I don't think my teens tackled The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea, until 11th grade for an AP English course. I read it first, as I knew passages were going to be very difficult to read. I was a local newspaper editor at the time the incident the book is based on occurred, and it was covered extensively by one of the newspaper's reporters.
Because I was already familiar with the story, I flagged the parts that were toughest to read so my oldest knew what she was getting into and could choose whether she had the emotional fortitude at the moment to read them, or come back to them when she did.
While I felt Urrea's text was excellent, and of course it's non-fiction, I knew it wasn't appropriate for much younger, middle grade readers. I'm not one of those teachers who believes in exposing younger kids to things before they have the emotional tools to deal with them, and Urrea's book was hard, emotionally, for my then-17-year-old to read, and to be honest, me too.
So when I came across Santiago's Road Home, which is a fiction story, not non-fiction, I quickly realized it is perfect for introducing younger students to the often horrific experiences of desert crossers in the Southwest. It's a daily reality of where we live, about 45 minutes from the border, but your middle school students likely live in other parts of the country and may not understand the inherent deadliness of the desert in summer or of the people smuggling trade. It's good for students to read outside their wheelhouses, to get a glimpse and some understanding of what children who cross the border on foot go through.
While a good chunk of the story features Santiago's desert crossing and resulting incarceration by ICE, his story ends on a hopeful (if unrealistic) note, not one of death and despair.
And it starts quite a while before he gets to the border, at his Aunt's home and her exploitation of him for child care for her two children. She subsequently turns him out of the house when her husband loses his job and she can no longer afford to feed him.
Santiago has only vague memories of his mother, before she died.
Rather than return to a grandmother who's verbally horrible and physically abusive, burning him with cigarettes multiple times, he lives on his own, staying in an abandoned shack and encountering Maria Dolores and her young daughter, Alegria. They adopt Santiago in the heartfelt sense, and take him along on their (at times deadly) journey.
They survive the desert crossing and all it entails by being rescued by Border Patrol. Santiago does all he can to stay with Alegria but the children are ripped apart at the facility.
He spends an interminable amount of time in the holding center, surviving day to day, dreaming of being reunited with the only people who ever showed they cared for him. In the process, he learns to read and tutors other younger students and learns Alegria and her mother were released from the detention center a long, long time ago.
I won't reveal the ending, just know it does end on an upward note, not one of despair.
Pull up a box of tissues. You will cry when you read this, and so will your students.
Teacher's Note: The publisher, Simon and Schuster, offers this excellent Reading Group Guide for free. There are 19 discussion questions you'll need to supplement with additional questions of your own, if reading this in class, and seven (7) ideas for extension activities, which, again, you'll need to build lesson plans around to flesh out for a classroom reading.
A quick search of Teachers Pay Teachers reveals no (none, zero) resources for this book.