Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh
published by Crown Books for Young Readers, January 2017
suggested age range: 8 – 12 years
Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology—written by the best children’s authors—celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.
In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers.
From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories.
IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:
Various because it’s an anthology. Stories touch on identity, perseverance, prejudice, friendship, family influence, and individuality vs. conformity, just to name a few.
So what did we think?
Meagan: I’m not normally the biggest fan of short story collections, but I really enjoyed this one. I’m glad Ellen Oh and We Need Diverse Books put this together. It was a great way to get exposed to a bunch of authors all at once and I found myself taking note as I read of authors whose longer books I’d like to read.
Eva: Definitely! I thought some of the stories, though self-contained, could have been the first chapters of novels … novels I’d like to read! I’m not sure I’ve ever read a middle grade short story collection before, so this book was unique in that way, not to mention the diversity of characters, settings, and situations. It makes me wonder why there aren’t more short story collections for this age group. Middle grade readers are notorious for their short attention spans, so it seems like a great idea.
Meagan: If I were still teaching 4th grade, I’d absolutely use this book in my classroom. For one thing, it’s great for kids to see stories with different kinds of protagonists representing the wide array of kids’ backgrounds and experiences. For another thing, middle grade short stories aren’t super common, and it’d be helpful to have short read-alouds that could be finished in one or two sittings. Perfect for before a vacation or some other time when it’s not practical to start reading aloud a new novel.
Also, for both students and writers, short stories can work as a quick snapshot to help you focus on a particular skill or topic without needing to tackle a whole novel. “How does an author establish a memorable and believable character in just a few pages?” is a great question to investigate whether you’re a kid learning about characterization and making inferences, or an adult writer who’s looking to improve your own craft. Gift this book to teachers you know!
Eva: Let’s talk about the particular stories. One that stood out to me was “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-in-Verse” by Kwame Alexander. Books in verse seem to be very “in” right now, especially in YA, but I’ve avoided them because I thought it would be annoying to read a novel in verse. But I really enjoyed Alexander’s story and wasn’t annoyed at all by the format. If anything, it made it a fun, quick, and interesting to read.
It seems like this story could be a good way to introduce kids to verse. It shows that poetic language doesn’t have to rhyme; poetry is also about rhythm, word choice, and imagery:
The most beautiful girl
walks up to me
fast and furious
like a wave rushing
to the shore.
I feel like
I’m about to drown,
but I don’t care,
because like my dad says
about my mom,
“She’s a stone cold fox!”
Also, I imagine that, like me, kids might be more willing to try a short story in verse before jumping into an entire novel written that way.
Meagan: How about “Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina? I loved the journey the protagonist went on. She began very confident in a simplistic way then got exposed to a complex world that included some class- and race-prejudice. She sees how her older brother and her father deal with things. At first she looks down on her brother and dad’s responses, but through the story she comes to understand why they act the way they do. By the end she seems to neither adopt their approaches completely, nor look down on them for their choices. She will have to face injustice in her own way and also be compassionate towards those who choose to face it in a different way. I think this is an appropriately nuanced problem for middle grade students to grapple with, both theoretically in the story as well as in real-life application.
Eva: I think my favorite story was “The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin. All the other stories were set in the U.S. in contemporary times, but from this story’s first line, the reader is transported to a totally different time and place:
“When I was sold to the Li family, my mother let Mrs. Li take me only after she’d promised that I would be taught to read.”
I was immediately drawn into the world, and this was one of the stories I wished was the first chapter of a novel. I also would have liked if at least one of the other stories in the collection was historical fiction and/or set somewhere other than the U.S., like this one.
Meagan: I think I have a tie for my favorite between Meg Medina’s story, which I described above, and “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist. I thought this one was a great little primer on showing-not-telling. The author sets up a sympathetic character in a very difficult family situation with perfectly chosen details that give the readers everything they need to know, without resorting to telling or labels. We’re never told “my mom is depressed” or “we got evicted” or “now we’re homeless.” The reader experiences everything right along with Isaiah and his sister and can easily get the scariness of the situation without needing to be told the names for the problems. Yet despite some pretty dark circumstances, there is also hope in the story.
I liked this story so well I went immediately to the Internet to find out what else the author had written, only to discover that she doesn’t yet have a published novel! This story is her debut publication! Kelly J. Baptist…I’m waiting for your novel to come out! You are writing one, right???
Eva: I hope so! I just want to mention one last story (the last one in the book): “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers. I think what comes to many people’s minds with the “we need diverse books” campaign is race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation — which are all types of diversity found in this collection. What isn’t so often considered are kids with disabilities. I was glad to see this story — about a boy who plays wheelchair basketball — included in the collection.
THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:
Meagan: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever read an anthology of middle grade short stories.
Eva: I don’t know that I’ve read an anthology before, but I definitely used to read short stories for middle grade readers. When I was a kid I subscribed to the American Girl magazine. In each issue there was a short story, and I remember one in particular about a girl who finds out that her grandmother had her feet bound when she was a little girl in China. I think that was how I first learned about foot-binding, and obviously the story was so powerful that I still remember it quite clearly now, twenty-five years after reading it! So short stories can definitely have just as much power as novels for the middle grade age group.
THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:
- Short stories for middle grade readers
- A short story in verse
- First person narration (Almost all of them are)
- Middle grade stories that deal with race, class, sexual orientation, and disability.
Eva: A quick, interesting collection of short stories for middle grade readers. Not only is there diversity in the subject matter, there is diversity in the way the stories are told. One is told in verse, one is told in second person, some are in past tense while others are in present, etc.
Meagan: A good reminder that a short story anthology with a variety of authors can be a great way of discovering authors you might like to read more of. As a reader, it’s a way to sample more broadly and try out the styles and stories of a lot of writers in a short time.