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Characters Coping with Change:

New Books for Middle Schoolers

by Susie Wilde

*Originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Kids & Books.*

The years between ages 9-12 are full of change.  Many middle schoolers soldier through without acknowledging the difficulties that beset them.  Whether or not they recognize the turmoil, there's a comfort in discovering books whose characters struggle with changes during early adolescence. 

Characters Change People Around Them 

 Middle schoolers are known for their pack mentality.  Students may feel as if they're slashing their way through a jungle where the unspoken law is survival of the fittest. However, some peers have an almost magical power to alter those around them. 

The Mystery of Meerkat Hill (Random House, 2013, ages 8-10) is the second in Alexander McCall Smith's series about young Precious Ramotswe, the character who grows up to form the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.  She proves herself a character who cares about people as she reaches out to Pontsho and Teb, two new students at her school. The two might be poor, but they have a rich secret.  They have a pet meerkat, a creature that fascinates Precious and becomes a curious partner in her solving a mystery to help Pontsho and Teb's family. 

Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is the hero of Kathi Appelt's The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum, 2013, ages 8-12). Chap is trying to deal with his grandfather's death when his family's business and his home is further threatened by Sonny Boy Beaucoup, who plans to turn the swamp into an alligator wrestling theme park. Chap determines that he will step up and protect the swamp and his family just as his grandfather had. Appelt delivers multiple viewpoints in short chapters. Her conflict-rich writing varies from gorgeous descriptions to slapstick situations.

Characters Change Because of Their Worlds

Sometimes the ferocity of life can feel like it is attacking preteens on an almost steady basis.  There's consolation in watching the struggles of literary heroes.

Heroes like Delphine, a character who, after spending a summer with the Black Panthers and a mother she barely knows, expects to return to her old life. But change is a constant in Rita Williams-Garcia's P.S. Be Eleven (HarperCollins, 2013, ages 9-12), the sequel to Newbery Honor-winning One Crazy Summer. Every facet of this book rings true: flawless research, reminiscent references and descriptive writing.  Truest of all are Delphine's overwhelming feelings -- joy at her uncle's return from Vietnam, sadness when he gets swallowed by street drugs, the thrill of The Jackson Five, confusion at her father's remarriage, and typical preteen problems.  

Lisa Graff's Tangle of Knots (Philomel, 2013, ages 9-12), told through multiple intriguing viewpoints, occurs in a fantasy world in which characters search to find their "Talent" and gain their sense of selves.  When everyone around her seems to understand their "Talent," will Marigold move out of the world of the "Fair," those whose gifts are not yet defined? Can her spectacular spitting somehow be at the center of everything?  Amazingly, Talents, numerous characters, and tangled plot twists come together through the author's considerable writing talents.

Characters Change Their Worlds 

Most adolescents are quick to criticize, but some decide to transform the elements of life that make them unhappy.

Red Porter's adored father has died suddenly and life transforms rapidly in Kathryn Erskine's Seeing Red (Scholastic, 2013, ages 10-12). His mother is consumed by grief and plans to sell both the business and the house and move.  Amid concerns at home, Red's lifelong friendships are strained. His feelings are intensified by  his growing awareness of 1970s racial prejudice, his family's possible role in past cruelties and his desire to live up to his father's strong belief in him. Red does so by making difficult choices that go against tradition and the status quo.

Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon (Candlewick, 2013, ages 10-12) takes place in a world where 15-year-old Standish Treadwell lives in bombed out, rubble-ridden Zone 7 with his grandfather. Standish stands out physically (with one blue eye and one brown eye) and mentally because of his dyslexia.  Clearly different than the "train-track" thinkers, maybe Standish has a chance of freeing the world. Gardner's poetic voice beautifies this ugly world and adds poignancy to this allegorical tale.

Two protagonists both seek change in Jaclyn Moriarty's A Corner of White (Scholastic, 2013, ages 11 and up) a fantasy that takes place in two worlds. Madeline, 14, lives in present-day Cambridge and is adjusting to life after she and her mother leave her father. Elliot, 15, lives in the Kingdom of Cello where colors can attack inhabitants at any moment, and his father has mysteriously disappeared.  Through a tiny crack between their worlds, the two exchange letters and support each other.  The complex plot of this unusual fantasy leaves much unsolved, setting readers up for sequels.

Characters Are Changed By Family 

Sometimes middle grade stories minimize the role of parents and family, but in these books, characters' families are crucial in order for change to happen.

Hilary McKay stresses the importance of family in Binny for Short, (McElderrry Books, 2013, ages 9-11).  Binny feels haunted by a trifecta of troubles that began when she was eight -- her father's death, her angry cursing of an aunt who dies two weeks later, and the fact her dog has been given away.  Readers become involved in the life of this quirky family and find sympathy for Binny, a complex character for a young middle grade book.

Ann E. Burg's Serafina's Promise (Scholastic, 2013, ages 10-12) is told through lyrical free verses, peppered with Haitian Creole phrases which convey a strong sense of place and establish the character of young Haitian Serafina.  Serafina longs for schooling so that she can become a doctor. She is motivated by the death of her infant brother and her Granpe's wishes -- before being murdered by the Tonton Macoutes he often said, “Education is the road to freedom.”  One of the book's strengths is the author's ability to stay consistently in Serafina's mindset.  The separation from her family during the Haitian earthquake, for example, is almost less terrible than Serafina's concerns about her mother's opinions and the financial impact her schooling will have on her family. Throughout, Serafina is surrounded by the love of her doting father, strong mother, and devoted grandmother, Gogo. The author keeps readers fully in Serafina's young and charming mind while capturing what survival requires in poverty-struck Haiti.

Characters Are Changed by Others

What happens when an important 'other' enters the lives of young people on the edge of discovering who they really are?  Dramatic changes -- the kinds that drive a strong story!

Mila, the heroine of Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff (Putnam, 2013, ages 11 and up), lives in London with her happy family.  Though socially awkward with friends, Mila adores her parents and they adore her. All that changes when an old friend of her father's goes missing.  Rather than pleasant tourism they'd planned, Mila and her father's trip becomes devoted to discovering the whereabouts of this man and the truth of what's occurring. This innocent yet savvy 12-year-old is adept at reading emotions.  She excels and thrives on putting clues together.  At first she wonders about the missing man's relationship with her father, his wife, and his deceased son.  Ultimately, she discovers more about herself, her family and the complexity of the adult world.

Clare Vanderpool's historical novel, Navigating Early (Delacorte, 2013, ages 10-12) takes place after World War II.  After his mother's death, Jack Baker is shipped off from his Kansas home to a boarding school in Maine.  Overwhelmed by transitions, he attempts to understand Early Auden, a strange boy who translates the number pi into an odd tale that explains why his brother, a war hero, is still alive, and charts a course to find him. Before he knows it Jack is off on an adventure as bizarre as his companion. Vanderpool does a remarkable job of weaving elements of adventure, mystery, the mystical and one boy's attempts to make sense of his world.

With a vast array of characters facing a myriad of changes -- both internal, and within the worlds around them -- books are always available to help children face the challenges of their own lives.


Susie Wilde (ignitingwriting.com), a read-aloud advocate and children's book crusader for over thirty years, has reviewed for magazines and newspapers and shared her favorite titles with children, parents, and teachers.