Little Leaders

It’s a new year and I’ve committed to posting to this blog twice a month. I know, I know…it’s pathetic, but I knew saying weekly would be overreaching. #dontjudgeme Moving on…what better way to begin this year of blog posts than with a gorgeous nonfiction title targeted at middle grades but perfect for all ages?!

I’ve been extremely excited about what would be artist/filmmaker (now author) Vashti Harrison’s debut book. I began following her on Twitter and Instagram, captivated by her work. I finally dedicated the time to truly take in her literary baby, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. I took my time, soaked it all in, and it sits with me still.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History IMG_7128

by Vashti Harrison

Little, Brown (2017)

What she started as a social media challenge to post female African American history makers daily during the month of February, became a collective biography of forty bold women who made their marks in history. Incorporating some well-known and not-so-known leaders, Harrison’s subjects range from civil rights activists to athletes and everything in between. The text for each individual is composed of a single-page biography highlighting the impact each leader had, accompanied by a full-page illustration. Most stunning about the work are  the simple “little figures” Harrison draws for each leader. Keeping the same expression for each, she simply changes their attire, hair, and background. It’s amazing how each one manages to have her own look. Without the intent of reading, the book even impresses you as a flipbook as you thumb the recto pages.

Vashti Harrison has written a stunning debut! ✨What I love most about this work is how Harrison’s intentionality radiates from the pages. From front cover to back, this book is everything, down to the case size, endpapers and font. If you don’t purchase any other book this year, buy. this. one. 

Shout out to Matthew Winner, whose #AlltheWonders podcast episode with Vashti Harrison made me want to take a picture book class. Check it out here.

Can I just say: MerryMakers should link up with Vashti and make some of these Little Leaders into plush toys. Those should definitely be a thing. Until then, I’ll be anxiously awaiting Harrison’s collective biography of little leaders around the world. 👧🏾


Middle school sucks!

I was shopping in my local indie bookstore a couple of months ago and spotted this beautiful cover. And, les’ be honest, I totally judge a book by its cover. It recently came in one of my book orders so I added it to my winter break TBR pile. I’m glad I can finally move it to my read list. But, boy oh boy, is it a stark reminder of how middle school sucks!

Karma Khullar’s Mustache

by Kristi Wientge

Simon & Schuster (2017)

In less than two weeks, Karma Khullar will begin middle school. But that’s not the only thing different in her life. After a recent layoff, her dad is learning to be the stay-at-home parent while her mom tackles the demands of a new full-time job. What’s worse? Karma has unexpectedly grown seventeen hairs above her lip and has no idea how to get rid of this unwanted mustache. Her best friend Sara is the perfect person to help Karma find the solution to the mustache problem, but it seems Sara has a new best friend. Karma Khullar’s Mustache is the story of a biracial Indian-American who struggles with friendship, identity, and middle school woes, hopeful for someone to connect with to make it all easier to handle. Is all of the bad karma for her past or does she simply have to learn to find strength to deal with life’s difficult moments?

Kristi Wientge has written a contemporary story reminiscent of how tough middle school can be. She hits on all the things that impact middle schoolers the most–family, friends, peers and changes within themselves. I’ll definitely have a new perspective when I greet my middle schoolers again at the start of the new year.

I rarely post the back cover, but I couldn’t resist this time. Karma’s jacket illustrator is brilliant.



I’m so far behind on my TBR pile it’s ridiculous. I was supposed to read Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina a few months ago when I got a copy on Net Galley. I finally made the time to read it when one of our print copies arrived Friday. Pashmina is a quick and easy read. It probably took me so long to read it because I’d much rather hold a book than an iPad. I’m so happy to see an Indian-America protagonist in a graphic novel.

Priyanka is a teenager searching for understanding of her family and culture. Her mother immigrated to the US when she was Priyanka’s age, but has never spoke of the girl’s father or talked much about her family. After much begging and Priyanka finding a magical pashmina, her mother finally approves of her traveling to India to visit an aunt. Priyanka looks forward to meeting her family, but her priority is discovering the truth behind the magic of the pashmina.

I’m not much a fan of magic, but I love how the magic in this story shines light on people’s futures and gives them the courage to step outside of their comfort zone. When we first met Priyanka, she doubted herself and didn’t exude a high level of self-confidence. But by the time the story ended, readers see her believe in herself and also value the family dynamic her mother has put in place.

While not quite a coming of age story, Priyanka’s character does evolve some, especially in the way she comes to appreciate her mother and the decisions she made.

The illustrations vary between muted tones and full-color, based on the different settings in the story. I adore the richness of the hues in the full-color illustrations; bold tones are a favorite of mine. While the text is appropriate for upper elementary, I’d recommend this more for middle graders and up because readers have to be conscious of the shift in color that symbolizes the transition from past to present or present to magical realm. There are also a couple of places where the illustrations/storyline jump, causing you to somewhat do a double-take if you’re an intentional reader when it comes to graphic format.

Overall, it was a pleasant read and one out of my personal norm, but glad to have finally sat down with it. ✨


The YA Narrative Nonfiction We Need

It was a normal afternoon for two students heading home from their respective high schools on Oakland’s public 57 bus. Sasha, an agender teen, falls asleep while reading. Richard, engages with his cousin and friend. During the few minutes they are on the bus together, Richard lights the skirt Sasha is wearing, causing them to wake in fear and panic. The 57 Bus is the account of Sasha and Richard’s backgrounds, what happened that day, and the impact it had on their lives.

Continue reading


Dear Martin

Everyone is talking about this book. And they should be.dear martin

This time last year, Twitter was abuzz about Nic Stone’s upcoming debut novel, Dear Martin. At the time, a colleague was gathering the necessary documents to propose us co-teaching Jason Reynolds’ All-American Boys as a fiction pair to To Kill a Mockingbird. Our goal was to also include excerpts from other titles as well—American Born Chinese and Dear Martin (primarily because it wouldn’t have been released yet, so I’d be doing read-alouds from an ARC, if I could get my hand on one). Time passed, life happened, and we ended up not being able to incorporate AAB, etc. into the mix. But I never forgot about Dear Martin. February came and I read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I devoured it, wept over it, and held it words dear to me; it was the first time I’d heard my voice in literature. Ever. It made me long for Dear Martin even more. By summer’s end—or whenever Stone revealed what would be the final cover—I gave up all hope of securing an ARC. And then TASL (Tennessee Association of School Librarians) Conference happened. Oh the joy!, when a colleague and fellow advocate of diverse, relevant, high-quality literature for young adults gifted me with an ARC as part of his presentation at the conference.

So what did I do when I returned home? Devour it too. I’m still savoring it, to be honest. So much so, that it’s been difficult to blog about and feel like I could do it justice (no pun intended). As I prepared to post this one, I thought about how important it was for me to allow someone else’s thoughts to resonate. As a black woman who constantly preaches diverse and relevant literature, I think for Dear Martin, it’d also be important to hear perspectives from someone who doesn’t look like me. After all, the weaving of multiple perspectives in Dear Martin is one of the most profound things Stone does in the novel. With that said, I’m branching out a bit and introducing a guest to my blog. Welcome my friend and one of the people I talk books with most, Jennifer Sharp. I’m grateful to have her join.

You have 30 seconds to book talk Dear Martin. What do you say?

Late one night, Justyce McAllister is helping a drunk ex-girlfriend get home—and that’s when it all starts. A white policeman misinterprets what he sees, and gets rough with Justyce. It’s a terrifying experience, and one that starts to shift Justyce’s entire worldview as he sees more and more instances of systemic racism. He decides to write to Martin Luther King, Jr. and try to model King’s mentality and peaceful approach in his own life – but he struggles with that as he becomes more and more “woke” to all the race issues in our country.

We both love SJ because she’s direct, confrontational when it matters most, and has a heart for what’s right. But, you mentioned you wished Melo had more depth. What would you have liked to seen from her?

Well, it didn’t seem like Melo really had any redeeming qualities—at least not that we saw in the novel. Based on my experience working with teenagers, I feel like she probably has a back story. This novel wasn’t the place for her story to be told—but I did find myself very curious about her, and I wondered what led her to behave the way that she does.

Ok, I’m about to hit you with some real ish. So Justyce’s mom doesn’t like SJ because she’s white. As a white person, what was your initial reaction to this? Did you have questions?

I love talking about the real ish! Haha. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve definitely heard about people having that mentality before. As much as I want to say, “Oh, she should be totally cool with SJ and Justyce dating,” I also know that she’s probably had some life experiences that have led her to feel the way she does. I don’t think that necessarily validates her attitude about it, but it’s easier to empathize with her feelings knowing that it’s likely coming from a place of hurt and trauma.

It IS kind of a vicious cycle though—we expect black people to continue to be cool with white people, especially if they’re “allies” so to speak (like SJ), but we don’t acknowledge why that might be difficult for someone who has had lots of negative experiences with white people. As a white person, I can hardly say, “Why can’t you see that some of us are good people/committed to equality?” when we are inundated with news and experiences that show how many white people AREN’T. It’s an uphill battle.

The reality is that Justyce’s mom is used to having to combat racism from the system and from individuals, and it has worn her down and made her constantly “on defense.” She sees SJ as a threat because of her race—and while that’s hurtful to Justyce and SJ, I think we can all see how easy it might be to fall into her mindset as you read Justyce’s story. It didn’t bother me, necessarily, because I understand I’m reading her story from a place of privilege. But I do wish she had relented a little sooner! It was frustrating how hard she pushed Justyce on that topic at the funeral. But I see where she’s coming from and I hope she ultimately finds a way to accept SJ as a part of her family, because SJ loves Justyce. And maybe knowing SJ will broaden her perspective and vice versa.

In his final letter, Jus quotes Martin saying, “We (as in Black people) want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens.” Taking into consideration today’s political climate and prevalent social issues, how do we get there for all persons of color?

Whew, Erika – that’s a doozy!! It’s hard to imagine anything that would repair all the wrongs and get us there in the short term. As an educator, I think the biggest impact long-term will come from our children. I have known so many educators that are committed to empowering students to speak out and be heard. They’re choosing literature that is relevant and high-interest to share with their students, and they’re having discussion around those books that encourages students to develop and share their own voice. I think it helps, too, that so much of our curriculum now is focused on literacy—not just reading, but writing and speaking. So I hope learning these skills—and having educators who are committed to reaching ALL their students—will further this generation’s ability to make an impact on their world.

I think we all know kids aren’t BORN racist. That comes from society, and from kids being exposed to those viewpoints out in the world. But if we keep working—as parents, as teachers, as community members—to show kids how to have difficult conversations and love each other, I think we’ll be moving in the right direction.

To that end, I also think conversation is key. Our society too often fails at having tough conversations about things like race and privilege. We need to equip kids—and adults—to have thoughtful, intentional conversations about these topics. We need to open our hearts and our minds daily to the experiences of others—through listening to the people around us, through travel, through reading, etc. and we need to push others to do the same. These are the things that will help us make huge strides in that direction. Ultimately, I think the biggest thing is to keep moving forward and keep fighting for the future. We can’t give up or get disheartened. On election night last year, I stayed up late and cried my eyes out, and came to school and cried the whole next day when I looked at my students. But we have to KEEP showing up and speaking out, even in times of great sorrow, and we have to keep fighting the good fight. I think people with privilege need to fight even harder, honestly, because we can.

There are many things that stood out for me in Dear Martin. The most profound one was Doc saying to Justyce “They need to believe you’re a bad guy in order for their world to keep spinning the way it always has” as he helps him understand why Garrett’s actions were minimized by the media, who focused more on Manny’s background. It was a strong reminder of how the media often digs up what they can about victims to deflect from the accused actions. What was most memorable to you about this book?

Oh yeah, that line blew me away, too. To me, the thing that’s most memorable about this book isn’t a particular line or scene—it’s just the fact that Nic Stone really gave a voice to so many different perspectives in one novel. The conversations that the kids had, the gray areas, the characters who seemed like decent people but were also racist—it challenged me to think deeper about issues at every turn. With this book, when you finish, you’re not really finished. You close the book, but you’re going to feel the impact of those words and those perspectives as you move forward.

How did you feel about the way Nic ended the story? What do you think her goal was?

When you walk away from this book, you feel a little bit anxious, still. Everything isn’t wrapped up neatly with a bow—and that’s a good thing, for me, because that’s not real life. There’s hope and progress, yes, but there’s also still a lot of sadness, and that feels very real to me, and makes the impact of the book even stronger. I think Stone’s goal was probably to emulate real life and to leave you a little hopeful, a little sad, and a LOT more aware; she achieves that, 100%.

As an educator, why do you feel it’s important to put this book into your students’ hands?

For so many reasons, most of which we’ve covered in some way or another. Most importantly: it’s critical for students to be able to see life from other perspectives, and this book examines several different perspectives so masterfully. Secondly, I think this book could open the floor to so many important (and difficult) conversations. And finally, it’s just an amazing story, penned by an incredibly talented author. It’s fiction, but this is also Real Life. And I believe that books like this one can shape our society and accelerate our journey to the future we talked about above. This is a book that examines what Real Life looks like and helps us to identify the things we could all do better.

If you’re a believer in the power literature has to shape and change lives, read Dear Martin if you haven’t already. If you have, continue to share Stone’s work with others around you. Begin the tough dialogue. Encourage others to be okay with the discomfort that comes with it. We cannot change or progress without open minds, difficult conversations, and vocality. Now more than ever, we are charged with the task to examine our social issues and the perspectives tied to them. Dear Martin is a terrific place to begin the journey. As usual, check out Dear Martin at your public/school library or support your local indie bookseller.


Meeting Nic Stone AKA Twin. Southern Festival of Books (2017). 📷: Jarred Amato



The Track Series (Pt. 1)

So, there’s this guy, right. He goes by the name of Jason Reynolds. Dude got mad skills. There’s not one piece of work by him that I’ve read and not liked (excuse the double negative). I fell in literary love with Jason Reynolds in 2015 when he spoke on a panel at the National Conference of Association of African-American Librarians. While he’s mostly written young adult lit, he’s also dipped in the middle grade lit pond. Quick overview, The Track Series is about a group of middle school students on one of the best track teams in the city. While we meet the four newbies on the team in Ghost—Ghost, Patina, Lu, and Sunny—as they begin a new season, the novel deeply surrounds the experience from Ghost’s perspective. Although each book delves into an individual, Patina picked up where Ghost ended, drawing a seamless connection between the two. Today, I’m introducing you to the first two novels in The Track Series. IMG_6285

First up: Ghost, Reynolds’ 2016 National Book Award Finalist novel that begins the The Track Series. In this first book, Ghost stumbles upon the annual try-outs for the Defenders track team. Track really isn’t his thing though; basketball is. This doesn’t stop Ghost—or his big mouth and snark—from a challenging the team’s best runner. When he wins and the coach decides he belongs on the team, Ghost has to finally come to terms with all the things he’s been running from figuratively.

Up next: Patina, where Reynolds takes us into the life of Patty, the only female newbie on the team. For Patty, life’s a little complicated, and running is her way of paying homage to those she loves most, and proving her worth to those who taunt her. Being a part of the Defenders helps her realize her strength and that she can withstand.

Why I love Jason Reynolds, Ghost, and Patina:

  • When I first opened Ghost, I was immediately drawn to the story. The writing is so relatable. Most of the students I work with use similar vernacular. I can appreciate Reynolds using this style of writing because it helps my students feel comfortable with the prose. As I got ready to write this blog, I noticed a Banned Books Week bookmark sticking out from another book, and it presented an AHA moment. This year’s Banned Books Week theme was Words Have Power. For me, Reynold’s use of this dialect is an example of how words have power. The power of his words comes in his use of a particular style of language. It connects a certain audience to the writing and makes them want to continue reading. I’m in a new school this year, which means building relationships and working intently to build a culture of reading. A couple of weeks ago, an 8th grader was sitting at the circulation desk and I asked him if he liked to read. His response, “I used to, but I don’t anymore.” We proceeded to discuss why and before the end of the conversation, I knew this was my chance to make him fall in love with reading again. I asked if I gave him a book I knew he would love, would he read it. I promised he could bring it back if he didn’t like it, but asked that he at least give it a chance. A few days later, his class was in the library—I was actually in a classroom; when I came back, my clerk was thrilled to tell me this young man had started reading the book and really liked it. Hashtag WIN. That leads me to my next point.
  • These books—and just about everything Jason Reynolds writes—are perfect for reluctant readers. Engaging realistic fiction.
  • Each book gives more depth to each newbie. In book one, we see the multiple layers of Ghost—a kid we want to loathe but can only truly have love for. In book two, we view the intricate way in which Patty has to weave different worlds. Sure, it would do well to produce a novel in which the end results of the team’s season are revealed, but Reynold’s decision to separate the personal stories of the newbies allows for true character depth and guaranteed opportunities for readers—especially, reluctant readers—to engage with relevant literature in the future. After all, Ghost and Patina were both witty and emotional, and Reynolds’ history reveals a promise to continue that trend.


family | fam-uh-lee

noun: a social unit consisting of one or more adults with the children they care for

I chose this definition from dictionary.com because it’s open to interpretation. It isn’t rigid like some others. It embodies the essence of many different types of families. No two families look the same, so why should the phrase used to define the term be so close-ended? Families come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. That sounds cliché, but it’s real life. We all know the traditional idea of family is still prominent; it’s what most reference when they engage in conversation surrounding family. Truth be told, the image of family is increasingly different. Some families are single-parent. Some are adoptive or foster. Others include multiple races. More households than we can count have grandparents or other relatives at the helm. More than we’d like to count include children of incarcerated parents. And some are same-sex. It’s the latter that appears to bother people the most, especially when it involves educating children about the “norm.” Just ask Lesléa Newman, the author of the heavily challenged picturebook Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) and more recently published Donovan’s Big Day (2011).

If you examine family closely, the central theme is LOVE. It’s what’s most important—that children feel and exhibit love. That may look the same for most, and look different for many. In our efforts to grow families collectively and people individually, we explore various social norms and ideas. With that in mind, this post is to share some relevant titles—not to push an agenda or challenge any person’s ideology or morals—that are representative of some of the types of families that exist. They are simply a resource through which adults can combat hesitation and ease into essential conversations on the diversity that is our society. Experience has proven hesitation to engage (especially young children) in conversations around “hot topics” comes from an uncertainty of how to begin the discussion. Oftentimes, reading together with young children is a great place to start. These stories mimic real life and offer an opportunity to see things from a different lens. I hope that as you or others you know gain the confidence to talk with the children in your lives about the essence of family and how each one might look different, you might choose a title (or more than one) from this list to help make the engagement enjoyable and informational, rather than tense, biased, and uncomfortable. After all, the children in your lives will at some point encounter and befriend someone whose family doesn’t look like yours.

My hope is that you can find these at your local public (or child’s school) library. But I’m a realist, and I know for some that may not be the case. If you’re one of the unfortunate ones, hit up your local indie bookseller; they’re sure to have you covered.loving

Alko, Selina. The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage. (2015). Interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving fight for the right to be married and raise their family in Virginia. You can find my original post here.



Austrian, J. Worm Loves Worm. (2016). Two worms have fallen inworm love. The obvious next step is marriage. But who will wear the dress and who’ll wear the tux? Or does it really matter at all?

mixedDiggs, Taye. Mixed Me. (2015). When Mike realizes his wild curly hair doesn’t match his mom or dad, he wonders why. Having a mother with light skin and a father with dark skin, Mike is somewhere between the two, navigating what it means to be mixed.


tangoRichardson, Justin and Peter Parnell. And Tango Makes Three. (2005). An innocent, heartfelt, story of male penguins Roy and Silo who complete their family when the egg they’ve been gifted hatches.

stellaSchiffer, Miriam. Stella Brings the Family. (2015). When Stella’s teacher announces to the class they will be having a celebration for Mother’s Day and students can invite a special guest, Stella worries who she’ll bring since she has two dads.

oneShannon, George. One Family. (2015). Shannon’s book teaches little ones numbers and counting, but also explores family. Blanca Gomez’s illustrations depict how families can look different.

Woodson, Jacqueline. Pecan Pie Baby. (2010). New babies can be a fun addition to the pecanfamily, but for young Gia, it creates some anxiety. What will happen to the bond she shares with her (presumably single) mom when the new baby arrives?

I decided to save the best for last. A Family is a Family is a Family by Sara O’Leary should be your go to! Open the cover and find every unique family that exists. family