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Putting Books to Work: Sara Lost and Found

By Judith Hayn and Jay Cobern
 | Apr 20, 2016

Sara Lost and Found. Virginia Castleman. 2016. Aladdin.

Ages 9–12


sara lost and foundSara Olsen is 10 years old and lives in squalor in an apartment with her older sister by two years, Anna. Their father for all practical purposes has abandoned them while he plays and sings in local bars; he is seldom sober enough to care what his daughters are doing in order to survive. Their mother left a couple of years ago and has not been seen since. Sara is fiercely independent and determinedly loyal to Anna, whose mental instability is apparent when readers meet her. Despite tremendous efforts, Sara can no longer keep their lives on track, and the sisters enter the foster home cycle again.

Over Sara’s objections, Anna is placed in a facility for unstable children whereas Sara is placed with another foster family, the Chandlers. She begins school, is learning to read and write, makes a best friend, learns to love the Chandlers and their young son Kevin, and finds a special project to give back to the community. Just when adoption seems likely, her dad protests the process from his jail cell.

Castleman knows the foster care system well: She was adopted when she was 6 years old from an orphanage. She wrote this story to draw attention to the flawed foster care ­­system and to give a voice to foster and adopted kids. Sara’s story will tug at heartstrings; however, readers will cheer for her to succeed, for she is a heroine in the style of The Great Gilly Hopkins—the book is a must for middle school readers.

Cross-Curricular Connections

English, health, art, social studies

Ideas for Classroom Use

Defining Family

As a prereading activity, explain to students that there are many kinds of families. Have students brainstorm the different types of families that they can think of. If they are stumped, offer them ideas. For example, small families, grandparents, adopted children, foster care families, older age families, stepfamilies, only child, many siblings, and so forth. Beginning with students’ brainstorming ideas, create a list about anything your students know about families. This may include history, traditions, family members, and feelings.

Using cutout figures, create Sara’s families at various periods in her life. Then guide students in creating a bulletin board on which they can pin pictures of their family. Students can share their family pictures with other students. They can also compare pictures to notice the differences among the students’ families. Be sure to send a newsletter home to students’ parents, asking them to send a couple pictures of the family to school with their child.

Mental Illness Among the Young

According to a recent New York City Health Department analysis of city preteens’ mental health, over 145,000 children between the ages of 6 and 12 suffer from mental illness or other emotional disorders—constituting 1 in 5 NYC children, the New York Post reports. Guide your students to research mental health issues and correct terminology. Educating the young about peers who have emotional disorders can go a long way toward building tolerance and understanding.

Vocabulary: The following words may be introduced though research activity or class discussions.

  • mental illness, clinical depression, postpartum depression, suicide, dementia, anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobia, personality disorder, mood disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, schizophrenia, dissociative disorder, eating disorder
  • delusion, hallucination, anxiety, compulsion, obsession
  • neurotransmitter, neurochemicals
  • psychotherapy, cognitive and behavioral therapy, group therapy, drug therapy, hospitalization
  • neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, psychiatric social worker
  • stigma

Mental Health Awareness Project

After noting Anna’s mental health issues and symptoms, have students participate in a team project where team members research a specific mental health disorder, gather reliable health information and resources, and present research findings to the class. Using the data gathered, teams will prepare and come to the next class ready to set up their posters at the beginning of the class. Create a Gallery Walk of posters and have students prepare an evaluation sheet of the effectiveness of team creations.


Guide a discussion about the sisters’ diet as the try to survive on their own in the apartment and on the run. List these on whiteboard or easel paper.

Note that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends a daily intake of approximately 1,800 calories per day for the moderately active 10-year-old boy and girl. Of these 1,800 daily calories, approximately 540 need to come from protein sources, 1,170 from carbohydrates, and the remaining 90 calories (<10%) from other sources of dietary sugars.

Divide the class into small groups. Discuss the aforementioned daily caloric intake information with the class. Using USDA-approved food group and calorie charts, instruct each group to plan a daily menu, to include healthy snacks, which will total 1,800 calories per day. Ask each group to share their menu with the class. Have each group replace one meal of their menu with the zero calories of a paper towel. Groups will then add the number of calories in the revised menu. Ask each group to state which meal they replaced and share their findings. End with a discussion of how the loss of one meal’s worth of calories can affect nutritional health.

Mapping My Life

A Life Map is a graphic organizer of pictures and images that illustrate a person’s life; explain pictographs (graduation cap, heart, stick figures) as you present your own map. Use The Life Map Checklist to create your own and share with students. Then, as a group and using the same checklist (with creativity if information is not available in the book), create a Life Map for Sara. Ask students to create their own Life Maps that can be used for any autobiographical writing.  


Mukherjee, S. (2013, March 26) Most of the NYC preteens with behavioral problems are going untreated. Available at

Additional YA Texts With Similar Themes

*Angelais, M. (2014). Breaking butterflies. 2014. Chicken House.
Anonymous. (2006). Go ask Alice. Simon Pulse.
Draper, Sharon M. (2012). Out of my mind. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Nevin, J. (2015). All the bright places. Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Nolan, H. (2007). Dancing on the edge. Harcourt.
Sones, S.(2006). Stop pretending: What happened when my big sister went crazy. Harper/Teen.
*Vizzini, N. (2007). It’s kind of a funny story. Disney-Hyperion.

*Books recommended for mature readers.

Judith A. Hayn is professor of Secondary Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She is a member and past chair of SIGNAL, the Special Interest Group Network on Adolescent Literature of ILA, which focuses on using young adult literature in the classroom. Jay Cobern is an English Education graduate student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.


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