It was Anti-Bullying Week in the UK recently and my children got involved with a few associated school events. It brought to mind this moving (but ultimately hopeful) middle grade story that I read earlier in the year but for some reason didn’t review at the time.

The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle tells the story of Caylin – known as a school bully – and Reema, a Syrian refugee, and how their unlikely friendship develops over a shared secret. It’s a beautifully-told story about loss, belonging and friendship. Your heart goes out to both girls, particularly to Caylin, whose reputation as a bully is centred on her stealing money from other children (as well from shops), which she does because it’s the only way that she can eat. The poor girl’s mum struggles with mental health problems after losing her father, spending all her benefits on alcohol with nothing left to provide the basic family necessities such as food, washing powder and electricity. This is one of those books that probably has more of an emotional impact initially on adults than it does on its intended audience – as a mother, I can’t imagine how bad someone’s life must get to make them neglect their child in such a way. The main reason why I think it’s an important story for middle grade readers, though, is because of the message that it’s so easy to stereotype people: if someone had taken the time to look past Caylin’s actions, they would have seen a very different child, one who was just doing whatever she could to both survive and care for her mum, even though what she was doing was wrong. As my mum often used to say to me when I was younger, “never judge a book by its cover”. Teaching empathy is not easy, I know, but using texts like this – particularly in schools where the story can be used as a basis for wider discussion and debate – might just help children stop and think.

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