Since beginning my job about 2 years ago, I’ve had the privilege to become increasingly involved in the DC-Metro area’s multicultural and equity education work. Last summer I attended Georgetown Day School’s fabulous Equity Collaborative as part of our school’s team. Since then, I’ve explored how I as a librarian can support our school’s efforts to become a more inclusive and equitable community.
Also, while I work with students in 7-12 grades, I spend a large amount of my time in the middle school (7th & 8th grades for us). Accordingly, I’ve been working with middle school faculty on a variety of multicultural initiatives. In the process, I continue to discover a growing wealth of resources related to multicultural education and equity work with middle schoolers and I decided to begin a reoccurring feature here to share some of my favorites.
In this first edition, I want to share two fairly recent contemporary fiction novels that deal explicitly and sensitively with issues of friendship, family life, ethnic and racial identity, mental health, social class, and middle school social dynamics. I originally read these two novels while hunting for a single book to be read by our whole middle school community (students and teachers) over the summer. While that plan didn’t pan out for this summer, I’m still hopeful that we might make it happen next summer–potentially with one of these great novels! They are excellent examples of multicultural children’s and young adult literature; both tell stories about the lived experience of a diverse community of people, exploring how that wide-ranging diversity actually feels for the individuals involved.
Ella and Z have been friends for years–outsiders connected by their ‘weirdness’ and shared experiences of loss. Since Z focuses primarily on living out his elaborate knight fantasy, he’s relatively unbothered by their outsider status. But Ella still longs to belong–or at least escape the daily bullying. When new boy Bailey seeks Ella out as the only other black kid at school, she’s faced with a choice: become friends with popular Bailey and find acceptance or stay loyal to Z, her only friend for so long? Then Ella realizes that Z’s unusual behavior might be growing into a real problem–one too big for the two of them to handle.
When Sonia’s father loses his job, the event starts a chain reaction of changes in their family, throwing her contented and dependable life completely off balance. Suddenly Sonia must leave her small, warm, and diverse private school and start 6th grade at a public school. While missing her old friends and trying to navigate the unfamiliar social landscape at her new school, Sonia must also deal with the confusing financial and emotional implications of her father’s unemployment as they reverberate through her family.
While Ella and Sonia come from different ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds, they both experience the pain of being an outsider among their peers and the confusion of shifting friendships and unfamiliar family conflicts. Each deals with the intense experience of changing relationships with old friends and the disorienting process of making new friends amid the game of middle school politics. Ella must make difficult decisions about the limits of her loyalty to Z. Can she remain friends with him while also making new friends–especially among the group of kids who’ve bullied them both for years? Should she keep Z’s secrets–even when they might be hurting him? Meanwhile Sonia struggles to retain connections with her longtime friends while also navigating the unfamiliar dynamics of her new, larger school where friendships seem much more complicated than they ever were in her former tiny, tight knit community.
Additionally, their experiences of alienation are intertwined with their development of personal identities, especially their racial and ethnic identities. These novels explicitly talk about race, ethnicity, religion, and social class without become simplistic, single-issue stories. It’s refreshing and significant. Sonia, who is half Indian and half Jewish American, notices that at her larger new school, black and white kids seems to sit in different groups at lunch and she wonders where she fits. When she goes to church with a new friend, Sonia begins to ask questions about her own Jewishness: is she really Jewish if she doesn’t follow religious practices or participate in the Jewish community? Which is she more: Jewish or Indian? Ella initially notices Bailey because he is the only other black student at their school. As their friendship develops, Ella and Bailey discover they have even more common than they imagined but there’s no question that Bailey’s role as Ella’s first friend and peer of color is significant.
Ella & Sonia’s first-person narrations are perceptive and authentic. Sonia’s anger and frustration at her parents when told she will have to change schools is realistic and sympathetic; Ella’s need to belong and conflicted feelings about her friendship with Z will easily resonate with readers.
These novels are well written with strongly developed, sympathetic characters and rich, evocative language. And while they are sure to attract many individual readers, both Camo Girl and The Whole Story of Half A Girl would work particularly well as book clubs or community reads for 5-8th grade students (and their teachers!).