Battle of the Books with Global Issue Themes

Every year I try to include at least one book on our Battle of the Books list that has a strong global/social issues theme. I have been organising Battle of the Books competitions for Grades 6-8 (Years 7 – 9) for over ten years now so I have quite a list.  I thought I must write it up because I had two enquiries this week were it came in very useful. The first from a Grade 8 (Year 9) class who needed fiction with a global issues/social issues theme that they could research and the second from a Grade 5 student who wanted a good story ‘he could learn from’. I think this list meets those requirements:

Refugee by Alan Gratz

This is very readable and will engage even the most reluctant fiction reader. Told in alternating chapters, three children describe their perilous journey to a new life. Josef is Jewish and, together with his family, boards a ship to take them from Nazi Germany to Cuba. But when the boat docks their visas no longer seem to be valid… Isabel is escaping Castro’s Cuba were riots and shortages have made life impossibly hard. When Castro says that people are free to leave, her family take the chance to board a homebuilt boat to Miami. Mahmoud is Syrian and has only known a life of war and violence. When his home is bombed his family have no choice but to flee and try to get to Germany, a country who has agreed to shelter all Syrian refugees.

Their stories are literally nail biting as their journeys are full of danger from officials who block their paths and threaten imprisonment to falling into shark infested waters, conmen who take their money and soldiers whose job it is to kill them. Based on true events, Alan Gratz has woven a very readable story that should lead its readers to want to know more about the impact of politics and war on children and families, just like their own.

We are using this book for our Battle of the Books competition this year and I am looking forward to hearing the reviews from our teams.

Engage your students by watching the book trailer and use the discussion guide from Scholastic which includes a list of further reading.

Island by Nicky Singer

This is another of our 2019 BOB books and I was really fortunate to meet Nicky Singer last month when she came to visit our school. Cameron has arrived on Herschel Island, with his mum (a research scientist) who is there to monitor the erosion and melting permafrost. The island is supposed to be deserted but Cameron meets an Inuit girl who tells him that the white man only brings death and destruction. Begging him to change his ways, she shows a dreaming Cameron what life is like as a whale. He experiences their language and singing and families and freedom and eventually the deafening, destructive noise from oil drilling and shipping and weapons testing that can drive whales to their death. The use of Inuit language, creation myths, climate change, the impact ‘greedy white men’ have on the planet is expertly woven into an adventure story about a boy who has the potential to help the environment.

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel

Ben’s parents are behavioural scientists studying language and have brought a baby chimpanzee ‘Zan’ into their home to see if he can be taught sign language. Ben is not impressed at first but then slowly begins to warm up to Zan as he gets to know his character and behaviour. But, as the experiment starts to fail it is clear that Zan really isn’t part of the family and a finding him a new ‘home’ isn’t straightforward. The chimpanzee is not only worth money but is also worth a great deal to a scientific community who will use chimpanzees in medical studies and in the evolving space race. Protecting Zan from torture and death becomes Ben’s priority but finding a convincing argument is not easy and he must resort to breaking the law.

I really enjoyed this book. Ben is fourteen and has a few issues to deal with as well as looking after Zan. He must cope with being ‘chimp boy’ in a new school, experience his first love and come to terms with the realisation that parents don’t always know what is right.

The book begins with Zan being forceably taken from his mother and includes descriptions of real life experiments on chimps. A great book to discuss using animals in experiments.

Survival Game by Nicky Singer

This will be on our BOB list for 2020.  This is an exciting read about Mhairi a Scottish girl who has grown up in the Sudan where her mother worked as an engineer on a solar energy project. When forced to leave the country her parents are killed at a checkpoint and she is forced to make her own way back to the Isle of Arran. But just because she was born in Scotland doesn’t give her the right to live there. The world has changed and the sudden growth of refugees and local populations has shut borders and forced tight immigration controls. From one detention centre to another Mhairi realises that to survive one has to be prepared to kill but to truly survive one also has to be open to love.  When Mhairi takes care of a small boy she is determined to get both of them to her grandmother’s home but even family relationships can no longer guarantee a safe haven. Very thought provoking with lots to discuss about our changing world, our attitude to refugees and our willingness to share resources.

Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis

This is one of my favourite BOB books because it is an intriguing story about Imara who is captured by rebels in the Congo. Imara is a ‘spirit child’ one who has magical powers because she was bitten by a black mamba snake and survived. But her survival, at the hands of child soldiers who are protecting an illegal cobalt mine is far from easy. Her life is under threat from men who are jealous of her ‘power’ over their leader and any show of resistance or independence will be a death sentence. When the rebels capture a baby gorilla Imara is forced to decide both of their fates. Can she resist the temptation of the white woman who offers them both a ‘home’ or can Imara escape and return the gorilla to the wild. Gorilla poaching, the work of the rangers who try to protect them, the greed for a mineral that fuels our mobile phones and electronic devices, child soldiers and labourers, and a complicated background of war provide no easy answers but to change things we first have to know about them and this book is a great way to introduce these topics into the classroom.

Whale Boy by Nicola Davies

Set on the fictional island of Liberty, Michael is saving up for his boat when his grandmother is hospitalised and he becomes desperate to find work to pay her medical bills. Finding a job with the mysterious business man Spargo seems too good to be true. Spargo simply wants Michael to report on any dolphin or whales he sees when he is out fishing. But when Michael encounters a sperm whale it becomes clear that tourists will not need to venture out to sea to ‘spot him’. Spargo’s plan is to capture the whale and put him in an aquarium. Meanwhile a fish canning factory is being set up but the labels seem to translate into ‘whale meat’. Can Michael stop the vicious Spargo taking the whale? And, isn’t a company like Spargo’s just what the island needs? After all people need jobs and there are plenty of fish, and whales in the sea isn’t there?

Very readable with a great hero who is up against some truly nasty villains. The descriptions of the sperm whale Michael names Freedom are truly beautiful. Nicola Davies is not only a zoologist who has swam with these whales but is also a terrific writer.

The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

Based on the true story of thirteen year old William who grew up in Malawi. When William finds a book in the library about dynamos he starts thinking about how to ‘harness the wind’ and makes a windmill from scrap metal. Neighbours and friends call him crazy but as they experience drought, poverty and starvation the hope that William’s windmill can turn wind into electricity suddenly becomes everyone’s hope. We read the young readers edition. There is lots to discuss and when you encourage the children to imagine going home and having no light to read and do homework they suddenly start to understand that getting out of poverty is not easy.

The film is now out and the trailer will, hopefully, get everyone interested in reading the book.

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

One of the easier books to read. Fuzzy Mud begins with seventh grader Marshall being challenged to a fight by school bully Chad.  Marshall is forced to escape through the woods but lurking there are ‘ergies’ the component of a new clean, energy that was developed in a lab’ to save the world. But ‘ergies’ rapidly multiply and the science experiment soon becomes the stuff of horror movies as those who touch it become very itchy, very ill and without help will soon die. Can Marsall outrun the bully and escape the ‘ergies’ and how can science that is meant to do good end up destroying the planet? We enjoyed this adventure very much and easily linked it to fertilisers and antibiotics in farming which all started out as a ‘good idea’ before they became the scourge of the planet.

The Last Wild by Piers Torday

I couldn’t resist this book that has a talking cockroach who thinks he is an army general and a whole host of talking animals who have something very important to tell Kester James, a boy who can hear them. Kester is a selective mute who has been locked up in Spectrum Hall which is run by the evil Selwyn Jones. Jones also runs a factory which makes all of the worlds food, a pink sludge known as Formula which comes in one flavour – prawn cocktail. With the help of the cockroach and a flock of pigeons, Kester escapes and is taken  to meet a stag, the last Wildness, who tells Kester that all the animals are dying from an infection known as red or berry eye. The remaining animals are hunted by Jones and his evil cronies and soon the whole animal kingdom will be extinct. Can Kester help? This is a great adventure with lots of issues about big business, feeding the planet, extinction and genetic engineering.

Rain Reign by Ann M Martin

Our Battle of the Books teams are made up of students from Grades 6 to Grade 8 and many speak English as their second or third language so I feel it is important to include some ‘easier’ books on the list. Rain Reign is about a fifth-grader Rose, who has autism. Living with her drunken Dad, life is clearly not easy for clever, rule-loving Rose but she finds a companion in a stray dog she names Rain. When Rain is left outside in a terrible storm Rose must do everything she can to find him. But there are no rules for running away to find a lost dog and Rose must fight against her autism if she is going to succeed.

With autism on the increase we have several students who sit at different places on the spectrum so this is a good book that reveals what life is like for those who have it. Rose has a tough life and if the autism doesn’t emote the reader then Rose’s drunken father will. Rose needs love and care and she is clearly not getting it at home. The dog becomes her life-line and the power of animals is at the forefront of this novel.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

Matthew is twelve and has crippling OCD so he spends most of his time watching his neighbours from his bedroom window. His behaviour puzzles his parents who argue about the best way to cope with his strangeness. When a child goes missing from the house across the road, Matthew turns detective in a bid to find him. Best friends, new friends, a great cast of neighbourhood characters and a heartbreaking reason behind Matthew’s repetitive hand washing and fear of germs is revealed as the mystery unravels. This book is a bit of a mash-up between The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Wonder but it will encourage lots of discussion about why people might act they way they do and will evoke heaps of empathy for Matthew who just can’t seem to help himself.






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