Interview with Paul Goat Allen: Books Between, Episode 18

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Interview with Paul Goat Allen

Episode Information:

Today on the show I am welcoming book critic extraordinaire, genre fiction writing professor, writer, and my husband – Paul Goat Allen!

Here are some of the books we talked about in the interview segment of today’s episode:

Fenway & Hattie by Victoria Coe
Wings of Fire Series by Tui Sutherland
Harry Potter Series by JK Rowlings
Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Percy Jackson Series by Laurel Snyder
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder
Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A Canticle for Leibowtiz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkein
The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock
The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Genre Fiction Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs

The elements on the “The Genre Fiction Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs”:

  • Readability (narrative clarity, fluidity, a coherent storyline, brisk pacing)
  • Immersion (focus on world building, overall description)
  • Characters Depth ( three dimensional, interesting, and emotionally connective characters)
  • Plot Intricacy (impressively constructed storyline replete with plot twists)
  • Originality & Innovation (innovative narrative element – unconventional protagonist, new twist on an old mythos, etc.)
  • The Message (profound, spiritual, existential enlightenment)

Three Novels Featuring Spunky Girls

In this part of the show, I share with you three books centered around a theme and discuss three things to love about each book. This week I’ll be talking about three fantastic contemporary debut middle grade novels featuring female protagonists who are full of spirit and determination. Even if, for a couple of them, it takes some time to embrace and harness that inner courage. The books this week are Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley, Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom by Booki Vivat, and A Rambler Steals Home by Carter Higgins.

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom
by Booki Vivat
HarperCollins

This week, I’ll be going in order of release date so I’ll start with the September 2016 debut Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom by Booki Vivat. Doesn’t that subtitle perfectly capture that middle school feeling where everything seems awful but the adults in your life just blow it off as no big deal?  That is precisely the problem the main character, Abbie Wu, faces as she grapples with starting middle school. To Abbie, middle school is just another awful “middle” thing – like the middle seat in the car, the Middle Ages, and… being the middle child! She is stuck between her soccer star perfect older brother and her cute can’t do anything wrong younger sister. I knew this book was a winner when my daughter started reading it over my shoulder. Here are three things to love about Frazzled:

  1. How perfectly this book captures the frustrations of that first middle school year. Like the awful lunches, that awkward feeling of not knowing the kids in your class, and not knowing which electives to pick. Abbie’s two best friends are Logan, genius gamer kid who joins the Coding Club. And Maxine, confident Teen Vogue reader who, of course, chooses drama as her elective. But Abbie doesn’t have a clear “thing” that’s she good at like her friends and so she gets stuck in the doldrums of Study Hall where eventually she becomes the center of a Lunch Revolution.   
  2. Frazzled is fun to read! Now, I love a heavy, deep books, but with the world as complicated as it is right now, it is a joy to jump into such a book that makes me laugh out loud. There are playful and clever illustrations on every page, and I love Booki Vivat’s hand lettered style to the drawings with different textures and patterns to the words. And the self-deprecating honesty of Abbie’s character and how she describes the personalities of her family and teachers is just perfect. This is the type of humor that adults and teachers will like, too. Well – at least I did, anyway! I guess I can’t speak for anyone else! For example, here’s Abbie describing her new Vice-Principal:  “A woman in a frumpy suit walked up to the podium and introduced herself. Mrs. Kline looked nice, but she also looked really tired, kind of like the “before” version of ladies on those makeover shows or like one those grown-ups who always complains about needing coffee.”   
  3. How Frazzled handles anxiety with a light touch. I read a statistic recently that anxiety is the number one mental health issue facing kids today. From what I observe in my own classroom – it is A BIG problem. And I appreciate that a kids’ book tackles it from a place of humor. For example, the giant “Welcome Packet” that arrives from Poindexter Middle School that has Abbie’s mom excited about school shopping has Abbie in near panic mode from information overload. Abbie has nightmares before school starts and attempts to stay home from school. Her Aunt tries to get her to meditate.  At one point, Abbie says, “Like whenever we talk about school, Mom always tells me the same things over and over again – “It’ll be great!”, “Nothing to worry about!”, “Just be yourself!” – as if saying it will somehow make it more true.”   For a worrier like Abbie, when you are surrounded by ever cheerful people telling you that “Everything will work out for the best!” it can feel like you are not even being heard.

Frazzled is a fantastic book for kids dealing with everyday middle school frustrations and anxieties. AND – I hear there is a second book coming out September 26th, 2017 so keep that on your radar!


Gertie’s Leap to Greatness
By Kate Beasley; Jillian Tamaki (Illustrator)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Byr)

Our next debut middle grade book featuring a determined female protagonist was released in October of 2016 – Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley. This book, and this girl, just worked their way into my heart last fall.  Gertie is one of those kids that you just want to yank from the pages and take home with you. She lives in an Alabama town with her father and her Great Aunt Rae. Her mother, basically abandoned her when she was a baby, but she still lives in the same town. However, Gertie is rocked to find out that her mother is getting married and moving away. So – she has this mission to become the greatest 5th grader ever. To show up at her mother’s door and just say, “Ha! I don’t need you anyway!” Well, obviously, things don’t go as planned. Especially when an overachieving new girl shows up – literally in Gertie’s seat – to thwart her plans. Here are three reasons why I adored Gertie’s Leap to Greatness:

  1. Her Great Aunt Rae. This lady is gold. She is Gertie’s main caretaker since her dad is on an oil rig for weeks at a time. She lets her have Twinkies for breakfast and every day as Gertie leaves for school, she calls out “Give ‘em hell, baby!” And there’s a moment toward the end when she has Gertie’s back in such a fierce way. Every kid should have Aunt Rae!
  2. How well this book understands how kids can turn on each other – or as Gertie says, they’re “fickle”! I teach 5th grade and can attest – those social dynamics can be complicated. One day things are good and then the social landscape shifts and you are on the outs with your former friends. Even Gertie has this moment when she says an unforgivably awful thing to Audrey – the 5 year old her Aunt Rae baby-sits. And she has to come to terms with that.
  3. The Swiss Chocolate Meltdown. Oh. My. God!!  I know it was wrong, but I just wanted to cheer! I don’t want to say too much but it reminded me of the chocolate cake scene in Matilda. Oh, it’s good! Read the book just for that scene!

Kate Beasley’s Gertie’s Leap to Greatness is a fun and touching story that’s like a beautiful blend of Ramona and Raymie Nightingale.  These three girls would absolutely be friends – or drive each other crazy. Either way, there would be an adventure. I don’t think this one is scheduled to have a sequel, but I for one would love to jump back into Gertie’s world again!


A Rambler Steals Home
by Carter Higgins
Houghton Mifflin

The final book this week is A Rambler Steals Home – Carter Higgins’ middle grade debut. Even though I read it during one of the worst snowstorms we’ve had up here in New York, it immediately swept me away to hot Virginia summers filled with baseball and frog-catching.  The story centers around the traveling Clark family – the dad, Garland, the young brother named Triple, and our main character – 11 year old Derby. Their family drives around in a Rambler car, selling Christmas trees in the winter and selling hot chocolate and gingersnaps and apple cider and cinnamon sugar donuts out of an old concession stand trailer. But – in the summers, they make their home in Ridge Creek, Virginia where they set up a concession stand in the parking lot of a minor league baseball team. But this summer, Derby is confronted with some difficult changes and some secrets to uncover. Here are three things to love about A Rambler Steals Home:

  1. The sweet, homey pace of the story. Now – don’t get me wrong – I do not mean that the storytelling is slow but rather we savor the details of eating an oatmeal cookie on a front porch. We linger over sweet potato fries and a swipe of Christmas Nutmeg lipstick. This is the perfect book to read stretched out in a backyard hammock.
  2. The names are awesome! Carter Higgins has that same magical knack for naming characters as Kate DiCamillo. So, I already mentioned Garland, Triple, and Derby. Derby’s middle name, by the way, is Christmas. But we also have Goose and Scooter and Ferdie and the Skipper and Betsy and Lollie. And of course, a banjo named Twang! How perfect is that?  And not only do these characters have fabulous names, but you enjoy spending time with them. They are the kind of people you just want to surround yourself with in your own life.
  3. The gorgeous, poetic, twangy flavor of the language. Like this line describing the baseball team: “The Rockskippers scattered the field in their blue-and-whites while they stretched and spat and scratched.”

This book is heart-warming and charming and one you and your kids won’t want to miss. It is due to be released Tuesday, February 28th – the day after this episode is out so tomorrow – head over to your favorite bookstore and grab yourself a copy.

So if your middle grade girls – and guys! – are looking for a novel with a spunky female lead, they will really like Gertie’s Leap to Greatness , Frazzled, and A Rambler Steals Home.

Q & A

Our last segment of the show is Question & Answer time.

Question:

After our last episode about March Book Madness was released, I posted a picture on Twitter featuring last year’s tournament bracket from my class to give an example of what a starting bracket could look like. And one of our followers, Eric Carpenter, replied “hope you talk about why only one of these 16 books in this bracket is by a POC. #OwnVoices “

Answer:

So – absolutely.  And just so you all can picture what Eric was referring to, I’ll add a photo of that bracket to the shownotes and the website, but here are the list of the 16 books included on that bracket: The One and Only Ivan, The Honest Truth, I Funny, Big Nate, Hatchet, Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, Home of the Brave, Auggie & Me, The Crossover, The Hunger Games, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Smile, Flying Solo, El Deafo, Wonder, and Sunny Side Up.

So – he’s right. The Crossover is the only book on that list from a person of color. So – why is that? I’ll start by describing how those books were chosen and then analyzing why there might be a lack of diversity, and then discuss some ways to change that.  

First – how were the 16 books selected?

Those 16 titles were nominated and voted on entirely by my students last year. I give them total control over that process, simply asking them to nominate books they’ve read and liked. Their favorites. I think kids having ownership of that is important. If I picked the books, I don’t think they’d be as excited about participating. However, I think there is a way to honor students’ choices while still including a more diverse range of authors and characters that not only reflects the community but our society. More on that a little bit.

Second – why was there a lack of diversity in those choices?

Well, I have a few thoughts on that. One might be that the books my students included may reflect the general lack of diversity among the most “popular” middle grade titles. A second thought is that some of the books, like Hatchet and Wonder and Flying Solo and Home of the Brave may have been nominated because my students read them in class as part of the curriculum and book list that my school follows. And only one of them features a non-white main character (Home of the Brave) but that book, while excellent, is still not written by a person of color. Essentially, those books are not featuring enough diversity and not enough stories told by diverse authors. Another piece to that, and probably the largest one – my students are simply not surrounded with enough diverse books written by Native Americans, written by black authors, written by men and women from ethnic, cultural, and religious minority groups. Among many, many other diverse groups. And within my classroom, that is entirely on me. But taking that responsibility means that I have the power to change it.

Alright – if our students and kids aren’t listing diverse books as their favorites, how can that be changed?

A couple very quick ideas knowing that this is just the beginning of a much longer conversation:

  • As you stock your classroom library, as you make purchases for the kids in your life, pick more diverse books written by authors writing from their own experience. Over the last few years, as I have committed to having a vibrant classroom library, my focus needs to shift from just getting any books to being more aware of who is represented in that library. And making better choices. One good place to start is weneeddiversebooks.org and by following the Twitter hashtag #OwnVoices  Scholastic also has a We Need Diverse Books catalog that’s a good resource, too.
  • Don’t just stick those books in your library – read them aloud, book talk them, and build that excitement. If you are excited about a book, the kids will often latch onto it, too.
  • Reexamine those books that are in your curriculum. Like a lot of other districts, my school is thankfully moving away from the one-book-fits-all approach which leaves more space for student choice and for teachers to select more diverse books. Be an advocate for that in your schools. And parents – please speak up, too!
  • Finally – bring this conversation to your students and your children. I plan on sharing Eric’s tweet with my class and asking them to think about it. And in considering March Book Madness, perhaps instead of simply asking students to nominate favorite books, I could have framed the tournament a little differently and asked them to nominate favorite books that represent the diversity of our community and society. So you are still having the books be their choice, but guiding them to be more aware. Also, I read this fabulous blog post last year on Lee & Low Books where a teacher had her students pull every book from her classroom library off the shelves and work in groups to analyze the diversity in the books they had available. It was a powerful exercise – both for that teacher and her students. So I’ll link to that in the show notes so you can check it out yourself.

Now, I acknowledge that we are really just scratching the surface of this topic and we will be chatting a lot more about it on future episodes. And I’d like to get your input and ideas about that. What do you see as the challenges to getting your students to read more diversely? And what concrete things can we do as teachers and librarians and parents to help kids develop deeper connections to more diverse books?

Thank You

Okay – that wraps our show this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they’ll love or an idea about a topic we need to cover, I want to hear from you. Please email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get find a transcript of this show and all of our previous episodes at AlltheWonders.com. And, if you are liking the show, if you are finding some value in them, I’d love it if you left a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.
Thanks again and see you in two weeks!  Bye!

About the Author

Corrina Allen

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Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York. She hosts Books Between, a bi-weekly podcast to help teachers, librarians, and parents connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love. You can connect with Corrina on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

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