Middle grade fiction about pressing problems, prejudice, and social inequality

Good teachers and librarians know that literature can help inform children about social justice and other issues around the world. And there are many authors and many thoughtful middle grade books that open readers’ minds about such problems. Here are some excellent choices that should be a part of classroom and school libraries.

Two Degrees by Alan Gratz

Children’s author Alan Gratz doesn’t shy away from difficult topics and at-times gruesome scenes in his middle grade fiction. “Refugee” is one of his most powerful novels as it spans decades while sharing the plight of child refugees in different times and locations. In his newest release, “Two Degrees,” he brings to the forefront an issue that becomes more pressing as each year passes with no discernible improvement: climate change. Like “Refugee,” “Two Degrees” is written from the points of view of different children, although all the action takes place within the same year. We meet Akira, who lives in Northern California with her family and who sees the results of climate change with the constant threat of wildfires in the forest outside her home. Her father is a climate change denier, and to maintain the household harmony, she doesn’t argue with him. When they are caught in the middle of a wildfire that consumes even the giant sequoia trees that her father had claimed would be impervious to fire, she knows she has to do something. Far away in Churchill, the “Polar Bear Capital” of Manitoba, Canada, Owen and his best friend George help Owen’s family out on their sightseeing bus as tourists come from all over the world to see the polar bears. In the fall, the starving polar bears gather in Churchill to return to the ice to feast on seals. But the ice is forming later in the fall and melting sooner in the spring, causing the bears to stay on land longer, hungry and trying to find food to survive. When polar bears and humans meet, it’s a dangerous situation for all. Owen is oblivious to climate change except to think that the longer the polar bears are on land, the better it is for his family’s tourist business. But when he and George are stranded and hunted by hungry polar bears, he begins to think about what climate change is doing to the land and place he loves. And finally, there is Natalie, who lives in Miami. As children and adults read her part of the story, our thoughts naturally turn to Hurricane Ian, which destroyed so much in Ft. Meyers and Naples, Florida, just a week before the book’s release. The hurricane in the novel takes place in Miami, which, according to the information shared in the story, has not suffered a direct hit from a hurricane for many decades. If Ian had hit Miami, as the hurricane does in this novel, the death toll would have been much higher. Through Natalie’s eyes we see how different families from different economic strata are affected by the results of climate change. With more frequent intense and destructive hurricanes, the consequences are more dire for those who live on the edge. For families who rely on their week-to-week salaries, losing a freezer full of food and losing work due to the devastation left in the hurricane’s wake can mean going hungry, not having a place to live, and years of trying to rebuild lives before the next hurricane causes the same horrendous destruction again. Natalie’s story gives us a glimpse into the lives of those who are so sorely affected by climate change and the ever-more-severe weather and hurricanes that are the result of such changes in weather and climate. The novel’s ending mimics the ending of “Refugee” when we see how all the seemingly disparate locations and kids from the different coasts of North America are connected. Gratz points out how we are all connected—all of us—no matter where we live. It will take all of us doing something, big or small, to ensure that there is a livable world left for future generations. It’s a somber message, but it’s created and shared in a touching, emotional, and powerful narration. (Scholastic Press)

Thirst by Varsha Bajaj

“Thirst” by Varsha Bajaj takes readers to Mumbai, India, where Minna lives with her family in the poorest neighborhood. There, water is a luxury, and families line up to collect their share from a communal faucet. There is no indoor plumbing, and unlike the tall apartment buildings where the wealthy live and have plenty of water and air conditioning, Minna and her family struggle with just sending her to a decent school and being able to afford the tuition. A government school might have 50 children in a classroom, and there would be little chance to continue her meaningful education. Thanks to her mother’s employer, Minna is able to attend a better school, and she has plans for her future. But when her mother gets sick and goes to stay with her mother in a different town, Minna must take over collecting the water and working her mother’s job. Will she be able to continue to do all that and attend school? What about the man she and her brother saw stealing water? Is her family in danger? What can Minna, a twelve-year-old girl from an impoverished family do? The plot and dialogue flow smoothly and effectively, and we keep reading because we want to find out what Minna is able to do to solve the problems she faces. The other characters in the story are all relatable, and we feel Minna’s heartbreak when she confronts the horrible prejudice that has been a part of India’s culture for generations. This novel brings up an important issue facing the world: Is there a right to clean water? With water reserves drying up because of climate change, this issue is something that the generation of kids who read this book will be forced to deal with. In America, we take clean water for granted even though studies are also showing that much of our water has harmful additions of forever chemicals in it. Perhaps, books like this one will open minds to the essential need we all have for clean water. (Nancy Paulsen Books)

We Were the Fire: Birmingham 1963

While “Thirst” takes us across the ocean, “We Were the Fire: Birmingham 1963” takes us back in time to a critical year in the struggle for civil rights. Shelia P. Moses depicts the unrest and multiple protests during that pivotal year — 1963— when children literally filled the streets protesting discrimination and inequality in Birmingham, Alabama. The events in this fictional account of that crucial year are told through the eyes of twelve-year-old Rufus, who lives in Birmingham with his mother and sister. His father was killed a few years before while working in the steel mill. The family has yet to receive the insurance money it’s owed after his death. Moses clearly portrays the day-to-day degradation of Black lives in the deep South. They live in a Black neighborhood, and their white landlord will not even paint the tiny houses, which lack indoor plumbing. This engrossing novel will feel relatable to young readers as Rufus shares his feelings when someone courts his mother, when they move into a new house with a white neighbor who is kind — which itself confuses Rufus — and when he disobeys his parents to march for freedom. It’s a powerful read and one that would be an incredible read aloud in a 5th or 6th grade classroom, wherein weighty discussions would certainly ensue. (Penguin Young Readers)

The Life and Times of Hoodie Rosen

Although “The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen” by Isaac Blum is listed by the publisher as appropriate for ages 12 and older, I believe this is certainly a book that fits in this middle-grade grouping. Its focus is to demonstrate how too often we view people as “others,” and how easy it is to just accept the prejudices and mores of the culture into which we are born. It’s about a group of Orthodox Jews moving into a small town in New York from the town they had lived in, which had many Jewish families and synagogues and stores. In the new town, they open a school, a synagogue, and a Jewish grocery store. But our main character, Yehudah, also called Hoodie, knows his father is trying to build a large apartment high-rise for other Jewish families who want to move to that new town, Tregaron. The locals are not thrilled. In fact, the mayor, Mrs. Diaz-O’Leary, and her supporters have decided to block the project. Yehuda doesn’t really care. He’s busy at Yeshiva school, where half of the curriculum is studying what “normal” kids might study, like math and science, and the other half is Jewish law and the Torah, the Jewish holy book. In fact, we learn a bit more than we might care to about ancient Jewish laws, which are still the laws to which Orthodox Jews adhere. Yehuda isn’t interested in any of his studies, but when he meets Anna-Marie Diaz-O’Leary, the daughter of the mayor, his life is turned upside down. Orthodox Jewish males are prohibited from talking to or touching any female unless it’s their sister or mother, and are certainly forbidden from consorting with a Gentile (non-Jewish) person. Yet Anna-Marie and Hoodie become unlikely friends. In this story, which touches on prejudice both from within the Jewish community and from the others in the town, readers will follow Hoodie as he considers what Jewish rules are, what common decency is, and what he believes. Warning: there is a shooting as the plot unfolds, so teachers and librarians should be aware that this event might be a deeply emotional trigger for the all-too-many students who have experienced gun violence. I’m thinking specifically of the tragic recent event in Highland Park, Illinois, the shooting during the 4th of July parade, and of the many children who have witnessed or been affected by other devastating mass shooting attacks. (Philomel)

Please note: These reviews are based on the review copies provided by the publishers for review purposes. This reflects my honest opinion.