If you haven’t read any books by Jacqueline Woodson yet, you need to remedy that right away. She’s written a lot of books for children and teens, ranging from picture books to novels. Her realistic fiction stories for teens feature characters who have to deal with life-changing problems like teenage pregnancy in The Dear One, a terrible secret in I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This, and a boy’s troubled relationship with his mother in From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun.
The biggest and loudest reaction I’ve ever had to a booktalk was when the kids responded to the last line of my booktalk of From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun. Multiple times at multiple schools, the kids’ reaction was so loud that I had staff members come over from different parts of the library to see what was going on. It got so that I spent so much mental energy bracing myself for what might happen at the end of the booktalk that I didn’t realize that it might generate another kind of reaction, too. One time I started this booktalk and when I got to the line about Melanin’s skin being darker than everybody else, everyone in the class turned in unison to look at one kid whose skin was a lot darker than everyone else (and whom I hadn’t even noticed until the moment that it happened). I felt like I’d painted a bullseye on that kid, and I felt just terrible about it. However, by the time I got to the end of the booktalk I’d given the class something else to think about.
I think my message here, if I can find one, is that while we always try to show how every book we’re presenting has universal appeal, some details of the story might apply to individual students in the class whether you realize it or not. You’re booktalking about a girl who has a weight problem, and kids in the class turn to stare at a girl who has a weight problem of her own. You’re booktalking about a boy named Kevin, and the kids start giggling because there’s a boy named Kevin in their class. You’re booktalking about a kid who’s being abused by a family member, and one or more of the kids in your audience is being abused when they go home at night. There are always going to be some details of the books you present that will jump out at members of your audience. Your job as a booktalker is to push through the distractions in the classroom and show your audience how each of these books can appeal to them and apply to their lives.
Melanin Sun has spent most of the thirteen years of his life not fitting in. The first reason was his name – Melanin Sun. Now you’d probably figure that any mother would have to be crazy to give her kid a name like that, but then again, her name is Encanta Cedar, so maybe it’s not so crazy after all. The other thing that made it hard for Melanin to fit in was his color – not just that he was black, but that his skin was darker than anyone else he knew, including his mother. Melanin wondered a lot about what his father looked like.
Well, like I said, Melanin didn’t fit in with most people. But he did have a few friends – there was Ralph, and Sean, and even Angie, who gave him her number and said they should hang out sometime. Melanin manages to fit in, in this very small world of just his mother and his friends. But that small world is about to be destroyed. It all starts when Melanin’s mother tells him that she wants him to meet the new special person in her life. Melanin thinks it’s no big deal; it’ll just be some guy she’ll go out with a couple of times, they’ll break up, and everything will go back to normal. Because that’s what always happens. But when the meeting actually takes place, Melanin feels like his whole world is going to end. Because not only is his mother’s new love white … but she is a woman.