The importance of spotlighting #ownvoices titles

I’ve written a bunch here about the #weneeddiversebooks conversation and organization since it emerged in 2014. Last year, a related conversation around the authorship of diverse stories was spurred by a suggestion from YA writer Corinne Duvyis. Since then, people have been using the hashtag #ownvoices to  share book recommendations that are written by people from the same diverse group/s as the characters.

Highlighting such titles doesn’t mean that people can’t write outside their own experiences and groups, but it does recognize the importance — for both dominant and minority group audiences — of hearing from marginalized voices themselves. It also acknowledges the institutional barriers that diverse authors face in getting published and publicized in the first place.

You can find tons of great reading suggestions by searching #ownvoices on Twitter. Also, for the month of September the Reading While White blog is featuring a daily review of an #ownvoices book. That’s given me some exciting titles for my to-read list, such as “Little White Duck,” a graphic memoir by Na Liu about  growing up in China in the 1970s.

And if you’re still wondering about the issue of writing outside your own experience, I love YA author Lamar Giles’ response to that in this post on BookRiot.

J.K. Rowling’s missteps with Native Americans and my We Need Diverse Books resolution for 2016

J.K. Rowling came under fire earlier this month for her portrayal of Native people and cultures in a series of online stories related to Harry Potter.

The collection focuses on the fictional history of North American magic as part of a larger project to expand the Harry Potter universe and its back stories. But the recent installment received fast criticism from Native Americans, who said Rowling treated them as magical creatures and a monolithic group.

The backlash speaks to the much bigger conversations to be had on how much and in what ways American Indians are represented in children’s literature. I touched on this subject briefly in my conversation with Pam Margolis, but I am by no means an expert. (But you know who is? Debbie Reese. Check out her blog.)

That’s why part of my 2016 We Need Diverse Books resolution is focused on books by or about Native people.

As I thought about my resolution back in January, I didn’t think upping the raw number of diverse books I read made that much sense, because I pretty much maxed out my reading time last year. But I did think about the breakdown of what I read last year and how I could mix it up. Continue reading

Scholastic stops sales of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington”



That was fast.

In my weekend link round-up, I noted that a new picture book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, was drawing criticism for its cheerful portrayal of Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved cook. Scholastic, which published the title on Jan. 5, announced later on Sunday that it was halting the book’s distribution.

Here’s the full Associated Press story on the decision.

The criticisms of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” are similar to those leveled at “A Fine Dessert” last fall, but while author Emily Jenkins apologized for that book’s portrayal of slavery, Random House is still selling it.

How I did on my 2015 We Need Diverse Books resolution


From August through December, I read 23 diverse children’s books, bringing my year-end total to 68.

That means I surpassed my We Need Diverse Books resolution of 50 diverse books even without counting adult books!

My grand total for children’s books this year is 151. Diverse books being 45 percent of that is a number I feel good about. But it didn’t happen by chance. I’ve found titles by following the Cooperative Children’s Book Center blog, reading recommendations in Rethinking Schools magazine, keeping up with the We Need Diverse Books newsletters and Twitter account, and participating a variety of other social media conversations. And also, of course, paying attention to the new children’s book shelves at my local library.

I plan to keep up those efforts in 2016 and will decide on my new We Need Diverse Books resolution next week. In the meantime, below are the diverse kids’ titles I read in August through December. To see the rest of my 2015 list, visit these posts: JanuaryFebruary, March, April through July.

August through October mosaic.jpg

Row 1: (All related to civil rights) “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer” by Carole Boston Weatherford, “Voices from the March on Washington” by George Ella Lyon and J. Patrick Lewis, “Lillian’s Right to Vote” by Jonah Winter, “Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama” by Hester Bass

Row 2: (All fictional picture books) “One Word from Sophia” by Jim Averbeck, “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt de la Peña, “Lion Lion” by Miriam Busch, “Mango, Abuela, and Me” by Meg Medina

Row 3: (All middle grade or YA; 1st three deal with LGBT themes) “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash, “George” by Alex Gino, “Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Robin Talley, “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

Row 4: (All picture books; 1st two are nonfiction) “Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, “One Plastic Bag” by Miranda Paul, “The Big Box” by Toni and Slade Morrison, “Please, Louise,” by Toni and Slade Morrison

Row 5: “A Storm Called Katrina” by Myron Uhlberg, “Mama’s Nightingale” by Edwidge Danticat, “Minna’s Patchwork Coast” by Lauren A. Mills, “The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade” by Justin Roberts

Row 6: (All fictional picture books) “The First Day in Grapes” by L. King Pérez, “Little Kunoichi: The Ninja Girl” by Sanae Ishida, “Langston’s Train Ride” by Robert Burleigh

Thinking critically about Columbus Day and American Indians in children’s books

As many kids across the U.S. enjoy a day off school for Columbus Day, I encourage you to visit and follow this blog: American Indians in Children’s Literature.

It is written by Debbie Reese, a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman from northern New Mexico. On the blog, Reese, who has been a school teacher and professor of children’s literature, critiques stereotyped portrayals of American Indians in kids’ books and offers better examples. It’s worth a read by any parent, teacher or librarian.

And if you are, indeed, a teacher, I also recommend you check out the Zinn Education Project for some different perspectives on Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day than we usually see in schools. Did you know that Seattle’s school board recently voted to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day each year? The city council followed up with a similar vote the next week.

“Rethinking Columbus” is a volume for teachers, published by Rethinking Schools magazine.

Happy book birthday to “George” by Alex Gino

George by Alex Gino

I just heard about “George,” a new middle grade novel featuring a transgender main character. It was released today by Scholastic The book is Alex Gino‘s debut, so congrats to Alex and happy book birthday!

Here’s the description of “George” from Alex’s website:

“When people look at George, they see a boy. But George knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part … because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte – but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

GEORGE is a candid, genuine, and heartwarming middle grade about a transgender  girl who is, to use Charlotte’s word, R-A-D-I-A-N-T!”

Hopefully I can get my hands on this soon. If you read it first, let me know what you think.

For a picture book and young adult titles featuring transgender main characters, see this post from June.

P.S. I heard about “George” from the “All the Books” podcast, a weekly show about great new releases. Children’s books aren’t talked about much on the show, but it’s a great listen for avid adult readers.

Updates soon!

You may have noticed I didn’t post my diverse reading progress for April or May. Both months are very busy on the education beat at a newspaper (my day job). I’ve been doing exciting stuff like going to the National Spelling Bee and rounding up local schools’ tax rates. … Okay, the latter isn’t actually so fun, but the bee was. I met a former Sports Illustrated reporter there who was working on a middle grade novel about a competitive speller. Sign me up to read that.

There also have been other life events that have thrown my mental concentration off kidlit a bit, but I’m re-focusing now, and I will have more regular updates here in the coming weeks.

As a teaser, here’s a photo of me and I.W. Gregorio, author of the new YA novel, None of the Above, at a local bookstore. In addition to being an author (and a surgeon! and a mother!), Ilene is vice president of We Need Diverse Books. One of my upcoming posts will be about the wisdom and stories she shared when I heard her speak last month.


Help Jennyann Carthern paint African-American youth

Jennyann Carthern

Jennyann Carthern is an artist with a mission. She recently launched a project, “Painting Black Faces,” in which she aims to paint 50 faces of African-American children in grades K-5. Her goal is both personal — to improve her artistic skills — and political — to celebrate the variety of skin colors in our world and help children “love the skin they’re in.”

Jennyann plans to compile the portraits into a children’s book. In her video about the project, she shares that as a young artist, impressionist painters were her heroes, but later on she wanted to see more people like herself in artwork.

“Right now in children’s picture books, there’s not a lot of diversity, but that is changing, and I wanted to be a part of that change,” she says.

So, how can you help? If you are the parent of an African-American or multiracial child, Jennyann is asking you to send her a high-quality photo of your child, along with some information about their personality. Those who participate will get an 8×10″ print of the painting she creates. Read more details and instructions at her website.

My diverse reading from March

I’m a little bit late on this one! In March, I read 31 books. Of those, 12 count toward my We Need Diverse Books resolution. That’s about 39% — a drop from February, but on par with January.

I’m now at 35 diverse books this year. If I keep up the same pace I should hit my goal of 50 sometime in May.

I’ve noticed that it’s easier to find diverse picture books when I’m seeking nonfiction and biographies than when I’m tracking down fiction titles that have generated a lot of buzz. Part of that is because those character-driven stories often feature non-human characters (like a recent favorite of mine, Gaston), but it doesn’t seem that there’s a lot of diversity among the authors, either.

That’s all anecdotal, but the stats on children’s publishing do support these observations.

Here are the diverse books I read last month. They are picture books unless otherwise noted.

March mosaic

Row 1: “Bird” by Zetta Elliott, “One Million Men and Me” by Kelly Starling Lyons, “Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan” by Jeanette Winter

Row 2: “Listen, Slowly” by Thanhha Lai (middle grade), “John Lewis in the Lead” by James Haskins, “Draw What You See” by Kathleen Benson Haskins

Row 3: “Dizzy” by Jonah Winter, “Rad American Women A-Z” by Kate Schatz, “The Storyteller’s Candle” by Lucia M. Gonzalez

Row 4: “Port Chicago 50” by Steve Sheinkin (young adult), “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom” by Lynda Blackmon Lowery (young adult), “X: A Novel” by Ilyasah Shabazz (young adult)

Add these to your to-read pile! Newbery winner and more

In case you didn’t hear, the American Library Association announced its 2015 youth media awards on Monday. That includes the Caldecott Medal (for picture books), the Newbery Medal (for middle grade), various Coretta Scott King awards (recognizing African American authors and illustrators) and the Printz Award (for young adult books.)

While I’ve read several books that were honorees — like “Brown Girl Dreaming” and “El Deafo” — I haven’t read the top winners of either the Caldecott or the Newbery.

The Crossover

“The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend,” written and illustrated by Dan Santat won the Caldecott. It’s the story of an imaginary friend seeking the perfect child to pair with. “The Crossover” by Kwame Alexander won the Newbery. It’s a novel in verse about twin brothers dealing with growing up, family ties and basketball.

Count them among my to-read pile, along with a bunch of the others on the ALA list.

Also count this children’s book on my to-read pile when it debuts next month: “Rad American Women A-Z.” It’s an alphabet book featuring biographies of women from Angela Davis to Zora Neale Hurston. According to Bitch Magazine, the selected women are “diverse in terms of race, era, and in their field of work, ranging from scientists to writers and activists.” I can’t wait to check it out!

Rad American Women A-ZA book that came out this week that I hope to pick up soon is “One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia” by Miranda Paul, who is in one of the online writers community I participate in. It’s the true story of five women tackling the plastic trash problem in their village.


What rad children’s books have you added to your to-read list lately?