December 6, 2012


Everyone remembers the oddball in his or her school--the kid who never quite fit in, the student with a disability, the kid with family problems. As we age, we learn to show compassion and kindness to others (I hope!), but it can be hard to do this as a young person.

I've recently witnessed both criticism and compassion on the part of students--both part of learning to be a better person. These events reminded me that literature is a great way to bring home the lesson: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." 

(By the way, this lesson of reciprocity is a global moral extending back to ancient civilizations. It is taught in all major faiths as a manner of recognizing the image of God in all people.)

Here are my picks for helping middle grade students empathize with the oddballs among us:

Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
Image from Novelist
Mad Max, aka that "retard", is a giant, dumb eighth grader struggling to overcome the terrible reputation of his father. His life begins to change when Kevin, suffering from a disease that stunts his growth, moves in down the street. Kevin is brilliant and, with the locomotion Max provides, the two are able to take quests around the neighborhood as "Freak the Mighty." As the story progresses, Max's father kidnaps him and Kevin dies. These events lead to an epiphany for Max that forever changes his life course.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
Image from Novelist

Georges must tackle the struggles that accompany a social and economic downturn in his life. Suddenly abandoned and tormented by his lifelong friend, Jason, Georges befriends Safer, a home schooled boy with an endearing family. The boys bond while spying upon the mysterious tenant in their building, Mr. X. Of course, nothing is as it seems and the revelations the boys encounter reveal the secrets they keep, their potential to become leaders, and their ability to see the forest for the trees.