50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Mango & Bambang the Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber

Hi, I’m having a problem. My goal is to read 50 middle grade books by the end of the year, but I’m running into some issues. While my school has a number of children in third and fourth grade who can comfortably read The First Rule of Punk or Towers Falling, I find that, more often than not, a child comes into the library asking for books that fall into the M-P level range (these are Fountas and Pinnell levels for those not familiar). The First Rule of Punk is a T. Towers Falling is a W. Books in the M-P range usually look like Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things. I love this book! It has a lot to offer: A POC protagonist, super funny, and a quick read. Alvin Ho is the perfect reading level for many of our 3rd and 4th graders! However, Alvin’s in 2nd grade, and kids typically prefer to read about children older than they are (or at least the same age). Alvin even looks like a younger kid on the cover:

This kid is so cute! But he looks so young, which isn’t that appealing to older readers.

With some exceptions (Riding Freedom comes to mind), most of the M-P books don’t have the kind of content our 3rd and 4th graders are interested in. It’s been a bummer. At the public library and my last school, readers and educators were less interested in book leveling. Here, when a teacher asks for a book, the level can make or break their willingness to take the book on. While some children will comfortably read a Q or higher, many will not. Leveled reading doesn’t coincide with my personal beliefs about picking a good book, but I am dedicated to supporting the teachers in this matter.

I grabbed Mango & Bambang the Not-a-Pig on a whim one day. Eyeballing it, I figured it would be in the M-P range (I later found out it was an N. I’m getting good at this!). The cover was quirky enough that I hoped it would sort of mask its young-ness. After finishing it, I’m not sure I can get a 4th or an end-of-the-year 3rd grader to read it, but I’m glad I found this title anyway.


Mango finds an frightened animal cowering in the middle of a traffic jam. Annoyed commuters are calling it a “Mutant sewer pig!”, but Mango knows that it’s a tapir from Malaysia. Because the tapir can talk, she learns that his name is Bambang, who is on the run from a tiger (or so he says). Frightened for Bambang’s saftety, Mango takes him home and feeds him banana pancakes. As expected, they go on several adventures together, involving a public swimming pool, an eccentric neighbor, and a concert hall.

This story has cute, quirky, weirdness in droves. Though I’m not sure I can get a 3rd or 4th grader to take it home, I think it would make a really solid read aloud for our 2nd graders. It’s endearing and amusing, and the purple, white, and black illustrations are appealing. This little chapter book is peppered with real facts about tapirs, so the class and I could keep a running list of things we learn about the animal. I’m on the hunt for a good, informational video to pair with it.

I’m not only going to read middle grade titles in the M-P range, but I’m keeping my eyes open for titles on those levels that our kids won’t find too babyish. Any ideas? Ideally, I’m looking for short, accessible titles that aren’t part of a series. If you have any recommendations for third or fourth grade literature with POC protagonists, preferably published in the last three years, that’s high-interest/low level and/or on the short side, I’d love to know about it! 

♥ Ingrid

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50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Stella Díaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez


I’ve been seeing Stella Díaz Has Something to Say for a while on our library shelves and I’ve been meaning to read it for two reasons: One, I find the cover super cheerful and adorable and two, the only non-English language taught in my school is Spanish, and I knew that this title is sprinkled with a lot of it. At first glance at this book, I assumed that this title was just a bit of fluff (which is fine and necessary!), but it’s actually got a lot of depth.

Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, to me, was really a title about the urge to belong and find one’s place in a community (in this case, the community being school). While Stella’s school days aren’t totally comfortable, as she sometimes experiences anxiety while speaking English (and sometimes Spanish, as well), she always has the support of her best friend, Jenny. This year, however, Jenny is assigned to another class and Stella starts to feel very lonely. Add bully Jessica Anderson to the mix, who makes fun of Stella when she struggles with language, and Stella has become very isolated at school.

Stella came to the United States when she was a baby, and has no memory of Mexico (other than second-hand recollections from her mother, brother, and other extended family), which is why she’s surprised when she discovers in class one day that she’s technically a resident or legal alien, meaning someone who, “can stay here as long as they want, but they don’t have as many rights as citizens” and that “after you’ve been a resident for a while you can apply to be a citizen.” The word “alien” is a shock to Stella’s system, making her feel even more out-of-place: “I don’t fit in, Mom,” she thinks, “I am different from the people in my class. I’m an alien.

But, of course, this is middle grade literature, so Dominguez delivers a happy, hopeful ending. Stella makes new friends and bonds with her classmates over her true passion, marine life. She still struggles with a bit of social anxiety, especially when interacting with new-kid Stanley, but, with the gentle encouragement of her mother, she finds a way to make connections.

Stella’s family is the high point of this chapter book, as her relationship with her mother and brother, Nick, is so warm, affirming, and cozy. Though her father is sort of an absent and unreliable figure, which is explored a bit later in the title, the Díaz home is a source of stability and comfort for Stella. Here, she is accepted, loved, and never has to worry about how good her English or Spanish is.

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Above, you see the flier that I update for our library bulletin board. I like to change it up as often as possible, especially with titles that are good for our third and fourth graders. For one of the last books, it actually worked! Two students who hardly ever ask for books said, “I want the book from the board.” It’s definitely motivated me to keep switching the titles out.

For my next books, I’m on the hunt for short, accessible titles that aren’t part of a series. If you have any recommendations for third or fourth grade literature with POC protagonists, preferably published in the last three years, that’s high-interest/low level and/or on the short side, I’d love to know about it!

♥ Ingrid

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50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez

Here I am, on my third book in my 50 Middle Grade books challenge. Dang, I’m a slow reader. I’m thrilled to finally have had the chance to read The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez. I’ve been dying to read this since forever, but was happily bogged down with Stonewall contenders. This title is just gosh-darn delightful, and with starred reviews in School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and a Pura Belpré Author Honor to boot, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

This cover is magic. I’m reminded about Marley Dias’s call for seeing more girls of color on the covers of books. When it comes to Middle Grade lit, it’s not often you get to see a Latinx girl in a contemporary setting. Kat Fajardo’s illustration is so charming, it makes me want to see Malú in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Don’t let this book’s delightfulness fool you into thinking it’s just fluff: It’s chock-full of thoughtful commentary on identity. Our protagonist, Malú, is constantly at odds with her mother (the “SuperMexican”) and bullyish classmate, Selena, over what it means to be “una señorita“. While Selena is a superstar when it comes to traditional Mexican dance and speaks Spanish confidently and fluently, Malú shows up to school in too much black eyeliner, hates cilantro, spicy food and meat, dresses in band shirts and jeans, and gets nervous when she has to speak Spanish. She never feels like she’ll be Mexican enough to please her mother.

The First Rule of Punk is a real feel-good title and if you haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, here’s a peek at what’s sure to make you smile:

♡Malú’s cheerful, hilarious, and often informative zines, complete with directions on how to dye your hair green, instructions on how to make an ofrenda, a history of The Mexican Farm Supply Program, and information about Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Malú’s namesake, María Luisa Block.

♡Places you wish you could visit in real life: Spins & Needles Records, owned by Malú’s dad, and Calaca Coffee, full of pan dulce, Day of the Dead decorations, soyrizo breakfast tacos, and 80s punk band album covers lining the walls.

♡Playlist inspiration through passages on Poly Styrene, Alice Bag, the Plugz, the Brat, and Lola Beltrán (be sure to Google her image so you can get a good look at those “long spider-leg eyelashes”)

♡Morrissey being an “honorary Mexican”

♡Señora Oralia’s fluffy lady toilet paper covers

♡Malú and her friends starting a band with little-to-no musical experience

♡Literally everything about Mrs. Hidalgo, the best Middle Grade lit mom of all time, who compares identity to a patchwork quilt: “Some pieces are prettier than others. Some pieces match and some don’t. But if you remove a square, you’re just left with an incomplete quilt, and who wants that? All our pieces are equally important if they make us whole. Even the weird ones.”

I feel like students at my school get a little intimidated by lengthy titles, so I’ll be sure to open the book for them to show them all the zine inserts. Hopefully, all of the appealing visuals will make the book’s size less daunting. Speaking of which, for my next title, I’m going for a much shorter title with a lower reading level. I’m less than a year into my work at this new school, and I’m realizing that there’s a larger range of reading levels here than at my last school. Sure, we have kids who read books like Echo and the Harry Potter Series, but I want this reading challenge to help me reach students reading on the other end of the spectrum.

Hey, if you’ve read this far along, consider signing this petition to save Atlanta’s school librarians. What’ve you got to lose? Nothing.

♥ Ingrid

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50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ever since I was lucky enough to see Jewell Parker Rhodes speak at a publisher’s preview about her book Ninth Ward in around 2010, I have been a huge fan of hers and everything she’s written. I’ve read both her children’s and adult titles, and I’ve never been disappointed in her writing. From Bayou Magic to her Marie Laveau trilogy, I find her style warm, lyrical, and engaging.

There is a title of hers I hers I have been avoiding, however, despite its popularity at my last school: Towers Falling. Yes, I am one of many New Yorkers who was here on 9/11 and prefers not to talk about it. While I was a public librarian, I remember that every early September, children would approach the reference desk asking me to share my “New York 9/11 story” with them. That’s when I came to the realization that, while, for me, September 11, 2001 felt like it had just happened, most of the children I worked with at the library were too young to have remembered it (of course, now, I only work with children who hadn’t even been born yet). In fact, many of these young patrons’ parents hadn’t been living in the country at the time, so their public librarian became the default interviewee. I remember both hating to drudge out my same old sad story, year after year, while also thinking it was important and vital to share these memories with young people who really had no concept of what that day was like.


As I said, despite being a big JPR fan, I was hesitant to read Towers Falling because I simply did not want to rehash that day. In fact, in the author’s note, Rhodes says that it was never her intention to write about 9/11: She found the subject, “Too hard emotionally. Too hard, technically, to convey such history for middle grade students.” Luckily, for those reluctant to relive that day, Rhodes sets the novels 15 years after the event, while still managing to give readers a sense of what 9/11 was like.

When fifth grader Déjà starts learning about the towers in class, she can’t figure out why she should care: It happened long ago to people she didn’t even know. Through lessons from her teacher, Miss Garcia, about connections and community, and discussions with her new friends, Ben and Sabeen, Déjà begins to understand how the attack on New York has changed her neighborhood, school, and even her own family.

Continue reading “50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes”

50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Marley Dias Gets it Done and So Can You!

Hi! I’ve just come off a year of being on the Stonewall Book Award Committee, and boy is my brain tired. I spent two years on the Rainbow List (check out their 2018 list, by the way), but this was my first time on a book award committee, and the work load is no joke. I learned, once again, that once I’m “assigned” a book, I can sometimes drag my feet when it comes to reading and completing titles, but also that the imposed structure and pace of an awards committee makes me a more dedicated and efficient reader.

Now that my committee work is over, I’m excited at the prospect of reading whatever the hell I want to, whenever I want to, but I’m also missing the discipline I got from strict parameters and goals. That’s why I’m giving myself a mission:

By the end of the year, I want to read 50 middle grade titles. Before I started working for a school, I interacted with a larger age range of children. I did a lot of Toddler and Infant storytimes, so I was pretty knowledgable when it came to board books and early chapter books. Typically, my afternoons were spent at the Young Adult reference desk, so I became an avid reader of teen titles. This focus on the youngest and oldest kids really left a gap in my reading. I read middle grade titles fairly sometimes, but infrequently, and honestly, I didn’t really suffer for it. Now, however, many of my readers fall into the middle grade category. My students range from Pre-K to 4th grade, so my knowledge of infant and YA titles doesn’t really come into play. I’m aiming for 50 middle grade titles by 2018 in order to better serve my student population. It is my plan to mostly read titles that are #OwnVoices, as well as any titles by WOC and queer authors (though, it’s important to mention that when it comes to LGBTQ lit, middle grade is a near-ghost town). I will also probably break my own rules a lot, because, you know, why not?

Continue reading “50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Marley Dias Gets it Done and So Can You!”

So You’re Going to Put Up a Christmas Tree in Your Library: Some Helpful Tips When You’re Trying to Justify your Holiday Programming and Decorations

There’s a conversation that I’ve simply decided that I’m not going to participate in anymore among fellow (mostly children’s) librarians: Whether or not libraries should display holiday decorations and hold holiday programming. I have always firmly believed that a library should be a holiday-free zone. I’m not talking about displays of holiday books, because of course it’s efficient for staff members and library patrons to have easy access to seasonal titles. I’m talking about decking out a library in Christmas trees, elves on shelves, and Santas, as well as holding any kind of holiday-related programming. Though I don’t condone displays of other holidays such as Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, I find that the biggest perpetrators of library holiday decorations are Christmas-obsessed children’s librarians. Though I could spend an entire blog post discussing why a Christmas-saturated library is anti-community, I will sum up my thoughts by simply saying that Christmas-related displays and programming can feel unwelcoming for many different patrons for many different reasons. If this is the first time that you’re considering whether or not Christmas decorations and programming are appropriate for the library, please read Bryce’s “Holidays and Libraries: Rethinking Our Programming” right now. This post will be here when you get back.

The debates around Christmas in the library start to go down in ALA Think Tank and Storytime Underground starting right around November every year, though I believe SU has an updated policy regarding these discussions. I used to whole-heartedly, and often angrily, participate in every 300 comment argument about this topic. I was told by holiday enthusiasts that I hated Christmas, hated fun, and was clearly “triggered” by sugar plum fairies and Mrs. Claus. Sometimes groups like these can be such an echo chamber, where similarly-minded people pile on and become emboldened by a lack of dissent.

After Trump got elected, I found myself simply out of the emotional bandwidth to take part in these online arguments anymore. With white supremacists roaming the streets, swastikas being scribbled all over children’s playgrounds, Jewish people celebrating the High Holy days in hiding, and general anti-Semitism on the rise, I no longer wanted to be that librarian with the Jewish last name explaining what it feels like to be erased (this is not to diminish our country’s problems with anti-Muslim crime and xenophobia, however my experiences give me the confidence only to speak out about this as a sort-of-Jewish person). I came to the conclusion that librarians are going to do what librarians are going to do, and there was no way I was going to talk anyone out of anything.

So, because librarians love Christmas and there’s no getting around that, I’d like to share just a couple of helpful tips when justifying Christmas/holiday decorations and programming to your patrons and coworkers.

But first, a little background on me as a pseudo-religious person: I was raised by a Presbyterian mother and a Jewish-ish father. After years of Sunday school and seders and being Mary in the Christmas pageant and shoving my brother to get to the afikomen first, I started to identify as a Cultural Jew who dabbles with witchy-stuff just like all good women in 2017. Around this time of year, I dig my menorah out of the closet and put up my pink sparkly plastic Christmas tree. I’m not particularly invested in either holiday, but like many, I enjoy spending holiday time with the people I love.

Now, without further ado, several things to keep in mind for Librarians Who Are Trying to Justify Having That Christmas Tree:

Continue reading “So You’re Going to Put Up a Christmas Tree in Your Library: Some Helpful Tips When You’re Trying to Justify your Holiday Programming and Decorations”

Where in the World is Ingrid Conley-Abrams?, Feminism (A-Z) with Gayle Pitman, and a Little on Vocational Awe™

Croon this in a crunchy 90s Paula Cole voice: ♩♪♬Where have all the blog posts gone?♬♪♩

So, yeah. Not much for the bloggy blogging as of late. You may remember (or not) that I semi-recently left the world of public librarianship for school librarianship. I’m pretty happy with this change, though quite often I’m reminded about how different the public library culture differs from independent school values. I stayed for two years at [name redacted] school but found that the library’s mission didn’t quite coincide with my personal principles. While I very much enjoyed the school, its students and faculty (I still have moments, daily, when I dearly miss that place), I still needed to find the library environment that was, in true Goldilocks fashion, just right. I think I’ve found it, and am quite pleased to be Co-Coordinator of Library Services at an independent school in Manhattan. It’s not easy being the new kid (again!) but I feel like I’ve made the right decision.

In addition to settling in at the new school, I’m also serving on the Stonewall Book Award Committee this year. If you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I’m trapped under a large pile of queer books for kids and I can’t reach my phone.

I miss blogging a lot. I feel like there’s so much going on in the world of librarianship that I’ve wanted to weigh in on, but it’s been hard to find the time, energy, and motivation to talk about it lately. I have to say that the news has done nothing positive for my mental state, so when I’m not sending tiny, manageable donations to Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Brady Campaign, recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, and sending faxes to my elected officials, I’m usually curled up in my living room, feeling useless and inept. I’m still searching for the best way to use my strengths to help out in the best way I can. How are you coping? How are you making a difference? How are you resisting?

The current political climate has encouraged me to double-down on my commitment to empathy-building through literature. It is my aim to make my library collection as inclusive as possible. I am often reminded of the Huffington Post article “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People.” Adults who have not been taught to show compassion for their fellow human beings may be a lost cause (at least, that’s how it feels to me right now), but I fully believe that, as a librarian, I can model the behavior of kindness for my students, as well as provide a collection full of windows and mirrorsI talk a bit about this, through the lens of feminism, over at author Gayle Pitman’s blog. You may know Gayle as the author of one of my favorite picture books, This Day in June. Her new book, Feminism From A-Z, is available for pre-order here. Gayle has also featured some great interviews with Alex GinoLesléa NewmanPhyllis Lyon of The Daughters of Bilitis and many others.

Fobazi Ettarh (in her infinite wisdom) coined the term “vocational awe”, a term meant to convey the misguided idea that librarians and libraries are inherently good. We are sold this idea in library school, by ALA, and by mainstream library publications and organizations, that we, as librarians, are always on the side of good. We are “radical”. We are guardians of free speech and gatekeepers to safe spaces. We are anti-racist, inclusive, feminist, and progressive. And we are. Sometimes. Infrequently. Rarely. At our best, we are all these things. But quite often, vocational awe prevents us from seeing ourselves as who we really are: a profession with the history that proves we have the ability to be racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and downright regressive. Instead of resting on the idea that we are intrinsically good for our communities, we must instead make concerted and deliberate efforts to actually do so. Even in small, manageable ways. For me, I give myself the daily task of making sure I’m providing a diverse literary selection of protagonists, communities, and experiences for these students. There’s an entire world outside this school’s neighborhood. If I want our very young students to care about this world, I can provide books which offer a risk-free way of interacting with a variety of concepts and issues. Hopefully, I can be part of a larger effort to turn inquisitive children into empathetic adults.

~Nevertheless, persist, ♥ Ingrid

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P.S. You may have noticed that my last name is now Conley-Abrams. I got married around this time last year, and this is the last name my partner and I have both adopted. I still answer to Abrams.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

P.P.S. I still write a lot, everyday, over at my blog’s Facebook page and Twitter. My Twitter page is locked because Twitter is full of garbage Men’s Rights Activists, but if we have a friend or two in common, I accept follows.