Thursday, March 3, 2016

Middle grade fiction for social issues

One of the big units my fourth and fifth graders read during the year is one on social issues.  They usually really like it because they get to read about the big stuff-death, abuse, war, homelessness, disabilities... I sincerely hope they haven't had to deal with the issues, but the truth is, they do.  Not all of them, thankfully, but a lot of kids deal with some of these things on a daily basis, and it's great for building empathy, even if they don't have to deal with them directly.  These new books all would be great for a social issues unit.

The first one is called "Feathered" by Deborah Kerbel.  It's about 11 year old Finch and it gets it's title from a story she tells that when Finch was little, she sprouted a feather.  They pulled it out and no more grew in, but Finch always has had the sensation that she would one day be able to fly.  In the meantime, her life is not awesome.  Her dad died of cancer 9 months ago, her mom is suffering from deep depression, her brother is hanging out with a super creepy friend, and Finch's former best friend is now friends with another girl who is big into fashion.  On top of that, Finch is struggling in school (she hates writing) and she has the same teacher she had last year, who she hated.  The only bright spot is the new family that moved in next door.  There is a girl there just her age named Pinky.  Pinky's family moved from India and her dad worries about her being bullied and wants to keep her at home.  It's funny, when I read the description, I thought this story was going to have mystical or magical elements (nope) and I almost put it down after about 30 pages (it was pretty sad),  but Finch's voice really stuck with me and it had a nice ending.  I think a lot of kids will like it (in spite of how sad it is) and it will make a great addition to social issues unit.

The second is called "The Hour of Bees" by Lindsay Eagar.  Carol is 12 and although she was hoping to spend the summer hanging out with her friends, she's ending up out in the New Mexico desert with just her family.  Her grandfather, Serge, is suffering from dementia and her dad (who's had a troubled relationship with his dad) is trying to make amends.  They are cleaning out the ranch house so they can sell it and with the money, move Grandpa Serge into an assisted living facility.  Carol has mixed feelings about all of this.  She hates the desert and the ranch and has never really had a relationship with her grandfather, however, she is really the only one he speaks to (she looks very much like her grandmother).  He starts telling her stories about her grandmother (who died before she was born) and mystical stories about a healing tree.  Carol comes to appreciate her Mexican ancestry in a way she never had and develops a strong bond with her grandfather.  I think this would a fun one to read with kids and talk about the fantasy-reality pieces in the book.  It would be great paired up with a book like "Echo" by Pam Munoz Ryan (which also skips between fantasy and reality) or "Finding Naomi Leon" also by Pam Munoz Ryan or "Circus Mirandus" by Cassie Beasley.  

This last one isn't actually a new one.  It was published back in 2010 (waaay back then).  I found it because it's on the list for middle grade fiction on March Book Madness (#2016MBM).   It's called "Because of Mr. Terupt" by Rob Buyea.  It's about a 5th grade class and their brand new teacher, Mr. Terupt.  It's a class with some issues in getting along with one another, like practically any class, but Mr. Terupt seems to notice things and is able to deal with them in a way that lets the kids know that they are responsible for their behavior.  The book is told from seven different points of view-boys and girls, and that's part of what makes it great.  These are kids with issues (including divorce, death of a sibling, teen pregnancy, over protective parents, parents who are not parenting, body issues, ADHD-social issues galore) and their issues come through loud and clear in each passage.  In some cases, so loud and clear, it made me squirm.  There is also a ton of foreshadowing to give you clues about what might happen next.  The beginning is a little rough (but will TOTALLY hook the boys) with an extended passage about the bathroom and how to use the bathroom so that you can spend time out of the class without the teacher noticing.  I think at the end of the day, it might not be an ideal read aloud, but I think the kids are going to love it. 

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