February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Middle Grade Authors on Family, Connection, and Representation | SLJ Day of Dialog 2017

Left to right: Jason Reynolds, Tracey Baptiste, Paul Griffin, Deborah Taylor, Katherine Paterson, Karina Yan Glaser All photos by ©Julian Hibbard for School Library Journal

Deborah Taylor, moderator of the 2017 Day of Dialog panel The Sweet Spot: Captivating Middle Grade Readers, addressed five authors with a seemingly simple question: How did your story germinate? The impassioned responses to Taylor, who is coordinator of school and student services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD, filled most of the session.

Tracey Baptiste and Paul Griffin

Tracey Baptiste, author of The Jumbies (2015) and the forthcoming Rise of the Jumbies (Sept. 2017, both Algonquin), told tales of the nighttime creatures she heard while growing up in Trinidad. At some point, Baptiste realized that she had never discovered stories about them in written form. Representing them and her culture in a book became very important to her. Bapiste noted that while her “Jumbie” titles include both villains and heroes, her overarching theme is, “There is no such thing as ‘other.’ We are all in it together and we all want the same.”

Working on an ambulance, Paul Griffin, author of When Friendship Followed Me Home (2016) and Saving Marty (Sept. 2017, both Dial), responded to a call that involved an encounter with a female veteran and her partner who were living on the street. The author talked about the people that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder “leaves in its wake,” relating stories of children he has met on his travels and the remarkable resilience they have shown in the face of trauma. “In Marty, I wanted to write about that resilience,” Griffin said, and “explore the idea that family is portable.”

Katherine Paterson

When Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia and the forthcoming My Brigadista Year (Oct. 2017, Candlewick), first learned about the Cuban Literacy Campaign, she wanted to know more. In 1961, Fidel Castro, after announcing to the United Nations that Cuba would become the first fully literate nation in the world, dispatched 250,000 volunteers, many of them teens, to rural areas to teach. The campaign was remarkably successful, and Paterson’s My Brigadista Year tells the story of 13-year-old Nora, who joins the literacy campaign despite her family’s wishes.

I grew up around a “bunch of girls that had secret handshakes, spit, dyed their hair with Kool-Aid…girls who were “extraordinarily loving and as tough as nails,” said Jason Reynolds, author of the award-winning Ghost (2016). Those same girls were also expected from a young age to take on family responsibilities “that I and the boys I knew were not expected to [take on].” In addition to the “weight of those responsibilities,” Patina (Aug. 2017, both Atheneum) “is adopted, one of the few black girls in the school, feels uncomfortable everywhere, and consequently overcompensates.” Patina follows Ghost in a four-book series about the athletes on a track team, and Reynolds’s protagonist is the new girl on the team.

Karina Yan Glaser

A transplanted Californian, debut novelist Karina Yan Glaser wrote The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (Oct. 2017, HMH) on a dare. She was already blogging about family life in New York City when her husband’s uncle challenged her to write a full-length title. Inspired by the books she loved as a child, including Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-A-Kind Family, and having considered how big families live in the typically small spaces in a city on her blog, she centered her character-driven novel (“my publisher reminded me I needed a plot”) on a family with five children—ages four and three-quarters to 12—and set it in Harlem, where she lives.

Characters overcoming challenges, learning to seek support, connecting with others, determining what is important, and finding a place in the world were the themes threaded throughout the conversations that ensued with these authors, who, Taylor reminded us, write for readers at a critical time in their lives.

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

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