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Notes From a Children's Librarian: Inspiring Junior Fiction

Transformative novels for middle grade readers.

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.


Book Cover Me and Mr Bell

Me and Mr. Bell, by Philip Roy, is a gem of a book, a tale to inspire any young reader to overcome their weaknesses by finding their strengths. It’s 1908. Ten-year-old Eddie discovers he’s not like the other kids. He can’t read or write. When everyone else finds this out, his family, his classmates, and even his teacher, treat him like a dummy, and give up on him. Then he meets someone who changes his life: the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell, a visitor in Eddie’s home town, rumoured to be doing flying experiments. Eddie runs into him in the fields whilst taking a walk and Mr. Bell seems genuinely interested in the way Eddie views the world. Mr. Bell asks him a profound question: which have been more useful…Eddie’s successes or failures? His father has a huge immovable boulder on his farm and Eddie, as in all great kid stories, sets out to solve the problem by himself, without the grownups’ knowledge. STEM enthusiasts will love that he works out a pulley system to do the impossible, thus earning his father’s respect. This is an uplifting story about finding our path, how one person seeing and believing in us (plus some tenacity) can turn your life around. (Plus Eddie meets Helen Keller, a living example of this.) Some pre-reading about Bell and Keller would be helpful. (Grades 3-6)


Book Cover Out of the Dark

Out of the Dark, by Julie Lawson, is also about adversity, transformation and finding the positive in difficult experiences. It’s 1918 and Jane and her siblings are not above stealing to get by. Jane is dogged in the face of life’s curve balls. There’s an abusive father and a brother who joins up to fight in the war and goes incommunicado. There’s the Halifax Explosion (two ships colliding in the harbour) that obliterates her home and kills three of her siblings and father. Her mother suffers a brain injury and starts acting strangely. Jane must provide for her family whilst wrestling with friendship, and the local "well-to-do" kids, resulting in Jane taking a beating. To top it all off, the Spanish flu hits. Readers will relate to the fear of germs, sickness and death, and Jane’s newfound job of sewing and selling masks in the face of anti-maskers. Her challenges are juxtaposed with excerpts from Connor’s diary, as we see the Great War through his eyes, including the taking of Vimy Ridge. (Grades 4-6)


Book Cover Jude Saves the World

Jude Saves the World, by Ronnie Riley, is an important book for any young tween or teen struggling with gender identity and self acceptance. Seventh-grader Jude is sure of a few things—being non-binary and their best friend Dallas, who is gay. Jude and Dallas share all their secrets—Dallas’ divorcing parents, Jude’s ADHD, and Jude’s grandparents’ continual use of Jude's old name (which is never mentioned in the book; even when Jude’s grandparents deadname them, it’s in bold letters as Jude). Then Stevie comes into their friend circle, recently ostracized by popular mean girl Tessa, but when Stevie goes back to Tessa, Jude struggles with a lot of questions about friendship. But Jude's own identity is never a personal struggle. Jude gains strength by standing to their grandparents and starting a safe space group at the school library. And through the safe space group readers get an exploration of the multitude of identifiers—ie. cisgender, pansexual, demisexual, plus a lot more. Along Jude’s very real journey, the reader has time and space to explore questions of their own. (Grades 6-8)


Book Cover The Cricket War

The Cricket War, by Tho Pham and Sandra McTavish, sheds light on the “boat people”—Vietnamese immigrants who came to America and Canada in the 1980s. Because of Communist rule over South Vietnam, many parents were desperate to help their children escape conscription. Twelve-year-old Tho’s family tries to smuggle out Tho and his older brother, Vu, but when they arrive at the smuggler’s house, the price has changed, and only Vu can go. Tho must say goodbye to his brother, not knowing where he will end up and, to make matters worse, his best friend Lam, with whom he has played cricket wars (battling real live crickets together) has disappeared. A year later Tho is launched on a harrowing solo journey involving several boats and persistent pirate attacks. He ends up sneaking onto a pirate boat, thinking he’ll have a better chance of survival, but continues to face hunger and desperate conditions. Things turn around when he ends up rescued by a French ship which eventually lands him in Canada, reunited with his brother. Based on a true story of hardship and resilience, this one can’t help but inspire. (Grades 3-6)


On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.

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