The importance of heavy subjects and diversity in middle-grade fiction

Debra Rivera photoFew grown-ups are more qualified than Debra Silva Rivera to write middle-grade fiction that deals with heavy subject matter. After 20 years working in public schools – 13 as a counselor – Rivera knows all too well the difficulties many young people face at home.

Rivera’s book, tentatively titled “Nowhere to Be,” is about 13-year-old Lena Moore and her mother, who are on the run from the mother’s abusive ex-boyfriend. Every time Lena has to start at a new middle school, she tries to avoid attention from bullies by keeping her hoodie pulled over her head. Her mom is in denial and refuses to discuss the ex-boyfriend with Lena, sending her to a counselor instead.

When Rivera first began writing she assumed it would be a young adult story, but she realized that such books are needed for middle-grade readers, as well.

“I’ve dealt with many kids who come from those situations,” she said. She thinks it would be good for a teacher to have a book like hers to start conversations with students about challenging circumstances they’re facing at home. In some situations, she said, the parent is so overwhelmed by what’s happening that they can’t really see the full impact of it on their child.

When a family is going through a crisis, Rivera said, an adult may not be able to communicate well with their children. Books can act as parent-guides to a child who is trying to understand what’s going on.

“For the child,” Rivera said, “they’re just trying to make sense of it. In some situations, they do keep it secret.” Reading a story about it lets them know that the feelings they’re experiencing are not unique to them, that they’re not alone.

Their reaction is often, “I do belong, and I can fit in,” she said.

In addition to more stories about tough real-life situations, Rivera advocates for greater diversity in middle-grade books, as well. Kids that age are ripe for new information, she said, and books can feed their imaginations and help them see different futures for themselves.

She remembers attending a presentation by a lawyer when she was in fifth grade. The lawyer was a black woman, and Rivera recalls thinking with surprise, “blacks can be lawyers?” The idea had never occurred to her because she hadn’t seen a black lawyer depicted anywhere. Rivera wants young people from under-represented groups to be able to imagine themselves doing anything, and books can help expose them to relate-able role models.

“If there’s no place to see it or read it,” she said, “they think it doesn’t exist.”

Rivera remembers reading books by Sandra Cisneros and Maya Angelou as a girl and being excited to see herself reflected in a story for the first time. When she read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she remembers thinking, “oh, wow, here’s my culture. I belong, I fit in, I’m somewhere in this world.”

 

Debra Silva Rivera is the author of an as-yet-unpublished middle-grade manuscript with the working title ‘Nowhere to Be.’ She is on Twitter @drivera1057

Superbowl commercial bingo

SB-commercial-bingoIt’s that time of year again. This Sunday, make watching the big game a teachable moment for your kids. Encourage them to watch the commercials more closely and critically than they usually do, and to identify ways that the advertisers try to get their attention.

Download this free 4-pack of bingo cards. Each card has a unique mix of 25 squares, which are individual elements they might see in a commercial. Two examples are: “Features a celebrity” and “Makes unbelievable claims about a product.” They’re parent-approved as appropriate for kids age 10 and older.

As they watch the game, kids can draw an X over a square when they see a commercial that matches the element in it. Prizes can be given for a row and/or a ‘blackout’ when the entire card is filled in. Parents or teachers can use this game as a conversation starter to get kids talking about what they saw in the commercials. For suggestions, download the parent/educator guide.

How to watch protest coverage with your teen

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Contrasting media portrayals of protestors in Ferguson, MO

News coverage, photos, videos, and social media posts related to the protests following the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson are everywhere. Some of it is verified information presented in a neutral way, but much of it is opinion and portrayals made with a particular bias. How can you help your teen think critically about what s/he is seeing? Here are some conversation starters.

How many people are actually protesting peacefully, and how many seem to be destructive? The news media and social media tend to focus more on violence, in part because the dramatic images attract more attention. But aiming the camera only at the violent actions of relatively few can misrepresent the behavior of many. Encourage your teen to watch and listen for the mentions of peaceful protestors and people who are trying to help rather than cause damage.

What are the facts, and what are the opinions? If your teen follows social media posts about the event, it’s especially important for them to recognize that not all statements made there are accurate. Some social media users create legitimate “citizen journalism” and report facts that the traditional media outlets may miss, but many post their own opinion as if it were fact. Encourage your teen to try to distinguish between the two.

What’s the background of the story, and where’s the best place to find it? Social media feeds and random Google searches often turn up only snippets of a story, or opinions about it. Encourage your teen to read ongoing comprehensive coverage of the cause of the protests from traditional news media such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the BBC.

How do you think your own opinions might make you see this a certain way? If we’re being honest, few of us would claim to be 100% prejudice-free. Encourage your teen to think about how s/he relates to the people being portrayed in media coverage, and how other people might interpret the coverage differently.

 

Why adolescence really IS harder today

It’s tempting for those of us who survived adolescence to say to histrionic teenagers, “Oh, it’s not that bad. Stop being so dramatic.” While it is true that the hormone-addled and fast-changing adolescent brain tends to make emotional mountains of molehills, teens today may be encountering far more molehills than we did.

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Sissy Spacek in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976)

I recently watched the 1976 horror film “Carrie” again for the first time in a decade, and I was struck by its portrayal of adolescence. Shy, withdrawn Carrie is humiliated by her peers, kept in the dark about puberty by her uber-religious mother, and seems only to find peace alone in her bedroom.

How different would Carrie’s experience be with the technology so ubiquitous among today’s teens? Unless she checked her smartphone at the door and didn’t glance at it until the next day (difficult for the most self-disciplined among us), the awful girls who throw tampons and sanitary pads at her in the locker room would follow her home and into her room every night. She would be tortured by texts, tweets, and invasive IMs on Facebook long after she walked out of the school where she was so miserable.

According to statistics on cyber bullying, more than half of teens have been bullied online, and about the same percentage do not tell their parents about it. Teens also open themselves up to harsh criticism, such as when they post “am I pretty?” videos online. Adolescents’ need for acceptance and lack of impulse control becomes a potent cocktail mixed with the immediacy and connectivity of the Internet and social media.

The fact that so many teens keep silent about their experiences is not surprising; when I was a teen, I wasn’t eager to tell my parents about humiliations at school. But I also felt safe once I got home. If I wanted to, I could talk to my friends on the phone. If I didn’t feel like it, or if I was being harassed, I could take the phone off the hook and shut it all out for the night. The screen of my teen years, television, only comforted and entertained me.

Teens who have smartphones and are being bullied online drag home a blinking, chirping ball-and-chain that reminds them constantly of who doesn’t like them, who thinks they’re ugly, and what these people plan to inflict on them the next day. It’s no wonder so many adolescents are losing sleep.

What can parents do? It’s not a perfect solution, and your teen may hate you for it in the moment, but taking away their devices after a certain time each night might provide the temporary sanctuary they don’t even know they need.

 

Forget tobacco, this is the new threat to teen health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have some good news and some bad news for parents. The good news is that your teen is significantly less likely to smoke than you were at her age. Teens today are also far less likely to get into physical fights than teens were 20 years ago.

texting-while-drivingThe bad news, according to a recent study, is that many teens aren’t paying attention behind the wheel. The CDC’s national survey found that ‘41 percent of [high school] students who had driven a car or other vehicle during the past 30 days reported texting or emailing while driving.’

Many teens (and adults!) think they can safely tap at their smartphone’s screen and still pay attention to the road. The statistics prove otherwise. Fatalities due to distracted driving rose by 28 percent between 2005 and 2008, and the age group most likely to be involved in fatal collisions was 16- to 29-year-olds. Male drivers are more than twice as likely to be involved in such accidents as are female drivers.

Government officials are clearly aware of the problem; 37 states and the District of Columbia have banned all cell phone use by novice drivers. But law enforcement is not the most influential authority in most teens’ lives. Parents are.

It’s a well-known fact in child and adolescent psychology that young people pay attention to the behavior modeled by grown-ups – parents, especially. It should come as no surprise, then, that a study by AT&T found that 41 percent of teens reported that their parents text while driving. Teens can sense this disconnect; 77 percent agreed with the statement, ‘adults say that kids should not text or e-mail while driving, but they do it themselves – all the time.’

80s_AntiDrugAdIf you’re the parent of a teen, or a child soon-to-be a teen, check your own driving habits. You may remember the old anti-drug TV ad (right) that concluded, ‘Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.’ The ad is a bit heavy-handed, but it drives the point home (pun intended) about parents who text or e-mail behind the wheel.

 

 

 

A librarian’s take on why so many teens stop reading

Common Sense Media released some discouraging news last week: when kids reach their teen years, they tend to read much less. At age 9, 53% of kids report reading daily. By age 17, only 19% do. Teens don’t seek out fun reading as much as they may have when they were younger; nearly half of all 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure only once or twice a year.

NaomiBates_Twitter

Follow Naomi on Twitter @yabooksandmore

Naomi Bates is a ‘teacher librarian with a twist of technology’ at a high school in Justin, Texas. Teens’ neglect of pleasure reading is no mystery to her, and she knows how to re-engage them. Last year, Bates launched a reading program in her school that incorporated Twitter, and the response was dramatic: 400 kids participated, and they read a total of 5,000 titles – an average of 18 books per student over the course of the school year.

Bates said Twitter was key to attracting students’ attention.

“When I tweeted about a particular book, kids asked about it,” she said. “They wanted to check it out.”

Bates used social media to engage kids because she knows why teens’ appetite for books wanes. Three things happen when they enter high school. First, there’s more competition for their time, and socializing takes precedence over reading. For many teens, joining groups is so much more important than spending time with a book.

“They’ll put in 20 hours a week on the football field,” Bates said, “but not on reading.”

Second, the amount of reading they’re required to do in their classes is higher than it was in middle or elementary school, and that leaves less time to read for fun. Third, technology that allows them to be connected to others occupies more of their attention.

“It’s about building their social lives,” she said, “and that really takes precedence.”

Many of the students in her school who are most enthusiastic about reading enjoy anime graphic novels, and they engage in discussion and interaction via social media with others about the books. By engaging more reluctant readers via Twitter, Bates taps into this adolescent drive to connect.

Bates also emphasized the need for parents to model reading at home. She said teens who see their parents reading and enjoying books are more likely to seek out reading in their spare time.

“Kids model parents’ behavior, and that’s what it boils down to,” she said. “You can’t just tell your kids, ‘you need to read more.’ Typically a teen’s attitude is, ‘well, you don’t do it, why should I?’”

Bates advises parents to expand their definition of reading when it comes to teens. E-books, magazines, comic books and graphic novels can all capture teens’ attention and open the door to a lifelong reading habit.

 

How to raise a teen who likes news

OMG_newspaperMost of the attention on teens and media focuses on violent video games, advertising, and social media. Their interaction with news is often neglected, which is unfortunate given how important this form of media is. News tells us what’s going on in the world outside, what we should be thinking about, what we should fear, and whom we should elect to represent us and our interests.

Parents of teens know that most kids this age have little interest in reading news on paper, and the stories they encounter online tend to be those shared by their friends. They might half-listen to a TV or radio news broadcast from time to time, or pick up a news magazine if there’s nothing else to read. What can a parent do to encourage a teenager to seek out information that’s about more than their immediate surroundings and social circle?

Consume news yourself, and talk about it. Kids of all ages model parents’ behavior, so if you don’t pay attention to the news your kids aren’t likely to, either. Make it part of your regular routine to listen to news in the car, read a newspaper, or read online news. Point out interesting stories to your teen, and engage him/her in a conversation about it.

Don’t scoff at what interests them. Many teens may find gossip websites far more interesting than the New York Times or the Atlantic Monthly. If you’re tempted to roll your eyes, engage them in a conversation instead. You’ll show some respect for media content they consider important, and you’ll learn more about what types of ‘real’ news might interest them.

Make it personal. Share stories with teens that are about people their age elsewhere in the world. A news article about a young person’s experience in another culture may be more likely to capture their interest than one about abstract political developments.

Encourage them to ask questions. Stories teens encounter in the news may frighten or confuse them, which may make them want to avoid news altogether. Talking with them about what they see or hear can help them process the information so they’re less likely to shut it out.

Next week, how to encourage teens to think critically about the news…

 

A major effect of media violence that is rarely talked about

When we hear ‘media violence’ and ‘youth’ in the same sentence, most of us tend to worry that young people will become violent because of what they see on a screen. But there is another effect of media violence that rarely gets the attention it deserves: the fear it cultivates in us, that the world is a much scarier place than it actually is.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 14

Despite how the media make it seem, danger does not lurk around every corner.

All media messages are representations, and few of them reflect reality accurately. An especially dramatic example of the discrepancy between the two is related to kidnappings. If you watch enough television dramas, you see kidnappings left, right, and center. On programs like CSI and Law and Order, it seems that few children arrive home safely at the end of the day. News media, which are supposedly based in reality, dramatically over-report kidnappings and other crimes as a matter of course. Parenting magazines tend to report alarming figures such as, “every 40 seconds in the United States, a child becomes missing or is abducted.”

Contrast all this terror on the screen and the page with actual statistics about child abductions in the U.S. It’s true that thousands of children go missing every year, but the vast majority are taken by family members or acquaintances and are recovered quickly. According to the Department of Justice, only about 115 children and adolescents are abducted each year in ‘stereotypical kidnappings’ like those depicted on TV. This may seem like a lot, but the population of the U.S. under age 18 is about 74,300,000. That’s means there’s about a one-in-a-million chance that a child will be abducted CSI-style in a given year. The likelihood of it happening on any given day is smaller still, practically zero.

These statistics would be comforting if the media would only share them with us. Instead we’re barraged by stories and images of kidnapping, murder, and mayhem. Media researchers have known for decades that prolonged exposure to such media portrayals tend to make us believe that they depict the world accurately. It’s called ‘cultivation:’ heavy exposure to violence in media can cultivate a person’s belief that the rate of crime and violence in her neighborhood is higher than it actually is. In fact, crime in most U.S. cities is at a historic low. But the media tell us otherwise. The media make us more fearful than we should be.

So what does all this media-induced fear mean for parents and kids? Why should we care?

Fear is bad for mental health. Children’s perception of risk in their surroundings can be strongly affected by news media; one study found that children and teens who were heavy viewers of news were more worried that they might be abducted than light viewers were. The news is powerful enough, in fact, that coverage of a traumatic event can cause a viewer to experience more stress than she would witnessing the event first-hand. In a study of people who either directly witnessed the Boston Marathon bombing or watched heavy news coverage of the event, higher levels of acute stress were reported by the media users. Typical media coverage of a horrific event spins the same scary footage over and over, and can cultivate in our minds the idea that awful things are continuing to happen.

Fear is bad for physical health. In 1969, 48% of children age 5 – 14 usually walked or bicycled to school. In 2009, only 13% did (source). Today’s kids also play outside far less frequently than their parents did, and one survey of mothers revealed that 61% cited ‘lack of adult supervision and a fear of physical harm to their child’ as a primary reason for keeping their kids inside. Fear can also cause stress and anxiety which, left unchecked, can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (source). And as any parent knows, many kids absorb their parents’ emotional states easily. A fearful, anxious parent can have a fearful, anxious child.

Fear can lead to more violence. Following a mass shooting that receives heavy media coverage, gun purchases often spike. More guns in homes allow for more gun-related accidents, and CDC figures demonstrate that guns are among the top ten causes of unintentional deaths of children age 1 – 14. Fear of crime in the world outside can also cause individuals to suspect neighbors and take unwarranted action against them, as George Zimmerman did when he shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Last but not least, it’s well-known among media researchers that growing up in a violent, fear-inducing environment can make children more likely to act aggressively after seeing violence portrayed in media.

As parents, we can set examples for our children by not being scared by the overdose of violence in media. We can talk with them realistically about risk: what it makes sense to be cautious about, and what the media blow out of proportion. We can teach them that news reporters don’t tell us about the thousands of flights that land without a problem every day, and the tens of millions of U.S. kids who make it home safely.

More resources:

 

‘Your Baby Can Read’ was a waste of money, research confirms

Screenshot of commercial for 'Your Baby Can Read"You might remember the best-selling DVD set, ‘Your Baby Can Read.’ The multi-volume kit came with flash cards and a picture book presumably meant to reinforce the lessons on screen. TV commercials for the product used pseudo-scientific diagrams to suggest that babies’ fast-developing brains are ripe for this kind of instruction. The company implied that infants as young as 9 months could recognize words after watching the videos and using the accompanying materials.

The makers of ‘Your Baby Can Read’ went out of business in 2012, after a complaint was filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. NBC’s Today show featured an investigative report that questioned claims made about the product. In the midst of all the controversy, researchers at NYU conducted a randomized trial to see if the product lived up to its claims, and – because academic publishing moves at a snail’s pace – those results have just come out.

The study tracked 117 infants (ages 9 to 18 months) over a period of 7 months. Parents of infants in the test group used ‘Your Baby Can Read’ according to the makers’ instructions, so each infant would watch 70 hours of DVD training and receive 45 hours of interaction using the flash cards and picture books. The researchers measured the outcomes in multiple ways, and found no significant difference in developmental reading skills between the test group and the control group.

Claims implied in the TV commercials, that babies who had used the program could recognize words and respond to written directions (e.g., ‘clap your hands!’) were not supported by the study’s findings.

Did the program likely do any damage to infants? Probably not, but sitting a baby in front of a DVD for 20 minutes a day goes against recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics not to use screen media for children under age 2.

The next time you see an ‘educational’ media product making claims that seem too good to be true, remember: they probably are.