NYC public schools have a week in February called Respect for All Week, where the students have discussions, assemblies, and programs geared toward a respect, appreciation, and understanding of diversity and inclusion. I went to speak my Kiddo’s – now a fifth grader! – classroom and realized that I couldn’t find specifically Respect for All booklists, so I made up my own and it went over pretty well. Here are my booktalks as presented to the class, with links to the publishers’s webpages with publishing details:
American as Paneer Pie, by Supriya Kelkarr
Lekha is an Indian-American girl – the ONLY Indian-American girl – living in a small town. She puts up with casual everyday racism and tries to cover up who she is culturally in order to fit in until she meets Avantika, a new girl who is also Indian, and who has no interest or patience to hide who she is! Avantika helps Lekha find her voice in this community, and together they have to be strong: a racist is running for Congress in their community and they need to stand up for themselves and their families.
A Good Kind of Trouble, by Lisa Moore Ramee
First, I explained “good trouble”, and read the John Lewis quote on getting into “good trouble” to the class. After establishing what “good trouble”, I started my booktalk:
Shay is 12 and tries to stay far away from trouble. Her older sister, Hana, is an activist who takes Shay to a Black Lives Matter protest; the protest awakens Shay’s sense of social justice. Shay begins wearing a black armband to school as a silent protest, but that causes division among the students, and Shay has to hold onto her values and beliefs in the face of anger and bullying.
Front Desk, by Kelly Yang
Who doesn’t love Kelly Yang? The kids went wild when I held up the book, because Ms. Yang was a virtual visitor to their 4th grade class last year and they all have signed copies of her book, New From Here. Quite a few had already read Front Desk, so I asked them if they’d known that Ms. Yang was the victim of a racist Zoom-bombing during a virtual visit over the pandemic. The kids were mortified when I told them what happened to them, and we talked more about how this is why Respect for All is so important: we have to do better. That said, I gave a quick booktalk for the handful of kids who hadn’t yet read Front Desk.
Mia is a fifth grader working at the front desk of the hotel where her parents also work, but she has a secret: her parents help shelter newly-arrived immigrants at the hotel, giving them a place to stay until they can get on their feet. Mia wants to be a writer, but has to navigate her parents’ expectations, her job, and hoping that the hotel owner doesn’t find out about Mia’s parents and their shelter work or they’ll all be out on the street!
Green Lantern Legacy, by Minh Lê & Andie Tong
This is one of my favorite original graphic novels, and I’m pretty happy to stay I made quite the stir by booktalking this one! A large number of the kids were familiar with Green Lantern, so I was able to start with just a quick explanation of Green Lantern and how the Lantern Corps protect the universe. Whoever gets a ring joins the Corps. Tai Pham is a 13-year-old living with his family above his grandmother’s store. At his grandmother’s funeral, he meets Xander, who tells him that his grandmother was a hero – a superhero! – and leaves him a ring. Tai discovers that his grandmother was a GREEN LANTERN.
That alone set the room of kids off, but when I explained that Tai’s family were refugees from Viet Nam, and showed them my favorite panel in the book, when Tai’s grandmother used her Lantern powers to get the refugees’ boat to safety, the kids were sold. One of my Kiddo’s classmates is Vietnamese and gave me a fist pump. It was fantastic. I’ve since been told that there is a “10-person deep line to borrow the book”.
Restart, by Gordon Korman
Everything changed for Chase Ambrose the day he fell off the roof. He has no idea who he was before the fall, or why the kids all look at him the way they do. Or why that girl in the cafeteria, poured yogurt over his head one day. Chase wasn’t just a bully: he was THE bully, enouraged by his father and his friends. Chase doesn’t think he wants to be that person any longer, but can he really have a restart?
This was another home run with the class. Gordon Korman is aces with these kids, so a couple had read Restart, and most had read at least one other book by him.
Blackbird Girls, by Anne Blankman
Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko live in Russia near the Chernobyl nuclear plan, but they aren’t friends: Valentina is Jewish and Oksana has been told to avoid her. Their fathers die in the nuclear reactor explosion, they’re separated from their moms, and the government isn’t exactly forthcoming. Together, they discover that they need to rely on one another to save themselves.
This was a surprise hit! The idea of two girls relying on each other to survive, especially if they weren’t really friends to begin with, really appealed to boys and girls alike in the class. I’ve since been told there was a “WWE-like brawl” for the book (which I’ve confirmed was not really a brawl, just a group of kids surging the desk for the book).
Me and Marvin Gardens, by Amy Sarig King
I finished with Me and Marvin Gardens, beginning with a quick chat on how respect for our world and our environment is just as important as respect for one another. The kids hadn’t heard of this book, so I was excited to booktalk it, since it’s one of my favorites.
Obe Devlin has some big problems: developers are taking over his family’s farmland and he keeps getting nosebleeds. While he’s on what’s left of his family’s land, cleaning up the trash, he discovers a not-quite-dog, not-quite-pig, eating plastic. It only eats plastic. Naming it Marvin Gardens (any Monopoly fans here?), Obe quickly takes to his new friend and has to keep it safe from everyone.
So that’s my fledgling Respect for All list, which will only get better as I refine it. Feel free to weigh in with your favorites to add!