The best middle grade adventure stories with talking animals and a dash of magic

Who am I?

As a girl, I would roll around on the floor with my Labrador retriever, beg my parents for horseback-riding lessons, and dream of being a vet. A proficiency in language and lack of science skills led me to writing instead, but my intense love of animals never waned. I adore adventure stories featuring animal characters and human ones, and some form of communication between them. That’s why I wrote Shannon’s Odyssey which, like many Middle Grade novels, also explores family secrets and the all-important act of forgiveness. It’s not fantasy but contains mystical elements rooted in reality, because who doesn’t want to believe magic exists in our everyday lives?


I wrote...

Shannon's Odyssey

By S.M. Stevens,

Book cover of Shannon's Odyssey

What is my book about?

Shannon Simpson has a kind soul, sometimes questionable judgment, and courage to spare. When her parents are seriously hurt in a car accident, she treks a hundred miles through the forest seeking her long-lost grandmother, rather than stay with the mean, smelly Zielinskis. Finding Gran means navigating safely through the woods with only a compass, her wits, and a mysterious, possibly magical marra mamba stone to guide her. During her journey, Shannon faces bad weather, injuries, hunger, thirst, and wild critters–some nice and some not so nice. To her amazement, she realizes she can communicate with the animals. And she uncovers secrets about her family and herself. (Fun fact: My daughter illustrated the cover.)

The books I picked & why

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Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

By Grace Lin,

Book cover of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Why this book?

I love this story because it feels like a folk tale come to life, and has gorgeous illustrations and a kind and resourceful hero. When Minli leaves her poor village in search of the Man of the Moon at Never-Ending Mountain, seeking a way to improve her family’s situation, she befriends a cast of colorful characters including a talking dragon, goldfish, and stone lions. Each encounter reveals a clue that leads Minli along her journey. You’ll feel Minli’s internal struggle when the girl faces a hard choice. Happy Ending: Her selfless sacrifice breeds fortune for her village and family.


Coo

By Kaela Noel,

Book cover of Coo

Why this book?

Coo’s journey covers only a few city blocks but is long in emotional impact. At age 11, she enters the world of humans for the first time, having been raised by pigeons on a roof. A second, longer journey follows but to define it would spoil the surprise. The human-animal communication in the story will be considered fantastical by some, but others will believe it entirely possible that a child who has only known pigeons would speak their language. Coo touched my heart and gave me a new appreciation for these oft-maligned birds!


Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

By Kate DiCamillo, K.G. Campbell (illustrator),

Book cover of Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Why this book?

Clever, comic-book reading, word-loving Flora is more cynical than ever since her parents’ separation. She’s sure her mother loves a shepherdess lamp more than her own daughter. When Flora saves a squirrel sucked up by a neighbor’s vacuum and he returns with super strength and the ability to understand language and write poetry, she finds a kindred spirit. I love this book for its colorful (human and squirrel) characters and subtle exploration of family dynamics. And I love that Flora’s journey, which is emotional rather than physical, isn’t wrapped up with a tidy bow at the end.


The Wolf's Curse

By Jessica Vitalis,

Book cover of The Wolf's Curse

Why this book?

This is one of those books that catches you by surprise. I wasn’t sure I could handle all the death pervading this story from start to finish. But woven amidst the grief are determination and courage as Gauge and his friend Roux fight for survival and evade the authorities. By the end, friendship and hope twinkle through death’s veil and they’re out in full force by the epilogue. I love the magical wolf narrator, who may seem secondary to the plot but in fact mirrors Gauge’s and Roux’s despair from loss and intense need for love and family. In the end, friendship saves them all.


The Golden Compass

By Philip Pullman,

Book cover of The Golden Compass

Why this book?

This classic fantasy offers a philosophical exploration of good, evil, religion, and existence. Lyra’s epic journey takes her to places resembling Oxford, London, and Norway as she seeks a friend in need and runs from the bad guys (led by her mother). Every human character has a daemon that may look like, say, a cheetah, owl, or hedgehog, but is so much more. A daemon represents part of its person’s personality, it supplements their soul. They feel each other’s emotions and sense each other’s thoughts. Other characters include witches, “ghasts” and—my favorite—Iorek Byrnison, a grouchy armored bear. This adventure is a joy to embark upon.


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