Category Archives: Diversity

Middle-Grade Novels featuring South Asian Characters

As a writer of South Asian origin, I am always looking out for books that feature South Asian or middle-eastern characters. I interact with many middle-grade readers of South Asian descent in grades 4-8, so these books are of high interest. This post is about celebrating and sharing such books that were released in 2017 and also seeking out ways to find them.

Firstly, what makes a South Asian character? This means a book that features a character whose culture, people or heritage is portrayed from the southern region of the Asian continent. The countries and islands that make up South Asia are Tibet, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Sri Lanka.

Secondly, how many such books are out there? The CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center School of Education, University of Madison-Wisconsin) receives the majority of new U.S. trade books for children and teens each year, and provides information on the number of children’s books by and about people of color.  According to the 2016 statistics from CCBC, out of 3400 books that they received, 239 of them were by and about Asian Pacifics or Asian Pacific Americans. While it is fantastic that the number of diverse books is increasing by the year, the need for representation is still high.

Thirdly, what can we do to increase the visibility of these books? Ideally, all types of diverse books should be read and enjoyed by everyone. Therefore, here are some suggestions that are not limited to middle-grade readers of South Asian descent.

  1. Show up at diverse author events and buy the books.
  2. Read and share your views about these books with your family, friends, and on social media.
  3. Request or order the books for your schools and local libraries.
  4. Donate your time or money to organizations like We Need Diverse Books that work tirelessly to promote diverse literature.
  5. Add these books to the required reading lists so it helps kids recognize and celebrate different cultures.

With that said, here are some compelling 2017 novel recommendations, featuring South Asian characters and what the authors have to say about the stories:

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar : In her interview for NBC, Kelkar talked about the meaning of Ahimsa and the motivation behind writing the novel. She said, “I didn’t think much about activism when I was I child. I used to write letters to companies protesting things sometimes, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned that writing can be used for speaking up and speaking out. Ahimsa was a principle of nonviolence at a time when conflicts were generally solved through war. This was the first time this unique idea helped create a country. You don’t need to own a weapon to do this. It is within you.”

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan : Hena wrote about her inspiration for the book in her interview with Cynsations. She said, “I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was an “every girl” who happened to be an American Muslim. I hoped that readers of all backgrounds would be able to relate to her as much as I did to the characters I had grown up reading and loving—none of who had resembled me in any way. “

 

 

Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari : Mixed-Up Files did an interview with Sheela Chari. Sheela talked about the interracial friendship in the novel. According to Sheela, the main character “Myla was more like her as a young person – a highly observant girl who felt largely unnoticed by the world.” She said, “Because she was so much like me, it made sense to make her Indian-American, with a family and lifestyle similar to my own. “

 

 

Karma Khullar’s Mustache by Kristi Wientge : Kristi Wientge talked about why it was important for her to highlight her culture in the story at Yayomg. Kristy said, “I love highlighting things we think are SO different, but, in fact, are so, so similar to our “normal.” I’ve traveled and lived in China and England and now in Singapore and without fail, people from each place have a picture of what America is and what Americans are like and they seem to be blown away that I don’t fit neatly into any of those ideas and that I’m very much like they are.”

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani: Nidhi Chanani talked about her story, her art, and activism in an interview with the Horn Book. According to Nidhi, “There are many communities that are underrepresented within books and art. It creates a cycle of prejudice and isolation. Art and books that showcase underrepresented identities can shift our perceptions of difference, of ourselves, and inspire people to make more inclusive art.”

 

Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste: This story features a South Asian Character as the best friend to the main character. Tracey Baptiste talked to Sheri Larsen of Mixed-Up Files about how we can make a difference in the lives of middle schoolers. Tracy said that “Books that accurately represent different cultures and different stories are crucial now so that there isn’t an ingrained sense of “otherness” about people who don’t look the same, or who live differently.”

 

Step Up To The Plate, Maria Singh by Uma Krishnaswami: In her interview with Lee and Low, Uma Krishnaswami said that readers of this story “will see that community and caring cross boundaries of language and race. That friendship is a better choice than hatred and suspicion. I hope they will see that playing ball can be competitive but it can also be a way to come together and heal divisions.”

 

 

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi: Karuna talked to Hena Khan about what it means to have this book out, in terms of inclusion. In her interview for the School Library Journal, Karuna said, “It’s incredible to look back now and realize that I am actually an author, just like the other women of color authors. I always looked up to and dreamed about emulating with my words. I definitely wouldn’t have imagined it being with a book that represents the never-heard voice of Bangladeshi Americans.”

 

Which books on the list are you excited about reading? Please do share in the comments below.

Kirkus book picks for Middle School readers

Have you ever Googled yourself? Be honest.

I never have, and during a spell of boredom while watching Big Ten football last weekend, I did.

I’ve been blessed to wear many hats throughout my life, including children’s book festival founder, former city councilwoman and now, children’s book author. As I scrolled through various articles from over the years, a wonderful surprise popped up on my cell phone screen.

An article from Sacramento Parent shared a list of the Top 19 book picks for Middle School readers from Kirkus. It begged me to question why not the top 20 book picks, but I’m rolling with it.

What is most amazing is that my biography, Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller is included in the list. Pinch me.

Since this list was buried in my search, I thought it might be news to you as well. As opposed to listing all of the books, I’ve opted to highlight those that received a Starred review from Kirkus.

Some are older releases, some newer. If you have not read them, make sure to add these to your must-read list!

Wonder

R.J. Palacio, Knopf Books for Young Readers

The movie comes out in November, and if have yet to read this modern classic, make sure to pick up a copy before then!

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The book that inspired the Choose Kind movement.

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

Ghost

Jason Reynolds, Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum
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A National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature.

Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel in a new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Running. That’s all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all started with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?

Quicksand Pond

Janet Taylor Lisle, Atheneum

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Newbery Honor winner Janet Taylor Lisle’s gorgeous and profound new novel about a pivotal summer in two girls’ lives explores the convictions we form, the judgments we make, and the values we hold.

The pond is called Quicksand Pond.

It’s a shadowy, hidden place, full of chirping, shrieking, croaking life. It’s where, legend has it, people disappear. It’s where scrappy Terri Carr lives with her no-good family. And it’s where twelve-year-old Jessie Kettel is reluctantly spending her summer vacation.

Jessie meets Terri right away, on a raft out in the water, and the two become fast friends. On Quicksand Pond, Jessie and Terri can be lost to the outside world—lost until they want to be found. But a tragedy that occurred many decades ago has had lingering effects on this sleepy town, and especially on Terri Carr. And the more Jessie learns, the more she begins to question her new friendship—and herself.

The Unexpected Life of Cromwell Pitts

Avi, Algonquin

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High adventure from a master storyteller about one boy’s attempt to fend for himself among cruel orphan masters, corrupt magistrates, and conniving thieves.

In the seaside town of Melcombe Regis, England, 1724, Oliver Cromwell Pitts wakes to find his father missing and his house flooded by a recent storm. He’s alone in his ruined home with no money and no food. Oliver’s father has left behind a barely legible waterlogged note: he’s gone to London, where Oliver’s sister, Charity, is in trouble. Exploring damage to the town in the storm’s aftermath, Oliver discovers a shipwreck on the beach. Removing anything from a wrecked ship is a hanging offense, but Oliver finds money that could save him, and he can’t resist the temptation to take it. When his crime is discovered, Oliver flees, following the trail of his father and sister. The journey is full of thieves, adventurers, and treachery–and London might be the most dangerous place of all.

York: The Shadow Cipher

Laura Ruby, Walden Pond 

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From National Book Award finalist and Printz Award winner Laura Ruby comes an epic alternate history series about three kids who try to solve the greatest mystery of the modern world: a puzzle and treasure hunt laid into the very streets and buildings of New York City.

It was 1798 when the Morningstarr twins arrived in New York with a vision for a magnificent city: towering skyscrapers, dazzling machines, and winding train lines, all running on technology no one had ever seen before. Fifty-seven years later, the enigmatic architects disappeared, leaving behind for the people of New York the Old York Cipher—a puzzle laid into the shining city they constructed, at the end of which was promised a treasure beyond all imagining. By the present day, however, the puzzle has never been solved, and the greatest mystery of the modern world is little more than a tourist attraction.

Tess and Theo Biedermann and their friend Jaime Cruz live in a Morningstarr apartment—until a real estate developer announces that the city has agreed to sell him the five remaining Morningstarr buildings. Their likely destruction means the end of a dream long held by the people of New York. And if Tess, Theo, and Jaime want to save their home, they have to prove that the Old York Cipher is real. Which means they have to solve it.

Joplin, Wishing

Diane Stanley, HarperCollins
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A heartfelt and magical middle grade novel in the tradition of Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia,about family, wishes, and the power of true friends to work magic.

While cleaning out her reclusive grandfather’s house, Joplin discovers pieces of a broken platter in a cookie tin. After having the platter repaired, Joplin wishes that she could both find a friend at school, and befriend the girl pictured in the platter. The next day, Joplin befriends a boy named Barrett, and also notices a girl outside her apartment. A girl who looks remarkably like the girl in the platter…

The girl introduces herself as Sofie, and she has a terrible secret. Cursed to grant wishes for the owner of the platter for all of time, she has been trapped for centuries. Joplin and Barrett vow to help her, but freeing Sofie is more complicated than they could have imagined, and the three friends end up against a sinister foe who could put them all in terrible danger.

The Quest for Z

Greg Pizzoli, Viking Books for Young Readers

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From an award-winning author comes a picture book biography that feels like Indiana Jones for kids!

British explorer Percy Fawcett believed that hidden deep within the Amazon rainforest was an ancient city, lost for the ages. Most people didn’t even believe this city existed. But if Fawcett could find it, he would be rich and famous forever. This is the true story of one man’s thrilling, dangerous journey into the jungle, and what he found on his quest for the lost city of Z.

Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller

Julie K. Rubini, Ohio University Press
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Long before she wrote The House of Dies Drear, M. C. Higgins, the Great, and many other children’s classics, Virginia Hamilton grew up among her extended family near Yellow Springs, Ohio, where her grandfather had been brought as a baby through the Underground Railroad. The family stories she heard as a child fueled her imagination, and the freedom to roam the farms and woods nearby trained her to be a great observer. In all, Hamilton wrote forty-one books, each driven by a focus on “the known, the remembered, and the imagined”—particularly within the lives of African Americans.

Over her thirty-five-year career, Hamilton received every major award for children’s literature. This new biography gives us the whole story of Virginia’s creative genius, her passion for nurturing young readers, and her clever way of crafting stories they’d love.

Writing While White

I am a white author. When I write about social justice online, I use phrases like “fellow white people” or “we white women.” I do this intentionally. And yes, like @helloalegria says in the tweet above, it was weird and uncomfortable at first. But you know what? The more I used language that was precise, the easier it got. Plus I began to have much more productive conversations online about dismantling racism and white supremacy.

What does this have to do with middle grade books?

As a white author who has grown up with white privilege and who has benefited from the racism inherent in most (all?) American institutions, I am accustomed to being the “norm” or the “default.” If I read a book, where a character is described as having brown, curly hair (like for example Hermione Granger), I will mostly likely assume that the character is also white.

Because I am “used to being the default definition of ‘people’” as @helloalegria says, I also need to be aware of how I might perpetuate the white default definition of ‘people’ in my books.

This happens if I make a point of describing the skin tone or ethnicity of characters of color but don’t describe the skin tone or family background of light-skinned characters. Doing this makes anyone who is not white into “the other.” And that, fellow white authors, no matter your intentions, is white supremacy at work.

Martha Brockenbrough is a white author who was very intentional in her approach to writing about race in the novel The Game of Love and Death. I asked her to share with us what she was thinking during the process. Here’s what she said:

In college I learned about “marked” language. This was language that assumed male as the standard, and it’s why we say things like “female lawyer” and “male nurse.” (Nurses are stereotypically female, so “male nurse” even works as a punchline.)

With The Game of Love and Death, I didn’t want to center whiteness, and particularly not in the chapters told from the viewpoint of Flora, who is a Black pilot. Where race is observed, blackness is the default. So race is only seen when it is not Black. 

This is part of the empathy we need to cultivate when we are writers. To authentically inhabit characters and understand how their lives feel given our power structures, which favor white people, men, and white men in particular. 

Language is powerful. We build the world with it in so many ways, and as writers, we have the opportunity to build worlds that change the way readers think. And this is what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make us feel, and as we process those feelings, we develop a point of view on what it means to be alive.

I love what Martha is saying here. We owe it to our readers—all of our readers—to consider the world from their point-of-view, and to do that, we white writers must be willing to consider that our own point-of-view should not be the “norm” or “default” way to the see the world.

*The title of this post — “Writing While White” — is a shout-out to a blog that I highly recommend called “Reading While White.” Definitely check it out!

** After writing this post, I found another excellent post of the same title by Marianne Modica. Click here to read it.