Worlds Apart

father's dragon map

 The middle grade novel I’m working on takes place on an island in the Great Lakes. That, coupled with how, this time of year, my favorite daydream is lying on a sandy beach in the Caribbean, has me thinking a lot about islands. As settings, they offer a remove from the larger world, an isolation the writer can treat as lonesome and confining, fantastic and rife with possibility, or any combination.  Whether inhabited by baby dragons, convicts, plucky orphans, wild ponies or, of course, pirates, islands are the scenes of some wonderful middle grade novels, from classic to contemporary. Here are a few of my favorites:

My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett. This is my go-to book when an adult library patron asks for a read aloud to share with a child not quite ready for longer novels. But even older middle-grade readers can’t resist the heroics of Elmer Elevator, who stows away on a ship to Wild Island to rescue a poor, over-worked baby dragon. It also features the best all-time maps in kid literature (see above) .anne of green

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. Need I say more? An all-time favorite among children’s books, it’s the story of orphan Anne Shirley, who arrives on Prince Edward to be adopted by the elderly Cuthberts, who are expecting a boy, not a fesisty red-haired girl. The wild beauty of the island is essential to the charm of this book and its sequels.

misty of c

Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. When my daughter was nine or ten, her favorite game was Misty. She and her friends would gallop everywhere, imaginary manes flying in the island wind. Set on a real island off the coast of Virginia, this book and the others in the series explore powerful, poignant themes of what happens when humans and nature meet.

the cay

The Cay, by Theodor Taylor. Two islands in this book—Curacao, from which the hero Phillip escapes on a boat when German soldiers invade, and the small desert island where he winds up a castaway, blind and dependent on Timothy, an old West Indian unlike anyone he’s ever met. A terrific survival story, with moving themes of the destructiveness of prejudice and the redemptive power of love.

al capone

Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko. Alcatraz! Just the name sends a shiver down the spine. In this comic, engaging novel, set in 1935, Moose Flanagan’s father takes a job as a prison electrician and the whole family moves to the island with him. A fascinating account of what it was like for the children of the guards and other workers who lived there, as well as a great story about the bonds of family and the dilemmas of first love.

Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell; Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson; and of course Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stephenson….I could go on!  Please share your own favorites!

(An interesting aside: As I was writing this post, I came across this tidbit on one of my favorite sites, A.Word.A.Day., with Anu Garg. The word island was originally iland–literally, watery land. Somewhere along the line, an s was added, because it was erroneously believed to derive from the French isle. The French word has dropped its s to become île, but we English speakers are still carrying that misbegotten s.)


Tricia’s new picture book, Phoebe and Digger, publishes on March 26. It’s not set on an island, but is still pretty exciting.

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Tricia Springstubb
Tricia is the author of many books for middle grade, most recently "Every Single Second" (HarperCollins) and the third book in the Cody series, "Cody and the Rules of Life" (Candlewick Press). A frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and conferences, she lives in Cleveland OH. You can find out more about her and her work at
  1. Oh my gosh, what a great list of middle grade books! I have read and loved most of the ones on your list. I’m going to have to read Al Capone Does My Shirts. That sounds fantastic.

  2. Call It Courage comes to mind too!

  3. You are so right about the possibilities of things that can happen on an island. I also love when there is a map included too.

  4. And of course there are many books by Graham Salisbury set in his home state Hawaii! The Calvin Coconut books are for the young end of MG and Night of the Howling Dogs is a great MG adventure story.

  5. Let’s not forget Island of the Blue Dolphins.

  6. I live on an island in Washington State, so of course I love island books, too, and I have a middle-grade manuscript set on an island near Seattle. Thanks for the great list of titles. Another good one is Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, set on an island in Maine.

    • @Margaret Nevinski, I haven’t read that one, though I love Lord’s other work. Thanks for the tip, and good luck with your manuscript.

  7. Wonderful group of books Tricia!

    Island books were a big favorite of mine when I was a kid including most of the ones you listed. I’m writing my own island story now set in the San Juans of Washington State.

    My other favorite island book which also contains my candidate for the best book map ever is Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin.

    • @Rosanne Parry, Hey, can’t wait to read your new book! And thanks for including LeGuin in the list (I do love maps in books).