Tuesday, January 14, 2020

We Need to Talk About MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU. And Then Everyone Needs to Read it. All of you.

Not the concept, though that's important too. The book, Maybe He Just Likes You, new this year by Barbara Dee.

Because we women have all heard that line. Back in middle school and high school especially. A boy does something that a girl doesn't like--crosses a boundary in some way. Makes a comment, maybe, or touches without asking. Pays no attention when the girl says no. And the behavior gets excused with the comment, "Maybe he just likes you."

I know how much that line resonates because every time I mention this book to another female, woman or girl, they flinch when they hear the title. They said, "I hated that."

Somehow for generations now we've let boys get away with ignoring girls' boundaries. We've tried hard to teach girls that not only is it okay for boys to do this, we should be happy when they do. We should treat it as a sign of affection--affection that must always be tolerated, no matter whether we return it affection or welcome it or not.

"Maybe he just likes you." What if you don't like him?

The book is a novel, not an instruction manual. It's about a seventh-grade girl named Mila. She's got a sister and a group of friends and a mom who's looking for a new job. She's in the band and she takes martial arts classes. And lately the boys in her class have started doing things that make her feel a little uncomfortable. And then a little more uncomfortable. But it's not really wrong--or is it?

Barbara Dee is someone I'm proud to consider a friend (we did a panel at NCTE together this fall; we're reprising it at the Texas Library Association conference in March) and she let me read a very early copy of this manuscript. I loved it so much I wrote her a quote for the cover. I've been a fan of this book for a very long time, and that's why I had over 50 copies available at ALI's free book fair last week, for our local middle school with a total of about 500 sixth through eighth graders. Some of the copies I bought through First Book, whose grant made the book fair possible. Some I begged from the publisher when First Book ran out of stock.

We needed every single one of them.

Middle school students not only need this book, they KNOW they need this book. They want help navigating boundaries and consent. They want to know what to do when they or someone else has gone too far; they want to know what "too far" means. Do they have the right to shut someone else's behavior down? What if someone really does like them? Are they allowed to say no?

We had so many good books at that fair. I was so proud of the diversity and quality and breadth of genre and style. Tracy, my partner in crime, said I looked giddy as we laid out the final copies. I didn't feel giddy. I felt right--like I was doing exactly the work I was supposed to be doing in the world.

The first groups to come in were eighth graders. The very first class, several of the girls picked up Maybe He Just Likes You. (Boys should read it too--but the girls were drawn to it.) Then--this is the part I hadn't expected--those girls talked about the book. Told other girls about the book. Before lunch. So that, as the later classes came in, girls walked right up to me at the start, and said, "Where's 'Maybe He Just Likes You'? Because I want a copy of that."

We had Brown Girl Dreaming, Lalani of the Distant Sea, My Jasper June. Halfway Normal, Raymie Nightingale, Beverly Right Here. Lumberjanes, Real Friends, Ms. Marvel, Pictures of Hollis Woods. (Okay, that one also surprised me with its popularity--until a kid held it up to me and said, 'in foster care. Like me.') We had well over 100 different titles. We had complete free choice--if I ran out of a title kids wanted, I could almost always order more.

Twenty percent of the girls in that middle school chose as one of their three books 'Maybe He Just Likes You.'

Teachers. Your students are telling you something. They need to read this book.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

OMG Do We Have Books!

This morning my daughter and I drove the minivan over to Faith in Action, opened the door to the side room I've been borrowing, and laughed and laughed.

The room was FILLED with boxes. I'd been making orders, but I'd had everything shipped to FIA (thank you, FIA!) and I hadn't really conceptualized how many boxes there would be.

The boxes were filled with books. New, shiny, beautiful books.

My daughter opened the boxes, and I sorted them into middle and elementary school groups, and then we somehow stuffed all the middle school books, in their boxes, into the minivan, and wallowed our way up the road to Virginia Middle School. I'm not going to try to fit that many books in a van again. I did some math in my head, and I don't think we exceeded the weight allowance--but still, we wallowed. And we barely, barely fit, and that was with the back seats down.

Over at the middle school some happy students and the excellent librarian helped us unload the boxes onto carts and take the carts to the library. We took out all the books and stacked them up. It was a thing of startling beauty.

Tomorrow, each and every middle school student will be able to choose 3 books to keep. We've got graphic novels and nonfiction, sports stories, dog stories, the latest from Jason Reynolds and Erin Entrada Kelly, funny stories, sad stories--I look at the books and I'm filled with joy. There are five hundred students in the school Seventy-six percent of them get free lunch. Tomorrow they get free books too.

This is outside Appalachian Literacy Initiative's usual operations. We're able to do it through a great big grant I got from First Book. It was called the OMG Grant--I can't remember what OMG stands for. It wasn't Oh My God, but that's always how I think of it. Oh My God what an abundance of books!

In early December, ironically on Giving Tuesday, we had our first free book fair at one of the elementary schools. It went very well except that we ran out of some titles--I'd deliberately only ordered a few of each, intending to place live orders during the fair for the books kids wanted. The idea was that we could take our same pile of sample books to each of the four elementary schools. This backfired when First Book held a cyber Monday sale and was super-low on inventory. We made it work--but only by giving away most of the books we'd brought with us as well as ordering everything we could. Since then I've decided we need to order more books ahead of time and way less during the fair. Hence the enormous quantity of boxes.

We are doing the other big elementary fairs in February, but in December we also made a stop at one elementary school's Winter Carnival. It was an evening affair where families came to the school. Kids could play bingo or one of many carnival type games. They could feed "baby reindeer," which were small goats with furry antlers duct-taped to their heads. (One of the most redneck things I've ever seen. Which is saying a lot.) In the gym, they could watch Polar Express and buy food--pizza and chicken sandwiches and cookie dough.  Several other vendors had set up in the gym--Mary Kay Cosmetics, someone selling homemade wooden signs, that sort of things. The vendors got hardly any attention.

ALI had a big table right next to the concession stand. We had 200 copies of a picture book about a snow day, Before Morning, and were giving one to every family. We had several hundred other books, all grade levels, and were giving out one to any kid who walked by.

At first we had a really hard time getting anyone to walk by. Parents would stand in line to get their kids a slice of pizza. Kids would say, "Look! Books!" and point at our table, and the parents would look over, then gently turn their children away. Shake their heads. Say, "We don't have money to buy books today."

Sixty-one percent of kids living in poverty don't own any books at all.

It took my partner Tracy and I a little while to figure out why no one was approaching us. Happily, most of the families were there for awhile. I started walking around the school handing out books, and directing children to the FREE BOOKS next to the pizza. Kids started telling other kids.

"Oh, Diary of a Wimpy Kid," one boy said. "I used to read that, like, when I was little."

"We've got the new one," Tracy said, handing it to him. The boy looked it over, set it down, looked around the gym for a few minutes, waited until he thought we weren't watching him, then casually side-swiped the book from the table and walked away.

I was restocking a pile when suddenly a child held a copy of The War That Saved My Life out to me, with star-struck eyes, whispering, "Can you sign this for me?"

"Sure," I said, shooting Tracy some side-eye. She responded with a bland smile.

"This isn't the place for that," I said, as soon as the kid was out of earshot.

"Did you hear what the parent said?" Tracy asked. I shook my head. "Kid picked up the book, said 'I want this one.' Parent took it away, opened it, and said, 'That's got a lot of words and a lot of pages. You can't read this. Pick something else.' And the kid looked crushed. When I said you'd sign it the parent couldn't say no." (The kid, for the record, was 10 or 11 years old. We did take Roller Girl away from a four-year-old.)

I won't have to bribe parents tomorrow. Tomorrow it's just kids. Already when we were setting up a girl wandered in to the library. "Got any scary books?" she asked me. I showed her The Graveyard Book. "Yeah," she said, setting it back down, "tomorrow I'm going to get that, and Harry Potter, and--I get three, don't I?'

So many of you have donated to ALI. I want you to know how much this amazes me. How, when I pull your checks out of my mailbox, I'm humbled and thankful and astonished, and so very, very glad. If you saw the kids with their books--if you stood with me and watched their smiles--you'd understand why Tracy and I started ALI. You'd know your money was being well-spent.

And if you'd like to see the kids with their books--hey, contact me. We've got 3 more fairs after this one. We could use some volunteers