Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie and Tiger Rising feature young protagonists whose experiences and friendships give them the courage to face their pasts.
In Because of Winn Dixie (Guided Reading Level: R), Opal and her father, the preacher, have just moved to Florida. Opal is in the Winn Dixie market when she encounters a stray dog knocking down groceries and terrorizing the manager. Before the dog is seized, Opal claims him as her own and names him Winn Dixie. The story follows Opal and Winn Dixie as they form new friendships all over town, including Miss Franny Block (the local librarian), Gloria Dump (an elderly woman who is hard of seeing), and Otis (an ex-con who now works in the pet shop). Opal learns that everyone has a past and that everyone makes mistakes, making this a story about friendship and forgiveness. Through these experiences, Opal finally gains the courage to ask her father the truth about her mother.
In Tiger Rising (Guided Reading Level: T), the main character Robert finds a caged tiger in the woods behind the motel where he lives with his father. That same day a new girl arrives at school. Sistine is independent and strong, yet stubborn to a fault. Another important character is Willie Mae, the motel housekeeper, who offers Robert and Sistine sage advice. When Robert confides in Sistine about the tiger, she becomes determined to set it free. Much like Opal in Because of Winn Dixie, Robert’s new relationships and experiences teach him the importance of speaking up rather than cramming all of his thoughts and memories into what he refers to as his invisible suitcase. Ultimately, Robert confronts his father about the death of his mother.
I’ve read Because of Winn Dixie and Tiger Rising aloud to my 5th grade classes. Both books have strong protagonists that embark on important journeys. Both have engaging plots and casts of interesting secondary characters who impact the main characters directly. Both books allow the reader to learn lessons along with the main characters and to track how they change from the beginning of the book to the end.
I’d recommend Because of Winn Dixie and Tiger Rising for 4th and 5th grade readers. Because a lot of the character work and theme work is the same across the two texts, it would be interesting to read the former whole-class and then use the latter as a guided book club to teach into these skills with students who may require additional support.