Monday, May 09, 2022

MMGM- Answers in the Pages and Pirate Queens

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Levithan, David. Answers in the Pages
May 10th 2022 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
E ARC provided by publisher

Gideon is a fifth grader, and he and his best friends Joelle and Tucker are enjoying school, especially Mr. Howe's class. They are starting to read The Adventurers, and when Gideon brings it home, he leaves it on the kitchen table while he plays video games, and his mother picks it up to read. She tends to flip to the end of books, and she's appalled by something about the main characters, Oliver and Rick. She takes the book from Gideon and arranges a meeting with Principal Woodson. Soon, a book challenge is being worked through, and Gideon is appalled. He figures that there must be some swearing, and checks a copy out from the library to read, to see what the fuss is about. It's a fun book, and he doesn't see anything concerning. He is also interested in a new boy at school, Roberto, and the two find common ground and start to hang out together. When it turns out that his mother thinks that the characters in The Adventurers are gay, and that's why she wants the book pulled. This causes specific consternation for several people. Mr. Howe is gay, and has not been secretive about his husband. A classmate, Curtis, comes out to the class as gay, and doesn't understand why the book would be inappropriate. More importantly, Gideon is worried. He LIKES Roberto, and soon finds out the feeling is returned. When he finds out that the author, Mr. Bright, is from his town, he e-mails him to ask about the nature of Rick and Oliver's relationship. That's not the point, though. Why is Gideon's mother so concerned about the characters' sexuality, when it is just one facet of their personalities, and one that is shared by many people in the community? Luckily, the school has a challenged book procedure, and there is a public hearing after the board has worked through that process. Community members say hurtful things about the LGBTQIA+ community, but the board is concerned with the book itself. Gideon and Roberto have continued their relationship, hanging out, holding hands, and kissing, but Gideon is afraid to tell his parents. Will the community support the inclusion of The Adventurers, and will Gideon be able to tell his parents how he is feeling about all of these new things in his life?
Strengths: This is the story about book banning that elementary and middle school libraries need because it is accurate, factual, and addresses current events in a realistic and measured way. I have read too many books about book banning (that shall not be named) that show ridiculous circumstances that, while certainly seem to be happening, don't seem true to life. Levithan, the author of the 2003 book Boy Meets Boy, knows all too well how book challenges unfold. The school has a process that is followed, and all of the characters work together fairly politely. The fact that there is nothing explicitly stated in the book that Rick and Oliver are gay, and that the whole challenge is based on an interpretation of vague language it very clever! The students' reactions are measured as well, and there is only a slight resistance among them about gay characters, which is very accurate. The other wonderfully brilliant part of this book is that Gideon and his classmates are also reading Harriet the Spy for another class; if you don't know about the LGBTQIA+ connections that book has, go fall down that research rabbit hole! Of course, the part of the book that my students will like the most is Gideon and Roberto's age appropriate romance. While fifth grade seems a bit young to me for kissing, middle school romances are big on hanging out, holding hands, and the thrill of just being near another person. Interestingly, it has just been this school year when I have to pause a moment when a student requests a romance book. In the past, the request has usually been for a girl-boy romance, and I now have to be careful to offer other selections as well. The author's note about his own experiences, as well as the brief overview of LGBTQIA+ literature for young people, are very helpful, and I'm kind of sad that my school library didn't have Garden's Annie on My Mind (1982); it seems to dated to buy now, but I would have kept a vintage copy. Finally, this book is worth buying if only for the shout outs to various authors, like James Howe, who have supported LGBTQIA+ literature over the years. A well done book in so many respects, which is not a surprise coming from Levithan, who has so much experience in the publishing industry. 
Weaknesses: I'm beginning to think that I am the only one who has trouble with the story-within-a-story concept. While I would love to read Rick and Oliver's story, going back and forth between Gideon and the book challenge and the text of The Adventurers took me out of the narrative in a jarring way.  I've been annoyed by other books that do this recently, so it might just be me. I also thought it was a bit odd that Gideon's mother didn't talk to him about the book challenge, but then it occurred to me that maybe she already knew that Gideon was gay, and the book challenge was more about coming to terms with her own life. That handling of the events was very inspired. 
What I really think: Definitely purchasing, and am glad to say that my readers no longer feel they need to ask for this type of book in a whisper. I, on the other hand, probably still drop the volume of my voice. I lived through the 1970s as a young person and saw a lot of grief caused by public acknowledgment, and that sticks with me. It's good to see the world changing, but personal change is harder! As a librarian, I try to keep all of my conversations with students as private as I can.

Lewis, Leigh and Woolley, Sara Gómez . Pirate Queens: Dauntless Women Who Dared to Rule the High Seas
January 11th 2022 by National Geographic Kids 
Public Library Copy

I'm not sure how I missed this innovative collective biography by a graduate of Blendon Middle School, but I was glad that Ms. Lewis e mailed me and brought it to my attention. 

This was a fascinating look at a wide range of historical female pirates. The most recent being Ching Shi, who lived from 1775-1844. This historical aspects makes it much easier to frame the women's exploits as adventure and shattering stereotypical gender boundaries, since "pillaging and plundering" seem like activities that everyone is discouraged from these days! I loved the introduction explaining how Lewis and her daughters were fascinated by pirates, and how this led her to research them. The fact that a broad time period and wide range of cultures is represented is wonderful. Artemsia I of Caria, Sela, Sayyida al Hurra, Grace O'Malley,  and Anne Bonny, in addition to Ching Shi, all get coverage. 

And what interesting coverage it is! The artwork by Sara Gomez Woolley, in typical National Geographic full color, is vibrant and rich in period details. There are poems for the women, and there are notes on the poetic forms at the back of the book, which was much appreciated, and not surprising given Ms. Lewis' lineage. There is a prose overview of the life and work of each pirate, and lots of sidebars on fashion, other historical figures, and pirating details. This all adds up to concise but well-rounded and complete pictures of the life and times of each woman. 

We're starting to see a wealth of diverse collective biographies, from Shatz' Rad Women A to Z (2015) to Baptiste's African Icons (2021), but I have not seen one about pirates! This is a great nonfiction accompaniment to Schulz' Hook's Revenge (2014) or Avi's  classic The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1990). 
Ms. Yingling


  1. I've been hearing a lot of buzz for this title and your review captured the important aspects. I especially like that the book is real to life and covers the event how it would actually happen. I hope to read this one soon. Thanks for your thoughts on this week's edition of MMGM.

  2. I enjoyed your review of Answers in The Pages, and even without reading I too suspect that the mother already wondered if her son was gay. Thanks for sharing it & the pirate history, a new title for me.

  3. Good to see book banning addressed in a MG book. Kids do need to see themselves in others. Laughed at your comment about the whispers when requesting a book. I remember that you didn't dare even stop and look at books on the topic, for fear you'd be seen. Things are changing.

  4. Answers in the Pages certainly is a timely book. And it sounds like it is pretty true to life. I had parents challenge books who had never read them and had no idea what was really in them. So frustrating. Pirate Queens sounds great too. I'll bet kids will gobble it up. Thanks for the reviews. I will try to check both of these out.