Tag Archives: consent

#vted Reads with Kate Messner

I’m Jeanie Phillips and we’re back for a third season of vted Reads! Books by, for and with Vermont educators. Kicking off this season we’re joined on the show by author and former teacher Kate Messner. Kate’s here to talk about how we can use books about some dark topics as conduits to reach students who may not even know they can or should talk about those topics.

I did just make it sound a lot bleaker of an episode than it is.

Trust me, it’s a good one. And Kate’s a delightful guest! We’ll talk about her books Chirp, Breakout, and The Seventh Wish, along with sending you away with a whole mess of new titles for your To Read pile.

Plus, Kate will reveal what her favorite flavor of cricket is.

Yes, you will be amazed to learn how many different ways there are to snack on crickets.

Now, one content note for today’s show: Kate’s book, Chirp, deals with issues of grooming, which is when adults behave in inappropriate ways with children, usually as a prelude to much worse behavior. We’ll talk today a little bit about that, but if you’re not in a space to join us right now, that’s okay. Be kind, safe, and gentle with yourselves.

Welcome back to vted Reads, season three! Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Today, I’m with Kate Messner and we’ll be talking about her book, Chirp. Thanks so much for joining me, Kate.Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Kate Messner: Thank you so much! Well, I am a children’s author. I’ve written  — as of 2020 — it will be 50 books for kids. They range from picture books like Over and Under the Snow and How to Read a Story, How to Write a Story, The Next President, to Easy Readers like the Fergus and Zeke series with Candlewick Press, to chapter books like The Ranger in Time Series with Scholastic. And novels, and nonfiction. Books like Breakout and The Seventh Wish and Chirp. And then some nonfiction as well! Like Tracking Pythons, which is about invasive Burmese pythons in Florida, and a new series called History Smashers, which is aimed at undoing the lies and myths we teach young kids about history. Starting with: the first Thanksgiving. The first book is History Smashers: The Mayflower.

Jeanie: And that book just came out, is that correct?

Kate: Yeah! New this summer History Smashers: The Mayflower and History Smashers: Women’s Right to Vote. Then in the fall, book three comes out: Pearl Harbor. And we’ll have book four in the spring of 2021, that is History Smashers: Titanic.

Jeanie: Those sound so relevant to our current moment in time. Perfect timing.

Kate: I really hope so. I know so many teachers right now are looking at the work that that we can all do to dismantle white supremacy and to promote equality. And part of that work is taking a hard look at the way we’ve taught history. Our textbooks have long looked at things from a very white, very colonialist perspective. And these books aim to to start a broader conversation about that. The biggest thing is I think kids are gonna read them and have an amazing time at the dinner table saying, “Mom! Dad! Did you know this about Elizabeth Cady Stanton?” So I think it’s gonna prompt some really great conversations. Not just in the classroom but at home around the dinner table, too. That’s my hope anyway.

Jeanie: This is super exciting! Before we get started on Chirp though, I always like to ask my guests what’s on their bedside table what they’re reading right now. Do you have any summer reading going on, Kate?

Kate: I do, I actually just finished an amazing young adult novel called A Song Below Water by Bethany Morrow. It’s about mermaids and Black voices, and it’s just a spectacular story. I think sometimes fantasy and speculative fiction is the very best way to get at the issues that we’re facing in our modern world. And this is a book that just does that brilliantly.

Jeanie: Excellent! I have that on my Libro FM right now, actually. So I’m gonna have to listen to it on my next long drive. Thanks for that recommendation!

So one of my bits of summer reading was: Chirp.

I picked it up right as the school year was ending and got sucked immediately into this book. And I wondered if you could introduce us to Mia, who is moving back to someplace many of our listeners will know, which is Burlington, Vermont. Could you tell us a little bit about Mia?

Kate: Sure! Mia has just finished seventh grade. And she is moving from Boston, where her family had moved from Vermont a couple years earlier, back to Vermont. It’s a good move for her, for a few reasons. First of all her grandmother lives in Vermont, and she loves Gram. So that’s a great thing.

Then second, Mia’s time in Boston wasn’t the greatest. She’s a gymnast and she had an experience at her gym with an assistant coach that she’s hoping to leave behind. Hoping to forget about. Something that she didn’t even talk about. So she’s moving back to Vermont with a secret, and also healing from a broken arm she got when she was doing something on the balance team.

Jeanie: When we meet Mia, she’s actually in the car in the beginning of the book. And her very concerned mother is trying to get her to pick some summer activities. And Mia just wants to watch TV. So she sort of reluctantly picks some summer activities. And you get the impression early on that that has less to do with the broken arm than with some failure of confidence, really related to what’s been happening in her life recently.

Kate: Yeah. I mean to be honest, she’s moving at a time when she’s not sure who she is anymore. And we’ll do a minor spoiler here: the assistant gymnastics coach at her old gym was showing her some really inappropriate attention. There were unwanted back rubs and hugs that lasted too long, and texts that were just strange and uncomfortable for her. It’s behavior that most adults would look at and say that looks like grooming a child for sexual abuse. And in fact the things that happened with that coach that make Mia so uncomfortable are based on the very same things that Larry Nassar did when he was trying to gain the trust of the gymnasts that he abused.

So many of us have read those just horrifying headlines of the team doctor who sexually assaulted so many gymnasts. This character, the assistant coach in this book, is sort of like Larry Nassar before it got so far. So it’s behavior that an adult would recognize as grooming. A kid doesn’t know that; a kid just recognizes that she feels icky and weird and doesn’t understand what’s going on and maybe wonders if she’s done something wrong.

So Mia doesn’t talk to anybody about what happened with this assistant coach.

She’s happy to be moving. It’s not an issue for her anymore, but of course she’s carrying scars from what happened. Not just from this accident she had on the balance team that required multiple surgeries on her arm, but scars inside too. The kind of scars so many women carry around and don’t always talk about until there’s that opportunity.

So Chirp is very much a story about finding yourself again. And especially finding your voice. That’s something that Mia goes through in this summer.

The book takes place over the course of a summer. It begins right after school ends as the family is moving back to Vermont. And as you mentioned Mia’s mom is hounding her to sign up for some day camps. The rule in our house was you got to do two activities: something for your body, and something for your brain.

Mia’s mom has that same rule. She’s giving Mia gymnastics flyers and Mia is adamant that she’s not going back to gymnastics. Eventually she settles on this thing called Warrior Camp, which is a camp where kids learn to do all those obstacles that you see on the TV show American Ninja Warrior. Mia likes that show. She figures how bad could the camp be?

And then she also signs up for something called Launch Camp, for young entrepreneurs. Which is a camp where kids go to design their own businesses and write business plans and create products. Sort of like you see on Shark Tank (and Mia loves that show too).

So! Thus she’s chosen her two summer camps. And thankfully she makes some friends that summer. And through the physical healing she goes through at Warrior Camp — you know she’s conditioning, she’s getting quite literally stronger going through this Warrior Camp — at the same time she’s gaining confidence at Launch Camp. Meeting some new female friends who really boost her up. So that’s like a huge theme too: the power of women to hold one another up.

Jeanie: So many great themes in this book! It’s hard to figure out which question, which thread I want to pull on, so I’m going to try to get up to all of them. You mentioned Launch Camp. I love Launch Camp! As an educator who’s trying to work with educators to make school more meaningful and relevant to young people. It’s this entrepreneurial camp where they’re making and they’re designing business plans and there they have an audience. And they go on a field trip up to UVM to see a woman entrepreneur and hear about her trajectory, her professional trajectory. I wondered, you know, is Launch Camp just in your imagination? Is there somewhere we could find Launch Camp?

Kate: Well the exact version in the book is from my imagination but I can tell you that it was inspired by so many makerspaces that I have seen in schools and in libraries. Where kids are doing this exact kind of work. They’re being encouraged to come up with their own ideas, and build things. Whether that’s with Legos or writing apps, or anything like that. I’ve just seen, you know, in my visits to different schools? I’ve seen so many amazing projects that kids are working on with support from their teachers and librarians, and in various makerspaces. So that was really the inspiration for Launch Camp. I did have a great time making up all the projects that the different teams were working on. Now that was really, really fun.

Jeanie: Well there’s the dim sum, the bao buns (is that what they’re called?) And an app to find soccer games?

Kate: Yeah. Kicks Finder! It’s some kids who wrote an app to find pickup soccer games in town.

Jeanie: And there some cookies–

Kate: Yeah! Cookies for a Cause. Aiden, one of the boys is a really great baker, and so he’s launching this business to sell cookies that people can use for fundraisers. There are some kids who are building jewelry, creating jewelry out of recycled materials.

And then there’s Mia, who has decided she’s going to use her time at Launch Camp to write a new business plan for her grandmother’s cricket farm. And yes, you heard that right: cricket farm. It’s a real thing.

Mia decides that she’s gonna use her time at Launch Camp, and what she learns about starting businesses and marketing and supporting them.

Jeanie: Let’s just talk about those crickets. Because those crickets are for eating. For humans to eat.

Kate: They are! They are. Let me tell you where this element of the story came from.

Several years ago, actually in 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization came out with a report called Edible Insects that basically said, “Hey everybody in the Western World, you ought to consider eating insects as a form of protein. Because a) insects are good for you, and b) they are way more sustainable to raise than other creatures we like to eat for protein. Like cows and pigs and chickens. They use way less water and feed and they produce many, many, many times fewer greenhouse gases.”

I found this report fascinating.

For a while, I was talking about it all around the house with anybody who would listen. I had done some research on entomophagy. I had a dinner party where we had grasshopper tacos one night. And so time passes, a few years after that report, my husband comes home one day and he is part of an organization that helps startup businesses launch in Vermont. He came home from one of his meetings and dropped a folder on my desk and said, “I’ve got one for you!”

The folder was about a cricket farm that was launching in Vermont. A startup cricket farm.

So, we were invited to it. To visit this fledgling cricket farm in Williston. It was in a big old warehouse. So if you’re picturing a cricket farm with like meadows and barns? They’re not that kind of farm. Most of them — and there are several cricket farms around the country — most of them are in industrial parks. And they’re in big warehouses.

The crickets are raised in big bins with these cardboard “cricket condos” they call them, inside. They eat ground-up chicken feed, things like that, and they are indeed being raised for human consumption.

When I was researching this book I sampled crickets in every iteration you can imagine.

I had sea salt and garlic crickets. Barbecue crickets. Maple crickets (it was a Vermont cricket farm after all). We had chocolate-covered cricket ice cream, and cricket pizza. And of course the big thing with crickets is protein powder! Cricket powder is protein powder just like the vegetable-based protein powders that athletes use. That’s a real product too. We had bread and cookies made with cricket flour — it was fascinating to actually see this farm in action. I got to spend a lot of time with the cricket farmers learning how to take care of crickets, and you know, how to how to try to convince people that crickets are food. (Which is as you might imagine a bit of an uphill battle.)

And I started thinking: what if somebody were trying to sabotage a cricket farm? (For whatever reason). So that became one of the premises for Chirp. Mia’s grandmother owns the cricket farm in the story and as soon as Mia and her family arrive, they learned that Gram is convinced somebody is trying to sabotage her cricket farm. So Mia and her new friends that she makes do a whole lot of sleuthing that summer. A little bit of breaking and entering, and trying to figure out who’s behind this alleged sabotage on the cricket farm.

Jeanie: That pulls us back to this thing you said earlier — I love the cricket farm is a setting by the way. I was really intrigued and ready to try crickets. But before I even get to that question: what was your favorite cricket product?

Kate: I think that the flour is very, very good. You can replace about a fifth of the flour in any baking recipe — your chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal cookies — and you really don’t notice very much. It gives it a nice little protein boost! So the chocolate chirp cookies were pretty great, and I thought that the roasted barbecue crickets were pretty terrific, too.

When I was on a book tour in February for this book — I was actually out for two weeks all around the country right before the pandemic hit, traveling and talking with kids in schools around the country about this book. At the end of every assembly I asked them: “Do you think one of your teachers should try roasted cricket right now?” And of course they went wild. So I had teachers sampling sriracha crickets and maple crickets, and all kinds of crickets imaginable. That was a lot of fun.

Jeanie: Excellent! So, you sort of mentioned this other thread I want to pull or untangle, is this thread about Mia, and how she sort of knows that this way her coach is behaving towards her — whether it’s gifts he’s giving, the way he’s talking to her, the way he touches her  — is not quite right, but she can’t put a name on it.

And this book feels really important to me for that reason.

Like, it’s a story that girls and boys need to read so they can recognize that that feeling isn’t made up. It’s not about them. It feels like being able to see that in a book, especially a book that’s really geared towards fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh graders, is a really important thing for kids. To maybe see an experience that we hope they’re not having (but that they could be having). So I’m just so grateful for that.

Kate: Yeah, thank you. I mean that feeling of looking back and saying, “That felt icky and I can’t quite explain it” that is what many kids experience, you know, when they’re being groomed for abuse or when abuse is first starting. It’s like “this feels wrong, this feels icky” but they don’t have a name for it, you know? And part of that is that we haven’t necessarily taught them how predators groom children. But that’s really important.

So this book really does kind of lay that out. It’s talked about. And my hope is that, you know, first of all: we would love to think this isn’t happening to the kids that we teach and the kids who come to our libraries. But it is. Statistics tell us that it is. My hope is that kids who read this and recognize that feeling are going to recognize,

“This is something I get to speak up about. I can make this stop. I have the power to tell somebody about this. I can talk to a trusted adult and end this. Because my voice matters.”

That’s really my hope for the book. And also my hope for adults who share this book with kids. That it’s going to start those conversations.

Sometimes as adults, we do minimize kids’ feelings. And you know, I was right up there when my kids were little. They would fall down and skin their knees, and I’d be all, “You’re fine! You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine!”

We want our kids to be fine and so sometimes we tell them they’re fine and sometimes they’re not fine.

And that’s when we need to do better listening.

So I hope this this book is one that really starts those conversations. And also will help kids have empathy for one another when friends are going through this. And you know, encourage them that they can talk to one another about this and especially talk to a trusted adult when something just doesn’t feel right, you know? Kids have pretty darn good intuition and they don’t always know how to articulate when an adult is being inappropriate. But we can teach them that. And that’s huge.

Jeanie: That just brings me to a quote from your blog’s that just it’s from a different time but I think it’s really relevant to this and I’m just going to read it. It says:

I understand that school administrators are afraid to talk about tough issues sometimes. Authors are, too. But we’re not protecting kids when we keep them from stories that shine a light in the darker corners of their lives. We’re just leaving them alone in the dark.

Kate: You know, Chirp is about a kid who was being uncomfortably groomed for abuse, by all appearances. But I think it goes beyond that, you know? I have another book called The Seventh Wish which deals with the main character whose older sister is struggling with heroin addiction. And that book has faced some challenges. I’ve had librarians email me and say,” I’m not putting this in my library, because kids here don’t have those issues!”

Well, guess what? You wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t necessarily know. We know that they do all over the country, all over the world in fact. We have this epidemic of opioid addiction.

I think there’s a certain amount of resistance, sometimes, to books that are more honest about the real issues that kids face. As an adult — I mean as a parent and as a former teacher — I understand that impulse of wanting to protect kids. But this notion that if we don’t talk about it that means it’s not happening and it can never happen? It’s just not realistic. It’s not the way it works, it’s not the real world. So I think the very best thing we can do in our service to children is be honest with them about things that happen in the world. And when we do that those kids know that they can trust us to speak up when they need our help.

Jeanie: Your other quote — and these words still resonate with me as they did when The Seventh Wish first came out, and I remember that you were disinvited to a school at that time and so many librarians were appalled by that — these words you wrote at that time, I think are still true today. Whatever so-called controversial issue we’re talking about that is really  a part of the fabric of young people’s lives. You said:

We don’t serve only our own children. We don’t serve the children of some imaginary land where they are protected from the headlines. We serve real children in the real world. A world where nine-year-olds are learning how to administer Naloxone in the hopes that they’ll be able to save a family member from dying of an overdose. And whether you teach in a poor inner city school or a wealthy suburb, that world includes families that are shattered by opioid addiction right now. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. It just makes those kids feel more alone.

I think that you really get at, for me, the power of literature to help kids feel seen. To help kids feel less alone. And to help kids feel like their lives matter. Like their experiences aren’t unique, necessarily. *They’re* unique but their experiences, especially those rough patches? Other folks have gone there. Have gone through that. And they need that aired out so it’s not a source of shame.

Kate: It’s interesting what you just read. I was writing at the time about The Seventh Wish and the issue of opiate addiction, but you could just as easily put sexual assault in there. This is something that doesn’t recognize city boundaries or towns or villages or socioeconomic boundaries. It’s something that affects everybody. Kids of from all different backgrounds have to deal with this. And when a child is sexually assaulted, there’s not some magical line that it doesn’t happen until they turn 14. You know?

I was talking with a friend of mine because I had a similar cancellation before I went on tour for Chirp, which was just mind-blowing to me. This is a book that is specifically designed to say

  • your voice matters
  • and if something happens to you, you get to speak up

And we’re not going to share that with kids? What on earth could be the motive for that? What on earth could be behind that?

I was telling a friend about this and how this library said “Oh it’s too young to talk about this” …and my friend said, “I was five, when that happened to me.”

And my other friend who was there said, “Yeah, I was eight.” Another one said, “I was 11.”

So we need to be having those conversations before the kids are teenagers. It’s just it’s too late if we wait that long. We want our kids to know early on they can always talk to us.

Jeanie: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. Another thing I love about this book is it ties together layers all of these ways that gender discrimination shows up for girls and women. One of the threads I wanted to follow is Gram’s business. And she’s facing discrimination as a woman business owner. There’s a young woman from UVM who sort of faced some discrimination as a female business owner that sort of plays into the story. And then I think that Mia’s mom actually share some experiences. Then one of Mia’s friends is harassed by some man on the beach? So it’s all these layers of gender discrimination that sort of show up that start to make a pattern for these girls that helps empower them.

One storyline that that is really small in the book but I found really impactful? Was about the relationship between Anna and Eli. So, Anna and Eli were on a team at Launch Camp, but Anna left the team because Eli was giving her some inappropriate attention.

Kate: And Eli, in the story, is a boy who’s super cute, and super used to everybody falling all over him. He’d asked Anna hey do you want to go out for ice cream and she said no thank you. And you know that would have been fine, and they I’m sure could have continued working together at that point, but he kept asking and asking and asking. To the point where she was super uncomfortable and chose to leave the team. Chose to just step back rather than put up with it.

This was the team that was building the app, by the way. It was very much a technology-based team. And when we look at the number of women in technology, and the number of women in Silicon Valley versus the number of men? You have to wonder how many women have that interest and decided yeah this isn’t worth it because of that culture that was allowed to continue.

Even if it’s something as simple as just not recognizing that “no thank you” means “no and don’t ask again and again and again” because that creates discomfort. So yeah, that is a thread in the story. And it has a silver lining in Chirp, because Anna ends up working with Mia and Clover and the girls become just such close trusted friends that summer. There’s a silver lining. But you know the other thing that happens is that the team that was building the app lost a really brilliant worker. That’s part of the story too. It’s part of the cost of having a culture that doesn’t talk about consent issues and boundaries.

Jeanie: I believe the girls also talked to Eli about his behavior. And he sort of has this moment of realization that if he wants to be friends with Anna he needs to stop glaring at her, asking her out, giving her that kind of attention. Is that true? Or did I just want that to happen?

Kate: Yeah. They talked back to him — and his mom has a chat with him too — and he recognizes that. And that’s possible. Especially with kids, it’s possible to learn and say “Oh gosh I see why that’s a problem, I see the way that would make you uncomfortable.”

That’s one reason I think this book is really important. I have a lot of people who say oh this is a great book I’m gonna share it with all my girls. This isn’t just a book for girls. It’s a book for kids of all genders. Because that’s an important message: consent and people’s right to be in a space and do what they choose to do without being harassed. It’s really important for everybody.

Jeanie: It’s universal. We all have a right to consent regarding our own bodies. I think that’s so important. Both that boys can be groomed as well and need to learn to have agency over their own bodies, and also that boys could behave like Eli. And there’s something to learn from them for this book.

I don’t know if you’ve read Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. It’s an adult memoir written by Chanel Miller, the young woman who was raped at Stanford by Brock Turner. It’s really powerful. And I kept thinking of that book. It’s written for a much older audience; I would say older teenagers and high school kids and adults. but thinking about the agency that Chanel has in being able to say, “I’m not gonna be defined as a rape victim I want Brock Turner to be defined for who he is as a rapist”.

And turning the tables on that conversation in really powerful ways which I feel like you do with the young women in this book a little. The young women and the older women — the mother and the grandmother as well — they are empowered to redefine themselves and their relationship with discrimination and unwanted touch, unwanted comments and beachgoers, etcetera.

Kate: There’s a lot going on in Chirp, as there is in most of the books that I write. Because when I write middle grade novels, I think about the middle grade kids that I know. And they don’t have one issue happening in their life at a time. They don’t have one thing that they’re focused on. They have a million things going on, right?

And maybe they have a crisis at any given time — whether that’s a dog that has to be euthanized or a sick grandparent or a parent’s divorce or somebody struggling with addiction or some crisis in their family — at the same time they’re managing that crisis they still have to do all the other things they were doing.

They have to go to soccer practice and continue having relationships with their friends. They have to have sleepovers and do their homework and there’s this science project.  So the kids that I write in my novels tend to have all that same involvement. With the actual life made up of many different elements in many different relationships. It’s interesting: I’ve had a conversation with a few people who said there’s so much going on in this book and I thought it might be too much, but it wasn’t.

And when I was working on the book it was really important to me that Mia be more than the girl that this thing happened to.

Her experiences with this coach were based very much on an experience that I had with a friend of our family when I was a child. And I had all those same feelings of being confused and felt icky and didn’t know what to say and what I would even say if I did say something, and figured people would just tell me “Oh, just be respectful and don’t worry about it”.

But at the same time, you know: it mattered and it was harmful.

I had a life going on around that. Women are carrying this stuff around, girls are carrying this stuff around. And when you look at them they seem fine. They seem fine. They’re living lives, they’re laughing with their friends.

One of the really important messages from me of Chirp, one of the really important things when I was dealing with Mia’s character was that she not just be defined by this thing.

Because when real women, real girls are grieving something that happened to them and processing that and trying to work through it?

They’re also baking cookies. And they’re laughing, and they’re jumping off rocks and swimming and playing sports and all these other things. We’re complex humans and there’s room for struggles and joy on the same page. That was really important to me.

I get a lot of mail about this book. It’s interesting that when I wrote it I knew that kids would talk to me sometimes at school visits.

It’s the kid who comes up quietly after everybody else is gone and they say that happened to me too. I tell them I’m so glad you’re here and you’re talking about it. I make sure they’re safe first of all: is this a person that you still see? And usually no it’s some somebody who’s gone or isn’t around anymore. But I say, “Yeah, me too.”

I had anticipated that happening when I wrote the book. What I didn’t anticipate was the number of emails and notes I would get from adult women who had stories that they had never shared. And you know it’s crazy to think that this middle grade novel is the thing that’s going to make somebody say you know I get to talk about that thing that happened to me. Yet those are the notes I get. It’s pretty humbling to think about.

Jeanie: What a gift you’ve given us.

Kate: But it’s a gift for me to have the opportunity to share stories with so many people through Mia. She’s a made up character and yet she’s all of us.

Jeanie: How would you like to see teachers using this book in schools?

Kate: I know a number of teachers and librarians who have shared it as a classroom read or even like a grade-level read. And in intermediate school, it would be a great whole-school read. I always encourage when you’re doing sort of a community read, to get extra copies for family members. Because this is one of those books that is so powerful when talked about at home.

You’re reading the story and you know children’s parents have stories that they’ve never heard. That they’re hearing for the first time, when they talk about this book together. Hearing those stories just opens up the door for any future conversation that might need to happen, that could save a kid.

There is no sexual assault on the page in Chirp.

It is strictly a story about inappropriate attention you know a back rub that’s uncomfortable. And a hug that that is too tight and too long. Texts that come at 10 o’clock at night and maybe have a picture of him in swim trunks, something like that. There’s no sexual assault on the page and yet I’m getting pushback because just the thought of it makes us so uncomfortable.

And I get that. I really do. We hate to think of anything like this happening to our children. But refusing to talk about it doesn’t prevent it from happening. In fact just the opposite. It makes it more likely that a kid might be targeted when they don’t have the opportunity to have those conversations.

Because the subject matter is sensitive I think when you offer families a copy, that invites caregivers into the process. It makes them collaborators! We’re going to talk about this together! And isn’t this great that we’re all gonna have these conversations about consent and speaking up together! That can be really, really empowering.

Not to mention the fact that there could be some great great conversations at home too.

Jeanie: Yeah if we’re gonna end rape culture it has to be in conversations about consent. And I think this is a really powerful tool in our toolbox. I also wondered about collaborating with school counselors. As folks that could come in and help lead conversations about ways kids can be proactive, or how they confined trusted adults. How they might identify trusted with those things like that.

Kate: When I toured for this book I visited something like 20 schools in a week and a half. Many of the schools had my author visit in coordination with presentations from guidance counselors. Some of them had whole programs in place already that deal with sexual assault and consent and they timed it so they could coordinate those conversations. Which is just super, super powerful. It makes the book even more powerful, I think.

Jeanie: I feel like you’ve addressed this a little bit but I guess I wondered: this is not your first time writing about what you called sensitive topics or difficult topics. Topics that challenge adults to think beyond their conceptions of what kids were capable of. And I guess I wonder: it feels like those books emerge out of current events. It feels like you’re really tacked into what’s going on, and those books emerge in your imagination as a way to deal with issues that are happening in our nation.

Kate: I think that’s fair to say. My kids are grown now but when they were growing up we always made it a point to be very honest with them and to discuss things with them. So if they were hearing for example something happening on the news ,whether that was drug addiction or a war or race issues we would have a conversation about it. We’d say: “How did you understand that?” We used books a lot for that but we always had very honest conversations with our kids from the time they were very little.

And that was also very much my experience as a teacher.

I taught middle school English for 15 years. I taught in an 84-minute block with a lot of literature discussion and a lot of discussions about kids writing. Which: kids spill their souls when they write. So we talked a lot.

I would have kids come in at lunch and after school and we would workshop writing pieces and get into these long conversations about… everything. Things that were happening in their lives but also current events.

When you have those kinds of relationships with young people you develop so much respect for them. And for their intellect. And for their capacity to understand things, and care too. Kids have such a strong sense of justice and such a commitment to the world they live in and making it better, in a wholehearted belief that it’s their job to do that. When we recognize that and really respect our kids, how can we do anything else besides be honest with them in the stories that we tell?

I was a news reporter before I was a teacher and very tuned into that. But mostly out of respect for children.

Jeanie: I love that. And I really felt that in this book Breakout, which I just finished and I adored.

I don’t know what took me so long, why I hadn’t read it sooner. It’s brilliant.

And I really felt your respect for kids and your respect for how they share themselves through writing in this book because it’s told from the perspective of different young people and through their written pieces: poems and parody and letters and bits of journalism and comics. It feels really relevant to this current moment because it takes on whiteness and race.

Kate: It’s very much a look at privilege and perspective.

I didn’t know it at the time but I started working on this book the day that two inmates broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in northern New York in June of 2015. Because that that prison break, which lasted for 23 days, just *consumed* the community where I live in northern New York.

The prison where this happened is 14 miles from my house. So for the better part of a month at the beginning of the summer, we had helicopters flying over the house and we were being stopped at roadblocks and it was fascinating to see how this crisis and this scary event brought out the absolute best in some people and really the absolute worst in other people.

I started thinking right away: how were kids viewing this? What was this like to be a kid in this community? And in a community that is largely a white community. There are few minorities in Clinton County, New York, compared to larger urban areas. What would it feel like to be one of those Black kids at this school, with all this happening around them?

Breakout started as a very traditional narrative. My first draft was a very traditional first-person narrative, from the point of view of Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter. I showed it to a couple of writer friends and one of them, Linda Urban, who’s an amazing Vermont writer said to me: “Kate, I love this. I love Nora’s voice, but I’m finding myself wondering what these other characters are thinking. And I wonder: did you ever consider telling this story from more than one point of view?”

And I was thinking, “Well, *no*, and it’s 400 pages of *done* so…”

But that really nagged at me. I got similar feedback from an editor, and so it wasn’t long before I took my whole 400-page book and I set it aside. I started over.

Now, when I tell that story to kids at school visits they’re like: “Whaaaaaaaat?” Because they don’t even want to write the six-paragraph essay over.

But I started over. I decided that a more appropriate or engaging way to tell this story — and a more honest way to tell the story — would be to include this collection of documents from this summer where this wild thing happened, so that you could see all these different points of view and how different they were and how diverse they were. How two people could view the exact same thing completely different. So it’s very much a book about perspective, and also about privilege. What it means to be white in a place like northern New York or a place like Vermont.

Jeanie: There are so many places where I dog-eared this book because I felt like the kinds of conversations I was having with teachers if the end of June at our Middle Grades Institute was all about: how do we talk about race and whiteness with our students? How do we talk to them about privilege and bias? And this book has countless examples of just what that looks like.

I also felt like it’s a very gentle way of complicating maybe the different relationships people might have with police, right?

For example one moment that happens in this book that Nora our white character really has to deal with is when she goes into a market with Elidee, her friend who is Black. They’re asked to put their backpacks behind the counter. And I just love the way Nora has to churn through that and come up with her own response to that over time. It’s not immediate. She doesn’t get it right the first time, but it starts to make her think differently. So I think this book just does a really great job of modeling what happens when we start to notice privilege and bias.

Kate: Nora is dealing with this for a few reasons.

First of all, there’s this prison break happening in town. And one of the men who has broken out of prison is a person of color.

Secondly, she has this this new friend who’s moved to town from the Bronx: she’s African American in a town where there are very few Black people.

And third, her older brother has a girlfriend who’s gone away to college. She’s been coming home with ideas about social justice. So Nora’s older brother Sean is starting to have some of those conversations around the dinner table which are not always welcome, because her father is the prison superintendent. It’s the sort of tension that we see when we try to talk about race with our parents and our older family members.

It’s all right there on the page. All of these tense conversations that are happening, and how to navigate those.

I’ve heard from teachers and librarians and families who are reading Breakout together, and I think that’s amazing. Because it really is important to look at whiteness and what that means to be a white person. We don’t think about race as white people but we should. Because it affects how we walk through the world and how different that is from the way a person of color walks through the world.

But it’s also not a book to read *instead of* books by Black authors. Black authors are the experts on racism.

I see that you have Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi on the shelf behind you. That is a great title to pair with Breakout. Another one would be Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, because it addresses so many of the same issues in a totally different way.

I don’t ever want Breakout to be a book that teachers and librarians and white communities share instead of books by Black authors. That’s not how it should work. But it can be a compliment to them.

That’s a really helpful way of looking at it because it does look at the issue of whiteness and what does it mean and what is your job when you are a white person — especially in a place like many of us live where there are very few people of color. What is our rule? What is our job? And what is our responsibility?

Jeanie: I love that. Own voices stories are super important to me as a librarian and as a reader. I like commit to reading at least half my books by people of color written by people of color.  I wondered as I was reading Breakout was if it was complicated for you to find Elidee’s voice? And what it felt like to write in Elidee’s voice. This is a mentor text, too, because Elidee’s writing poems inspired by Jacqueline Woodson — one of my favorite writers. So I’m curious about what that was like for you to find Elidee’s voice as a white woman.

Kate: So, I would not write a book in the voice of character from a marginalized group. But in that perspective because Breakout is a collection of documents it includes all of the voices in town. It’s probably not surprising to you that this book was easier for me to write the first time.

When I did my first draft I was writing in first person point of view from the point of view of Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter. Nora Tucker is a white girl growing up in a small town. And guess what? Kate Messner is a white girl who grew up in a small town. And my dad happened to be the school superintendent, but still our backgrounds are pretty close. Nora’s voice came very naturally and very easily to me.

When I went back to redo the story as this whole collection of documents, some of which were letters from Elidee and poetry that she writes, I had to start over.

I had to do so much more work and so much more research. I think half a dozen expert readers read the whole book but with a particular focus on Elidee. People who’ve grown up in similar situations, who were people of color and spent time in places where that were mostly white. And I was still feeling like I was missing something and I realized, thanks to one of those expert readers, that there wasn’t enough in the story about who Elidee was before she moved to this small town that was almost all white.

And so I needed to go back and do more work on her background. What was her old community like? Who did she see every day?

I went to New York and spent a day there and I walked around and noticed things. That’s something that I always tell kids I try to do as a writer: I bring my notebook and I try to take in place and pay attention. What would Elidee and her brother have seen on their walk to school? I went to the neighborhood park and I paid attention to the way the four train rumbles over the skate park. Things like that. I went to the bodega and looked at what they were serving and had a chopped cheese sandwich.

I could never write a character like Elidee the way somebody who has that background could. But with Breakout we were talking about smaller chunks of the story. Letters from that character. Poetry. And that was the research that I did to try and do a better job with that.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. That really helps me. I had a lot of curiosity about that when I was reading the book. Now, you recommended Ghost Boys and Stamped. Are there any other books you would recommend for this moment in time?

Kate: So in addition to those books and The Hate U Give for older readers that deal head on with these issues of racism and police brutality,  I think it’s really important to also share books that portray the whole Black experience, including Black joy.

One of the gifts of being an author is I get to visit a lot of schools and see a lot of school libraries. And sometimes when I visit a library in a community that is mostly white and I look at what’s face-out on the shelves it’s books about mostly white kids. Sometimes the few books that are displayed that have people of color on the cover are books about the underground railroad and the civil rights movement. Or books like The Hate U Give or Ghost Boys, which are amazing stories, but there’s something missing there.

There are so many amazing stories that aren’t crisis stories. That aren’t about racism.

We have mysteries and heist stories like Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist and To Catch a Cheat. Or The Parker Inheritance which is a great mystery of Varian’s.

We have amazing fantasy books like Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies series. And in those books yes there are mermaids and yes there are Jumbes, these Caribbean monsters of the forest, but there are also allegories. The second book in the Jumbe series has these mermaids that are connected to the transatlantic slave trade. There is some amazing deep stuff to talk about in fantasy and in speculative fiction.

We have books that are really just about joy and real families. Renée Watson has a new series out called the Ryan Hart series. The first book is Ways to Make Sunshine and it is just a gem of a middle grade novel. It very much reminds me of Ramona, who was my favorite when I was growing up. Ryan Hart is a Black girl growing up in Portland Oregon, just like Ramona was. A gem of a story. It’s sweet and funny and fun and we really need to be sharing the whole range of stories with our kids. Not just those books that feel like they are of this moment.

Jeanie: Yeah that makes so much sense to me and I love Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together so I’m totally gonna check that one out.


Kate: Have you read Some Places More Than Others?

Jeanie: No! But I just saw that one somewhere on a list. It’s a little bit newer, right? I haven’t read that one yet.

Kate: It came out last year. So good! It made me cry and cry though.

Jeanie: She is a beautiful writer, one of my favorites. I also really liked Brandy Colbert’s The Only Black Girls in Town.

Kate: I have not read that yet. I’m dying to.

Jeanie: It’s really sweet! There’s mystery in there too, but it’s a great middle grades one. So yeah…

So the last thing I’m gonna ask you is about March of this year, when schools went remote, you really stepped up in this big way. Now, I know you’re a former teacher I understand why. I used the resource you created, “read, wonder, and learn” to support so many educators that I work with. I pointed so many teachers to that resource, because you shared so many amazing learning resources from authors all over. It was incredible. And I guess I just want to say thank you for curating these amazing resources, for stepping up in such an important way during a challenging time.  I wondered if you had any reflections from that.

Kate: Thank you. You know, as far as the way this whole pandemic began, it kind of seemed like one day we were going about our lives thinking, “Wow this seems like it’s getting weird” and then the very next day, Teachers who were in school with their kids on Friday were told on Sunday: you’re not going back on Monday.

They didn’t even get to say goodbye and their kids didn’t even get to bring materials home. The librarians didn’t get to give kids books. We’re lucky enough in our house to have many, many books all the time. So many houses aren’t like that. So that felt like an immediate crisis to me. In addition to this global crisis with the pandemic we now have this secondary crisis, which is to say we have kids at home without the things they need to learn. They don’t have books.

I was talking with my daughter who I just grabbed from college and we did a couple things.

First of all, we cleaned out all of my author copies. I had several hundred author copies of my novels and picture books hanging around. We just boxed them all up anddelivered them to local schools that were able to get them into kids’ hands right at the beginning of things.

Then I was trying to figure out what can we do to support these families at home? Because when this first happened it wasn’t like anybody had time to plan. It wasn’t like teachers had time to record the stories they wanted to use or anything.

It was pretty easy using social media. Social media drives me nuts sometimes but sometimes it’s a pretty great tool for bringing people together to help. It was pretty easy to say hey who can read a story? So while teachers are getting things together, while librarians are figuring this out, families will have some resources that they can use at home to kind of bridge that gap. That was the real purpose of it. And we saw in the early days these video readalouds were getting you know thousands of hits a day. And then of course you know teachers figured out: okay, this is what we’re gonna do. This is our schools program. But hopefully we were able to bridge that gap.

Jeanie: I loved it. It was really super helpful. I know so many teachers and librarians were grateful, and families too. Thank you so much.

Kate: I’m glad to hear that.

Jeanie: And I thank you so much for taking all this time to talk about not just one book, not just Chirp, but also Breakout, and The Seventh Wish — all your mysteries, all these what they call history busters, history smashers. Thank you so much for taking the time to share the wealth that is you with us. I’m so grateful.

Kate: Well, thank you for the invitation. It was a joy to talk books with you. I’ll do that any day.

Jeanie: Great! A couple of books from now we’ll have to do it again I hope. Thank you so much Kate.

#vted Reads: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads, we are here to talk books for educators, by educators and with educators. Today I’m with Meg Falby and we’ll be talking about two books by Laurie Halse Anderson: Speak, and Speak: The Graphic Novel. We’ll also be mentioning Shout, Laurie Halse Anderson’s memoir in verse.

Lovely listeners of #vted Reads, welcome to another episode.

It is currently the first half of April, 2020, a challenging and re-defining moment for all of us. One that’s unsettling us in ways good and bad — okay mostly bad — but. But.

As we all wrestle with the pandemic and how it’s moving around and through our lives, I’m struck by how much we are all turning to art. We are turning to books and painting and crafting and making and books and music and cooking (did I mention books?),and it’s really reaffirming for a lot of us the vital role art plays in our lives. The ways in which it carries us through dark times and helps pull us toward the light.

Which brings me to this episode.

On today’s episode, I’m joined by Vermont health educator Meg Falby, and we talk about Laurie Halse Anderson’s incomparable books, Speak and Shout. For those of you who are wondering, we talk in the episode about sexual assault and its aftermath. We’re not graphic, but we will talk about emotional impact as it’s portrayed in the books.

While we’re using these books as a platform to examine how educators can talk about consent — living breathing free and thriving consent — this topic might be challenging for some folks, especially the survivors.

We want you, as always, to put your own health first and make an informed decision about listening to the episode. Whatever you decide, we’re proud of you for making it this far, and we hold a space for you to listen, or read, or paint or craft, or sing or …speak.

I’m Jeanie Phillips. I’m awfully glad you’re back for another episode of Vermont Ed Reads, the podcast by with and for Vermont educators.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me Meg, tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Meg: Thank you for having me, this is really exciting! I have been a teacher, this is my 18th year of teaching, a bit of a combination of what we call “family and consumer sciences”. It’s kind of a new age home ec, and my real focus has been on health education.

I started right out of UVM. I got my undergrad in family and consumer sciences education — believe it or not it exists — and I taught in both Barre Town School and Barre City School. Twelve years in and then a  job at U-32 High School opened up, which was really exciting for me because I hold this school in really high regard. And I’ve been here now for six years.

I teach 7th and 8th grade health. I also teach high school health, and that typically is grades 10 to 12. And I teach 8th grade living arts class: sewing, cooking, all that good stuff.

Jeanie: Oh that sounds like so much fun.

Meg: It’s such a fun class! Such a fun class.

Jeanie: I’m really excited to have you on the podcast! I follow you on twitter and I am a fan, but also I just think you’re going to bring a lot to this conversation about these books, so welcome. One of the things I like to ask us right away is: what are you reading? What’s on your bedside table? Because I’m always looking for the next best book to read?

Meg: Well, the number that I came up with was 17? But I think I’m now over 17. I’m one of those people —  at least in the last year — I’ve become “The Collector”. You know how there’s different types of readers? I’m The Collector and I am also a reader that has multiple books going on at one time.

Right now I’m reading this wonderful book called Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality. It’s by Bonnie Rough and she is an incredible writer. You know, to me it’s an adventure story. She and her husband head over to the Netherlands and they bring their children with them. And she talks about just the *vast* difference between the American health/sex ed class and layout versus the Dutch. And it’s riveting.

She’s an incredible writer and there’s so much to it that I go back. I keep going back and back, so the book has literally been on my bedside table for probably six months now. And she just has dropped this little seed of inspiration to do that someday: to take my family and just go to live in Amsterdam and go teach. Or do this amazing research of what it’s like. What we are doing in America, how I am doing as a health educator and what she did.

The other one that I’m reading was actually gifted to me; it was dropped in my mail box here by one of my colleagues at U-32. It’s called How to Break Up With Your Phone. And it hits home so hard that my own self-shame around my screen time usage? Makes me put it down. And then I have to process it and think about it, and come back to it like two weeks later.

Jeanie: These both sound like books I need to add to my to be read pile so thanks for that.

Meg: Of course!

Jeanie: They both sound fascinating and useful.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: Let’s dive in! We have books to talk about.

Meg: We sure do.

Jeanie: Books, plural. I just want our listeners to know that Speak, the original novel — which was published I think 20 years ago in 1999, so 21 years ago (I remember I read it when it came out) and then Speak: The Graphic Novel — which came out just a couple years ago — follow the same storyline. And really the same story told in different formats. They are both beautiful. They’re both really incredible reads.

The original Speak was groundbreaking in that it was one of the early books to talk about sexual assault by an acquaintance for young adults. So many kids have read it. Probably so many of our listeners or adult listeners have also read it. And I just wondered if you might introduce us to the main character in both: Melinda Sordino.

Meg: Sure, so Melinda is 14 and she is on the precipice of high school and a kind of classic 8th grade girl, the excitement of what high school is going to be like… And then she experiences the most traumatic event of her life thus far, in August. And I found myself just rooting so hard for her as a young woman navigating the world of high school.

It’s funny the word, I think, how I would describe her, right? I just thought she’s a *powerhouse* of a human, at age 14. And the journey that Laurie brings us on with her, I find myself rooting for her. But you felt it. You felt the rawness of everything that she was going through, through this insanely traumatizing event that so many people, so many of my students, so many of my friends, and family members have experienced themselves.

…I think of her too, as the classic high school kid: she’s got parents that are fighting, she’s got the annoying teachers that she’s like, “What are you doing with my time, folks? This is my sacred life, I don’t want to be here, you don’t want to be here,” etc etc.

One of her relationships that really hits home is her art teacher, and this relationship that she creates with Mr. Freeman. Where it’s a struggle because art can be a struggle — and should be a struggle —  but she finds that frustration, she kind of meets that frustration, with inspiration from him, and he grounds her in a really deep way. I see Melinda in so many of my students. It’s incredible and that is in one way such a sad, sad thing but it’s also so simultaneously invigorating to know that we as humans, we can get through trauma together. We can do this.

Jeanie: At the beginning of both of the books we know something has happened to Melinda.


Meg: Right.

Jeanie: Slowly the story emerges, through the course of each of the books. And I’ve been thinking about it in a new light, thinking about Melinda; at the very beginning of the book, she has no friends.

She has sort of one friend who’s new, and an ex-friend, right? But she’s really isolated because of the series of events, and sort of the negative publicity she’s gotten because of her actions and — we’re trying not to give spoilers, folks. But she’s feeling really alienated and recently there was an article in The Atlantic that really hit home for me about the importance of friendships in early adolescence.

Meg: Platonic love.

Jeanie: And just *why* they’re so critical to the well-being of young people, and I think as adults we can look and say, “Oh you’re going to be fine! Who needs friends? You’re fine!” but actually kids really need friends. So she’s had this traumatic experience, this traumatic physical experience, traumatic emotional experience and then its compounded by the trauma of feeling completely alienated and unseen in her school.

And so her reaction? Melinda says:

“It’s getting harder to talk. My throat is always sore, my lips raw like I have some kind of spastic laryngitis. I know I’m messed up. I want to confess everything, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to SOMEONE ELSE. There is a beast in my gut, scraping away at the inside of my ribs.”

And then on page 141 in the graphic novel it says:


That connects us very much to the title, Speak, because one thing that Melinda is not doing is talking, talking about it or talking much at all.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: You said you see Melinda in some of your students, and I just wondered if you have any thoughts about her silence.

Meg: It’s so powerful. I think the silence itself represents fear and shame and self-doubt and judgment. I think as a survivor, she maybe uses in her mind “victimization” — she’s been victimized. But really what we see is, she survived this and I think she uses her silence as power. Because without speaking, people don’t know her story; therefore people can’t turn and blame her. There’s so much shame and internal dialogue when one is physically, emotionally, mentally taken advantage of; especially by someone who she “thought” she certainly looked up to and just *adored* as an older person.

I find it so interesting throughout the book who she elected to speak to? And what she elected to say. And how she was very selective in those words. Yeah.

Jeanie: There is a lot going on.

Meg: There is.

Jeanie: She’s reliving her trauma daily in school: because of the way she reacted during the sexual assault, kids got in trouble.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie: People are heaping blame and shame and guilt on her. They ridicule her in school — and then she also has to encounter her rapist at school, on the regular. So in the graphic novel on pages 148 through 151, is one of the times she encounters him and none of the adults even recognize it! Do you want to share anything from those pages?

Meg: I’m going to read.

Heather has another modeling job so I told her I’d hang the posters I made for her. Heather said that people need to see me doing ‘normal’ things around the school so I don’t make them nervous.

And in the graphic novel the artist just shows Andy’s face and his breath on her neck and he says the words, fresh meat.

Speak Laurie Halse

On page 149, in large white lettering it just says, IT FOUND ME.

Like: he’s back. How did he find me? I thought this was just a figment of my imagination. It was a one-time event that I am burying so deep inside my soul, and now he’s here? He’s in the hallways of my school, a place where I’m supposed to be safe and supported and taken care of?

So powerful. Knowing too, that in a building of over 1,000 students — in any high school it could be Vermont, it could be in California — that there are students who have been victimized. There are students who are in fact, survivors. that this very thing happens every day: they’re sitting next to them in math class, they’re in their art class, they’re in their PE class, their locker is four doors down.

Jeanie: I think one of the reasons this book, the original, was so earth-shattering in the young adult literature world was because we still have this notion that a rapist is a dirty old man hiding in a dark alley.

And here in this book, the person who has committed this sexual assault, Andy, is a really popular senior in high school. Girls want to date him. He’s like the life of the party; teachers admire him. So Melinda feels really invisible in her experience, in her lived experience. And also in her whole self. Because she’s not popular; as her friend says, you’ve got to look normal. Nobody knows her story and she’s not popular, she’s an outcast, she dresses in baggy clothes, she’s trying to hide herself.

Meg: Bites her lips, her poor lips. Those raw lips. Grabbing on to anything so that she doesn’t have to speak.

Jeanie: Yes, and so I wondered about, in the work that you do, do you have any thoughts for educators about how they might spot trauma in their students? How do they even recognize, especially, a Melinda who’s trying so hard to fade into the background?

Meg: I’m going to back up a little bit.

Jeanie: Please do.

Meg: Just to say: I’ve been in this gig for 18 years, education. The rise and the fall of what’s trendy, what’s hot, has come and gone, and I think that I want to give a major shoutout to Vermont as a whole state.

But certainly my experience at U-32 — I’ve only been here for six years — but in the last five, I would say we’ve really honored the fact that a child is a whole child, that a student is whole and that doesn’t just mean math scores, and SPARS 360 scores, but that when these humans enter this building they’re coming from a home, they’re coming from a family, they’re coming from an online life, right? An online facade… and I really honor the work that we’ve been doing around social and emotional learning. For me it’s so validating and it’s so solidifying in the work that I do in the health education class because that’s what health education is.

Health education *is* social emotional learning, with some content thrown in, certainly. The fact that I live in a community and teach in a community where we’re honoring that and saying, “Algebra II scores are not going to increase until we talk to these kids about their mental health.” We are not going to have kids reaching for AP classes or we’re not going to have kids passing college prep classes if 17 hours a day out of 24 —  heck 21 hours out of 24 they are wrapped around a fully engaged in how many likes they just got on their Instagram post. Why that person left them on Read on snap chat.

They come into my space; and they come in and maybe I’m playing music and we’ll have like an RP circle prompt that’s kind of funny or I’ll rip a joke or something. That learning objective at the bottom of my board? Where it’s the “I Can” statement? They’re not buying into that. Even in my class. I’m not trying to make myself sound special but when that student is fully engulfed in relieving trauma or processing trauma or dealing with trauma from parents, whether its trauma that their parents have gone through… learning doesn’t happen.

So you have to say, listen learning objectives: I see you, I respect you, I know that this is my occupation and that’s why I’m getting paid, but until you say, we’re going to focus on who we are as humans first.

To get back to the question of how you connect with these students that are our Melindas and our Michaels and our everyone in between? You get to know your kids and that is for some of us easier just based on our personalities, but I think that even watching and working in a high school with physics teachers and art teachers. We’re really supported in the work we do at U-32 to create restorative circles where we start every class, I start every teacher advisory, I start every class. It doesn’t need to be formal.

Like yesterday, with my middle schoolers it was: what’s your favorite flavor ice-cream?

And then I try to write them down. To keep track of *them*, not their answers.

I did ice-cream on Wednesday, so on Thursday I’m going to ask them one of their insecurities — and they *always* have the right to pass. But it’s amazing.

You start off with ice-cream ones, right. You start off with the nice and easy, mild-flavored salsa and then you can get yourself up to questions that really can uncover some of the things that these kids are going through.

Jeanie: So what I’m hearing from you, Meg, and I really want to check, is that: it’s not about spotting individual trauma, it’s about creating spaces that are trauma-informed. That take into account the lived experiences, the emotions, the whole child and all of our students. And that welcomes their whole selves in. It creates levels of support, sort of safety nets, structures through relationships.

Meg: That’s it, it’s all about relationships.

Jeanie: What’s interesting to me is that you sort of mentioned, without all of those relationships and emotional support kids aren’t going to learn. And throughout the graphic novel, Melinda’s report card shows up in various iterations. I’m on page 251,  and it says, “My report card. Student name: Melinda Sordino, Grade 9.

  • Social life: F
  • Lunch: D
  • Clothes: F
  • Spanish: D
  • Algebra: F
  • Social Studies: F
  • Biology: D+
  • English: D+
  • Gym: D+
  • Art: A.”

And there’s so much of what you’ve just said there; like, at the top of her list is really social life, lunch and clothes.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: I suspect that’s a lot for our adolescents. And then at the bottom, the one course she has an A in, the one thing is Art. And she has this relationship with her art teacher. She feels seen by him. She doesn’t tell him her story, he has no idea that she’s been sexually assaulted, but he engages her on who she is on the inside a little bit.

Meg: I think one of the connections with Mr. Freeman, her art teacher, is the fact that she sees him as a human. I think that they have created this safe relationship because she sees him as not just a teacher who comes in at eight in the morning and checks out at three. He’s creating his own art in front of the kids. He’s also ruining his own art in front of the kids, going through the whole process. And I think that’s huge.

I think when we as educators  — with boundaries, clear lines and boundaries, that we are still the teachers —  but when we as teachers can talk about being human, and what that looks like and feels like, before we get to our learning objectives? You’ve got them. You’ve got your audience. Because when they respect you and they know that you’re human, they see it in themselves and then the learning happens.

Its authentic learning. Because when you are authentic with your kids? They are like dogs. They know when we BS, they know when we’re trying to crank through a lesson really quick because we want to check off the box because we need to get the proficiency.

When you step back you say, “I want to do another circle, let’s do another circle, I want to actually get to that.” Or: “We’re not going to get to this today. We’re going to hold off until next class.”

Jeanie: Inviting the full humanity of ourselves and our students.

Meg: That’s it.

Jeanie: It occurs to me, too, that there are two things happening for Melinda in both the graphics novel and the original novel, two barriers that are getting in the way for her to talk about her assault with a friend, with her parents, or with a trusted adult. And I’m curious about you and your expertise around this. One, I’m wondering if a lack of quality sexual education, sex ed, is getting in the way of her even being able to have the language to talk about what happened to her.

And then I’m also really interested in when, if and how we talk about consent.

Meg: *Yes*.

Jeanie: In schools, with our own personal children or with the children we are entrusted with in our settings as educators. So I wondered if you want to speak to either or both of those.

Meg: Sure, I’ll speak to both of them. I’ll start with the first one: did you notice what class was missing on her report card?

Jeanie: Yes. There’s no health.

Meg: And I won’t get on my soapbox and I won’t be the squeaky wheel that I have been for 17+ years, but I think that having a space and a trained, certified professional — just like our English and our math teachers — is very important. To have health educators, from pre-K through graduation.

I am biased and I understand this. But I believe there’s no other space in a student’s day, where you’re just talking about life the whole time. You’re talking about real life scenarios. You’re using case studies, you’re talking about experiences that they’ve maybe previously already had or they will have. Because life in a body encompasses all of health education — it just does.

I say the word “pre-K”, but I’ll tell you as a parent, as a mom to a three-and-a-half-year-old and a six-year-old, the conversation around consent can never happen too early. Ever.

And I think and I try to reframe it as, I call it “everyday consent”: if I want a swig off of your water bottle, I’m not just gonna grab your water bottle. I’m going to say hey Jeanie, can I have a sip of your water? And Jeanie is going to say, Meg no, it’s cold season!

And I’m gonna respect your answer.

Just as if I wanted to copy your math homework and you say: no This concept — and I know someone before me has said these words but the term that I try to live by that I have taught my children and that I teach my students is:

Ask first, and respect the answer.

And you take that into everyday life, around this idea of consent that there’s two people or more people figuring out what works for you, and what doesn’t work for you. I think most of us — and I don’t want to bring gender that much into it — but I think a lot of young women (and women as a whole) are “yessing”. They’re saying yes when they truly don’t mean it. I don’t want to take on writing the front page of the newspaper. I have too much going on with my other classes but you know what, I’m going to say yes, because I don’t want to make too much work for other people. I’m going to say yes so that I don’t let anyone down.

Jeanie: Regular listeners of this podcast and people who know me will not be surprised that I’m going to bring up compliance culture. I’ve been thinking a lot about — and I am not guilt-free in this — I’ve been reflecting a lot on my years as an educator and as a parent, and thinking about the times where for convenience or efficiency, I just needed my son or my students or my to comply. I’ve been thinking about how the persuasion, the pushing for “please just do this it will be easier for all us” is actually teaching the opposite of consent.

And I’m wondering how often in schools we are un-teaching consent in the way that we force for lack of a better word, certain behaviors or decisions on our students. Because usually it’s about time.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie:We feel rushed. Like we have to do a bunch of things and we just don’t have time to get there on your own time. Or it’s about convenience and this notion that — I think I thought this as a new educator — that my classroom should look compliant.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: And so I’ve really just been thinking about the way compliance gets in the way of things. It gets in the way of self-direction but it also gets in the way of understanding that my body is my body and I get to consent or not.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: And that other peoples bodies are their bodies and they get toconsent or not.

Meg: Even as early as two days on the planet.

Jeanie: Yes.

Meg: Talking to our students and modeling us as well, it’s really important that body sovereignty is taught as soon as they are out of the womb. There’s been a lot of press on this, this idea of respecting the fact that little Mera doesn’t need to go give grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunty a hug, if she doesn’t want to. And as the parent of this toddler, preschooler, I need to ensure that they know that she has body sovereignty.

I’ll tell you: just last night, my six-and-a-half-year-old son when I asked him?  I snuggled, and we read. I sang some songs, I tucked him in, and then I asked him, can I give you a kiss? And he said no thanks

And then my heart broke and I cried on the inside, and I gave him a hug, instead. He said, “Hugs and handholds, that’s it. That’s all I want now.” And I’ve gotta talk the talk and walk the walk. It’s got to happen.

Jeanie: I wondered, Meg, if you would share with us any resources or ideas you have about teaching consent? Especially to middle schoolers. And I’m really thinking grade say 4 to 12.

Meg: Absolutely. I was lucky enough, I can’t tell you how many years ago, I was asked to be part of what they’re calling the Vermont Consent campaign.

I wasn’t one of the creators but I was an educator and I was asked to look over this curriculum that could be used. It’s literally called the Vermont Consent Campaign. And one of the pieces that I’ve used, I think, with my 5th and 6th graders,  but piggy-backing on a puberty lesson, once you’ve gone through the basics of hygiene and body growth development, and  kind of checked that box — I would always move into just healthy relationships. Friendships, parent relationships, ‘‘dating relationships’’. One of the definitions on the handout that I’ve given to my students for years now, is that their definition of consent means, quote:

“At the time of the act there are words and physical actions indicating that everyone freely agrees and really wants to do the same thing.”

Checking for consent is a process, that each person needs to keep doing. I’ll bring it back to the water bottle example. If you say no on Monday, I might on Tuesday say, Jeanie how about that water now, I’m still really thirsty! In which I’m going to assume Jeanie is going to say, Meg, it’s time for you to get a water bottle, do you want me to show you where I got mine?

And teaching the fact that, yes people can change their minds at any time. Let’s say you did say yes on Wednesday; it doesn’t mean on Thursday I get to take a swig of your water bottle without asking.

Jeanie: If I handed you my water bottle right now, Meg, (I don’t know where it is but) if I handed it to you and then as you were putting it to your lips I say, “Wait a minute! Didn’t you tell me you have a cold?” and I took it back…

Meg: Yes! Is that consensual? Of course it’s not. Because, as humans, whether you’re a one-year-old or a 112-year-old, you have the human right to change your mind at any time. And one of the things that the Vermont Consent Campaign does so beautifully is they basically lay out these five components, and they say that before you engage in any type of sexual activity, you have to have your partner’s consent.

The five pieces are:

Number one: Sexual consent can only be freely given — keyword *freely* given if there’s a sufficient balance of power in the relationship.

And that brings in the age of consent. We talk about that, we dissect the age of consent is 16, however, in the state of Vermont there is, I call it the high school clause (I could be making that up) but if both partners are between the ages of 15 and 18, they can legally consent any type of sexual activity.

The second piece is that both people–

and wherever I teach this I ask my students to envision a middle school relationship or even like a freshman relationship, okay?

Sexual consent can only be freely given if both people are aware of the consequences of sexual activity, both positive and negative, and they know what will happen next.

Meaning there’s been decisions around protection, there’s been decisions around birth control if someone has a uterus. There’s been a conversation about what type of touch is okay. Both people understand what it means for them to be in a relationship together. And gosh isn’t that really hard to think about a 14-year-old having these conversations!

And what is the difference between a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old mentally, emotionally–

Jeanie: Developmentally.

Meg: Developmentally, yes.

The third piece is: it’s safe to say no.

Consent can only be freely given if it’s safe to say no. If, in the back of anyone’s head there’s that little voice that creeps in and says: gah, but they’re going to post this, they’re going to post something on a group chat about my body or they’re going to tease me or they are going to put pressure on me, everyone is doing it, I told you I loved you — with ANY of those, it still has to be safe to say no.

Number 4: If you say yes, you can change your mind at any time.

You could be intimate. You could sexually be very, very intimate with a person and if your internal working, your gut feeling is that, this isn’t right it has to stop. And your partner has to honor that. Nobody wants to be with another human that doesn’t want them to be there! I’d like to think that. I want to have great faith in humanity.

Jeanie: I’m the mother of a son. And I’m a feminist. And I have spent a lot of time in my now 20 years of motherhood, thinking about the kind of son I want to raise and my values. We’ve talked also in the past, (he’s all grown now, he probably would be modified to hear me talk about this) but enthusiastic consent.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: The importance of enthusiastic consent. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about — a friend drew this to my attention — is the Ted Talk about the gendered way in which we talk about sex with our children.

Meg: Sure.


Jeanie: There’s a tendency to talk to boys about sex in a way that it’s “Pf course, you’re going to want to do this, it’s going to be fun”. But then we talk to girls about it as if it’s not going to be fun.

And so I think that ignores both various kinds of masculinity and femininity, and also so the fact that girls already are given a message that its probably not going to be fun, or that you shouldn’t have fun. Or that you’re a slut if you have fun.

Meg: It’s going to hurt, you’re going to get pregnant, and you’re going to get chlamydia.

Jeanie: Right. That its dangerous for you and that it might not be fun — I think also muddies is the water for experiences of like, “Was I raped? I had never expected it to be fun…” That internal gut feeling that you’re talking about of like, this doesn’t feel right — I think we often give the girls a message that it’s not supposed to feel right.

Meg: Yes.

Jeanie: I think it’s a really important concept to think about, the nuanced ways in which we gender sexual experiences and talk about it differently. Not even “we”, but the media. The stories that are told, widespread about who gets to have fun, who doesn’t, I think muddy the waters for consent just like our lack of understanding, the bits and parts.

Meg: That’s it.

Jeanie: And the whole picture of sex ed.

Meg: To come to full circle of this role of alcohol.

Jeanie:Yes please.

Meg: Talk about muddying the water! And in fact that fifth piece? The 5th component that the Vermont Consent Campaign identifies is:

The only way sexual consent can be freely given is if both parties — all parties — are not under the influence of anything.

If someone is drunk, if someone is high, if someone has popped some pills? That prefrontal cortext of decision-making, it’s not kicked in, right? In particular with alcohol. And so with Melinda chugging down those three beers of which she admitted to hating the taste, but she knew I’m sure, right after that first one went down, she felt the effect of “Wow, this is a little freeing, I feel kind of good!”

Jeanie: Less awkward.

Meg: “I’m not awkward in my skin!” There’s a question for the high school component of the Youth Risk Behavior survey that asks students what percentage of them had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs during their last sexual experience and I’m going to have to go on and get the exact number, but it’s there.

Jeanie: It’s staggering!

Meg: I wouldn’t say staggering,  but it’s a really good place to jumpstart a conversation with students. One of my students said to me years ago, the words “liquid courage”.

And I said tell me more about that without using personal stories.

And he said, “Well, I think we are all just really awkward, Meg, and I think that anything that we can do to just kind of loosen up, and also” —  this is pretty poignant — “anything that we can do to help support the bad decisions that we make later in the night, we’ll take it.”

So this crazy concept of hookup culture and of this one night thing of: “I’m going to get wasted and I’m going to hook up with that rando who is in my Chem Lab, but I’m going to go to that crutch of alcohol and say I was so wasted, when the gossip mill starts. ‘Did you hook up with…?’ I don’t even remember, I was so wasted!”

It’s what some of these students are turning to as an excuse. For Melinda, I think she was using that liquid as a way to just feel “normal” or like, okay for a minute.

Jeanie: Like she fit in.

Meg: Like she fit in. I think the bigger conversation we have to have with our youths is alcohol! And the American culture and what is has done and how it’s just like bread and butter. You go to a party, you eat food and you drink, any adult party, take the ad lessons out of the picture, look at our adult culture and think about how hard it is. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this but how incredibly challenging it is, even as a level-headed adult to say the words “no thank you” even after someone has offered you a glass of wine at a dinner party.

“Oh you’re not drinking? Oh what’s wrong, are you pregnant?”

Like, I’m well adjusted, I’m a health teacher. No thanks, I’m not interested and I’m practicing inter-personal communication, I’m practicing setting boundaries. But what if I was 14-year-old Melinda? Would it be as easy? Of course it wouldn’t! But we don’t accept no; as a culture we hate being turned down.

Jeanie: I think this leads to our next question related to the book. There’s expectations of who we are — I was a nerdy high school kid who didn’t drink in high school and so I had to live with labels like “prude” (and I imagine that probablyisn’tthe word kids use nowadays.)

Meg: Oh they use that word.

Jeanie: You get labeled when you say no thank you.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie: And probably as an adult too: “killjoy”.

Meg: Killjoy, buzz kill.

Jeanie: Now, we talked about Andy Evans, our rapist in the book, he projects one kind of masculinity sort of a dominant kind, the kind we think a lot about.

Meg: Certainly.

Jeanie: But David Patracas offers this much different version of masculinity, and it’s quite this contrast. I know that you run a group for boys to talk about masculinity, and I just wanted to invite you to talk more about that. Because I want us to really think about both masculinity and femininity as a continuum and not even as mutually exclusive but as many ways you can be in the world. So I want to invite your expertise.

Meg: Yes! It’s in its first year, this group is called Nuts and Bolts ( I’m going to give a shoutout to my loving partner and husband for coming up with that creative name!) It originally came from Teen Health Week. And on Sexual Health Day — Teen Health Week is five days long, each day dedicated to different realm of health — one of my colleagues said Hi Meg,  why don’t we offer spaces like just-for-gals, just-for-guys and I think we had “non-binary-pals”. Just to ensure that we are  honor space with an adult where you can just talk about freely what’s going on in the world of being a girl, or in the case of Nuts and Bolts, being a boy and what masculinity means.

It was an incredible response. We had about 25 or 30 boys sign up for the offering.

So, total Peggy Orenstein fangirl. And through reading a lot of Peggy’s work through this Health Week I started to think: we are losing the boys. I’m losing the boys, we need to get the boys. And we need to make a space that we can talk about it all. This group meets twice a month, it’s the first and third Friday of the month, it’s a 45 minutes band of time, I went into it with great detail and I reached out to some of my amazing twitter folks that are out in Chicago and California that are doing the same very work just to not to reinvent the wheel her, but when the rubber actually met the road and I started advertising it to say, hey it’s a callback with Meg. Meg, our female-identified health teacher is going to run a masculinity group!

I reached out to my male teaching partner and reached out to some of my male colleagues. I and said, hi! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I can facilitate a group — and I will ultimately be the fly on the wall — but  a group of young men can create a Q&A session with males in the building to talk about what it’s like to be a man. And to talk about women and what masculinity means to them.

Jeanie: I love this so much. How is it going?

Meg: It’s fluid, like one week I could have eight kids and the next week I could have 20. It’s always this open invitation to say, it works in your schedule, with your call back schedule come in, if you’re not feeling the vibe within the first five minutes then you’re always free to leave.I t’s just that kind of: you’re in control of whether or not you want to be here or not.

And one of the first times we got two really amazing colleagues here at U-32: JB Hilferty and Nick Holquist  JB teaches middle school and social studies and Nick is an English teacher at the high school level, and they created these questions.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

I prepped them to say:

“If you had free reign and were able to ask a group of U-32 teachers, coaches, and staff members anything about masculinity and about being a man, what would you ask them?”

I created this Google Doc, and I sent it to the boys. I wouldn’t say that they *all* wrote back, (they certainly didn’t) but it was really interesting to see what types of boys took the lead. And we had questions like:

  • What were some of the stereotypes that you grew up with about being a man?
  • How has life changed, from being an elementary school boy to a high school young man?

And in this case both of our first interviewees, JB and Nick, talked about being a dad. They talked about getting married and how things changed and shifted for them as they started to put on different hats.

It was so powerful to just watch the boys. They were so engaged, you could hear a pin drop. But the fact thatit’s such a wide range of boys, you’ve got boys that are acting, you have boys that are doing hip-hop classes, you have boys that are playing football, you have boys that identify as gay.

Jeanie: This is bringing me such joy.

Meg: It’s really awesome! It’s really awesome. Let’s take a space to talk about what healthy masculinity can look like.

Jeanie: Yes, you are a wealth of expertise and resources and I know you’ve got a ton of listeners that Meg has provide this huge list of things were going to put in the transcript, so you can follow up and think about how this impacts your work with students, whether you are a health educator or not or whether it’s about your relationship with your own children.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: One last questionI want to ask you before we touch on Shout, which we haven’t discussed at all yet.

Meg: Sure.

Jeanie: How would you use Speak, either the graphic novel or the regular novel, in the classroom?  How might you use it?

Meg: The beauty of it is that it is used in our 9th grade English classes. Students have a choice. And the way that I was involved in this is that the English teachers invited me in. It was one of the first times I had worked collaboratively, kind outside of my health silo, if you will. We didn’t really dig into the book a lot. They asked me to come in and really unpack consent. Because at least in this school, most high school students are in their sophomore year when they take health, sophomore or junior year, and so having the opportunity to go in and talk to a group of freshman about Melinda’s story and Melinda’s rape and the lack there, of consent. And like I had said the life components that we must have and the age of consent — it was just really powerful.

Jeanie: Yes.

Meg: And I think it’s really great for our students to see that there’s so much overlap with so many of our subjects, like I’m in my English class and I’m reading this book , that’s Meg, she’s the health teacher. And I brought it up separately in myown high school class, when we go through the basics of healthy relationships and covering consent: how many of you in 9th grade in your humanity class read Speak? It’s the majority of our students, even if they’ve taken their own time to read it now with the graphic novel, which is so incredible.

Jeanie: I love the graphic novel and I was reluctant because I love the original. Back when I read it it was new. And when I read the graphic novel I was shocked at how it hit me with the same force and power, even though I knew the story.

I think one of the reasons I want to pull in Shout, which we haven’t talked about yet, which is Laurie Halse Anderson’s memoir, written in verse (a book I just adored with all my heart) is that it just came out. What’s important is that Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Speak without ever talking about herself. It took her 20 years to come out and say, actually that book was about my personal lived experience.

It’s a testament to the shame we carry when we are survivors of sexual assault. The way that it’s not always but for many people hard to talk about. We grapple with it for years and years and years.

When the time was right, Laurie was ready to share this and to share her own personal experience through verse. And I think that’s really powerful for kids to see somebody come out the other side and be willing to talk about it, to speak up, to shout about it from this platform.

But also there’s a lot in here about healing. What it looks like to heal from sexual assault. Because Speak is really about the pain of sexual assault.

And in Shout, we really get to see Laurie Halse Anderson share how she got through it in the long run. And I thought I just share one poem from this just gorgeous book, this one is on page 24 and its called “chum”.  I think it’s related to many of the conversations we’ve had.

Speak Laurie Halse Anderson

This really resonated for me.

I think Laurie Halse Anderson and I are not the same age, but I am closer to her age than probably you are. And sort of the culture that I grew up with was: boys will be boys. When I was in middle school I lived really rurally, and I felt very afraid of the young men in my community, in my rural community.

And I went from a free, whirlwind girl who went out on her bike or hiking in the woods with such great freedom in my body to being a little bit afraid and avoiding things that I used to do, because I might run into the neighborhood boys who might ridicule me, who might make me feel threatened. I don’t know if there are pockets of that culture that still exist, but that poem brought back all of those feelings, all of those emotions — those remembrances of staying in the shallow end — back for me and in such a real way. And if I were to use this in the classroom I would be tempted if not to read all of Shout with students, then to at least isolate some poems to compliment speak.

Meg: You’re inspiring me and I will.

Jeanie: You’re inspiring me! We’re having a little mutual appreciation party going on here, and we’re running out of time. I could talk to you for days.

Meg: I agree.

Jeanie: I wish I could! You all should see Meg’s classroom, with the most tremendous ,wonderful picture of Lizzo.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with us, Meg, before we wrap up?

Meg: I just want to thank you. This has been one experience! Thanks for doing this work, thank for finding me on twitter, thanks for the twitterverse.

Jeanie: You’re hard to miss on twitter! Thank you for all you’re doing with students, for all the ways you’re making me think, and for all the resources you’ve shared. It’s been such a delight, I’m so excited about this episode! Thank you Meg!

Meg: It’s been my pleasure, thank you.