A Title that Fits Like a Glove

The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, by Jen Ferguson, has a perfect title. Rarely does a title match the text quite so brilliantly. The title, however, is just the beginning of Ferguson’s excellent young adult novel, which will enchant readers of all backgrounds. The book is full of rich character development and multiple stories which center around love and identity.

The protagonist of The Summer of Bitter and Sweet is Lou, a recent high school graduate who is spending the summer working at her uncles’ ice cream shop. The ice cream here is different than what you would typically see in a grocery store, because its flavors are based on the native plants in this area of Canada, where many Metis people still live. The book describes the conflicted, and sometimes violent, relationships between white and Native residents. In fact, one of these incidents is the reason why Lou is alive in the first place.

Lou’s parentage is just one way that this book balances both bitter and sweet. Her relationships with friends, her uncles, and romantic partners all come with both of these elements. This is so intricately woven into the story that it only became apparent after finishing the book. Lou’s understanding of romance is colored by experiences of women in her past as well as her own relationship history. Lou is one of the few asexual or demisexual characters that I have encountered in young adult literature. The story is told in her voice, which could be very empowering to individuals who are feeling similarly.

This is one of the best young adult books that I have read this year. It is a complex, thought-provoking, and rewarding text to engage with as a reader.

Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities and the intersection of those identities create unique aspects of who I am and that this is true for other people too.

Diversity 9: I relate to an build connections with other people by showing them empathy, respect and understanding, regardless of our similarities or differences.

Honest History

In Imani Perry’s excellent new book for adults, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, she points out that, “even if you are a lover of the national romance, integrity requires that the stories be at least halfway honest…Because history is an instruction. And what you neglect to attend to from the past, you will surely ignore in the present.” (228-229). That is why I believe the 1619 Project’s Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and RenĂ©e Watson, and illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, is so essential to our classrooms and school libraries. A story including slavery, it is, of course, all of the things that so many individuals now say they are opposed to. It is uncomfortable, disturbing, and painful for readers. It is also thought-provoking, powerful, and a catalyst for seeking to create a more perfect union today.

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The Politics of Personhood

According to Freedom for All Americans, there are twenty-five anti-transgender bills currently being proposed in states across the nation. Laws that attack members of marginalized communities are certainly not new to the United States. It seems that there are always groups who are seen as “less-than” or who we prefer to not see at all. The current conflicts around what books should or should not be available in schools and libraries certainly suggest that there are specific groups of people who many adults wish to see erased from children’s knowledge, and transgender individuals are high on that list. Both Sides Now, by Peyton Thomas, explores the question of how to respond when one’s own personhood is an issue of political debate.

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Celebrate Talent

There should be many more books like J.D. and the Great Barber Battle, written by J.Dillard and illustrated by Akeem S. Roberts. Luckily, this is the first title in a series (with two additional books available now), so I can look forward to many adventures with J.D. and his community in Meridian, Mississippi. I have known many young entrepreneurs who have started lemonade stands or sold scented “slime” creations, but never a third-grade barber. Of course, the author of the series started cutting his own hair when he was 10 so he is writing from experience.

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Seeing People

Every once in a while my soul aches to read a story where every character, even the most challenging, eventually shows a redeeming quality. In Anybody Here Seen Frenchie?, by Leslie Connor, I found a book with so many loving, quirky, and accepting characters that it makes me want to pack up and move to Maine. These characters are not perfect and they still have struggles, but their ability to work together and to see each other as equally worthy despite their differences makes them stand out as exceptional in our world today. On this first day of the new year, maybe we could all take a step in their direction.

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Secrets and Lies

The title of my blog, Teaching Social Justice with Children’s Books, did not seem dangerous or problematic when I chose it several years ago, but it does today. Parents, school boards, and government representatives across the country are demanding that children’s and young adult books which address certain aspects of a person’s identity be removed from the bookshelves of classrooms and school libraries. Teaching students about “social justice” is being equated to indoctrination. I think about social justice as meaning fair treatment in society, and fairness used to be something that was encouraged in classrooms. As many young students would be able to tell you, fair is not always equal. They know that some of their classmates might need additional support in the classroom to meet grade level goals. They know that a student with diabetes might need to have an extra snack to treat a low blood sugar. My intent is not to diminish the challenge of creating a fair or just society. I simply want to point out that knowledge, or at least acknowledgement, is a necessary first step.

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Room for Everyone

One of the first books I reviewed for this blog was Front Desk by Kelly Yang. I was thrilled to receive an advance reader’s copy of Room to Dream in the mail from Scholastic Press. This is the third book about Mia Tang and I hope there will be many more. Mia is an activist, a reporter, and a true friend to adults and children alike. Her story inspires young activists and writers around the world and it is an essential text for elementary libraries and classrooms.

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Boundless Creativity

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, but I didn’t know that until I started to do some research to write this blog post. December 3 is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. I didn’t know that either. As a former special education teacher, it seems like I should have. But, honestly, what I wish I had thought more about during my teaching career isn’t just disability awareness, it’s ability awareness. We shouldn’t only consider this as teachers, it is also something that we need to share with all our students. Unbound: The Life + Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott with Brie Spangler and with art by Melissa Sweet, is a perfect introduction to ability awareness for young students.

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Celebration is the word that comes to mind after reading Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids. This is one of the first books published by Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint of HarperCollin’s Children’s Books. Edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith, it brings together stories from many Native writers centering around a single powwow in Michigan. Each story is different, some joyful and some sad, but each ends up celebrating this beautiful shared tradition.

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Knowledge of Our Past is Essential to Moving Forward

There are efforts around the country right now to ban the discussion of critical race theory in K-12 schools. Legislatures are doing their best to prevent people of color, particularly Black people, from being able to vote in future elections. In Iowa, where I live, House File 802 specifically prohibits school districts from including certain concepts in diversity and inclusion efforts, a few of which are: “that the United States and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist;” “that members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex;” and “that any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.”

Now, luckily in my opinion, House File 802 does not prohibit responding to questions. Also, to be fair to the Iowa legislature and governor, it does not “prohibit the use of curriculum that teaches the topics of sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, or racial discrimination, including topics relating to the enactment and enforcement of laws resulting in sexism, racial oppression, segregation, and discrimination.” This brings me to Mildred Taylor and her exceptional Logan Family Saga. To me, these books are probably the best US History curriculum you could find for late middle to early high school students covering the years from Reconstruction all the way through to the mid-60s. Iowa even has a part to play.

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