The middle grade novel I’m working on takes place on an island in the Great Lakes. That, coupled with how, this time of year, my favorite daydream is lying on a sandy beach in the Caribbean, has me thinking a lot about islands. As settings, they offer a remove from the larger world, an isolation the writer can treat as lonesome and confining, fantastic and rife with possibility, or any combination. Whether inhabited by baby dragons, convicts, plucky orphans, wild ponies or, of course, pirates, islands are the scenes of some wonderful middle grade novels, from classic to contemporary. Here are a few of my favorites:
My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett. This is my go-to book when an adult library patron asks for a read aloud to share with a child not quite ready for longer novels. But even older middle-grade readers can’t resist the heroics of Elmer Elevator, who stows away on a ship to Wild Island to rescue a poor, over-worked baby dragon. It also features the best all-time maps in kid literature (see above) .
Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. Need I say more? An all-time favorite among children’s books, it’s the story of orphan Anne Shirley, who arrives on Prince Edward to be adopted by the elderly Cuthberts, who are expecting a boy, not a fesisty red-haired girl. The wild beauty of the island is essential to the charm of this book and its sequels.
Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. When my daughter was nine or ten, her favorite game was Misty. She and her friends would gallop everywhere, imaginary manes flying in the island wind. Set on a real island off the coast of Virginia, this book and the others in the series explore powerful, poignant themes of what happens when humans and nature meet.
The Cay, by Theodor Taylor. Two islands in this book—Curacao, from which the hero Phillip escapes on a boat when German soldiers invade, and the small desert island where he winds up a castaway, blind and dependent on Timothy, an old West Indian unlike anyone he’s ever met. A terrific survival story, with moving themes of the destructiveness of prejudice and the redemptive power of love.
Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko. Alcatraz! Just the name sends a shiver down the spine. In this comic, engaging novel, set in 1935, Moose Flanagan’s father takes a job as a prison electrician and the whole family moves to the island with him. A fascinating account of what it was like for the children of the guards and other workers who lived there, as well as a great story about the bonds of family and the dilemmas of first love.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell; Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson; and of course Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stephenson….I could go on! Please share your own favorites!
(An interesting aside: As I was writing this post, I came across this tidbit on one of my favorite sites, A.Word.A.Day., with Anu Garg. The word island was originally iland–literally, watery land. Somewhere along the line, an s was added, because it was erroneously believed to derive from the French isle. The French word has dropped its s to become île, but we English speakers are still carrying that misbegotten s.)
Tricia’s new picture book, Phoebe and Digger, publishes on March 26. It’s not set on an island, but is still pretty exciting.