These days, parents like to think of themselves as responsible for every aspect of their children’s happiness and well-being. But often overlooked in this 21st-century conception of parent/child dynamics is the powerful sense of responsibility children feel for adults. A desire to protect their elders is particularly strong during the tween years, when the darkness and complexity of the world come into focus, but the magical thinking of childhood still offers the comfort of solutions. These four middle-grade novels capture something moving and seemingly eternal: When trouble strikes the grown-ups around them, children instinctively put themselves on the emotional front lines.
A prime example is Riley James, the 11-year-old narrator of Greg Howard’s THE WHISPERS (Putnam, 226 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up). After his mother goes missing, Riley sets out to find the magical voices from a local legend that he believes can help him bring her back. A self-proclaimed “mama’s boy … without his mama,” Riley struggles with bed-wetting plus another “condition” — being attracted to boys — that some in his small, Christian town consider cause for shame. Riley heads into the woods to find the Whispers, accompanied by a “Stand by Me”-like band of misfits including the overweight Gary, his only friend; Gary’s tag-along little brother, Carl; and the “Redneck Superhero” Dylan Mathews, an older boy whose sympathy (or perhaps empathy) for Riley’s situation makes him a winsome champion.
“The Whispers” does not turn out to be the fable it at first seems, but Howard pulls off the trick of making Riley’s real quest even more heart-wrenching than the fantasy that drives it. This taut, moving tale delves beyond loss into issues of sexuality, conformity and self-acceptance. Riley’s relationship with his missing mother, whom we see in flashbacks teaching him new vocabulary words, is particularly well drawn. “Use it in a sentence, Button,” she tells him, encouraging Riley to redefine his world through language — a lesson he takes to heart after she goes missing. “The Whispers” is a masterful exploration into the power of storytelling but also its dangers, including self-denial and escapism.
Escapism is the guiding philosophy of Rodeo and his 12-year-old daughter, Coyote, the titular heroine of Dan Gemeinhart’s THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF COYOTE SUNRISE (Holt, 352 pp., $16.99; ages 9 to 12). Since the death of Coyote’s mother and sisters five years earlier, the pair have traveled around the country in an old school bus, calling each other by hippie road names and following their hankerings for taco trucks or sandwiches. But for all his whimsy and free-spiritedness, Rodeo has a few “no-go’s,” as he calls them, including ever returning to their hometown, Poplin Springs, Wash. Coyote is protective of her father and accepts their life of wandering, hiding her loneliness and grief behind bravado. But when she learns that developers are tearing up the local park where her mother and sisters buried a memory box, she enlists an eclectic group of fellow travelers to trick Rodeo into driving her there.