Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Perfectly Imperfect, a guest post by Corey Ann Haydu

The Case for Imperfect Characters with Imperfect Feelings for Our Youngest Readers

I have always written imperfect characters with imperfect feelings in my young adult and middle grade novels. It came naturally, mostly because I kept journals in my own middle grade and young adult years, and was able to see first-hand just how complicated and tricky and not-so-nice so many of my feelings were. How not-so-nice, I was, at times. It was easy, to understand imperfection from that angle. Knowing myself rather well, I know I am not a terrible person. But I had evidence of some very hard-to-understand feelings I had about my friends and family and, perhaps most of all, myself. Imperfection is about those dueling truths: we are kind and good people, existing in the world, but the world is messy, so we also have messy feelings to go along with our kindness and goodness. Kindness and goodness are not the same as perfection. 

Still, somehow, when I started writing chapter books for a slightly younger audience, younger than my journals went, I balked at the idea that I could write similarly imperfect characters for those younger ages. Weren’t books meant to show young readers how to live in the world? Weren’t characters in books meant to be examples? Didn’t my books for younger readers have to be perfectly nice and perfectly good and perfectly kind?

What I forgot, of course, is that even if these books were meant to show something about what it is to live in the world as a kid, it wouldn’t be much help to show a perfect existence filled with nice and easy feelings. That wouldn’t tell a kid much about how to be. Or rather, it might tell them how to be, but it would set them up for failure. I speak from experience when I say that aiming for perfection is a great way to feel awful about yourself. And I do not want my books to make kids feel awful. I want my books to make kids feel seen. I also want my books to make them laugh. And cringe. And scream at the characters NO DON’T DO THAT. And wonder. And relate. And not relate, but try to understand anyway. 

In my HAND ME DOWN MAGIC series, my characters, best-friend-cousins Alma and Del feel feelings that we have been told over and over are bad. Jealousy. Fear. Loneliness. Anger. And in illustrator Luisa Uribe’s emotionally vibrant illustrations, these emotions are right there on the surface, unhidden, fraught, earnest, plaintive. Undeniably, deeply there. On the front of the cover of book three in the series, PERFECT PATCHWORK PURSE, three girls are featured. In the middle, Cassie hugs a unique patchwork purse to her chest. On one side of her, exuberant Del celebrates Cassie’s acquisition. And on the other side there is Alma. She is bereft. She is clasping her hands and frowning and leaning towards the bag with a heartbreaking longing. 

I guess it would be quite evolved for Alma to simply celebrate her friend having a cool new accessory. But it wouldn’t be authentic. At least not of the life I know, where sometimes we feel something imperfect that we wish we weren’t feeling. And I want my characters to be authentic. Not just because it’s easier to write. And certainly more fun to write. But also because if I want kids to “learn” anything from my books, I want them to learn that it’s okay to feel those feelings. I want them to learn they don’t have to hide them away or beat themselves up for having them, or try to convince the world they don’t ever get them. I want them to know that I feel those feelings too. That Alma is not alone, and neither are they. 

Sometimes, we are Del, celebrating our friends’ victories. That’s wonderful. But sometimes we are Alma, wishing those victories were our own.  And that’s okay too. Maybe even a little bit wonderful. Because it means we are alive, we are feeling, we are vulnerable and open and letting the world matter to us. Being imperfect, actually, is code for being engaged in the world around us. Being imperfect means we care. It means being full-hearted. Being imperfect means being whole. 

When I look at that illustration of Alma, I don’t feel bad for her. I feel seen. I say to myself—oh, yep, that’s how it feels sometimes. I hope my books provide that for young readers (and readers of all ages!) I hope they take what feels messy and bad and uncomfortable and wrong and make it look okay. Expected. Part of the whole being human thing. Recognizable and relatable and not so scary after all. 

I’m still working, on not needing to be perfect. It’s hard, to give up on that impossible dream. But writing Alma and Del and their messy, imperfect, big, tricky feelings helps show me the way. If I can love Alma and her sulking or Del and her fear or both girls when they have a messy fight, maybe I can love myself through sulking and fear and fighting too. And hopefully, hopefully, so can young readers. 

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Corey Ann Haydu is the author of the Hand-Me-Down Magic series, EventownThe Someday Suitcase, and Rules for Stealing Stars and four acclaimed books for teens. She grew up in the Boston area, earned her MFA at the New School, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her dog Oscar. Find out more at www.coreyannhaydu.com

Crash Course: Series books for beginning readers

Earlier this month I wrote about picture books and graphic novels for elementary students. Today I’m tackling popular series books for beginning readers. You may call the readers or this group of books something different—maybe books for emergent readers or maybe early readers. Whatever the terminology, these books with great stories and lots of illustrations are perfect for kids who are growing in their reading fluency and ready to sit down and read a book on their own.

As with my other posts in this series, these are books that are popular at the elementary school where I work. Have suggestions for other titles to look into? Let us know in the comments or over on Twitter!

Summaries here of book one in each series are from WorldCat.

Unicorn and Yeti series by Heather Ayris Burnell, Hazel Quintanilla

Book one: Sparkly New Friends

“Unicorn and Yeti run into each other (literally) while looking for sparkly things, and despite some differences, (for instance Unicorn is magic, Yeti is not, Yeti likes snowball fights, Unicorn can not throw snowballs)–the two become friends over a shared love of hot chocolate with rainbow sprinkles.”

This new series is VERY popular at my school. Are we in the golden age of Unicorns? I think so. Practically every day I’m complimenting some kiddo on their unicorn-themed clothing or accessories.

Tales of Sasha series by Alexa Pearl, Paco Sordo

Book one: The Big Secret

“In the Tales of Sasha series debut, Sasha discovers that she really isn’t like the other horses in her valley when wings sprout from her back and she soars through the air!”

Dragon Masters series by Tracey West, Graham Howells

Book one: Rise of the Earth Dragon

“Drake never thought dragons were real. But he soon learns that dragons are real – and that he is a Dragon Master! The magic Dragon Stone has chosen Drake and three others – Ana, Rori, and Bo – to train dragons. Will Drake be able to connect with his dragon? Does he have what it takes to become a true Dragon Master?”

This is one of our most popular series. Often when readers have moved on from this section at our school, I will see them check out a harder book aimed at older readers but also grab one of these for their second choice.


Zapato Power series by Jacqueline Jules, Miguel Benitez

Book one: Freddie Ramos Takes Off

“Freddie finds a mysterious package outside his apartment containing sneakers that allow him to run faster than a train, and inspire him to perform heroic deeds.”

Yasmin series by Saadia Faruqi, Hatem Aly

Book one: Meet Yasmin!

“In this compilation of four separately published books, Pakistani American second grader Yasmin learns to cope with the small problems of school and home, while gaining confidence in her own skills and creative abilities.”

I was thrilled when we got a bunch more of this in recently. Curious and bold Yasmin brings great energy to her every adventure. The illustrations are GREAT—I want to dress like Yasmin!

Sadiq series by Siman Nuurali, Anjan Sarkar

Book one: Sadiq and the Desert Star

“Sadiq’s father is going on a business trip, but before he goes he tells Sadiq a story of the Desert Star, which fits in perfectly with Sadiq’s third grade class field trip to the planetarium, and inspires Sadiq to build a simple telescope to study the stars when his father returns.”

This new series, featuring a Somali American Minnesota kid, was an instant hit at my school. HUGE need for this series to exist.

Critter Club series by Callie Barkley, Marsha Riti

Book one: Amy and the Missing Puppy

“During spring break, mystery-lover Amy looks for clues to the disappearance of wealthy Ms. Sullivan’s Saint Bernard puppy.”

Friendship and animals—a great draw for young readers! Super cute illustrations with the kiddos in varied situations (not all are mysteries).

King & Kayla series by Dori Hillestad Butler, Nancy Meyers

Book one: King & Kayla and the Case of the Missing Dog Treats

“King’s human, Kayla, has baked some treats for a friend’s new puppy, Thor, but some go missing and it is up to King to find the culprit.”

The books in this series are all mysteries and feature great narration from good doggo King.

Craftily Ever After series by Martha Maker, Xindi Yan

Book one: The Un-Friendship Bracelet

“Best friends Emily and Maddie have one big thing in common: they love to craft and create! Whether it’s making art with balloons, cities of cardboard and straws, or the matching friendship bracelets they wear, they’re always coming up with fresh ideas. But when a new student named Bella shows up at school, their friendship is put to the test. Maddie immediately befriends her and discovers that Bella is just as crafty as she and Emily are! As Maddie and Bella spend more time together, Emily finds herself spending more time alone. Then, when Emily’s friendship bracelet falls off, she begins to think that maybe it was an un-friendship bracelet this whole time. Will the friends find their craftily ever after?”

Sofia Martinez series by Jacqueline Jules, Kim Smith

Book one: My Family Adventure

“Follow 7-year-old Sofia Martinez as she deals with her family and daily adventures.”

I love Sofia! Like the Zapato series, this series includes lots of Spanish words that, for the most part, can be easily deciphered by non Spanish speakers, though this series does include a glossary.

Desmond Cole, Ghost Patrol series by Andres Miedoso, Victor Rivas

Book one: The Haunted House Next Door

“When supernatural things start happening in the house timid Andres and his parents just moved into, next-door-neighbor Desmond Cole, eight, comes to the rescue.”

We are forever being asked for “scary books” or “creepy books.” While these are certainly not actually scary or creepy, they seem to fit the bill for early readers.

Eerie Elementary series by Jack Chabert, Sam Ricks

Book one: The School Is Alive!

“Sam Graves discovers that his elementary school is alive and plotting against the students, and, as hall monitor, it is his job to protect them – but he will need some help from his friends.”

This series, too, is satisfyingly “scary” for younger readers.

The Notebook of Doom series by Troy Cummings

Book one: Rise of the Balloon Goons

“Alexander has just moved into Stermont, but the elementary school is being torn down, his new classroom is located in the hospital morgue, a notebook he finds is full of information about monsters and everywhere he turns there are spooky balloon men determined to attack him.”

Why yes, ANOTHER spooky series! Extremely popular at my school!

Owl Diaries series by Rebecca Elliott

Book one: Eva’s Treetop Festival

“This full-color, highly illustrated diary series is perfect for young readers who love friendship stories starring animal characters! Eva Wingdale gets in over her head when she offers to organize a spring festival at school. Will Eva have to ask Sue (a.k.a. Meanie McMeanerson) for help? Or will the festival have to be cancelled?”

Press Start series by Thomas Flintham

Book one: Game Over, Super Rabbit Boy!

“When King Viking and his evil robot army attack Animal Town, and kidnap Singing Dog, it is up to Super Rabbit Boy, with some help from Sunny and his video game console, to save the day.”

Do the children at your school or in your life suffer from video game mania? Probably. This gaming-based series flies off our shelves.

Molly Mac series by Marty Kelley

Book one: Tooth Fairy Trouble

“When Molly Mac loses her first tooth, talk of the Tooth Fairy makes her head spin! What does the Tooth Fairy do with all of those teeth anyway? Molly and her best friend, Kayley, decide to investigate. When Molly figures out what happens to her lost tooth, will she approve?”

Heidi Heckelbeck series by Wanda Coven, Priscilla Burris

Book one: Heidi Heckelbeck Has a Secret

After being homeschooled her whole life, Heidi Heckelbeck enters a real school in second grade, where she encounters a mean girl named Melanie who makes her feel like an alien.