Category Archives: #weneeddiversebooks

Start the day with poetry

Last August I was fortunate to be in Scotland around the time of the Edinburgh Festival and all that’s associated with it, including the International Book Festival.

I was excited to see that there was a session that put together Kirsty Logan and Jón Kalmann Stefánsson. Shortly before going to Scotland I picked up The Gracekeepers at the Adelaide Airport bookshop. I was, and still am mostly, only reading books by female, non-white, non-English dominant authors. Starting on this trail showed up how much space books by white men take up in bookshops. I was pleased to find Kirsty’s book in Adelaide and it was probably the best fictional find of the summer. The Gracekeepers weaves magical realism, an almost drowned world, and circus boats, plus a huge bear.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson was a discovery from a few years ago when I came across his book Heaven and Hell in a Breton bookshop (yep, my book purchases sure do highlight my globetrotter status). It is the first in a trilogy I have since finished but at the time I only knew the first one.

The authors were paired together along a northern theme. Books set in Iceland tend to be bleak, whether a mystery, a crime story or a version of romance. I don’t know how I’d feel about them if I hadn’t visited Iceland and had it crawl under my skin. In any case, this isn’t so much about the merits of works set in Iceland, and more to do with Stefánsson’s morning ritual.

Stefánsson starts each day with a poem, coffee, and with gratefulness to the translators!

I took on his call to start each day with poetry and there have been only three or four times I’ve missed this routine in the last year. I read from works by a single author along with anthologies. Three books of poetry have particularly marked me this year. Below are the Goodreads reviews I did for each one. *I’ve been working on my book reviews so the reviews can be viewed as works in progress, the goal is to share my joy.

How Fire is a Story, Waiting by Melinda Palacio

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about this book, along with two other books of poetry I read at the same time: Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón by Iris de Anda, and When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz. The three authors are based in and around Southern CA with some travels outside. Melinda Palacio frames her work through the elements: fire, air, water, and earth. She tells the story of her family, including the meeting of her parents, her father’s “sin verguenza swagger” (one of my favourite poems in the book), and her father’s time in prison. I love reading these poems over and over, in conjunction with the other two books I mentioned above. I’m going to link to a much more complete and worthy review…

Iris de Anda: Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón

I’ve thought long and hard about how to write about this book, along with two other books of poetry I read at the same time: How Fire is a Story, Waiting by Melinda Palacio, and When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz. The three authors are based in and around Southern CA with some travels outside. Iris de Anda frames her work through the chambers of the heart: rage/coraje, love/amor, revolution/revolución, evolution/evolución. The power of De Anda’s work lies in its ritualistic nature and short phrasings that build one on the other. This is poetry to be read aloud, with a strong and passionate voice. There are no negotiations between languages, they merge, are not translated (except in the chapter titles). There is a call to action, a call to push through the pain and the hurt, and to keep fighting for our common humanity and true empathy.

When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Díaz

I read this book in conjunction with Iris de Anda’s Codeswitch: Fires from Mi Corazón and Melinda Palacio’s How Fire is a Story, Waiting. All three authors are based in and around Southern California. The power of the words these three authors put to the page cannot be understated. They stand alone and together, each with a unique voice and unique stories to share. Natalie Diaz skillfully blends poetic style and form to tell tales that have personal resonance, and tales that speak to the larger world around. There is the story of her brother, her family, tales of childhood, strung along with the tale of Mojave Barbie, a lion devouring a man and boxes of raisins, and many more besides. Words, poems and stories that will leave you wishing for more.


Everyone listens to everyone: my visit to Still Waters in a Storm

This time last week I visited Still Waters in a Storm, a community writing center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I first heard about Still Waters a few years ago when comments regarding the center came across my Facebook feed. I hadn’t visited the center at that time but it was a strong influence on my decision to open a writing center here in San Francisco. I still haven’t opened a center and I’m still listening to know how to best go about it in order to best serve the community, but it will happen.

Last week was my first visit to Still Waters in a Storm and I hope it won’t be my last. It was everything I hoped it would be, and more. The motto of Still Waters is “everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen Haff, the director, set up the program nine years ago. He has a background in theater and was a high school English teacher for close on a decade. The center is everything schooling and education needs to be to truly speak to the hearts and minds of the community it serves.

The Saturday sessions run from 12-5pm and follow a similar structure each week. The children arrive and have time to play and eat lunch before sitting down to start work.

At around 1pm, an invited guest reads an excerpt of their writing and takes questions and comments. The invited guest last week was Emma Brockes, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper and the author of two books, one of which she read from last week. The book she read from is a memoir of a journey to South Africa she took after her mum’s death. Emma wanted to find out what led her mum to leave South Africa to go to England, never to go back to the country of her birth. The excerpt Emma read told the story of a road trip she went on in South Africa when her best friend arrived from England for a few weeks.

The center operates on a drop-in basis and the number of children present may vary from ten to forty. Last week there were about twenty kids there. They varied in age from six to sixteen. Emma’s memoir was not written for children, and from what I could gather, most of the invited guests write for adults. The excerpt Emma read appeared to be accessible to all the people there. It is a highly engaging text with strong visual imagery. The reading was paused on a few occasions to clarify vocabulary or expressions that might be unclear.

After the reading, and after questions and comments, the children generated a topic list inspired by what they heard. Some examples that came up last week were misunderstanding, family, animals, racism, helping someone, guns, loneliness and a few more. Nothing was off the table and anything that was raised could tie in to the reading in one way or another. From there the children spent around fifteen minutes writing. They are welcome to write in any genre or format they preferred, including writing a list, writing a letter, whatever makes sense to them. The younger children worked with volunteers who put the child’s words to paper. Once time was up, it fell to the children, and some of the adults, to share their writing with the larger group. Volunteers read for the younger children while the child stood next to them.

“Everyone listens to everyone”. Stephen said that part of the inspiration for the center is for people to participate in a neighborhood ritual. The group sharing time is based on meetings such as Quaker meetings, when people speak as they are moved to do so. There is no talking over one another; there is respectful silence and active listening as the writers share their work. People are reminded to peacefully control their own bodies. Stephen commented that it is rare in today’s society to have to just listen. Thinking back on last week, my heart skips a beat when I recall the work the children shared and the how powerful it was to be part of that community.


I came away from my visit with renewed vision and purpose regarding La Pluma Poderosa. I am building ties with the Latina community in San Francisco through my work with Mujeres Unidas y Activas and I am also connecting with people at local schools through USF preservice teacher supervision. Still Waters in a Storm is housed in a dedicated ground floor space in an area with some foot traffic. Stephen taught at Bushwick High School so before opening the center he already had ties to the neighborhood. He has built up participation through word of mouth and from people walking by. It is completely free and all materials, as well as food, is provided.

Stephen has a respectful and good-humored relationship with the children. They are all of Mexican and Ecuadorian descent, reflecting the community in this part of Brooklyn. The writing is all done in English and all the children are capable of telling a story in English, even if Spanish is their maternal tongue. Stephen communicates with parents and community members in Spanish when the need arises.

Inviting guests such as Emma Brockes to share their writing with the children felt to me like a mark of respect. Respect is given when it is assumed that children can relate to a detailed text and can use that text to inspire their own writing. Stephen reminded the children that they had been working on using similes in their writing, in the weekday afterschool sessions. He encouraged the children to use at least one simile in their work. A simple thing, such as reminding the children they can write a list if they like, gives all children the tools to participate and to share in the writing and sharing process.

The multi-age format of the center clearly bears fruit when you hear the detailed stories the younger children tell. They appear to be picking up on the skilled work of the older children and their work is also testament to their listening skills. Stephen doesn’t accept money from financial sources that would demand accountability measures and other forms of standardization. He wants the center to be free from the toxic trappings of school that transform children into data points. A child is not a number on a graph, and measurement does not equal growth. Spaces such as Still Waters in a Storm provide the community with a powerful example of the learning we do together, and what our children are truly capable of.

My goals for La Pluma Poderosa are still the same: a drop-in, multilingual writing center for children 6-18. I knew that there would be a need for more structured sessions, and in fact, I can maybe start with more structured sessions in a temporary space. I am grateful to Stephen and everyone else at Still Waters in a Storm for renewing my faith in the power of holistic and compelling educational experiences for young writers. Right now I need to listen and to reflect on what the next steps for La PP will be. I carry with me the joy and heartfelt emotion of listening to the young writers in Bushwick, an experience that won’t easily leave my side.

To learn more about Still Waters in a Storm and to support their efforts please go to


“Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners”

Nelson Flores, Tatyana Kleyn & Kate Menken (2015) Looking Holistically in a Climate of Partiality: Identities of Students Labeled Long-Term English Language Learners, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 14:2, 113-132, DOI: 10.1080/15348458.2015.1019787

I’ve been interested in language and language learning for almost as long as I remember. One of my earliest career goals was to go around the world cleaning houses. I’m not sure where the cleaning houses part came in, it was maybe related to my gran’s field of work. I wanted to travel the world so I could learn many different languages. My mother tongue is English and I’ve never needed to clean houses to make a living so I’m privileged in more ways than a few. I’m close to bilingual in French, competent in Spanish and I know smatterings of Portuguese and Xhosa. I haven’t taken on languages far removed from English and I can talk about bilingualism and the need for effective bilingual/multilingual education without it being a life or death matter (for me).

I don’t feel I’m exaggerating when I couch the linguistic debate in such extreme terms as ‘life or death’. When I started formally studying bilingual education we discussed BICS and CALP and the problem with students being ‘semi-literate’ in both home language and English. It’s important that educators are aware of the differences between conversational language acquisition and academic language acquisition but there is much more to the story. I read an article recently that addresses this issue, and one of the elements that  made it a compelling read is that over the course of the study the authors found their assumptions challenged and they addressed this in an open and honest manner. The article addressed the need of students classified as LTELLs (Long term English language learners-generally defined as not testing out of their English language learner status after seven years in a US school). Leaving aside the problematic of testing, what resonated with me was that with all the best will in the world, the authors themselves had held onto this notion of being semi-literate and the damage this can bring (I’m not paraphrasing and I hope I haven’t misrepresented their words).

From the article: “In his critique of the term semilingual, MacSwan (2000) argues that it not only sees students through a deficit lens but also privileges certain ways of using language as superior—namely, academic English. This construction does not explore the important question of what defines a proficient speaker of English, nor does it deconstruct the assumption of the mastery of academic discourse as a prerequisite for being considered a proficient user of English for certain populations, nor does it explore who or what defines what academic discourse is and who has mastered it.”

The authors continue: “For example, in the United States a monolingual English speaker who never mastered academic discourse would not be considered an ELL, and yet somebody who is bilingual must master academic discourse to be considered fully proficient in the language.”

This article is based on interviews done with students who have been classified as LTELLs by the system. “Unsurprisingly there was unanimous rejection of this label by the students who not only found it offensive but as simply inaccurate in describing their fluid language use and transnational identities.” There is much of interest in this article and it opened my eyes to my own deficit view of emergent bilinguals. I’m reminded of my privilege and background and the option I have of stepping back, an option too many children in our schools don’t have. Articles like this one, and the spread of Ethnic Studies in California gives me hope that more voices will be raised, and that all students will be treated with dignity and respect. The authors point out the harmful cycle happening in schools: “Furthermore, there is an assumption that hard work will suffice, yet the inability of schools to build on Lorenzo’s linguistic repertoire suggests that far more is needed than simply an increased effort on the student’s part.” So not only does systemic racism and prejudice endure, the students battling this are made to feel as if they are to blame.

And this: “In this article, we hope to push the discourse of partiality even further and argue that it, in fact, can be understood as a racial project that serves to perpetuate White supremacy through the marginalization of the language practices of communities of color through a form of epistemic racism that situates the epistemology of privileged monolingual subjectivities as the unmarked societal norm.” Too many educators shy away from embracing languages they don’t understand. Furthermore, a hegemonic monolingual stance reduces empathy and increases the likelihood of making an ‘other’ of students whose lives matter every bit as much as those who fit the hegemonic mould.

I used to use a quote attributed to Wittgenstein: “the limits of my language are the limits of my life”. I took this to mean that we needed to support students’ learning so these limits will be surpassed. This quote now sticks in my craw, as limit used once is too much. I’m now more drawn to a Czech proverb that states, “learn a new language and get a new soul”. This does not imply fluency in another language, but it implies putting yourself in another linguistic frame that may lead to greater empathy and compassion. As educators we are privileged to work with students from diverse backgrounds, and we have a moral duty to show empathy and compassion. We must always “teach with joy and justice”, as Linda Christensen artfully states. The article I’ve discussed in this post is essential reading for all educators in the country, no matter what the age or stage.

Top 10 Picture Books for Activists in Training by Mathangi Subramanian

Picture books for young activists

Nerdy Book Club

Here’s the thing grownups constantly forget about childhood: sometimes, it sucks. Kids all over the world face poverty, war, bullying, discrimination, and oppression. Being young doesn’t protect you from the pressures of adulthood. It just gives you fewer ways to deal with these pressures, not to mention less control over your life.

But here’s the other thing grownups constantly forget about children: they’re smarter than us. Most of the time, they’re also stronger, more hopeful, and more creative. I’ve met kids all over the world who greet each morning joyfully despite the fact that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or where they’re going to sleep that night.

Although I constantly encounter diverse, fiercely optimistic children in real life, I hardly ever see them between the pages of children’s books. Too often, stories for young people feature protagonists whose sanitized adventures occur in immaculate suburban neighborhoods…

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Dolores Inés Casillas: Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)

Some of the comments in regards to the article I’ve linked to below tell the author to lighten up, and to not take things so seriously, but this is clearly a case of laughing at someone else’s expense. I started reading The BFG by Roald Dahl the  other day and, while I’m a fan of his work, I couldn’t finish this book as the BFG uses the word Hottentot to describe people from Africa, and the physical disparities between the BFG and the other giants is too clichéd. I gave the book one star on Goodreads and I said in my review that I didn’t care if it makes me look like I don’t have a good sense of humor because I am at zero tolerance for language and depictions of people that is disparaging. Laughing at outdated stereotypes does not mean you have a good sense of humor, it means you are insensitive and sometimes cruel.

Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones).


This week a social networking campaign was launched entitled #weneeddiversebooks. Their tumblr page has more information about the campaign but in a nutshell the aim is to draw attention to the lack of diversity in children’s books. Growing up white and middle class I consistently saw myself in the books I read. Whenever anyone tells me that growing up they never saw themselves in the books they read, or had read to them, it takes me aback and reminds me of my privileged position and reminds me how crucial it is that all experiences are validated.

Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers recently wrote an op-ed each on the disturbing fact that in 2013 out of 3200 books published for children only 93 showed black people. You can access the articles here and also here. Both father and son are children’s authors so their insight is key to the discussion at hand. I was very happily surprised, not too long ago, that I could buy my black goddaughter a book about San Francisco in which the main character is a little black girl. What this emphasized to me though is how much of a default the ‘white’ experience is. Many books that feature black protagonists tell a story that highlights the protagonist’s race; for example they may be a historical novel or they may be about a famous black figure. I read a comment earlier on in the year regarding black actors at the Oscars; the writer pointed out that almost all the roles black actors have been nominated for are roles that a white person could not have played as they are historical figures such as Mandela, Solomon Northrup, or roles such as ‘the help’. Publishers use The Market’ as the excuse as for why there is a dearth of non-white people in children’s books; I’m sure movie producers use the same line. Both Walter Dean and Christopher Myers go into this in more articulate detail than I can so I refer you back to the two op-eds for more on The Market and its nefarious hold on children’s books. The ‘white default button’ needs to be consistently questioned and not accepted as such. We don’t need a range of ‘multicultural’ books just as there shouldn’t need ‘multicultural’ crayons in order for children to find a color that matches their skin. I have nothing against the term ‘multicultural’ but children of color should be able to see themselves in the most banal of storylines. The word apartheid may sound strong but when children of color don’t see themselves in the books that surround them, there’s an implicit notion that ‘they’ are not like ‘us’. One of the things I loved about living in New York was that you are faced with people different to you on a daily basis: on the subway, in the supermarket, and in a host of other places that have no specific ethnic markers: ‘they’ are just like ‘us’, no matter what your ‘us’ is and who the ‘they’ are.