Each book featured here is written about children triumphing in harsh circumstances. I was moved deeply by each and every story. If you are a teacher or parent, read them with your children, they make for thoughtful discussion. If you are an avid reader, add them to your list, they are powerful stories worth every moment of your time.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
This book pierced my heart. I ached with the characters, cried for their pain, and rejoiced in their victories. Ada and her brother Jamie have lived with their mother void of all care and love for their entire existence. Ada was born with a clubfoot and has never left her small flat in London. The best thing to happen to these two children was World War II. The children are sent away from London for fear of bombing, and their life opens up great and wide. They land on the doorstep of a kind woman, not at all prepared for tending to children. They are all rescued through love. This is a story that proves the people you choose to love are your family. It is tender and full of redemption. It teaches children history, and a heaping serving of empathy and compassion.
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Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
Esperanza has only known luxury, comfort, and love on her large ranch in Mexico. Her father is a good boss, providing well for the workers in his vineyards. When an uprising tears Esperanza’s family apart, her life of luxury is taken, and her world is forever changed. Their family boards a train for the United States, hopeful to find work harvesting crops. I was reminded of The Secret Garden reading Esperanza’s first experiences with class differences and hunger. This book is imperative, it shows children the human side of immigration, and can be a perfect tool to discuss the issues facing our country right now. Esperanza learns to work hard, to humble herself, and that the power of a loving family can sustain you through very rough circumstances. The chapters follow the seasons as they harvest crops. I loved the framework it gave the story. If you teach middle grade novels, add this to your list of must reads. It can open up important discussions about immigration, refugees, and social justice. It is a superb book.
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Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt
Sixth grade is hard; and even harder when reading seems impossible and bullies are a constant. For Ally Nickerson, school is grim, like living under a raincloud without a sunbreak in sight. However, a teacher named Mr. Daniels and two off beat characters come into Ally’s life, and become the sunbreak she has needed. Hunt writes about dyslexia with a pen of empathy, she brings understanding and compassion to a problem that many students face in school. Many themes resonate through this book, accepting yourself, and standing up for your friends, persevering through struggles, and looking at the world through someone else’s eyes. If I taught intermediate students I would add this to a summer reading list. If I have a voracious reader who enjoys realistic fiction, I would feed it to them. If I knew a child with dyslexia I would read it out loud to them, so they could enjoy a story and cheer with Ally as she finds her courage, faces her challenges, and triumphs.
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The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
The Hundred DressesWritten over sixty years ago, this classic story is powerful. Sadly, the themes are still relevant in present day struggles. This simple story exemplifies the pain of bullying and the regret of staying silent instead standing up for another person. Wanda is the child with a single parent lacking resources, a child learning English only at school, a child struggling to read, or any immigrant or oppressed people group. Wanda, the poor immigrant from Poland could be any child. This books shows bullying is wrong and hurtful, but passively letting it happen is equally as wrong. An affecting book to start a discussion.
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Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Living inside a truly brilliant mind is a gift and a trial. For 12 year old willow Chance, both of these are true. Willow is gifted beyond measure with a love of horticulture. If you are my soulmate you read that sentence and thought, you had me at love of horticulture. If you are not my soul mate, I will press on to sell you on this middle grade novel. Willow does not fit in at school but is deeply loved by her parents, this grounds her and gives her the footing she needs in the world, until she enters 7th grade. Her fashion choices, odd interests, and obsessions work against her. Tragic strikes Willow and she is unmoored. This is a story about unlikely heroes, how people change, and taking care of those around you, family or not. This is a sweet and simple story and a quick read, but it will move you. I loved seeing the world through Willow’s detailed and quirky mind. I adored her knowledge of the natural world and the kinship she feels towards plants. My own heart runs green with love for the science of growing things. I hope you give Willow a Chance, it will be time well spent.
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