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:

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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.

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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

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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: 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.

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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.

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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?

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