OAKLAND -- Students in Oakland middle schools are getting a new book -- and it's not a textbook.
It's a novel called "Oakland Tales," a time-travel adventure through the past and future of the city itself.
By author Summer Brenner, "Oakland Tales" encourages students to understand the roots of their own neighborhoods and how things can change, for better or worse.
"Her reason for writing it is to help give kids a sense of place,"said Ann Gallagher, district librarian for the Oakland Unified School District.
The book, which was published this spring, follows Jada from West Oakland and Ernesto from East Oakland. Struggling to cope with the realities of their lives, the two find a strange time-travel device that takes them backward and forward in the city's history.
"Oakland Tales" is being made available free to teachers and students at all Oakland middle schools, along with a district-developed curriculum.
"I got excited about it right away because I learned so much about Oakland," Gallagher said.
In the book, despite a strong family, Jada struggles to cope with a father in prison. Ernesto has turned from his gang community to find a new path, while dealing with both parents deported. Brenner chose those situations deliberately to make the book, which is illustrated by Berkeley artist Miguel Perez, resonant to Oakland youth.
"Those are two very common challenges on the ground that the kids are dealing with," Brenner said.
For Brenner, researching that history was addictive.
"I spent two-and-a-half years researching Oakland -- which isn't enough," she said.
Her journey took her everywhere: from Ohlone Native Americans' settlements through the navigation trees that once loomed on the hill, and from historic Chinatown through the wartime music scene.
"My friends got really bored," she laughed.
Much of this history ended up in the book -- which has a hefty appendix -- but not all of it.
"I resisted because I realized the kids need to come at this history more obliquely," she said.
The book is loosely connected to Brenner's "Richmond Tales," a similarly conceived book that was used in the Richmond school system.
Not only was it a successful part of the curriculum, it spawned an oral history project, an annual festival and even a play based on the book. The success of the project meant expanding it to Oakland seemed like an obvious thing to do.
Like "Richmond Tales," the Oakland book was published with the help of Community Works, an organization based in Temescal that focuses on restorative justice and the arts.
"It's really been a project of the heart," said Ruth Morgan, head of Community Works.
Community Works, which also published "Richmond Tales," raised the money from foundation grants.
"They were actually probably more instrumental in getting the book to print, because OUSD never has any money, you know," Gallagher said.
But from the beginning, the Oakland school district was receptive to Brenner's ideas.
"When she first approached OUSD about this, she went in with the idea that it would be part of the school curriculum if possible," Gallagher said.
The lesson plan -- which was written to the new Common Core standards that were recently rolled out nationwide -- teaches students to engage with the text and answer questions like "Why do we focus on differences, and how does that lead to misunderstanding and missed connections?" and "What can we learn from our past, and how does that impact our current decisions and future?"
According to district literacy specialist Nancy Lai, most of the books have already been given out to schools, which can decide at what grade level they want to teach it and when to do it.
Brenner was collaborative about the book, sending drafts out and soliciting comments from everyone who knew anything about Oakland. It's that kind of expansive effort that has made the book authentic and popular.
"She wanted to be sure her voice was true to character in the book," Gallagher said.
The book is already on the OUSD summer reading list, and the district invited Brenner to speak at its end-of-school-year library party.
"We're hoping it's going to take off and be a great hit with the community," Gallagher said.
The students already reading "Oakland Tales" have given it a thumbs-up, according to Sarah Altschul, a literacy coach at middle school Elmhurst Community Prep. The seventh-graders liked the first chapters enough that Altschul has already started a lunchtime book club to discuss it further.
"There was an overwhelmingly positive response from the kids," she said in an email.
The book will be officially launched at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the Temescal branch of the Oakland public library, where storyteller Awele Makeba will read from the novel.
The book was also to be celebrated Tuesday at City Hall with a resolution sponsored by City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Vice Mayor Larry Reid honoring the book.
" 'Oakland Tales' is not only a fabulous work of young adult fiction, but a tool by which Oakland's rich and multicultural history is told for all," McElhaney said in an email. "I saw the incredible impacts that 'Richmond Tales' had in the city of Richmond, so I'm incredibly thrilled that Summer and Community Works chose to write about Oakland."
Morgan and Community Works also hope to raise more money to do book giveaways so children can have a copy of their very own to read outside of school, too. The book is also for sale by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We're hoping that it will get in the hands of families," Morgan said.
For Brenner, it's been a long journey with "Richmond Tales" and "Oakland Tales," but it's one that keeps going -- she's still promoting the Oakland book as well as looking at possibly creating a template that other communities could use to create their own "tales."
And Brenner hopes that reading "Oakland Tales" will not only give children a way of thinking positively about the future but also encourage them to dive into reading.
"One book doesn't change the world," she said. "But one book leads to another book."