three middle-grade novels; three kids wrestling with life and loss

I’ve met a bunch of awesome kids recently in the three novels highlighted today, all of whom I’d love to introduce to you.

They’re coming from widely different locations — a farm in the American South, an island off the coast of India, a ranch in Oregon. Each of them encounters substantial adversity and meets it with an authentic mixture of courage, reluctance, fear, and deep questions about life. All great choices for middle-grade readers and book clubs.

ruby lee and me cover imageRuby Lee & Me, by Shannon Hitchcock
published in 2016 by Scholastic Press

Sarah Willis has her life turned upside down in one split second when her younger sister, Robin, is critically injured on Sarah’s watch.

Over the next months, Sarah is engulfed in guilt and terrified about her sister’s injuries. She longs to experience peace and forgiveness, but isn’t convinced it’s possible for her, not while Robin still lies in a hospital bed. 

Sarah moves to her grandparents’ farm during this crisis, into their warm, accepting embrace, and just down the road from her best friend, an African American girl named Ruby Lee.


As Sarah and Ruby start school, more difficulties await them. School integration has come to Shady Creek, and along with it the area’s first African American teacher for the predominantly white students.

Sarah navigates all this with some huge missteps, then has to find her way back with the help of her teacher, her faith, and her solid heart. Beautifully written characters interact with honesty in this great read for ages 9 and up.

tiger boy cover imageTiger Boy, by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan
published in 2015 by Charlesbridge

Neel lives on an island of the Sunderbans, a tropical home of salty creeks, flowering jasmine, and wild guavas off the coast of India. It’s a home Neel loves to the core of his being, but it’s a tough place to make a living.

That’s why when the corrupt businessman, Gupta, pays men to harvest rare sundari trees or bully widows for rent payments, even good men like Neel’s father turn their backs on long-held values to earn his rupees.


Now, a tiger cub, normally protected in a reserve, has gone missing and Gupta is offering a huge reward for it. Neel and his sister know Gupta means to sell the skin and body parts on the black market if anyone captures it for him. Despite the immense dangers, they’re determined to find it first and return it to safety.

Meanwhile, another treasure is at stake: Neel’s future. He’s a bright student, who could bring honor and success to his family if he’d agree to move far from home for a good education. But the loss of his home-life is not something Neel is willing to accept. 

Mitali Perkins weaves Neel’s inner turmoil and outward adventure together brilliantly in a marvelously diverse setting. Excellent, fast read (132 pages) with an environmental message and resources to learn more about efforts to save Bengal Tigers and bring about holistic development to the Sunderbans region. Ages 9 and up.

heart of a shepherd cover imageHeart of a Shepherd, by Roseanne Parry
published in 2009; a Yearling Book from Random House

Brother is 11 years old,  the youngest of five boys living with his dad and grandparents on their ranch in Eastern Oregon. As his story opens, his father has just received orders to head with his Army Reserve unit to Iraq for 14 months. That seems like an eternity to Brother.

With his older brothers off at their own military assignments and schools, Brother finds himself the only one left to help his grandparents keep the ranch going. Those tasks are brutally hard, and Brother has never been so sure that he’s cut out for either ranching or the military anyway, as generations of Aldermans before him seem to have been.


So there’s a raft of anxieties snarling in Brother’s heart and mind — about his dad’s safety, his grandparents’ health, the bum lambs he’s tending, the promise he made to his dad to keep the ranch in good shape, and his own misgivings about who he is meant to be. Brother doggedly moves forward with the wise help of his extraordinary grandparents — his Catholic grandmother and Quaker, pacifist grandfather — and the new priest in town, Father Ziegler.

This story is unusually deep, honest, and tender, probing issues of faith, calling, and identity in children. Deep chords of grief run through the story, yet the strength of these characters support us all the way through. Ages 10 and up.

P.S. Can I just say that I really dislike the cover of this book? I don’t like to make negative comments here, but if you look at the cover and say, “Hmmm…not for me,” I just want to recommend that you ignore it and give the story a chance.