Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Brown Books for White Children. Etc.

A couple of weeks ago I got to be part of the Southern Festival of Books, a great big literary party in downtown Nashville. It was excellent. I shared a ride from the airport with Javaka Steptoe, and was so in awe when I discovered who he was that I said, "I loved Radiant Stepchild. (For the record, it's Radiant Child. He was very nice about me sounding like an asshat.) I got to present with Alan Gratz, author of Refugee. And I got to hang out with my favorite booksellers, from Parnassus Books; my daughter, on her fall break, worked Saturday in their tent.

At one point my daughter came up to me. "I just saw," she said, "a perfect example of why we need more diversity in children's books." She pointed to a little girl holding her mother's hand--a little black girl, perhaps four years old, dressed in a Supergirl dress with a flouncy bright red tulle skirt. "That girl," said my daughter, "she stopped and looked at one of the book covers, and she counted, 'one curly-hair, two curly-hair, three curly-hair!' Then she said, 'Mama, look! Three of the girls on this book have curly hair!' and her mother said, 'That's right. Curly hair like you.'"

It's a really, really simple thing. You are an important part of this world. Your hair, your skin, your smile--your songs, your food--everything you love is true and real and important to the whole world. Your history is important. Your family is important. You are part of the world's stories. Whoever, however, whatever you are.

Which brings me to today's rant. Because last week Nic Stone's incredible new YA novel, Dear Martin, debuted at #4 on the NYT Bestseller List, right under Angie Thomas's equally amazing The Hate U Give, and all of a sudden, to some white writers at least, this was Taking Diversity Too Far. A white writer, Seriah Getty, tweeted that diversity had to be representational,  "Will I include diversity (race, age, gender, disabilities) in my books? Heck ya! But when it fits the story, and serves a purpose. Not just to throw it in there solely for the purpose of being "sensitive" or fit the times."

This caused a fair bit of outrage that she still does not seem to understand. It horrified me. Not the outrage--the ignorance, the continued willful ignorance, the hardened shell of white supremacy, the distance we still have to go. Because diversity is normal. White is not normal. Ablebodied, heterosexual, cisgender--not normal. Not the default. Except that it still is, so many places, so many times, and I am so so sorry and so tired of it.

If you're white, and your white kid mostly reads books about brown kids this year--if those books are assigned to your kid, if what your kid is reading doesn't look like your kid or have anything to do with your kid's lived experiences--get in line. That's what we've done, over and over, to all sorts of non-white kids. For years. For decades. Forever. And if as white people we feel a little uncomfortable when our surroundings aren't 100% white anymore--that would be the effing point. Be a little uncomfortable. Let your children be a little uncomfortable. Let them see for one tiny minute what it's like to not have themselves constantly validated as the normative standard.

Let the little girl in the red tulle dress skip her fingers of a book that shows smiling children with hair exactly like hers.

"What's this book called, Mama?"
The mother looks, and smiles. "'Beautiful,'" she says.*

*Beautiful by Stacy McAnulty and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Here's a Reading Rant for the day--and forever

Teachers, help me out.

I seem to have found a life's passion here. I'm working on all sorts of things, and I don't yet have a coherent message, but let's just plunge in.

A few weeks ago, prepping for a talk I was giving at the Tennessee Association of School Librarians meeting at the start of my 19-day book tour, I came across some staggering statistics--brand new from 2016.

In Tennessee, of public-school fourth-graders receiving free or reduced-price school lunch (that is, 180% of the admittedly-low federal poverty line), 22% tested in reading at proficient or above;

while among public-school fourth-graders NOT receiving free or reduced-price school lunch, 88% tested at proficient or above.

This staggered me.

Now, correlation is not causation. The link between poverty and reading success could be explained many, many ways. And I wondered how my TN stats compared nationwide. I found the following at the National Center for Education Statistics: 2015 data, again fourth graders.

Nationwide, lunch-eligible students at or above proficient: 21%
                      non-free-lunch students at or above proficient: 52%

So not as large, but still, to my mind, shocking.

Children who don't read proficiently by fourth grade are more likely to drop out of high school.
Adults who fail to graduate high school make something like $10,000 a year less than high school graduates who don't attend college.

We have got to get more kids reading.

Access to books is a primary concern: the only data I have is pretty old, but says that middle-class neighborhoods average 13 books per child; low-income neighborhoods average 300 children per book. This makes sense to me: if you can't afford rent or food you're not going to be buying books. And yes, libraries, but that requires transportation, time to get to the library, and a permanent address.

So then I've been looking at the teaching of reading, and what motivates children to read, and this is where I need help from educators. Because it seems like what most schools are doing is at cross purposes to their goals.

Take Accelerated Readers. I hate them. I do not know a single author or librarian who doesn't hate them, and most teachers I've talked to hate them too. We turn reading into something students do for "points," not fun. It demotivates readers. More than that, it's just insane. Last week I had an email from a mother asking when the AR quiz would be coming out for my new book, The War I Finally Won. Her son had read The War That Saved My Life, and loved it, and he was eager to read TWIFW, but, you know, she couldn't let him--he needed points for his reading. I told her that I had no idea.  AR is a company that make money selling the quizzes and systems to schools. I've taken quizzes on my own books and not gotten a perfect score, because the quizzes are stupid. They're designed to prove the kid read the book, not to prove that the kid understood it, or thought anything meaningful about it.

Then, Lexiles. What the actual F? Apparently children take Lexile tests to show how strong of readers they are, and, after that, they're only supposed to read in a range right around their Lexile level--nothing too hard, nothing too easy. The problem here is two-fold. One, we're discouraging love of reading by throwing up barriers to books kids might love. If they're obsessed with dinosaurs, they should read all the dinosaur books you can throw at them.

As adults, how many times do we pick up a book because it's at the correct lexile for our reading level? How many times do we set down that fun-looking current piece of chick-lit and, instead, eagerly pick up Moby Dick? That's right, never. Because we read what interests us. Full stop. Why shouldn't children do the same?

The second problem with Lexile numbers is that they make no sense at all. I've spent a bit of time looking them up this morning.

Les Miserables, the original doorstop novel by Victor Hugo, in translation of course: 1010L.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down: 1010L.

You can not tell me that one of these books is as easily read as the other.

Let's look at a few other numbers:

The War I Finally Won (my new book, 400 pages long): 520L (a number that suggests it's appropriate for many 2nd graders)
Pop! A Book About Bubbles (picture book I wrote for preK): 540L
Dear Martin: 570L (that would be, no higher than 3rd grade!)
The Hate U Give: 590 (ditto!)
Last Stop on Market Street: 610
Oliver Twist: 900
Little House in the Big Woods: 930
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the first one, others are higher): 950

Please, I really mean this. Help me understand how this makes sense. What am I not getting? Because this seems like complete crap to me. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Hello from the Book Tour

Good morning! I'm in Baltimore, at a Hilton Garden Hotel, and I've got 8 minutes until official checkout time and 53 minutes before I'm picked up by someone who's taking me to the airport. It's the third Friday of my book tour. I'm headed to Nashville, for the Southern Festival of Books (I'll be speaking tomorrow in the Nashville Public Library, at 3 pm, with Alan Gratz, please come) and then I'm going home. Mostly I've been touring schools and libraries, but this morning I video chatted with librarians and educators in Nebraska. The schoolchildren of Nebraska gave The War That Saved My Life this year's Golden Sower award, and while I couldn't manage to be physically present at the awards ceremony I very much enjoyed talking to them.

I've been talking a lot. I woke up Wednesday with a cold and today I've very nearly lost my voice, so I'm grateful I don't have school visits today. But the school visits in general have been excellent. I love talking to kids who are enthusiastic for my books, and I love talking to kids who are indifferent to my books. I've been trying to convince them all that reading is not about decoding squiggly lines on a page. Reading is about telling and hearing and understanding stories. I felt like I'd succeeded when a fifth grade girl stood up and said, "I have dyslexia. Do you think I could actually be a writer?"

I said, "Of course you can," and the girl beamed.
I hope she always understands I was telling her the truth.

The whole tour is about the launch of Ada's second book, The War I Finally Won. Wednesday I learned that on October 22nd it's debuting at #3 on the New York Times Bestsellers List. This is amazing. It's astounding. It's everyone-at-Penguin-was-dancing-in-the-hallways and I-couldn't-stop-laughing-even-though-I-was-on-my-second-box-of-Kleenex-for-the-day-and-felt-inspid-glorious. Thank you, everyone.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Happy Birthday, and Thank You.

Today is my Book Birthday, the official release date of my new novel, The War I Finally Won. It's a fabulous day, as pleasing to me as my recent actual birthday--and I loved my actual birthday.

I find I have something to say:

--to the 500 sixth-graders crammed yesterday onto a middle-school cafeteria floor, who listened to every word I said;

--to the student yesterday who handed me a copy of Jefferson's Sons for signing and said, "Thank you for writing this;"

--to the student yesterday who confided to me that they were being raised in foster care, and that when I said, "That's hard. You must be strong and brave," looked me dead in the eye and said, "I am strong and brave;"

--to the parent last night with tears in their eyes, telling me how TWTSML reflected their own reality of adopting traumatized children;

--to the student in the back row who dabbed when I came in, causing me to dab (in an embarrassing middle-aged white woman kind of way) (which the students nevertheless received with touching enthusiasm) on my way out;

--to whoever stuck the sign next to the white board for one of my presentations yesterday that read, "Kimberly Brubaker Bradley--welcome home;"

--to whoever wrote the early review saying, "Ada is for the ages;"

--to my author friends who thought 9 revisions astonishingly many, and even more to my (very few) author friends who thought 9 revisions astonishingly few;

--to the 50 or so people at Penguin Random House who worked very very hard to turn my words into an actual physical marketed on-sale book;

--to my agent, Ginger Knowlton, who loved it before anyone else, and that includes the rest of my family;

--to the indomitable Jayne Entwistle, reader of the audio version, who magically matched Ada's physical voice to her true one;

--to my mom, who thought it was better than the first one;

--to my dad, who caught a bad mistake on page 318 that no one else would have;

--to my daughter, who made one crucial change to the ending;

--to my son, who reminded me to try not to suck;

--to my husband, who helps me find the best stories;

--to Jessica Dandino Garrison, my amazing editor. The book is dedicated to her because she worked so hard and well on it that she deserved to have her name on it;

--to all of you who read it and will read it:

Happy Birthday. This book also belongs to you.