Look for an upcoming post about the joys of El Día de los Niños/El Día de los Libros. For more information about celebrating Día, visit the American Library Association.
Look for an upcoming post about the joys of El Día de los Niños/El Día de los Libros. For more information about celebrating Día, visit the American Library Association.
By Marianne Snow Campbell
Earth Day is here again! It’s a time to honor the natural world that surrounds us, consider how we can take better care of the environment, and take action keep our planet healthy and beautiful. In schools, many teachers and students will join together to read and discuss books with environmentalist lessons – The Lorax, The Great Kapok Tree, a variety of picture books about recycling and picking up litter. Last year, Lila Quintero Weaver shared a beautiful post about books celebrating “Latin@ Heroes of the Planet” and other “Earth Day-friendly books with Latin@ connections.” I love the strong messages that these texts carry and believe that they should play a prominent role in educating children about conservation and ecology.
However, reading literature with overt lessons about the earth isn’t the only method for learning about environmentalism. There’s another, somewhat subtler, approach – ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is a form of literary analysis that investigates how literature depicts nature and, ideally, inspires readers to take action to keep the natural environment healthy. But it’s not just for literature scholars – kids of all ages can be ecocritics, too!
To start an ecocritical analysis, choose a book that depicts nature but isn’t about ecological themes like conservation, recycling, and saving the earth. For example, I like to use Maya Christina González’s Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol, a poetic, bilingual picture book that celebrates the strength and beauty of trees, as well as humans’ connections with these majestic plants.
Throughout the book, the narrator, a child, embodies nature by pretending to be a tree. They begin as a seed nestled in the earth. Slowly, they sprout from the earth and stretch toward the sky, just like a young sapling. As the child/tree grows, they are joined by other children, who also identify as diverse, strong, leafy forest residents:
More and more trees
Trees and trees
Just like me!
Más y más árboles
Árboles y árboles
¡Iguales a mí!”
To explore a book like Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol with an ecocritical lens, young readers can ponder questions (adapted from Dobie, 2011) that facilitate thinking about nature and readers’ relationship with the earth:
Let’s apply those questions to Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol. When I consider these questions in relation to this book, I’m filled with awe and gratitude for the trees that surround me. I love how González depicts trees and humans as equals. In both the text and the illustrations, she presents children and trees as one and the same; people are trees, and trees are people. Nature isn’t a commodity for us to consume. This representation makes me rethink my responsibility for the environment and how I should treat nature as I want to be treated. Trees care for me by cleaning the air, providing shade, and sharing their beauty, so shouldn’t I do more to care for trees? Even though Call Me Tree isn’t about conservation, it certainly makes me want to do my part to respect and sustain the natural world.
Doing ecocriticism can benefit kids in a variety of ways. By analyzing and evaluating representations of nature in texts, they’ll flex their critical thinking muscles. Moreover, ecocriticism’s blending of environmental science and literary studies can help science lovers get more into literature (and vice versa). Also, readers who enjoy expressing themselves creatively can take ecocritical analysis a step further by creating their own nature poetry, art, music, and drama.
The best news? There are tons of literature by Latinx and Latin American authors that kids can explore with an ecocritical lens. Below are some great books for readers of all ages that feature various types of nature motifs. (Special thanks to Lila Quintero Weaver, Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, Cindy L. Rodriguez, and Cecilia Cackley for their rich contributions to this list of suggested books!)
It’s Our Garden (George Ancona)
Kids get their hands dirty and grow food for their community in this nonfiction tale about a school garden.
Prietita and the Ghost Woman / PRIETITA Y LA LLORONA (Gloria Anzaldúa, Maya Christina Gonzalez)
Prietita wanders the South Texas woods seeking a medicinal plant for her ailing mother. What will happen when she meets la Llorona?
Domitila y el mar (Nina Basich, Teresa Martínez)
After receiving a postcard from her uncle, who’s vacationing at the beach, Domitila can’t get the sea out of her head. (Text in Spanish.)
I Know the River Loves Me / Yo sé que el río me ama (Maya Christina Gonzalez)
Can a child and a river be best friends? Of course!
Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra (Jorge Argueta, Lucía Angela Pérez)
In this sumptuous collection of poetry, Argueta explores his childhood connections with the earth.
Chavela and the Magic Bubble (Monica Brown, Magaly Morales)
Magical bubble gum takes Chavela back in time to visit a grove of sapodilla trees and the people who harvest their chicle in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Silver People: VOICES OF THE PANAMA CANAL (Margarita Engle)
This collection of poems about the construction of the Panama Canal is narrated not only by humans, but also by animals and plants.
The Dreamer (Pam Muñoz Ryan)
As an adult, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda often incorporated nature into his work. This account follows the young Neruda (born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto) and his encounters with the natural world.
Esperanza Rising (Pam Muñoz Ryan)
Forced off of their wealthy ranch in Mexico, Esperanza and her mother immigrate to California to work the land.
Where the Flame Trees Bloom (Alma Flor Ada)
Natural imagery permeates Alma Flor Ada’s stories of her childhood in Cuba.
My Ocean: A Novel of Cuba (Enrique Pérez Díaz)
Struggling to understand why friends and family are leaving Cuba for the United States, Enrique seeks solace and comfort in the ocean.
Under the Mesquite (Guadalupe García McCall)
Wrestling with her mother’s cancer diagnosis and the responsibility of caring for her siblings, Lupita seeks refuge and resilience in the shade of a tree.
The Vicious Deep (Zoraida Córdova)
Nature meets fantasy! Tristan has always loved the water – a love that begins to make sense when he discovers that he’s heir to an underwater kingdom.
Out of Darkness (Ashley Hope Pérez)
The East Texas woods are a place of safety for Naomi and Wash as they cope with violence and racism.
Marianne Snow Campbell is a doctoral student at The University of Georgia, where she researches nonfiction children’s books about Latin@ and Latin American topics and teaches an undergraduate course on children’s literature. Before graduate school, she taught pre-K and Kindergarten in Texas, her home state. She misses teaching, loves critters, and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.
In the process of promoting my series for middle-grade kids, Scary School, I’ve discovered that at least half of my readership has turned out to be Latino kids and parents. I think Latino youth are the most voracious readers out there and yet remain under-represented in the works themselves.
I’ll start off by confessing I am not of any Latino heritage, but growing up in Los Angeles, it has always felt like a part of my culture. My mother was an art teacher at the mostly Latino San Fernando High School for over ten years, where she founded LA Mural Project and helped get hundreds of students into college on art scholarships. I studied Spanish in school and later dated a lovely Nicaraguan girl, who ended up becoming the translator for my picture book El Perro Con Sombrero.
The beginning of my journey takes place when the first Scary School book was released in 2011. I was eager to spread the word about it. I formed a fantastic partnership with a Barnes and Noble in Redlands, California, who hosted book fairs at almost every school in the San Bernardino region. Most of these schools were predominantly Latino or dual immersion.
I also worked with After-School All-Stars and performed my Scary School show for dozens of schools all over Southern California in low-income areas, where book sales were never part of the agenda. It was purely about inspiring the kids to love reading and writing and give them a chance to meet a real author.
I cannot begin to describe the enthusiasm and joy from the kids when I made these visits. Perhaps a big part of the reason they were so enthralled was because I was a children’s horror author and they were already fans of books like Goosebumps. During my shows, kids got to scream and make monster noises, as well as ask me questions.
The response of the kids in the Latino-populated schools was always the most enthusiastic and joyful. They LOVED scary stories and monsters! At other schools, just the mention of werewolves, ghosts, and vampires might send nine-year-olds scurrying out of the room in fear, but my Latino audiences challenged me to scare them every time and I had a great time doing it.
One of my most memorable experiences was when a class of students started peppering me with questions about what monsters they would find in the books. One kid named Pedro asked if there was a Cyclops in the book. When I told him there wasn’t, he put on the saddest expression I’d ever seen. He really loved Cyclopes! I assured him that I would write a Cyclops into Scary School #3 if he promised to read the series. He became so happy he screamed “YES!” and we both fulfilled our ends of the bargain.
Over the last five years, I estimate that at least 50% of my readership is from the Latino audience. One of the main characters of the Scary School series is named Ramon the zombie kid. I don’t make a big deal about his background in the books or even during the shows, but I always notice smiles from the kids when, just because of the name, they know there’s a character they can relate to. (He’s the zombie on the cover of Book 1.)
In Scary School #4, which will release this fall, Ramon plays his biggest part yet, which fits with the title Scary School #4: Zillions of Zombies.
Despite the enthusiastic Latino audiences that I’ve witnessed, there are still relatively few U.S. published books that focus on the Latino experience or have Latino main characters, especially in the middle-grade and YA categories.
I want to encourage Latino writers to consider writing stories designed for 7-12 year olds and teens. While it’s easy for young kids to become excited about books, grabbing the attention of older kids is more challenging. Books centered on their experiences would go a long way toward increasing readership.
Parents can encourage their kids’ reading by making regular and fun-filled trips to the bookstore or library. Allowing kids to find books that excite them means they’ll be more likely to read them. For reluctant readers, setting up a reward system at home can be very beneficial, especially if this includes not only the books they read on their own, but also those that parents read with them. Reading is like exercise for the brain, and just like with sports, the more practice the brain gets, the more success kids will have in school and throughout their lives.
Derek Taylor Kent is also known as Derek the Ghost. He is the author of the middle-grade book series Scary School. His bilingual picture book El Perro Con Sombrero is new this year. It’s about a street dog named Pepe who happens upon a lucky sombrero that turns his life around. For more information about Derek’s books and projects, please visit DerekTaylorKent.com. At a special site for kids, ScarySchool.com, visitors can tour Scary School, read a secret chapter, and play video games.
By Cindy L. Rodriguez
A reader’s experience, even with a shared text, is dependent on so many things, including background knowledge, interest in the subject, interest in reading in general, and engagement in the moment. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this subjectivity of reading, how one person can have a completely different reaction to a book than another. As a teacher, I’ve gained a whole new level of understanding about the reader’s experience.
When I taught middle school language arts with regular-sized classes, I experienced a typical range of responses from students. When I became a reading specialist, however, the response to reading was more consistent. My students are what’s called reluctant readers. Many of them hate to read, and they all score well below their peers on reading assessments. Of the 27 students who receive reading intervention with me this year, 85 percent are of color and almost half are Latin@. In 2010, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s article, “The Latino Education Crisis,” stated Latin@s are the least educated ethnic group. More recent statistics indicate both good and not-so-good news. The Latin@ dropout rate has dropped significantly, but remains higher than other groups. Meanwhile, the number of Latin@s in college has tripled in ten years, but Latin@s lag behind other groups in obtaining a four-year degree.
Each school year is an opportunity to change these statistics by helping students become better readers.
When I ask my students why they don’t like to read, their most common answers are these: It’s too hard. It’s confusing. It’s boring. It’s too long. I just don’t like it. I can’t connect to it. I have better things to do with my time.
My job, then, is to help them become better readers and hopefully love a book or two or more. In other words, I have to find ways to alter their previous reading experiences. I have to help them find books that aren’t too hard or boring or too long. Books that they can connect with and think are worth their time.
In some ways, this should be easy because libraries have thousands of books to choose from, but this is what happens when I take my students to the library: Some wander around aimlessly with a “get me out of here” look on their face. Some are enthusiastic, which is great, but have no idea what to do. I ask about their favorite author or genre, but they don’t have one. If I keep asking questions, I’ll usually get enough information to guide them to the right area. But, then they are faced with a wall of books and don’t know where to start.
Once, I gave a girl a specific title to find and told her to check the spine for the author’s last name. After a while, she called me over and said the book wasn’t there, that all of these books were written by FIC.
I share this not to make fun of her–because it really isn’t funny–but to shed light on the reality that some middle schoolers don’t know how to navigate a library or the world of books in general. They haven’t read enough in their lives and/or their reading experiences have probably to this point been mandated by school curricula. As a result, their identity as readers doesn’t exist at all or has been completely shaped by others. This is partly due to what they’ve been told “counts” when it comes to reading.
One boy told me he liked cars, but the library had no books on cars. Hmm, really? When I showed him the nonfiction area filled with books about cars, he said, “But these aren’t stories.” And then, I got it. He didn’t think nonfiction counted. Maybe he has been told this, or maybe he’s been encouraged to read fiction more often. I don’t know, but his desire to read nonfiction about cars was derailed somewhere along the way. Happy ending: he checked out two nonfiction books that day and the librarian ordered Lowriders in Space. So cool (the book and our librarian). And yes, I assured him, graphic novels count, too.
Here are things my students have said:
I like audio books, but that’s cheating.
But, it’s a graphic novel.
But it’s nonfiction.
It’s too short. My teacher said it has to be at least 200 pages.
I don’t like this book, but my teacher said I have to finish it.
These comments pain me.
Because if we say audio books don’t count, then aren’t we negating the tradition of oral storytelling?
If we say graphic novels don’t count, then aren’t we negating the entire field of the visual arts?
If we say something is too short, aren’t we invalidating the short story, the novella, poetry, books in verse, non-fiction articles, or picture books?
If we tell someone to finish an independent reading book he dislikes, then isn’t it no longer independent reading? We’ve taken away his ability to choose what he wants to read and drop what he doesn’t like.
So, we’re sometimes telling readers that their choices don’t count, they aren’t good enough, and this, then, is coupled with the reader’s feelings that reading is boring, hard, and not worthy of his or her time.
So what does that leave us? Classes like mine with students who have had limited, difficult reading experiences.
But, don’t worry, this story has a happy ending.
After 15 years of teaching, but especially after the last five as a reading specialist, I have learned that the reader’s experience is diverse, and therefore, we must learn to accept diverse reading experiences.
What I mean is that I think we’re willing to accept that a reader’s experience is diverse based on personal history, background knowledge, interest, and skill, but we don’t often accept diverse reading experiences, especially with younger people.
For example, I’m never told by anyone not to listen to audiobooks, so why should I tell a student it’s cheating?
Ninth graders often read Of Mice and Men, which is 103 pages, but we tell a middle school student she can’t read a book less than 200 pages. Why?
And believe me, I am well versed on the Common Core State Standards and well aware of how competitive schools and the workplace have become. I know the statistics that tell us if a child is not reading on grade level by the third grade, he may never read on grade level without the proper intervention. I understand the push for rigor and the expectation that all people read certain books in high school and college.
At the same time, though, what most studies tell us is that the number one thing that affects a person’s lifelong reading skills is independent reading–self-selected reading that supplements, complements, or challenges in-class reading.
And when people read independently, they should be protected by the Reader’s Bill of Rights.
So, if we want all children to develop an independent reading habit, we have to allow them to truly self-select reading material and we have to be okay with their choices. If they want to read a graphic novel or comic book, fine. If they want to listen to an audio book, awesome. If they want to read an 85 page book, go for it.
Chances are if they do these things, and feel successful, they just might do it again and again and again. And then maybe they’ll start reading longer and more complex things, and they won’t see reading as hard or boring or not worth their time. Maybe then they will be able to navigate the library and decide on a favorite genre or author. Maybe as they get older, they will graduate from high school, reducing the dropout rate even more. Maybe more will earn four-year degrees. And maybe they will then read to their children, who will become avid readers, too. And a simple thing adults can do now to help this along is not to say, “That’s too short, too easy, or doesn’t count.” Instead, support young readers’ diverse choices and allow them to develop their own reading experiences.
Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming an educator. She and her daughter live in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.
By Kelly Jones
So, you’re a writer, and you’ve written a book. You’ve gotten feedback, polished it, and now it’s being published. Congratulations!
Or, maybe you found a book you love, and you want to help spread the word about it!
But, how do you get it into readers’ hands? For that, you may want some help from booksellers, librarians, and teachers. Here’s how to help them discover and share your book with readers!
A “booktalk” is a tool to help readers decide if a book is right for them. If you can share a 30-second booktalk that librarians and booksellers can use with readers, that can make their jobs much easier!
Some ways booktalks are used:
An example for my novel, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, which releases May 12 with Knopf Books for Young Readers:
“Unusual Chickens is a book about twelve-year-old Sophie and her magic chickens. When Sophie’s dad loses his job, she and her parents move from Los Angeles to the Northern California farm they inherited. Sophie doesn’t feel like she fits in – she’s Latina and isn’t used to living in a mostly-white neighborhood – so she writes diary-like letters to her beloved abuela, who recently died. Pretty soon, she’s trying to keep a telekinetic chicken, an invisible chicken, and a super-fast chicken safe from a chicken thief, all while making a friend and getting to know her new community.”
What makes a good booktalk?
It’s conversational. Booktalks are part of a conversation about books; they should be an easy way to tell someone about your book, and they should feel natural to the speaker. Consider starting with words like “This is a book about…” “Imagine you are…” “What if…”
The first line hooks readers.
Sometimes even 30 seconds is too long, and you need a one-sentence booktalk. If you only got to share the first sentence of your booktalk, would that be enough to hook a reader? Work on it, then test it out on readers.
It’s memorable and intriguing. We all hear about hundreds of “great books” – what makes this book perfect for the right readers? What details will help readers remember it? How would a reader ask for this book? What makes it not only memorable, but intriguing to the perfect reader?
It gives the reader clues, so they can make a decision. Clues such as the age of the protagonist, the culture(s) in the story, the location, the genre, and what happens can all help the reader to decide whether the book sounds like something they’d like to read. I especially like to include clues that tell readers if a book might be a mirror (a book they can see themselves in) or a window (a world they’d like to experience through a book). Unusual Chickens isn’t primarily about Sophie’s experience as a modern Latina girl – it’s about her magic chickens. But who she is can be an important clue for readers, so I include her heritage in my booktalk.
It contains specific details, but not too many. There are more cool details in any book than will fit in a booktalk – let some surprise and delight the reader who picks it up! Do include specific details – they’re what make your book different from all the others — but choose just a few, or the reader may be overwhelmed.
So, you have a booktalk for your book! Now let’s find some booksellers and librarians to share it with.
Start local. Visit your local bookstore and/or library, and get to know the book people who work there! I like to start by finding people who like the books I like, and books that are similar to my book. I check displays and recommendations by staff, and ask the people who work there if anyone can recommend a book that’s similar to one I liked.
Share your book as part of your conversation. I like to start conversations with a compliment (“What a beautiful display – I love that you’re celebrating diverse reads!”) or a question (“Can you help me find other middle grade novels about chickens?”) Once we’re talking about other writers’ books, I feel more comfortable talking about mine (“My book about a Latina girl and her magic chickens comes out in May from Random House – I’m so excited!”)
When someone asks about your book, share your booktalk. You want to memorize the basic details and be able to work them into a conversation, not read from a script. It doesn’t need to be exactly the same words every time – and it shouldn’t sound like you’re reciting a speech. (That isn’t how you’d tell your friends about your book, right?) If it’s too long for you to remember, no one else will remember it either – try a shorter one! This is your chance to help a bookseller or librarian pick which details to tell readers about. Pay attention to what intrigues them, what they ask about, and what they don’t seem as interested in.
What if you don’t have a local bookstore, or you don’t feel comfortable talking to people in person about your book? Try finding booksellers and librarians online!
Use your booktalk online. People looking for more information about you and your book will find it and share it, if they find it on your blog or through social media and it intrigues them. Your booktalk can help book people share your book with readers even if they haven’t had a chance to read your book themselves yet.
Find your book people. Try the Twitter hashtag #librarylife, search for bookstores’ social media pages, read professional reviews such as School Library Journal, and pay attention to online mentions. What bookstores are hosting your favorite authors? Who gave your book a glowing review? What booksellers chose the Kids’ Indie Next titles? Are they on social media? Follow them! Who are they following? Follow them, too! (Latin@s in KidLit is an awesome starting place, of course!!)
Talk about other people’s books! Book people love to talk about books. So join in! Is a bookseller or librarian looking for book suggestions? Share one! Have you just read an amazing book, or learned about a book you’re excited to read – or that you think some readers might really love? Talk about it! Is there a book that inspired you? Share it! Challenge yourself to an extra-short booktalk of someone else’s book, using specific details rather than “great” or “awesome”.
Then, talk about your book, too! Sneak peeks, exciting moments, the kinds of details you share in your booktalk – these are all great to share on social media! But, do try to keep thinking about the reader’s perspective: What can you share that will help the perfect readers find your book, or share it with other readers? What will excite readers and convince them that this is a book they might love? Share that!
Librarians, booksellers, and teachers: please share your thoughts! What helps you share books with readers? How can authors help you find the right readers for their books?
Kelly Jones is a curious person, interested in chickens, magic, farm life, spies, sewing, the odd everyday bits of history, how to make sauerkraut, how to walk goats, superheroes and what makes them so super, recipes to make with a lot of eggs, anything with ghosts (particularly friendly ghosts), how to draw chickens that actually look like chickens, and any story she’s never heard before.
She’s also a writer: Her debut novel Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, about twelve-year-old Sophie and her magical chickens, is forthcoming from Knopf Books For Young Readers in May of 2015.
Her second book, Glamour, is set in 1818, England, about sixteen-year-old Annis, who would like to become a spy like her father and who does not see why the War Office should put up such a fuss (with bonus magical dressmaking!) is forthcoming from Knopf Books for Young Readers in Spring of 2017.