Sunday, August 22, 2021

Inspiring Young Environmental Advocates: 6 middle grade novels (ages 9-14)

Environmental issues impact and threaten our lives in so many ways--from raging fires to supersize storms. Here are six novels that tackle some of these issues, whether it’s through showing characters fighting to protect endangered species or setting survival stories in the wilderness impacted by changing climates. 

Willodeen
by Katherine Applegate 
Feiwel & Friends / Macmillan, 2021
Amazon / your local library (scheduled to be published on Sept. 7, 2021)
ages 9-12 

Eleven-year-old Willodeen feels a connection to all kinds of animals, and has an adorable hummingbear (a cross between a hummingbird and a polar bear) as a pet. But Willodeen believes that all animals play an important role keeping nature in balance -- even the detested screechers. As her community struggles with environmental disasters (from the fire that killed Willodeen's parents to the disappearance of hummingbears), Willodeen has to overcome her intense shyness and figure out how to speak up for the animals she loves. I especially appreciate how Applegate mixes gentle fantasy with an important environmental message and creates a character I connect with so strongly (my 9-year-old self wants to be Willodeenn!)

Paradise on Fire
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown, 2021
Amazon / your local library (scheduled to be published Sept. 14, 2021)
ages 10-14

Addy joins five other Black city kids to spend a summer on a mountain ranch to take part in a summer wilderness program. As a young toddler, Addy barely escaped a tragic apartment fire that killed her parents, and now she's obsessed with maps and escape routes. Her Nigerian grandmother thinks that getting away and spending time in nature would be good for her. Addy, who's full name means "daughter of an eagle," quickly takes to life in the woods and learns how to read and draw topographical maps. But on one of their last days, the group of kids leave the only skilled woodsman behind and head out for an overnight camping trip. In the middle of the night, a forest fire erupts and they flee down the ridge, heading toward the creek they know is below. Addy's narrative focuses on survival and her escape is heart-poundiogly realistic, although I was left in the end not feeling like I got to know the other characters.

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers
by Celia C. Pérez 
Kokila / Penguin, 2019
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-12

Four awkwardly mismatched middle school girls find themselves creating a secret club, joining forces to disrupt the status quo in their small Florida town and convince the local social club (the Floras) stop using an unethically made feathered hat in its annual pageant. All throughout middle school, I felt socially awkward and on the outside, so the idea of joining a secret group of kids who are challenging the system appeals to me so much. Each of these girls brings her own unique perspective and story, wrestling with her own challenges, and adding to the adventure in important ways. When the girls take up the protest, supporting Cat and her dedication to protecting birds, they must face issues of race and class that emerge.

Pax
by Sara Pennypacker
illustrated by Jon Klassen
Balzer & Bray / HarperCollins, 2017
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-13 

A boy. A fox. Inseparable, until they are suddenly torn 300 miles apart. Told in the alternating voices of Peter and Pax the fox, this is a story of the friendship between a child and an animal, a story full of love, loyalty and determination, a story about how grief, war and anxiety can take deep root but how friendship can help you find peace within. Here are the notes I wrote to myself when I first read it: "I've just finished this and, oh my, how the themes are vibrating in my mind and soul. Loyalty, friendship, family, anxiety, fear, determination, grief, war, peace within. Cannot wait to talk with my students about this. Incredibly powerful story." Pennypacker wraps many complex emotional issues into this story, but at its heart it's about our connection to animals, the environment around us, and our found family. I'm excited that the sequel, Pax: Journey Home, is being published in September.

Same Sun Here
by Silas House and Neela Vaswani
Candlewick, 2012
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-13 

Pen-pals River and Meena reveal their "own true selves" to each other through the letters they write, their friendship slowly develops as they share their hopes and frustrations, discovering how much they are alike despite their differences. Meena has just moved to New York City from India, while River has lived all his life in a small coal-mining town in Kentucky. They both have been raised by their grandmothers for much of their lives, and they both love the mountains-- River loves the Appalachian Mountains, and Meena misses the mountains in Mussoorie, India. I especially appreciate the way that they encourage each other, as River becomes an environmental activist protesting coal mining in his community, and Meena joins her school's theater program.

Hoot
by Carl Hiaasen
Random House, 2002
Amazon / your local library / Overdrive
ages 9-13

In this 2003 Newbery Honor book, Roy and his two new friends set out to solve the mysterious vandalism at a nearby construction site. When they discover that this is also a nesting ground for small burrowing owls, they try to protect the endangered owls and block construction. Hiaasen's story is full of his classic offbeat humor, blockheaded adults, and kids who are determined to disrupt the corruption and compromises of the adult world.

The digital review copies came from the publishers; other review copies came from my school libraries. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support. 

©2021 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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