Mascot by Charles Waters and Traci Sorell

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Mascot
Authors: Charles Waters and Traci Sorell
Published September 5th, 2023 by Charlesbridge

Summary: What if a school’s mascot is seen as racist, but not by everyone? In this compelling middle-grade novel in verse, two best-selling BIPOC authors tackle this hot-button issue.

In Rye, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, people work hard, kids go to school, and football is big on Friday nights. An eighth-grade English teacher creates an assignment for her class to debate whether Rye’s mascot should stay or change. Now six middle-schoolers—all with different backgrounds and beliefs—get involved in the contentious issue that already has the suburb turned upside down with everyone choosing sides and arguments getting ugly.

Praise: 

⭐ Publishers Weekly, starred review

Told via seven alternating narratives, this ripped-from-the-headlines collaboration in verse by Waters (African Town) and Cherokee Nation member Sorrel (One Land, Many Nations) follows a fictional town’s division over a racist sports mascot. Callie Crossland, who is Cherokee and Black, has just transferred to a middle school in Rye, Va. She immediately expresses disgust at her school’s mascot, a “copper-toned, muscled, loincloth-clad, tomahawk-wielding” caricature of an Indigenous person. Callie’s English teacher Ms. Williams soon assigns a group writing project regarding the “Pros and Cons of Indigenous Peoples as Mascots,” and Callie is annoyed at being paired with Black classmate Franklin, who believes the mascot “brings so much joy.” Waters and Sorrel paint a complex portrait of the differing reactions toward the controversy by layering the racially diverse tweens’ perspectives and showcasing the effects the event has on their individual relationships and the community beyond their school. The creators eschew judgment to present a well-rounded discussion about classism and racism, as well as effective allyship, with compassion and understanding. A glossary and resources conclude. Ages 10–up.

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Waters and Sorell (Cherokee Nation) join forces to write about the power of being true to oneself.

In a middle school in Rye, a fictional town near Washington, D.C., a racist mural and offensive pep rally chants shock new student Callie Crossland, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and African American. Callie shares a heartfelt poem with her seventh grade honors English class, reminding everyone that the “stupid tomahawk-chop chant” and the “cheap chicken-feather headdress” are nothing less than symbols of “white supremacy.” Afterward, Ms. Williams, her teacher, assigns a persuasive writing and oration project entitled “Pros and Cons of Indigenous Peoples as Mascots.” The small, broadly diverse group of students is assigned to work in pairs; Callie is matched with Franklin, who is Black and a proud fan of the Rye Braves football team. Franklin insists, “I wish we could Lysol racism away. / It’s a bad odor,” but he feels conflicted: “I still don’t think our mascot is racist though. It brings so much joy. / …what’s the big deal?” This clever novel unfolds in poems told in multiple voices showing the wide range of students’, families’, and community responses to the controversy; for some, initial feelings of opposition, hesitation, or indifference change and friendships are tested. The compelling, highly relevant subject matter and accessible text invite readers to understand different perspectives and witness individual growth.

A brilliant story not to be missed; deeply engaging from the first page. (glossary, additional information and resources) (Verse fiction. 10-14)

About the Authors: Charles Waters is a children’s poet, actor, educator, and coauthor of African Town; Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z; and the award-winning Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship. He lives near Atlanta.

Traci Sorell writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies, including the Sibert Honor books We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga and We Are Still Here!. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located.

The Authors Discuss the Book: 

Review: The tagline of this book is “Discrimination is discrimination, even when people claim it is ‘tradition,'” and this tagline tells you exactly about the theme of the book. Told from four students’ points of view, it looks at a school where there is a lot of school spirit around their sports team, called the Braves, and a new student starts who is indigenous and is horrified at the appropriation of her culture. The book is written in verse which gives such well written insight into each of the students’ point of view as these kids aim to make a difference. I read this book in one sitting–it is such a great read where you want to know what is going to happen, so you cannot put the book down.

This topic is also so very timely! I saw Traci Sorell at AASL, and she shared that about 2,000 K-12 schools still have Native American-themed mascots. I know of a couple in my area, and I hope that someone shares this book with them to get the conversation going as the book does a beautiful job of looking at the effects of the ignorant choices that were made in the past (and that too many continue to ignore, despite the racism).

Discussion Questions: 

*This discussion guide is provided by the publisher.

Flagged Spreads: 

Read This If You Love: Novels in Verse, Books with multiple points of view, Books that look at timely injustices

Recommended For: 

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**Thanks to Charlesbridge for providing a copy of the book for review!**

Up In Flames by Hailey Alcaraz

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Up In Flames
Author: Hailey Alcaraz
Published: October 3, 2023 by Viking

Summary: Gorgeous, wealthy, and entitled, Ruby has just one single worry in her life—scheming to get the boy next door to finally realize they’re meant to be together. But when the California wildfires cause her privileged world to go up in flames, Ruby must struggle to find the grit and compassion to help her family and those less fortunate to rise from the ashes.

At eighteen, Ruby Ortega is an unapologetic flirt who balances her natural aptitude for economics with her skill in partying hard. But she couldn’t care less about those messy college boys—it’s her intense, brooding neighbor Ashton who she wants, and even followed to school. Even the fact that he has a girlfriend doesn’t deter her . . . whatever Ruby wants, she eventually gets.

Her ruthless determination is tested when wildfires devastate her California hometown, destroying her parents’ business and causing an unspeakable tragedy that shatters her to her core. Suddenly, Ruby is the head of the family and responsible for its survival, with no income or experience to rely on. Rebuilding seems hopeless, but with the help of unexpected allies—including a beguiling, dark-eyed boy who seems to understand her better than anyone—Ruby has to try. When she discovers that the fires also displaced many undocumented people in her town, it becomes even more imperative to help. And if she has to make hard choices along the way, can anyone blame her?

In her powerful debut novel, Mexican American author Hailey Alcaraz chronicles a riveting portrait of transformation, resilience, and love with an unlikely heroine who, when faced with unforeseen disaster, surprises everyone, especially herself.

Review: This book reminds us all that we are imperfect, and we won’t always make the right choices. Ruby’s story is set in a backdrop of the California wildfires. The book includes richly realized themes, and I particularly appreciated the ways in which Author Hailey Alcaraz interrogated the intersections of race and class. I was invested in Ruby’s story and rooting for her from the beginning to end. She is certainly flawed (as we all are), and she felt very real to me. I really enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it. (The audiobook is excellent!)

Tools for Navigation: Teachers might have students map some of the many themes of this book, considering how they are integrated within the text and the lessons they teach readers.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How would you describe Ruby? What qualities does she have that are positive? What qualities might she work on? What lessons does she learn?
  • How does the setting shape the story? How might the text be different if the setting was different?
  • How are Ashton, Remy, and Charlie different? How does Ruby’s relationship with each help us understand her more?

Flagged Spreads/Passages: She understood that some things required more than sheer willpower. Some things—the important things, the hard things, the things that defined you as a person—required patience and trust and listening, too (p. 370, Advanced Reader Copy, and the quote may change).

Read This If You Love: Realistic Fiction, Romance, Social Justice Stories

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you to Aubrey at Penguin Young Readers for providing a copy for an honest review**

Saints of the Household by Ari Tison

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Saints of the Household
Author: Ari Tison
Published: March 28, 2023 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)

Summary: Saints of the Household is a haunting contemporary YA about an act of violence in a small-town–beautifully told by a debut Indigenous Costa Rican-American writer–that will take your breath away.

Max and Jay have always depended on one another for their survival. Growing up with a physically abusive father, the two Bribri American brothers have learned that the only way to protect themselves and their mother is to stick to a schedule and keep their heads down.

But when they hear a classmate in trouble in the woods, instinct takes over and they intervene, breaking up a fight and beating their high school’s star soccer player to a pulp. This act of violence threatens the brothers’ dreams for the future and their beliefs about who they are. As the true details of that fateful afternoon unfold over the course of the novel, Max and Jay grapple with the weight of their actions, their shifting relationship as brothers, and the realization that they may be more like their father than they thought. They’ll have to reach back to their Bribri roots to find their way forward.

Told in alternating points of view using vignettes and poems, debut author Ari Tison crafts an emotional, slow-burning drama about brotherhood, abuse, recovery, and doing the right thing.

Review: This gorgeous novel alternates two brothers’ perspectives, one in prose (similar to short vignettes) and one in verse. I was captivated by this book and felt really connected to the two characters. The story begins immediately following a violent altercation between the brothers and their cousin’s girlfriend. The boys (Jay and Max) also experience domestic abuse at home. Jay and Max are less than a year apart in age and very close, yet they negotiate the altercations in very different ways. I highly recommend this book and am really glad that I read it and got to know Jay’s and Max’s stories.

Tools for Navigation: This book inspires creative writing. Teachers might ask students to try writing alternating perspectives of two people who are negotiating a conflict in different ways. They might also try writing one voice in prose and one in verse.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Did you find yourself feeling more empathetic toward one of the brothers? If yes, why might this be? If no, do you think audiences might be more empathetic to a brother, and why or why not?
  • How does the domestic abuse impact each of the brothers?
  • How did the different forms enhance your reading of the text?

Flagged Passage: “‘Sadness is not uncommon for our people,’ he tells me. ‘We have been hurt by many. People have been murdered. Our lands taken. But, in turn, when you are so hurt, you cannot let them win again by allowing them to take your mind. We’ve got everything against us, dawö’chke, but we’re still here, aren’t we? Each one of us made it. And we will still make it through all we’re facing'” (p. 186).

Read This If You Love: Angeline Boulley, Amber McBride, Ibi Zoboi

Recommended For: 

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Worldwide Crush by Kristin Nilsen

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Worldwide Crush
Author: Kristin Nilsen
Published July 11th, 2023 by SparkPress

Summary: Rory Calhoun is a teen popstar with perfect teeth and messy hair who’s inspiring first crushes all over the globe. Millie Jackson is just one of the millions of fans who love him―but that doesn’t mean her heart doesn’t break for him every single day in this laugh-out-loud coming-of-age story.

How many of Rory’s fans collect “data” about him in a special notebook hidden in their underwear drawer? Or have faked a fascination with whale migration for a chance to visit his hometown? Millie may not be Rory’s only fan at Susan B. Anthony Middle School, but she’s convinced she’s the biggest―and the best.

Rory’s new song “Worldwide Crush” is climbing the charts, and his lyrics are clear: he’s looking for love―and he’s looking in the audience. Meaning Millie’s secret fantasies of running in the surf and eating waffles with him may not be crazy after all . . . she could be that girl! But first she has to get to his concert―his completely sold-out concert in a city nowhere near her home for which she does not have tickets or a ride. She just has to figure out how.

About the Author: Kristin Nilsen has been a children’s librarian, a bookseller, a perfume seller, a horse poop shoveler, a typist (on an actual typewriter), a storyteller, a seventh grader, and a mom to both humans and dogs. Today she is a self-proclaimed Pro Crushologist who talks about Gen X pop culture on The Pop Culture Preservation Society podcast. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of the only big cities in the world where you can look out your window and see a lake. Which she likes. A lot.

Review: This book will be a book of nostalgia for anyone who has already had a celebrity crush, it will be a book of mirrors for those in the middle of a celebrity crush,  and it will be a crystal ball for those who aren’t there yet but will be soon. This book explains the feelings of celebrity crush in ways that no other book I’ve read does. It actually reminded me a lot of Turning Red in that way. It truly captures the tsunami of emotions that come with celebrity crushes. And surrounding this crush-centered story is a cast of characters that are all so real which makes the story continue to be believable. This is a fun read, and the author’s addition of a game and playlist make it even more fun (see below)!

Teaching Tools for Navigation: This book is going to connect with so many readers! Put it in your classroom, school, and public libraries and book talk it–anyone who has felt like Millie has (which is almost everyone), will want to read her story.

Check out the Worldwide Crush playlist here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6iynP5y3qcPOUNfMcVg2Kb

Play the “Hidden Crush” game in Worldwide Crush! Info here: https://kristinnilsenbooks.com/worldwide-crush-book/hidden-crushes/

Discussion Questions: Check out the author-provided discussion questions at https://kristinnilsenbooks.com/book-clubs/. Includes questions like:

  • Is Millie’s crush good or bad for her?
  • How does Millie use her diary to express her crush? Did you like it? How did her diary entries make you feel?
  • What do you think Rory Calhoun is like in real life? Do you think Millie’s perception of him was accurate?
  • Would you like Cheryl as a grandma?

Flagged Passages/Spreads: 

Chapter 1:

I love Rory Calhoun.

I’ve loved him forever. Since before summer, even. The first time I saw him was a concern in Paris. Or maybe it was Venice? Or Rome or something? Whatever, I’m not sure, the important thing is that I felt a prickly, melty warming in my stomach. It was not something I had ever felt before. And I liked it.

I was at Shauna’s house, and she opened her laptop, and she said, “Watch this.” It was a clip of him singing “Worldwide Crush” at a concert in Paris or Venice or whatever. And it only took a few seconds for me to understand why all those girls were huddled below him, reaching out, wishing for just a quick swipe of his hand, just a taste of his skin, which would be the most important thing to ever happen to them. And then when he put his hand on his heart and smiled–his teeth are so straight!–saying, “Ti amo! Ti amo!” it felt like he was telling me he loved me. Oh yeah, ti amo is Italian for “I love you,” so it must have been Venice. Or Rome. Anyway…that was an important day for me.

Read This If You Love: Middle school crush-focused books

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you to Hanna at Spark Point Studio for providing a copy for review!**

The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn by Sally J. Pla

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The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn
Author: Sally J. Pla
Published July 11th, 2023 by Quill Tree Books

Summary: Neurodivergent Maudie is ready to spend an amazing summer with her dad, but will she find the courage to tell him a terrible secret about life with her mom and new stepdad? This contemporary novel by the award-winning author of The Someday Birds is a must-read for fans of Leslie Connor and Ali Standish.

Maudie always looks forward to the summers she spends in California with her dad. But this year, she must keep a troubling secret about her home life–one that her mom warned her never to tell. Maudie wants to confide in her dad about her stepdad’s anger, but she’s scared.

When a wildfire strikes, Maudie and her dad are forced to evacuate to the beach town where he grew up. It’s another turbulent wave of change. But now, every morning, from their camper, Maudie can see surfers bobbing in the water. She desperately wants to learn, but could she ever be brave enough?

As Maudie navigates unfamiliar waters, she makes friends–and her autism no longer feels like the big deal her mom makes it out to be. But her secret is still threatening to sink her. Will Maudie find the strength to reveal the awful truth–and maybe even find some way to stay with Dad–before summer is over?

Praise: 

“A vulnerable portrait of one girl seeking to empower and redefine herself outside of her personal traumas.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Through Maudie’s earnest, occasionally poetic narration, Pla vividly explores the ways that physical and verbal abuse can distort self-perception. A perceptive, poignant tale of self-discovery.” — Kirkus Reviews

“A heartfelt story of courage and hope about Maudie, who navigates the world in her own unique divergent way, even while struggling with challenging family dynamics and loss. Readers will cry, cheer, and celebrate, and not soon forget, Maudie McGinn.”  — Pam Muñoz Ryan, Newbery Honor-winning author

“A gorgeous, bighearted, beautiful book. I loved it.”   — Elana K. Arnold, award-winning author of A Boy Called Bat

“A powerful and deeply affecting story that will carry readers along like the perfect wave.” — Barbara Dee, author of Maybe He Just Likes You 

“A breathtakingly beautiful ride of a story about an unforgettable, neurodivergent heroine.” — Jess Redman, award-winning author of The Miraculous

About the Author: Sally J. Pla writes stories for young people. Her books have been translated into many languages, garnered starred reviews, appeared on many ‘best book’ and state lists, and picked up a few awards, but the best thing they’ve done has been to connect her to readers like you. The Someday Birds; Stanley Will Probably Be Fine; Benji, The Bad Day, And Me; and her latest, The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn, all portray characters who see the world a bit differently. Because we are all stars shining with different lights.

Sally has English degrees from Colgate and Penn State, and has worked as a journalist and in public education. You can find her at sallyjpla.com.

Review: This book, y’all. I am so glad that it was put on my radar because it is more than I could have guessed from the summary–I am so glad that I read it. It was a one-sitting read; I couldn’t put it down.

Sally J. Pla has crafted a book that pulls at heartstrings; has moments written in prose AND verse that are mentor texts in craft; will be a window, mirror, or sliding glass door (Sims-Bishop, 1990) for so many readers; touches on a tough subject that I truly think will help some readers with talking about their own situation; and has an amazing cast of characters!

Teaching Tools for Navigation: This book will be loved by so many readers. It is a must buy for middle school libraries and classrooms and may even be a good book club choice, just make sure to discuss the content triggers before choosing. Help the right readers find this book, help the right ones talk about it, and help the book get the love it deserves.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why do you think the author chose not to tell Maudie’s secret from the beginning?
  • How does surfing both help and hurt Maudie’s situation?
  • How is Maudie treated differently with her mom versus her dad?
  • Why does her dad seem to understand her better than her mom?
  • Why did the author include sections in verse throughout the book?
  • Why do you think Etta helps Maudie?
  • Why does Maudie begin to find her voice more now that she is with her dad?
  • How is Paddi’s school different than Maudie’s school in Texas?
  • Masks are talked about figuratively within the book. Why does Maudie and her mom feel like they have to wear a mask?
  • What type of character traits does Maudie and her dad show by starting over after the fire?

Flagged Passage:

Chapter 2 Wowowowowowowowow

The Molinas emergency shelter is packed with stressed-out neighbors, grim-looking police, and frantic aid workers handing out things like bottles of water and crinkly silver blankets.

It’s not cold, but I can’t stop shivering.

There’s an old clipboard perched on a table under a stale copy cup–leftover from some meeting. I take it with me to one of the cots the volunteers have set up. Its thing blue mattress crunches underneath me; it feels like it’s filled with plastic pellets.

I unclip an old paper from the clipboard and turn it over. And just like Mr. Parris taught me, back at that noisy dance, I do his calm-down trick. I start to catalog the too-muchness.

SMELLS
stale coffee
stale soup
industrial carpeting
body odor
ashes
smoke
fabric softener

SOUNDS
kids crying
a couple arguing in staccato Spanish
an old man coughing and hacking up something wet and gross into a Kleenex, ugh
some lady shouting “Who took my phone? Who took my phone?” over and over
distant sirens: wowowowo-wowowowowo-wowwwwwwww

TOUCH
this silver emergency blanket, which feels like slippery aluminum foil
this sweaty plastic-pellet mattress under my butt and legs
burning eyes, like my lashes are gunked with hot grit
headache, blaring and pounding at my temples like a vise
a strange iron-band feeling around my chest, keeping me breathless
B R E A T H E
B R E A T H E
B R E A T H E

SIGHTS
The curve of my dad’s back

Read This If You Love: A Work in Progress by Jarrett Lerner; Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse by Susan Vaught; Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit; The Ship We Built by Lexie Bean; Tornado Brain by Cat Patrick

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**Thank you to Blue Slip Media for providing a copy of review!**

Educators’ Guide for A Match Made in Mehendi by Nandini Bajpai

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A Match Made in Mehendi
Author: Nandini Bajpai
Published: September 10th, 2019 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Simran “Simi” Sangha comes from a long line of Indian vichole-matchmakers-with a rich history for helping parents find good matches for their grown children. When Simi accidentally sets up her cousin and a soon-to-be lawyer, her family is thrilled that she has the “gift.”

But Simi is an artist, and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with relationships, helicopter parents, and family drama. That is, until she realizes this might be just the thing to improve her and her best friend Noah’s social status. Armed with her family’s ancient guide to finding love, Simi starts a matchmaking service-via an app, of course.

But when she helps connect a wallflower of a girl with the star of the boys’ soccer team, she turns the high school hierarchy topsy-turvy, soon making herself public enemy number one.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the educators’ guide I created for Cake Creative Kitchen:

You can also access the educators’ guide here.

You can learn more about A Match Made in Mehendi by visiting Cake Creative Kitchen’s Library.

Recommended For: 

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Discussion Guide for Merci Suárez Plays it Cool by Meg Medina

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Merci Suárez Plays it Cool
Author: Meg Medina
Published: September 13th, 2022 by Candlewick Press

Summary: In a satisfying finale to her trilogy, Newbery Medalist Meg Medina follows Merci Suárez into an eighth-grade year full of changes—evolving friendships, new responsibilities, and heartbreaking loss.

For Merci Suárez, eighth grade means a new haircut, nighttime football games, and an out-of-town overnight field trip. At home, it means more chores and keeping an eye on Lolo as his health worsens. It’s a year filled with more responsibility and independence, but also with opportunities to reinvent herself. Merci has always been fine with not being one of the popular kids like Avery Sanders, who will probably be the soccer captain and is always traveling to fun places and buying new clothes. But then Avery starts talking to Merci more, and not just as a teammate. Does this mean they’re friends? Merci wants to play it cool, but with Edna always in her business, it’s only a matter of time before Merci has to decide where her loyalty stands. Whether Merci is facing school drama or changing family dynamics, readers will empathize as she discovers who she can count on—and what can change in an instant—in Meg Medina’s heartfelt conclusion to the trilogy that began with the Newbery Medal–winning novel.

Discussion Questions: 

After writing the educators’ guide for Merci Suárez Changes Gears, I was so happy that Candlewick returned and asked me to create this discussion guide for the finale of the trilogy. Please view and enjoy the guide I created:

You can also access the discussion guide here.

You can learn more about Merci Suárez Plays it Cool on Candlewick’s page.

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