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2018 October



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Ma Llorona by Maya Gonzalez

On 31, Oct 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ma LloronaMa Llorona by Maya Gonzalez

From Goodreads: In times filled with terror and torment, one woman’s haunting grief rises from beyond to become the people’s howl in the dark. Sometimes a heartache is so great, it belongs to everyone. Sometimes a healing is so powerful it holds within it the spark to change everything….if we’re ready. A queer reclamation of the classic Mexican ghost story, La Llorona, spanning from MesoAmerica 1500 to present day San Francisco.

I have liked every book I have gotten my hands on from Reflection Press, but this one was just beautiful. I do not think I will be able to do it justice in describing and reviewing it, but here goes.

It’s definitely a ghost story, but not in the way I have typically thought of ghost stories. There is no creep factor, no horror (except for the horror of genocide which is touched on but not dwelt on and isn’t really the focus of the ghost part of this story), and it’s probably not the La Llorona you’ve heard of.

At its heart, Ma Llorona is a love story. Texocamiltic and Cualtzin live in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica where the two women fall in love and are planning a life together. But just as Cualtzin embarks on her last journey with her cohort of warriors, Texocamiltic is raped by a “pale man”, who the reader recognizes as the first wave of colonizers. In the absence of her Love and broken by the trauma, Texocamiltic transforms into Chocatiuh, a weeping woman, has twins and ultimately is drawn into the river with the babies where they all drown. Time passes and she returns as a blue light, tied to the river. Eventually she meets Cualtzin as an old woman who encourages her to explore the world using the rivers as passage. She spends the next centuries exploring, sleeping, and seeking out Cualtzin on the other side. Centuries later she meets a girl in San Francisco and her spirit helps Xochitl find her voice to help others still impacted by colonization and oppression.

While love is certainly a piece of this story, it is not the syrupy commercialized love we tend to think of or see portrayed in romance novels. This is a love across time, between women, but also between the universe, the land, and the people. People who were and are brutalized and marginalized. The love and love story do not end or even completely revolve around the self-absorbed love between to people infatuated with one another (not that Texocamiltic and Cualtzin are).

This book is perfect for showing readers that love doesn’t necessarily mean pining away for your soulmate or spending eternity lamenting the life you didn’t get together. It shows how many forms love can take and how true love between people can empower one person to go beyond themselves even when they are not physically alive. While Texocamiltic is heart broken over the loss of the life she thought she would have with Cualtzin, she doesn’t spend eternity mourning that. They do get a love scene, but it’s ancillary to the rest of the story of how they go into the world with their love for each other. The story also shows how folklore/mythology can be a powerful tool in activism. How it lends hope and light in dark times, brings comfort when things are bleak, and keeps community alive when white supremacy is trying to eradicate it.

Gonzalez is also clearly a poet as the language in the book is so poetically beautiful. She isn’t wordy, but you see the story, characters, and world so clearly through her use of language. The spare passages bring to mind such rich detail. It’s a book you will want to re-read passages from just to roll the words around in your mind feeling their textures and exploring their layers.

This is definitely a YA novel, but I do believe you could have it in a middle school library. Just know the story starts with an off-page rape followed by a suicide. I personally don’t have a problem talking about those things in age-appropriate terms with younger kids (my own, specifically), but your mileage may vary depending on your community. Don’t let the fear of parents or complaints deter you, but also know its in here. Do put this book on your shelves. Hand sell it to kids who like history, light romance, mythology/ghost stories, or are budding activists. It is also fairly short and a quick read so reluctant readers, who may struggle with mechanics, language, or have struggled to find themselves reflected in pages of books, will have no problem jumping in and connecting. Be sure to have copies in the classroom and on school library shelves. I would even suggest using this as a book to study in English class. Ditch one of those books written by a white man for this beautiful, rich ghosty-love story.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.


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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Ghosts in the Castle by Zetta Elliott

On 24, Oct 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Ghosts in the CastleThe Ghosts in the Castle by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: Zaria has dreamed of England for as long as she can remember—according to the novels she’s read, everything magical happens there! When her grandfather suffers a stroke, Zaria and her mother head to London to help care for him. Zaria reads fantastic tales to her grandfather every afternoon, and she’s thrilled to discover that her cousin Winston shares her love of wands, wizards, and mythical creatures. But Zaria soon finds that life in London is actually quite ordinary—until she goes on a day trip to nearby Windsor Castle. There Zaria meets two extraordinary ghosts who need help finding their way back to the African continent they once called home.

My daughter is loving this series so much. We quickly read through the first three books at bedtime and will be getting the fourth soon. This one was especially timely because we read it just at the time of the royal wedding (something we were not at all keeping up on, except that it was on the news) and I was able to point out the connection of Windsor Castle to her. It made finding pictures of it really easy.

That being said, this has nothing to do with a wedding or British royalty. Not really. I absolutely loved getting to meet Zaria, Tariq’s sister from the first book. She’s a really awesome kid and very kind. Zaria takes to her nerdy, smart, and slightly awkward cousin Winston and the two have an experience of a lifetime. The ghosts make this a great read for October, but the puzzle and history make it an interesting read for any time of the year.

I shouldn’t be, but I am always surprised at how well Elliott can jump between types of children’s literature. It’s certainly something other authors are not nearly so successful with. Here Elliott has written a chapter book that most fourth and even some third graders should be able to tackle. I recall the the first two books in the series being slightly easier and shorter than this one which is perfect. As kids improve through reading the series levels up with them. It also makes for a great read aloud (they all do, actually). The plot isn’t overly complicated and the books aren’t too long so it holds the interest and imagination of kids just learning to listen to chapter books.

I know kids love those Magic Tree House books, but they are awful- inaccurate history, THE WORST dialog ever, insipid characters. If you are looking for somewhere to start with read alouds for your kids or students this is a great series. You will enjoy them as much as your kids. They’re full of likable characters, interesting and important history, and magic. If you’re a librarian looking to add to your chapter book collection, please, please, please add these. It’s okay to have those tedious chapter books written for reading practice (although the inaccurate history is issue), but let’s diversify those shelves in terms of the representation AND the writing quality.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.


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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: The Gender Wheel by Maya Christina Gonzalez

On 18, Oct 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

The Gender WheelThe Gender Wheel: A Story About Bodies and Gender written and illustrated by Matthew and Maya Christina Gonzalez

From Goodreads: This body positive book is a powerful opportunity for a supportive adult and child to see a wide range of bodies, understand the origins of the current binary gender system, how we can learn from nature to see the truth that has always existed and revision a new story that includes room for all bodies and genders. The Gender Wheel offers a queer centric, holistic framework of radical gender inclusion in a kid-friendly way for the budding activists who will change our world. This is our world!

You can’t claim to want to diversify your shelves if you aren’t also including books about gender diversity. Fortunately there are a few good resources out there to help you with that, including this gem from Maya Gonzalez and Reflection Press.

Let’s be clear sexuality and gender are NOT the same. The book does talk about the outside and inside of bodies, but sexuality is not a part of this discussion.* Gonzalez does a phenomenal job explaining in child-friendly and appropriate language that people and bodies come in all different forms. She begins by decolonizing the idea of gender. She very bluntly calls out the history of European colonization that set up the damaging girl-boy binary of gender. She addresses it, notes that it is just plain wrong, and then moves on to affirm and explain that gender is fluid, infinite, and natural using a circle.

Gonzalez has published two different versions of this text, one with naked bodies and one with clothed bodies.She has drawn some children with bodies that look ambiguous and that have parts that match what we think of as male and female but aren’t. If at all possible, include the one with naked bodies on your shelves. Nakedness is not something to be ashamed of or feared and teaching children to be ashamed of, to hate, and be ignorant of naked bodies, especially their own, does them a major disservice. DO NOT let this fall into some sort of cisgendered obsession with body parts, but know it can help kids grasp these concepts, especially younger kids who need more concrete explanations. I know for my own daughter it was helpful to understand that there is a lot of in between with genitalia. That being said, plenty of schools may not be comfortable or able to have naked kids on their shelves, so you will have to take that into consideration.

In addition to the outside circle which deals with how a body looks and feels on the outside, Gonzalez also includes an inner wheel which addresses both inside parts (body parts that can’t be seen) and how a person feels about their gender and identifies themselves. This includes pronouns and labels. The two wheels can move separately so that the body does not always match the same pronoun, label, or feeling/identity. This is brilliant. Children will grasp this concept. For young audiences you can hop over to the Reflection Press website and download the wheel from their free resources and actually make it to use as a prop.

There is one more VERY important piece to this book that must be mentioned. The Gender Wheel is part of a larger set or series that includes a wonderful simple, easy reader and a workbook. Gonzalez has developed a curriculum around this that would be wonderful for schools and libraries to have available for their teachers and families. But her work was stolen by some other authors who are published by a larger publishing house. You can and should read about this here on Gonzalez’ blog. BUT BE SURE TO SUPPORT HER AND HER WORK BY PURCHASING THIS BOOK AND SERIES AND NOT THE PLAGIARIZED ONE.

So, to diversify your bookshelves look to The Gender Wheel and the Gender Now curriculum.

*To be clear, you need books that deal with sexuality on your shelves too and it also needs to be an ongoing discussion. It can also be intertwined with gender, but for this book it is not. Sexuality can be a hard sell in libraries so don’t shy away from this book on account of that. But if you are shying away from books that tackle potentially controversial topics unpack that feeling and go read my post about how that kind of thought process upholds white supremacy culture.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Soft Censorship and White Supremacy

On 15, Oct 2018 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

The JourneyThis is a bit of a long post and requires some context. Bear with me.

Last year the other librarian I worked with purchased the book The Journey by Francesca Sanna. The story follows a family from their home country, where a war has broken out and the father has died, to a new country. Along the way they encounter unfriendly border guards, a wall, a smuggler, and an ocean they must cross. It’s certainly a nod to Syrian refugees and North African refugees fleeing to Europe, but it’s also reminiscent of immigrants from Central America and Cuba. It’s not a warm fuzzy story, but it also isn’t without hope. It’s the kind of book that can open up conversations. Prior to this I had purchased a copy and read it to my daughter and we talked about a lot of things that are going on in the world right now.

While the book was being processed with another immigration story by a parent volunteer she raised concerns about both books being too scary for children and something she would never have shared with her own children. I came into the conversation late in the day and am unclear if she didn’t want us processing the books at all or if they needed to be put into a higher reading level section.

When I spoke to the parent I explained that I could respect that she would not want to choose to read the book to her children, but that I did want to (and had read) it to my child. My point being, there are families and teachers in our community that do want these types of books. She also kept fussing over the possibility that a parent who wouldn’t want it read to their child might still find it in their child’s backpack. So I explained that it was not appropriate to remove it from the shelf or hide it for those parents. It is a book that is written for children and is totally appropriate if you want to share those ideas with a child. Her own personal preference to shield her children from ugly truths about our world is her right, but it does not give me the right, as a librarian, to force other parents to make that choice by hiding or removing the book. Moreover our collection development policy allows us to purchase materials that support our curriculum, support our community and support literacy. This book hits all those points. The other librarian thanked me for talking to the parent volunteer.

I went ahead and processed the book and put it in the picture book section (a blue label). But I came in the following Friday morning to discover that the other librarian had changed it to a red label (early chapter book section). This made me extremely upset and uncomfortable and here is why:

  1. The color coding labels denote reading level not content. This book has a relatively low reading level and is clearly a picture book. The library does have a few red and yellow picture books, but they also have very high reading levels and are clearly written for older audiences (third grade and up).
  2. The (higher level) red and yellow picture books do not check out. They are up high on a shelf where the kids can’t reach them. They are tucked away. But mostly, by the time the kids can read chapter books, the teachers and parents do not want them to check out picture books and the kids have internalized that idea and almost never choose to read them.
  3. The picture book (blue) section has books that tackle slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, other immigration stories, gay families, residential schools and many other difficult, uncomfortable, and potentially controversial topics.
  4. The youngest patrons who check out books (Kindergarten and first grade) do not browse the shelves. The librarian pulls books and puts them out on the tables for them to select from. To keep this book out of those children’s hands is very easy: simply do not offer it as an option.
  5. Professional reviews of the book have placed this on many children’s literature award lists and note that the age range for the book can be as young as 3 up to about third grade.
  6. Finally, the other librarian consulted another non-librarian teacher about her opinion and made a decision based on that. She did not consult the upper school librarian. I also caught her consulting with an administrator who is the head of the diversity committee (and a not particularly woke white man). When I accidentally came upon them discussing the book they quickly hid it away, stopped talking, and he quietly slipped out of the library without saying a word to me.

With all those factors considered, they intentionally put a book that might make some families uncomfortable into a section where they know it probably won’t check out or be seen. This is called soft censorship. It’s not an outright ban of the book, but for all intents and purposes it renders the book unavailable. The library/school can still point at it say, “But it’s on our shelves! We’re not stopping kids from checking it out.” Yet, in reality, the patrons of the library, the target audience of that book, will never have meaningful or real access to it.

But here’s the thing with that kind of behavior and why I think I’m so uncomfortable with this whole situation. It’s white supremacy at work. Plain and simple. Those families that might be uncomfortable are going to primarily be white and immigration is almost never about white immigrants*, certainly not in this political climate we’re in. These books, and The Journey in particular, that make white families uncomfortable are about black and brown people. Hiding The Journey where children and families, for all intents and purposes, will not have access to it erases that difficult experience in favor of white children’s comfort. It places white children above black and brown children. Also this is how systems of oppression (i.e. white supremacy) work and are perpetuated, quietly and seemingly innocuously. As a librarian and a person fighting to stop white supremacy, I disagree with that soft censorship with every fiber of my being. It is wrong.

I went and spoke with the teacher the other librarian consulted and heard her piece. It was half the point I made to our parent volunteer. Not all families would talk about this topic with their child. I then explained the censorship issue with the book and she immediately told me that she agreed with the library/librarian standpoint, that it belongs in an accessible place on our shelves. I also consulted with the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. They were incredibly helpful and supportive and affirmed that I was right to call this soft censorship. They wrote a letter to the head of the Lower School supporting keeping the book in the picture book section (you can see this in my Instagram photo of the book).

Picture books can be read by children whose reading is fairly well developed, but in reality they are books that are meant to be shared between a fluent reader (often an adult) and a child. This is the kind of situation where an adult can read this book and help the child understand what is happening. If a family doesn’t want to have that conversation, they do not have to read the book (although I highly recommend they unpack that impulse and ensure it isn’t actually upholding white supremacy). Nothing in the library is required reading. But there are families who do want to have these conversations and need resources and the library is there for them. There are also classroom teachers who are having these conversations with their classes and the library is there for them too.

I quit that job last year for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons was because of how my daughter was treated when we applied to the school compounded by the headmaster’s incredibly misogynistic response to my speaking publicly about the incident and how it made me feel. He took particular umbrage at the language I used. You can read more about that here and here if you are so inclined. But during the long conversation I had with him in which he tone policed me and said some truly appalling things, he also told me if I was upset about this I wasn’t entitled to make the call about this book. Not only did he show his complete ignorance about what my job title and position was, he also showed an ignorance that is common outside the library community about the function of the library as a line of defense against censorship and social justice. (Although his stance toward white supremacy is unsurprising considering his level of bigotry in the conversation.)

This is why it’s vitally important that people outside the library community know about soft censorship and how it works and one of the primary reasons I’m putting this out there. I also quit that job because I do not want to work in a place that is comfortable soft censoring materials. In this day and age that is particularly dangerous. We know that children internalize bias incredibly early and we as educators and parents need to be very intentional in addressing the inequalities in this world. We need kids who know what is going on in the world and learn compassion and empathy so we can strive toward a world with equity and freedom for all. We also need parents that are willing to break down systems of oppression. If we wait until white parents think they’re ready to handle the material, it’s too late. Way too late.

*This not entirely true. There are plenty of kids books about Irish or Italian immigrants in the 1800s. Yet, while they are now considered white they were not at the time, which means those children’s books are not accurately representing that immigration experience, but that’s for another day.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Nonfiction Review: Young Water Protectors by Aslan Tudor

On 11, Oct 2018 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Young Water ProtectorsYoung Water Protectors: A Story About Standing Rock written by Aslan Tudor, co-written by Kelly Tudor

From Goodreads: At the not-so-tender age of 8, Aslan arrived in North Dakota to help stop a pipeline. A few months later he returned – and saw the whole world watching. Read about his inspiring experiences in the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock. Learn about what exactly happened there, and why. Be inspired by Aslan’s story of the daily life of Standing Rock’s young water protectors. Mni Wiconi … Water is Life

I picked up a copy of this book to read on Indigenous People’s Day with my own daughter, but felt it warranted a review here. When I was working in my last library I spent a lot of time combing through the collection that featured nonfiction titles on Native Nations. I weeded old, racist, and inaccurate titles and added a lot of titles that came recommended by Native/Indigenous scholars and librarians or were written by Native/Indigenous authors. This was a particularly important project to me because so many grades in elementary school study Native Americans, either during Native American Heritage Month, with units of study like the California Mission System (ugh), the Gold Rush (ugh, again), or as part of an attempt to incorporate diversity into their curriculums (problematic at best).

One of the most difficult pieces of Native American culture to incorporate and find reflected in kidlit was the fact that Native Americans are still very much alive and here. So. Many. Books relegate them to a sad, wimpy past and that narrative, besides being dangerous, is patently untrue. Children need to see that Native Nations are sovereign and alive and vibrant. There is Jingle Dancer, Powwow Summer, and a handful of others, but they weren’t easy to discover.

I think Standing Rock and the #NoDAPL protest was a very powerful movement and moment to bring that current history (current event?) into the classroom, but I suspect that most teachers were either not aware of it or were fearful of being “too political”. Young Water Protectors, however, allows teachers, parents, and librarians to open a discussion with their students, children, and patrons. Aslan Tudor is a ten year old boy who was eight when he and his family went to the Oceti Sakowin Camp. This is an incredible resource for everyone. Not only does it introduce the idea of sovereignty, it tackles the fact that the land (the whole US, but specifically the Dakotas) were stolen from the people who lived by white colonizers. It also does a really great job of sharing history that led up to the protest, the issues at hand, and Tudor’s personal experience at the camp. Add to this that it can be used to inspire budding authors to pen their own stories of resistance. It can be used in conjunction with units on Native Nations, environmentalism, and social justice.

For those of you who are fearful of being “too political” I suggest you look long and hard at that statement and the privilege it carries. The book does a good job of skirting around finger pointing, while still calling out the politics and economics that allowed the pipeline to happen. The photographs are quite nice and illustrate the subject well. The book is also an #ownvoices, as Tudor is a citizen of the Lipan Apache Tribe. Be sure to add this to your shelves and collections. Pair it with The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson which I will be reviewing soon.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

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