4 middle grade books about compassion and the two-legged underdogs among us (some with wings)

Middle grade novels are not just the next step for children in the reading process. From picture books to adult books, good writers try to imbue their stories with positive messages and important ideas to consider. These four pieces of fiction aimed at readers from fourth grade through middle school accomplish all that and more. Each deserves a special place in school libraries, on classroom bookshelves, and at home.

coo“Coo” by Kaela Noel is a sweet fantasy, although not about your typical fairies and magic beings and events. This is, instead, an almost-realistic fiction — if pigeons could talk to people and raise an infant successfully. Coo, the girl who was abandoned as an infant and raised by the loyal flock of pigeons, has a dilemma. When Burr, her best friend in the flock, is injured by a hawk before Coo can chase away the predator, she must decide whether to face the humans on the ground and try to save Burr or stay safe on the roof in the abandoned dovecote they call home. But she knows a pigeon who cannot fly dies quickly, and she cannot bear the thought of Burr dying. So begins Coo’s adventure as she descends from her home on the roof and ventures into the world of humans. What Coo realizes about birds and about humans will give readers cause to reflect on the idea of compassion. Some humans think of pigeons as nothing more than rodents with wings. Coo knows differently, as does Tully, the human who takes her in and who heals pigeons. This sweet story will have readers contemplate how humans often are cruel to creatures they don’t understand. The book must be read with a willingness to put aside the fact that pigeons could not have provided an infant with nutrition, and it must be read with a desire to appreciate the universal truth that almost all animals have needs similar to ours — the need for companionship, affection, safety, and love. (Greenwillow Books)

“Parked” by Danielle Svetcov is a surprising story of haves and have-nots. It’s narrated byparked two twelve-year-old children, a boy named Cal and a girl named Jeanne Ann. The story begins in May, and we learn that Jeanne Ann stays at the Chicago Public Library branch near her home until it closes while she waits for her mom, a cook in a restaurant, to pick her up. Jeanne Ann doesn’t mind because she loves to read, and the third voice in the story is made of the letters from the librarians at the library who send her letters about her overdue books (with a list of the books she was reading) and include a personal note about how much they are worrying about her. Jeanne Ann’s mom suddenly quits her job and buys an old orange van on its last legs to take them to San Francisco in search of a better job as a chef. Her mom loves cooking and is sick of working in a diner where she’s underpaid, underappreciated, and overworked. But arriving in San Francisco with no money (it all went to buy the van) and no job means that they park along the waterfront and live out of their van while Jeanne Ann’s mom looks for work. In the meantime, Cal, who lives in a fancy house across the street from where they are parked, is trying to make a statement. He saves quarters and uses that money to feed the parking meters of the homeless who live in cars parked across the street. He also does something that he feels is important, but which ends up causing friction between Cal and his mom, who owns and runs Greenery, the upscale vegetarian restaurant down the street. Against all odds, Call and Jeanne Ann become friends. It’s summer, but what will happen in the fall when school starts? Where will Jeanne Ann fit in? There are other characters who bring more depth to the story: Mac, the chef at Greenery; both moms; Principal Dan from the local middle school; Sandy, the mysterious man in the van parked behind Jeanne Ann’s; and many more. There’s a lot of serendipity, a lot of stubbornness, and a lot of fabulous reading in “Parked.” Consider teacher read-aloud, book group, and kick-off for a project on homelessness. This would be a great choice when paired with “Crenshaw” by Katherine Applegate. (Dial Books for Young Readers)

pippa“Pippa Park Raises Her Game” by Erin Yun is also certainly about an underdog. Pippa’s mother is from South Korea, and when her work visa expires, rather than take Pippa back to South Korea with her, she leaves Pippa with her older sister Mina and Mina’s husband, Jung-Hwa so that Pippa can grow up in America. While Mina is strict, she and her husband take excellent care of Pippa, although they decry her passion for basketball. Pippa lives to play basketball, and as a result, her grades are slipping. Mina has refused to allow Pippa to play basketball for her school for a year until her grades improve. So it’s quite a surprise when Pippa is offered a scholarship to Lakeview, a private school, so long as she plays on their basketball team. Pippa has her suspicions about who recommended her, but she’s thrilled at the chance to get to play basketball and the chance to attend the luxurious private school. Pippa is determined to reinvent herself, and she doesn’t let the kids in her new school know that she’s from the public school they make fun of. When she’s invited to join a small group of snobby girls, Pippa is thrilled, but also nervous. What will happen if they find out that her aunt has a laundromat and her uncle works in a factory? There are twists and turns, heartstrings will be pulled, and readers will root for Pippa to face all challenges and come out on top. The unexpected surprise is that there are those she helps along the way. The publisher says this book is a contemporary reimagining of ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens for middle graders. On its website, there are additional resources for teachers. (Fabled Films Press)

“Someplace to Call Home” by Sandra Dallas is an historical fiction novel about the Greatsomeplace Depression. When the Turners’ parents die, they are left orphans in the middle of the dust bowl, which renders their farm useless. As they take to the road in their old car, they try to find work to pay for food. But it’s not a time when a bunch of kids looking for work are welcome anywhere. And a few jobs here and there aren’t going to provide for them long term. Tom is the oldest, and he takes it on himself to provide for Hallie and their young brother Benny, who has Down Syndrome. Hallie desperately wants to go back to school so she can finish eighth grade. When they find a farmer willing to let them camp on his land, will it last? There are plenty of twists and turns in this gripping story, and as in all good historical fiction, readers learn a lot about an important era, in this case the Depression and how it adversely affected so many of its virtually helpless victims. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on books provided by the publishers for review purposes.

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