“Made in Illinois”: Connecting Readers with Creators in YOUR Classrooms and Libraries

Sarah Aronson

The Butler Children’s Literature Center was pleased to host local author Sarah Aronson last week Thursday, September 20th, for her “Made in Illinois” presentation. Aronson, who has written several books for children and teens, including the Wish List series for middle grade readers and an upcoming Rube Goldberg picture book biography, is originally from Pennsylvania, but now calls Evanston home. She shared with our audience various ways teachers and librarians can incorporate local authors and illustrators into their programming, from brief but impactful Skype conversations, to writing or illustrating workshops, or as enhancements to various STEAM curricula. Aronson also suggested collaborating with authors and illustrators to introduce more difficult conversations. “Books are a safe place to have a bigger discussion,” she said, whether that be about “bullying, the loss of a loved one, or talks about community and empathy.”

However educators want to work with authors and illustrators, the important thing, Aronson reminded everyone, was that the kids and their interests and imaginations be at the forefront, and that it be a collaborative effort between all parties: “When kids meet authors and illustrators, something happens. The book comes alive.” All it takes to make this magic happen is reaching out. Many authors have contact information on their websites, and there is an online resource launching this fall that will help connect local creators with local educators (look for announcements here and on our social media!).

Thanks again to Sarah, and happy collaborating to all!

Women and Wealth Redistribution: A Review of The Forest Queen

The Forest Queen by Betsy CornwellThe Forest Queen
Betsy Cornwell
HMH/Clarion Books, August 2018

“Steal from the rich, give to the poor” gets a fresh take in this gender-swapped retelling of the classic Robin Hood tale. Sylvie, sixteen and lady of Loughsley Abbey, begins to question her family’s treatment of the people of Loughsley – especially now that her brother, John, is the unforgiving sheriff. With her childhood friend, Bird, she runs away and lives in hiding in the nearby woods. Slowly, others from Loughsley join them in their new community, including a young woman named Little Jane, the midwife Mae Tuck, and others who feared otherwise being jailed for their inability to pay egregious taxes. Sylvie must eventually confront her brother, along with her own complicity in the evils done by her family, and she comes to realize that the changes required for economic justice mean she must take “radical action” and put herself in potential danger for the greater good.
Sylvie and her mission to redistribute wealth among the people of Loughsley are easy to root for, but the additional focus on gender roles, womanhood, and the idea of community as family are what set this retelling apart. Strong secondary characters help to challenge Sylvie and force her to take a strong stand against a system that she would otherwise benefit from, and parallels can be drawn from the injustices in the story to those of today’s world. As Little Jane, who becomes a dear friend to Sylvie says, “If someone doesn’t care whether you live or die, then living itself is rebellion” (p 241). This thoughtful narrative of what can happen when the privileged few horde wealth while the majority struggles to make do with less and less shows the power in a united band of concerned citizens.

Valuable Reminders: A Review of The Dollar Kids

dollar kids

The Dollar Kids
Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Illustrations by Ryan Andrews
Candlewick (August, 2018)
Ages 10-14

When his family wins the chance to buy a house for just $1, twelve-year-old Lowen sees it as a chance to hit the reset button — Mum can open her own restaurant, Dad can follow his dream of working in a clinic in an underserved community, his brother Clem can finally be the star athlete, and his sister Anneth — well, she’ll need convincing. And sensitive, artistic Lowen can work through his grief over the death of a friend and guilt over believing he caused it. But moving to a small town isn’t easy on any of them, leading everyone to question whether the Dollar House program was such a good idea after all. Dubbed the “Dollar Kids” by hostile new neighbors skeptical of the program and “whether it’s a help or drain on the town” (p. 328), Lowen and the other new kids in town struggle to make a place for themselves, rehab houses, and rebuild community.

The idea of home, be it a building, a community, a family, or a feeling creates a strong backbone for this plot, helping to pull the reader through the slightly slow start to the one year the book covers. By mid-book, the pace picks up in both action and time (the progress noted with each new chapter). While slightly awkward, the change of pacing mirrors the changes Lowen experiences as he processes his grief and settles into life in Millville. Scenes from Lowen’s comic book drawing layer in additional elements of his grieving process, questions of faith, and ultimately his healing.

Diversity (of age, gender, and cultures) among the characters in this story provide a varied range of coping mechanisms for dealing with uncertainty, insecurity, and change by both the new families settling in and Millville residents dealing with the decline of their small, but proud town. The inclusion of parents and other community members as active players in the story is a refreshing change from books that often leave you wondering “What happened to all the adults?” and provides a subtle reminder that communities need all types of diversity to thrive.

Small & Mighty: A Review of Front Desk by Kelly Yang

front deskFront Desk by Kelly Yang
Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books
May, 2018

Mia and her parents, recent immigrants from China, are managing a California motel in the early 1990s. It’s a family affair, as ten-year-old Mia finds herself responsible for checking in motel guests while her parents tend to the rooms and motel maintenance – though it sometimes feels like it’s Mia against the world. After a rough start including washing machine mishaps, bad grades, and arguments with her mother (who wants Mia to stick to math, something she considers Mia to be a “native” in), Mia hits her stride when she realizes the power of using her ever-improving English to help others, especially the motel guests she considers family.

Adventurous subplots and dynamic secondary characters add to the appeal of this compelling middle grade novel. Mia believes in herself and wants what is best for her friends and family, and though her quick thinking sometimes gets her in trouble, at the end of the day she is a force for good in her community. This book is fun, yet thoughtful, and shows that there’s no age requirement for taking action against injustice.

Finding Their Way Home: A Review of Refugee by Alan Gratz

Told in three separate yet connected stories, Refugee is a novel of perseverance and commitment to who you are in the face of persecution.

refugeeJosef is fleeing from 1930s Nazi Germany and the threat of concentration camps with his parents and sister. Isabel, her parents, and her neighbors use a makeshift raft to escape Cuba in 1994, during the unrest of Castro’s regime. Mahmoud, along with his parents and younger siblings, leave the violence of war in Syria in 2015, traveling through Europe as they search for a safer place to live. Though the details of their stories are unique, Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud share more similarities than just their situations.

The attention given to creating characters with heart and conviction is engaging, while the conflicts each protagonist faces ensure none of their individual stories get stuck in the emotion of the book as a whole. Refugee tells an important story, and does so without preaching or sensationalizing the experiences of refugees past and present. Maps and an author’s note highlight the reality of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud’s stories and show the readers how they can help with relief efforts.

April B3: Immigration Stories

These days, it’s more important than ever for us to share stories about immigration with the young readers we serve; both for the sake of immigrant kids in our communities, and to encourage understanding among others of these kids’ experiences.

Join us on April 5, 2017 in the Butler Center from 5:30-7:00 (books & snacks out at 5:30; discussion from 6-7) to discuss the following list of recently published books with an immigration theme, from picture books to children’s fiction to teen fiction. We’re focusing on fiction this time; we know there are lots of excellent informational books too. You may remember the Butler Center’s “Big Read” bibliography from last year; this month’s list complements the selections recommended there.

PICTURE BOOKS

CallingtheWaterDrum
Calling the Water Drum
by LaTisha Redding, illus. by Aaron Boyd (Lee & Low, 2016)

PieceofHome
A Piece of Home
by Jeri Watts, illus. by Hyewon Yum (Candlewick, 2016)

CHILDREN’S FICTION

LongPitchHome
A Long Pitch Home
by Natalie Dias Lorenzi (Charlesbridge, 2016)

OnlyRoad.jpeg
The Only Road
by Alexandra Diaz (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2016)

TEEN FICTION

GirlMansUp.jpeg
Girl Mans Up
by M-E Girard (HarperTeen, 2016)

Watched
Watched
by Marina Budhos (Random/Wendy Lamb, 2016)

Commonalities, Not Competition: Newbery 2014

It gets to be this time of the year in the children’s publishing world and my anxiety starts to bubble to the surface of my being. Blogs are buzzing with reviews of novels, analysis of illustrations, and comparison of genres. Librarians ask each other, “What are your favorites this year?” Patrons ask, “So who do you think is going to win?” And while I love love love the ALSC awards, I want to take a step back and reflect upon what a few of these buzzing books have in common, rather than the spirit of competition that my air bubble is currently filled with. This perfectly fits with The Butler Center’s mission to encourage imagination and wonder through literature.

I generated the following list of books randomly from several sources. This is simply for observation’s sake, so if a book isn’t included, there is no intention or reason behind it (and I have had a chance to READ THESE!) Let’s check out some of the books:

  • Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
  • One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
  • The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata
  • Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Center of Everything by Linda Urban
  •  A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
  • Far Far Away by Tom McNeal

Okay, so let’s the get obvious ones out of the way– most of these authors are women and they are all fiction choices. But this says more about me as a reader than about the Newbery contenders this year.

But let’s look at what’s underneath. When I take a close look, this is what I see:

1) They all ask important questions. Why are we here? How do I discover my own voice? What is the best way to make decisions? Where do I fit in? Can I change my own destiny, or is it just up to luck? Whether it is Georgie who is trying to navigate her own world amidst feelings of loss and coming-of-age discoveries or Flora going on adventures with a magic squirrel, these characters search, seek, and only sometimes find the answer. In other words, they make us think.

2) They are filled with important relationships. I think we know that humans instinctually want to connect with others, but each of these books explores friendship and family relationships with distinguished and dynamic depth. Cady searches for her long-lost parent. Willow loses everything she has and then finds family in a patchwork quilt of interesting human beings. The ghost of Jacob Grimm protects young Jacob Johnson Johnson, forming a kind of intimate bond between male characters. This level of authenticity is, in my opinion, rare in middle grade/YA novels.

3) They leave us with more questions, rather than answers. These books don’t tell us the way to live. There is no black and white, right or wrong. They explore questions along the way, but they leave the answers up to the reader. And isn’t that what great books are all about? Some of the best books I’ve read, I’ve finished the last page and thought, “Hmmm,” or “….huh….?” But then I think. I talk to other readers. I wait for it to sink in. And all of these books have sunk in because they don’t “fix” or “solve” anything. They explore, ignite, and wonder.

What Newbery buzz books are you excited about this year? What do they have in common with each other? How do the books inform each other when you compare them in the aggregate rather than in direct competition with each other?