Creative Writing program: What Work Will You Do?

This is a program I presented for ages 7-12 at my library on 5/4/21.

For the full slideshow I used in this program, click here.

As time has gone on this year and I’ve kept doing creative writing programs, I have had to keep things interesting. While we always get some interest from new themes around fantasy and magic, I wanted to find ways to talk about current events and prompt discussions about ethics and the future– and encourage kids to write about their beliefs and understandings of the world.

At the same time, how can we do that without being just plain boring and pedantic and didactic? And without me losing my job for proselytizing to kids about socialism?

I know I was always frustrated as a kid when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I alternated my answers– “a paleontologist,” my earnest internal truth, eventually died off when I realized that it made people perceive me as a hopeless nerd; “a writer,” my follow-up, earned interested questions. My friend in first grade bypassed people-pleasing; when people would ask her what she would be when she grew up, she responded, matter-of-factly but mischievously, “God.”

So, in honor of May Day, I decided to do a program that invited kids to think about what they actually liked doing, how they wanted the world to change, what work they thought was necessary to make change. I didn’t want them to feel pressured into giving easy answers or answers about their future careers that they thought were “correct,” but I was interested in asking them about how they hoped the world would be when they were older. As it turned out, this was one of the most interactive, generative writing programs I have run so far.

We had about 15 kids on Google Meets for this session. I began with a discussion question as kids entered:

What do you feel when adults ask you what job you want to do when you grow up?

Do you tell the truth when adults ask you this?

Kids responded in a variety of ways– two said that they lied and said that they wanted to be doctors; one said that he really wanted to be a doctor but “was scared of dying” (he had been attentive to the death rates among medical staff this year). Other kids wanted to be video game designers, etc. Others said they didn’t really know. I would like to think this question was successful in helping signal that this was a discussion about their ideas and feelings, rather than a lesson in who they were supposed to be. But it also served to open kids up to each other.

Next, I gave a random selection of book recommendations and my usual links to NYPL’s catalog (please do not mock my slide layout):

I added a brief aside about what a “labor activist” was– “someone who protects other people’s rights when they are at work and fights to make sure people work in decent conditions and aren’t treated badly”– and then we launched into a bigger discussion, which was also our first prompt:

How do you want the world to be different when you’re an adult? Make a short list of 5-10 items. (5 min)

I added an accessory list of questions for kids to think about:

  • Do you want the oceans to be cleaner or for animals to be better protected?
  • Do you want everyone to have health care?
  • Do you want a world where everyone knows all about dinosaurs?
  • Do you want a world with no more pandemics?
  • Do you want cities to look different than they do now? How?
  • Do you want people to use different methods of transportation?
  • Do you want a world with less war?
  • Do you want schools to be different from how they are now?
  • Do you want men and women and everyone else to have the same opportunities no matter their gender?
  • Do you hate something and wish it would stop?
  • Do you want a world where there is more of something around than there is now?

The responses to this prompt were wonderful. Two kids put in the chat that they wanted “lots of vaccines” and “no racism” and “no climate change.” Other kids talked about the need for robots to do human tasks. Still others put ideas into our shared Google document, such as these:

After this brainstorming session, I wanted to talk about passion without talking about work. So I invited kids to think about what they liked doing and could picture enjoying doing for the rest of their lives.

What kinds of things make you happy to do? What can you imagine yourself doing all the time? This doesn’t have to be a job” (5 min)

This prompted responses like:

I like to be outside and search different things. I also love gardening and currently I am taking care of 4 baby mantises.

I like David Walliams Books

Playing hide and seek with my squirrel that I never ever ever find because he hides in the forest amongst a bunch of trees.

Drawing big structures

Relaxing in my bed with no one talking and making noise

I had a couple more prompts, which I invited kids to look at– but we didn’t get to share back our responses, because by this point, all the kids were talking to each other.

There were no final products as a result of this workshop– but it ended with kids recommending books to one another, thinking about the ways they wanted the world to look when they were grown up, and discussing things they were passionate about. Which is a win for me.

Sample comics drawing program: Scribble monsters (and “catchphrases”)

This is a program I presented on 6/10/21.

If you would like to see the full slideshow used for this program, click here.

I’ve been rereading Lynda Barry’s Making Comics lately, and this program grew out of her many prescribed exercises for getting the hands moving and creativity flowing ahead of other projects. Scribbling and just moving one’s hands is good for release, at least for me, and I hoped that freeing kids from the pressure of making an animal that was supposed to look like anything would help kids who are normally too shy to share speak up.

This program was run as part of a regular comics program for ages 7-12 I’ve been holding since October. I think with a random group of kids, there might be some reticence to do a “silly” exercise; I benefited from my kids’ trust in each other and in me that nobody would be mocked for doing anything super silly. It worked!

First, I introduced the concept of the scribble monster:

A scribble monster is made when you draw a scribble, moving your hand in one long continuous motion– and then add eyes and teeth and legs and arms. Turn something that doesn’t look like anything into a scribble monster.

I think this program would also be a good one to do with younger kids– in an in-person program, an innovation might include having kids pass around their scribbles so someone else can do the anthropomorphic imaginative labor of turning a scrawl into a creature.

For older kids, the interesting part of this workshop is the character-development for the scribble monster. Who is this creature? What does it want out of life? Can I make this repulsive being compelling, strange, or appropriately humorous?

Here is the prompt we used for our scribble monsters:

Part 1:

5 min: Draw three scribble monsters. Draw one with bouncy, loose lines, one with tight spiky lines, and one with curvy, curly lines.

Bonus:

  • Give all of them hats.
  • Give them names.
  • Write catchphrases for all of them.

Part 2:

5 min: now re-draw your scribble monsters doing something together. Include at least one speech bubble. You can draw them:

  • Having a fight
  • At the beach
  • Adopting a cat
  • Riding motorcycles
  • Dancing at a park
  • Eating sandwiches
  • Something else?

I wish that I could share the work that kids created in this workshop. One kid drew a scribble that became a ghost getting eaten by a vacuum. Another created a long worm who was bright orange and who screamed, in a speech bubble, “the past is past but the future is now!” This worm’s brave phrasing led to other kids also writing slightly obtuse, ominous catchphrases for their own characters, which included “the sky awaits” and “the fur of the gods will pay for the future.” The challenge with virtual programs about art is always partly about how to collaborate on a similar activity. One thing I loved in this program was the way that kids began to take ownership over others’ art, offering suggestions and character feedback. When one child referenced animals and light/dark, others followed suit.

This was an exciting, imagination-expanding workshop for me! I hope it can be for others too.

Sample creative writing program: Writing about magic

This is a program that I presented via my library on 1/26/21.

If you want to see the full slideshow, please click here.

This program was designed for ages 7-12. It was held on Google Meets; I sent the link out to patrons who registered on Eventbrite and on my library’s website one day in advance. Usually I get a few last-minute registrations– an important part of getting new kids is checking my email to make sure I catch folks whose parents signed them up day-of.

At the time I hosted this program, I had been holding a weekly writing workshop for elementary-aged kids since October. I had tried different formats. Some of the prompts we had worked with were:

  • Writing stories based on images
  • Writing characters, including lots of visual descriptions
  • Writing a story from beginning to end, focusing on one part of the plot each week
  • Brainstorming settings and worldbuilding

Originally, I tried to be very structured, and to give a logical progression over several weeks where we would work on different aspects of storytelling together. Parts of this approach worked; it kept some kids returning week after week, and advertising it as a series boosted attendance at each session. At the same time, I felt like I was pressing kids into generating a product, or following a structure, and for kids who didn’t take intuitively to this, I noticed a certain reticence to share work, or a nervousness that they were doing something wrong. These creative writing sessions were supposed to be fun– a way to escape the realities of school and a horrible global pandemic– so I tried to create more programs where the goal was just to discuss, play with ideas, and maybe run with a few to make a story.

I use very, very basic Google Slides slideshows to present my program. My hope is that this gives kids something visual to look at– but as you will see, I sometimes get carried away with words.

For this workshop, I wanted kids to think about the mechanics of magic in stories about magic. It’s something that fascinates me in fantasy, and I knew some of the kids coming to my workshop liked fantasy too.

My workshop begins with asking all kids to put their name in the chat. I then mention that we will have 7-10 min of free writing time during the workshop where I expect everyone to keep microphones off. We have a period of discussion/brainstorming together, write silently, and then share back.

Upon starting this workshop, we began our writing with a discussion of magical objects, spells, and powers. I provided this list of objects, spells, and powers, had kids read the ideas aloud, and put in the chat what their favorites were. Most people liked the idea of shapeshifting and freezing time; someone also liked the idea of a ring that makes one invisible. Nobody in this group had read Lord of the Rings yet. We followed this up with a discussion of curses– I asked kids to speculate about what the very worst curse would be.

Finally, we talked about limits to magic, and talked about the idea of having powers that are restricted in some way. We read this list to think about these ideas:

This discussion had too many questions for us to discuss everything; I also discovered that the simple question of “what is a magical object? What can it do? What are the problems with it?” sent kids into a long spiral of naming magic objects in fiction they were aware of–from Pokemon to Ninjago to Thor’s Hammer to fairy tales. If I did this workshop again, I would shorten the number of questions asked to give more room for the expansive response kids have.

We also looked at/read passages from a couple of books with interesting ideas about magic, like Yoon Ha Lee’s incredible book Dragon Pearl, which describes shapeshifting as a process of visualization that becomes real:

And this passage about familiars from Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson:

Like the lists of ideas, these slides helped put kids in a mood of humorous imagination. I linked both books in the slideshow; I am not sure how many children checked them out. Many of the kids liked the idea of a pet octopus (Ibbotson’s playful treatment of deviant witches opens for me questions of belonging and queerness that I would love to discuss with older readers).

During our writing time, kids responded to this prompt:

We wrote on our own paper or in a shared Google document (we later had to discontinue the shared document after children began writing “poo poo head” in it, but we had a run of 4 months where this very casual shared digital space worked well for our programs).

Not all of the stories kids wrote responded to the prompt, but all of them were informed by our discussion of magical systems and objects, and many of the children also recommended shows, books and movies to each other as they shared their work.

An anonymous participant’s writing stays with me:

Returning with a new concept: program planning ideas for other librarians

Hi! It’s been almost three years since I’ve used this blog. I originally used it to write reviews as part of my library school work. I’ve now been at my current job for a couple of years, and I’d like to share program-planning ideas with others.

During the pandemic, I’ve been pivoting hard to virtual programs with my coworker at my branch. It took a long time to build up an audience, but what we have learned is that through a combination of using old email lists, posting to eventbrite, promoting in-branch with posters, and promoting on branch social media, we can slowly build up a following of kids. Currently, we run a toddler storytime program, a creative writing program, a comics-drawing program, a Young Reader program, and two readaloud programs in partnership with an elementary school near our branch.

Designing programs that work in an online space is just different from planning programs in physical locations. Pre-pandemic, I put hours of effort into creating/curating materials for children to work with in crafts, requesting books to have on hand to check out, and making everything from printable instructions and guides to creating cardboard-and-tape escape rooms. Virtual programming requires a different kind of labor– sometimes less intense (allowing kids to guide the program is one of the main things that creates the social connections to keep them coming back) but also more involved, not least because of the lack of guidance (how do you moderate a chat/provide individual attention and encouragement to 20 kids you are not in the room with while making sure everyone gets a chance to share their work or interact?).

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting about the structures for some of my programs from this year. My hope is that the ones about creative writing and comics will be useful to other people too! I will link the slideshows used in virtual programs in each post; feel free to borrow anything for free library programs or informal writing workshops, as long as you give credit.

I will be breaking down my posts into school age programs and early literacy programs, for ease of navigation.

Juliet Takes A Breath: A New YA Lesbian Classic + Related Lesbian and Feminist Literature

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Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera breaks new ground in the realm of YA lesbian fiction. Where most lesbian novels for teens focus on identity, alienation, and coming out, Juliet acts as a breakneck education not just on lesbian and feminist scenes and history, but also interpersonal intelligence, resolving conflict, and understanding when and how to trust one’s mentors—themes that feminist activists have struggled with for decades. Rivera’s intelligent teenage Puerto Rican protagonist deals with adolescent romance and family, but also leaps headfirst into adult lesbian scenes where she navigates living in communities of artists and teachers who don’t always recognize her talent, knowledge, or personhood. This snarky, moving, character-centered novel explores racism and microaggressions within white lesbian spaces in a way that will be familiar to youth of color and provoke reflection in white audiences.
It also depicts joyful, loving communication and diverse queer communities. Featured on the NYPL Summer Reading List in 2018 and praised by Lambda Literary, Juliet Takes A Breath is worth promoting: its references to political and social lesbian and feminist history and emotive prose will send its readers to the bookshelves in order to explore feminist classics, theory, memoir and fiction.

Here are some titles for its fans to move on to. You can find a PDF of these titles here !

Call numbers are for Brooklyn Public Library (since I live in Brooklyn).

On Feminism
litwitch
Literary witches : a celebration of magical women writers
Kitaiskaia, Taisia, author.
PRINTED MATL | Seal Press | 2017 | First edition.
Lit Non-Fic (809.89287 K)

Juliet’s project to research and write about feminist forebears—mythical and real—
from history and prehistory might have resulted in a work like this, which uses poetic
portraits to connect notable women writers to legacies of magic.

inga
Cunt : a declaration of independence
Muscio, Inga, author.
PRINTED MATL | Seal Press | 2018 | 20th anniversary edition, Third
edition, Revised and updated. (305.4 M)

This book (1st ed 1998) about reclaiming bodily autonomy as a woman inspired Rivera’s depiction of Harlowe Brisbane, Juliet’s white feminist mentor. Juliet’s complicated feelings about whether she is included in Brisbane’s feminism echo real-life concerns from readers about Muscio’s stance on reproductive rights, trans issues, and race and colonialism, which caused Muscio to change things in this new edition . Read and evaluate it yourself!

bridge
This bridge called my back : writings by radical women of color
Moraga, Cherrie, ed. and Anzaldua, Gloria, ed.
PRINTED MATL | SUNY Press | 2015 | Fourth edition.
Non-Fic (810.8092 T)

Juliet knows that the way she’s treated by the white communities in Portland makes her feel uncomfortable and off-balance. This anthology (1st ed. 1981) collects writing on the specific oppression of women of color in the Americas and how to resist it.

Lesbian Life and Community
dtwof
The essential Dykes to watch out for
Bechdel, Alison, 1960-
PRINTED MATL |Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 2008.
Non-Fic (741.5973 B)

If you like reading about lesbian activists and writers and the fights, affairs, and friendships they have with each other, try Bechdel’s satirical, heartfelt comics, which trace the lives, relationships and drama of a diverse group of lesbian friends over almost 30 years, from the 1980s to 2008.

outlaws
When we were outlaws : a memoir of love and revolution
Córdova, Jeanne.
PRINTED MATL | Spinsters Ink | c2011. | 1st ed.
Biog (B CORDOVA W)

In this biography of 1970s radical gay politics, the author discusses both the feminist struggles of her youth (such as a conflict between the Gay Community Services Center and radical feminists trying to introduce feminist policies there) and stories of her non-monogamous love life with the impassioned women around her.

zami
Zami : a new spelling of my name
Lorde, Audre.
PRINTED MATL | Crossing Press | c1982.
Biog (B LORDE)
Audre Lorde is one of the major black feminist authors of the 20th century. In this memoir, she tells of her youth and adolescence as a black lesbian in the 1960s, as well as her path towards writing feminist poetry and essays. Her rich prose and near-limitless
empathy and love for others color this vivid recollection that jumps between anecdote and theory.
More from Gabby Rivera
americacha
America. Vol. 1, The life and times of America Chavez
Rivera, Gabby.
PRINTED MATL | 2017
YA Fic (FIC RIVERA)

Like Juliet, America Chavez is a young Latina lesbian just about to start college. Unlike Juliet, she’s got superpowers, comes from a parallel universe, and has to kick some inter-dimensional monster butt. If you like Rivera’s dialogue and character development, try out her comics—this is Marvel like nobody has done it before.

 

Resources Used
Bader, Eleanor (2018, May 25). Can We Reclaim The Word Cunt? This Book Thinks So. Rewire
News. Retrieved Dec 3, 2018 from https://rewire.news/article/2018/05/25/can-we-reclaim-the-
word-cunt/ .
Daniell, Rosemary (1982, Dec 19). The Poet Who Found Her Own Way. The New York Times.
Retrieved Dec 8, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/1982/12/19/books/the-poet-who-found-
her-own-way.html
Enzer, Julie R (2011, Nov 29). When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution.
Lambda Literary. Retrieved Dec 9, 2018 from
https://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/11/29/when-we-were-outlaws-a-memoir-of-love-
revolution-by-jeanne-cordova/ .
Foster, Kimberly (2014, Feb 18). 5 Books by Audre Lorde Everyone Should Read. For Harriet
(blog). Retrieved Dec 8, 2018 from http://www.forharriet.com/2014/02/5-books-by-audre-lorde-
everyone-should.html .
Gregory, Sara (2018, Apr 5). The (Mostly) Queer, Latina Authors You Should Be Reading.
Curve. Retrieved Nov 20, 2018 from http://www.curvemag.com/Reviews/The-Mostly-Queer-
Latina-Authors-You-Should-Be-Reading-2262/ .
Holmon, Omar (2017, Mar 1). America #1 Review. Black Nerd Problems (blog). Retrieved Nov
28, 2018 from http://blacknerdproblems.com/america-chavez-1-review/ .
Lehoczky, Etelka (2017, Jul 14). A Favourite in Waiting: Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out
For”. National Public Radio (story). Retrieved Dec 10, 2018 from
https://www.npr.org/2017/07/14/537052343/a-favorite-in-waiting-alison-bechdel-s-dykes-to-
watch-out-for .
Popova, Maria (2018, Feb 7). Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women
Writers who have Enchanted and Transformed the World. BrainPickings (blog). Retrieved Dec
10, 2018 from https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/02/07/literary-witches/ .
Publisher’s Weekly (1998, Aug 31). Cunt: A Declaration of Independence. Retrieved Dec 10,
2018 from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-58005-015-9 .
Publisher’s Weekly (2008, Nov 17). The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (starred review).
Retrieved Dec 10, 2018 from https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-618-96880-0

Little Brother, Data Detox

Little Brother, a 2008 novel by Cory Doctorow, feels very much of its time in certain ways. Set in the Bay Area, it depicts a Tenderloin district still full of sex workers, punks, and immigrants, and depicts a Californian culture fixated on Japanese artistic and cultural production. The technology in the book is a blown-up version of predictive trends of 2008, reflecting concerns around facial recognition, school security, youth privacy, and safety from hackers in an age where more and more data was on the Internet.

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But there’s another way the book feels dated. While Doctorow’s protagonist has a set of skills around data security that would put even the most prepared and well-educated adult in 2018 to shame, the threats he guards himself from mainly come from (an arm of) the state. Outside of the threats that Marcus faces from DHS and an associated team of intelligence agents, the Internet Marcus inhabits is a relatively free-form, anarchic space of forums, game threads, and competing small sites, not dominated by any one site or entity.

 

I can’t blame Doctorow for the ways this picture differs enormously from the way things are in 2018. Just after the Patriot Act, the idea that the government could collect citizen data with impunity horrified (rightfully) people everywhere, for a range of reasons. In 2018, however, the government is not the only one with the data–and certainly is not the primary actor putting our data to (publicly known) use. Rather, a collection of companies watch and use us to generate advertising dollars for themselves, and also employ our “free” hours as a mode of value production by collecting our data and using it to sell things to us. Now that cell phones are ubiquitous, most people in the U.S can be remotely tracked by their cell phone or service provider at any time. The government still may obtain this information from companies, and we should, like Marcus in Little Brother, be worried about that fact. But the companies are the ones that are doing something with it.

 

This week, as part of my participation in a class exercise on thinking about data security and collection of personal information by corporations, and how this might be relevant to teen patrons of libraries, I did an 8-day Data Detox. I used the toolkit supplied here : https://myshadow.org/detox .

 

Essentially, this process is about learning about your digital footprint, and what kinds of information about your life exists on the Internet. It’s also about what kinds of data Google and other companies collect through personal daily app use.

 

For many people, this kind of exploration of a digital self can come as a complete surprise. For others, it serves as a consciousness-raising wakeup call. I think all teens and parents should go through at least a few of the steps of the data detox together and talk about the implications of how we trust companies with our information.

 

Here are my reflections on my own Data Detox experience

o What did you learn doing the exercise?

At some level, I knew about the kind of data that Google and social media sites collected about me every day. I also knew that my phone tracked my location, and that information I had put on social media in high school and college was still accessible somewhere online, even if it was only via the WayBack machine. Over the years, I developed certain competencies, like knowing how to scrub pictures off of certain platforms or request that accounts or names be taken down, but I mostly accepted that my data was available to corporate entities and basically not private. I think Data Detox made me confront the level to which I am complacent and frequently fail to confront/deal with my data being sold and used to track me. The most surprising thing for me was that Google still had the data from every location my Android phone had been during the period I owned it–it had recorded the dining halls I ate at most, the exact walking routes I took to class all through undergrad, and the routes I took to protests in October 2014 (security culture meant that I kept my phone off for some of these protests, but Android knew I had gone there.) I know Apple now has that data for my current phone, too.

o Why is this important for you to do as a teen librarian?

If I’m an adult and complacently accept the way my data is used and sold by corporations, I will have no way to prompt teenagers to ask meaningful questions about the way their data is used or the way their social media presence has grown beyond their control. Teen librarians should make teenagers aware of how they can keep their online browsing and social media presence as secure as possible, since this is an increasing part of teens’ social lives and teens have a right to privacy and autonomy.

o How can you pass some of this information along to teens?

Promoting books which discuss issues of data security and sharing –such as Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, or Watched by Marina Budhos–are one way to engage teenagers in questions of security, human rights, and government access to personal data. M.T Anderson’s Feed delves into corporate panopticons that limit our imagination and ability to resist capitalist propaganda, and is also an important work. But programming should also prompt teenagers to practice using alternate sites and methods for internet engagement so they can practice controlling their own information.

o Based on doing this exercise, what other information regarding

data & privacy you think is necessary for teens?

I think that teenagers should understand the way that different social media sites advertise to them, know how to keep information secure from parents and school officials. I think we should talk about how data mining, gamification of social media apps, “influencers”, and product promotion on common apps used by children and teenagers results in a new kind of economy that exploits the natural productive work, social engagement, and creative effort of teens and channels it into cash for corporations–basically monetizing children and teens’ free time and putting every minute of people’s day into the service of capital. Teens should decide if that is how they want to engage with the world.

 

Teens should also be aware of their options if they are the targets of harassment, revenge porn, “doxxing”, or other forms of online abuse that may target their data. Teens should be aware of laws related to cyber-crimes, and be able to trace IP addresses for the purpose of being able to identify the source of online threats or trolling. Particularly for teenagers who are part of gaming communities, security around data and a clear understanding of what information they are giving to others and to companies will help them move through the world more safely.

 

Books for ages 8-10: Ghost and Sunny by Jason Reynolds

Reynolds, Jason (2016). Ghost. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 

 

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ISBN: 978481450157

180 pages.

Ages 8 and up. 

(National Book Award finalist)

Ghost—given name Castle Crenshaw—has a few consistent things in his life. He has his mom, who he knows will stick with him no matter what. He has Mr. Charles, the man who owns a corner store near Glass Manor and sells him sunflower seeds every day. He has books about world records that tell him who is best at what in the world—who’s on top, and what they’ve done. And he has trouble—endless trouble. Ghost has stuff he’s running from in his past, but people around him don’t know that. Whether it’s kids making fun of Ghost’s shoes or his hair or the part of town he lives in, Ghost has gotten good at giving his classmates and his school as much trouble as they give him. It’s made it so almost nobody can see what Ghost is good at. But when Ghost challenges an elite track team to a race one day on a whim and beats their best runner, Coach sees for the first time the determination and talent Ghost has. But it takes a lot of running to completely get clear of trouble, and Ghost will have to work hard to stay on the team for good.

Reynolds packs a huge personality into a readable, immediate-feeling novel. Ghost is funny, charismatic, and earnest, and following his mistakes, whether small or big, feels like making a friend. The characters at Ghost’s school and on his track team–the majority of whom are black, still unfortunately a rarity in children’s literature– are full of life and personality quirks of their own. The book centers empathy—the process of getting to know someone else and their issues, and making space for them in order to develop a real connection. Every ten-year-old in the world should read this book, but older readers will enjoy it too. 

Reynolds, Jason (2018). Sunny. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

sunny-9781481450218_hr

ISBN: 9781481450218

176 pages.

Ages 8 and up. 

Sunny Lancaster always comes first in the hundred-meter sprint. Every time. It’s because his father keeps pushing him—to be better, be faster, be strong, and carry the weight of his mother’s dreams with him wherever he goes. Whether it’s with his homeschool teacher, who makes him do math in order to eat breakfast, or at track practice, Sunny is On all the time and always running toward the next goal. But Sunny is tired of running, and one day he just stops. Running is always the same, start to finish, and Sunny wants to dance instead. In diary entries addressed to the diary itself, he writes about his love of words and sounds and rhythm, and makes charts and graphs to think about the different things happening in his life and understand them better. When he finally has the courage to explain to his coach what he wants, the people around him are for the first time able to try to figure out new ways for Sunny to take his rhythm to the field, and take on a new challenge.

The third book in Reynolds’ Track series, this is the one with the weirdest, most original voice. Sunny is full of poetry, jokes, explorations of words and sounds and phrases, and a little all over the place. His dreamy prose feels smart, though, and it’s clear that while he doesn’t have the same dreams as his father, he has a heart and determination to take him forward in life, whatever he ends up doing. There is the same cast of brilliant, three-dimensional characters that appear in Reynolds’ other Track books, plus some new ones (like blue-haired Aurelia) that will keep readers interested and alert as they learn about each person’s life.  

YA Materials:Magical Premise, Unfortunate Transphobia in Michael Thomas Ford’s LOVE AND OTHER CURSES.

(Note: Michael Thomas Ford’s work Love and Other Curses comes out in April 2019 from Harper Teen.)
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Content warning: this review contains spoilers and references to NSFW content+suicidal characters. I am convinced that the spoilers and content is necessary for a complete review that will be useful to readers, librarians, and to the author.
 
Ford, Michael Thomas (2019). Love and Other Curses. New York, NY: Harper Teen. 
 
$17.99.
ISBN: 9780062791207
AGES 14 AND UP. Sam is a gay boy in a small town in upstate New York, and his life–while fulfilling–is pretty full of secrets. At home, he avoids telling his three magic-practicing, pie-eating grandmothers that he spends much of his free time at the Shangri-La, his town’s only gay bar. When he’s at the Shangri-La, meanwhile, hanging out with drag queens Lola, Farrah and Paloma and trying on his own drag personas, he has to conceal the curse that has haunted his family for generations: whenever a Weyward child falls in love before age seventeen, their beloved inevitably meets with disaster. The curse has stalked Sam’s great-great-grandmother, his great-grandmother, his grandmother, and his father–Sam’s mother has been missing since his birth, and Sam believes her to be dead. Sam has almost made it to age seventeen, but just when he thinks he is safe, a new boy, Tom, shows up for the summer, and Sam develops an unfortunate crush that he’s afraid will turn into something worse. Readers of Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera, David Levithan and Mackenzi Lee will be interested in this realistic, magic-laced coming-of-age story about friendship, grief, family, and growing up.
NOW.
What this book doesn’t advertise on the jacket–but what is revealed in the first page after the introduction of Tom Swift, Sam’s love interest–is that Tom is a trans boy. 
As a gay trans man who came out in 2010, I can say with assurance that there has not been very much widely-consumed representation of trans men in fiction in the media I grew up with, and recent years have–despite much media coverage– not much changed that fact. When we appear, we tend to either be background characters or be exploited as a source of pathos and angst (Boys Don’t Cry, Cole on the Fosters in early seasons, Albert Nobbs, 3 Generations). Representations of transmasculine spectrum people also tend to still be written by cisgender people, resulting in portrayals that are focused heavily on transition narratives, pain, suicide attempts, and voyeurism. The best representation of a teenage trans boy (and one of the only gay trans boys in any popular art that I know of) is Max, the central character in Taylor Mac’s play Hir . Mac, who uses “judy” as a gender pronoun, is trans spectrum of some kind, so judy’s detail and emotionally visceral and authentic writing in Hir makes sense. When I first realized that the love interest in Love and Other Curses was trans, I was excited that for the first time there might be a fully developed trans gay boy love interest in a YA which could provide solace and hope to closeted or recently-out trans teens (plus reassurance and excitement to the boys and others who are into them). Unfortunately, at the end of the book, I came away disappointed.
Before I talk about issues I have with Tom Swift’s characterization in Ford’s book, I want to name the things in Ford’s book that he does well.
1. I LOVE the Practical Magic spin-off premise with a gay boy protagonist. If you could pick my subconscious for most-wanted YA novels, “17 year old weird drag queen with three generations of magic-practicing grandmas living in a rural house and working at an ice cream store and having conversations on the phone with strangers for fun” is pretty close to the top. In general I like the curse arc, and how it’s resolved.
2. I LOVE the feeling that Sam’s scenes at the small-town gay bar Shangri La evoke in me. I grew up gay in a small town with one gay bar too, and I know what it feels like to need mentorship but to not be allowed into any of the spaces of revelry or solidarity that provide gay community. Unlike Sam, I had an LGBT youth group and a lot of punk friends who invited me to gay shows –and I had an annual drag show to look forward to, and a yearly Queer Rock Camp. But the loneliness was still real! I love the mentorship and love that Farrah, Paloma, and Lola provide to Sam, and I like the descriptions of Sam’s own explorations of drag. These scenes are homey and touching and affirm how good gay family can be.
3. The scene where Sam dresses up as mysterious day-glo drag queen Kandy Korn for Pride is OUTSTANDING and captures really beautifully what it feels like to be in gay community and do drag and try on new faces. It reminds me somewhat of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s beautiful descriptions of club life, but it’s accessible and teen-focused and also feels like the scene in the Perks of Being A Wallflower movie where the characters are dancing to “Come On Eileen“. It’s an authentic image of queer youth, and the music references (MIKA, Scissors Sisters, Ariana Grande) are gleefully dead-on for small-town white gays.
4. I really like the initial meeting between Sam and Tom and the scene on the river. It’s sweet and has a great captivating sense of summer and possibility.
5. I like the fact that Tom is the first boy Sam has kissed and I like the frank sexuality of Ford’s books/the reference to the mutual jack-off session that is Sam’s only other point of comparison for sex.
 I believe Ford genuinely wants to write a good novel with good representation, and I think he’s competent at this in the extreme–when it comes to gay boys and drag spaces. He is also good at writing about family, grief, and the eternally relatable rural feeling of driving long distances on foggy country roads for small errands.
That said, I think Ford’s trans representation could use work. I don’t believe he wants to be transphobic, but his laziness has resulted in transphobic tropes making their way into his book.
The issues I have with Tom, the “Love” in Love and Other Curses, are as follows:
1. Tom is obsessively focused on transition. This is the main issue I have with most trans representation written by cis people (for instance, the first season of Transparent). Cis authors seem to believe that trans people only think about our own bodies and our own identities, to the exclusion of everyone else in our lives. Tom’s obsessive focus on himself and his angry, disproportionately explosive outbursts at Sam when Sam makes predictable mistakes makes him an unlikeable, unsympathetic character who comes across as boorish, idiotic, and one-dimensional. This depiction communicates to readers that trans people are irrational, abusive narcissists, which can sometimes be true but generally isn’t.
2. Tom has an unrealistic lack of trans community or quality medical information. It’s 2018. Tom wears Dr. Who binders (a dorky and yes, realistic touch–the Adventure Time shirt is also something that a real trans teen would definitely wear). But having access to that means he is plugged in to some kind of online trans community. Because of the Dr. Who obsession, I think Tom would probably be on Tumblr, which would expose him to reams of good and bad information on transition, gender politics, safety, and resources. If he wanted to he could reference lists of books and films related to trans content and seek out information on people like him. He would likely find Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, or The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman or Morgan M. Page’s trans history podcast One From The Vaults. He could also access many comics and a lot of art by trans people featuring their ideas and ideologies. Tumblr is a weird mix of information resource and cesspool, and it’s true that there as many people trying to exploit teens as there are people providing good resources or sharing information. I think it’s reasonable that Tom would make bad decisions sometimes, including trusting people unnecessarily and having hypocritical ideas about gender (particularly transmisogynistic ones, like those he hurls at Sam after Sam tries to suck his dick). However it is ALMOST CERTAIN that Tom, like the thousands (millions) of trans kids around the world who are on the internet, would have read somewhere at some point that black market hormones are a bad idea. Spoilers: It is also almost certain that NO reasonable trans adult would sell black market hormones to a teenager. Most trans adults would instead try to direct a teenager toward an informed-consent medical provider which could legally and safely connect that teenager with consistent HRT or other services. Here is a link to Planned Parenthood resources in the Upper Hudson area, near where Tom and Sam live.  In New York, Planned Parenthood provides HRT at a cost which, while steep to an uninsured teen, is not more than one would pay for online hormones. The experience of going to a doctor for the first time and explaining one’s needs around transition is one every closeted trans teenager will someday face. I don’t know ANYONE who buys their hormones online except during manufacturer shortages. Trans people also very rarely SELL hormones to other trans people, in my experience, particularly not closeted trans people in need. We’re a community and (not always, but usually) act like it. I can see an older trans man giving T to a trans kid while also referring them to a doctor, but not selling it to him.
3. Tom’s dysphoria is one-dimensional and not representative of the complicated feelings trans people often have about our bodies. While some trans men, especially straight ones, have extreme dysphoria about their bodies, many of us do not, and feel comfortable sometimes or all the time with our genitalia and our chests and the rest of us. Even if we do have dysphoria, we likely still experience some level of sexual pleasure and arousal even before transition. While you aren’t obligated to show Tom as comfortable with himself, I think it’s realistic to show him as capable of joy and self-love. As a gay trans teenager, I only got on hormones at age 16, and had my first sexual experience after that, but I jerked off prior to getting on hormones and had lots of crushes, and I even occasionally thought of my body positively. There are lots of things online about trans men being hot these days, and plenty of online validation available to transgender teenagers that can help assuage the shame or disgust we feel with our own bodies. There’s also a large amount of porn of trans men where trans men love women and men joyfully (though fetish blogs tend to prefer videos where trans men get fucked by cis men, which I imagine would make Tom, who thinks of himself as straight and has a lot of dysphoria around his genitals, fairly uncomfortable). Even if some days we wake up and hate the way we look or feel, that isn’t necessarily something we would share with someone we just met.
4. Warning: spoilers and NSFW: I am down with the scene of Sam sucking Tom off while Sam is in girl drag! It’s extremely corny, but it’s cute and plausible. What I’m not into is the discourse that happens immediately after where Tom yells at Sam for wearing drag and wanting to crossdress during sex. Tom would CERTAINLY know that Sam was having some kind of gender moment, and it’s only a truly despicable trans person that would react in such an extremely cruel way to someone’s gender experimentation, even if they were freaked out and in a sexual situation they were no longer sure about. There is bad drag discourse out there and trans mascs eat it up, but I think Tom would at least pause to ask if Sam felt like a girl–he HAS to realize that there is something complicated going on.
5. Warning: Spoilers and suicide attempts/cutting: Tom’s subsequent freakout and cutting feels bad an voyeuristic and deeply upsetting to me as an adult. It would feel even worse to a gay trans teenager.
I don’t know if you remember when gay men of all kinds were mainly shown dying, killing themselves, or wanting to die (Ray Bradbury’s “Tangerine” was one of my first encounters with gay representation). I don’t like it! I don’t think we need more of it. Discussing suicidal ideation is one thing; suicide attempts as plot points is something else.
6. We get no sense of Tom and his summer girlfriend Anna-Lynne’s connection. This is unfair to both characters. I want to know why they get along and what she sees in him and what he sees in her! All we get is details about how it feels to kiss her, which dehumanizes her. I want to know what she likes, what she gives Tom and makes him feel, and what she wants. She also seems exceptionally chill with trans people, and I want to know how she sees herself in relation to Tom in the future.
7. We get no sense of what Sam sees in Tom. All he ever does is talk about himself and his transition and angst. Sam’s a complex boy who likes a lot of music and has a lot of secrets and ideas about metaphysics–why would he be satisfied with that? The only thing left is physical attraction, which translates to voyeurism, and that feels really bad. I have had a LOT of cisgender men express attraction to me and my body for a range of reasons, but when they start waxing poetic about the novelty of my body, or the surprise of it, or whatever, I’m very frustrated and disgusted.
8. It’s the Trump era, and trans people are political. Even an extremely out of touch trans person would want to talk about the fear the government inspires in us. Bathrooms and other public spaces are places people want to legislate us out of. Tom would know about this. 
 
So that’s my list. Basically: this book is not written for trans kids. It’s written for people who know we exist, think we can be hot, and might be interested in fucking us, but who generally see us as angst-vortexes in need of a pity hug, or as rage-machines irrationally lashing out at people who give us said pity hug.
That’s no fun!
I really hope that Ford thinks about these issues with his text. I hope he has time for revision before publication and that he will consult with more trans people about the content in his book. He may have already spoken to sensitivity readers, but I am here to say that the current text remains a problem for potential trans readers who are in the target age range for this book. As someone who was a teenager not long ago, this book would have distressed and frustrated me–it paints a picture of trans people totally hemmed in by our own pain and unable to relate effectively to others. While the main character obtains freedom, the trans character is stuck in tropes. What could be a really excellent, glittering LGBT YA is consequently made into a wet blanket of a book for me.

In-depth look: Trans Bodies, Trans Selves–A sex-ed and other-ed book for trans youth and adults

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 Erickson-Schroth, Laura (Editor) (2014). Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
I featured this work in my prior list of trans nonfiction for beginners. I’m now reviewing it in depth, as an exercise in reflecting on sexual health and legal information available, particularly for trans teens and adolescents.
At 649 pages, this compendium of information is probably the most massive reference text on trans experience to exist. Its main editor, Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, MA, is a psychiatrist, a board member of GLMA, and a member of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists.
Published in 2014, the work is an ongoing project and 501 c3 non-profit organization. Calls for submissions to the new edition of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves were due by Nov 1, 2018. 
It is notable that the price point of this work ($44.95) is significantly different than the original Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was originally published as a 136-page, 35-cent booklet in 1970 by the New England Free Press. More recent editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves still usually cost under $20. Before the publication of this book, there was significant discourse around whether Oxford Press was the right publisher for this work–since similar works, like The Brown Boi Project, went for independent publishing routes.
Another question that some trans readers might have concern allegations of assault against Scott Loren Moore (content warning for link for photos of assault injuries), one of the many short-piece editors for this volume. The allegations, made by writer Bryn Kelly (1981-2016), resulted in some trans readers boycotting the book. In the print edition, Moore (an employee of the NYC DOE) is only credited in the back of the book among hundreds of other contributors, and his involvement in the project–based only on the print edition’s references and contributor page–would seem to be nominal, despite Kelly’s post and Moore’s own blog listing Moore (rather than Erickson-Schroth) as a primary editor. This post by a friend of Kelly (http://umruik.tumblr.com/post/149050012552/not-a-eulogy) states that Moore’s involvement was scaled back after allegations surfaced. However, Moore is credited on the trans bodies.org site. 
My take on this resource is: Despite the questions about cost and about the editing team, the end result of this project in 2014 was a dense volume of resources that remains the largest trans-written collection of health resources for trans people currently in print. I would have benefited from this large, very comprehensive book at the beginning of my own transition, and I would still recommend it to any trans person who has been out fewer than five years, despite the fact that this edition is several years old. The breadth is really astonishing, and it would be a very necessary book for many teens for this reason alone. I think that high school libraries should certainly look into acquiring future editions, while continuing to ask critical questions about the publication/editing team involved.
While the tone of the text approaches all subject matters in what I think is an unnecessarily intro-level, feelings-focused way (ie, using phrases like “valid” and “authentic” with considerable frequency), and doesn’t compile as much specific medical information (hormone dosages, surgery innovations etc) as trans people might wish in such a large document, it collects a huge range of trans experiences and ideas in one place, and offers real practicable health, legal, and relationship advice to young and old trans people. I firmly believe that this volume can also help the partners and loved ones of trans people better understand their experiences and community.
What’s actually inside: In addition to routine information about procuring hormones, the effects of hormones, and surgery, large sections of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves are devoted to specific issues which disproportionately affect the trans community, such as: higher rates of nicotine use, more barriers to STI testing, higher rates of trauma and intimate partner violence, high unemployment, and the danger of unplanned ER visits with doctors who do not know patients are trans. More general sections address activism around incarceration, immigration, access to family planning and adoption, marriage, access to employment, and anti-transgender activism.
Sections at the beginning of the book are dedicated to race and ethnicity and their impact on trans lives and experiences; later sections include essays and information about transgender people and spirituality. These sections include anecdotes from religious trans people and advice about where to seek religious community.
Resources and References: Each chapter comes with a reference section, which refers readers to 20-30 academic/medical articles and books per chapter on the issues the chapter covers.
Contributors include activists, surgeons, doctors, poets, and actors. When a contributor has given their name and image, these are featured alongside their essay or art.  Some anonymous quotes and contributions are included within the text.
Information on reproductive health focuses on what is known, which for the transgender community, is not much. In this way, the book is significantly different from Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was usually able to cite extensive medical research. An example of this lack of medical information is the “Contraception in Masculine-Spectrum People” section of the Reproductive Health chapter, which specifies that testosterone is not birth control, and specifies that the effects of testosterone on fertility in trans men has never been tested clinically (Erickson-Schroth, p. 235). The text does provide information on places readers can go to learn more about the most recent studies, such as the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference.

Importantly: because of the legal precariousness of the transgender community and the rapid shifts in laws and regulations around transgender people’s bodies and legal documents, much specific legal content is already outdated. Since 2014, there have been changes in the legality of same-sex marriage, adjustments in state laws on birth certificate changes, and a flurry of new court cases centered on transgender bathroom access. Additionally, recent action by the Trump administration’s DOJ which suggests that future court rulings will contradict interpretations of Title VII which have previously protected trans people from discrimination. 

This does not mean that the guide is itself a poor resource; rather, it was generated in a specific temporal context and contained up-to-date information as of 2014. The comprehensive nature of the project implies that future editions will incorporate new information about trans legal status and health. 

YA Materials: The writers and artists of Craftivism; Formal Arts Meets Community Organizing

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Greer, Betsy (ed.) (2014). Craftivism. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press.
ISBN: 978-1551525341
256 pages.
Betsy Greer and the wave of craft-focused and DIY-focused activists did not–by their own admission–in any way originate the concept of process-based utilitarian art for a cause. there have been many movements which demand participants create art or utilitarian symbols of resistance. Examples include :
While the name is new, the concept of combining craft and politics clearly isn’t novel. So what specific qualifications and background do Greer and the other “craftivists” in Craftivism (2014; Arsenal Pulp Pressbring to the table?
Betsy Greer’s central qualification to edit this kind of book is her long involvement in 21st century movements around using art for political purposes, and her social ties to other artists. Her thesis, for her M.A in Sociology from Goldsmiths College, focused on “knitting, DIY culture, and community development.” According to the foreword of her book, she originated the phrase “craftivism” in the early 2000s. For close to two decades, she has worked to collect and publicize efforts to use community crafting and art to make statements, raise money for causes, or interrupt public life with performance. A 2011 article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian describes Greer as an “anti-sweatshop activist”. Since 2003, she has operated craftivism.com, a domain which publishes interviews with activists, such as Elizabeth Shefrin of the Middle East Peace Quilt. A 2017 New Yorker article interviewed her while analyzing the origin and import of the ubiquitous anti-Trump “pussy hat” created by hand and worn during protests of Trump’s inauguration.
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The other artists featured in Craftivism come from a variety of backgrounds. Varvara Guljajeva, for example, comes from a formal arts background in digital art and uses combinations of technology to create his pieces, which are knitted works that map images of sound waves or brain activity.
Another artist, Gabriel Craig, is a metalsmith whose work has been exhibited at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art museum in Washington, DC. Others are less polished but engaged in community activism, like Lauren O’Farrell, who is the founder of Knit The City, a knitting graffiti collective in London. The strength of this book is in its diversity of contributors. Gallery owners, eco-activists and writers, fashion designers, and more all weigh in on the meaning of political engagement and accessible, useful art in their lives.