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Intro, Summary & General Questions

Summary:


Eleven-year old Isabella lives in two worlds. She’s a double-backpack-carrying child of divorce, so she lives with her mom one week, and her dad the next. In addition, she’s bi-racial, and she sees herself as the caramel swirl milkshake that resulted from her mom’s vanilla and her dad’s chocolate ice cream. Izzy is an accomplished pianist, and as she practices for a crucial recital, the black keys and the white keys of her life combine to create an unexpected symphony of race, terror, and finally peace.
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Reviews & Awards

BLENDED [STARRED REVIEW from Publisher's Weekly!]
By Sharon M. Draper

(Atheneum/Dlouhy, ISBN 978-1-4424-9500-5, 10/30/18, Fall 2018 catalog)

Timely and genuine, this novel chronicles a biracial girl's struggle to define her identity and find her voice amid personal and societal expectations. After her parents' divorce, competitive pianist Isabella, 11, divides her time between her white diner-waitress mother and her wealthy black father. The constant back and forth and her family's tense weekly exchanges cause her intense stress, as do the micro aggressions Isabella experiences regularly. When a history class discussion about student protests and the history of lynching ends with a noose being placed in a black classmate's locker, Isabella's awareness of racist behavior skyrockets, as does her need to define who she is for herself. Draper (Out of My Mind) doesn't shy away from challenging or uncomfortable topics; police aggression, gun violence, the complicated nature of divorce, and socioeconomic imbalances are all candidly addressed as real and important parts of Isabella's experience. Readers will identify with Isabella's journey to stand up for herself, especially to her parents, whose constant arguing and clear dislike for each other often overshadow her needs: "Chocolate family meets vanilla family in the artificial reality that is a mall," Isabella says. "Caramel daughter caught helplessly between the two."



Blended

Sharon M. Draper

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018

Grades 5-8 – Draper Bravely Goes where a respected middle school author needs to go-Straight to helping young readers deal with the racial issues and violence affecting them right now in middle school

While young adult literature including well regarded bestselling authors James Reynolds and Angie Johnson have boldly tackled the tough racial tension issues in their novels, Ms. Draper has reserved these wrenching "front page" social issues for her young adult teen books. Yet her latest work, called "Blended" and on the surface about an eleven year old growing up within a shared custody – two houses- alternating week arrangement, also goes with ongoing racial tensions and inner tensions children of mixed races share, as they struggle to identify or be identified as one or the other .

Why I chose it: Author Sharon Draper is noted for young adult and juvenile writing. A reader who expects a solid narrative with characters whose voices touch the heart, is not disappointed by this new work. Eleven year old pianist Isabella is caught between the joint custody of two loving divorced parents. Each week Isabella navigates a different economic, racial, cultural and emotional world as well as loving "step" parents. This arrangement makes her all the more "relatable" for students who bring to class not only academic skills, but social, emotional and identity issues from "blended" family structures. Isabella is lucky in that her parents each have secure jobs, new partners and stable spaces. Yet being a "mixed" beloved child of a blond tall mother and a handsome African American dad has its own set of ongoing cultural and racial identity struggles. Her practice instrument for a major upcoming piano recital is either a Casio Keyboard at her mother's home or a Steinway piano at her father's upscale residence. These vastly different in musical quality instruments metaphorically represent the two worlds Isabella at a tender age has to balance each week before even tackling middle school required assignments ,crushes and puberty. Isabella has a slew of racially mixed friends, but at various moments is inadvertently reminded by them that she is a biracial person. Even when the reminder is an awkwardly formed left handed compliment about her physical prettiness because of her biracial genes, Isabella is jolted emotionally , not quite certain how to take the compliment.

What I like best about this work: Sharon Draper uses her talents to infuse this wonderfully "voiced" story with the harsh race relations issues including a noose in a black child's locker and an African American male stopped while driving a car for no reason other than his color- that are at the crux of the news. Indeed she gives a shout out within the work to contemporary author Jason Reynolds and to Langston Hughes' whose 1926 poem "Cross" perfectly captures Isabella's existential dilemma of affirming as either black or white or ??? The Hughes lines quoted: "I wonder where I am going to die,/ being neither white nor black" resonate for Isabella when she studies them in her English class as they will for growing numbers of readers who come from multi-racial and multi-ethnic backgrounds. Draper is not didactic but allows Isabella to include the readers in her well narrated search and to have necessary conversations with the set of 4 adults- rather the standard nuclear family pair, who nurture her evolving responsible decision making and cushion the racial and the emotional pain that comes with her pride in being bi-racial. Readers of any age emerge from this very realistic story with confidence in Isabella's talents in music as well as her inner strength to move forward to blend music notes and socially "synthesize and harmonize." The work emphasizes how important openly sharing feelings and questions about school and news events is for an emerging adolescent. In addition, Draper, a former teacher models a very positive set of middle school administrative and staff responses to the discovery of a noose in a black female student's locker which goes viral of course. The students being allowed to come up with the idea of decorating the school with hearts to counter the hatred and the teachers openly discussing the incident in class and aligning it with poetry and American civil rights study are exactly the proactive reactions that instruct and engage young citizens.

How teachers can use this work: Students can react to both Langston Hughes' "Cross " poem and Isabella's to communicate pulls of culture and race that are inherent in their background history. They can share memoirs or incidents in which they personally feel they have been noticed negatively for their racial or ethnic surface background and not for their individual characters or persons. They can also interview their parents and older siblings for insights on how their surface identifiable racial or ethnic background has affected their shopping in stores or eating in various restaurants or being selected for jobs or other social opportunities. They can interview family sports team members or those who work at large work sites to examine the extent to which they feel race or background play a role in how they function and accepted as team members. The story and its school based "noose" plus the student response of Hearts displays throughout their middle school can be paralleled by researching actual middle school racial incidents and how the school staffs and students peaceable react to them.

Draper, a pianist herself, provides a link to the piece Isabella is practicing for her recital in the author's note https://www.youtube.com/watch?v)_Ksi2qmWQA. Students can listen to it and create visual analogues for it or suggest video that fits it. They can also research and create a playlist for future readers of the book- Draper only provides a few online sources- so they can listen to the range of music that Isabella explores beyond the few web sources in the back material of the book. Students who are musicians or vocal performers can research music that reflects their ethnic and racial background and develop a playlist for their own personal listening.

Student musicians or performers preparing for recitals can compare and contrast their practice and preparation with Isabella's. The story also includes incidents where middle school students are watched closely in expensive mall stores. Students can debate how stores might justify that watch and how students of various races can peaceably protest it.

Of course, as mentioned before young adult literature is full of headline driven racial equity plots. More mature student readers can compare Isabella's reaction to these events with older teens in Jason Reynolds' All American Boys or Angie Johnson's The Hate U Give. They can consider the extent to which the response to the events in this work targeted at middle school is perhaps deliberately softened. They can also decide which of these three works offers more applicable to real life strategies for countering violent and non violent racial hate. Colby Sharp , a fifth grade teacher in Michigan provided his review of this book which students can react to https://youtu.be/ppWA0m57r74. They might film a video for uploading to their web site reacting to his review. They can also react to the review of Blended on https://childrensbooksheal.com/2018/12/03/blended-by-sharon-m-draper and post a comment on the site itself or have their teacher post comments using their first names. Either reaction allows student readers to be part of an online community discussing this book.

Students will also enjoy reading a Publisher Weekly article in which Sharon Draper and Jason Reynolds interview one another about their October 2018 releases-for Draper Blended and for Jason Reynolds- Lu- the last of his track series for middle schools

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrensauthors/article/78408-in-conversation-sharon-m-draper-and-jason-reynolds.html. Students can reflect which remarks Draper makes about her intent in writing Blended and her use of piano key as a melding metaphor for the varied cultural notes of life, mesh with their own readings of this fictional work about real life tensions or react as persons or readers to what Draper says. They can also pick out comments made by Reynolds to Draper which they would ask as well or react to his comments as an author,

Students can also compare and contrast this book to others they have read which deal with peers who are actually targeted in these racial incidents or affected by them because of where they live or the affect on older members of their families. They can compare the extent to which reading Blended or these other Young adult or juvenile works helps prepare them to deal with the actual crises in their lives o does not help. Students can use imovies or just shoot a video or tape a 90 second sound byte as a trailer for Blended (surprisingly for a new work by a major author, it does not have a book trailer) inviting their peers in middle school to choose the book and explaining why it is interesting to read and helpful in dealing with reality. These trailers can be posted on the school website or shared with the local public young readers librarian.

Draper dedicates her book to : "all young people who must meld and merge. . .create family fusion." As students involved involuntarily in the merge and blend read this work, they can take inspiration from it- that while the blend may not be smooth , they will not be absorbed as independent persons by it. Rather within the process, their person identities will surface and perhaps be enriched by the process of melding. This message as well as the beautifully crafted fictive narrative are vey needed in the real world. Those who oversee the use of these middle school audience books in public schools or public libraries need to realize that in our society, racial hatred and violence do not limit themselves to young adults grades 8 and up. Since sadly very young children and middle school students are victims or bystanders to this behavior and pain in their own lives, they need the guidance and healing storytelling of seasoned authors such as Draper to provide works students, their teachers and caregivers can use to open up a flow of discussion and strategizing so needed in our middle schools. Blending cannot happen spontaneously, well written and well thought out works of fiction can serve as the pots of exploration for "cooking up " the blend that will sustain students as persons and nourish a healthy social balance.

Dr. Rose Reissman

New York, New York



Blended [Review From Shelf Awareness]
By Sharon M. Draper

Five-time Coretta Scott King Award recipient Sharon M. Draper (Out of My Mind, Stella by Starlight, Panic) offers a timely middle-grade novel that addresses divorce, racism and identity in her trademark empathic and accessible style.

Isabella Badia Thornton is an exceptional pianist, has two fabulous best friends, is obsessed with making glitter slime, and has loving, supportive parents. Unfortunately, her parents are not so loving with each other anymore--when Isabella was eight, they divorced. The adjustment was challenging, of course, but now Isabella (or Izzy, as her mom calls her) is 11, and things have gotten rougher. Her dad, who had been living in California, moved back to Ohio last year and the court has ordered that she spend alternating weeks with each parent: "Sunday, at exactly 3:00 p.m., in front of the Apple Store at the mall, I am exchanged like a wrong-size pair of jeans.... they love me and all that, but it doesn't stop them from slicing my life in half every seven days." Her parents are fighting more than ever and the tension is unbearable, especially when both make plans to marry their new partners on the same day.

Underneath the stress of feuding parents, however, is Izzy's dawning awareness that having a black father and a white mother brings an array of complications. "Do you think people think I'm black or white when they see me? Am I black? Or white?" she asks her father. He replies, koan-like, "Yes." And when her black friend Imani finds a noose in her locker after a classroom discussion about lynching, the issue is suddenly even more immediate. "What if next time someone hurts Imani, like physically?" Izzy wonders. "Or someone else? Who looks like her. Who looks like...."

When she considers herself in the mirror, Izzy sees both her parents. "It's like half of Dad and half of Mom got put in a blender, and the churned-up result was me," she says. But a blended family is not as smooth a mix. The back-and-forth trudge between households is disruptive and confusing. "The real me?" she asks. "I have no idea who that is. Especially since there's pretty much two of me."

As Isabella, cheerful by nature, struggles to navigate the year's challenges, she finds solace in practicing for an important recital, not unaware of the symbolism of the keys of her instrument. "Using only my fingers, I can make the black and white keys dance together and do whatever I want," she thinks.

Blended is a graceful novel about family and identity that will enlighten and entertain readers. Draper's insight into the world of an 11-year-old girl is uncanny. Isabella is by turns silly and bewildered, anxious and confident. But when a racial incident even more shocking than the noose throws her life into the media "horror story of the day," Izzy's family finally pulls together like a Beethoven sonata: "White keys./ Black keys./ Blended perfectly." --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor

Shelf Talker: An ebullient 11-year-old struggles to inhabit her identity as the child of divorced parents--one black, one white--as racist incidents in her community creep ever closer to her own world.



Blended [Review From BCCB]


Her parents' divorce means eleven-year-old Isabella shuttles back and forth between her dad's household and her mom's every week. While she likes her parents' new partners and her older stepbrother, Darren, she dislikes being torn between two places that don't feel like hers, and she's increasingly concerned about being the only mixed-race member of her mom's white household and her dad's Black one. Even at her young age, she and her friends experience micro aggressions and sometimes downright aggressions based on their skin color, making Isabella aware of and frustrated with the disparate treatment. Isabella is an appealing narrator, and through her the book touches on myriad issues of both class (her mother and Mom's boyfriend are blue collar, while investment banker Dad and his interior decorator girlfriend are solidly well-heeled and upper middle-class) and race. Her devotion to her music—she's a skilled pianist preparing for a big recital—provides one of the major throughlines; that's a helpful consistency, since the plot's episodic nature sometimes undercuts the impact of an individual event even while it makes the book particularly accessible. Draper also creates an effectively harsh contrast between Isabella's everyday preteen challenges and the racism she encounters, especially in the culminating near-tragic encounter with the police. This is therefore an honest and approachable title that touches on serious issues of family, society, and identity at a level Isabella's age mates can understand and in ways to which they will relate.



Blended Review [Review From School Library Journal]

Gr 4-7–Eleven-year-old Isabella is biracial; her mother is white and her father is black. Other people sometimes describe her as "exotic," but she doesn't think of herself that way. Isabella is also from a blended family. Her mother, a waitress at Waffle House, has a serious boyfriend, a white guy who drives a truck, manages a bowling alley, and has dozens of interesting tattoos. Her father is a successful corporate attorney who drives a Mercedes and has a serious girlfriend, who is black, an interior decorator with a son that Isabella is looking forward to having for a big brother. Her parents share custody and each Sunday they meet at the mall and do "the exchange." Mostly, it's done curtly, without talking, so Isabella "hates, hates, hates it." She finds solace in playing the piano and practicing for a big recital. Shifting between two sets of parents, no matter how much she cares about them and how different their lifestyles are, is hard. As new tensions begin to rise, Isabella works to find her place in the world. Draper has a way of speaking to the heart of tween concerns. The dialogue is realistic and the alternating chapters between Isabella's time with her mom and dad underscores the protagonist's discomfort moving back and forth between them. The story could have ended there and worked well as a frank, honest portrait of a modern, blended family. But a dangerous, racially biased event near the end of the novel offers a deeper exploration of the unique struggles faced by young people of color. While the event is disturbing, Draper writes with grace, compassion, and respect for the intelligence and emotional lives of young readers. ­VERDICT This is Draper at her best, penning a current and ultimately uplifting story. It deserves a place on library shelves along with her other outstanding works.–Carol Connor, Cincinnati Public Schools, OH

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Study Guides


A Reading Group Guide to


Blended
By Sharon Draper

About the Book

She’s Isabella to her dad and Izzy to her mom. She plays a fancy piano at her dad’s large house, and a portable keyboard at her mom’s small one. Spending every other week with each parent and their significant other, she’s a “kid sliced in half.” And since her dad’s black and her mom’s white, her identity and her relationships seem even more complicated. Isabella knows she’s loved, but the hostility between her parents and the complexities of juggling two lives make things challenging. Luckily, when things get hard, she has her deep love for the piano, two great friends, and a soon-to-be stepbrother who has her back.

Discussion Questions

1. After finishing the novel, go back and reread the dedication. Why does Isabella feel it’s important to try to “meld and merge, synthesize and harmonize, to create family fusion.” What does the author mean by “family fusion”? Do you think Isabella and her family create fusion by the end of the book? Explain your answer. Can you relate to any of Isabella’s family dynamics? Why do you think it’s important to have supportive people in your life?

2. Find examples throughout the book where Isabella uses music and musical terms, especially harmony, to talk about her blended family. Why is music a good metaphor for her situation? How do piano keys specifically reflect her life?

3. The first chapter opens with seven words that evoke the senses. Talk about the words, including the made-up word, boomble. What do you hear or see when reading each of the words? Why do you think the author started the book this way?

4. Isabella lets the reader know early on that she feels like “a kid sliced in half.” She also makes the related comment, “There’s pretty much two of me.” What is it about Isabella’s situation that causes her to feel this way? Do external and internal factors play a role? How would you react if you were in her place? Discuss whether this feeling changes over the course of the book, and if so, how.

5. How would you describe the relationship between Isabella’s mother and father? Give examples that illustrate your description, and analyze why her parents act like they do. Why does her father call the police in chapter 54, and how do Isabella and her mother react? Why is this an important moment?

6. Of her mother, Isabella says, “Mom is sensitive, so I have to be careful.” What are some examples of her mother’s sensitive nature? What does Isabella keep to herself so that she doesn’t make her mother feel bad? What are the consequences of trying to protect her mother instead of expressing her own needs and preferences? Have you ever been in a situation like this? What advice would you have for Isabella?

7. Describe Isabella’s father, including his personality, work ethic, strengths, and weaknesses. What is his relationship like with Isabella? Identify times she enjoys being with him, and discuss why. What makes Anastasia a good match for him?

8. When Isabella teases her father about ironing his jeans, he explains, “I think it’s important we look our very best at all times.” By “us,” he means “people of color . . . Black folks.” What incidents in the story show you why he might think that way? How does that make you feel? How does his approach to looking his best contrast with Isabella’s mother’s way of dressing? Why do you think that is?

9. Describe Anastasia’s personality. Give specific examples of what she does to welcome Isabella into the house she shares with Isabella’s father, and what Isabella likes about her. Do you think Anastasia treats Isabella like her daughter? How is she different from Isabella’s mother? How does Isabella feel about having a stepmother? Do you think adding a new family member can sometimes be a difficult adjustment? Explain your answer.

10. Describe Darren’s appearance, personality, interests, and hopes. How does Isabella feel about him? How does he treat her? What brings them closer together? What kind of qualities make for a strong friendship or sibling relationship?

11. Talk about John Mark’s personality and circumstances and his role in Isabella’s life. How does he reach out to Isabella to show he cares about her? How does he approach his proposal to Isabella’s mother? Discuss the format of chapter 43 and how it reveals Isabella’s uncertainties about John Mark’s proposal. Do you think Isabella is right to be concerned? Do you ever find it challenging to voice your opinions, especially to adults? Explain your answer.

12. A salesgirl says to Isabella, “You are so pretty—really exotic-looking!” Then she asks, “Are you mixed?” Clint later says, “Mixed kids are always pretty.” Discuss both of these encounters, explaining what they show and why they are upsetting to Isabella. How could the salesgirl or Clint have better handled these situations?

13. Recount the incident with the noose in Imani’s locker. Think about what happened in the classroom earlier that was related to the noose. How does Imani react on both occasions, and why? What does the school do about the incident? What does the incident show about at least one of Imani’s fellow students? How does Isabella feel about what happened? What might you do to make Imani feel safer and respected at school and in the community?

14. Isabella’s father explains to her that in stores, “Black folks are followed more often than others” by security people. How does Isabella feel about this? Relate it to the incident when Isabella and Imani go into an upscale store at the mall and the security guard asks them to leave. How do they react? Why don’t they tell Imani’s mother about it? Are you surprised to see kids your age treated this way? Why do you think people stereotype others?

15. It comes as a shock to Darren and Isabella when they are pulled over by the police and accused of robbing a bank. Describe the episode in detail, and think about why it escalated so quickly. Why do the police throw Darren on the ground? Why does the police officer shoot her gun? Analyze the scene in terms of how it affects the two young people and what it shows about racism. What actions don’t you agree with? What actions do you agree with? How could the police have acted differently?

Extension Activities


The Real You
Mr. Kazilly assigns an essay called “The Real Me,” saying, “I want each of you to consider your personal identity. . . . Each of you is uniquely wonderful. I want you to think about that as you write.” Ask students to write a four-paragraph essay using this same theme.

Musical Notes into Words
Mr. K. also introduces the class to Langston Hughes’s poetry. After reading some of his poems, Isabella says, “Poetry is kinda like my music—it paints a picture in my head, only with words.” Have students research poetry, finding different styles, formats, and poets. Ask them to identify a poet they like, and select one poem by that poet. Using this poem as a model, have students write their own. Then have a class discussion about their experiences writing their poems, and whether they felt the same way as Isabella. Consider having volunteers read their personal poems or their favorite poet’s poems aloud, and discuss the differences between reading and hearing a poem spoken.

The Music Is Me
In chapter 47, Isabella uses vivid imagery to describe the way music makes her feel. Review the two-page chapter with your students. Then choose a selection of music to play for the class and have them react to the music by jotting down sentences and phrases like Isabella does, making the language as vivid as possible. Have a class discussion to share their responses.

Black Lives Matter
The scene where Darren and Isabella are pulled over and a police officer shoots her gun is unfortunately similar to incidents across the US in recent years. Have students work in pairs to identify and research cases of police shootings of unarmed black children or teenagers. Each pair should prepare a presentation for the class about the facts of their case, the effects on family and community, and the consequences, if any, for the police involved. Finish with a class discussion about groups speaking out against these injustices, and any steps that are being done on local or state levels to address and try to prevent future incidents.

Two Families Blend
How are Isabella’s two families and households alike? How are they different? Have students each create a large Venn diagram. Where the circles intersect, they should put Isabella/Izzy’s name and the similarities between her two homes. They should label the other parts of the circles as “Mom’s House” and “Dad’s House” and fill in the space with descriptions of the differences between these two places.

Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a youth librarian for seventeen years who chaired the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She now gives all-day workshops on new books for children and teens. She tweets at @kathleenodean.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.