diverse kids lit

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My newest CREEPS book comes out a week from today, just in time for October!  I’ve always like fall-centric spooky kid stories, and I’m glad to have gotten to do one.  I hope you’ll pick it up for yourself or a kid in your life.  And the other Creeps books are available, too, of course!

Here’s what some fancy reviewin’ folks have said about the series:

“Schweizer has created a story with just enough icky, spooky action for middle-grade readers who want horror stories but don’t want them too scary…The mixed-gender, multicultural team guarantees that this series opener will appeal to a broad range of readers." Booklist

"An excellent complement to his prose, Schweizer’s cleanly paneled art is bright and busy, ever ready with a gag that helps blend the ghastly with the goofy, making his gang’s antics reminiscent of Scooby Doo…Silly fun with a smattering of science." Kirkus Reviews

"A wide range of readers will tear through this well-written and zanily-drawn book, and they will be eager to see what wild adventures the four friends will have in the next volume." School Library Journal


Because of Winn Dixie (2000) by Kate DiCamillo. 

This book makes it onto my list of all time favorite reads, standing up to the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, Octavia Butler and Haruki Murakami. 

Opal lives with her father, the preacher, and has recently moved to a new town. She finds a great friend in a stray dog who she names Winn Dixie. But really it’s all better standing on its own. Read a bit for yourself. 

“See,” I said, “you don’t have any family and neither do I. I’ve got the preacher, of course. But I dont’ have a mama. I mean I have one, but I don’t know where she is. She left when I was three years old. I can’t hardly remember her. And I bet you don’t remember your mama much either. So we’re almost like orphans.”

…“You know what?” I said. “Ever since we moved here, I’ve been thinking about my mama extra-extra hard, more than I ever did when I was in Watley.”

Winn-Dixie twitched his ears and raised his eyebrows.

“I think the preacher thinks about my mama all the time, too. He’s still in love with her; I know that because I heard the ladies at the church in Watley talking about him. They said he’s still hoping she’ll come back. But he doesn’t tell me that. He won’t talk to me about her at all. I want to know more about her. But I’m afraid to ask the preacher; I’m afraid he’ll get mad at me.”

Riding Freedom (1999) by Pam Munoz Ryan, drawings by Brian Selznik.

Another book about Charley Parkhurst for older kids. Review from Our Families Coalition.

Charlotte Parkhurst was raised in an orphanage for boys, which suited her just fine. She didn’t like playing with dolls, she could hold her own in a fight, and she loved to work in the stable. Charlotte has a special way with horses and wanted to spend her life training and riding them on a ranch of her own. The problem was, as a girl in the mid-1800s, Charlotte was expected to live a much different life– one without the freedoms she dreamed of. But Charlotte was smart and determined, as she figured out a way to live life the way she wanted. Charlotte became an expert horse rider, a legendary stagecoach driver, and the first woman ever to vote in the U.S. And she did these things at a time when they were outlawed for women. How? With a plan so clever and so secret– almost no one figured it out. 

“Part of writing realistic fiction, for me, is giving my characters hope. Even if the ending isn’t always the happiest ending, there has to be hope and happiness somewhere in the book for me as a writer to really feel good in writing it. I want to enjoy the process of writing it, and I want my characters to be okay. I’ve created them; they’ve lived in my head; I’ve rewritten them and rewritten them. At some point, I come to love them, so I want them to have some sense that the world is okay out there.

The things that are happening to my characters are at once larger than life and are everyday minutiae — those small moments in people’s lives that can make readers feel like they have their ears pressed against the door or are spying wwith binoculars. Some parts of the characters are familiar, and it makes readers’ own lives feel more real. That’s what I think I bring to it when I’m sitting down to write. When I read books that are realistic fiction, I find myself in them.

I think as readers, once we see ourselves in the pages of the book, we are allowed a certain amount of legitimacy, and that legitimacy empowers us.”

     -Jacqueline Woodson, from teachingbooks.net

My Abuelita (2009) by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Yuyi Morales.

It’s no secret that I love Yuyi Morales. And this book, written by Tony Johnston is the perfect match, bringing just the right mix of magic and love for Yuyi Morales’ work to soar.

A young boy lives with his Abuelita and their cat, Frida Kahlo. 

My abuelita is round. Robust, she says, like a calabaza. A pumpkin. She doesn’t mind. She likes pumpkins.

“Being round gives me a good round voice,” she tells me. “Just the voice for my work. 

Abuelita goes through her daily routine to get ready for work: stretching, singing in the shower with "deep, boggy, froggy notes,” eating huevos estrellados, starry eggs for breakfast and packing up her “carcacha, her jalopy, with all the things she needs.” Luckily, the boy and Frida Kahlo both help out when she forgets little things here and there. 

Finding this book is like falling in love. Exuberant, warm, with so much personality gushing right off the pages. An instant favorite. 

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Crow Boy (1955) by Taro Yashima.

1955 takes us way back. Crow Boy is a classic in children’s lit that has stayed relevant as a story of not fitting in, of being an outsider. Yashima’s delicate, soft-focused illustration is unique, definitely not something that you will find in books these days. 

On the first day of our village school in Japan, there was a boy missing. He was found hidden away in the dark space underneath the schoolhouse floor. None of us knew him. He was nicknamed Chibi because he was very small. Chibi means ‘tiny boy.’ This strange boy was afraid of our teacher and could not learn a thing.He was afraid of the children and could not make friends with them at all. He was left alone in the study time. He was left alone in the play time. He was always at the end of the line, always at the foot of the class, a forlorn little tag-along.

Ship Breaker (2010) by Paolo Bacigalupi. 

Dystopian future. Determined protagonist. Sociopath father of said determined protagonist. Swank love interest. Loyalty. Betrayal. Survival.The haves get everything. The have nots get a stick of pigeon to eat on the very best days. 

It’s always fun to sink my teeth into a good YA novel. I love kids books of all kinds, but sometimes a lady just needs some action. And dystopian fantasy is right up my pessimistic-for-the-future alley right now. Ship Breaker is a quest book that begins in the bowels of old carbon aged tankers where we meet Nailer and his crew working scavenge, trying to salvage as much raw scrap as they can from the dead ships. 

It’s hard to find a good spot that’s not a spoiler, so here’s the opening bit to give you a taste of this world. 

Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free. Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose. He scrambled deeper into the duct, jerking more wire from its aluminum staples. The staples pinged about the cramped metal passage like coins offered to the Scavenge God, and Nailer felt after them eagerly, hunting for their dull gleam and collecting them in a leather bag he kept at his waist. He yanked again at the wiring. A meter’s worth of precious copper tore loose in his hands and dust clouds enveloped him. 

The LED glowpaint smeared on Nailer’s forehead gave a dim green phosphorescent view of the service ducts that made up his world. Grime and salt sweat stung his eyes and trickled around the edges of his filter mask. With one scarred hand, he swiped at the salty rivulets, careful to avoid rubbing off the LED paint. The paint itched and drove him crazy, but he didn’t relish finding his way back out of the mazelike ducts in blind blackness, so he let his forehead itech and again surveyed his position. 

Rusty pipes ran ahead of him, disappearing into darkness. Some iron, some steel – heavy crew would be the ones to deal with that. Nailer only cared about the light stuff – the copper wiring, the aluminum, the nickel, the steel clips that could be sacked and dragged out through the ducts to his light crew waiting outside. 

Ship Breaker is worth a read. I munched it down in three days (pretty good for a mom with three kids). Check it out for the fast paced story telling and imaginative world building, but equally for all the people of color who populate this dystopian future – a basic fact and not a belabored point. Aren’t those the best kinds of fantasy novels? Oh wait, there usually aren’t (m)any people of color in the future worlds of fantasy novels. All they more reason to snap Ship Breaker right up.

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The Great Big Book of Families (2011) by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ros Asquith. 

Are you tired of the same old families being featured in kids book after kids book? One mom, one dad, an older brother, a younger sister, all blond? It’s actually not that extreme these days in kids books, but still many kids get it in their heads that “normal” families have this stereotypical make-up. Kids growing up in families that don’t look like this are somehow thought of as “different.”

The Great Big Book of Families has the explicit mission of shaking up these old ideas about family with many, many more possibilities. Ros Asquith’s illustrations of a much wider spectrum of diverse families are key to this mind shift. 

Alvin Ho Allergic to Camping, Hiking and Other Natural Disasters (2009) by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham.

There is something so irresistible about Alvin Ho and Lenore Look’s snappy descriptions of Asian American family life. I’m so happy that there’s basically an Alvin Ho book for every season. What’s even better? All the Alvin Ho books are easy readers. 

Here’s some of her sparkling prose. It’s the morning of Alvin and his dad’s camping trip:

My dad is a great packer-upper. He packed Louise, his wasabi-green car, in no time. It is one of his talents.

But it is not one of mine. I wasn’t packed at all.

“Son,” said my dad. Usually, I like it when he calls me that. But this was not usual. It was the scariest morning of my life!

“It’s time to go,” said my dad.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I was a wonton in a wrapper.

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji (2011) by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min.

Aneel’s Dada-ji (grandpa) loves telling stories about his childhood being the strongest boy in his village thanks to his mom’s amazing roti. Aneel decides to make some roti for his Dada-ji to bring back his boyhood tiger-strength. 

In a village far, far away where the warm breeze made the green wheat fields dance and the brown coconuts rustle lived a lad who astonished the villagers morning, noon, and night. 

Aneel winked at Dada-ji. After all, the lad in the story was none other than his very own Dada-ji long, long ago. Dada-ji went on…

In the morning the lad wrestled a snorting water buffalo, and the villagers cried, “Arre Wah! Oh Wow!”

At noon he tied two hissing cobras in a knot. “Wha!” cheered the villagers.

…What made the lad so strong? It was the hot, hot roti that sizzled and wizzled on Badi-ma’s wood hearth. 

…Each day the lucky lad smacked his lips and rubbed his belly and ate a stack so high with a bit of tongue-burning mango pickle. He wanted the power of the tiger, baba!

And what little boy doesn’t want the power of the tiger after all? 

I especially appreciate Ken Min’s drawings that burst off the page. You gotta love a book where some home cooked roti can bring on magic tiger strength, giving grandpas and grandsons all the power they need for a whole day of adventure together. 

For Every Child: The Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures (2001), text adapted by Caroline Castle. 

Artists from around the world bring these human rights to life: Jerry Pinkney, Ken Wilson-Max, Satoshi Kitamura, Yang Tswei-yu and others. 

With the world such a messed up place, this book is a reminder that “whoever we are, wherever we live, these rights belong to all children under the sun and the moon and the stars, whether we live in cities or towns or villages, or in mountains or valleys or deserts or forests or jungles. Anywhere and everywhere in the big, wide world, these are the rights of every child.”

Rough, Tough Charley (2007) by Verla Kay, illustrated by Adam Gustavson. 

Review excerpted from Our Family Coalition.

Verla Kay and Adam Gustavson share the inspiring story of Charley Parkhurst, a very able woman who disguised herself as a man and went from stablehand to Wild West stagecoach driver. The book includes biographical information and a timeline of Charley Parkhurst’s life, including the fact that Charley voted for president nearly 50 years before women won the right to vote in California. 

I don’t know about you all, but I’m going to check this one out. 

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The Zabime Sisters (2010) by Aristophane, translation and afterward by Matt Madden. 

There are two things to know about this book. It’s amazing. And it’s a rare treasure because its creator, Aristophane Boulon, died in 2004, way before his time. He created five books. This was his last. 

This book takes us to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and into the lives of three sisters on their first day of summer vacation. This is one of the most honest portrayals of sisterhood I’ve come across– the squabbles, the bossiness, the sticking together just because you’re sisters.

Following these three sisters around was like being transported back to my own youth. I know people say that kind of thing all the time, but in this case it’s simply uncanny how Aristophane brought these kids to life with such bittersweet authenticity. This is not the way you wished your youth was lived, where you said and did the right thing at the right time. It’s the way it actually unfolded–boredom mixed with pettiness, curiosity and not knowing any better. 

And the artwork? Confident, fresh, bold, stunning. 

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Come See the Earth Turn: The Story of Leon Foucault (2010) by Lori Mortensen, illustrated Raul Allen.

Have you stopped to linger at one of those pendulums at your local natural history museum? You know, the one where they set up the pegs and they get knocked down at certain intervals? Well, did you know that you’ve seen proof that the earth is turning and that we owe this bit of elegant evidence to Leon Foucault? 

Neither did I. Until this book came my way. Lori Mortensen sets up the story as an underdog tale: Leon was small as a baby, slow in his elementary school classes, dropped out of medical school. But he had a knack for building things and getting things just right. An accidental discovery leads him to his proof that the earth spins on its axis. 

Then they saw it – the pendulum began swinging away from the line traced in the floor.

In an instant, the scientists knew: The pendulum wasn’t swinging in a different direction. The earth was rotating beneath it.

Leon Foucault, the frail, awkward boy, had proved that the earth turned.

Raul Allen has contributed lovely illustrations, sepia toned with an emphasis on gorgeous lighting.

Finally, a little quibble. The one thing that would push this over into an all-time favorite would be a simple explanation of the science behind the pendulum, and the scientific process of creating solid evidence to prove your hypothesis. The emphasis is on the history and there’s a missed opportunity to explain the scientific thinking behind this discovery. 

Night Boat to Freedom (2006) by Margot Theis Raven, illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

Inspired by true stories from the WPA’s Slave Narrative Collection, oral histories collected in the 1930s of ex-slaves who had been children during the last years of slavery. 

This book focuses down on one of the many stories of slaves seizing their own freedom in words and pictures that are both riveting and lyrical. Both Margot Theis Raven and E.B. Lewis are gifted story tellers. Whenever I pick up a book by E.B. Lewis, I am awed by his watercolors. They are images to drink up for a thirsty soul. Night Boat to Freedom is no exception. 

Granny Judith asks Christmas John to take a young girl across the river from Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. Christmas John pushes through his fear and ends up taking many more people to freedom until it becomes unsafe and he has to free himself. 

This story is based on a young man who rowed hundreds to freedom in the heart of the night for almost four years until the risk of being caught became too great.

“It was in 1863, and one night I carried across about twelve on the same night. Somebody must have seen us, because they set out after me as soon as I stepped out of the boat back on the Kentucky side; from that time on they were after me.” -Arnold Gragston, from the WPA’s Slave Narrative Collection. His story and others were the inspiration for Night Boat to Freedom. 

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Out of the Dust (1997) by Karen Hesse.

Another all-time favorite. There aren’t too many verse novels out there and there are only a handful that I can think of in the middle grades. This one is just stunning. 

Excerpt:

Beginning: August 1920

As summer wheat came ripe,
so did I,
born at home, on the kitchen floor.
Ma crouched,
barefoot, bare bottomed
over the swept boards,
because that’s where Daddy said it’d be best.

I came too fast for the doctor,
bawling as soon as Daddy wiped his hand around
inside my mouth.
To hear Ma tell it,
I hollered myself red the day I was born.
Red’s the color I’ve stayed ever since.

Daddy named me Billie Jo.
He wanted a boy.
Instead,
he got a long-legged girl
with a wide mouth
and cheekbones like bicycle handles.
He got a redheaded, freckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl
with a fondness for apples
and a hunger for playing fierce piano.