3 Timely Middle Grade Titles Featuring Pandemics | SLJ Spotlight

These three disparate middle grade titles that feature plotlines informed by pandemics are especially relevant in the age of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many of our lives forever, and that remains apparent in its emerging presence in fiction across genres. These three disparate titles feature plotlines informed by pandemics: Alkaf’s tween protagonist ­Hamra is pushed by isolation loneliness to break a sacred magical code in Hamra and the Jungle of Memories; a young girl with no one and nothing left strives to survive the bubonic plague in Zahler’s historical novel Wild Bird; and a young girl in India uses sleuthing to cope with unimaginable loss in De Suza’s contemporary title When Impossible Happens.


Alkaf, Hanna. Hamra and the Jungle of Memories400p. HarperCollins. Mar. 2023. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780063207950.
Gr 3-6–Alkaf brings Malaysian folklore into the modern day through this quest of Hamra, a girl just turning 13 who lives on the edge of the Langkawi jungle. The jungle can be dangerous, and so there are six rules her family has taught her about entering (such as asking permission and never taking what’s not yours). On her birthday, in an angry ­tantrum, Hamra purposely disobeys all the rules and takes a magical fruit home to give to Opah, who is suffering from dementia. The fruit ­seemingly cures Opah, but at what cost? This event prompts a magical journey that Hamra must go on to fix the consequences of her disrespect to the enchanted jungle. Hamra, with her neighbor and friend Ilyas and the ambiguous weretiger Pak Belang, set out through the jungle into the realm of fae and creatures, some helpful and some harmful. While making deals with magical favors, Hamra learns lessons about family and friendship. The COVID-19 pandemic and its global effects are also mentioned throughout the story, as Hamra’s frustration is driven by the lockdown and her parents’ stressful work on the front lines. During the journey, they question what it means to be human, what happens to those who are not the hero of the story, and what it means to pay debts and take care of your community. Alkaf also uses family events to bring the story full circle. The ­reluctant hero Hamra will appeal to young and older readers alike, and the action will keep tweens engaged. ­VERDICT A welcome addition to libraries that serve ­children and tweens. This fresh take on ­Little Red ­Riding Hood is a necessary purchase for libraries and fantasy shelves.–Helen Prince

De Suza, Jane. When Impossible Happens176p. Putnam. Apr. 2023. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780593530122.
Gr 3-5–An Indian child seeks truth ­during the chaos of lockdown and loss. Swara narrates the beginning of the COVID-19 ­pandemic from her home city of ­Bengaluru, India. During the confusion and fear of those first weeks, she suffers a deeply ­personal loss. To cope, Swara rebrands life challenges into a series of mysteries to be solved, leading to the possibility of solving an actual crime in her very own neighborhood. Swara is an engaging narrator in a cast of distinctive characters that bring Swara’s neighborhood to life, even amid a global pandemic. The characters’ authenticity shines during scenes of online school,  with a compassionate teacher hearing the very real concerns of children living through COVID-19. Humor keeps readers engaged through clever wordplay: Swara’s mystery-loving grandmother calls Swara “Little Miss Marble,” while her best friend Ruth, who crowns herself the neighborhood reporter, calls her broadcast, “The Ruth of the Matter.” However, the overall arc of the story gets weighed down by multiple dynamic story lines: the loss of a beloved family member; the terror of an unknown virus and the resulting unprecedented lockdown; a new puppy; and the strange happenings at night in the empty shop across the street. The result tangles readers in a web of problems that feels overwhelming, even with resolution. ­VERDICT A welcome perspective on life, loss, and current events that will engage readers in the beginning, but might lose their interest by the end.–Casey O’Leary

Zahler, Diane. Wild Bird320p. Roaring Brook. Mar. 2023. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781250833402.
Gr 6-8–Zahler’s novel offers a glimpse into the bubonic plague, the pandemic that rocked Europe in the 14th century. Owen rescues 12-year-old Rype, who was hiding in a hollow tree trunk, and realizes she must have been a survivor from a Norwegian village decimated by “the sickness,” as it is referred to in the book. Rype begins a new life and adventure with Owen, starting on the North Sea, carrying them through part of the Holy Roman Empire and to the Kingdom of France. The two join a merry band of troubadours traveling around singing for room and board, who also provide companionship and protection. Rype knows she has no family to return to in Norway and seems happy to follow Owen home to ­England to rejoin his mother and sister. Along the way the group encounters perilous situations readers might find shocking but were, in fact, normal facets of living during the Middle Ages. Each chapter begins with a flashback to Rype’s life with her family in her Norwegian village running parallel to the narrative. Zahler’s research is obvious with her diction; there are words and phrases readers will need to use context clues to decipher. Rype and Owen’s affection for each other is an underlying current and could provide enough tension to keep a reluctant reader invested. Furthermore, personal connections with recent COVID-19 experiences might allow for interesting ­discussion in a group setting. ­VERDICT A great addition to any middle grade historical fiction ­collection.–Kim Gardner

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