Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Public Puking, Presidential Races and Social Justice: Props for 8th Grade Super Zero

In honor of Random Acts of Publicity Day 2011 - a fantastic idea concocted by writer and teacher Darcy Pattison I thought I would give props to the fantastic Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, who has given me so much support as I've entered the wild and wooly world of kidlit.

From her visionary Patchwork Collective mentorship group for children's writers of color, to her To Mama With Love mother's day project to the personal support she's given me as now (huzzah! huzzah! halloo! hallay!) an agency sibling with the most fantastical Erin Murphy, Gbemi (as she is known to her friends) has been welcoming, instructive, encouraging, supportive and downright inspirational.

And you know what? So's her 2010 book from Arthur A. Levine, 8th Grade Super Zero.

Reggie "Pukey" McNight is a Nerd-ling Everyman. Having begin the school year by losing his breakfast in front of the entire student body, eighth grade can only go up. Er, maybe. With his best friends, activist Ruthie and aspiring rapper Joe C. by his side, Reggie negotiates the complicated issues of middle school social politics, family conflict, race relations, spirituality, community involvement and social justice without ever being anything less than flawed, real, heartfelt and quite wonderful. Will Reggie's father get a job? Will his sister be less than awful to him? Will he be able to galvanize a group to work in the local homeless shelter? Will he have a chance in the school election? And will the most beautiful Mialonie ever look his way? You can find out by picking up a copy of this complex, hilarious, and skillfully written novel.

For other children's authors, Gbemi's book is a terrific study in how to negotiate potentially difficult social issues without slipping into a didactic voice. It is also a study in building three dimensional, dynamic characters fully located in their environment (in this case, Brooklyn). 8th Grade Super Zero is breathtakingly real, without ever losing its engagement as a story. As a reader, I was just as invested in the broader issues of how a group of students can help each other engage in their local community as I was in Reggie's romantic life or his school presidential campaign.

This excerpt from an interview with Gbemi relates her perspective on social justice in children's literature rather perfectly:

Q: Reggie finds great satisfaction in helping a local homeless shelter build community. How did your own experiences with service shape this aspect of Reggie’s story?

A: Reggie had the opportunity to see, as I did, that any type of service is a two-way street. He did not 'save' or 'rescue' anyone, and no person that he encountered acted as a talisman or magical figure whose primary purpose was to ease his guilt or facilitate his transformation to hero. He entered into relationships, with multi-dimensional people (I hope). The themes of small victories and personal action in the book were also major lessons learned in my own life. I found that there was just as much value (perhaps more) in being the person who offers a loving listening ear and a snack as there is in being the Big Speechmaker and shiny celebrity.

(smart answer, no? see why I like her and her book so much?)

So celebrate social justice and great children's literature by picking up a copy of 8th Grade Super Zero, and also blogging, linking, talking or otherwise cheering about your favorite kidlit books!



  1. Breathtakingly real. That's exactly right. It would be hard to shine enough light on this gem. Thanks for leading the way, Sayantani!

  2. This sounds great. Thanks for sharing!

  3. @audrey - thx for the comment - I agree!
    @Khashway - do pick it up, it's a wonderful read!