Stuck in a Midwinter Rut? Middle Grade Journey Stories to the Rescue

The very words make one shiver: polar vortex. We were plunged into the depths of one last week, here in Pennsylvania and across much of the country. School was cancelled, the lemon tea was steaming, and the furnace was valiantly trying to tame the chill. With a few extra hours to peruse some middle grade novels, I knew where I wanted to go: long journeys to faraway places.

Even if you live in a warm-year-round kind of place, you might be ready for a good book to take you away. February is a short month by its count of days, but it can feel quite long, no matter the weather nor where you live. If you are a teacher, student, librarian, or homeschooling parent, this month might require some extra patience; the holiday season is over, signs of spring are stubbornly holding off, last summer is a nostalgic memory, and next summer isn’t countdown-worthy just yet.

Many students and adult readers alike appreciate a good book journey at this time of year: questing through a fantasy world, trailing a real-life athlete toward a championship, playing time-traveler to witness historical events through the characters who experience them. I crave books in which I can follow the character on actual traveling experiences, planned or spontaneous, with ocean settings or road trips to new lands—I suppose because I dream of travels, old and new, in late winter.

After some reflection, I think readers might also be drawn to journey stories for reasons like these:

  • Atmospheric settings are an important, teachable element of MG works. A descriptive passage lends itself to analysis of figurative language devices such as imagery and metaphor. Often a setting symbolizes a character’s emotions or foreshadows an event yet to occur.
  • A character “leaving the ordinary world” is an iconic plot device (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey for more) that pulls in a wide variety of readers of all ages, as it speaks to a questing spirit and curiosity about other places, times, and cultures.
  • The culmination of a journey to a new place—whether that journey is a literal traveling experience or an internal, dynamic shift of emotion or conviction—seems particularly fulfilling with a well-drawn MG character, and often provides inspiration to readers of many ages.

Here are a few journey-themed books from recent years on my midwinter reading table.

 Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm – Turtle is a strong-minded girl who bravely faces reality: in the Depression-era South, her mama must take a live-in housekeeper job with a no-children-allowed rule. Turtle tries to be positive about being sent to live with an aunt and cousins in Key West, Florida; however, she is out of her element there (scorpions like to hide in shoes, so be careful; also, alligator pear is what’s for breakfast—rather, avocado on toast.) Turtle tries to find ways to get along with the relatives who were not expecting her arrival, and to open her heart to a deeper meaning of family.

Stowaway by Karen Hesse – The first-person journal narrative of Nicholas Young, a stowaway on Captain James Cook’s ship in 1768, relates a historical sailing story through the perspective of a bold narrator. The opening of Stowaway pulls the reader in to join Nick in his tiny, cramped hiding place on the Endeavour, waiting through long days and nights, until the ship sails far enough away from England for him to be revealed to the Captain and crew. Nick’s story brings the reader along for adventure and excitement in long-ago days of exploration and discovery as Captain Cook pursues a secret mission to relatively unknown waters.

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson — In the mood for a picaresque tale? Think “I-voice” narrative by a roguish young person setting out on independent adventures in the face of daunting surroundings or social circumstances; examples include Moll Flanders, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Oliver Twist, to name a few. In A Bandit’s Tale, main character Rocco’s story begins with an actual journey from late 1800s Italy to America following a misunderstood misdeed in his hometown. In New York, the guardian supposedly responsible for him requires that he and other boys play street instruments for money. Rocco’s “journey” continues as he learns to navigate difficult living conditions, the challenges of early immigrants, and historic reform movements to improve the treatment of children and animals.


Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell  — Baby Sophie is rescued after a ship sinks in the English Channel and brought up by Charles, an eccentric and loving guardian who quotes Shakespeare, serves meals on books, and allows Sophie to wear trousers and practice handstands. But once Sophie turns twelve, their enigmatic way of life catches the attention of the authorities, and Sophie is set to be sent to an orphanage for young ladies. Using only a few cryptic clues, the two set out on a journey to Paris to attempt to find Sophie’s mother–who may or may not still be alive.

Of course, the journey is just one theme that might interest midwinter snow day or “cold day” readers. What are your getaway titles, and do any themes connect them?

Thanks for reading!



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Jenn Brisendine
Along with her MUF posts, Jenn can be found at, where she offers free teaching printables for great MG novels along with profiles of excellent craft books for writers.