Tag Archives: middle-grade readers

You’ve Got Mail!

One of the biggest highlights of being a writer is getting Fan Mail from kids. They are adorable, smart, enthusiastic, honest – and they LOVE BOOKS with deep, hard feelings.

Book Love

When I read these letters I can remember so vividly all the feelings and love for a particular book when I was that age. The emotional power a story gave me. The knowledge that someone out there knew my heart and mind. The feeling that I wasn’t alone in my weirdness.

I never got to meet a real, honest-to-goodness published author until I was almost thirty—and it was the amazing Newbery Winner Richard Peck—pretty darn cool for my first author in Real Life, eh?! Back when I was a kid I was waaaay too shy to ever think about writing to an author. This is also back in the days of snail mail and Authors were definitely up there on a pedestal. They weren’t ordinary people. They were Gods.

Receiving Fan Mail by email, my website, or through the post office brings home the impact books can have on kids all over again. It’s an honor to write for them as well as the child still inside me.

So here’s a smattering of fan mail I’ve received lately. Some funny, some heart-warming and one that kicked me in the teeth and made me bawl.

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Hi my name is Elyssa, and I’m a big fan of your book The Time of the Fireflies. I’m 10 years old. You are like my favorite author of all time. If you’re wondering I’m using my dad’s phone. I was going to send you a letter, but I didn’t know what address to send it to. How did you become an author? Please write back.

(I wrote her back and then received this):

It’s like I’m talking to a Super Hero! I still can’t believe that I’m talking to Kimberley Little!

(Wow, I just achieved Super Hero Status!)Time of the Fireflies_Cover

*******

I didn’t get any homework done because I spent 4 hours and 30 minutes reading The Healing Spell. It was so awesome. I love how you write the romance part where there’s only a little bit of it but it’s the best romance ever. I cried so much when T-Baby died.
Sincerely,
A huge fan impatiently waiting for a new book

*******

Dear Ms. Little,

I wanted to write to you to say that your book, When the Butterflies Came, is amazing. I have currently just finished reading it for the 4th time. Please don’t feel like you need to answer. I just wanted to tell you how great of an author you are.

(Of course I answer every single letter.)

When the Butterflies Came Cover Art from Erin*******

The Healing Spell is such a beautiful, book. I’ve read it 4 times now, and it’s always so beautiful and uplifting each time. I first bought this book when I was 10, now I’m 15. Thank you for this work of art! It never fails to bring tears to my eyes, it’s so hard to believe that it’s about an 11-year-old. Better than most books I’ve read, even as a teenager. One of my top 10, for sure :)

(It surprised me to hear this from a teenager about one of my MG books. I’m so glad she wrote, it truly made my whole day.)

*******

Dear Kimberley Little,
I have just finished your book Forbidden and I must tell you I was moved greatly. I loved your book so much. I felt everything with your main character Jayden. I cried and it is rare that a book can get to me in such a way. I’m a senior in high school, I am also a writer. I would like to know how you are able to express such emotion in your writing? How do you get your reads to feel that emotion? Please write back I understand you’re most likely busy. But it would mean the world to me.
Thank you, Cassie

(Emotion is definitely one of the hardest things to incorporate effectively as writers.)

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(The following letter came in 4 different emails, one right after the other. It made me laugh.)

Hi, my name is Deena and I read all 3 of your divine awesome books

I’m 9 years old and I’m in 4th grade

Please contact me back I have been trying for 2 months to get a Gmail and contact you I’m so happy I found how to contact you

I will go on my knees to beg you to message me back

(No begging needed!)

*******

Dear Ms. Little (what should I call you?),

I absolutely just love your books. I literally idolize you. I especially love Forbidden. I own both Forbidden and The Time of the Fireflies.

(Just call me American Idol)

*******

(This was an email exchange from a fan who wanted to know when Banished, Book 2 of my Harper trilogy was coming out.)

Hi I am a fan of your books I have read When the Butterflies Came { by the way amazing book super good!}

The Time of the Fireflies { also really good book!}

And I want to read Circle of Secrets.

And I have read Forbidden – amazing and this is why I am Emailing you because you should write another book continuing Forbidden because I need and want to know what happens next. Like what really happened to Kadesh and is Jayden really going to marry evil Horeb so I think you should write another book. Thank you sooo much. Your BIG fan Katie

BanishedHC_KGL (530x800)Me: After responding to her lovely words I told her that Banished would publish February 2, 2106.

Katie: Did you mean to say that it will get published in 2016 and not 2106?

Me: Yes, I’m going to let your great-grandchildren read my next book, Katie. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. 😉 Yep, you’re right 2016!! I was typing too fast!

Katie: Haha, really funny, you’ve a great sense of humor!

(Typos: All in a day’s work)

*******

(Final letter for today, the one that still pricks at my emotions.)

Dear Kimberley Griffiths Little,

Around two years ago my family experienced a traumatic occurrence. My half sister Sara was kicked by a horse and she was in a serious condition. When I first saw Sara while she was in the hospital, I felt as if I had been stabbed in the heart. It was extremely difficult for many reasons. When I read your book, The Healing Spell, it reminded me of Sara’s incident, and changed my perspective completely.

I many not have physically hurt Sara myself as Livie did to her mother, but I felt a similar feeling whenever I thought about her injury. Being her big sister, I always felt that it was my obligation to take care of her and keep her protected. I believed the only reason Sara was harmed was because I didn’t take the responsibility to watch her, to make she she did not get herself into trouble. I felt that the entire incident was my fault, just as Livie had blamed herself.

The Healing Spell paperback coverSara’s injury made me much more quiet, before I read your book that is. Livie kept her feelings to herself, knowing that . . . “deep down in the blackest part of my heart that I’d cause Mamma’s sleeping sickness.” I don’t have a “secret” like her, but I was still able to deeply connect with Livie, I didn’t want to share my true feelings about the event with anyone because I was afraid they would react negatively. I kept my emotions to myself, thinking that I was the guilty one, that I should be convicted. Then, I read The Healing Spell. The further I read the more my connections to Livie increased and I began to realize new things about my thoughts and actions from Sara’s accident. In the last section of the book, Livie comes to realize that accidents happen, and once I reached this segment, I, too, realized the same thing.

Your story caused me to comprehend the fact that the accident wasn’t my fault. The whole scenario was a complete accident, and no one meant for it to occur. I can now revisit the past and learn from the incident, and I never again need to think about how I am the one to blame. This has all come to be only because of your story, Ms. Little. The Healing Spell pulled me out of the dark, empty void I constantly felt I was floating through. I feel as if I can share my feelings any time now. I know that my family will not get upset, they will understand. Because of your book, I can maintain a higher self-confidence level, leaving behind the guilt that kept dragging me down.

Thank you.

Sincerely, Alayna

Alayna says that my book changed her life. Well, her letter definitely changed my life.

That’s the power of books.

 

Kimberley Griffiths Little has published 10 award-winning novels with Knopf, Scholastic, and Harpercollins. Her most recent MG, The Time of the Fireflies, was named a Bank Street College Best Books of 2015, a Whitney Award Finalist, a Letters of Mormon Arts Award Finalist, and was recently chosen for the William Allan White Kansas State Children’s Choice List for 2016-2017. 

Find Kimberley on Facebook. and Twitter @KimberleyGLittl. Teacher’s Guides, Mother/Daughter Book Club Guides, and fabulous book trailers filmed on location adorn Kimberley’s website.

 

Writing About Gender and Sexual Orientation for Middle Grade Readers

At BEA this year, all the buzz was about GEORGE, a middle-grade novel by Alex Gino with a transgendered protagonist. But GEORGE isn’t the only recent  middle-grade fiction with a transgender theme. There’s also GRACEFULLY GRAYSON by Ami Polonsky, a sweet and poignant story about a boy who knows he’s a girl. And next spring, Donna Gephart, well-known author of popular middle-grade titles (DEATH BY TOILET PAPER; OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN) is coming out with LILY AND DUNKIN (Delacorte, May 2016).

Even five years ago, such books would never have been published by traditional publishing houses. But it seems that as our culture rapidly becomes more accepting of LGBT people and issues, there’s been an implicit acknowledgement that kidlit fiction–and not just books shelved in the YA section–should reflect this reality. When a book like Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER can become a mega-bestseller, I think it suggests that we’ve underestimated kids’ interest in, and need for, middle-grade books dealing with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity.

I’m currently writing STAR-CROSSED (S&S/Aladdin, Fall 2017), a middle-grade novel about a girl who develops a crush on another girl as they rehearse a middle school production of Romeo and Juliet.  It’s a departure for me; in my books I’ve always been careful not to push any boundaries. But I think that what GEORGE and NATE and GRAYSON have showed us is that middle-grade (or “tween”) fiction can explore themes of gender and sexuality in a way that feels authentic–and yet still remains age-appropriate.

So it’s been a great treat for me to chat with Donna Gephart, as she looks forward to next spring’s publication of LILY AND DUNKIN.

Why did you write this book now?

LILY AND DUNKIN  is a dual narrative of a big-hearted, nature-loving, word nerd transgender 13-year-old, Lily, and Dunkin, also 13, who has just moved to Lily’s neighborhood.  Dunkin is dealing with the move, an impossible secret and managing his bipolar disorder.  Somehow, this duo finds a way to help each other be their best, most authentic selves despite the obstacles they face.

When I began this book several years ago, it was a very different atmosphere when it came to talking about transgender issues as well as mental health issues.  Both were more taboo than they are today.  I decided to write the book despite that fact.  And because it takes a long time for a traditionally published book to come out, the tides have turned dramatically and thankfully, we’re having a more open national conversation about issues that must be addressed sensitively and compassionately.

Do you think standards for what’s “safe” in MG fiction are changing? 

I think the national conversation is changing.  When I wrote LILY AND DUNKIN, I needed to explain how Dunkin would have heard of the term “transgender.”  By the time I was revising it, I deleted that part.  Kids now have heard of the term “transgender.”  It’s my hope that with movies, TV shows and books featuring fully-realized transgender characters, everyone will understand more and fear less.  This tide of more exposure and more information can lead to much greater understanding and compassion.  And what safer way to share these characters than in the pages of a book?  It can be the starting point of meaningful discussions.  If a child has bonded with a transgender character or a character dealing with a mental illness in a novel, then when s/he meets a person like this in real life, s/he experiences recognition and a deeper understanding, instead of fear born from ignorance.

Do you expect resistance from adults who think of you as a “safe” MG author? 

I write with great respect for my young readers and I always tackle difficult subjects in my books — divorce, death of a parent, loneliness, bullying, etc.   Each of my novels has both the difficult and lighthearted, just like in life.  The topics in my upcoming novel are handled sensitively, accurately and with great love.  I’d be delighted to see it in the hands of many, many young readers because I think this book will make a difference in creating a climate of kindness.

How do we assure the gatekeepers that just because an MG book addresses certain topics, it’s still “wholesome”–and appropriate for all MG kids, even those who aren’t dealing with those particular issues?

Librarians and teachers are incredibly smart.  They want books in the hands of their students that will expand their minds and hearts and promote love and acceptance.  These are important kinds of books for all kids to read because we are all different in some way; it’s great to also notice the ways in which we’re similar:  We all need a feeling of belonging, of mattering and of being valued and loved.  That’s what my book is about.  And I can’t wait for it to make its way into the hands and minds and hearts of young readers.

Barbara Dee’s sixth middle-grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published by S&S/Aladdin in Fall, 2016. fall. STAR-CROSSED will be published by S&S/Aladdin in Fall, 2017.

Re-Engaging Disconnected Readers

Amy Vatne Bintliff is a teacher and researcher who has taught language arts and reading in traditional and alternative programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She has developed a wide array of programming for students who struggle with school. A passionate advocate for human rights and multicultural education, she believes strongly in listening to the voices of adolescents.

Amy VB

Amy is a recipient of the 2014 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching and the author of Re-Engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education (Peter Lang Publishing 2011).
bintliff cover

I sat down to chat with Amy, who is working on a new edition of the book, adding a new chapter about her recent work with middle school students.

What turns kids away from reading?

For many students, the hectic schedules that they lead turn them away from reading.  They are so busy with athletics, jobs, etc. that they just don’t build in the time.  And then when they do have time to read in class, they often feel sleepy.  That makes sense, right?  We know that most adolescents need more sleep. Feeling that they just aren’t good at reading also causes disengagement.  I find that many students get one MAP score or STAR score back that is low, and their self-esteem just tanks.  No matter how much I tell students that those scores don’t represent their complete lives as a reader, they internalize those scores and carry a feeling of defeat with them.  That turns students away.

Why do you think books with social justice themes are appealing to students and how do you use them in the classroom?

I began using human rights education and social justice education early on in my career partly because that’s where my own passions are.  But then I began really observing how active my students were when they were discussing or debating themes of injustice.  Nearly every young person I have taught has felt the sting of injustice in some way.  At the start of the year, we begin debating what is meant by the word “justice” and “injustice”.  We look at modern texts, such as opinion editorial pieces, plus brief excerpts by philosophers, such as Aristotle.  Then we read about people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mark Twain, Septima Clark, and others involved in social change.  We also each write a personal essay, journal or poem about times injustices have impacted us.  I also directly teach my students different frameworks depending on the text and student interest.  A few of the frameworks are:

Generally, students are presented with the frameworks and then have time to discuss them, choose an article, standard or stereotype that they want to explore more deeply, and present a group or individual project.

I then find some strong examples from literature, usually our class reads aloud to start with, so that we can explore with new eyes.  We then use the frameworks to analyze literature, current events, and our own responses to them.  Students begin to actively engage with text because they have a new vocabulary to back up their thinking.  When we get to Close Reading activities, students can say, “I found a gender stereotype here” or “What’s happening is going against the message of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.  They feel empowered.  They also feel moved by the very human stories involved in the work.  Finally, we create service projects that allow students choice.  For example, last year, my students chose to teach Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-bias Standards to 4th graders.  The service portion of a reading classroom engages them and helps lessen the feelings of sadness, anger and helplessness often associated with reading about social justice themes.

What is the role of diverse books in engaging young people?

Diverse books allow students to create imagined dialogue with people outside of their normal daily interactions.  These imagined dialogues decrease fear and build connections.  It builds capacity, teaches background knowledge, and allows students to reflect on how they are similar or different from narrators or main characters.  Diverse books also teach students that one person’s story does not represent a whole race, gender, etc.  As a teacher, I reiterate that each time we explore a piece of literature.

 What are some of your favorite books to reach disconnected students? 

The graphic novels, March Book One and March Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell are fantastic!  Students who never read full books in the past completed both.  What I love about these graphic novels is that they tie to other social justice texts or current events.  Even though the books may take some students only a matter of days to read, there are many weeks worth of connections and discussions to stem from the graphic novels.  I love that the history re-connected not only struggling readers, but also students who generally weren’t enjoying traditional history texts.

march 2 March 1

I have had great success with the novel Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.  There is so much to talk about in this book such as bullying, coming of age, poverty, and equality.

ninth ward

I also love poetry books.  Some of my favorites poets for middle school students are Naomi Shihab Nye, Walter Dean Myers and Gary Soto. Paul Janeczko’s book Reading Poetry in the Middle Grades has some good teacher resources.  Also, many of the poets have lesson plans on their websites.

Reading Poetry

In a classroom with students at a range of reading levels, how do you both challenge advanced readers and engage those that are struggling?

I think one of the key things is to engage students with concepts and philosophies that are challenging no matter what their reading level.  If the theme of a story, such as injustice, is carefully selected, students can work with partners, or solo, on the text.  You then need to create space for dialogue so that all students have equal opportunities to share their thinking.  I also help students select books that match their interests and push students to new levels when they are ready.  My reading students select their books of choice and I build in time for independent reading in a comfy part of the classroom.  I work with three rotating stations:  guided reading where I teach new strategies, a writing station and an independent reading station.

In your video (embedded below), you talk about including physical activities in the reading classroom. Can you elaborate on that?

Movement is essential when working with reading students!  I have a whole array of brief “brain games” that I use between station rotations.  I play the game with them, so we build trust by laughing, setting game goals, and getting blood flowing to the brain.

Where can our readers find out more?

Teaching Tolerance’s Appendix D–A tool for selecting diverse texts

The Advocates for Human Rights—Free resources and lessons

The Howard Zinn Education Project—History resources that are great to use with historical fiction

Booklists from Teaching for Change and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center

Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).