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COVID–19 Teacher Diary: Three Middle Grade Novels to Nurture Student Connection

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Written by York Region District School Board Teacher-Librarian Geoffrey Ruggero

If you’re looking for middle grade reads with strong, inspirational, female protagonists, then pick up any one of these absorbing novels by Michelle Kadarusman. She combines her intimate knowledge of places she has called home, with elements of art and nature, and the difficulties of growing up, to create stories that create a connection between reader and character.

Whether sneaking around a quiet library, dealing with the hustle and bustle of a big city market, or standing in the depths of a jungle, Kadarusman’s intense attention to detail makes the reader feel as though they are immersed in the setting. Students will be swept away to different parts of the world in each of her novels, and they will no doubt look to make deeper connections to the learning that comes with reading her books.

During a time when teachers are looking for unique ways to connect with their students, each of these books would work well as a shared read-aloud that offers different paths in terms of extending one’s learning.

Girl of the Southern Sea introduces the reader to 14 year-old Nia, living in the middle of Jakarta, Indonesia. With her mother gone, a father that has a drinking problem, and the responsibility of caring for a younger sibling, the odds seem stacked against Nia. Having to overcome one obstacle after another would be enough for any teenage girl to conform to the expectations of her society. But Nia is a gifted storyteller, and she has dreams of sharing her talent with the word. Themes of honesty, perseverance, and responsibility will keep the reader engaged until the very end.

Learning Connection: While reading this book, it is apparent that many families who are new to Canada would be able to make strong connections to some of the characters and settings. It would be wonderful to have students read Nia’s story, and then seek out, and connect with refugees living in their neighbourhood. This could lead to a greater understanding of how it feels to leave home with the hope of fulfilling one’s dreams.

In The Theory of Hummingbirds, Alba has had to grow up enduring the difficulty of being born with a club foot. Young people just want to “fit in”, and Alba is no different, but her unique circumstances pose a difficult challenge. Along the way, she discovers that being ordinary is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

This year, instead of helping to organize and run the school’s annual run, she wants to participate. Determined to prove her doctor, mother, and friends wrong, she will stop at nothing to be in the race. Kadarusman weaves helpful advice about dealing with the stress that comes with growing up throughout the story. Maintaining close relationships, and persevering to overcoming difficulties, are issues that all young people can relate to. Alba’s story can inspire young readers to deal with these challenges in a positive way.

Learning Connection: Being inclusive is a prevalent topic in schools. While reading The Theory of Hummingbirds, teachers could use the strong example set by Alba as a way to show that anyone is capable of anything. Important lessons and connections can be made and students could use this story as a way to share their own stories of how they have to persevere despite obstacles.

Kadarusman’s latest novel, Music for Tigers, takes the reader deep into the jungles of Tasmania. Louisa is sent there to spend the summer with her Uncle Rufus. Naturally, she’d rather be back home in Canada, practicing the violin in order to prepare for an upcoming tryout. Much to her surprise, the trip turns out to be profoundly eye opening as she learns about her family history, and a secret they have been keeping from the world!

Learning Connection: The connection between art and nature plays an important role in bringing the story full circle. This novel would be an asset for educators looking to bring their teaching outdoors, and encourage students to find their own connections between nature and art.

Fighting for the survival of animals near extinction is an ongoing battle. Teachers could use this book as a way to connect their students with the many species that are on the verge of extinction. It wouldn’t necessarily have to take them around the world, as there are animals close to home that are close to suffering this fate. This is the type of learning that can happen remotely, and I’m sure students could create amazing media to show their learning, that can then be shared digitally.
Any one of these amazing stories can be the catalyst for some amazing student inquiry!



Since jumping at the opportunity to become a Teacher-Librarian, Geoffrey Ruggero has transformed the Learning Commons at a Maple Public School into a modern learning space. His passion for reading and making inspires students to bring their learning to life in many unique ways.

>> See all COVID–19 Crisis Teacher Diary posts

April 15, 2020
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