FICTION (ages 9-13): Teaching Tough Topics/ June 2022

Am in the middle of teaching a course entitled CHILDREN’S LITERATURE WITH A MULTICULTURAL CONTEXT and lo and behold the books that I’ve recently chosen help to unpack issues that deal with diversity, equity and social justice. Each of these titles corresponds to at least one tough topic outlined in my book TEACHING TOUGH TOPICS (e.g. homophobia, racism, bullying, physical challenges, mental health, and yes, kindness).  Many of these titles were short in length (less than 225 pages).




Children’s literature, as author Jason Reynolds says, are ‘time capsules’. It’s amazing how children’s authors can capture the pulse of what is happening in the world.  Kelly Wang tells the story of the pandemic and anti-Asian racism (New From Here); Eric Walters writes about the pandemic lockdown (Don’t Stand So Close to Me); Jewell Parker Rhodes tells a story of police brutality and Black Lives Matter (Ghost Boys);   Gordon Korman exposes the impact of Anti-semitic  hatred (Linked);  exposes the impact of Isamophobia  (Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero) and John Cho presents a story about riots and gun possession (Troublemaker (see below).  Censorship of children’s literature has forever been an issue of rights and freedoms. Most recently there has been huge movement in some U.S. states to have books have been banned because of content that SOME parents find are objectionable and feel that their kids aren’t ready to be exposed to (George by Alex Gino, Stamped by Jason Reynolds,   The Watsons Go To Burningham, Captain Underpants, A Wrinkle in Time, Drama, All American Boys, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Roll of Thunder, Here My Cry and yes, even Where the Wild Things Are and Harriet The Spy). Lo and behold, David Levithan, author of many fine books with queer content,  has now written a novel for middle –age readers+  that is a now story about those who want to attack books,  and those that know that we need to defend books in their communities (particularly titles with LGBTQIA+ content that contradict the “Don’t Say Gay” beliefs).

This rather short novel (163 pages) is presented as three alternating narrative: 1) an adventure story about two boys who are trying to prevent an evil genius from acquiring The Doomsday Code that will destroy life; 2) a relationship story about two young boys  who come to realize that their might be falling in love; 3) 2) a ‘now’ story, where Donovan’s mother protests the teaching of The Adventurers because the two characters (as we learn on the last page realize they deeply love each other .When out gay teacher, Mr. Howe  brings the novel The Adventurers into the classroom for all his students to read, troubles erupt in Donovan’s life  and the life of the school. Moreover,  learning unfolds as students, educators and families fight to stand up for their beliefs and fight for what’s right.  Kids might have many questions about , but they are sure to find some ‘answers to their questions, in the pages’ of David Levithan’s  important new book, worthy of a shout-out.  

excerpt from Answers on the Pages

“There is nothing about being queer that deserves censorship rather than expression. Nothing. This should not be a matter of debate because a person’s humanity should never be a matter of debate. Instead it is a matter of the highest principal we can aspire to, which is equality.”Years ago i attended a session Book Censorship in Children’s literature and Katherine Paterson was on a panel discussing the banning of her very special title Bridge to Terabithia.  Her concluding message has stayed with me: Do we want to prepare our children or protect our children. Now, more than ever, with complexities of racism, immigration, sexual identity, bullying etc. we need books that help students learn about themselves, learn about others, be compassionate of differences and take action to uphold tolerance. 

Further Reading: You Can’t Say That!: Writers for young people talk about censorship, free expression, and the stories they have to tell, compiled by Leonard S. Marcus. 

THE GOOD FIGHT by Ted Staunton; illus. Josh Rosen (graphic story) (CULTURAL DIVERSITY; ANTISEMITISM) (217 pages)

It is the blazing summer of Toronto in 1933 and times are tough, as the result of the depression, especially for immigrants who strive to make ends meet. Thirteen-year-old Sid (Jewish) and his friend Plug (Italian) try to get away with pickpocketing. But racial tensions mount and ultimately, Taunton takes his protagonists and his readers to the four hour Antisemitic Riot of Christie Pits on August 16, 1933, where people gathered to watch a baseball game of mostly Jewish players. but the Pit Gang unfurled swastikas to show their hatred and fear of ‘foreigners’. In Germany, Hitler was leading his Nazi Party to victory. Immigration, trade unions and everyday survival at home and on the streets played an important part of of turbulent times. Though facts and events are rather episodic and the narrative a somewhat confusing in graphic format to clearly explain what was happening, author and illustrator brings those times to life and provide readers entry into history, a connection to and to a time of immigrant pride and solidarity and to the blast that riots had – and continue to have – in society.

THE GREAT BEAR: Book Two of the Misewa Saga by David A. Robertson (INDIGENOUS IDENTITY) (225 pages)

Fans of The Barren Grounds by Cree author will not be disappointed in this sequel by Cree author, David A. Robertson. They will be pleased up to meet with foster kids Morgan and Eli and their adventure as they travel through a portal to reunite with their animal friend. This time, they journey to the past, and are challenged to help save the village from destruction and to save the animals of Misewa from the threat of The Great Bear. Morgan and Eli have troubles of their own: Eli is being harassed by bullies, mostly because of his long hair and Morgan is worried about reconnecting with her mother who once abandoned her. In this adventure series, the author has created a great blend of fantasy and reality, past and present, and human and animal connections.


Jennifer Chan is the new girl in school. Jennifer Chan is believes that Alien Creatures are real. When Jennifer Chan is ridiculed and mocked for her convictions  and for not trying hard to ‘fit in’, (‘Who do you think you are?) she runs away.  Mallory, the girl who lives across the street feels that she and her friends are to blame for Jennifer’s disappearance. They were, after all, responsible for a cruel bullying incident after trapping Jennifer in the washroom in the basement of the school. How do mean girls become so mean? Why would someone be so hateful to another? Can we ever right our wrongs? This is one of the strongest books about the drama of girl friendships and the turmoil of bullying – for both victim and bully.  The narrative alternates between NOW (the disappearance) and THEN (incidents that led up to the disappearance.)  Tae Keller, winner of the Newbery medal for her novel When You Trap a Tiger has written Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone because, like Jennifer, had been tormented by bullies in schools and as an adult author wants to help teenager readers come to an understanding. ‘What makes a bully?’ ‘What makes a person?’  Moreover, as Keller writes in the afterword, she hopes that readers come to acknowledge that truama’s happened and that they hurt and scare and  shatter beliefs taht ‘the world was safe and simple.’ 

THE PUFFIN KEEPER by Michael Morpurgo; illus. Benji Davies (KINDNESS) (91 pages)

Ever since seeing the play and reading the book War Horse by renowned British author, Michael Morpurgo, I have been collecting his books.  In this book, Allen relates the time a special relationship was built with Benjamin Postlethwaite, lighthouse keeper and artist. Allen and his mother were aboard a schooner when it crashed into rocks during a storm. Postlethwaite  too it upon himself to rescue all the passengers.  Allen leaves the island and ends (with a painting of a schooner signed ‘BEN’) and ends up living with mean grandparents, going to a boarding school with mean teachers, and going off to war. He never forgot Postlethwaite’s kindness and returns to visit him where the two develop a strong friendship and a commitment to saving the life of an injured puffin. The chapters are short, the illustrations add to the story and illuminate  the setting and the characters.  The Puffin Keeper is another fine example of Morpurgo’s remarkable storytelling engages readers with honouring nature and  describing warm relationships. 

THE SECRETS OF CRICKET KARLSSON by Kristina Sigunsdotter; illus. Ester Eriksson (MENTAL HEALTH) (106 pages)

There is a certain edge,  a certain fearlessness and feistiness to eleven-year old Cricket Karlsson, an only child,  who is dealing with the fact that her best friend, Noa,  has chosen to be with the ‘horse girls’ and coping with the mental breakdown of her favourite aunt.  Much of contemporary fiction  for middle-age readers deal are stories of fitting in and trying to understand the world of grown-ups but the author presents an original portrait of a pre-adolescent girl trying to figure things out whether she’s making lists (Cricket and Noa’s Ugliest Words: dude, prune, wife, puberty, furuncle, regurgitate, broth, moist meatloaf), hiding in the school washroom, avoiding flirtations from a boy named Mitten, or creating art sculptures out of bubblegum. This book, translated from Swedish, is the winner of the August Prize for children’s literature (2020). Black and white illustrations by Ester Eriksson take up as much territory as the verbal text in this slim (106 page b00k)  these drawings seem to authentically bring to  life the pages of a quirky teen.I love Cricket Karlsson for sharing her secrets and her truths and  for dealing with broken friendships and for thoughtfully dealing with mental health issues. I love her for her wisdom, humour and heart. I love this book. 

Cricket Karlsson tries to deal with her emotions: (3 excerpts)

“When I reached my locker it was as if I’d turned into an aquarium full of tears. I had to rush to the bathroom to empty out a bit.”

“I got such a pain in my heart I had to clutch a pinecone hard to make my hand hurt so I could forget my heart for a moment.”

“When I think of that contract it feels as if my heart is crushed to mashed potato.”

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS by Margarita Engle (KINDNESS) (207 pages)

A novel in verse about the beauty of poetry and about taking care of elephants. Oriol is an 11 year old Cuban girl who is having troubles fitting in at school. What makes her happy is helping her parents who run a veterinary clinic with the care of injured animals. When an elephant gives birth to twins, Oriol is eager to ensure their safety, even when someone is threatening the life of one of the babies. The young girl befriends Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American winner of  a Nobel Prize in literature, who inspires Oriol to see the power of poems. “I wonder / if every person/ has a sound / a poem/ inside them too.” This book will particularly appeal to young readers who enjoy poems and are in-tune with the free verse fiction style Margarita Engle is a wonderful  wordsmith – and a fine storyteller. 

SUNNY DAYS INSIDE: And other Stories by Caroline Adderson/short stories (KINDNESS) (pages 166)

The setting: An apartment building, neighbour to the community hospital.  2020.2021, a time when families were forced into lockdown. Each of the  short stories deals with a family who must cope with new rules and forced time at home with parents and siblings It is significant to know that this book was published in 2021, in the midst of the Pandemic. In her author’s note,  Adderson writes: “I wrote this book early in the pandemic inspired by the stories I read in the newspaper or on social mdiea about the ingenuity and resilience of children during those frightening months. There are, and will be many examples of children’s literature that dig into the events of COVID-19 (Outside In by Deborah Underwood (picture book), Don’t Stand So Close to Me by Eric Walters, New From Here by Kelly Yang. (fiction). Sunny Days Inside with its linked short stories is a special collection that many students will identify with. Bravo!


It is and Los Angeles, 1992 is in a crisis in the wake of the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King as well as the shooting of a young black teen, Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner. When Jordon learns that his father has headed out to board up the Korean liquor store that they own, the young boy heads out to pass on a gun that so that his father could be protect himself. Even though Jordon and Appa had a huge argument (Jordon is failing in school and hanging out with what his father thinks is the wrong crowd) Jordon is determined to help out in any way he can and prove to his father that he can be responsible. With the background of protests and riots, Jordon and his friend Mike are off on a dangerous journey. The narrative takes over the adventurous night that involves a break in, hitchhiking, an interaction with the police, an injured ankle, a karaoke bar, and perils of rising smoke from burning businesses during the protests in South Los Angeles.  This is a story of the immigrant experience, of racism, of family, of protests and guns. Hats off to actor John Cho for writing a fast-paced, action-packed story that helps young readers learn about a stark event of racism in American history and one that one that students can likely relate to in today’s turmoils.


Seventh-grader Will Levine has problems: He is teased by bullies because of his receding chin (he is called Turtle Boy); his best friend Shira is drifting away from him; his pet turtles need to be released back into the wild,his Bar Mitzvah is approaching and he is afraid of speaking in public; he is fearful of approaching surgery date for jaw reconstruction; his father died when Will was a youngster and Will felt that he never had a chance to grieve this loss.  The heart of this novel is centred on a community project where he is required to complete a community service project by paying visits to RH, an older boy struggling with an incurable disease. When RJ shares his bucket list with Will, he is afraid of tackling the requests (riding a roller coaster, attending a concert, and a school dance and going for a swim in the ocean. Like the turtle he collects, Will is satisfied with life lived in a shell, but his relationship with RJ forces Will to experience life outside his comfort zone.  Wolkenstein tells  a story told with heart and humour likely igniting compassion and empathy for many middle age readers. Jewish readers will likely identify with the rituals and customs that Will and his friends encounter. Non-Jewish readers will learn about the faith and customs of others. Those who rooted for August Pullman in RJ Palacio’s Wonder will find a new friend to cheer on in Turtle Boy. 

THE U-NIQUE LOU FOX by Jodi Carmichael (SPECIAL NEEDS: Dyslexia; ADHD) (230 pages)

Louisa Elizabeth Fitzhenry-O’Shaugnessy (LOU FOX) is unique. She is a talented artist. She dreams of being a playwright. She has dyslexia. She has ADHD. She has two very good friend and two loving parents.  She also has an annoying teacher, Mrs .Snyder (aka Shadow Phantom who Lou feels is out to ‘get her.’  Her teacher, however doesn’t have any strategies or enough information to deal with the uniqueness of Lou Fox, which causes the grade five girl a lot of stress. This is an engaging story with much for many  middle age readers to connect to .. and learn from.

WHAT CAN I SAY? by Catherine Newman; illustrated by Debbie Fong (graphic ‘How To..’) (KINDNESS) (159 pages)

This is a “Kids Guide to Super-Useful Social Skills to Help You Get Along and Express Yourself”. The subtitle of this book is an invitation for readers, tweens in particular, to pick up a book that offers advice on how to cope with the ups and downs of maintaining healthy relationships. Chapter Titles include: ‘How to Have a Conversation’; ‘How to Deal with Hard Things’; ‘How to be Supportive’; ‘How to Be an Ally’ and ‘How to Care for Your Community’. An example of how well this books answers questions that many readers will have about ‘How to Get Along With People’ (Chapter 3) is outlined in chapter topics: Compromise, Give Someone  the Benefit of the Doubt, Be Wrong,Be Right,Argue,Persuade Someone, Be Grateful.  This is an excellent resource that dips into the minds and concerns that many 11-13 year olds field as they think about their identities, their place of belonging, their friendships and wanna be friendships.  This “great guide to social skills” will be enjoyed and appreciated as an independent read. It inspires reflection (i.e., What Should You Do? What Would You Do? What Could You Do?) but moreover it should inspire conversations with friends – and adults – who can help validate and consider ways of getting along.  Definitely, a worthwhile purchase, an important guide. Also by the authors: How to Be A Person