March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tough Stuff: Middle Grade Novels Tackle Heavy Topics | JLG’s On the Radar

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Fiction for grades three to five can take on tough subjects―abandonment, foster families, and racism. Handled with tactful gloves, the following fiction titles, selected by the editors at Junior Library Guild, allow readers to learn about themselves and empathize with those who are struggling with difficult issues.

Mountain DogENGLE, Margarita. Mountain Dog. illus. by Loga and Aleksey Ivanov. Holt. 2013. ISBN 9780805095166. JLG Level: A : Intermediate Readers (Grades 3–5).

When his mother is sent to prison for cruelty to animals, Tony moves in with his great uncle Leo whom he’s never met. Life in the Sierra Mountains is completely different from his Los Angeles world. He has his own room, a friendly dog who loves him at first sight, and a patient foster father who has much to teach him. Leo is a search-and-rescue volunteer, and his dog Gabe has also been trained to find people lost deep in the mountains. Tony alternates between his curiosity of the nature around him and his fear of loving things he could lose. Engle uses free verse and the voices of Tony, Leo, and Gabe to strengthen the reader’s empathy for the boy, allowing them to feel the struggles that the mountain dog sees.

Charlie BumpersHARLEY, Bill. Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year. illus. by Adam Gustavson. Peachtree. 2013. ISBN 9781561457328. JLG Level: A+ : Intermediate Readers (Grades 3–5).

Charlie Bumpers never means to get into trouble, but it always seems to find him. The year he enters fourth grade, he is horrified to learn that his teacher will be Mrs. Burke, last year’s teacher of the year. Charlie’s problem is that last year, he threw his shoe, which hit her in the head. “If I ever see you throw another shoe in school, you will stay in from recess for the rest of your life,” she promised. Now Charlie is in her class. How can he stay out of trouble with a teacher who’s just waiting for him to make a mistake? What’s even worse is that she surrounds him with perfect kids who never, ever make mistakes. His parents refuse to get him transferred. Charlie is stuck and is destined to be in a war that he can never hope to win; he just wants to survive it.

Bo at Ballard CreekHILL, Kirkpatrick. Bo at Ballard Creek. illus. by LeUyen Pham. Holt. 2013. ISBN 9780805093513. JLG Level:  A : Intermediate Readers (Grades 3–5).

After the Alaskan gold rush when miners began to drift to other places, Mean Millie leaves town, giving up her baby. Miners Arvid and Jack are charged with delivering the child to the orphanage. After one look at the nuns, the two new friends decide to keep her. Everyone at Ballard Creek is delighted with the new addition to their family, for she becomes part of the life of all who lived at the mining camp. Bo, as she becomes known, learns Eskimo and English. She learns to cook and help in the cookshack. Reminiscent of a Little House book, Hill shares Bo’s life with her papas through the course of a year―from birthday and Fourth of July parties, to everyday life, and the excitement of the unexpected.

Anton and Cecil Lost at SeaMARTIN, Lisa and Valerie. Anton and Cecil: Cats at Sea. illus. by Kelly Murphy. Algonquin. 2013. ISBN 9781616202460. JLG Level: A+ : Intermediate Readers (Grades 3–5).

Brothers are often different from each other. The cats Anton and Cecil are no different. Cecil would love nothing more than to sail on one of the ships that come into their harbor. Anton is quiet and cautious. He’d rather stay on dry ground. As fate would often have it, Anton is taken against his will to be a rat-catcher on the largest ship ever to dock in their harbor. Cecil must rescue him from this dangerous fate, so he forces his way onto the next vessel. Pirate ships, mysterious whales, kind cooks, and huge rats fill out this survival tale, and the brothers’ adventure teaches lessons about facing fears, family, and friendship.

SugarRHODES, Jewell Parker. Sugar. Little, Brown. 2013. ISBN 9780316043052. JLG Level: A : Intermediate Readers (Grades 3–5).

In the time of Reconstruction on the banks of the Mississippi, 10-year-old Sugar and the other former slaves still do hard labor harvesting sugar cane. Blacks are still separated from whites, and not much has changed except that the workers get paid for their efforts. But since the end of the Civil War, it’s mostly old folks that remain on the plantation, so Mister Wills hires Chinese men to strengthen his labor force. Sugar, who’s almost always in trouble anyway, crosses the racial line when she plays with the plantation owner’s son. The new workers stir up her curiosity with their shiny black hair, linen pants, new food, and new customs. Sugar can’t resist being with them either. In a time when things are changing, the strong-minded girl rushes headfirst, bringing all races together, but at what cost? Things are a’changing, but not everyone is happy about it. Rhodes’s enlightening historical novel introduces a little known thread of history about Chinese immigrants working in the South after the Civil War.

For audio/video versions of these booktalks, please visit JLG’s Shelf Life Blog.

Junior Library Guild is a collection development service that helps school and public libraries acquire the best new children’s and young adult books. Season after season, year after year, Junior Library Guild book selections go on to win awards, collect starred or favorable reviews, and earn industry honors. Visit us at


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Deborah B. Ford About Deborah B. Ford

Deborah is the Director of Library Outreach for Junior Library Guild. She is an award-winning teacher librarian with almost 30 years of experience as a classroom teacher and librarian in K–12 schools.