AFOMA: I was just enjoying it as a reader, enjoying a nice story. As I read it and reread it, then I could see, like, the deeper meaning.
ANNE: And yet first you simply enjoyed it as a story.
AFOMA: Exactly. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, I love that.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 249.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, do you remember the first book that made you fall in love with reading? For today’s guest, an encounter with The Baby-Sitters Club #4: Mary Anne Saves the Day in elementary school launched a lifelong love of reading AND a special fondness for middle grade novels. Afoma Umesi is a freelance writer, editor, and children’s book blogger living in Nigeria. I enjoyed talking with her about the benefits of reading middle grade novels as an adult, the books that shaped her as a reader, and reading the dictionary for fun. Yes, really.
Afoma is a voracious reader of middle grade novels—those are books with the target audience of readers around ages 9 to 12—and I have my work cut out for me to recommend middle grade books she hasn’t read yet, plus one adult book that I think she’ll love.
Afoma shares a BUNCH of her favorite middle grade authors in this episode. Be sure to visit the show notes page to see the full list of those authors and the books we discussed today at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/249; we’ve got a transcript available there as well if that is helpful to you.
Let’s get to it.
Afoma, welcome to the show.
AFOMA: Thank you so much, Anne. It’s so great to be here.
ANNE: Oh, well I am so excited to speak with you today. Now I know that you’re a reader who has your own personal reading life that means a lot to you. And also for many years you documented this reading life on your Instagram account, which readers cannot look up today, and I was just fascinated by it. So first of all, your photos were beautiful. I loved the variety of books.
AFOMA: Aw, thank you.
ANNE: Well they were so pretty. And I know that it’s not easy to take simple photos that look amazing and make the books look good. I found so many good reads from there. But what I noticed about your reading life is that your genre distribution was different from most of the adult readers reading for their own pleasure that I follow on Instagram, and I was, I’ve always been so intrigued by that, and I’m so glad we get to talk about that little bit today.
ANNE: I’d loved to hear a little about how you would describe your own reading life.
AFOMA: Well right now my reading life is if I were to put it like in percentage, I would say, like, 90% middle grade/children’s, maybe a few chapter books, but I will put all of them in middle grade. So 90% middle grade and 10% adult. I read mostly middle grade books. I do love a good picture book, but because of where I live, I can’t really get any of them shipped so easily and it’s just not the same experience as on your iPad.
So I do mostly middle grade books now. Some adult nonfiction. I haven’t read an adult fiction novel in, I think, about a year. [LAUGHS] I have to check my Goodreads, but I think about close to a year I haven’t read an adult fiction novel.
ANNE: Many of our listeners know what middle grade novels are. That’s a term that I’m used to throwing around. But it’s not a term that everybody is used to using. How would you define what you’re talking about when you say you’d loved to read middle grade literature?
AFOMA: Middle grade books are targeted towards readers around that middle school age. So either nine to 12, some of them ten to 13, but not quite old enough for young adult novels. So I read the entire middle grade spectrum. The normal middle grade books and the upper middle grade books. And sometimes I go a little lower into, like, chapter books, which are like for beginner readers, books like I don’t know if you know about the Amelia Bedelia series.
ANNE: Oh, I know the Amelia Bedelia series.
AFOMA: So that would be like chapter books. I go a little lower with chapter books, and then I come up all the way to upper middle grade books. So that’s my sweet spot. Those books for readers between eight and 13.
ANNE: And I imagine that most readers if they walked into a bookstore or even looked at their own shelves, you know the middle grade novels. You just don’t necessarily think to categorize them that way. Some authors who have written middle grade have also written YA and adult books. I know we’ll get into your favorites books, but who are some of your favorite middle grade authors? Just to give readers an idea of what we’re talking about.
AFOMA: One of my ultimate favorites, she writes upper middle grade books. Paula Chase. I love her work. I love Renée Watson. I like Hena Khan. I used to think her name was pronounced Hena Khan, but it’s actually kHan. So I learned that from an audiobook.
ANNE: Ah! And I learned it 15 seconds ago, so thank you.
AFOMA: [LAUGHS] Yes, so, she’s good. I also like Jenn Bishop. Ooh, and Alicia Williams. She writes books as well. And so … Oh, Laurie Morrison is also really good. [ANNE LAUGHS] I love her writing. Yeah, that’s just how it’s going to keep coming.
ANNE: I love it.
AFOMA: There’s so many of them. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: As there should be. I love how as the authors you love occur to you, you go ooh, wait, oh, oh. [BOTH LAUGH] How it just brings up such pleasant emotions.
AFOMA: Yeah, and recently I just discovered Gillian McDunn, and she writes beautifully about friendships in one of her books and I just loved reading that.
ANNE: I don’t know her.
AFOMA: I would say she’s a newish author ‘cause her first book was published last year, if I’m not mistaken. But her second novel is the one that I really loved. It’s called The Queen Bee and Me, but we’ll talk about all of that later. But those are just a few, just a handful of my favorites. I feel like I should talk about some authors that I like. I love Jason Reynolds. He’s written the Track series. His writing is very punchy. It’s just authentic, you know. It’s slangy. You can hear the voices of the characters when he writes. Really good work.
ANNE: And for anyone who just jotted down the names of nine authors, that makes me think of something else that I really love about middle grade literature. As an adult, middle grade books are much shorter than your typical adult novel. The word count is much, much, much lower which means you can read a lot of books really, really quickly. You can experience such a breadth of experience without sacrificing the depth. It’s really satisfying for me to plow through a big stack of middle grade novels in a weekend.
AFOMA: It feels just as good to me. It gives me a sense of, like, accomplishment, and I just feel like I’m flying through different worlds. It’s really nice.
ANNE: Yes. I love the way you put that. It’s often hard to articulate why a certain reading experience is so meaningful, is so satisfying to us as readers, but are you able to put your finger on some of the things that make reading middle grade so rewarding for you?
AFOMA: I can think of a few. I’m quite anxious. [LAUGHS] So adult books can be really heavy. The thing about adult books is that, of course, they try, and I like contemporary, realistic fiction, so a lot of the adult books I was reading, they talk about real life and real life is unpredictable. And when you go into those pages, you don’t know what you’re going to find. So with middle grade books, it’s very comforting to know that I won’t be shocked in a way that’s going to harm my psyche. I feel like I know what to expect. It’s a cocoon, and it feels really nice.
So I know that, you know, worse comes to worse you know, the protagonist is having a really bad day, everything’s going to be fixed by the time that I close the book, you know. The rice is going to make sure she has everything she needs by the end of the story. So I like that. And I think also it soothes my inner child and it helps us like now in the present, it reassures me in ways that I didn’t have when I was at that age.
ANNE: What kinda reader were you as a child? I’d loved to hear about how you fell in love with reading.
AFOMA: Yes. I was a voracious reader as a child. I loved all kinds of books. Everything like, I read the dictionary for fun. So I liked words. I enjoyed reading. When I was …
ANNE: Can we – Wait, wait, hang on. Tell me about reading the dictionary for fun.
AFOMA: Great. [LAUGHS] Reading the dictionary for fun, I think it was about learning new words. I just found it so interesting that there were so many ways to describe one thing, and then you would read and I enjoyed, like, it was thrilling to find out if a word was a noun, a verb, and it had all those classifications and it described it and gave you examples.
And I think what made it better was that they had a children’s dictionary, I think it was called Scholastic Children’s dictionary, and it had pictures. It was a legit dictionary. It wasn’t like a baby thing. Like it was over, close to like a thousand pages. But it was colorful and it had pictures so like you could read and sometimes you would see a picture of the thing they were describing.
And I loved it. I read the entire thing, and then at the back they had, like, flags of different countries and, like, their staple dishes. It was just a discovery. Like I still feel lessons of warmth when I think about that particular dictionary, so I was into everything as a child.
ANNE: Has that changed?
AFOMA: It has a little bit. I don’t read as adventurously as I did as a child. I started off with the usual fairytales, the little books, the red hen I think is what it’s called Chicken Licken, Thumbelina, all of those fairytales type books. And then when I got past those books, I kinda felt like I didn’t have anywhere else to go because I grew up in Nigeria. We had books, but they weren’t particularly exciting. Many of them were not exciting.
So after the fairytale books, it was kinda, like, there was no middle grade to go to. Mostly adult books, books that we were reading in school as part of our curriculum. So we had some other books, like there’s this one called Born Without A Silver Spoon and that was a book I reread, like, so many times because it was what was available and it was really enjoyable. Like it was a really nice story.
But from those books, I kinda stalled and then I found myself in secondary school, which … early secondary school, which is like middle school age. I found myself reading adult books, like Danielle Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford, because there were just nowhere else to go. So I was reading those books. I was reading encyclopedias. I was reading dictionaries, just to satisfy that thirst for words and stories.
ANNE: What are some of the standout books from this time period that you still remember, that have really stayed with you?
AFOMA: So in my hunt for books while I was getting into Danielle Steel, I remember a very what to call it … A groundbreaking moment. So a girl in my class, I think I was in, we call it junior secondary school three, so JS 3 which is kinda like toward the end of middle school for Americans. In that class, this girl in my class, she had this book. It was really old. The pages were yellowed, and it was tattered.
It was Baby-Sitter’s Club #4. It was Mary Anne Saves the Day. And I was, like, intrigued because I didn’t have any books like that. I begged for the book, and I started reading it right there in class. I almost got in trouble. That happened quite often. I took it home and I finished it in one night. I stayed up late just devouring the entire story. And I was hooked.
The Baby-Sitter’s Club was my entry into middle grade books. So I went back to school, and I asked her, do you have … Like where’s the next one in the series? Cause reading and getting to the end, I realized that you know, there were more of these books. Like you can imagine my joy, like, there’s more? [ANNE LAUGHS] So I go back the next day and I was like, so, where’s the next one? And she’s like, oh, I don’t know. I think she picked it up at some secondhand books or something, somebody gave it to her. Like she basically didn’t have any other books and I was crushed.
I remember, like, thinking about the book over and over and wishing I had just like the next, I wanted to know what happened. And it occurred to me that, you know, the next book would be written from another character’s perspective. And I just wanted to get to know all these characters. I’d only known Mary Anne and I felt, like, such a bond with her because she’s shy like me and she liked books and you know, I was just so excited to discover more about these other characters but that didn’t happen.
I think maybe I found, like, one of those super special series, but it’s such a departure because those books I think when you follow the crew a bit more, you can enjoy the super special ones. But I wasn’t quite attached to them as much as I was to Mary Anne Saves the Day. I mean I still remember to this day that it was Mary Anne Saves the Day and she had those pigtails on the cover. That’s kinda how I got into reading middle grade books.
ANNE: Well I was a huge Baby-Sitter’s Club fan, although I was older than you. [AFOMA LAUGHS] So when I read all the books, I think I ran out of Baby-Sitter’s Club books at about #50 and then I had to wait every month for the new one to come out and go to the bookstore with my babysitting money and hand them my four dollars.
AFOMA: I’m so jealous!
ANNE: Are you? ‘Cause I kinda think it was the worst. Although I did have something to look forward to.
AFOMA: Yeah, that’s so nice. I wish I had that.
ANNE: You wish you had the experience of waiting month by month? Month by tortuous month?
AFOMA: More like the reading 50 books part [ANNE LAUGHS] back to back.
ANNE: Now that I can appreciate it. [AFOMA LAUGHS] But somewhere along the way I gave my books away and maybe five years ago, I got on eBay and ordered a gigantic case of, it was somebody’s childhood collection and 97 Baby-Sitter’s Club books showed up on my doorstep. But, Afoma, I’m embarrassed to say now it didn’t actually occur to me to actually read them. The young people in my house devoured them but I haven’t picked them up. Should I do this?
AFOMA: Well you could if you wanted to. You don’t have to. I think you’re just like honoring the legacy of your childhood.
ANNE: I know I don’t have to. [AFOMA LAUGHS] But give me the pitch. If you wanted to sell me on it, what would you say?
AFOMA: Oh my goodness. It’ll take you back to like, was it the ‘80s? You get to meet these girls over again and you meet them from an adult standpoint, so you’ll like read about Kristy and her spunky attitude and her bossy moves, and then Mary Anne, and you meet all these girls, like, for the first time again. And it’s interesting because their entrepreneurial spirit is something that could make a comeback. Like I was reading an article today about how the Netflix series might actually renew a new generation of babysitting. So who knows.
I think it’s ultimately going to be very enjoyable for you if you go back. It’s going to be so nostalgic. Like it’s going to take you back [ANNE LAUGHS] to where you were when you were reading them.
ANNE: Well you convinced me. I think I might need to revisit them after all. But what happened in your reading life after The Baby-Sitter’s Club, Afoma?
AFOMA: For a long time, a really long stretch, there were no middle grade, young adult type books in my life until Chimamanda’s book came out, Purple Hibiscus. And I was obsessed. Like I remember scenes in that book vividly because I read it so many times, and Kambili was, you know, she was real to me. I felt her pain with everything she went through. I could immerse myself in all the scenes because it was also familiar to me, but at the same time it was like nothing I’d experienced from a Nigerian author. Like It was well written. It was a real book. It wasn’t like 100 pages. It was like, you know, a proper book and it was about this character. It was well drawn and her family felt real. Everything was just really good.
Like right now, you know a lot of Nigerian authors like Chimamanda, Chigozie Obioma, some others that like they’re Nigerian originally but maybe they grew up outside the country or … but there are books by Nigerian authors, you know. Nnedi Okorafor, other authors like that. But these books are for adults. Many of them. I think Nnedi has like a series for young adults, but before … At that time when I was growing up, we didn’t have any books like that. Like we had books that were like chapter books, so they had the same number of pages as chapter books. So they’d have like a 100, a 150, like the Born Without a Silver Spoon book I was talking about, it was around that same page length but it was so not like … It’s not the kind of book that you’re going to give to your six or seven year old. Very few pages, but for an older ages.
So that’s the kinda books that we had. And we also had, like, the author, Buchi Emecheta, we read her books in secondary school. So she wrote books like Second Class Citizen and The Joys of Motherhood. She was another good author as well, but they were really slim. So those are the kind of books that we had, good books, but they were just not what I was looking for. And they didn’t have, like, children as a protagonist. They weren’t targeted toward that age. To this day, we do not have middle grade books with Nigerian characters set in Nigeria.
ANNE: You mentioned that in the not so distant past, you worked with younger students and I imagine that as someone who adores reading middle grade books, I imagine that you would want that for these students.
AFOMA: When I was working with middle grade aged children, I was living in the Caribbean, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I did a summer reading club, but before then I tutored some middle grade students. One of them told me she actually hated reading, like, she just did not get the point or why she had to read. She spoke so well. She’s very articulate when she expressed herself, so I just felt like she would be a reader. Like I don’t know. Like I just had that feeling. And I made it my mission to make her love middle grade books.
So what I would do is I would buy books and have them shipped to the island, which was very experience but I would buy, like, either on, like, Amazon or on Book Depository or thriftbooks, you know, one of those other books. We had this shipping system, like a shipping middleman, they had a U.S. address. So Amazon could ship to them, and then they would ship to us. That was how we got books. I would ship the books and then I would kinda pitch the books to the students, and I would say well this one is about this. I want you to try this. And I’d kinda hype the book up.
So I remember the first book I ever gave her was Tae Keller’s The Science of Breakable Things. She loved it. She was obsessed after that. Like it rocked her world and she was like, I need more books. Because she loved science and that book is about a girl whose mother is depressed but the mother’s a botanist. The whole book is about the scientific method, about hypothesis, and experiment and all that stuff. And it’s basically her trying to find a way to make her mom’s depression go away. My student loved it. She loved it. She was obsessed. Other books that I gave her and she loved were The Mysterious Benedict Society. She loved The House that Lou Built by Mae Respicio.
She would just read it and then she would give a whole review of what she liked, what she didn’t like, and she just transformed. And I saw the power of books, she became alive. She was interested in storytelling. Her English got better ‘cause I was tutoring her in English, and she just got better at expressing herself. I think it opened my eyes even more. I was already in love with middle grade books at that point but it showed me the power of having middle grade books, especially for kids who are at that age.
There’s so much they see mirrored for them that it doesn’t even impact me as much as it does them because they’re living these things. They go to school every day. They have these friendship issues. So these books are so important no matter where kids live, even if they don’t necessarily understand American culture, these books matter to them because it’s the same … It’s universal issues, friendship, family, mental health issues. It’s the same thing that these kids face wherever they live.
So I did the summer reading club. I tried to put a few more books into these kids’ hands. I tried to remember that not everybody has the same thirst of reading so some older kids, you know, I would give them chapter books, you know, like Paddington, big hit with the boys was … What’s the book … The Mouse and the Motorcycle. But no, it was Ralph S. Mouse. I think that was the one we read. Many of them would still hesitate to read it on their own but reading to them made a big difference. I just believe in the power of books. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And it sounds like it’s contagious …
ANNE: Because they need someone who did appreciate what reading can do in your life to show them what the possibilities were. Aw, they were lucky to have you. I’m so glad you were able to do that while you lived there.
AFOMA: Aw, thank you.
ANNE: So we referenced Chimamanda’s, which I refer to her familiarly. She’s one of my favorite living authors. We both referenced her novel Purple Hibiscus because we both read it and know the story, but not everybody does. Would you tell us a little bit about that book for readers whose ears perked up and might be feeling like they need to seek it out and see what it’s about?
AFOMA: Purple Hibiscus is the story of Kambili and she’s a Nigerian girl. She’s very shy. She has a brother named Jaja. Kambili and her brother and her mother, they live with their father of course, they’re a family, and her father’s very religious. So Kambili’s very, very shy. She’s just, you know, to herself. Because of the way things are in her family, she struggles with, like even making friends. Her brother begins to have almost, like, anger issues because of the way the father treats him.
So basically things change for her when they go to spend a summer with her Aunty Ifeoma. Aunty Ifeoma has two children. She’s a single mom. Basically Aunty Ifeoma children and Aunty Ifeoma herself they sorta changed Kambili. It’s like a coming of age story, it helps her make sense of what’s going on in her family and it helps her to see if she can find a way out of that.
ANNE: It’s so good. [AFOMA LAUGHS] But it is a far cry from the happy reads that you love in middle grade.
AFOMA: Yeah. I think the appeal ‘cause I remember when I first started reading the book, like, the first time I was reading it, I didn’t realize how dark it was until it hit me. Like I don’t want to spoil the book but there’s a scene where her dad does something really crazy to her and that hit me.
But when I started reading it I loved it because it reflected my reality. Not in the sense of the father and all of that craziness, but in the sense of Nigeria. Nigerian culture, Nigeiran food, the way Nigerians talk. They try to show beliefs. It felt like home. And it was a young protagonist and she was shy and she was quiet. And I just wanted to know more about her, like … And it’s Chimanada. Like the story telling gets you, so … and I was old enough I think, I was 16 or maybe 17 when I read the book. So I enjoyed it as a book.
And then when I got further in, I realized that these themes are like serious themes. I wasn’t writing book reviews at that time. I was just enjoying it as a reader, enjoying a nice story. As I read it and reread it, I realized that there were deeper themes, and then I could see, like, the deeper meaning.
ANNE: And yet first you simply enjoyed it as a story.
AFOMA: Exactly. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, I love that. Okay. You mentioned writing book reviews. That reminds me that I want to talk about Instagram. I first found your account on bookstagram, which readers, we just mean bookish people connecting over books on Instagram. It’s not a separate app or anything. [AFOMA LAUGHS] I first connected with you as a reader there, and I found your blog and followed you over to Goodreads, so I can still keep track of what you’re reading but you quit your bookstagram account.
AFOMA: I did.
ANNE: We get a lot of readers who come on What Should I Read Next or who listen and tell us bookstagram improved their reading life. We also hear from a whole slew of readers who say bookstagram makes them feel overwhelmed and like they’re not good enough as readers, and yet we talked to very few people, not that it doesn’t happen, but statically very few who just say forget it. I’m out of here and sign off, and yet you did it. I’d loved to hear more.
AFOMA: [LAUGHS] I loved bookstagram. Like I loved the pretty pictures. I met so many people that I’m still in touch with, and I do agree that it can be good peer pressure. It can make you want to read more. It can keep you up to date as to what’s coming out, what’s happening, and you know, everything with the book community. But my issue with bookstagram was that it just started to feel too superficial for me. I felt like I was spending so much time taking pretty pictures of books and not even enough time reading these books.
Like it takes time, if you want to have a bookstagram account and how many people follow you and how many, how much engagement you get in a post, and how many people are responding to your stories. And it just became so heavy. It felt like I was spending more time managing my bookish image than the amount of time I was actually reading or like posting reviews about books that I liked.
And a lot of the times, like I would post a review on Instagram, and I would realize that nobody read it. Like they liked the picture, but they didn’t read the review because that’s not what they’re there for. Instagram is a visual platform. So I have to step back and reevaluate, like do I want to do this? Do I want to spend my life making pretty pictures or do I really want to be helpful? Do I want people who need a certain book to find the book? Do I want to actually share a love of reading with people?
And it turns out that I want to share resources. I want things that people are going to read. I don’t want people to be able to come and like my pictures and you know comment and say, ooh, I can’t wait to read this! It just felt like it was “can’t wait to read this! can’t wait to read this! can’t wait to read this!” But no actual engagement for me. That was my experience.
My conclusion was basically this is wasting my time. I need to focus on my blog, you know, if people are going to follow me, it was actually kinda like a test. Like how many people from this account are going to try to find my blog and read it? And it was like maybe 10% of people. Which confirmed my theory, cause if I have 10% out of maybe a thousand followers, maybe they weren’t really connecting with me or was it just the pretty pictures? So I decided to just put my time toward something that was actually more meaningful for me.
ANNE: Now I find that these days and what I mean by these days is this climate in which so many people discover new books on Instagram, many people are afraid they just won’t know what to read next, and yet that is clearly not a problem for you even though you quit your Instagram account.
AFOMA: [LAUGHS] No.
ANNE: How do you choose what to read next? How do you discover new books that are coming out that you’re maybe interested in or old ones that you might have missed?
AFOMA: I feel like books come at me. Like maybe create a network for yourself. So like my Goodreads is indispensable. I follow just like so many people, but I follow people who know what I need. So I follow a lot of librarians and bookish people who read the same things that I do, and they’re always throwing stuff at me. And then on twitter I follow a lot of authors and if I’m really still stuck after both of those things, I just go on NetGalley or EdelWeiss, even if I’m not requesting the books, I get to know what’s coming and then I can follow them over on Goodreads and kinda read the synopsis and see if it’s going to be good for me.
I’m inundated with all this information. [BOTH LAUGH] Like I don’t know how people say they can’t find books. Maybe they don’t have any other social media. But for me, every day, I find either a new book or an old book. I’m like ooh, I never saw that cover before. Sometimes I find even, like, an author or like I will be researching a themed booklist because I do a lot of themed booklists on my blog, so I’m like doing some research middle grade books about mental illness. There’s just so many books. So maybe because my blog takes me to these things, I don’t really see the need for the Instagram.
And another thing I liked about leaving Instagram was the lack of pressure. Like I didn’t have to read every book the second it came out just so I could engage, you know? I could read it whenever I was ready to read it.
ANNE: Any regrets?
AFOMA: Not even once. When you first leave Instagram, there’s a bit of FOMO. Like for the first week I was like what’s everyone doing? What are they posting? Like I would still want to know what they are up to but after like two weeks to a month, I don’t even remember a lot of people I used to follow.
ANNE: I’m happy to hear it. And I hope many readers find that to be an inspiration. I’m not saying Instagram is bad but I am saying …
AFOMA: Of course not.
ANNE: I do see a lot of people feeling just overwhelmed by it. It’s not helping them, and I love hearing about how it worked for you. And yet you’re still getting the things you need for your reading life. [LAUGHS] Speaking of what you enjoy reading, I can’t wait to hear about your books. Are you ready to dive in?
AFOMA: Yay. I’m ready.
ANNE: You know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these?
AFOMA: Ooh, it was hard. ‘Cause remember when you first told me to choose, remember it doesn’t have to be your favorite-favorites. It has to just be books you like.
ANNE: This is true.
AFOMA: So my criteria was books I still remember vividly even though it’s been a while since I read them. Books that made a good impression and memorable impression that’s still on my mind even though it’s been a while since I read them. That’s one guiding principle. And really authors that I wish people knew more about — that was another thing.
ANNE: That’s a lovely way to choose.
AFOMA: Yeah. So that helped me.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what they are. What did you choose for your first favorite?
AFOMA: Paula Chase’s So Done. So I actually cheated because this is a series [ANNE LAUGHS] of books. [AFOMA LAUGHS]
ANNE: I see what you did there.
AFOMA: I really wanted to pick this because I just read the third, it’s not really a series, more like companion books. It’s in the same universe as she would say. So they’re not like so much following each other but it’s like they happen in the same universe. So you see the same cast of characters, but focusing on different people.
So So Done is the first one in the series. So Done follows two girls: Metai and Mila. Basically Metai is a very opinionated, very strong willed kind of friend, and Mila’s more like gentle. She won’t talk too loud. She’s also determined. So there’s a lot of like toxic friendship happening and Mila getting to use her voice and kinda create boundaries for herself with this friend, whom she loves, but is not always right for her you know in every scenario.
And these two girls are growing up in their neighborhood, which is called Pirates Cove. It’s a Black neighborhood. Low income. They have challenges. They’re interested in dance. They both want to be dancers and they have two other friends, Rashida and Monique. They’re trying to get accepted to the gifted dance program, so to speak, and they’re of course dealing with like their first crushes and relationship drama and who likes who. So it’s like basic middle school drama.
But one thing I love about Paula Chase’s books, especially these three books is that the neighborhood is so alive. So there’s drug dealing in the neighborhood. There’s people who are like, you know, serious church goers. And then there’s also a bit of consent issues and sexual harassment. Things that girls deal with. Paula writes about authentic topics, things I don’t see many other middle grade writers do, especially for Black kids who grow up in different neighborhoods to what many other people experience. Paula’s books are true. They’re authentic. I love the way she writes her characters.
So if you open the books, you see them talking in slang. You’ll see them texting each other. You see, you hear the way their minds work exactly true to them. She doesn’t like polish their language or refine them so that they’re more acceptable. And I think it’ll make her books very appealing to young children who are in that kind of environment and also teachers who want to understand those kind of children better, who want to see what they’re coming from. Paula’s books are very important.
ANNE: Ooh, that sounds good. And I love that you managed to sneak in three for the price of one there.
AFOMA: I worked really hard on that. [BOTH LAUGH] The second one is called Dough Boys. It’s excellent because it’s about boys and it’s about drug dealing in middle grade literature. It’s upper middle grade, but it’s fantastic how these boys get into the situation and how one of them is working really hard to get himself out of that situation. It’s powerful. I love Paula Chase.
ANNE: That sounds amazing. I am making notes. Afoma, what did you choose for your second favorite?
AFOMA: My second favorite is Jenn Bishop’s Things You Can’t Say. Things You Can’t Say follows a young boy whose father has died by suicide. He’s aware of this. He knows his father’s died by suicide, but then another man comes into his mother’s life and he can tell that they have history. But he can’t – he doesn’t know what the history is because his mom is, like, whispering with this new guy and this guy just comes in driving on a motorcycle, very cool, but his mom seems to like this guy. He doesn’t get it. But somehow in his mind, he starts to think that maybe the person who killed himself was not his real father and that this other guy is his real father.
So it all comes from a place of he doesn’t want to be the son of someone who’s killed himself because he feels that maybe whatever depression his father had, he has it too, and then he’ll do the same thing in the future. And he just wants a different, you know, he wants a different option. So he convinces himself that this other guy might be his other father and he starts this whole investigation mystery and of course he has a new friend in school, this new girl, who’s also new to the neighborhood. They’re working together to get to the bottom of who this new guy is … Was my dad really my dad?
And then in the midst of everything, he’s tackling, still feeling the grief of losing his father although it’s been a few years and that is kinda alienating him from his best friend Filipe, who they play basketball together. So there’s sports, there’s friendship, there’s toxic masculinity. There’s a father who’s taken his own life. There’s a mother, you know, who allowed her son to be the parent for quite a while in their relationship, I mean, she’s trying to regain control over that. And there’s library ‘cause he volunteers are the library. We get a little library scenes and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful book.
It’s very nuanced, how everything is handled and how the mother handles everything with the son. Highly recommend it. Highly, highly recommend it because these things happen and children need support. They need to see themselves reflected in these stories.
ANNE: Yes they do. And that sounds like it was beautifully handled. For something that would be challenging for any author to tackle let alone a middle grade author. What did you choose for your third favorite?
AFOMA: Now this is a book that we share in common. I chose More to the Story by Hena Khan. This is like the feel good story. It’s a reimagining or a retelling of Little Women, which I have never read. But I was very excited to read this contemporary version. Four Muslim sisters, they live with their parents, but their father has to move to the middle east for work, and just like Little Women, one of the sisters also gets ill. She gets sick. And they have a cousin who’s moved in from the U.K., so there’s a whole lot of that happening and Jameela, the girl who I think she would represent Jo in the original Little Women, she’s a writer. She’s the editor of her school newspaper.
There’s all of that sisterhood dynamics. It’s very much coming of age. Very family oriented. And there’s a bit about you know, being about a Muslim, practicing you religion, but not in a way that the book is about religion or about being a Muslim. It’s just like they’re Muslims, it’s part of their life. It’s not like the author spends like ages explaining things to the readers, which is something I loved about that book. Because there are religious middle schoolers who practice their religion and at the same time, you know, there’s so much culture and food, it’s a really cozy book and there’s feelings and sisterhood and normal bickering and it’s really feelgood. I really loved that book. I feel really warm whenever I think about it, so that’s my last pick.
ANNE: How did you choose the book that wasn’t right for you?
AFOMA: Well. [SIGHS] It was very difficult because I don’t like to review middle grade books negatively. I think because I love middle grade books. I respect middle grade authors. I feel like they’re doing very important work. If it’s not for me, then I just don’t rate it. But I just wanted to let you know the kinds of books that I don’t like, and that’s why I chose this one.
ANNE: Because a book can be really excellently done and still not be something that you enjoyed reading and that is fine.
AFOMA: Exactly. So for the book that I did not like, which is Pax by Sara Pennypacker. It’s about an animal, this fox, and this boy and his father. And it’s just not for me. Like if you hear me talk about the books I like, I like books about people. I want to read about people, their experiences, their feelings. So that was why I chose Pax by Sara Pennypacker. It’s a great book you know, well done, but just not for me.
ANNE: And if you’re reading to find your happy place, then you want to read books that make you feel like you’re in your happy place.
ANNE: What have you been reading lately, Afoma?
AFOMA: Ooh. I’ve been reading a few really good books. I have read recently Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim, which is about this girl who’s interested in standup comedy. Hilarious. Her parents want her to, you know, be a doctor, some other conventional profession. She just wants to be a comic. And she starts this whole lie that goes into a bigger lie and basically obliterates her summer. So that’s Stand Up, Yumi Chung! And then there’s Keep It Together, Keiko Carter, which is very friendship based and boys and first crushes and you know, but mostly navigating a toxic friendship.
And I’ve also read The Queen Bee and Me by Gillian McDunn, which was beautiful. About friendship. These two girls, Meg and Beatrix, who’ve been friends since they were in kindergarten and Meg meets this other girl, Hazel, and you know, Hazel’s pretty cool. She’s a bit quirky, eclectic. Meg thinks she’s … you know, she could be cool, but Beatrix doesn’t like Hazel because Hazel has a voice of her own, and Hazel’s moving to the neighborhood and Beatrix and her mother trying to keep them out of the social circles. It’s Meg being in the middle of these two girls and deciding you know, where would she go? Learning how to be a kind person and also learning how to take yourself out of friendships that are not good for you.
And then another book I read recently is Renée Watson’s Ways To Make Sunshine. That’s about a young girl, Ryan, and her family, they have moved and dealing with financial challenges and it’s just … You know, Renée Watson’s typical soulful writing. It’s for a younger middle grade crowd and it has illustrations and everything, but I think it’s also going to be a series. It’s really good.
ANNE: Now I’ve jotted down all kinds of titles that I want to read more of today or that are new to me, but at the same time I cannot resist saying that I adore Renée Watson, and I’m glad to hear this may become a series. What do you want to be different in your reading life right now?
AFOMA: Nothing really. But I am on the hunt for good adult nonfiction. So I recently read Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. It’s about her life as a therapist, about her patients’ lives and how they intersect and basically a full on analysis and how we can be better with ourselves and our feelings. And I loved it. It’s probably one of the best books I read this year, and I’m all for books like that. I’ve basically been looking for another Lori Gottlieb. [ANNE LAUGHS] in all the nonfiction. So I sent myself up for failure, but I really loved it. [ANNE SIGHS] But I also love, like, food memoirs. I’m trying to read more of those and good nonfiction would be good, very absorbing nonfiction.
ANNE: All right. We can do that. And also I love that you like your reading life as it is.
AFOMA: Yeah I do. I think it’s just fine. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Yeah. I’m so happy to hear that.
ANNE: Afoma, we talked about some books that just sound incredible today, so your favorites were So Done by Paula Chase, all three books in the loose series. Things You Can’t Say by Jenn Bishop, and More to the Story by Hena Khan.
ANNE: Pax by Sarah Pennypacker is not for you. You’d rather read about humans than foxes. And then lately you’ve been reading several great middle grade novels. You like your reading life as it is. Heavy on the middle grade and yet you wouldn’t mind a good nonfiction recommendation.
ANNE: And then we heard over and over in the books you love that contemporary realistic fiction is great for you and you love it when the authors tackle serious themes, you love great writing, and books about friendship.
AFOMA: Yeah. I seem to go there a lot.
ANNE: All right. Let’s do this. How do you feel about a middle grade book about a young girl who desperately wants to become a writer and has a lot going on in her life right now?
ANNE: It just came out this year.
ANNE: It’s by K. L. Going. It’s called The Next Great Jane. Is this one you’re familiar with?
AFOMA: No. Wow. I’m so tempted to just Google it right now. The Next Great Jane.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] No, don’t Google it ‘cause they’re going to describe it better than I can. Okay. I just really enjoyed bringing this book into my home recently and sitting down and reading it in an afternoon like you can do with a great middle grade novel. This is about a young girl whose name is Jane. She lives in Maine in this tiny, tiny speck of a town called Wickett Harbor, which is a quaint little tourist town.
On the night the story begins, she is beside herself because a very famous author that Jane really really admires whose name is J. E. Fairfax is giving a talk at the local library and Jane is dying to go and ask Ms. Fairfax everything she knows about how Jane can be a published author because even though she’s 12, this is what she wants to do with her life and she just, she needs to know all the things and she’s just so sweet. She’s just so sweet and young and innocent and plucky. But there’s a hurricane forming on the horizon and it sweeps into town and knocks out the power. It cancels the author event, which …
AFOMA: Oh no.
ANNE: The author really gets you on Jane’s side from the beginning because J. E. Fairfax writes romance, and so the event is aimed at adults and it’s a cocktail party, and because alcohol is going to be served which Jane is extra mad about. She’s like it’s just a box of bad wine and easy cheese and crackers. It’s not like a fancy thing. Just let me in!
AFOMA: She’s so sweet.
ANNE: So she ends up climbing a tree and trying to sneak her way into the library where she meets someone who’s about to become her partner in crime.
ANNE: But there’s literally a storm blowing into her life which is not only highly disruptive to everything going on but an omen of change. Turns out that Ms. Fairfax and it’s no coincidence that her name is Fairfax. You do not need to know a thing about Jane Austen to enjoy this book but the author really, really loves Jane Austen and she said that she didn’t want to do a retelling. She didn’t want to modernize any specific work, but she wanted to celebrate Jane Austen’s writing by and now I’m reading, “by incorporating some of my favorite elements from multiple books and fusing the story with the same spirit that I enjoy in her work.” Which basically means that while Jane’s life is a mess for a while, it just feels so exuberant and happy and hopeful the whole time. She makes a friend who turns out to be a nice guy. J. E. Fairfax is not what Jane expects.
AFOMA: That sounds so good, like, I’m into it.
ANNE: I’m glad. That’s The Next Great Jane by K. L. Going. Fun, happy middle grade. For nonfiction, there’s a brand new book out that I think may be a good fit for you. It’s by the women of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast which …
AFOMA: Big Friendship!
ANNE: Have you read this?
AFOMA: No. But I’ve been considering it. I think I might get it.
ANNE: So this is a new nonfiction book. It’s by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman and it’s called Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. I just finished reading this. It’s not exactly like Lori Gottlieb’s book because I think one of the reasons why people enjoyed that so much and are asking to find another book like it is because it was so, so different.
ANNE: And the fact that there aren’t any other books like that is what made it such a wonderful reading experience, which is wonderful until you try to find something else where you can kind of replicate the experience.
AFOMA: Oh, boy. It is so hard.
ANNE: It’s so hard. But what I like about this. It is an exploration of friendship. Friendship in general and also the very specific best friendship which is now 10+ years old between the authors. In some ways it is a memoir of sorts. They talk about their meet cute and those are absolutely the words they used to describe how they met at like a Gossip Girl watch party back in D.C. in 2009.
They talk about their highs and lows over the years. There were a lot more lows than I’d expected them to be, or than I’d expected there to be. I thought what was really generous of them to share and helpful because something they’d say over and over again was we don’t talk about a friendship about a culture the way we do about other relationships and we don’t study friendship the way we study other relationships.
ANNE: So they do drop in these cultural commentaries and these social science tidbits that talk about the importance of friendship and what makes it work and how you can be a better friend. It’s not a how-to book at all. It’s much more memoir.
If you approach it as a read alike, I think you’re going to be disappointed. But if you approach it as a story but also as an opportunity to learn something about the really important friendships in your life which they’re going to prioritize those a little more than you are, and I don’t mean you, I mean us. I mean readers everywhere, that I think you may really enjoy. What do you think?
AFOMA: It sounds good. It’s been on my mind. I saw it in a newsletter … The Girls Night In newsletter.
ANNE: I was not familiar with Aminatou Sow’s background. I knew that they met in D.C., but I did not know that she grew up in Nigeria and also France and Belgium.
AFOMA: Yeah she did.
AFOMA: I heard that. She’s had cancer I believe as well.
ANNE: Yeah. They talk a lot about that in the book. It was really interesting to me how they had very straightforward explorations of in their friendship some issues that have come up is that one of us has a chronic illness and what does that mean, how do you be a friend to someone who has a chronic illness? One of us is white and the other is Black. What does that mean? One of us has a very different family situation, family background than the other does, and how do you, how do you understand where the other is coming from? How do you understand what they need in very different ways?
Like a continuous thread running through the book is that at various times Aminatou’s visa status was in peril, and how her friends turned up to help her, like, secure a job she needed to get the visa in the U.S., and it’s so … Even in the details of their specific lives, there were so much broader issues that came up. They really dug in and explored them which is the same kind of thing that Lori Gottlieb does in her book.
AFOMA: I will be checking that out.
ANNE: Okay. I’m glad to hear it. Okay. I’m thinking Genesis Begins Again by Alicia Williams is right up your alley far too much so for you to not have already read it.
AFOMA: I have.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] And was it right for you?
AFOMA: I have an interview with Alicia Williams on my blog.
ANNE: Oh do you really?
AFOMA: Yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: We’ll have to link to that in the show notes.
AFOMA: It’s a beautiful book. I read it a couple years ago or something, and it was … I never read anything like that. Like strong exploration about colorism. This young girl just wanting to be lighter skinned and it’s just powerful. I loved that book.
ANNE: [SIGHS] Okay. What about From the Desk of Zoey Washington? Have you read that?
AFOMA: I have. I loved it too. [ANNE LAUGHS] I got an ARC and I have an interview with Janae Marks on my blog as well. [LAUGHS] I worried this would happen.
ANNE: How do you end up doing these interviews on your blog?
AFOMA: I just reach out to them. I’m just like, hey, I read your book. I loved it. Can I interview you? And they’re very gracious. They allow me to do that.
ANNE: We’ll have to share some of those. I do love that you have read all of these. [AFOMA LAUGHS] Fills my heart with joy. Okay. Now Jacqueline Woodson has a new book coming out this fall. Now she’s written all kinds of novels in all kinds of genres. She has a new one coming out this September. It’s called Before the Ever After. Is this one on your radar?
AFOMA: It is.
ANNE: I think this might work for you.
AFOMA: I think so too.
ANNE: Well, have you read Jacqueline Woodson before?
AFOMA: I’ve been wanting to, I just haven’t. So this might be the one for me.
ANNE: Oh really.
AFOMA: I wanted to do Harbor Me but I don’t know.
ANNE: I’m never going to tell you not to read Jacqueline Woodson [LAUGHS] and Brown Girl Dreaming is also really really lovely. I’ll read anything she writes. Not that that means you should read everything she writes, but I do think Harbor Me sounds awesome for you. Based on what you said about middle grade fiction being your happy place, that might have given me pause but then listening to the books that you have really thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated, I think Harbor Me would also be an excellent for you to read.
So this is a novel about another kid dealing with real life issues and it’s an issue that I’ve been really glad to see is getting a lot of play in fiction these days, especially in middle grade and YA. His dad is a football superstar. His name is Zachariah Johnson, and his namesake is ZJ, he’s the protagonist here. Because he has gotten so many concussions playing the sport he loves and the sport that’s been his profession for years, he’s no longer the father that this poor little kid knows.
His dad spends hours staring into space or yelling at strange reasons or becomes violent with no apparent trigger and they know why, but they don’t know what to do about it. I mean, this is about a kid living with a hard thing and finding a way through with the help of his three best friends, the fabulous four. The way that their friendship is portrayed on the page is so, so sweet.
AFOMA: I’m gonna love that.
ANNE: I hope so. And what this book does so well is it shows how obviously the football player is horribly affected but what this novel does really well, like, so many middle grade novels do, is show how when someone is affected by something to this extent, it’s never just them. It has devastating effects on their family as well and then the ripple effects through the community. There’s a lot of sadness here of course. But she does it so sweetly and with this underlying hopeful thread, especially because she gives ZJ a community to help carry him through. How does that sound to you?
AFOMA: Excellent. I think I’m definitely checking this one out.
ANNE: That’s Before The Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson. Okay. Afoma, of the books we talked about today, The Next Great Jane by K. L. Going, Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, and Before The Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson, what do you think you’ll read next?
AFOMA: The Next Great Jane. I’m really intrigued by that book. I’m very … Like I’m going to look it up right now. I want to see what the cover looks like. I want to read the entire synopsis. The other two I have like a vague idea about, but The Next Great Jane sounds super.
ANNE: I’m so glad. I can’t wait to hear what you think and thank you so much for talking books with me today.
AFOMA: Thank you too, Anne.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Afoma, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/249 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today plus that transcript. Connect with Afoma on twitter. You can find her there @afomaumesi. It’s A-F-O-M-A U-M-E-S-I. Afoma Umesi. I recommend checking out her blog. Find her there at afomaumesi.com/blog. Again that’s A-F-O-M-A U-M-E-S-I. afomaumesi.com/blog
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