Challenge Day: The Boy in the Corner

The boy hunched in an empty corner of the gym while the rest of the seventh and eight grade sprint-walked across the floor to join two Challenge Day leaders in an impromptu dance party. Everyone in the room vibrated with nervous energy and twittering laughter. Everyone except the boy in the corner.

It was December and I was an adult volunteer for a six-hour, immersive Challenge Day experience at a local middle school. My job was simple: participate like everyone else and pay attention to any kids that might be slipping through the cracks.

Imagine a school where everyone feels safe, loved and celebrated. Imagine enemies finding common ground and making peace; friends healing past hurts and making amends; people igniting their passion for service and leadership; adults and youth working together to create a school where everyone is included and thrives. This is Challenge Day.

The first activities were mostly silly, racing to find a new seat if, as the Challenge Day leaders specified, “you were wearing clothes” or “woke up this morning.” All this racing around, interspersed with goofy dance moves, eased the tension in the room and shook up the normal social dynamics. Kids ended up seated next to people they didn’t know well. Everyone except the boy in the corner.

The program goes beyond traditional anti-bullying efforts, building empathy and inspiring a school-wide movement of compassion and positive change. We address some common issues seen in most schools including cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, suicide, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others.

Once they’d loosened up the crowd, the leaders shifted into more serious activities that unpacked different issues often found in middle school. All of this built to an intimate and intense small group activity just before lunch. In small circles of four, we took turns finishing these sentences:

If you knew me…
If you really knew me…

This far into the day, we were ready to open up. Each and every one of us in my group (which didn’t include the boy I was keeping an eye on) shared intense and personal things. We cried. We hugged. We supported. We were human in the very best way.

And we were hungry.

At lunch, we were asked to pair up with someone new. By the time I had my lunch bag, the boy in the corner was back in the corner. I don’t how he fared in his small group, but I decided that he was having lunch with me.

“Can I join you for lunch?”

He nodded.

“How’s it been going?”

He shrugged.

“That was pretty intense, huh?”

Another shrug. He wouldn’t look at me. I showed him a picture of my dog and gave him a piece of jerky. Eventually he told me about his cats and his siblings. We were human in the very best way.

Returning to the group, the leaders launched into an exercise called, “Cross the Line.” You’ve probably seen a version of it on Facebook. We began on one half of the room. The leaders asked us to cross over if we identified with a series of statements. Have you ever faced food insecurity? Are you or someone you love struggling with mental illness? Have you ever faced discrimination for your skin color? Your religion? Your sexuality?

After each statement, we were asked to send love to those who had crossed over, and if we had crossed over, we were asked to notice how many were standing with us. Tears streamed down our faces. We held each other. No one was ever alone. Not even the boy in the corner, and my lunch companion crossed many times: foster care, divorce, incarceration, suicide, bullying… These were his challenges. These and more.

At the very end of the day, we were invited to stand up and speak directly to others in the room. To apologize, to appreciate, to reach out, to connect, to commit to taking the lessons of Challenge Day into the rest of our lives.

I stood and took the mic and thanked my lunch friend for telling me about his cats.

***

For me, Challenge Day encompassed everything I love about the humans we call middle grade readers. They can be full of bluff and bluster, goof and gallantry. And sure, some of them, like my lunch friend, wear thick armor. But they can and do crack open in the most beautiful ways. They hold light even in the darkest circumstances, and they can be reached by the right teacher, the right librarian, the right book.

I hope you will consider learning more about Challenge Day. You could bring a program to your school. You could volunteer like I did. The experience affected me deeply, and it reminded me of exactly why I write the books I do. I write them for the boy in the corner.

***

Amber J. Keyser is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the Quartz Creek Ranch series, numerous nonfiction titles, and two young adult novels. More at amberjkeyser.com.

Love, Ish

Hello Mixed-Up Readers! I’m excited to bring you this fun interview (and GIVEAWAY!) with Karen Rivers, author of Love, Ish.  But first, a little-ish about the book.

My name is Mischa “Ish” Love, and I am twelve years old. I know quite a lot about Mars. Mars is where I belong. Do you know how sometimes you just know a thing? My mom says that falling in love is like that, that the first time she saw Dad, she just knew. That’s how I feel about Mars: I just know. I’m smart and interesting and focused, and I’m working on getting along better with people. I’ll learn some jokes. A sense of humor is going to be important. It always is. That’s what my dad always says. Maybe jokes will be the things that will help us all to survive. Not just me, because there’s no “me” in “team,” right? This is about all of us. Together. What makes me a survivor? Mars is going to make me a survivor. You’ll see. * “A star-bright story of love, courage, and unflagging spirit.” —Booklist, starred review

 

Amie: Welcome to the Files, Karen! Why don’t you start by telling us who your favorite character is in Love, Ish and a little about why they’re your favorite.

Karen: Definitely Ish.  I think to write a book about a person, even one you’ve made up, you have to really really know that person and really really love them, even when they are flawed or even occasionally infuriating.   I love Ish and I loved taking this journey with her.

Amie: I agree! It’s a given that we’ll love our main character, isn’t it? Why else would we choose to write their stories? It would be hard to spend so much time with someone we didn’t like.  So tell our readers which scenes were the best/worst to write?

Karen:  I loved writing every word of this book, but writing the ending was a very emotional journey for me.   It was both the best and the worst!

Amie: I can definitely relate to that! Ish (Mishca) wants to go to Mars. Did you do a lot of research for your story?

Karen: I spent a lot of time researching different Mars programs and reading about the viability of Mars as a potentially habitable planet.   There are very widely differing opinions in the scientific community about, for example, whether the presence of perchlorate in Martian soil would simply preclude any possibility of humans being able to survive there.   Mars seems to be everywhere these days!  I watched the NASA feed closely for up-to-the-minute news of the rover’s findings.   At a certain point in revising, I had to stop adding new information though.  Our knowledge and understanding about Mars are constantly evolving in real time.

Amie: There’s a character known as Fish Boy (Gav) and Ish isn’t exactly fond-ish of him. Do Ish and fish boy ever become friends?

Karen: I’m reluctant to spoil too much of the plot, but yes, Mischa and Gav become friends.

Amie:  Was there any particular inspiration for Mischa’s (Ish) name?

Karen: I once met a girl named Mischa, whose nickname was Ish.   I loved the play on words of love-ish and Love, Ish.   When something is something-ish, it means it’s not quite that which it is trying to be.  Mischa’s whole journey starts out as one thing and becomes another, so I like the “ish”ness of that.

Amie: Does Mischa love anything else as much (or almost as much as Mars)?

Karen: Mischa loves a lot of things and people:  Her best friend, Tig, her sister Iris, and even her sister Elliot.   Definitely her pet parrot and her parents.   She is primarily motivated by the need to be someone who doe something special or different, someone who is remembered for being a “first”.   In so doing, she wants to figure out who she is and who she is going to be.   I think she loves more than she gives herself credit for.   When one is 12, it’s easier to pick one topic, one THING and make that your everything, whether it’s your favourite music or a personal goal or a hobby.   Kids tend to define themselves in fairly singular terms.  “I love horses” or “I’m a Katy Perry fan.”  In Ish’s case, she’d say, “I’m going to go to Mars” as her most defining characteristic, but it will be obvious to anyone reading that she’s so much more than that.  (I hope!)

Amie: All right. Last question. Does Ish ever make it to Mars?

Karen: I’m afraid I can’t answer the question without spoiling the entire book.  Once you’ve read the ending, you’ll understand why.  I’ll have to stick with, “You’ll have to read it to find out!”

Amie: Darn it! Those dang spoilers! Thanks for joining us at the Files today, Karen. Good luck to you and to Ish! And many thanks to Algonquin for providing an ARC of this book. They’re also offering a copy of LOVE, ISH to one  US reader. Be sure to leave a comment below to be entered!

Karen Rivers has written novels for adult, middle-grade, and young adult audiences. Her books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards and have been published in multiple languages. When she’s not writing, reading, or visiting schools, she can usually be found hiking in the forest that flourishes behind her tiny, old house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her two kids, two dogs, two birds. You can find her online at karenrivers.com or on Twitter: @karenrivers

 

Amie Borst is the author of the Scarily Ever Laughter series; Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood, and Snow Fright. There’s nothing “ish” about her love for writing. You can find her on her blog, her website, and her co-author website.

A Lucky List o’ Books for St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick's Day green foodIf my children ever develop green-food-coloring allergies, it will be St. Patrick’s fault. That’s because on St. Patrick’s Day, I float green shamrock Lucky Charms marshmallows on top of my kids’ green-dyed milk. I serve them not-so-orange orange juice and various greenified culinary delights. But don’t worry—I always incorporate a bit of natural greenness, too. On St. Patrick’s Day, even broccoli gets a little love.

Anyway, with my thoughts today naturally meandering toward Green Eggs and Ham, I decided to generate a list of middle-grade books that fit into a St. Patrick’s Day-themed list o’ books. Here goes. . . .

Leprechauns Don’t Play Basketball by Debbie Dadey and Marcia Jones: From The Bailey School Kids series, this chapter book is an oldie-but-goodie for younger middle-grade readers.

Leprechauns in Late Winter & Leprechauns and Irish FolkloreLeprechaun in Late Winter by Mary Pope Osborne: Another leprechaun. Another oldie-but-goodie series (Magic Tree House). Another chapter book for younger middle-grade readers. And for an extra bit of fun, there’s even a nonfiction companion book that’s part of the Magic Tree House Fact Tracker series: Leprechauns and Irish Folklore.

Three Times Lucky by Sheila TurnageThree Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage: When I think St. Patrick’s Day, I think shamrocks. And when I think shamrocks, I think of lucky four-leaf clovers. So obviously, any book with the word lucky in the title must be a perfect St. Patrick’s Day fit. It also doesn’t hurt that the first book of the Tupelo Landing series won the Newbery Honor Award.

The Hard Pan Trilogy by Susan Patron: Ten-year-old Lucky is a memorable character I couldn’t help but love in The Higher Power of Lucky (book #1), Lucky Breaks (book #2), and Lucky for Good (book #3).

Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Making Money by Tommy Greenwald: Okay. I hear your question already:

WHAT THE HECK IS THIS BOOK DOING ON A ST. PATRICK’S DAY BOOKLIST?!?!?

Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Making Money by Tommy GreenwaldWell . . . St. Patrick’s Day means lots o’ green. So does money. And since I really like the Charlie Joe Jackson books, that connection was good enough for me. And just in case you’re still skeptical, please note that the book is written by Tommy GREENwald. Yep. It belongs.

Do you have a favorite middle-grade book that also fits into this St. Patrick’s Day booklist? Tell us about it in the comments below. (Receive a pot-of-gold bonus if you also recommend a green food I end up feeding my children this evening. But no peas. My daughter’s not a fan.)


T. P. Jagger The 3-Minute Writing TeacherAlong with his MUF posts, T. P. Jagger can be found at www.tpjagger.com, where he provides brief how-to writing-tip videos as The 3-Minute Writing Teacher plus original, free readers’ theater scripts for middle-grade teachers. He also has even more readers’ theater scripts available at Readers’ Theater Fast and Funny Fluency. For T. P.’s 10-lesson, video-based creative writing course, check him out on Curious.com.