Families come in all shapes and sizes! Three beautifully executed middle grade novels explore all the ways families can be created through the stories of young people searching for a place in the world.
A Home for Goddesses and Dogs
Thirteen-year-old Lydia rethinks her notions of family in Leslie Connor’s warm and winning A Home for Goddesses and Dogs. Following her mother’s death from heart disease, Lydia moves to a farm in small-town Connecticut with her aunt, Brat.
Brat’s good-natured wife, Eileen, and their aging landlord, Elloroy, also live on the farm, and Lydia does her best to adapt to her surroundings, but matters become complicated when her new guardians take in a rescue mutt. Lydia is not a dog lover!
Through it all, Lydia takes comfort in the collages of resilient women she and her mother made together as a way of maintaining hope while she was dying. When Lydia shows the creations to her new friends, things take a turn for the better.
Connor instills her novel with a rich sense of place, from the “candy-shop wonderful” feed store where Eileen works, to the small school Lydia attends. “Finding friends had been one of the surprises,” Lydia says of her new life. Her hope-filled narrative demonstrates the flexible nature of families and the restorative power of love.
Birdie and Me
J.M.M. Nuanez explores themes similar to Connor’s in her self-assured debut, Birdie and Me. The novel tells the story of Birdie and Jack, a brother-and-sister pair who—after the death of their mother—move from Portland, Oregon, to the small town of Moser, California, where their uncles live.
Named after first ladies Jackie Onassis and Lady Bird Johnson (women their mother admired), they’re a tight twosome. Nine-year-old Birdie loves Audrey Hepburn and favors extravagant, eye-catching outfits. Jack, who is 12, keeps a journal of her observations, a habit she learned from their mom.
In Moser, they live with eccentric, well-meaning Uncle Carl, a slacker in the parenting department, and then with reticent Uncle Patrick, whose structured approach to family life takes some getting used to. When Birdie’s outspoken style makes him a target for bullying at school, Patrick is determined to help him fit in, a process that teaches the siblings about love—and demonstrates that people are rarely what they seem.
The novel alternates between Jack’s first-person narration and her notebook entries, which are funny, smart and heartfelt; a loving inventory of her mother’s belongings, for example, includes a sequin bag, a big clock in the form of a banana and pillows shaped like cheeseburgers. With this impressive first book, Nuanez delivers a nuanced story about modern kinship.
Kaela Noel stretches the definition of family in her whimsical, wonderful debut, Coo. Dropped off in an alley as an infant, Coo is rescued by a flock of pigeons who take her to their home on the rooftop of an old factory. Coo grows up among them, eating leftover tidbits of food and fashioning clothes from newspapers and plastic bags. Burr, a senior bird in the flock, holds a special place in her heart.
Although Coo is aware that she’s different from her beloved family, she considers herself one of them: “She had long ago decided that the roof was her home, her whole world . . . everything beyond it was unnecessary.” All of that changes after Burr is attacked by a hawk and Coo is forced to descend to the city streets to get help, a quest that’s truly terrifying. But when she connects with Tully, who cares for injured birds, she encounters human kindness—and the hope of a real home.
The plot broadens along the way, as the birds’ existence is threatened by city officials and Coo and her new human companions try to help them. Noel writes from the flock’s point of view as well as from Coo’s, and she shifts perspectives effortlessly, with the ease of a seasoned author. Readers will lose themselves in this high-flying story of friendship and home.