I just finished reading two middle grade books that I loved so much, I would say they could be the best books I’ve read in a long time, and I read a lot of books. They touch on so many important and crucial themes right now—for children and adults—like resilience, family, friendship, and learning to understand and even get along with others who think and see things differently than we do. I was going to read more books and write about them all but there is so much to say about these two, I just couldn’t wait!
I grew up reading and loving Judy Blume, so when I started reading Danielle Daniel’s first middle grade novel, Forever Birchwood, I was in my element. Wolf, the protagonist, is almost 13 years old and lives in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario with her mother and grandmother. Her grandfather has recently died and the women in her life are not seeing eye to eye on a lot of things—especially their relationship to nature and their Indigenous roots. Wolf wishes her mother would be more like her grandmother and feels they have less and less in common. Nothing makes Wolf happier than the adventures she and friends share in the woods until one day they start seeing orange bands on some of their favourite trees and realize their beloved forest may be in danger. The family and the friends are going through many changes while trying to hang on to one another. The language Daniel uses is clear and beautiful, putting you right there with Wolf as she tries to save the people and place she loves.
Lawrence Hill’s Beatrice and Croc Harry blew me away. It centres on themes of friendship, family, and searching for one’s roots. Beatrice wakes one morning alone in a treehouse in a forest she doesn't know. She remembers nothing but her first name. The treehouse is filled with books she reads to slowly uncover how to return home—wherever and whatever that is. She befriends and can somehow speak with a crocodile, a rabbit, and a rainbow! Her adventure involves finding clues and passing tests with her new friends, along with learning to work with their differing personalities and opinions. Hill plays with language that keeps Beatrice learning new words along the way and is beyond delightful for the reader.
In the classroom, readers ages 9-13 can talk about how both books show the importance of trees, as living beings in our world. These novels will spark discussions about the importance of accepting that others are sometimes going to think very differently than we do, but that we need to figure out how to get along and work together. This is perhaps the most challenging and important lesson. Students can discuss this and work together towards seeing things as more than just “right” or “wrong,” to look deeper and understand and empathize and be curious.
Indigenous beliefs are at the heart of Daniel’s novel and Hill speaks so beautifully of racism in his. Neither book is without heartache but both writers are exceptional in their ability to write heavy topics with humour and joy. I am pushing these books on everyone in my family right now and they would be beyond brilliant as read alouds in elementary school classrooms.
For more books about friendship, searching for one’s true self, and adventure (with animals!), try these middle grade books!
My Best Friend is Extinct by Rebecca Wood Barrett, illustrated by Cornelia Li
Eight Days by Teresa Toten
The Gift of the Little People by William Dumas, illustrated by Rhian Brynjolson
Step by Deborah Ellis
For the Record by Monique Polak
Firefly by Philippa Downing
Birdspell by Valerie Sherrard
Like a Duck by Deborah Kerbal
Finding Home by Jen Sookfong Lee, illustrated by Drew Shannon
On The Line by Eric Walters and Paul Coccia
Water, Water by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Jon McNaught
Rabbit Chase by Elizabeth LaPensée, illustrated by KC Oster
Sarah Campbell has worked as an elementary school teacher and a children’s programmer and library assistant. You would think working at a library would keep her from buying all the books, but it doesn’t. She lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her husband, their sons, and dog, Bingo. You can follow her at Pink Fish Reads.
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