“What do you do for a living?” It’s one of the most common questions that adults are asked upon meeting someone new and a reminder that identity and career are closely intertwined. Kids, however, get “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answers can change from month to month, even from day to day. Children have the freedom to try on new identities, to envision themselves as astronauts, teachers, journalists, doctors, and more. Several middle-grade titles published this year offer opportunities for kids to dream big. Many of these titles center on children who are already working—for some kids, having a job isn’t a far-off fantasy but a part of everyday life.
Two novels follow girls whose dreams can’t be crushed even by tough circumstances. Set in Mumbai, India, Varsha Bajaj’s Thirst (Nancy Paulsen Books, July 19) follows 12-year-old Minni. After her mother becomes ill, Minni takes over her job working as a servant for a wealthy family while still attending school. But enrolling in a computer class makes her realize that, despite her family’s grinding poverty, her ambitions—among them writing poetry and pursuing a career in the sciences—aren’t out of reach. In this empowering coming-of-age tale, Bajaj deftly tackles weighty topics including labor, education, and unequal access to natural resources.
With money tight after her father is laid off, 12-year-old Mira, the biracial protagonist of Sonja Thomas’ Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence (Aladdin, March 22), gets creative as she seeks ways to pay for her beloved cat’s diabetes treatments. Thomas doesn’t shy away from the realities of the working world—Mira’s father deals with unemployment, while her mother spends less time on hobbies that bring her joy and takes an accounting job she dislikes. But Mira’s effervescent voice keeps the narrative upbeat, and her goal of becoming an astronaut and astrophysicist may spur STEM-minded kids to explore their own interests.
Children unsure where their passions lie—and many adults, too—will appreciate Colleen Nelson and Kathie MacIsaac’s If You Can Dream It, You Can Do It: How 25 Inspiring Individuals Found Their Dream Jobs, illustrated by Scot Ritchie (Pajama Press, Oct. 25). Detailed profiles on careers ranging from storm chaser to barber to cake designer will leave readers with ideas to mull. Science lovers who don’t know where to start may find inspiration in Nancy F. Castaldo’s The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale: Restoring an Island Ecosystem, with photographs by Morgan Heim (Clarion/HarperCollins, Aug. 9), which examines the reintroduction of wolves to a national park. As in other installments in the Scientists in the Field series, the profiles of working scientists are a highlight.
Aspiring cub reporters will find role models in two books by young journalists. In Hilde on the Record: Memoir of a Kid Crime Reporter (Chicago Review Press, April 19), Hilde Lysiak describes how accompanying her father on reporting jobs ignited her love of journalism; just before her eighth birthday, she started her own newspaper and at 9 even broke the story of a murder. Woven into her candid narrative are tips on everything from interviewing sources to shaping news stories. Similarly, Muhammad Najem, growing up in war-torn Syria, interviewed other young people about their experiences; the videos he posted spread awareness around the world. His poignant graphic novel, Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria (Little, Brown, Sept. 27), co-written by CNN reporter and producer Nora Neus and illustrated by Julie Robine, is a compelling tale, laced with the heartbreaks Najem encountered from a startlingly young age.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.