Full of well-researched details and evocative illustrations, two middle grade books tell stories rooted in the natural world and offer informative looks at how humanity impacts the environment.
Readers will look at crows quite differently after reading Newbery Medalist Cynthia Voigt’s Little Bird, the tale of a young crow who’s the smallest member of her flock.
Little Bird lives a bucolic life at the Old Davis Farm, where humans live alongside domesticated farm animals as well as the wild creatures who dwell in the forests, lakes and mountains nearby. Voigt’s plot kicks into high gear when a fisher cat (a carnivorous mammal in the weasel family) kills a fledgling crow as Little Crow watches in horror. The predator also steals the flock’s prized possession, a shiny silver pendant the crows call “Our Luck,” so Little Crow ventures into the great unknown beyond the farm to try to retrieve it.
During her quest, Little Crow becomes a winged detective who encounters a variety of animals, all of whom Voigt gives distinct personalities without overly anthropomorphizing. Little Crow also learns about great dangers, such as Longsticks (guns), the Sickness (rabies) and Fire. She begins to realize that she can choose her own path in life, instead of always following her flock’s bossy leaders.
As a reader, it’s a pleasure to put yourself into the hands of a writer like Voigt, whose career as an author for young readers spans nearly four decades. Voigt’s research into the natural world and her masterful sensibility on the page combine to create a wild and wonderful adventure told completely from a corvid’s point of view. This memorable tale is a celebration of knowledge and truth, as well as the importance of understanding and communicating with those who are like and unlike yourself. As Little Bird herself observes, “The more you can understand, the more you can know.” It’s also about the joy of stepping outside your comfort zone and finding new experiences. Those are some mighty meaningful lessons for one little bird.
After just a few pages, readers will be completely immersed in the underwater world of Rosanne Parry’s A Whale of the Wild, which follows a pod of orca whales in the Salish Sea between British Columbia and Washington. “We alone among the creatures of the sea share our food,” explains Vega, a young whale who is training to be a “wayfinder” for her family. In her matriarchal pod, led by Greatmother, Vega helps her mother look after her younger brother, Deneb, and is eagerly anticipating the imminent birth of her sister.
As described by Parry, pod life is fascinating, but it’s impacted by the hungry group’s desperate search for increasingly hard-to-find salmon. Their family lore includes a traumatic attack by humans when Vega’s mother was young; several brothers were killed, and her sister and cousins were taken away, presumably to a theme park or aquarium. Parry, whose previous book, A Wolf Called Wonder, explored the dynamics of a wolf pack, skillfully incorporates details about orcas as well as the many threats to their existence. The majestic scene in which Vega’s long-awaited sister arrives, only for tragedy to strike, is especially moving.
The pod’s grief, along with a massive earthquake and subsequent series of tsunamis, trigger a terrifying cascade of events that result in Vega and Deneb becoming separated from their pod. They seek safety in the normally forbidden deep ocean, trying to avoid the many overturned “boats that bleed poison” and other debris. Vega sees firsthand what she’s been taught: “What touches the water touches us all.”
Although Vega and Deneb experience the consequences of ocean pollution, they also encounter humans trying to make a positive impact on the lives of marine wildlife. Vega recalls her uncle’s words: “Perhaps there is nothing more than to swim beside those you love and help them with all your strength.” A Whale of the Wild offers brisk drama alongside insight and wisdom, demonstrating the vital importance of taking care of each other and the world we live in—above and below the surface.