Covid-19, climate change, natural disasters—the news cycle is dominated by disturbing headlines, which can be particularly hard on middle-grade readers. Old enough to know what’s going on but frequently considered too young to combat such issues, these kids can be left feeling overwhelmed. Many authors have taken note, writing books that honestly address readers’ fears and frustrations. These works don’t offer pat solutions but acknowledge that children aren’t alone in their uncertainty; many also emphasize that young people can take manageable yet powerful steps. All will leave them feeling less alone.
The titular character of Barbara Dee’s Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet (Aladdin, 2022) has always been a worrier, but her anxiety ramps up after she watches a movie in school about melting glaciers and a class project devoted to the local river reveals the presence of pollution. She soon finds herself leading a protest and speaking out against climate change. Haven’s angst over family problems and shifting friendships is just as palpable as her eco-anxiety, but all of the protagonist’s conflicts wrap up on realistic yet optimistic notes. Readers will take to heart the quotation that one of Haven’s teachers shares (attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.): “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
Garvey in the Dark (Wordsong/Astra Books for Young Readers, 2022) finds the protagonist of Nikki Grimes’ acclaimed Garvey’s Choice plunged into a terrifying world roiled by the Covid-19 pandemic. Learning of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the young Black boy also grapples with feelings of fear and anger and longs to join Black Lives Matter protests. Like the earlier book, this verse novel uses tanka, a Japanese style of free verse. Grimes deftly balances the everyday with the life-altering; an especially moving scene melds the two as Garvey sings with his father, who is recovering from Covid.
In Ying Chang Compestine’s Morning Sun in Wuhan (Clarion/HarperCollins, 2022), a 13-year-old Chinese girl watches as Covid-19 breaks out. Worried for her physician father and mourning her mother, who died a year ago in a traffic accident, Mei, a gifted cook, channels her anxieties into action, donning an N95 mask and helping prepare and deliver food to the residents of her apartment complex. Compestine’s affectionate depiction of her own hometown, Wuhan, offers a much-needed counter to the anti-Asian prejudice that has flourished in the wake of the pandemic, and her determined young protagonist will remind readers that they, too, can make a difference.
Feeling unimpressive in comparison to her academically gifted brother, overwhelmed by her schoolwork, and cast aside by her best friend, 13-year-old Quinn is further shattered when a tornado wreaks havoc on her neighborhood—and her house. Despite its heavy subject matter, Caroline Brooks DuBois’ verse novel Ode to a Nobody (Holiday House, 2022) is a tale of quiet triumph as Quinn slowly comes into her own, expressing her pain through her newfound love of poetry.
No World Too Big: Young People Fighting Global Climate Change (Charlesbridge, March 14), edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, uses a mix of prose and verse to profile activists across the world, from Greta Thunberg to Xiuhtezcatl Martinez to Lina Yassin, as well as several grassroots organizations. Bradley’s muted yet compelling illustrations pair well with poems by David Bowles, Traci Sorell, and others; the result is a rousing and relatable call to action, one that would speak powerfully to both Haven and Quinn.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.