ALAN Picks (March 2022)

ALAN Picks: A Rescue Adventure for Middle Grades

Have you had a chance to check out the new review style of ALAN Picks! We kicked off in February with two amazing book reviews on the young adult novels, The Last Telegraph by Malinda Lo and I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys. This month we have a book review on the historical middle grades novel, Pony by R.J. Palacio. 

If you are looking for new books for your classroom and engaging ways to use them with students, then check out the new ALAN Picks! Book reviews by educators for educators!
–  Richetta Tooley, ALAN Picks Editor

Submit a Review: Would you like to submit a review? Check out ALAN Picks for submission guidelines and email ALAN Picks Editor, Richetta Tooley at with the book title you are interested in reviewing. Next deadline: March 15

A Rescue Adventure That Involves the Supernatural in pre-Civil War America
Pony by R.J. Palacio

Book Details
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC 
Publish Date: September 28, 2022
Page Count: 289 
ISBN: 9780553508116
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Middle Grades/ Mystery/ Ghost Story

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Synopsis: Silas Bird is a 12-year-old boy living in the mid-1850s with his father, a bootmaker and photography enthusiast. When three men arrive on horseback in the middle of the night demanding to take Pa and Silas away to an unknown location, Pa insists Silas be left behind. When the pony the men had brought with them to carry Silas broke away and ran back to Silas, Silas took this as a sign that he needed to go help his father. He and his best friend Mittenwool, his ghostly companion since birth, set out on a dangerous and terrifying adventure together to rescue Pa from what Silas knows deep in his soul is imminent danger. 


Told with a voice that is both sobering and empowering, this multi-layer narrative is equal parts mystery and adventure. It will engage readers from upper-elementary school to middle school. Silas’s adventure to rescue the only person in his life who he loves is a quest of desperation that pushes Silas beyond his own comfort zone, ultimately allowing him to learn about the world around him and grow up in a way that readers both understand and empathize with. With twists and revelations occurring frequently, young readers will remain engaged and curious throughout the entire book. This book, while it is heart-wrenching and told with incredible detail, also enables readers to immerse themselves into a world that seems too rich to be believable, and yet, is absolutely convincing in its execution.  

Suggestions for Curriculum & Classroom Use

Thematic Analysis

This story is rife with thematic explorations and, despite being for younger readers, addresses weighty themes with gentleness and compassion. Some thematic topics explored in this novel include:

  • A mother’s love
  • Companionship/the value of friendship
  • What it means to trust (both ourselves and others)
  • How fate and destiny shape us
  • The noble gift of sacrifice 
  • The consequences of greed
  • Coming of age 
  • Revenge and forgiveness 

Essential Questions

  • How far would someone go for love?
  • How do our decisions affect our futures?
  • How do people react when facing loss? 

Student Engagement Activities: Author’s Craft and Historical Exploration

This book is written so incredibly well that it lends itself to sentence-level study. As a teacher reads this book with students, he or she should stop periodically to point out sentences that are:

  • particularly poignant
  • lend themselves to thematic analysis
  • Or employ figurative language

Once the teacher points out the sentence, students can work together to decide WHY the teacher chose this sentence to isolate and study. If they are given the three choices above, this will have them talking about sentences in ways they may not be accustomed to as they deeply analyze author’s craft. Once students decide why their teacher may have chosen this particular sentence, the teacher can then explain his or her rationale for choosing it and explain what they found as they analyzed the sentence. As an extension of this, in the last chapter, students might choose their own sentences for analysis, present them to the class, have the class decide why the student chose it, and then the student can present his or her own analysis. 

This book would also be a great text to launch a historical exploration of the time period in American history before the Civil War. It touches briefly on the topics such as Native American relocation, scientific discoveries during this time period, and the effects of The Civil War on our nation’s landscape, and all of these would create interesting background research for students. Students could choose a detail from the text to further explore, and then create a slideshow for their peers explaining:

  • what they learned about that topic in the time period
  • how that topic connects to the book
  • how that topic might still be affecting us today. 

Formative/Summative Assessments

Formative: Students should choose three themes to track throughout the entire novel. They could highlight evidence of the themes in three different colors as they read through the text. Then, when they reach the end of the novel, they can choose which theme was the most important of the three when looking at the outcome of the book.  

Summative: Students could choose one of the Essential Questions from the book and one of the themes explored in the book. Then, they could write an essay, or create a presentation, where they explain how the theme helps to answer the essential question and how that question extends beyond the book and into the real world. 

Reviewed by: Heather Garcia, Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Secondary ELA and Media, Charlotte County, Florida.