The bond that develops between boy and donkey is genuinely heartwarming. And in seeing Louie’s relentless efforts to keep Winslow alive — he sleeps with him in the cellar, wakes for 4 a.m. feedings and even learns how to administer injections — young readers may absorb a subtle lesson in passion and persistence. The plot itself is rather uneventful: At one point, Winslow goes missing, and that’s about it, drama-wise. But the story is buoyed by the whisper-weight chapters and Creech’s spare, poetic language. Creech isn’t writing in verse (which she used to great effect in “Love That Dog!”) but her words evoke imagery that will linger in a reader’s mind long after the final page. When Louie first sees Winslow, for instance, “he felt a sudden rush, as if the roof had peeled off the house and the sun had dived into every corner of the kitchen.”
Sometimes the wild and fierce are more fascinating than the domesticated and cuddly. Carl Hiaasen’s best-selling middle-grade capers (“Hoot,” “Flush,” “Scat,” “Chomp”) all have intrepid tweens, lawbreaking baddies and endangered Florida wildlife at their center. His latest, SQUIRM (Knopf, 276 pp., $18.99; ages 8 to 12), is narrated by Billy Dickens, who lives with his mom and sister in Florida. Billy doesn’t have a “halfway normal life” for a few reasons: He hasn’t heard from his father since he was 3 or 4, his eagle-obsessed mom makes him and his sister move every few years so they can live near an active nest, and he spends most of his free time with snakes.
When Billy figures out that his dad — who may or may not be working for the C.I.A. — is living in Montana, he flies out West to confront him. There, he meets his father’s new wife and stepdaughter and becomes embroiled in a high-stakes battle involving snakes, grizzlies, drones and villainous gun-toting trophy hunters. It’s a fun romp that will keep readers hooked, even as the plot becomes increasingly convoluted in the manner of a wacky PG-13 movie.
Perhaps best of all is the way Hiaasen conveys the wonders of wild creatures, from the “skittish and solitary” behavior of panthers to the unusual nesting habits of swallows. Don’t be surprised if after reading “Squirm,” your young reader tells you the safest way to handle a yellow rat snake or scare off a grizzly.
And now that we’re on the subject of bears, let’s consider the most famous bear of all. Most children think of Winnie-the-Pooh as the mustard-yellow bear in the bafflingly small red shirt. But before Disney got hold of him, dear sweet Pooh was, of course, the creation of the British author A. A. Milne, whose inspiration was an actual black bear named Winnie at the London Zoo during World War I.
Adopted as an orphaned cub by a Canadian Army veterinarian named Henry Colebourn, Winnie eventually sailed to England with the troops. The author Lindsay Mattick and the illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the story in their 2015 Caldecott Medal-winning “Finding Winnie.” Now, Mattick (a great-granddaughter of Colebourn) has teamed with the author Josh Greenhut on WINNIE’S GREAT WAR (Little, Brown, 227 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12), a middle-grade novel, also illustrated by Blackall, that expands upon these events for a slightly older audience.
This fleshed-out Winnie is very much a reflection of Milne’s Pooh — a naïve, openhearted creature with a great weakness for food and capacity for love. We get a range of dramatic scenes conjured by the authors, including Winnie’s last moments with her mother (who utters “Be brave, my Bear!” before she’s shot by a trapper) and the friendships she makes with squirrels, horses and a rat named Tatters. While the juxtaposition of cute talking animals and excerpts from Colebourn’s actual diary entries is disorienting, the overall result is a work of undeniable charm. This is distinctively old-fashioned, gentle storytelling that children will enjoy hearing read aloud. And the photographs of the real Winnie at the end of the book are the clincher — a reminder that real animals can be more enchanting than any we’ve imagined.