A young boy who struggles to fit in at school, besties who are polar opposites and a middle school kid who learns to be himself through a school presentation — those are just a few of the stories that author LeUyen Pham thinks the middle schooler in your life (or frankly, just anyone who loves a good book) would enjoy. Pham has written and illustrated more than 100 books for kids, so we asked her to recommend some of her favorite reads for kids heading back to school.
A High Five for Glenn Burke, by Phil Bildner
It talks about this really special kid named Silas Wade, and he enters the world through baseball and he gets the world excited by baseball. And he’s a very special kid because of it. And he uses baseball as a way to come out. And specifically, he uses the story of Glenn Burke, who was this amazing player for the Dodgers way back when, and he was the man who was credited as creating the high five.
All these books that I’m recommending today, they’re all about sort of creating empathy and figuring out how to enter back into the school world in such a crazy time right now.
The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis
AK: It’s a book that feels strangely prescient, even though it was first published more than 20 years ago or roughly about 20 years ago. And it’s a story of a young Afghan girl named Parvana whose family lives under Taliban rule. And it’s really just the remarkable story of the lengths to which Parvana goes to help her family survive.
LP: She’s a normal little 11-year-old girl. She’s got an older sister who bothers her. She wants to be out in the world, and she can’t be. She doesn’t understand why she needs to wear this headdress, why she needs to cover herself. She is only allowed out at the age of 11, because she’s too young to need to be covered up. So she’s able to go with her father to the marketplace. And that’s where the story takes place. Her father was once a professor, once they had this very nice life. One day he’s taken by the Taliban, and so she is forced to cut off her own hair and pretend to be a boy to keep her family alive. She doesn’t realize she’s being a hero. She doesn’t realize she’s doing anything special. She just knows she has to do this.
New Kid, by Jerry Craft
AK: It’s about a seventh grader named Jordan Banks who loves to draw, and dreams of becoming an artist. But instead of art school, his parents decide to send him to this prestigious private school focused on academics where he frankly just doesn’t fit in.
LP: It’s almost as though in this story, no one’s really a bad guy … this kid, Jordan Banks, he goes through the school and he doesn’t not like anybody. He doesn’t hate anyone. He feels empathy for everyone. But what I think is amazing about this book, what I thought he did an amazing job capturing are the microaggressions that you find in schools, those little things that people say that shouldn’t really bother you, but they do. And they build up, and they build up and they turn into something bigger. Those microaggressions are picked up so clearly in this book that kids reading it are going to recognize immediately, whatever side they’re on, whether they’re ones giving the microaggression or the ones receiving it, they’re going to recognize, hey, wait, I do that.
This story was edited for radio by Hafsa Fathima and Ed McNulty, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.