then freshman daughter too.

That year, I spent the time vigilant and restless. I spent it hoping to hear the words in someone else’s thoughts. I needed to measure her struggle, my daughter’s level of distress.

Her campus was in crisis mode, all parents on high alert. One lamentable word refused to be muted, would not release its steadfast grip.

Suicide.

Chronic stress is a disease college students are well-acquainted with. This unforgiving malady inflicts academic anxiety, depletes crucial sleep, and unleashes widespread social struggles, challenging our children to fit in somewhere new in someplace foreign.

A nerve-wracking fact among parents and educators, the leading cause of death among university students is suicide. We brace ourselves against the wretched news. One is horrifically tragic. A second is a spreading concern.

But five?

Five within one year? All on one campus?

It left me desperate to talk to my child … and to hear my child talk.

I wanted her home—where I could see her. But I forced a stay on that eager need, reminding myself she was attempting to build a new home. To redefine who she was. To discover where she will next belong.

We’d speak on the phone. I’d offer her words. But they were paltry, providing only an anemic balm. It’s impossible to obtain an accurate reading in such a situation, and a terrible tug of war is unleashed. The wanting to rush someplace and fix something. But that is not always the answer.

Your answer is not always their answer.

As YA authors, as librarians guiding our youth toward books that will speak to them, and as teachers in charge of creating and directing emotional curriculum as well as academic ones, we have a tremendous task we must address with urgency and gravity. We hunt for stories to explain what we personally cannot: who they are.

We try connecting children to others like them, to find solace, unity, and sureness. We introduce them to characters—whether fictional or real—who will communicate acceptance and normalcy. And the earlier we build this bridge for them, the more surefooted they can grow as they cross it, forging an identity with confidence.

If my daughter were asked to provide a profile form, defining herself, it’s likely she’d have said:

A scientist.

A musician.

An activist.

But also … imposter.

One does not see a checkbox for this identifier, but it rings true for many, and countless students feel unescorted claiming membership to this dismal club, having no idea just how many others have registered before them.

They feel they will be found out, singled out—that the mistake that brought them to this place they don’t belong, this class that is too hard, this group that is too prominent will raise a demoralizing red flag above them, and everyone will finally see what they suspected all along: that they are an outsider who accidentally slipped in.

As educators, if we miss the early crucial moments to illuminate thousands of voices within the digital or paper pages of books and do not unite our children with those who can elucidate their disorienting emotions, then we miss the fleeting opportunity to assure them that they can go on—despite their discomfort. We miss the chance to say that struggling and suffering does not mean one cannot make it through struggling and suffering.

As an author, my job is to create problems for my characters, to throw them into peril, and then to help them find clever ways out of that distress. As a parent, my wish is not for my children to experience catastrophe, but rather know what to do when trouble arises and where the path to safety is located.

Success may emerge with a book instead of a parental lecture. A wagging finger, foretelling danger, might not convey as effectively as an engaging narrative. Perched on my children’s beds, reassuring them that the questions they hold about themselves are typical of teens might not ring with enough resonance as reading about someone who they feel speaks their language, and who went through the thick of it, having made it through to the other side.

When my daughter was preparing to return to school, I helped her pack. Folding clothes on the floor, I glanced up, scanning the abundant bookshelves on either side of her bed.

She caught my wandering gaze. “Not everyone is given a happy ending, Mom.”

I looked at her firmly. “Maybe not,” I’d said. “But there’s nothing wrong with trying to insert as many chapters into one’s life as is possible. It’s my job. I show people a way through and a way out. My message is, you are not alone.”

As mentors, caregivers, and counselors, we face a daunting task. But we must seek every tool available to assist us with the process of grasping our teens and pulling them through to that “other side” where we stand. Losing our grip can mean losing a life.

 

Mental Health emergency links

SAMHSA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools

SPRC – After a Suicide: A toolkit for Schools

SPTS The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-(TALK) 8255

Lifeline Social Media Toolkit (pdf resource and support for suicidal individuals on social and digital media)

SAVE – Suicide Awareness Voices of Education

 

Meet Shelley Sackier

Photo credit: Jinx

Photo credit: Jinx

Shelley Sackier is the author of The Freemason’s Daughter (HarperCollins 2017), Dear Opl (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky 2015), and the upcoming novel, The Antidote (HarperCollins 2019). She writes both middle grade and YA fiction. She visits schools to illuminate the merits of embracing failure just like NASA and to further her campaign to erect monuments to all librarians.

Bonus Content: The Antidote Playlist – Google Play or The Antidote Playlist – Spotify  (both just music) and The Antidote Playlist Details (with spoilers!—song descriptions for where they fall within the book).

Website: www.shelleysackier.com

Facebook page: @ShelleySackierBooks

Twitter: @ShelleySackier

Goodreads: Shelley Sackier

Instagram: @ShelleySackier

Pinterest: ShelleySackier

 

About The Antidote

antidoteThe Antidote by Shelley Sackier (ISBN-13: 9780062453471 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 02/05/2019)

 

From the author of The Freemason’s Daughter comes a lush romantic fantasy perfect for fans of Everless!

In the world of healers, there is no room for magic.

Fee knows this, just as certainly as she knows that her magic must be kept secret.

But the crown prince Xavi, Fee’s best friend and only source of comfort, is sick. So sick, that Fee can barely contain the magic lying dormant inside her. She could use it, just a little, to heal him. But magic comes at a deadly cost—and attracts those who would seek to snuff it out forever.

A wisp of a spell later, Fee finds herself caught in a whirl of secret motivations and dark pasts, where no one is who—or what—they appear to be. And saving her best friend means delving deeper into the tempting and treacherous world whose call she’s long resisted—uncovering a secret that will change everything.

Laini Taylor meets Sara Holland in this lavish fantasy from lauded historical romance author Shelley Sackier!

#SJYALit: Time For Confrontation: Moving Forward in the Diversity Conversation, a guest post by S. K. Ali

sjyalitThe first time I saw myself, I got scared. I was twelve and I’d brought my plate of lentils and rice into the living room in order to sit beside my dad as he watched the news. And there she was: a girl like me. On television.

The girl had on a blue hijab exactly like the one I wore to school. But this girl wasn’t going to school. She was getting bombed — by “our” side.

I remember the scene vividly; remember how my chewing slowed and how my father shook his head and how I felt a profound sense of disruption, of dissonance.

I mean I’d never seen people who looked like me on TV before. And this first time wasn’t fun TV like my favorite show, The Facts of Life.

This was my earliest memory — a searing one — of seeing myself represented, or rather, myself presented to me. I wish I could say that things got better but of course they didn’t. Due to the subsequent Gulf Wars and the North American media coverage of them, as well as books and films set abroad featuring the Sad Plight of Muslim Girls, I only saw Muslim women who were either to be hated or pitied.

Growing up, looking in the mirror meant seeing the negativity surrounding my Muslim identity reflected back, almost web-like over my real self.

Viewing yourself as others have misconstrued you either silences you or enrages you. Both these outcomes are detrimental — at the individual as well as societal level.

And here, I pause to present my privilege. I hope when you’re reading it, you think of those without this privilege and the depth of internalized pain carried around as a result.

When I think of the girl sitting beside her father, eating lentils and rice, watching the news, I also see the bookshelves lining the walls behind her.

I was fortunate to live in a home housing knowledge that challenged this negative view of myself — my father’s library had hundreds of books on Islam and Muslims that told another story — and so I was able to see through the web disfiguring me.

Yet still, the knowledge of self that I gleaned from my family, our home library, the mosque, and Muslim events stayed on a parallel course, a far one, from the “knowledge” about Muslims served daily on the news and at school by teachers who talked about “them” while one of “them” was sitting right there in her hijab.

The two streams of knowledge never met because to merge them would mean confrontation and I hated confrontation.

But then one more frustrating, negative news story about people like me led me to a decision at seventeen: I would tear at the web strands that disguised who I truly was. If it meant challenging things publicly – in classrooms, on the streets, writing to newspapers, so be it. If it meant confrontation, so be it.

Much of my University years were spent fighting Islamophobia, including undertaking a yearlong research paper surveying the depiction of Muslim women in popular culture.

This thesis, written over twenty years ago, documented the negativity surrounding Muslim identity, in particular female Muslim identity. It pains me to say that so very little has changed.

With one exciting exception.

The exception is a result of an intersection of sorts, a confrontational intersection.

The point at which real, dynamic change occurs. Where real stories, real characters, real art emerges.

The intersection happens when the authentic knowledge we hold about ourselves as we truly are, as members of marginalized communities, confronts the knowledge about us that has been in circulation for years, or, in many cases, centuries.

To have these streams of knowledge run parallel to each other, never meeting, has proven to be dangerous. The increase in hate crimes and policies affecting certain communities disproportionally provides that proof.

Old, untrue narratives hurt, internally and externally. They’re also same-old, same-old boring.

But now, we’re seeing an increase in stories arising that challenge the old. The exciting exception.

Ali - Saints and MisfitsOver the past few years, the invaluable work of diversity advocates like WNDB brought the important task of changing the publishing landscape to the fore. The #ownvoices movement sharpened the focus and asked us to consider the important question: who gets to tell “diverse” stories?

Earlier this year, #MuslimShelfSpace asked readers to reflect on whether they were making space for Muslim-authored content in the face of increased Islamophobia.

Who gets to tell stories featuring Muslims? I say it’s the children who grew up — who are growing up still — unable to see themselves clearly when they look in the mirror.

They’re the ones with the stories you’ve probably never heard. They’re the ones who’ll confront the same-old.

They’re the ones with Art to share.

Meet S.K. Ali

SKAliPicPrintS.K. Ali is the author of Saints and Misfits. She has written on Muslim culture and life for various media.

 

 

 

About SAINTS AND MISFITS by S.K. Ali

Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

There are three kinds of people in my world:

1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.

2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.

Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.

But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?

3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

Like the monster at my mosque.

People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.

Except me.

Things I Never Learned in Library School: On Being a Teen Librarian 2 Weeks After the Election of Donald Trump

thingsineverlearnedinlibraryschool

I knew eventually something like this would happen, I just didn’t think it would be so soon. The call came on Friday. A co-worker, her nephew took his own life. He was both black and gay and he saw the writing on the wall and he was scared. He read the news, he heard the hate, and he saw no future for himself. Just days later Trump supporters were seen praising the election results while making a Heil Hitler salute. (See: At White Supremacist Meeting: Nazi Salutes, Heil Hitler Chants ; White Nationalists Quote Nazi Propaganda, Salute Donald Trump)

****

Last night I went for a walk with The Teen. We walked long and far as she told me how sad she was about the racist things she was seeing and hearing in the middle school.

Why don’t you go back to where you came from? . . . .

I can’t wait until we build that wall . . . .

You are a terrorist . . .

****

Another friend reported that last week there were 2 sexual incidences at work. In one, an employee asked maintenance to get them a garbage can and they replied, “No, I’d rather see your tits.” In another, someone said a sexually assaultive remark and replied, “That’s just how men talk.” (See: Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ ; Donald Trump, ‘Locker-Room Talk’ and Sexual Assault)

****

In the meantime, Donal Trump has met with the press and is already attempting to attack Freedom of the Press. He has tweeted out about the New York Times 7 times, stating that they are “not nice.” He has tweeted about Hamilton the Musical. You know what he hasn’t tweeted about? He hasn’t tweeted about the rising incidence of hate crimes, many of which are being carried out in his name. This is Trump’s America now some say, as they taunt, harass, and intimidate others. (See: Donald Trump Personally Blasts the Press – The New Yorker ; Billionaires vs. the Press in the Era of Trump ; Trump Says Freedom of the Press Must Go Because He’s ‘Not Like Other People ; Donald Trump’s War on Press Freedom)

****

I was a librarian on 9/11. It was a scary time. I was in the library, working, when the towers fell. I remember the fear of not knowing what comes next. But there were some things that brought me comfort. The press, for example, was not under assault and being intimidated by our elected leaders.

This feels like scary new territory.

Freedom of the press and speech, those were things a lot of us took for granted. That fight had already been fought and won, I thought. As a librarian, it was – to me – a given. Now suddenly it is something I have to keep reminding myself and others to be vigilant about.

gloryobrien

A. S. King is one of my favorite teen authors. She writes surreallism. In her novel, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, “from ancient ancestors to many generations forward, Glory is bombarded with visions–and what she sees ahead of her is terrifying: A tyrannical new leader raises an army. Women’s rights disappear. A violent second civil war breaks out. And young girls vanish daily, sold off or interned in camps. Glory makes it her mission to record everything she sees, hoping her notes will somehow make a difference. She may not see a future for herself, but she’ll do anything to make sure this one doesn’t come to pass.” The book was written in 2014, and here we are in 2016.

The Hunger Games was a warning my friends, not a guide book. Dystopian literature was not meant to be a sounding board for government leaders, but a warning call to world citizens.

And yet here we are, 2016. Freedom of the press is being assaulted in the nation that felt so strongly about it that they made it the first item in the Bill of Rights. The very Nazis we once applauded Indiana Jones for defeating our saluting our newly elected leader. Men are talking about sexual assault and proclaiming, “that’s just how men are.” And our children are lining up to call each other racial slurs.

****

At a recent conversation over at School Library Journal, YA author Michael Grant suggested that now was not the time to worry about little things like representation in kidlit and cultural appropriation. But the truth is, maybe we are here because we didn’t worry about it sooner.

See also: Spending the Day After the 2016 Election with Teenagers