Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors: Kim Baker

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Kim Baker.

Kim Baker’s first middle grade novel, PICKLE, has been selected for many reading lists and was a CBC Children’s Choice Awards Book of the Year finalist, a Texas Bluebonnet Award finalist, and an SCBWI Crystal Kite winner. Her next book, THE WATER BEARS, will be released from Wendy Lamb Books, Random House on April 21, 2020. When she was thirteen, she lived above an old theater and drove a rusty VW van to odd jobs. Now she lives in Seattle, near tide pools but usually far from bears. Find more at www.kimbakerbooks.com

Water Bears releases tomorrow, April 21, 2020.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

Newt Gomez has a thing with bears. Last year, he survived a bear attack. And this year, he finds an unusual bear statue that just might grant wishes. Newt’s best friend, Ethan, notices a wishbone on the statue and decides to make a wish. When it comes true, Newt thinks it’s a coincidence. Even as more people wish on the bear and their wishes come true, Newt is not convinced.

But Newt has a wish too: while he loves his home on eccentric Murphy Island, he wants to go to middle school on the mainland, where his warm extended family lives. There, he’s not the only Latinx kid, he won’t have to drive the former taco truck–a gift from his parents–and he won’t have to perform in the talent show. Most importantly, on the mainland, he never has bad dreams about the attack. Newt is almost ready to make a secret wish when everything changes.

Tackling themes of survival and self-acceptance, Newt’s story illuminates the magic in our world, where reality is often uncertain but always full of salvageable wonders.

 

Kim Baker

KimBaker_headshot

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

I wanted to be a writer for my whole life. I love reading. I love spending time around books and story makers. Shelves of books are my happy place. I volunteered after school in the school library during fourth and fifth grade. I would bike across town to go to the used bookstore and soak up that vanilla smell that comes off the yellow pages. Some of my favorite places are libraries and bookstores. My parents and teachers were supportive, so I wrote a lot as a kid. My second grade teacher, Ms. Moyer, wrote, “Hope to see you as a writer someday!” in my yearbook. She probably wrote that in every student’s yearbook, but I took it to HEART. I felt like she really saw me that way. For a long time, I didn’t think writing stories for a living was practical, so I pursued other careers. After a move, I switched gears and took writing classes when my kids were little. I got involved in our regional SCBWI community. I attended conferences and workshops, read craft books, and wrote crappy stories. I honed my abilities and took a shot. Now, I’m inspired to keep writing by the book community. I want to stay in this club forever.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

Sometimes, when I teach workshops, I have writers make a list of their five favorite books growing up. Not just the first ones they remember, but the ones that they identified with that filled their hearts. It’s a good gauge to find where your voice might be. Most of my favorites came from the middle grade years. They call it the golden age of reading, when kids pick out more of their own books and look for those windows and mirrors. It’s outwardly focused as kids look for where they might fit in the world. When I really started diving in and considering middle grade as a direction, I’m continuously amazed by how much great writing and potential there is with the form.

I didn’t have a lot in common with the characters as a kid because they didn’t reflect a lot about my life. There weren’t a lot of Latinx families, or working class families, or blended families. I really like that stories are reflecting more realities now and giving kids those opportunities to see themselves as the heroes.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

The quality of middle grade novels is amazing these days! There’s so much more choice now than when I was young. It’s so hard to narrow down, but I’ll read anything by Kate Messner, Jason Reynolds, Meg Medina, or Rebecca Stead. We’ve seen some amazing debut novels in the last couple of years— Front Desk by Kelly Yang, The Line Tender by Kate Allen, I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day, Into the Tall, Tall, Grass by Loriel Ryon, and Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. And I’m preordering so many books by new Latinx authors, like my fellow writers in Las Musas. How cool is that?

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

I would say that anything is possible and never to count myself out.

Q. Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

They offer hope.

 

Also by Kim Baker:

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads

Book Review: Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School by Kim Baker

 

13170031By Kimberly Mach

DESCRIPTION FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK:

Dear Parents and Teachers:

This is a work of fiction. There is no Prank and Trick Association at Fountain Point Middle School. And you absolutely will not find instructions on how to log in to a top-secret prank instruction website anywhere on these pages. All we do is make pickles. OK?

Sincerely,

Ben Diaz

President, The League of Pickle Makers

MY TWO CENTS: Now, if the description above won’t get a child to pick up a book, I’m not sure what will.

Kim Baker had me laughing from the first page. The book opens with this line: Can I trust you? She had me hooked right there, with all that the question implies.

There are so many ways to talk about Pickle because it really is a perfect middle-grade novel. Kids will laugh out loud, and they may even go scrambling to create their own prank clubs. Beyond the laughter, they will identify with the ever-changing landscape of middle school friendships. Ben Diaz, the main character, creates a Prank Club, under the guise of a Pickle Makers Club. Due to an earlier incident, Ben does not invite his best friend Oliver into the club. (Oliver’s grandmother is the school principal and Oliver, well, Ben thinks Oliver just can’t be trusted to keep the secret.) Reading it, I found myself wondering what the halls of my school would look like if there were bubbles in the fountains or impromptu parties in the classrooms. Throughout the mayhem, lessons are woven in. Ben learns about himself, his new friends, and just how ‘off’ we can be when we try to label each other, but most of all he learns what kind of friendship he and Oliver really have. Spoiler alert: It’s made of the strong stuff. There are lessons here in action and reaction, consequences and the impact of our decisions, and they are all told masterfully through the eyes and comedy of young Ben Diaz.

As an adult reader, what resonated with me was the very real problem of what isn’t in our history books. For Pioneer Day, Ben and his friends have to present something pickled for the Pioneer Fair. If they don’t, they will lose their funding from the PTA and that will be the end of the Pickle Club and the secret Prank Club.

What to do? Ben turns to his family. They frequently serve escabeche, or pickled vegetables, at their Mexican restaurant. Ben sees that escabeche can be their entry for the fair. Then Ben hesitates. He asks the kind of question that many of our children who do not see themselves reflected on the pages of history books wonder about: Were there Mexican pioneers?

Ben goes on to say: “I’ve never seen any in the pictures. It’s always just a bunch of white guys.” And then later, the realization that, “It doesn’t mean they weren’t there.” Ben begins searching.

The time period for our children is different from that of my youth. In my youth, we may have asked the question, but because of available resources, we probably could not have answered it, at least not in a timely fashion. The internet has allowed people and organizations to post information and share resources in a much more efficient manner. When Ben wonders about pioneers from Mexico, he does not have to go far to find that reliable source. Instead of spending an afternoon at the town hall archives, he can answer it with the click of a button. As an adult, I could not escape the implications of Ben’s memory when he recalls being criticized in kindergarten for using the brown paper to make his Pilgrims for Thanksgiving. There are so many who were skimmed over in the history books, but the information is there if we ask the questions. Step one is teaching our children to ask. Where are the women in this picture? Who worked in the factories? Why does this city have a Spanish name? What happened when native peoples went to reservations? Ben chooses to share an authentic pickling recipe from Mexico. It may not be the pickle recipe people were expecting at the fair, but it is delicious and the scene, of course, is memorable. Trust me, you’ll be cheering for him when he has a conversation with Principal Lebonsky about traditional recipes.

TEACHING TIPS: This book would be an excellent read-aloud in the classroom, appropriate for grades 3-6. It can be enjoyed for the humor and story, or a teacher can choose to take the lessons further.

Language Arts: Life-size character sketches are one extension idea. Brief descriptions of each character are on the front jacket of the book. Many children will see themselves reflected in the personalities and the ethnicities of Ben and his friends. Traits can be filled in as readers follow the story, with life-size versions being presented at the end.

Social Studies: Many upper elementary and early middle school grades study pioneer days as part of their curriculum. Reading Pickle may encourage students to ask the important questions and to look more deeply at the pictures of people in their own state and communities.

The escabeche could be the beginning to a small unit on preserving food both in the past and now. Compare and contrast, how did Native Americans preserve food? When were other methods introduced?  What are traditional foods of the region? How are they preserved today?  The possibilities are endless here.

Enjoy the book. Readers of all ages will love it. When you are done, visit Kim Baker’s website at http://kimbakerbooks.com/ and enjoy her voice and humor there.

Pickle is Kim Baker’s debut novel and has already received five awards including the Louisiana Young Reader’s Choice 2015 nominee, 2014-2015 Texas Blue Bonnet Award Nominee, and the 2013 SCBWI West Crystal Kite award.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT Pickle visit your local library or bookstore. Also, check out WorldCat.orgIndieBound.orgGoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Kimberly Mach has been teaching for sixteen years and holds two teaching certificates in elementary and secondary education. Her teaching experience ranges from grades five to twelve, but she currently teaches Language Arts to middle school students. It is a job she loves. The opportunity to share good books with students is one that every teacher should have. She feels privileged to be able to share them on a daily basis.

Mixed Up: Author Kim Baker Navigates a Bicultural Narrative

By Kim Baker

I’m bicultural. My grandparents on my mom’s side eloped and migrated from Mexico to New Mexico where they had babies and my grandpa worked in the coal mines until, lungs destroyed, they moved again to East Los Angeles for better weather. My uncle can tell you about how cramped it was with all the kids in the backseat. Sunshine couldn’t save my grandpa, but most of my family is still around the area. My dad is Anglo and from Texas. His side of the family has been in the states so long, nobody knows for sure from where they originally migrated. So, like lots of people, I’ve got a mixed ethnicity. Culture is a weird thing. It’s shared customs and distinct experiences. I’m ridiculously pale, and I have my husband’s surname so people are often surprised to hear about my Mexican heritage. When people do find out (and I’m pretty open about it), sometimes we play stereotype bingo and they ask questions to see if I meet their preconceived qualifications (Do I have a big family? Yes. Do I like spicy foods? …Yes. Do I listen to mariachi? Please stop.).

I consider myself Latina, and proud. This is me, the grouchy one covering her face in front, with a small portion of my family. My cousin Joey is mortified that I share this picture because he is self-conscious about how much leg he’s showing in those cutoffs.

Maciasfamily

Now I feel guilty about sharing it, so I will also tell you that later that day I threw up an Orange Julius at the mall and tried to hide it under a t-shirt rack. That’s worse than knobby knees.

When I was a lonely kid, books were my escape. I never really saw myself in books until I was older. There’d be bits in stories here and there (e.g. A kid in the book loved horses, and I was a horse nut. Harriet was overly curious about people? Me, too!). And maybe, in part, because of how I didn’t see myself as a whole in books as a kid, I often feel different and separate from those around me. Feeling abnormal in itself is a pretty shared understanding (We’re ALL weirdos!), but having a bicultural identity certainly magnifies the experience. Granted, I was getting most of my books from a Wyoming library that underestimated its Latino population by at least a few, so there were probably more stories out there than I wasn’t finding.

I grew up in Wyoming, where I could count the other non-Anglo kids at my school on one hand. My mom missed her family, missed the sunshine, missed seeing people like her, so we’d drive to East L.A. in the summertime to visit. My grandma and aunts would make all of the foods we couldn’t get in Wyoming and bring my favorite orejas from the panadería. Some of my cousins would tease me about my pale skin (I look just like my dad.), so I’d sit on the porch and watch my also shy uncle tend his jasmine and geraniums while the rest of the family visited inside. You could hear them laughing all the way down the block. We’d go back to Wyoming and I’d ride horses, trudge through snow, and eat American foods. The taco shells and beans in my hometown grocery store were labeled as “Spanish Foods.” I always felt a bit disconnected and different, no matter where I was. My parents split up and I lived with my mom in New Mexico and California. I was in primarily Latino communities, but still stood apart because of my Anglo features. Kids called me gringa and worse. I read more. My school didn’t have a library, the town didn’t have a bookstore, and the public library’s shelves were pretty spare, but I found what I could. I identified with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders being from the wrong side of the tracks, but found nothing about Mexican-American kids or mixed culture kids. I would have been overjoyed to find Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl in Pieces as a teen.

13170031The protagonist in my first book, Pickle, is straight up Mexican American. The main character in my next novel is a mixed Latino like me, and writing has been a little bit more of a personal journey. I’ve taken a little longer with it, because I want to do it right. There’s so much I want to include, and I’m still working on how much serves the story. I know that there are other writers out there who balance between environments and depend on cultural code-switching to find their way. And there are kids that are looking for those stories, that need them. Books are touchstones. Identity, displacement, and belonging are important themes in middle grade and YA fiction that can reach all readers. The crazy thing about the loneliness of feeling different from our peers is that it’s probably one of our most communal traits. So, as a writer, I’ll continue to write about Latino kids and put little pieces of myself and my world in there. I implore you to do the same. And putting your truth into stories isn’t necessarily autobiographical. I think the best stories come from combining what you love with what you wish there was a story about.

Every kid should be able to find mirrors on the bookshelves, and it’s especially crucial for those of us who might struggle to fit into their worlds. Let’s put more stories out there, because you can’t always tell who might need them.

 

BakerBWheadshotKim’s debut middle grade novel, Pickle (Macmillan), was a finalist for the 2013 Children’s Choice Awards, Book of the Year (5th and 6th grade), one of Mamiverse’s Top 50 Latino Children’s Books You Should Know, and the recipient of the 2013 SCBWI Crystal Kite West award. She lives with her family in Seattle and can often be found in the woods, despite a chronic fear of bears. Find out more at www.kimbakerbooks.com.