TEACHING TOUGH TOPICS: Middle Years Titles, Fall 2023

In recent years, I’m particularly drawn to titles that address multicultural issues and inclusion. My book TEACHING TOUGH TOPICS has helped to frame the work I do with children’s literature in recent years. I so believe it’s important to introduce literature that helps address DiVERSITY, EQUITY and SOCIAL JUSTICE. The books listed ) in this posting provide some new resources of great books to teach tough topics. Most of these have been publisbhed in 2022/2023. I have included a chapter title from TTT for each of these ten recommended books.


> Race and Diverse Cultures (chapter 1)

DREAMERS byAkim Aliu with Greg Anderson Elysee; illus. Karen De la Vega: A Graphic Novel Memoir (2023)

This is a powerful story of racism in the sports world. It is especially engrossing (and infuriating) since it recounts the true story of professional athlete Akim Aliu, a Ukranian Nigerian Canadian who experienced systemic racism at every turn. Presented in graphic format, this memoir tells Akim’s courageous story of being the only Black child in his Ukranian community and the determination of his struggling immigrant parents to build a better life for their two sons in Canada. Akim Aliu’s story is one of resilience, bravery and inspiration as the hockey player never stopped dreaming. A riveting read. Note: in 2020 Akim Aliu, along with six other former NHL players announce thefromation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance whos mission strives to ‘create sustainable change on all levels of hockey.’ 


> The Immigrant and Refugee Experience (chapter 2)


After a dozen years, award-winning author, Thanbhha Lai preents a sequel to her beautiful story Inside Out and Back Again. Ha is a refugee from Vietnam and settles into a place of belonging in Alabama. One day her Mother announces that the family is moving to Texas and the young girl feels that she is starting all over again to find comfort at home and school. Her mother believes strongly that the sacrifices they nmake today will lead to an easier better future. The free verse format always appeals to me. This book however was somewhat disappointing.  The poetry is beautiful but the narrative is somewhat elliptical and confusing and young adolescent readers might not easily grasp the somewhat stilted thoughts of the main character who likes to think in Vietnamese (based on the author’s own childhood experiences. In the author’s note, Lai writes: “I want to feel how words float through her mind.,,, because Vietamese still swirls inside Ha’s mind two years later (from the original book.?


>Indigenous Identities (chapter 3)

REZ DOGS by Joseph Bruchac (2021)

When the Covid strikes, Malian is forced to live with her grandparents on a Wabanaski reservation where granddaughter and grandparents protect each other. Like many young people forced to stay inside during the coronavirus pandemic, Malian fights boredom. It is  generational and cultural stories of Indigenous nations and communities that engage the girl and connect her to family and to her Penacook heritage. Bruchac interweaves past and present stories and cleverly presents a loyal dog character named Malsum (which means ‘wolf’ who is sure to endear many readers. When I ordered this book, I didn’t realize it was in free verse, a format I’m very fond of. This is a terrific book, one of the best of recently published fictional titles that highlights the Indigenous culture and  family experience. Author of over 150 books for adults and children, Joseph Bruchac is a great storyteller. I give Rez Dogs a four star out of four star rating. Highly recommended. 


> The Holocaust (chapter 4)

BUT I LIVE (ed. Charlotte Schallie):(2022), Graphic memoir

This is a collection of three Stories of Child Survivors of the Holocaust. Through interviews  the four child survivors share their memories and provide testimonies of their World War II experiences. Each piece elucidates the powerful stories  and  provides stark images in Holocaust recounting. The graphic novella format  provides a vehicle that documents acts of resistance against forgetting, or denying, transforming memory into accessible, emotional narratives.  This book invites readers to experience and understand personal accounts with deep empathy. 

“A Kind of Resistance” by Miriam Liubiki and David Schaffer

“Thirteen Secrets” by Gilad Seliktar, Nico Kemp, and Rolf Kamp

“But I Live by  Barabara Yelin and Emmie Arbel


Mental Challenges (chspter 5) 


Brian suffers from social anxiety which he secretly calls Super Awkward Weirdo Syndrome (SAWS for short). Early in the novel, we learn that his father is in trouble with the law and has left the family and his mother is hospitalized after overdosing on pills. When Brian and his brother are forced to live with a foster family, Brian’s mental health is further impacted which results in a plot to runaway. All Brian wants is to have things be normal again.  We are introduced to another character named Ezra who proves to be a good friend to Brian, in fact we learn that he has a strong crush on Brian. The novel is written with chapters alternating the stories of  these two basketball-loving, risk-taking, troubled grade 7 tweens. Chad Lucas presents an intruging cast of characters that includes a feisty younger brother, two elderly foster parents, a helpful policeman, a concerned social worker, a caring teacher, an empathetic high school student and yes, a school bully, 


> Poverty (chapter 6)

CRENSHAW by Katherine Applegate (2015)

I am a Katherine Applegate fan and  when this recently book fell off my bookshelf, I decided to re-read this compelling novel of a family that has fallen on hard times. Jackson is an endearing character who knows that it is a struggle for his family to pay rent, to acquire food and to survive from day to day, even when being forced to live in their minivan. Applegate cleverly introduces the character of Crenshaw, a large black and white cat, an imaginary cat who supports Jackson as troubles unfold. Applegate cleverly convinces readers and Jackson that Crenshaw is real. An admirable, compassionate, honest story, one of the best novels for middle age readers about the working poor. I’m sure I will revisit this book again. 


> Death Loss and Remembrance (chapter 7)

MIXED UP by Gordon Korman (2023)

Reef Moody lost his mother to Covid and is now living with his mother’s best friend. Like any young person would,  he struggles to cope with grief and tries to remember the good times the two  spent together. Theo Metzinger lives on the other side of town and enjoys gardening but does not enjoy living up to his father’s expections.  The novel is presented in alternating chapters between Reef and Moody. Here’s the thing – hang on to your hat – the two boys are trapped in the world of each other’s memories. The memories are real, but they just don’t belong to the ‘right person’.  Gordon Korman is oh-so-clever at giving readers plots that only can be explained in the world of fiction. As the novel unfolds the two boys try to rationalize the phenomenon (it had something to do on the day they were both born). We can rely on Korman to set the characters off on wild adventures and to return to sanity, the two boys plot get things back to normal. This involves a rubber tire, a  building cupola and targeting the right moment that lightning strikes (sort of channelling a Back to the Future storyline. Alone the way we meet a cast of characters: a bully, a teenage delinquent, a popular girl that everyone loves, a high-heeled lady principal, a retired nurse and a gareden-eating rabbit named Jaws. In a way, this is a story about death, loss and remembrance (or lack of remembrance).  This is another funny, nutty, preposterous, poignant, relatable, believable/unbelievable, remarkable story from the unbelievable, remarkable, Gordon Korman.


> Gender Identity and Homophobia (chapter 8)

DIFFERENT FOR BOYS by Patrick Ness; illus. Tea Bendix (ages 12+) (2023)

Patrick Ness is the author of a knockout novel entitled A Monster Calls and seeing his name on a book jacket appeals to me.  The title of this book for Young Adolescents invited me to pick up this book about friendship, masculinity and sex, different for boys like Anthony Stevenson who has lots of questions about his sexual identity and the boys he keeps company with. This is an honest powerful story of loneliness and intimacy.7 pages)  Two features that make this short novel (97 pages) is 1. redacted, black-0ut prose (avoiding swear words) and 2) captivating black and white drawings by Tea Blendix that enhance the mood and emotions of the characters.  I highly recommend this title to support boys – and girls, and others – questioning their sexual identities and longings, loyalties and betrayals and the quest to find a place of comfort and satisfied heart when feeling ‘different’.


> Bullying (chapter 9)

Many many recent publications of realistic fiction include one or more characters who are bullies. Some of the titles in this posting include: 

DIFFERENT FOR BOYS by Patrick Ness – homophobic bullying

DREAMERS byAkim Aliu – racist slurs in hockey leagues

MIXED UP by Gordon Korman – boy torments his foster brother 

THANKS A LOT UNIVERSE by Chad Lucas – “Bullies are sharks, kiddo. You act all quiet and fragile, they smell it on you,” (p. 79)


> Ripples of Kindness (Chapter 10)

THE MOON IS A BALL by Ed Franck; illus. The Tjong-Khing, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

These nine stories of two  endearing characters, Panda & Squirrel provide young readers with insights into the joys of friendship. Panda & Squirrel stand on the shoulders of Arnold Lobel’s beloved Frog and Toad. What a great friendship those four would make! Each story in The Moon is a Ball invites readers to think about interdependence  (‘I’m never bored when I’m with you’), curiosity (‘I’d like to know where the sun goes to sleep’) play (‘We’ve been thinking together for ages. That’s a fun game, isn’t it?), adventure (‘You just put one paw in front of the other. Then you put the other paw in front of the first one, and so on.’), and loyalty (‘Will you come and sleep in my den, Squirrel? Nice and warm together).  This is a great story collection to read aloud to young people For readers ages 8 to 11, reading these stories  independently, should inspire thoughts  the bonds of friendship and spreading ripples of kindness. 



CLIMATE CHANGE: Another Tough Topic

MISSING MIKE by Shari Green (free verse novel) (2018)

Mike is an eleven-year old rescue mutt, missing an eye. When Cara and her family are forced to evacuate thier home which is in the path of a wildfire, Mike runs off, and the family is forced to leave him behind. A devastating  story of families who are forced to flee as they enounter the nighmare of burning debris. Besides reconnecting wth her loving dog, Mike, how does Cara and her family face up to loss caused by fire disasters. Will they reconnect with their home and with their loving dog, Mike. Though written in 2018, this book is a WOW! – NOW! – story. 

TWO DEGREES by Alan Gratz (fiction, ages 10-14) (2022)

Author, Alan Gratz has done it again. He’s written another thrilling adventure story – make that THREE amazing stories  – in this novel about characters entrapped in three climate disasters. The book is divided into six parts, plus epilogue. Each part presents a narrative about different characters. This alternating has worked successfully for Gratz before (Refugee; Ground Zero) and in this novel, the author presents grab-your-throat adventures that moves the readers along (I suppose, one could choose to focus on one story at a time). Akira is caught in the wildfires of California; Own and George are threatened by hungry polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba and Natalie is dragged into a massive hurricane which comes crashing through Miami. Each of these characters are swept in the devastating effect of climate change and it is more than their stories of survival that connects them. This is a powerful important novel of our times, helping readers thing about the urgency of the climate crisis and what individuals can do to make a difference. This book, like other Gratz titles, will be widely read. This book should be read. Fasten your seat belts, this is an amazing work of fiction. Amazing! 

WE THE SEA TURTLES: A collection of Island Stories by Michelle Kadarusman (2023)

Michelle Kadarusaman has written some important novels that showcase her knowledge and remarkable talent for writing about the natural world (e.g., The Theory of Hummingbirds; Music for Tigers; Berani). This anthology explores relevant themes like eco-anxiety, natural disaster, and the change people are forced to make when they are uprooted. Kadarusman expertly presents scientific information guided by the sincere environmental concerns that many young people reflect upon. The author takes readers around the world (e.g.,Georgian Bay, Canada; Manhattan, NY; New South Wales, Australia; Komodo Island Indonesia) and describes ‘hot off the press’ narratives of such global issues as flood, fires, pollution and extinction. This is a wonderful blend of fiction and nonfiction writing.  This is an ideal read-aloud source for grade 4 to 6 classrooms.  Great stories is how geography and science should be taught. In the story, Lost on Komodo one character says “Humans need stories to make sense of life.” (p. 62) Today’s readers need stories like the one’s that are featured in We the Sea Turtles and to think hard about Michelle’s message to readers: “we live in a beautiful world and together we can take good care of it.” (author interview, p. 201) Hooray for sea turtles! Hooray for Michelle Kadarusman! Hooray to Pajama Press for this stellar short story collection. I loved it. 

Description by the publisher

“In a collection of nine short stories, children on islands around the world make connections to nature while facing life-changing events. Each child experiences a significant emotional turning point at the same time they encounter a turtle – real or imagined. A prologue tells of a sea turtle that was tracked making an extraordinarily long journey, while an epilogue is written from the turtle’s point of view. Back matter shares information about sea turtles and snapping turtles.”