PICTURE BOOKS

MIDDLE GRADE

YOUNG ADULT

Jul 2, 2020

CRAFTING ENGAGING STORIES ABOUT TOUGH SUBJECTS: Learning from Janae Marks and Lisa Moore Ramée

In the last year, I’ve read and loved multiple middle grade novels that directly tackle tough social justice issues. I can’t imagine how daunting it must be to take on wrongful convictions or Black Lives Matter (BLM) for a young audience. From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks and A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée are excellent mentor texts for how to tell a story that children will find engaging while also helping them to grow their own understanding of complex and sometimes uncomfortable subjects. And let’s be clear, these are fantastic middle grade mentor texts–period.  

Here are six things Ramée and Marks both do from a craft perspective to really enhance the reader experience. 

NOTE: While I prefer not to do spoilers, this topic is difficult to write about without revealing at least some of the plot. Please, if you haven’t read these novels yet, do that first (these are both wonderful books) before reading this post.  

1. THE MAIN CHARACTER IS EARLY IN THEIR OWN UNDERSTANDING

When you are trying to engage readers in a story that asks them to either change or form their own views about an important topic, it’s an excellent idea to allow them to join your protagonist on a voyage of discovery. Readers can grow their understanding alongside the main character. Nowadays, especially on social media, humans are being asked to leap to a fully evolved understanding of topics that they might currently have little or no understanding about. Books can bridge that gap of understanding.  

Three decades ago, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote the essay “Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Glass Doors” to argue for the importance of providing young readers with a diversity of books that reflect the “multicultural nature of the world.” Marks and Ramée have created stories that address social justice issues in such an approachable manner that some readers will see themselves mirrored in the story, and readers who don’t will be able to turn the window into a sliding door and “walk through in imagination to become part of” these worlds.

In From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Marks’ main character, Zoe, has never met her father, Marcus, nor has she had any communication with him. He’s been incarcerated for her entire life. But on her twelfth birthday, she receives a letter from him and it becomes clear that he’s been writing her letters for a very long time. It’s only as she starts to write him back that she begins to question what she’s always believed to be true: that her father is a murderer. Her journey begins with a strong belief about her father’s guilt. From there, she first questions her belief and then she actively attempts to fight for justice. 

In the beginning, Zoe doesn’t even want to be related to her biological dad:

I hated that this person related to me was a monster. A murderer. It made me want to throw up. (24)

But later, when she determines that her father is telling the truth about his innocence, she’s sets out to prove that he’s innocent and then fight for him to get out before his possible parole in thirteen years:

I’d be twenty-five years old in thirteen years. Even if he could get out of prison then, that was a very long time from now–especially if he was innocent. I couldn’t wait that long. I wanted to fight for him. (175) 

In A Good Kind Of Trouble, Ramée’s main character, Shayla, is “allergic” to trouble, and while she’s aware of the Black Lives Matter movement, it doesn’t feel relevant to her. She and her friends are a diverse group and they call themselves the United Nations. In her story, she moves from not being interested in BLM to actually becoming an activist for it at her Middle School. 

Up front, Shayla has some knowledge about the bigger issues, but she’s still got a naive viewpoint. Consider this conversation she has with her mother about the trial of a white police officer who shot an unarmed Black man when he was walking to his car:

“Maybe after the trial is over, people will know we’re not scary. They’ll know we matter.”

“Oh, baby…” Momma shakes her head. 

I reach over and pat her hand. “It’ll be okay, Momma. There’s a video this time. No way could anyone say that officer was innocent.”

Momma doesn’t say anything. (42)

Later as her understanding and resolve strengthens, she becomes an activist at her middle school:

“Black Lives Matter!” I shout to get their attention. And then I start handing out armbands. (326)

2. THERE ARE TRUSTED ADULTS, BUT THEY DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS

It’s always a great idea to give your main character agency, to let them find their voice, grow their knowledge, develop their own convictions, but it’s also important to give them a sense of family and community, and a safe place to talk about tough subjects. 

In Ramée’s A Good Kind of Trouble, Shayla can confide in both her parents. She also has her older sister, who is a senior in high school and thus almost an adult herself. Some of the teachers, especially Coach West and Ms. Jacobs, are also allies and advisors. However, while they can and do offer advice, they don’t dictate to Shayla how she should feel. And each represents a different facet of understanding and emotion. For example, Hana, Shayla’s sister, leads with anger and activism, but her parents are more cautious. They temper their anger with different levels of protectiveness and perspective. 

In a dinner conversation, Shayla’s Momma tries to communicate a more hopeful view than her sister:

“No, sugar, we’re not broken. We’re just the ones who need attention right now.”

“Because people keep trying to break us,” Hana says. She claps after each word.

Momma cuts her eyes at Hana. “You keep focusing only on the bad in this world, and that’s all you’ll ever have.”

“It’s not my fault so many brothers are getting killed,” Hana says. (82)

Ramée doesn’t shy away from presenting the complexity and heightened emotions around systemic racism, and she doesn’t presume kids can’t handle it. She also packs a lot into short scenes, keeping them engaging without ever coming off as preachy. 

In From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Zoe’s Grandma (on her mom’s side) believes that Marcus, Zoe’s biological dad, is telling the truth about not being a murderer, but Zoe’s mom needs a lot more time to get there. She’s still holding onto a lot of pain due to her own feeling of having been personally betrayed by Marcus at that time. Zoe arrives at a new understanding of his innocence long before her mom does. Zoe loves her parents, but she can’t just take their beliefs as her own. She has her own journey.  

3. MANY VIEWPOINTS ARE REPRESENTED WITH COMPASSION

This is such a powerful strategy and it says a lot about these authors and their ability to write compelling and honest characters. (See our previous post on how Ramée brilliantly brings her characters to life.) Both Ramée and Marks allow their characters to be fully shaped by their own lives. Characters are not treated as arch villains unless they have a very specific viewpoint that’s particularly egregious and unredeemable. Characters are allowed to grow their understanding organically, and even to be at a different place in their own awakening than the main character by the end of the story. 

Ramée’s main character, Shayla, and her best friends have a powerful discussion towards the end of the book. I love how there’s acknowledgement that they all are from cultures that have been affected by racism, yet there’s still the ability to address why BLM matters.  

“I get that,” Isabella says. “People think Latinx is what they see in movies. Illegals and gang members. And they act like Puerto Rico isn’t part of this country. Like with the hurricane? We still haven’t gotten the help to rebuild like we should’ve. And we’re as American as anybody.”

Julia sighs. “Yeah.”

It feels like things are finally getting back to normal, and I don’t want to ruin it, but I need to say something. “We all know what it’s like to be treated wrong, just because of the way we look, but…” I pause, trying to get the words to come out right. “But when people make assumptions about you, no one dies.” (350)

These are compassionate stories that encourage readers to awaken their own inner activist. And they also model ways for kids to engage in deep conversations about topics that can be hard to talk about.   

4. THERE’S A SIGNIFICANT THREAD ABOUT KIDS BEING KIDS

Both From the Desk of Zoe Washington and A Good Kind of Trouble are fun for kids to read. Yes, tough subjects are discussed, but there are also middle school dances and first kisses, and mysteries, and baking… lots of baking. And KPop and track and field and mean girls and mean boys and friendship ups and downs. Both Marks and Ramée give readers what they want–mirrors and windows into middle school. These threads are fun, making the books something kids will read and then re-read just for the joy of it. 

For example, Marks’ Zoe is passionate about baking. She wants to be on the Kids Bake Challenge TV show, and she wants to win. There’s a strong thread in the novel about her helping at a local bakery and also experimenting with her own recipes. There’s so much fun and joy as well as kid angst in this thread. And when she starts inventing recipes, Zoe has yet another opportunity to think for herself.

Maybe I could ask Ariana or Vincent for their advice. No–I wanted to figure this out on my own. I could do what Ariana did–bake a couple of small batches with different amounts of sugar, so I could see which one tasted the best. 

On the plus side, the cupcake did sort of taste like Froot Loops. My recipe was on the right track, and I wouldn’t stop trying until I nailed it. (160) 

 5. BONUS POINTS: WITHIN THE “KIDS BEING KIDS” THREAD(S) THERE ARE OVERLAPPING THEMES WITH THE SOCIAL JUSTICE STORY 

I love talking about how clever Marks and Ramée are, and here’s another thing they do beautifully. They both find a way to weave the bigger themes of the book into their “kids being kids” subplots. 

In From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Marks’ main thread is about Zoe going from assuming her dad is a murderer, to trusting him, to fighting to prove his innocence, but also, it’s about her believing in him as a human despite his flaws. It’s about one person trusting another person despite the damning evidence. And guess what? There’s a thread where Zoe has damning evidence that her best friend, Trevor, betrayed her, and in that thread, she also has to find a way to forgive him despite his flaws. 

Here she is, dealing with the angst of having been betrayed by a best friend:

But it was like when you drew something in pencil and then tried to erase it–the pencil lines would mostly go away, but sometimes the indent would still be there, so you could still sort of see what had been erased. That’s how Trevor’s apology felt–like he was trying to erase my pain by saying he was sorry, but he couldn’t make it all disappear. (119)

The truth about Zoe’s best friend wasn’t simple. There was a reason why he didn’t defend her, and while it didn’t make it right, it was forgivable. And Zoe’s dad isn’t perfect either. There were mistakes he made that made it possible for him to be considered as a suspect. But there’s no excuse for the systemic racism that caused him to be presumed guilty without real evidence. 

In A Good Kind of Trouble, Ramée also delivers a subplot that touches on similar themes to those of the bigger story. On the broadest scale, Shayla is on a journey of discovery about how she fits into the world at large and how she wants to fight for the bigger issue of BLM. Black Lives Matter is all about asking the world and especially America to affirm the humanity, the contributions, and the resilience of Black people. And ta-da! In addition to the main plot about Shayla’s growing activism at school, there’s another subplot about her figuring out how she fits in as a middle schooler. She needs her fellow classmates to affirm her, perhaps as a friend, but at least as someone worthy of respect. The two storylines intersect and intertwine into a beautiful dance of writerly craft.    

6. THE STORY IS THEIR STORY TO TELL AND THEY’VE DONE THEIR RESEARCH

It’s the nature of fiction writers to get excited about telling stories whether they are mirrors into our souls or something that’s not part of our experience, but is something we are passionate about or intrigued by. Look at all the mystery writers who are neither murderers nor detectives! But when it comes to a social justice novel, it really does help to have a connection to the story. That doesn’t mean you need to have lost a family member via a police shooting to talk about Black Lives Matter, nor must your father have been wrongfully incarcerated for you to be able to tell that story. It helps though, that both Ramée and Marks have a cultural affinity to their main characters. Each understands a lot about what it’s like to navigate middle school in their character’s shoes. This depth of knowledge brings authenticity to their stories. And then, of course, as professionals, they still did their research. 

In an interview by afomaumesi.com, Marks says:

I knew if I wrote about the issue of wrongful convictions, I’d want it to be about a Black man, because Black people are 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people (source). 

“As an African American writer, it was also important to me to have my book feature a Black protagonist. Since I write for kids, I started wondering what it’s like to be the child of an incarcerated parent, and Zoe was born from there.

And in an interview by thebrownbookshelf.com, Ramée says:

When I was in junior high, friendship groups separated by race. My best friend in elementary school was Japanese-American, but suddenly, in junior high, there wasn’t a spot for us at school. I started hanging out with a new Black best friend and she started hanging out with a group of Asian girls. We remained friends but didn’t hang out at school anymore and that never made a lot of sense to me. Then almost thirty years later, when my daughter started junior high, I saw the same thing play out. And I wanted to write about that. The Black Lives Matter movement, which features prominently in A Good Kind of Trouble, didn’t exist when I started writing the book, but racial tensions always did. One morning I woke up to the news report of Philando Castile being shot by police for what seemed to be the crime of just being Black. A horrific significant fact was just the day before, I’d seen the news of Alton Sterling’s death. Two young black men in two days. It made me ill. And if it had that effect on me, what must it feel like to be a Black child, seeing these images almost every day. To be told in so many words that you just don’t matter? I knew Shayla, my main character, would be affected by what was happening. And honestly, I felt if maybe I could explain to just one person the importance of Black Lives Matter, that I would consider it a success. 

Both authors invite readers to explore tough subjects with nuance, thoughtfulness, and creativity. Some readers will embrace these books as mirrors into their own lives. For other readers, they will be windows that invite thoughtful discourse and even change. With authors like Lisa Moore Ramée and Janae Marks writing compelling and fun stories about social justice issues with beautifully crafted characters, it’s much easier to have hope for the future!

With your own writing, when tackling social issues or other tough subjects, consider: 

  • Letting your main character go on a true journey of the mind, where they start with one belief and evolve to another.
  • Giving your main character adults to talk to and learn from, but still leaving them room to figure things out on their own. 
  • Adding in fun “kids being kids” subplots
  • Letting a subplot be a microcosm of the bigger story, with similar themes
  • Finding a real connection to the story you’re telling–something about the story that’s authentic to your experience.   

NOTE: Lisa Moore Ramée’s second middle grade novel, Something To Say (“A timely, entertaining, unforgettable story about family, friendship, and finding your voice. ” Kirkus starred review), is out July 14th. I’m so excited for it!

And Janae Marks created a playlist of the songs from From the Desk of Zoe Washington and shared the Froot Loops cupcake recipe! 


If you would like to read more, here’s our interview of Lisa Moore Ramée from when A Good Kind Of Trouble first came out, and also, that craft discussion on how she brought her characters to life.

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