5 great TED Talks about children’s literature

I got hooked on TED Talks over the weekend.

Despite the fact I kept telling myself, “Just one more, and then I’m going to stop watching these,” I kept watching. (No regrets.)

Below are five talks about children’s literature worth a listen. It will be an hour and 10 minutes well spent.

Can a Children’s Book Change the World? (12:42)

Sue Park talks about reading for the development of empathy.

“Can a book help make a reader a better human being?” Park asks.

Spoiler alert: Yes, it can. Park explains how books like “A Long Walk to Water,” “Wonder,” “Crenshaw” and “All-American Boys” can help young readers understand others with different life experiences … and find in themselves the power to fight against the world’s unfairness.

The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Book Shelf (12:23)

What happens if you never see anyone in a book who looks like you?

Grace Lin discusses how she grew up as the only Asian student in her elementary school. “It seemed like there was nobody that looked like me anywhere,” Lin says. Not at school, in movies, on TV, in magazine … and not in books.

She discusses the bigger picture of denying her heritage in an effort to blend in … and growing up to rediscover her heritage by writing the books she wished she had as a child. Her novel, which stars a minority main character, went on to win a Newbery Medal. The book gives young Asian American readers mirrors to see themselves in literature, and it gives other readers a window into the life of a minority protagonist.

Missing Adventures: Diversity and Children’s Literature (16:20)

Purchasing children’s books is a source of frustration — and even trepidation — for Brynn Welch. That’s because she has a hard time finding books that feature characters who look like her son, who is black. Of 3,200 children’s books received by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2015, only 240 had a black protagonist. Fewer than 80 starred Latinos, and fewer than 30 featured Native Americans. Only 16 percent of children’s books that year featured people of color.

“Most of us don’t notice who’s not there,” Welch said. Until someone points it out, anyway.

It matters who children see represented in children’s literature, she says. She discusses gaps she has found in children’s literature and where she would like to see better, more diverse representation.

Why We Should All be Reading Aloud to Children (9:30)

Rebecca Bellingham, as a teacher and a mother, has read a lot of books aloud to children. To her experience, it’s rare for children not to enjoy the chance to hear a story and “get inside a book.”

Bellingham talks about the impact reading aloud has on young readers’ independent reading lives.

Inspiration Through Children’s Literature (17:35)

Children’s literature has something to offer to readers at many stages of their lives, including adulthood. This video is a bit lower quality than the previous ones listed above, but it’s also my favorite (especially since there’s the bonus of Drew Vodrey reading a children’s book aloud during the presentation, complete with fantastically giddy laughter).

Vodrey describes children’s literature as a Rorschach test for our lives and touches on how we touch back to kid lit and its lessons throughout our lives.

“Don’t discard children’s literature as something simple,” Vodrey says.

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Guess how many words I’ve written in 3 weeks?


(That’s the answer to the headline, in case you were wondering. Sorry … I didn’t give you a chance to guess.)

Zero is the sum of words I’ve written in “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill” this month.

You’d think I would use a sad face or ellipsis behind that zero instead of an exclamation point. Writing nothing for three weeks isn’t exactly something to gloat about.

But there’s a silver lining to the periods when writers aren’t writing.

After being away from writing for 20+ days, my desire to hit the keyboard is re-energized. The time between writing sessions is a good time to stockpile ideas, and I’ve got a notebook full by this point. (Although a good chunk of them are ideas for new writing projects that I want to tackle …)

The down side is I’m behind schedule on meeting a couple of deadlines, so I need to use that excitement to make up some ground in the coming three weeks.

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Representation matters. Here’s why you should care.


I didn’t think much about diversity in childhood.

I grew up in a rural Midwestern elementary school district primarily comprised of white middle class students. A portion of the student body was Hispanic and Latino.

Throughout my entire grade school and junior high career, we had one black student. Her family moved to the area, stayed for about a year, and then moved out of the district.

It was easy for me to find likeness all around me. In my classroom, in my community, in literature, in television shows. It took effort to find differences. I never lacked a sense of belonging over issues like my race, religion, gender, physical abilities, etc.

I didn’t know that there were thousands of students elsewhere in the U.S. without that luxury.

Why representation matters

This is Exhibit A for why representation is important.

At first glance, Emma Bennet looks like an average 10-year-old girl. It’s on second glance that you can spot she wears a prosthetic right leg.

Emma’s parents reached out to a prosthetic company to make a smaller scale prosthetic leg so she could have a doll that looked like her. A Step Ahead Prosthetics accepted the request and sent the lookalike doll to her with a note saying the doll was ready to live “without limitations,” just like Emma.

Her reaction says it all. For the first time, she finds herself reflected in a doll. The emotion is overwhelming for her – and, quite likely, for those who see the video.

This is Exhibit B, shared by a friend on Facebook.


Here’s Exhibit C, a viral anecdote making the rounds on social media.


Exhibit D comes from Jacqueline Woodson’s poetic memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming.” Woodson grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, living part of her life in South Carolina and part in New York. Her words let me step into her shoes and take a few baby steps toward understanding what it meant to be a black child in those decades.

One particular passage in her poem “stevie and me” stands out:

If someone had been fussing with me
to read like my sister, I might have missed
the picture book filled with brown people, more
brown people than I’d ever seen in a book before.

The little boy’s name was Steven but
his mother kept calling him Stevie.
My name is Robert but my momma don’t
call me Robertie.

If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.

I had to set the book down when I read that last stanza for the first time. “If someone had taken that book out of my hand … I’d never have believed that someone who looked like me could be in the pages of the book.” She’d never have believed that someone like her could have a story.

But we all have stories. Every single person who lives has a story. And every one of those stories is important. Those stories need to be told so others can say, “That’s just like my story. I can relate.” And so others beyond them can say, “I never knew your story – it’s different than mine, but it helps me find our mutual ground. It helps me understand you. It helps me respect you.”

Why diversity matters to the already-represented

I mentioned earlier that I never had problems finding myself represented in the community, books, TV shows, etc. So why should I care?

For years, I didn’t know I was missing out on anything. But what I didn’t know did hurt me, in a way. Not as much as it hurt the others who struggled to find themselves reflected in media and community, but it stunted me.

Representation in media builds empathy and understanding. Representation builds perception. It matters to have the Mexican man cast as the hero and not always as the villain so society doesn’t subconsciously (and unjustly) characterize Mexicans. It helps me understand a fraction of what it meant to grow up black in the south during the 1960s and 1970s.

For a long time, “diversity” seemed to be little more than a buzzword. College admissions essays asked for descriptions of diversity in my life. Workplaces discussed how to hire a diverse staff and why it was important. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in children’s literature that I truly began to grasp why diversity is more than a buzzword.

Children need to see themselves reflected in the world around them. They need to know there is a place for them – a welcome place. They need to know there’s a seat at the table. And those who are already at the table need to know it only enriches them to make room. It truly is “the more the merrier.” The more we know of each other, the more we learn about the each other, the happier and more harmoniously we’ll live.

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Happy birthday! Here’s a book giveaway

Today I turn 30.

I can’t recall if any of my childhood wishes on candles included seeing my name on a book cover; if it was, then there’s definitely some reliable magic in birthday wishes.

Birthdays are a big deal when you’re a kid. Once the 30th one rolls around, though, they lose a bit of their shine. Still, they can still be fun … I especially love other people’s birthdays because the fun is in the giving.

To celebrate this year, I’ve decided to forgo the gifts and instead be the giver. In honor of my 30th birthday, I’ll be giving away 30 books. Enter by filling out the form below between Jan. 7 and Jan. 14, 2017, and 15 winners will be drawn to receive one copy each of “Sarah & Katy and the Imagination Blankets” and “Sarah & Katy and the Book of Blank.”


Information in the form above will be used only to ship books. Information will not be kept on file and will not be used for future marketing or mailings.

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A writer’s goals for 2017


Let’s take a moment to call New Year’s resolutions what they really are: goals.

Even though goal-setting is applicable in any season, the new year is as good a time as any to look ahead, make plans, and set goals.

Here are my 2017 goals as a writer. If I remember once December rolls around (I make no promises, and if I were you I wouldn’t place any bets …), I’ll come back to this list and see how well I’ve fulfilled my plans.

  1. Have more of an online presence on my blog, Facebook, and Twitter pages.
  2. Dabble in other forms of social media … maybe it’s finally time to check out Instagram and tumblr.
  3. Write more stories in between chapters of longer projects.
  4. Finish writing “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill.”
  5. Take more solitary walks. (These are great brainstorm sessions … the blood starts flowing, and so do ideas.)
  6. Read more books with diverse casts.
  7. Write more with diverse casts.
  8. Focus on regularly networking with other children’s authors.
  9. Attend a writing conference.
  10. Get organized with a monthly plan for blog posts and website content.
  11. Spend more time engaging with young readers and getting to know them.
  12. Also spend more time at the keyboard writing.
  13. Don’t let writing time come at the expense of ignoring family time … and vice versa.
  14. Get out of the house. (I’m something of a hermit by nature, but there are loads of story ideas out and about in the community.)
  15. Travel more. (Again … loads of stories beyond home.)
  16. Just write. Write badly. And brilliantly. Write when inspired and when I absolutely do not feel like it. Write when I have time, and make time when I don’t have it.

And one last general goal: Buy new bookshelves, because the old one finally collapsed.


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It’s the most imaginative time of the year


Christmastime and imagination go hand-in-hand.

It’s one of the few times of year I see adults partake in a mass effort to bring imagination to life. Elf on the Shelf, Santa Claus, flying reindeer …heck, even shopping malls, NORAD and the U.S. Postal Service join the make-believe and provide proof of Santa’s existence.

While we say it’s all in good fun for the kids’ sake, the truth is it’s just as much fun for the adults.

It’s one of the many reasons I love this season. Everyone gets a free pass to believe in magic and miracles. Growing up, there was no excitement that compared to Christmas Eve excitement. The presents were only a portion of the excitement … I’m not sure receiving gifts would have the same romanticism if it wasn’t for the idea of a man flying through the snowy skies in a sleigh powered by flying reindeer.

On Christmas Eve, magic was real. It wasn’t like Halloween, when the magic was just pretend. At Christmastime, even the adults believed. And belief is a powerful thing. I knew this to be true from watching “Peter Pan” … belief was a matter of life or death for fairies.

There’s a corner of my heart that aches a little as an adult. I’ve outgrown believing in Santa (and, sadly, so have my nieces — this year turned out to be the year skepticism sniffed out the truth about the big guy in the red suit and their Elf on the Shelf). I miss the wholehearted belief in magic.

That’s one “Peter Pan” lesson I failed to learn. I grew up.

Adulthood doesn’t completely quash the Christmas imagination, though. Creativity abounds for new, clever ways to arrange an Elf on the Shelf (like this list from Buzzfeed … the Elf playing basketball with the Three Wise Men is my favorite), sneaking presents under the tree to keep belief in Santa alive, and even making up stories to perpetuate belief in Santa a little longer. Two years ago, when my nieces visited my town for its annual Christmas kickoff, Katy grilled on whether the Santa Claus at City Park was the real Santa. I rambled off a spur of the moment, five-minute speech about how the mayor of Streator has to call the North Pole in June to make sure we arrange to have Santa in town the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, because once August rolls around Santa’s calendar gets booked. Our city council goes out of its way to get the real Santa and not one of his helpers, after all.

It wasn’t the most elaborate or clever story, but the following year she asked if the mayor remembered to call Santa over the summer. So at least it was a convincing story. (When in doubt, throw a city official in the tale to make it believable.)

I hope everyone is having a bright, merry, imaginative Christmas season. And I wish you all — no matter your age — a few moments of genuine belief in magic, haven in imagination, and much joy.

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A Declaration in Support of Children

I am proud to add my name to the ranks of children’s authors coming together under this pledge. Bravo to all who are raising the banner to raise our nation’s and globe’s children in a manner that eliminates the kind of hateful rhetoric that has surged in recent months.

faceofhope Illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Children’s literature may be the most influential literary genre of all. Picture books, chapter books, middle-grade and young-adult novels all serve the most noble of purposes: to satisfy the need for information, to entertain curious imaginations, to encourage critical thinking skills, to move and inspire. Within their pages, seeds of wisdom and possibility are sown.

Therefore we, the undersigned children’s book authors and illustrators*, do publicly affirm our commitment to using our talents and varied forms of artistic expression to help eliminate the fear that takes root in the human heart amid lack of familiarity and understanding of others; the type of fear that feeds stereotypes, bitterness, racism and hatred; the type of fear that so often leads to tragic violence and senseless death.

Our country is deeply divided. The recent election is a clear indication of the bigotry that is entrenched in this nation, of…

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