FALL INTO FICTION 2018: Building Empathy in Middle Years Readers

The novels listed in this posting are mostly suited for students from fifth to ninth grades. Each of these books should engage young readers in stories of coping, kindness, resilience.


Because of his large size, Marcus feels like an outsider at school. He is, however, a boy with a heart who takes care of and looks out for his brother Charlie, a boy with Down Syndrome.  When Marcus gets into an altercation at school (in defense of Charlie) his single  mother realizes that it’s time to take stock of the family situation and decides to travel with her sons to Puerto Rico, a place that has a strong attachment to her past. More than anything, Marcus wants to meet up with his father, who abandoned the family and going to Puerto Rico will hopefully give him a chance to reconnect – if he can find him.  Readers join in with Marcus and his family’s journey through Puerto Rico and come to experience the beauty of the land, the taste of the food, and the spunk of a Spanish cast of characters.

SAVING WINSLOW by Sharon Creech

Imagine a story about a mini donkey (Winslow) who’s chances of survival upon birth are slim. Despite cynical views from people in his life who predict the donkey will die, Louie is determined to nurture the animal back to good health. A lovely story about resilience and care. Once again, Creech proves herself to be a terrific storyteller (particularly when present fiction about animal characters (Moo, Love That Dog)

MISSING MIKE by Shari Green

Imagine reading a story about wildfires in the summer months of 2018. Cara, her family and her neighbours are forced to evacuate when a fire (in British Columbia) overtakes the community. All is left behind, including the family’s one-eyed dog, named Mike. What do we do we do when all our past possessions are lost? What hope does the future bring to once again find a place called home? What does ‘home’ mean? A fine – and timely – Canadian novel told in free verse format. Wonderful!

THE LANDING by John Ibbotson (YA)

This book was the Governor General’s award winner for juvenile fiction in 2008. A new edition was created to celebrate the books 10th anniversary with proceeds to support the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. I loved this book, a wonderful coming of age story. Ben Mercer s a hard-working, obedient adolescent with a talent for playing the violin. Ben gets a glimpse into the cultured life of the rich (he is hired by a wealthy widow to fix up her cottage) and wonders if he will ever be able to escape the trappings and rural life in Muskoka.
The soul of the Canadian cottage setting along with the the soul of this teenager fictional hero certainly captured my interest and my sympathies. It deserved the award.

MR. WOLF’S CLASS by Aron Nels Steinke

The draw for me with this title that a) it was a humourous graphic novel b) it’s about a new teacher learning to cope. This book may appeal to readers who are beginning to engage in the graphic novel format. The chapters are short. The visuals and verbal text are appealing. The characters are comical. The humour is ‘juvenile’ (a missing girl accidentally is hidden in a box, one boy brings in his great great grandma’s brain for show and tell, and yes, there are fart jokes). The novel had a blend of ‘real’ and exaggerated school situation. This is the first book in a series but I don’t think I’ll hunker down and read more about Mr. Wolf’s ventures.


This was an enjoyable read, more or less. Dare I say it… a book for girl readers! Hanna Geller is trying to fit in and find a place of belonging, as she encounters life in fifth grade. When she discovers a note that says NOBODY LIKES HANNA, she (and the school staff) try and get to the bottom of the bullying incident. The title statement “If This Were A Story” is repeated throughout (I lost count), putting a meta twist on the storytelling, helping the reader to distinguish between reality and fiction. For me this debut novel tries to hard. Turley’s writing program sure must devote attention to metaphors, cuz the novel is abundant with figurative language. This could be a good thing, but it was a bit too much for me.

THE TURNING by Emily Whitman

This is a novel that adds to the folklore of Selkie folk.  Aran is born of a human father and a seal mother.  He is awaiting (and longs) for his ‘turning’ into a seal and as the story unfolds, we are uncertain whether the boy will ever get his pelt. David Booth, in his resource Exploding the Reading usesSelkie lore as a source for meaningful cross-curricular learning from a range of elementary and secondary teachers. The Turning is another intriguing novel of that could be added to the collection of living by the sea, in the sea and the secrets that are force to be kept by legendary Selkies.

HARBOR ME by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson is another is deserved of all the praise bestowed upon her. In this book, a group of six kids gather in a place to exchange stories, views, complaints and connections. The students (mixed races and genders) are given a space to speak when the teacher provides a space dubbed the ARTT room (“A Room to Talk). Each of the students has an issue to deal with his or her life (a missing parent, a parent in jail, racial profiling) and when Woodson presents an episode about the dreamer issue, I recognized that the author is a master of capturing the soul   of thousands of young people coping with life in 2018. The students grow to share private thoughts, to connect and to  harbor each other. any novel that deepens empathetic understanding and honesty can be considered a great read. Thank you Jaqueline Woodson.

MAPPING THE BONES by Jane Yolen (ages 12+)

Master storyteller, Jane Yolen has previous written fiction set in The Holocaust  (The Devils’ Arithmetic, Briar Rose). In this powerful book, she uses  the Hansel and Gretel story as a framework for this harrowing story of a family smothered by the atrocities of Nazi Germany.  Chaim and Gittel are at the centre of the story, struggling to survive and combat evil people, forbidden forests and death ovens. Each sentence is beautifully crafted by this important author of over 350 books. Mapping the Bones is a compelling read.



Poems by David Booth

Bird Guy: Wally Karr's Poems about Birds

In recent years, poetry anthologies for young people have been somewhat sparse. David Booth has written a remarkable collection of poems centred on the topic of birds. The subtitle of Bird Guy is “Wally Karr’s Poems About Birds: 9th Grade English Project” and a grade nine student writing narrative and rhyming poems for a high school writing project, sets the premise for poems drawn from memoir and science.  Hooray for David Booth for presenting over seventy poems organized into chapters with titles such as ‘Familiar Feathers’, ‘Strange Feathers’, ‘Family Feathers’, ‘Tickling Feathers’.  How fantastic it is to have a new collection of poems – Canadian – to engage (and inform) middle year students. Bird Guy also is a fine resource for looking at a variety of poetic forms.  And is with most appealing poetry anthologies, it is wonderful to have a balance of poems that make us smile (‘Real or Fake’, ‘The Birds on My Uncle’s Head’), touch the heart  (‘Window Pains’, ‘Bird Guy’, ‘Pigeons and Popcorn’, ‘Bird Brains’) and gain much information about nature’s feathered friends. (‘Guano’, ‘Birds of Prey’, Voted #1). SHOUT OUT TO to Maya Ishiura for perfect black and white drawings that add poetry to the poems.

The book is available on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com