This past June, I had the opportunity to attend the American Library Association’s annual conference. I heard a lot of different library professionals and authors speak, but one session stood among the rest. On the last full day of the conference, I joined a room full of children’s librarians for the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) annual awards breakfast. As the award for the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal was being presented to March: Book Three, author Congressman John Lewis stepped up to the microphone and received a standing ovation. Tears came to my eyes as I thought of all his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid- 20th Century, and his continued fight for human dignity and equality today. These past few months, a spotlight has swung again on hate and bigotry in our country. While we applaud the triumphs of stories like March, we are reminded just how much we still have to overcome.
I left the breakfast inspired. Earlier, I had heard Gene Luen Yang, (2016-2017 Library of Congress National of Ambassador for Young People’s Literature) speak about his platform, “Reading Without Walls.” As an cartoonist and author of graphic novels like American Born Chinese, Luen has laid out a challenge to encourage diverse reading across genres, formats, topics, and character identity. Because of campaigns like this, librarians and educators are making great strides in “breaking down these walls” as they introduce diverse titles like these to young readers. But I think we are just at the beginning of a conversation which will continue to emerge and expand as more and more young people are encouraged to read about the world beyond their “walls.”
I am a huge supporter of reading, and books in general. Yet, there are still many types of book that fall outside my “walls.” So I decided to take Yang’s reading challenge for myself –to encounter books with the ability to open my eyes and change my perspective. With the exception of the first book, geared more towards older readers, this is a list of ten middle grade books that I selected for my own Reading Without Walls journey. The challenge will look different for each of us, but this is where I decided to step outside of what I know, and learn a bit about what’s going on in the world around me.
Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom (Frazzled #1), by Booki Vivat (Grades 3-6)
In this heavily illustrated hybrid novel, Booki Vivat gives readers a front row seat to the worrisome and phobia-filled life of Abbie Wu. As a middle child and almost-middle-schooler, Abbie feels misunderstood and misplaced everywhere she turns. Only when she speaks out about unfair treatment in the school cafeteria does she begin to find her voice and her “Thing” (the thing she’s good at). But can a good thing last forever?
Lucky Broken Girl, by Ruth Behar (Grades 4-6)
Ruth Behar tells the biographical story of Ruthie Mizrahi, a Cuban-Jewish immigrant girl growing up in New York City in the 1960s. Ruthie is already experiencing hardships being in a new country, but when a horrible car accident leaves her in a body cast, her outlook goes from bad to worse. Yet while she is confined to her bed for a whole year, Ruthie learns to observe her life differently and soon recognizes the power of love, friendship, and creativity.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, by Leslie Connor (Grades 5-7)
You don’t often find books about incarceration from a child’s perspective. Yet here is the story of Perry Cook and his experience growing up at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility with his mother, an inmate. Assumptions about home, family, and imprisonment will fly out the window as Perry is forced to leave the facility, move in with a foster family, and learn how to survive on the “outside.”
Ghost (Track #1), by Jason Reynolds (Grades 5-8)
Jason Reynolds is quickly becoming one of my favorite middle grade/YA authors. He writes exceptional novels about the African-American experience from the eyes of young people just trying to figure out life. Castle “Ghost” Cranshaw is no exception. Told from his point of view, this book is part sports-book, part middle school humor, and part anger-management 101. Ghost is a deceptively simple story with a message that runs deep.
Save Me a Seat, by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (Grades 3-6)
Told in two voices, Save Me a Seat tells the story of two boys who don’t want to be at school. From first appearance, the boys couldn’t be more different. Joe struggles in class because of a learning disability; Ravi thinks he’s an expert student because he was at the top of his class before moving to the United States from India. But when the boys begin to join forces against the school bully, a unique and lasting friendship emerges.
The Goldfish Boy, by Lisa Thompson (Grades 4-6)
Matthew Corbin has obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s afraid of germs, nervous about hugging his parents, and refuses to leave the house. But he is really good at observing, especially the comings and goings of his cul-de-sac neighbors. One day, when the neighbor’s grandson goes missing, Matthew realizes that he was the last person to see the little toddler alive. All of a sudden, he is involved in an intense investigation. Combining forces with two friends on the “outside,” Matthew begins to piece together the mystery, but will he have the courage to step out of his comfort zone and fully expose the truth?
One Half from the East, by Nadia Hashimi (Grade 5-8)
This riveting coming-of-age novel tells the story of Obayda, a pre-teenage girl living in Afghanistan whose parents decide to make her dress and act like a boy (a bacha posh) in order to bring good luck to their family. Transitioning from Obayda to Obayd is very difficult until she meets another bacha posh who teaches her how to play sports, climb trees, explore the village, and stand up for herself-- things Obayda was never able to do as a girl! But a few months later, Obayd learns that her time as a bacha posh is coming to a end, and she must decide who she really is.
Talking Leaves, by Joseph Bruchac (Grades 4-7)
This meaningful story recalls an important moment in Native American history—the creation of the Cherokee written language. When Uwohali’s estranged father, Sequoyah begins devising strange markings to match the sound of Cherokee words, his tribe fears he is practicing witchcraft. Life becomes very difficult for Sequoyah and his family, yet Uwohali soon realizes how intelligent his father is and joins forces to help the tribe understand how important an Cherokee alphabet can be.
The Pants Project, by Cat Clake (Grades 5-7)
Liv attends a school with a uniform policy. It states that boys wear pants and girls must wear skirts. But Liv is not having it. And it’s not even about the clothes, it’s the fact that on the inside she feels like a boy. So with the support of her moms and a new friend at school, Liv begins a campaign to change the school dress code. In the process Liv stands up against bullying on multiple fronts and gains the courage to be the person she knows she is inside.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (Grades 4-8)
Part historical fiction, part poetic memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson’s story of growing up in South Carolina and New York during the 1960s and ‘70s. Each chapter is written in expressive verse, laid out in easy-to-relate-to reflections of life as an African American girl surrounded by Jim Crow, Civil Rights Movement and a split-apart family. But as she struggles to find her place in the world, Jacqueline’s love of stories gives birth to a dream of finding her own voice and ultimately becoming a writer.
Lastly, I want to give a shout-out to a new resource from We Need Diverse Books. It’s an app called Our Story, and it is a great way to find diverse books of all kinds. So get reading, and break down those walls!