The best middle grade novels featuring young environmentalists

Who am I?

I live in a town near a wildlife refuge. I frequently encounter wildlife, including turtles, in my neighborhood. Trouble at Turtle Pond was inspired by volunteer work my son and I did with a local conservation group, fostering endangered Blanding’s turtles. Although my previous books were mysteries set in other countries, I have become interested in the mysteries we can find in our own back yards and in other community spaces we share with nature. I love eco-fiction about kids who love animals, who are “nature detectives,” who have strong opinions, and who are working for the environment, recognizing that every small step makes a difference.

I wrote...

Trouble at Turtle Pond

By Diana Renn,

Book cover of Trouble at Turtle Pond

What is my book about?

Eleven-year-old Miles has moved to a neighborhood near a wildlife refuge, where nesting turtles are on the move. His neighbor, Pia, convinces him to join the Backyard Rangers, who are working to protect them. Miles and Pia discover clues to crimes against endangered Blanding’s turtles. Worse, a pair of foster turtle hatchlings in Pia’s care go missing at a town event. Suspecting poachers, the Backyard Rangers investigate suspects in town. But when Miles becomes a suspect himself, he has to convince his new friends he’s not who they think he is and stop the turtle crimes before more turtles – and people – get hurt.

Trouble at Turtle Pond is a friendship-centered eco-mystery about community science, activist kids, and the power of paying attention.

The books I picked & why

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By Kate Messner,

Book cover of Chirp

Why this book?

When 12-year-old Mia moves to a Vermont town at the start of summer, she enrolls in two-day camps – “Warrior Camp,” for ninja warriors, and “Launch Camp for Young Entrepreneurs.” For the latter, Mia decides to help her grandmother’s struggling cricket farm. But when serious problems arise at the farm, sabotage is suspected. While looking for the saboteur and trying to boost business, Mia finds the courage to “chirp,” or speak up, about important issues to her – including a secret she’s been carrying about her former gymnastics coach. I love all the layers in this book: the strong female friendships, the #MeToo movement, entrepreneurialism, science, and the page-turning mystery. Chirp is also the first book to get me to consider eating a bug. The cricket recipes intrigue!

Rescue at Lake Wild

By Terry Lynn Johnson,

Book cover of Rescue at Lake Wild

Why this book?

When I was a kid, I wanted to rescue animals. I remember taking crabs home from the beach in milk cartons. Sadly, they didn’t make it – nor did they need rescuing in the first place. 12-year-old Madi Lewis is a savvier rescuer, an “animal whisperer” trained by her late grandmother, an animal rehabber, to keep careful records and do basic caretaking. But Madi’s parents have made it clear: no more foster animals. When Madi and her friends find two orphaned beaver kits in a dam, she has to keep it a secret – hard to do as they uncover a local conspiracy to eliminate beavers at Lake Wild. This fast-paced eco-mystery teaches a lot about conservation, ethics, and, of course, beavers! I love Madi as a young Jane Goodall type, too. 

Turtle Boy

By M. Evan Wolkenstein,

Book cover of Turtle Boy

Why this book?

This book is one of my favorite middle-grade novels. At first glance, it may not look like it’s about an environmentalist. Indeed, it is about many things. A boy with a medical condition that affects his chin and jaw. Bullying, grief, anxiety, drumming (!), bar mitzvah prep, coming out of one’s shell. And Will is not exactly modeling good conservation practices by taking turtles from the nearby marsh, caring for them in his bedroom, or gifting a Blanding’s turtle to a boy he visits in the hospital. But Will’s learning process about these turtles and their threatened habitat is a major part of this riveting novel. Will’s identification with turtles is deep, symbolic, incredibly moving. Treat yourself to the audio version, narrated in a lively way by this multi-talented author.

Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers

By Celia C. Pérez,

Book cover of Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers

Why this book?

Strange Birds had me at “rebel scout troop.” Four girls from different backgrounds form a secret scout troop in a treehouse and rally around a unique cause. Their town’s prominent girls’ group, The Floras, crowns the winner of the Miss Floras pageant with a vintage feathered hat. Bird-loving Cat Garcia, a Floras member herself, is outraged that millions of wild birds were sacrificed for such lavish hats, before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made killing birds for feathers illegal. The girls come up with creative environmental activism tactics to end the Floras’ misguided tradition, with a bit of mayhem along the way. Inspiring, thoughtful, hopeful. Bonus: backmatter with birdwatching tips, DIY badges, and an extensive bibliography about bird conservation gives the novel a “field guide” vibe.

Hello from Renn Lake

By Michele Weber Hurwitz,

Book cover of Hello from Renn Lake

Why this book?

Aside from the fun coincidence that I share my surname with the lake in this book, I fell in love on page one because one of the narrators is actually the lake! Chapters alternate between Renn Lake and 12-year-old Annalise, whose family owns lakeside cabins. Annalise has always felt a special connection to this water. When a toxic algae bloom threatens Renn Lake, she and her friends fight to save it. I grew up on a lake in Washington State that became clogged with Eurasian Milfoil, a highly invasive plant affecting water quality, fish, and other things. Remembering what it felt like to see my local lake transform, and how powerless I felt to help it, I rooted for Annalise and her friends and felt hope for this new generation of activists.

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