Books for Middle-Grade Readers
(ages 7 or 8 through 12)
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
First, if the author is Diana Wynne Jones, you need to read the book! She is a gifted writer who knows that a book should MOVE, not just dwaddle along. In this story, rumor has it that the Witch of the Waste is coming back to terrorize the country, so when a large, dark castle begins moving toward Ingary, everyone figures it’s the Witch. Not so. It is Wizard Howl, who is suspected of inhaling the souls of young girls. Yikes! As always, Jones has created a riveting, fast-moving and funny fantasy, which compels readers to turn page after page. Also read: Dogsbody ; Dark Lord of Derkholm ; The Dalemark Quartet ; Witch Week , and more—-all award-winning fantasy.
The Birchbark House (series) by Louise Erdrich.
Young Omakayas and her Ojibwa people are fictional representations of early humans in the United States—native American people. How the Ojibwa lived, what they believed, much of what they probably thought is in this story. Omakayas’s family lives on the shores of Lake Superior until spring, when it’s time to build the cool, summer, birchbark house—a special time of year—and the beginning of this tale that takes her family through a year. For the many lovers of historical fiction, this series is a gift from a fine writer.
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko.
Terrific book, and a Newbery Honor. In this story you'll meet a junior high student known as Moose, his older sister Natalie (who is autistic before anyone knew the diagnosis), Moose's parents, and several kids who also live on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay—site of the famous prison—in the mid-1930's. Moose’s dad got a job there in an era when good jobs were tough to come by, so Moose doesn't dare mess up or his family will be forced to leave. What's so bad, he thinks, about leaving a place you hate? And he really doesn't want to meet the prison's most famous inmate, the deadly Al Capone—unlike the prison warden's daughter Piper, who is itching to meet him, and who is one of the best troublemakers in modern literature. Luckily for Moose, Mr. Capone still has power, and there comes a time when Moose needs him. I can't say enough good things about this compelling, memorable book
Also read Notes from a Liar and Her Dog and If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period (new!)
Peppermints in the Parlor by Barbara Brooks Wallace.
This is another oldie-but-goodie—a mystery treasure from the past. This one is the story of orphaned Emily Luccock, who has gone to live with her Aunt and Uncle Twice in their elegant old mansion in San Francisco. But instead of the warmth Emily remembers, there is cold chill in the house, as if Aunt Twice is somehow imprisoned there. And Uncle Twice is missing. There are still peppermints in the parlor, but no one is allowed to eat them now. No one ever talks, so what is Emily to do? How can she save her aunt and uncle from something clearly dangerous? Lots of tension here—a real page turner!
The Half-A-Moon Inn by Paul Fleischman and Kathryn Jacobi.
The hero of this suspenseful story is Aaron, twelve years old—a normal boy, except for being mute. He lives in coastal New England with his widowed mother. When a snowstorm prevents his mother’s return home, Aaron decides to go look for her. Although he doesn’t find her, he does find the Half-A-Moon Inn and its evil proprietess, Mrs. Grackle, who keeps him prisoner so that he can light her fires—something only an honest person can do—and tell her the secrets of her roomers when they are asleep. Lots of magic here and fine writing, of course, from famous author Fleischman.
Also read Seedfolks by Fleischman.
Emi and The Rhino Scientist (Scientists in the Field, Series) by Mary Kay Carson, author, and Tom Uhlman, photographer. This is fine non-fiction that take readers to a distant Sumatran jungle, where the focus is on saving the endangered rhino. Scientist Terri Roth has spent her career saving the rare Sumatran rhino, first as a zoo specialist working with the female rhino named Emi, and later in the field with the rhinos—when she can find them, that is. If you love wild animals and care about their survival, this will be a terrific book for you. Great photographs. You could find yourself falling in love with rhinos.
--Look for other Scientists in the Field books (Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion; The Tarantula Scientist; Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea; Mysterious Universe: Supernovae, Dark Energy, and Black Holes; Science Warriors: The Battle Against Invasive Species —all are terrific!
A Horse in the House and Other Strange but True Animal Stories by Gail Ablow, Ill. Gail Osborn. Well, yes there is a horse in the house in this strange but absolutely true collection of stories. Here are 16 unusual, factual animal tales that make great reading for anyone who wants to read—stop for a while—then read another great story about animals as different as the cat who was wired for sound so that it could act as a spy, and an elephant who got dentures. The illustrations are kooky and wonderful, and anyone age 7 or over would enjoy this title.
The Case of the Missing Marquess, An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer.
As the story opens, Sherlock Homes’s younger sister, Enola, is searching for her missing mother, who disappeared on Enola’s 14th birthday. In the process, she comes across a mystery of a young marquess, which lures her into serious investigating mode. To do the job right, Enola escapes from her older brother’s care into the depths of London, where she pursues her investigation disguised as a widow. Enola is a fully-developed, immensely appealing character, whose pluck and brains are needed for the life she eventually chooses. To achieve what she does despite Victorian restrictions on females is amazing…and inspiring. This is the first of a popular new series by an extremely good writer.
The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry.
We know we’re in the hands of a pro with Lois Lowry as the author. She has let her glorious sense of humor reign in this tale of 4 children, despised by their wicked parents, etc., etc. –every trite old trick in the storyteller’s book. This book is perfect for a child who reads a lot and will spot one cliché after another as they trot by--funny stuff on every page. If you know a good reader, or even a middling reader, with a sense of humor, PLEASE offer them this book.
Go Big or Go Home by Will Hobbs.
Known for his action books that feature strong characters testing themselves in extreme situations, Will Hobbs has been an author readers learned to love. In this title, we find ourselves turning pages quickly as the story of Brady Steele unfolds. Brady has seen a rock from space crash into his house. Later he learns that it’s a rare meteorite, which professor Ripley wants to examine, hoping for traces of extraterrestrial bacteria.
Along come rivals of Brady and his friend Quinn, who also want to own the meteorite, so the battle is joined. As days go by, Brady finds himself doing things that aren’t normal for him, which is great…except that he has some highly unusual symptoms…well, better read and find out!
The Beasts of Clawstone Castle Eva Ibbotson, Ill. Kevin Hawkes.
Author Ibbotson has a dab hand with humor and the supernatural, which come together in this book set at famous Clawstone Castle, a major destination for tourists in England. The beasts are wild white cattle, and protecting them becomes the job of Madlyn and Rollo, who may have to enlist the help of neighborhood ghosts. As always, this latest Ibbotson book is a treasure!
What Darwin Saw by Rosalyn Schanzer.
I confess to knowing this fine author of 15 children’s books. We belong to the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D. C., and so I know her work. This title comes out in January 2009, and relates the story of young Charles Darwin, age 22, and his first voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. Darwin was a person who asked questions and was observant. At the time he lived (1809-1882), his scientific observations were earthshaking, as was his theory of natural selection. He recorded data on animals no one else had seen. He was part of an earthquake and volcanic eruptions, living a questing life that has become fascinating factual literature.
The Great Number Rumble, A Story of Math in Surprising Places by Cora Lee (author), Gillian O’Reilly (author), and Virginia Gray, Illustrator.
Most of the students and teachers in Jeremy and Sam’s school district are delighted when math is eliminated from the curriculum. Not Sam! He takes on the Director of Education, and the story speeds up. It covers so much ground in mathematics history, with diagrams and sidebars, photos and illustrations, that readers are bound to find amazing information on every page. If I had kids in school, I would put this book in the bathroom, handy for browsing.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London.
This classic story, set in the Alaskan Klondike at the turn of the 20th century, is one of the books that made Jack London a household name when he was writing—a name that is even more revered today. Perhaps his most famous novel of the 22 that he wrote by the time he was 40, The Call of the Wild relates the story of a city pet named Buck, a big, powerful dog, who is dognapped and taken for use as a sled dog during the gold rush days. Buck has a tough time of it, but proves himself and learns great satisfaction as a true dog of the North. That sounds simple, but the transformation of Buck is anything but simple, and many times brutal and cruel. This is no story for wussies, but it is a gripping read that pulled me in long ago and I have never forgotten its power. Man and his behavior in good times and bad is the underlying story, of course. This is an American book that we should all know, in my opinion.
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.
I finally had time to read this Newbery winner of a few years back, and can recommend it heartily—to boys, girls, and adults. Set in Korea in the mid-12th century, the story of Tree-Ear, an orphan in a potters’ village, is both memorable and touching. Tree-Ear has no one except Crane Man, a man with a cruelly twisted leg and foot. They live under a bridge and forage for food each day, gathering leftovers if they are lucky. (But luck does not feature strongly in this tale that is wholly believable. The writer did her research and she also creates appealing characters.) Tree-Ear longs to be a potter himself. How can one in his lowly state accomplish such a feat? THAT is the wonderful story here.
Heat by Mike Lupica.
Wonderfully smooth, clean writing here that carries the reader along—way past time when the light should be turned out. Even boys who “don’t like to read” will enjoy this fast-paced baseball story about Michael Arroyo who can REALLY pitch a baseball. Michael lives with his older brother, as their parents died during the escape from Cuba. Of course, Michael and his brother should be in a foster home, or maybe sent back to Cuba. The heat in this title refers not only to Michael’s pitching abilities but also to his precarious situation in New York City. Tension aplenty here, with outstanding, realistic characters.
The Stowaway: A Tale of California Pirates by Kristiana Gregory.
Kids recommended this title to me—my favorite kind of recommendation. Stowaway tells the story of Carlito, whose father was killed by pirates. Set in 1818, the tale accurately shows life aboard pirate ships plus the Spanish and English interactions at this time of California’s development. Gregory vividly depicts the boy who longs to avenge his father. The facts about pirates in this location, Bouchard in particular, should interest most readers. Also, it is a short book, in case you know someone who dreads reading a big book.
The Various: Book 1 in The Touchstone Trilogy and Celandine by Steve Augarde.
These two titles come highly recommended by teachers, a reviewer-buddy, and kids. They are fantasy mixed with reality, and they introduce us to various tribes of small people, 15 inches tall or less. The Various folk hope to remain hidden from humans, but are discovered by a girl named Midge, who is featured in The Various. While these tiny people look like normal humans, they have magical abilities that we lack, which makes them much more interesting in my book, and more fun to read about! Midge feels a mysterious connection to a girl named Celandine, and when Augarde wrote it, Celandine turned out to be the prequel. Are you confused yet? Reading these two delightful books will straighten it all out and then you’ll be panting for the third book, just like all of Augarde’s readers.
Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time by Lisa Yee.
Remember Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by this author? Here’s another fast-paced, funny, heart-warming book to go with it. At eleven going on twelve, Stanford is a likable guy, but he fooled around in school, flunked English, and now instead of going to a basketball camp, he has to go to summer school. His tutor is Millicent Min—smart, but oh-so-irritating! As if that weren’t enough, Stanford’s parents are arguing and his grandmother is unhappy in her care facility. Yikes! For kids who want a book that’s a joy to read, this is it.
Jazz A-B-C: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits by Wynton Marsalis; biographical sketches by Phil Schaap; Ill. by Paul Rogers.
Those in the know know that jazz originated in New Orleans, but how many know much about jazz? Very few of us, actually, so just for us this book showcases the world of jazz music. What is jazz and who played it? On what instruments and when and where? A famous musician himself, Marsalis turns out to also be a poet whose test in this book takes many interesting, different forms. Although facts abound here, the spirit of the book is the innovative spirit of jazz itself. The illustrations add immeasurably to this book, which suits anyone 8 or over.
The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, Ill. by Matt Phelan.
2007 Newbery Award Winner. Please go online to read the readers’ reviews. Either this book sounds good to you, or it doesn’t. It sounds a trifle grim to me, but that isn’t fair because I haven’t read it yet! Lucky is another kid whose mom is dead and whose dad is absentee, in case you haven’t met enough of those children in kids’ books.
Penny From Heaven Jennifer L. Holm.
2007 Newbery Honor Winner. Set in 1953, this story is about an 11 year-old girl, Penny, and her large, complex Italian family. The warmth and humor are abundant, just like the problems…as in real life. This book is welll-regarded by all the librarians and teachers I know and gets many plusses from kid readers. I look forward to this one!
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.
2007 Newbery Honor Winner. I enjoyed this book very much. It reads quickly, and the tale of 16 year-old Hattie (an orphan, what else?) proving her uncle’s land claim in eastern Montana seemed very authentic. [The author—a delightful person—did tons of careful research, much of it in her family’s history.] Hattie’s main benefactors in this hardscrabble, hard-work new world are a German family, who suffer from serious prejudice by locals. Readers can see how Americans treated their German immigrants during World War I, and it isn’t pretty. I enjoyed this no-nonsense, spunky heroine and there is a lot to ponder here. Best for age 11 and up.
Rules by Cynthia Lord.
2007 Newbery Honor Winner. Briefly, this is a story about a pre-teen girl whose brother is autistic. She loves him, but he embarrasses her, so she devises rules that will help him to be “more normal” and also save her much embarrassment. Being different is tough, and that’s always true for those with disabilities. From all accounts, this book seems believable, realistic, and didactic.
The Pull of the Ocean by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, Translator: Y. Maudet.
Batchelder Award 2007. This story is based on an old, little-known Perrault fairytale titled Tom Thumb. The characters are three sets of twin brothers and their dwarf brother, Yann, who are running away from their abusive father. Along the way they meet many people, and bits of other fairy tales flit in and out of the narrative. This strange, different book sounds appealing in many ways, especially to boys.
The Christmas Bus by Robert Inman, Ill. Lyle Baskin.
Welcome to Peaceful Valley Orphanage and to Mrs. Frump and all of her charges. You’ll be glad you met them in this warm and humorous book, as kindly Mrs. Frump piles everyone on a bus to be taken to homes for the holidays…except that she hasn’t cleared any of this with the board of trustees. When they and Sheriff Snodgrass hear of the adventure, the trip becomes a story of pursuit. Sometimes, though, especially at Christmas, good wins out. Highly recommended.
Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive by Carole Boston Weatherford.
Told in a series of poems from the author to Jesse himself, this is an unusual and most uplifting biography of the African-American runner who represented the U.S. at the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. Owens won an unprecedented four gold medals—he who had once been a somewhat sickly child. “Go, Jesse, go! Trounce Jim Crow!” Yet beside the wonder and excitement of the Olympics is Hitler’s country, with death camps that weren’t on display like the athletes. The stark contrast between celebrated athletes and hopeless prisoners is a fat topic for thought and discussion.
The Girl’s Like Spaghetti by Lynne Truss, Ill. Bonnie Timmons.
Lynne Truss is one of the best and funniest writers today, her topic is English grammar, and her audience is huge. This title is about apostrophes, and boy, is it a necessary book! As a college-level instructor, I can swear that apostrophes are horribly mis-used, misunderstood, and mis-placed. Must be a national disease. This title helps to rectify the problem and is funny besides. Every kid in the country and most adults need to read this book!
The Grooming of Alice, Alice in Blunderland, and Almost Alice by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.
Are you keeping up with Alice’s adventures? Each book takes her into new, realistic situations, which she puzzles through with the help of her best friends Pamela and Elizabeth, and (sometimes) her understanding father and brother. Alice has an extra burden in that she occasionally tries to be the “mother” in her home, as her mom died when Alice was only ten. Each of the books in this multi-book series tackles another aspect of growing up as a young woman today—all the new freedoms, so many (too many?) options. Naylor tackles each new “mountain” with taste and humor and honesty.
OTHER RECOMMENDED BOOKS:
Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance by Eleanora E. Tate.
As a child of North Carolina, Celeste Lassiter Massey fears moving to Harlem to be cared for by her Aunt Valentina. What she finds is a different world, one in which she must scrub floors with her aunt, who is temporarily out of work. Yet she also sees famous musicians, actors, and other people breaking new ground in the arts. (Few eras in American history are as interesting as the Harlem Renaissance, when African-American musicians, poets, artists, and writers gave birth to masterpieces of all kinds.)
Celeste’s efforts to find herself, find a home that fits her, go to school, learn the violin, maybe become a doctor—against so many odds—combine to create a moving story that illuminates another time, yet one with meaning for today’s readers.
The Haunting of Granite Falls by Eva Ibbotson, Ill. Kevin Hawkes.
I love British fantasy! One of many books by the popular Ms. Ibbotson who lives in the north of England, this particular story was sparked by the actual sale of a castle. In this novel, it is grim-towered Carra Castle of Scotland, chock full of ghosts. American millionaire Hiram Hopgood imports it for his daughter Helen. But Krok, a Viking warrior, Miss Spinks, who’s intent on drowning herself; Cyril, a hellhound; Flossie, a five year-old poltergeist; and Stanslaus, an aged, toothless vampire can’t bear to be parted from their beloved home. Once shipped to America, they avoid the castle, as their original landlord ordered, and live next door instead, in a movie theater.
This is a grand comedy, and readers will want to read all of Ibbotson’s wonderful books, such as Not Just a Witch; The Great Ghost Rescue; Which Witch? Dial-a-Ghost, and more.
The Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook Inspired by Dr. Seuss, Concocted by Georgeanne Brennan.
Here’s more proof that cooking can be fun. This title will encourage you and your kids to make “Blueberry Bumplings” and many other snacks for school lunch boxes and weekend treats. Your school may celebrate Seuss Day in the spring—a great chance to show off some authentic Seuss food.
Alligator Crossing by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.
Known as the “Savior of the Everglades,” Douglas was first a journalist in Miami and an early conservationist. In her story, thirteen year-old Henry Bunks, a kid from a less-than-perfect home, stows away on a boat operated by an outlaw alligator hunter. Henry meets a variety of adults as he travels the Everglades, all of them flawed in different ways, something Henry must learn to deal with. Danger is a regular feature of the territory, too, so readers pay close attention, right to the end. No wonder this book was re-issued; both the writing and the story are outstanding.
This story is another in an honorable line of books known as bildungsromans, or coming-of-age novels. Others you may know are Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hatchet, Thunder Cave, and A Day No Pigs Would Die.
On the Wings of Heroes by Richard Peck.
Set in WW II, this coming-of-age story can be enjoyed by anyone in middle grades up to Gramma and Grampa. I haven’t read it yet, but I have not one speck of doubt about this book that is loaded with starred reviews. According to my librarian buddies, the characters are just as quirky and hilarious as in Peck’s other award-winning books, and the picture of America at war in the early 1940’s is vivid and compelling. (The slogan throughout the country was “Use it up, Wear it out. / Make it do, Or do without.”) While Davy Bowman is growing up, his brother is sent to war and his mother goes to work. His world changes, and so does he.
Currently, we are at war again—a very different war this time. Kids who read this book and compare the two wars will have a great deal to discuss.
Also read Peck’s Here Lies the Librarian, set in rural Indiana in 1914, after a mean twister attacked the town and messed up the cemetery, but not the librarian’s tomb, of course. A gutsy, appealing heroine stars here and the action is fast, as always.
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness: #1 Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, Ill. by Geoff Taylor.
As the first in a scheduled series, this popular debut novel features Torak, an orphan who lived 6,000 years ago. After losing his fight with a vicious bear, Torak’s father tells him to wait for his spiritual guide who will find him. In time, Torak is adopted by an orphaned wolf cub with whom he can communicate. As brothers they roam the forest until they’re captured by a wolf clan, who need to rid the area of the “demon-possessed” bear just as much as Torak does. The pace quickens, and readers are drawn in by the quest, the vividness of this ancient setting, and the story itself. Excellent research lies behind this book that teens also enjoy. (Me, too.)
The Cat Who Walked Across France by Katie Banks, Ill. by Georg Hallensleben.
Children and adults will enjoy this endearing tale of a most personable pussycat whose mistress dies, rendering him a mere possession who is shipped way up to Rouen after her death. But he misses the sea and the south of France, and he sets out toward home. He trots past the city of Rouen, on to the Seine and past Notre Dame, walking purposefully with his old home and the sea in mind. At last in St. Tropez, he goes to his former home, walks in, and settles down to sleep. The children now living in the home discover him, feed him, and scratch his back. Ah, home again. A beautiful story with artwork to match. A real keeper!
(Famous French author and illustrator. This title has won many awards.)
Dolphin Set II Series: Chinese River Dolphins by Kristin Petrie.
Set apart from the rest of the dolphin family, the Chinese River dolphins are the only species in their family. The Chinese call them “baiji,” though no one knows much about them as they are timid and reclusive. Perhaps only one hundred of these endangered freshwater mammals exist, so we need to spread the word that their habitat—the Yangtze River—is in trouble. How many books will it take to help our youth understand that animals are in our care, that we determine which species live and die?? This particular book has excellent illustrations, mainly photographs, and includes web sites, an index, and a glossary.
The Tarantula Scientist by Sy Montgomery, photos by Nic Bishop.
This title is part of a series on science topics known as Scientists In The Field.. Check out Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, set in New Guinea; and The Snake Scientist , set in Manitoba, Canada—and more! The text for these books is engaging and fact-filled, all of it illustrated by Nic Bishop’s amazing photography. Great books for libraries, schools, and all young scientists.
The tarantula title follows Sam Marshall, who loves tarantulas and can’t wait to share his knowledge. He didn’t do very well in school, but hey! look at him now. He’s a great example of someone who followed his interest into an absorbing career.
Chet Gecko's Detective Handbook (and Cookbook): Tips for Private Eyes and Snake Food Lovers, decoded by Bruce Hale.
Just plain fun. Lots of good tips for detectives here, plus explanation of detective lingo (shamus, moll), AND some recipes for super snacks like Tick Tacos. This series includes Hamster of the Baskervilles; The Malted Falcon; The Possum Always Rings Twice; Key Lardo…all wacky and wonderful fun, because reading IS supposed to be fun! Enjoy!
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.
The author writes, “Paris in the 1930's, a thief, a broken machine, a strange girl, a mean old man, and the secrets that tie them all together... Welcome to The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”
I have friends raving about this book, so it’s on my list! Words combine with art to tell the story in this fast-paced mystery of an orphaned boy named Hugo, who lives in an underground station in Paris, a girl who reads obsessively, and a most difficult man who runs a toy store. Both different and exciting!
Bad Boy: A Memoir by Walter Dean Myers.
Winner of many awards, this autobiography shows us how Walter Dean Myers grew up in Harlem, in New York—poor, black, and lots of times in trouble. He had a speech impediment which caused no end of problems, and a lively mind, thank goodness, which saved him and, in fact, has made him famous.
I’m a friend of Walter’s, and even though I haven’t read this book, I am recommending it because all of his work is excellent: eloquent, passionate, authentic, and interesting. One of our best writers for children, period.
Suggested: Hoops Slam! Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices Jazz by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers Blues Journey by Walter and Christopher Myers (picture book for all ages.)
The Mysterious Benedict Society by T.L. Stewart.
Four young people survive testing to emerge as the ones bright enough to solve an important problem, threatening to become a crisis. Reynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance become The Benedict Society as they travel to a distant, isolated school where the children are being trained by a criminal mastermind aimed at taking over the world. To defeat this arch-villain, the Benedict Society needs to be brilliant indeed. This book bubbles with adventure, and dashes along at a fine pace, although it is a long book, probably best for readers eleven or older.
The Dragon's Eye: The Dragonology Chronicles, Volume 1 by Dugald A. Steer.
This is volume 1 of a projected series about dragons. Stars here are Daniel Cook and his sister, Beatrice, in a fantasy involving the stolen Dragon’s Eye jewel. Racing to beat the villain, evil dragonologist Ignatius Crook, Daniel and Beatrice team with Dr. Ernest Drake and some gregarious dragons to recover the missing Dragon’s Eye.
Fantasy fun here for those who enjoy fire-breathing dragons and a good chase.
Thunder Cave by Roland Smith.
Here I go, recommending a book by another friend, but I hang out with only the best, okay?? Roland Smith’s books are just right for many reasons: fine writing, lots of suspense, strong voice and characterizations, well…you get the idea.
In this book, Jake is striving to get to his father, a field biologist in Kenya. His mother has just died, and his stepfather is a busy university professor. Jake needs his dad, he has to figure out how to find him, and when he arrives in Kenya…“Fifty feet away, lying in a crouched position, was a male lion. His battle-scarred face was surrounded by a dark bushy mane. His black-tipped tail flicked from side to side…. I’d been around lions in the zoo, but this was entirely different.” Yes, the real Kenya is different, and in trouble with drought and animal poachers. Come on, all fans of adventure novels. This is a winner.
Also read: Sea Otter Rescue --- Inside the Zoo Nursery — Jaguar --- Jack's Run --- Sasquatch — Zach's Lie, et al.
Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins
This author is both artist and writer, a special combination, and her award-winning book showcases both her talents. The story “follows the lives of four 14-year-olds in a small town,” and “deftly captures the tentativeness and incompleteness of adolescence.” - NEWBERY WINNER, 2006
Whittington, by Alan Armstrong. Illustrations by S.D. Schindler
This book “weaves together three tales: Whittington the cat’s arrival on Bernie’s farm, his retelling of the traditional legend of his 14th-century namesake, and one boy’s struggle to learn to read.” - NEWBERY HONOR BOOK, 2006
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
This non-fiction book, by the author of Black Potatoes: The Story of the Irish Famine, examines Hitler’s rise to power “through the first-hand experiences of young followers…a powerful addition to Holocaust literature for children.” - NEWBERY HONOR BOOK, 2006
Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale
When it’s time for the prince of the realm to choose a bride, the girls of a mountain village are sent away to princess school. “A fresh approach to the traditional princess story.” - NEWBERY HONOR BOOK, 2006
Show Way, by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrations by Hudson Talbott
The award citation calls this book “a magnificent poem” that “tells the story of slavery, emancipation, and triumph” for each generation of the author’s maternal ancestors. Readers think the book could also have won an award for Talbott’s outstanding illustrations. If you love quilts, you will really enjoy this story! - NEWBERY HONOR BOOK, 2006
The Secret Project Notebook by Carolyn Reeder.
This time I’m going on kids’ reviews, and the kids like this book! Set during WW II, this suspenseful story features a guy named Fritz, whose dad is a scientist at a well-guarded laboratory in New Mexico. The whole set-up seems very strange to Fritz. He can’t even mention the name of the town where he lives—a place you can enter only if military guards approve your pass. Mail is censored. At school, bullies are after him. When he betrays too much interest in a restricted area, he gets in trouble. OY! No wonder he keeps a secret notebook to record what’s happening in his life. At last, just before the war ends, Fritz and his friend Kathy read about the secret project (the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb). Now Fritz understands what his dad meant when he remarked that “the genie is out of the bottle.”
This latest title sounds just like all of Reeder’s other books: stuffed with fascinating historical information and powered by real, likable kids.
See also Shades of Gray and Foster's War.
Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng.
A rather lengthy book (384 pages) for those who love British fantasy, as I do. Molly Moon isn’t a gorgeous heroine, but she’s spunky, original, and fun to travel with. As an orphan at Hardwicke House, Molly is beset by the mean-spirited females who run the place. When she is hiding out in the Briersville library to avoid Hardwicke House, Molly happens upon a book about hypnotism. From then on, Molly is in charge of her life, hypnotising whenever necessary, with real skill. Although this is a fairy-tale-fantasy mix, it works. It’s a fun read!
Harriett the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
Just in case your reader in this age category has NOT read this book, I am strongly recommending it now. Great writing, great humor, memorable characters, and Harriet, who’s irresistible. In an utterly realistic story, we learn that Harriet does takes notes on people. And she keeps her notebooks. Not pretty. Eventually, Harriet must join the ranks of polite people who do NOT snoop. This book is a classic, and no wonder. (1st pub. In 1964.)
Gregor the Overlander (series) by Suzanne Collins.
Another treat for fantasy-lovers, this time set far below New York City. The hero, Gregor, whose father disappeared three years ago, dreads a long summer baby-sitting his two year-old sister, Boots, and his elderly grandmother. When Boots is drawn into a vent in the laundry room and disappears, their lives change drastically. Frantically following his baby sister, Gregor discovers that he and Boots have tumbled into Underworld, a land of translucent-skinned people with violet eyes. Other Underworld critters are giant bats and rats, spiders, and cockroaches who all talk. BUT…somewhere down here is his missing father, so Gregor must become a hero and rescue everyone from an invading horde of rats.
This series is fast-paced, humorous, well-developed fantasy.
100 Things Guys Need to Know by Bill Zimmerman.
The author’s own father was not a talkative man, and he died when Zimmerman was a teenager. This book is the author’s attempt to say to young men and boys the things he had hoped to hear from his own father. He’s convinced that guys need to be reminded to believe in themselves, to be true to their best natures. Being kind to other people is not a sissy thing, but rather, a sign of manly maturity. Do you have a problem? Ask for help, because maturing means learning to make intelligent, well-considered decisions.
As a former editor of Newsday, Zimmerman not only knows how to write, he knows how to connect with his readers. (Free Spirit press)
The Life and Death of Crazy Horse by Russell Freedman, Photography by Amos Bad Heart Bull.
The master of young people’s biography has done it again, this time with the poignant story of the most famous Lakota Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse.
“He wore no war paint, took no scalps, and refused to boast about his brave deeds,” writes Freedman. The authentic illustrations are those of Crazy Horse’s cousin, Amos Bad Heart Bull, who kept a journal, and later died in 1913. In this powerful biography, readers experience vicariously the actual, unembroidered life of a Native American warrior who raided neighboring tribes for horses, fought the U.S. cavalry in an attempt to hold onto his way of life, and courted a young woman in “a courting blanket.” I believe that the best understanding of where we are now is founded on knowing these lives that went before us.
Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke
You may know this author from the Inkheart series. If so, you know that she’s a whiz at fantasy. In this story, companions Firedrake (the dragon), Ben (the boy), and Sorrel (a furry brownie) leave the dragons’ valley because humans are coming. They all know that humans “want everything” and will take over their valley. The dragons must find a place where they can live together in peace. Read only the first chapter of this book online and you’ll want it in your home library.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
Although this British series began in the 1930s, it is still with us, to the joy of many readers. Anyone familiar with the Harry Potter books will find real pleasure in these summer adventures (several books in the series) with the six English schoolkids in these stories. They camp out, cook out, boat by themselves in the Lake District of England, and have a JOLLY TIME of it!
Jackie Robinson: Baseball’s Great Pioneer by Jason Glaser,
Ill. Bob Lentz
This biography of the man who broke the color barrier with his outstanding skills and winning ways is one of several “graphic” biographies that are enjoyable reads—quick reads—great summer reading for kids who enjoy learning about special people. Until Jackie Robinson, African Americans played in their own leagues. Jackie changed all that. While the illustrations by Lentz are not museum art, they are interesting and very plentiful, of course. If your kids haven’t read some graphic novels, you might start with this series, including:
Clara Barton: Angel of the Battlefield by Allison Lassieur; Booker T. Washington: Great American Educator by Eric Braun; and Nathan Hale: Revolutionary Spy by Nathan Olson.
Outrageous Crossword Puzzle and Word Game Book for Kids (’02) by Helene Hovanec and Will Shortz
Good fun year-round here, but necessary for those extra-hot summer days when there’s nothing to do. Playing with words is one of the best things people can do, and starting young makes all kinds of sense. As I tell my students, “Your language will shape your life. You can count on it.”
The Art Book for Children by the Editors of Phaidon Press
Something different here…and immensely enjoyable for children interested in art. The full-color reproductions of significant works of art in this book are accompanied by explanatory text and thought-provoking questions about the art itself. If you want to expland your children’s world, this book is an excellent purchase for your home library.
The Old Willis Place: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn
Most readers know about this author of many successful mysteries and ghost stories. This one tells the story of Lissa Morrison, who comes to the old Willis place with her dad, who will be its caretaker. But there’s a dark story and a mysterious brother and sister also connected to the old Willis place. A great summer page-turner, this book is suspenseful and just scary enough to please fans of this genre, who will view ghosts differently after reading this book.
The Family Under The Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carlson, Ill. Garth Williams.
Another oldie but goodie, this Newbery Honor book is still a beloved favorite. As the title says, this is a family story about a mom and her three kids forced by circumstances to move into space underneath the bridge with Armand, a hobo. Armand has been happily occupying his space until this family arrives, but how can he turn them away?
Bernie Magruder and The Bats in the Belfry, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.
Bernie is an 11 year-old detective with many books behind him. That’s because all of the Bernie mysteries are hilarious, and they’re hard to put down. After way over one hundred books, Naylor—-author of the Newbery winner Shiloh—-knows what she is doing. In this mystery, Bernie is occupied with the enigmatic Indiana Aztec bat, deadly to those who disturb its roost, or so says a flyer widely distributed in Bernie’s hometown, Middleburg, Indiana. In addition, the church bells—-where the bats are roosting—-keep playing “Abide With Me,” which is downright annoying after a while. This story is a tremendous amount of FUN. (Edgar Award, Best Children’s Mystery of 2003)
Willow Run, by Patricia Reilly Giff.
Meggie Dillon, introduced in the award-winning prequel, Lily’s Crossing, stars in this story about a family that moves to Michigan during WWII so that Mr. Dillon can build B-24 bombers. Their housing is not much, Meggie misses her German-American grandfather, and everyone must adjust to a new community during wartime. When Meggie’s brother goes missing in the war, readers see how totally this war affects not just her family, but everyone in the world. This is a thoughtful, warm, and valuable addition to historical fiction for children.
A Kick In The Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, by Paul B. Janeczko, Ill. Chris Raschka
I’d like to think that this book exists in every school library all over the world, and I plan to buy it for all my grandchildren. It introduces kids to the 29 major forms of poetry by way of songs, games, jokes, art, etc. Readers enjoy learning about couplets, tercets, quatrains, sonnets, and all the other forms. The key word here is ENJOY. Chris Raschka’s art makes this a totally dynamite book.
The Penderwicks, A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, by Jeanne Birdsall.
(National Book Award winner)
Lit by humor and amusing dialogue, this story of the Penderwicks’ summer holiday is a great, traditional read, although published recently. It is set in England, where the Penderwicks vacation in a cottage at the back of the impressive Arundel estate. The oldest sister, Rosalind, acts as “mum” to her 3 younger sisters since their mother has died, and readers see that that’s a tough job. The other sisters—-Skye, Jane, and Batty (4 ½)—-come to life, as does Jeffery, son of the estate owner. Good, wholesome fun.
The Mysteries of Animal Intelligence: True Stories of Animals With Amazing Abilities, by Brad Steiger and Mary Steiger.
The animal stories in this book really are amazing, and wonderful. We often wonder how much animals know and understand. Can the dolphin “talk” to his pod? Do dogs think? These astonishing true tales are the perfect thing for the animal lover age 8 and over. Terrific book!
Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay.
The four eccentric-yet-believable girls in this wonderful book will appeal to any girl reader--probably not to boys in this age range. As daughters of a pair of artists, the girls are named for paint colors: Cadmium, who is learning to drive; Indigo, a thoughtful child; Rose, the youngest, and a delightfully funny character; and Saffron, called led Saffy, the thirteen year-old, who is “alone and so fierce.” When Saffy learns she is adopted, and is actually a niece, not a family daughter, she withdraws emotionally. Their beloved grandfather dies, leaving Saffy a stone angel, which she longs to find. Thinking it will be in Italy, where she was born, Saffy stows away on another family’s vacation and searches Italy for her angel, discovering in the search that what she really loves is her family back home. Readers need to read the book to find out where the stone angel actually is. This special book won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award in 2002.
Boys Know It All: Wise Thoughts and Wacky Ideas from Guys Just Like You, edited by M. Roehm and M. Monson-Burton.
A funny, informative, personal look at being a boy, from the mouths of boys ages 6 to 16. They talk about everything, from pet care to girls to fishing and terminal illness. One group of four guys explains why being a gentleman is important to them. Because the roles of boys and men are changing, this is a mighty helpful title to have around. Reassuring, too, in lots of ways.ays.
Whales on Stilts, by M.T. Anderson.
Well, now, this is a different book. The heroine is Lily Gefelty, whose dad works for a wacko scientist who’s been overheard to say he’s planning to control the world. While Mr. Gefelty thinks his boss is just exaggerating, Lily somehow knows better. She enlists her friends Jasper and Katie to work with her as she investigates. When she learns that the mad scientist plans to take over the world using mind-controlled whales on stilts, we cannot help but giggle. This book is a send-up of series books, sci-fi sagas, mysteries, and just about everything else. Savvy readers will find it rare treat, I think.
The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit.
The family in this story lived in a fancy London house once, but are forced to retreat to a rural cottage after the father is falsely accused and taken away to jail. Now, they live by the railway and must make new friends…and somehow help Dad. In 2006, this story will be 100 years old and there are dozens of reasons that it is republished regularly and still beloved. Enjoy!
Stonewolf, by Brenda Seabrooke.
This gothic tale features an orphan named Nicholas, who must somehow outwit his kidnappers before they pry secrets out of him. Lots of tension, some sinister doings—all great fun for mystery fans. Nicholas is fortunate in his friendship with a quirky, determined girl named Larka, and together they work to unlock the mystery of Stonewolf. Nicholas discovers that, indeed, he is in charge of a precious secret.
A Little Pigeon Toad, by Fred Gwynne.
Like Gwynne’s other super books on language peculiarities , The King Who Rained and A Chocolate Moose for Dinner, this one frolics among our English idioms and idiosyncratic spellings to enlighten and entertain at the same time. We should all spend time with books like this, for the sheer fun of it.
Three Rotten Eggs (The Hamlet Chronicles, series), by Gregory Maguire.
Very successful series here by a topnotch writer, the author of Wicked, now playing on Broadway. This series mainly takes place in a school in rural Vermont, where the girls, the Tattletales, vie with the boys, the Copycats. In this story, three genetically altered eggs hatch fire-breathing chicks. They are part of a larger project by Geneworks, a company aiming to create a sizable, and unquestioning, force of workers who can be rented out for big bucks. Miss Earth’s class finds the eggs during an Easter Hunt. Full of dopey puns and slapstick, this farce is just fine for kids who need a weekend read just for fun. They’ll start with one book, then most likely want all the others. Seven Spiders Spinning will be published any day now!
The Care and Keeping of You, by Valorie Schaefer, from American Girl.
This is ostensibly a “girls book,” but it wouldn’t hurt boys to know some of this material. This title shows girls how important it is to maintain a healthy body, wholesome mind, clean hair and skin, and so on. It discusses friends and relationships, menstruation, exercise, nutrition—all on a level just right for girls growing into womanhood. Pediatricians suggest giving this book to a girl around her ninth birthday, a bit ahead (typically) of all the upcoming body changes.
The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall.
One of my most-admired books and most revered authors. Anything by Westall is terrific. This story focuses on two boys and a girl living on the southeast coast of England, during World War II. When they find a downed enemy plane containing the dead pilot and his machine gun, the boys decide to hide the gun. From then on, the possession of the gun acts almost like another character in the story. As always, Westall’s characters are extremely well drawn and the picture of England during the war is vivid and engrossing. I read this book 20 years ago and have never forgotten it, especially its theme, which suggests that if you have a gun, you will use it.
An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy. (Orbis Pictus award winner; Newbery Honor award)
Fascinating reading, but not light. I knew I hated mosquitoes! The ones in this non-fiction, award-winning book carried the deadly fever. As a fan of both science and medicine, I would have been gripped by this book as a kid. The whole, awful story of just how disease can bring down a population is right here, making clear the importance of a vigorous Public Health department. Superb pictures and research by one of today’s best writers of factual literature for young people. (Murphy also wrote The Great Fire, a Newbery Honor book.)
I Smell Like Ham -- Animal House and IZ -- Busted !—3 great reads from Betty Hicks.
It’s summer and time to read books—all kinds of books. These three upbeat titles are exceptionally good for whiling away a hot afternoon.
I Smell Like Ham, Nick has to adjust to his “new” blended family that includes his own dad, Dwayne the dork, and Dwayne’s mom. He also wants to convince his basketball coach that he’s a point guard, and deal with an honor code that appears to be broken, and tons of other things. Readers 7 to 11 will enjoy this fast-paced, funny, thoughtful story that combines so many elements of real life.
Animal House and Iz features lots of bugs, much hilarity, and Joey, Jack, and Logan, Iz’s younger stepbrothers. The dialogue is on target and so are the characters. The pace is fast, and yet there’s much to ponder beneath the repartee. Why has Iz settled so happily into her new family? Of course she still loves her mom, but why doesn’t she want to live with her any more? As I said, much to think about. Plus a hedgehog.
Busted! is the story of 12 year-old Stuart Ellis, who thinks he is burdened with the most obsessive, over-protective mother in the world. As a single parent, she is clearly trying too hard. But if HE doesn’t try harder to abide by her rules, she threatens to take away more than TV, more than the computer. She has told him that if gets busted once more, she’ll take away soccer. Clearly, Stuart needs help, and maybe he’ll get it from his closest friend, a girl named Mack.
All of these books appeal strongly to young readers, and the emphasis on sports is a plus for many boys in this age group who want to read about “something that’s important!” [A quote from one of my own readers who liked all the basketball scenes in When The Boys Ran The House.
Storm Warriors, by Elisa Carbone.
Fascinating historical fiction closely based on truth about black surfmen, the rescuers of the Pea Island LifeSaving Station on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Nathan wants only to be a surfman, but the times are against him in the 1890s of the post-Civil War South. Knotty problems to solve and a winning character combine to make this a satisfying read.
Worth, by A. LaFaye
Nathaniel James works with his Ma and Pa on the homestead until—rushing in the face of an oncoming violent storm—he’s caught in a haying accident and suffers a crushed leg. Months spent in traction leave him a cripple, filled with anger and lost hopes. When his dad gets a boy from the orphan train to help out, Nate’s bitterness grows. The new boy, John Worth, now works alongside Nate’s dad. Of course, John Worth has a story of his own. (In a fascinating sidelight, Nate’s mom is a tinker—a long-lost, critical occupation on the American frontier.) Many interesting threads combine to weave a fine pioneer story here.
Dave At Night, by Gail Carson Levine.
Although this book is set at the Hebrew Home for Boys (Hell Hole for Brats), it is still a funny, heartwarming story, because Dave is a character that readers enjoy right from the start. He’s a feisty, determined, upbeat guy in spite of all the trouble that life throws at him. It is 1926 when he lands in the HHB after his father dies, and Dave needs all the moxie he can muster. Soon Dave starts leaving the HHB at night and readers become glued to the pages. This terrific read combines strong characterization with fascinating tidbits of the Harlem Renaissance and Jewish family lore. (It’s not all a “pretty story,” but the author’s father grew up in an asylum very similar to this fictional one, so she gives us an authentic picture.)
A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, by Michelle Green.
To quote the author, this is a "true story of the only woman ever to pitch professional baseball in a men's league. Mamie pitched three winning seasons for the Negro Leagues team, the Indianapolis Clowns, from 1951-1953. Satchel Paige taught her to throw the curve ball, and Hank Aaron was her teammate." Sounds like a heckuva story to me! I wonder if Oprah knows about this?
Wing Nut, by M.J. Auch
Seems like Grady Flood and his mother, Lila, have always been moving. As this story unfolds, they've just come from a commune where Lila did all the work. Now, they've driven to Pennsylvania, where their pathetic car breaks down. This time they end up on an old farm, where purple martins are a main feature, a fascinating aspect of this book. It must be about time for something good to happen to the Flood family, don't you think? A witty, exciting, upbeat story by an author that kids (and adults) love.
Cathedral; Pyramid; Ship; Unbuilding (Sandpiper); The Way Things Work, all five by David Macaulay.
You may know these books, but in case you don't, I warmly recommend them. Each one is outstanding for its presentation of facts in a vivid, memorable way. For instance, Unbuilding shows the structure of the Empire State Building by dismantling it. Macaulay's books win tons of awards for tons of reasons.
Gnomes, by Will Huygen, Ill. by Rien Poortvliet.
Poortvliet’s art is fine art, and Gnomes is an endearing fantasy, full of gnome trivia and whimsy. Their life span, 7 times ours!—what they wear and eat—why they rub noses. One gnome knew Rembrandt. Mozart’s gnome friend is still “hale and hearty, being well below the average age of 400 years.” This book is a treasure for the entire family. See also:
He Was One of Us: The Life of Jesus of Nazareth
A Gnome's Christmas
Dogs [Prominently displayed on a table in our living room/library.]
Noah's Ark (amazing!)
The Book of the Sandman and the Alphabet of Sleep
A Coal Miner’s Bride, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Part of the Dear America series, this fictional diary of a young Polish immigrant to America is packed with interest beginning on page one where the thirteen year-old Anetka records her day: “Thursday, April 16, 1896. (Sadowka, Poland)
“This morning I scraped the backs of our pigs and collected a good crop of long, black bristles. I sold them to Mr. Levy, the cobbler. He uses the bristles to sew boots and shoes. How we haggled over the price! I asked high. Mr. Levy offered low. I argued. He argued back. I waved my arms. He waved his. I paced. He paced. I knew I would win, for our pigs have the finest bristles, and besides, Mr. Levy likes my spirit, I can tell.”
Well, that’s where Anetka began her diary, but she is soon in Pennsylvania, in coal country, promised as the bride of Stanley Gawrych. Her story is believable, realistic, insightful, poignant, and filled with fascinating information about coal country, well known to the author whose factual Growing Up in Coal Country (1996) won multiple awards. You’ll also enjoy Bartoletti’s Black Potatoes, The Story of The Great Irish Famine (2001), and Kids On Strike! (2003). (These three are non-fiction.)
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata won the Newbery for her novel about a Japanese-American family told from the viewpoint of a younger sister.
The Voice That Challenged a Nation : Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights , by Russell Freedman.-- I haven't read it, but this will be wonderful. Freedman's writing is terrific.
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy , by Gary D. Schmidt. Friends and reviewers tell me that they love this book.
Losers, Inc. by Claudia Mills. School Library Journal wrote: “An appealing mix of classroom scenes, basketball action, and tentative steps toward maturity.” Publishers Weekly said about this book, “Funny, lively, and hopeful.” And I say that almost any kid from 8 on up ( and that includes me) will have a wonderful time with this book. Ethan and his friend Julius decide that they’re losers, and so they’ll have an exclusive club of two called Losers, Inc. Except, somehow, Ethan discovers a reason NOT to be a loser. As Booklist said, “Touching comedy.”
The Great Turkey Walk, by Kathleen Karr "Yeee-haw! Git along, little…TURKEYS?" Yup, turkeys. Fifteen year-old Simon Green, who spent several years mired in 3rd grade, was no dummy. His interesting ideas led him to herding 1,000 live turkeys from Missouri to Denver, where--as fresh meat--they were worth serious money. This is not only a laugh-out-loud story, it is also a wild west adventure, and proof that kids can do amazing things. (Starred Review in SLJ and Publishers Weekly)
Karr's recent book is Exiled: Memoirs of a Camel, told in first person by Ali the camel himself. It's almost true, based as it is on the imported camel corps during the American Civil War.
Bones Rock!: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Paleontologist, by Peter Larson and Kristin Donnan.
Excellent, upbeat factual literature from the man who's dug up more T. Rex skeletons than anyone else. Paleontology requires hard work, meticulous behavior on a dig, and much much more, because the exquisite joy of finding a significant fossil of your own is typically elusive.
As research for my book, Stolen Bones, I worked on Jack Horner's dig in northwestern Montana, and I can testify that it was even better than I thought it would be. How many of today's readers might be tomorrow's paleontologists?? Also read Digging Dinosaurs, by Jack Horner. (Ages 11 and up.)
The Pinballs, by Betsy Byars.
"One summer two boys and a girl went to a foster home to live together." So begins one of the landmark books that I teach to beginning children's writers. It is the deceptively short and simple tale of Harvey, who is 13, Thomas J, who is 8, and wise-cracking, cynical Carlie, about 14. The prose is pruned to the bone, yet eloquent. Byars relates each character's journey into foster-childhood matter-of-factly, not in a wring-your-heart fashion. We can pull for these kids without being thrust into a maudlin melodrama. I get only this response from readers of all ages: "Wow. I LOVED that book!"
Remember Byar's Newbery winner, The Summer of the Swans
Wackiest White House Pets, by K.G. Davis, Ill. by D.A. Johnson. Over time, nearly 400 pets have occupied the White House. From John Quincy Adams's alligator in the East Room, to Jefferson's two pet grizzlies, to FDR's beloved Scottie, Fala…well, you get the idea. Taught by pets, this kind of history is fun!
Cabin on Trouble Creek, by Jean Van Leeuwen. Way back in time, in Ohio, two boys survived eight months during the winter of 1803-'04 in a partly-completed wilderness cabin. Little is known except the boys' names and ages, but author Leeuwen concocted a riveting survival story based based on this truth. Good tale here for those who also enjoyed Hatchet , by Paulsen.
Letters From A Slave Girl-The Story of Harriet Jacobs, by Mary E. Lyons.
As the daughter and granddaughter of North Carolina slaves, Harriet Jacobs knew only that life. Finally, in 1825 she escapes to the north, only to find freedom denied for many long years. Told in letters based on Jacobs's own 1861 Autobiography, this account of African-American girlhood in 19th century America will appeal to all girls ten and over, and to all women. What would YOU write in a journal if you were forced to hide out in an attic for almost 7 years?
Lyons is well known for her biography of Zora Neale Hurston, In Sorrow's Kitchen, and for Keeping Secrets: The Girlhood Diaries of Seven Women Writers.
Young, Black, and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, by Pat McKissack, F.L. McKissack, and P.C. McKissack.
While many are familiar with the magnificent play (and subsequent movie) A Raisin in the Sun, not as many know the story of the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. In the mid-twentieth century, Hansberry had little hope of having her play produced on Broadway. She was African-American and her play dealt with African-Americans. Learning how she and her play became a legend makes an exciting biography for anyone 10 and over.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee.
This fast-moving, upbeat story won the 2004 Sid Fleischman Humor Award, and for good reasons. It's told in diary or journal format, and concerns Millicent's attempt to navigate life, which she understands extremely well even though she's lived only eleven years. You don't have to be a Chinese-American child to identify with this bright "overachiever." [And isn't that a dumb term?]
Carris's books still in print fit into this age category
When the Boys Ran the House by J. Carris. Jut(12), Marty(10), Nick(7), and Gus(2) actually do run the house while Mom is sick and Dad's in Europe on business. But it's not easy and often it's downright mysterious. How did all those bees get in the kitchen? What is the awful odor in the living room? And why is the cat getting so fat? Running the house is not easy, but it's awfully funny.
Witch Cat by J. Carris. Gwen Markham, age 12, appears to be a witchly mistake. Scornful of magic, Gwen has no idea that her newly-adopted cat, Rosetta, is a professional familiar, sent by the Supreme Right High Order of Greymalkins in Wales. Pity Rosetta, whose job is to teach Gwen how to be a good witch--someone whose power can bring about wonderful things.
Does magic really exist? Gwen doesn't think so. But Rosetta and the family pooch, Dinki, know better.
A Ghost of a Chance by J. Carris. The summer before seventh grade, when Punch Wagner and his friend, Tom, are vacationing in Beaufort, North Carolina, they decide to dig for Blackbeard's treasure. Keeping their hunt a secret from Punch's parents and teenage sister, Lila, is tricky, but they have the help of a local "guide," Skeeter Grace, who knows all the Blackbeard lore.
Skeeter seems like a testy know-it-all, and at age eleven is already weary of Yankee tourists, yet he is the one who introduces Punch and Tom to the Beaufort dolphins. And, as time goes by, he is the one who is most eager to find the pirate's lost loot.
Carris's out-of-print titles for middle-grade readers may be in your local library, and they appear in used bookstores/online.
(1) The Revolt of 10-X
(2) Pets, Vets, and Marty Howard
(3) Rusty Timmons' First Million
(4) Hedgehogs in the Closet
(5) The Greatest Idea Ever
(6) Just A Little Ham
(7) Aunt Morbelia and the Screaming Skulls
(8) Stolen Bones: A Novel
(9) Beware the Ravens, Aunt Morbelia (Sequel to Aunt Morbelia and the Screaming Skulls)
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A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.
The Bantam classic is a fine, reasonably priced edition of this beloved tale by one of the world's most famous writers. It includes an account of Dickens's first reading of his story, plus a biographical sketch. This novelette is a super way for young readers to meet this author.
A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd.
Here's a modern classic, as they say--one that most of us have seen on TV. Ralphie Parker, the hero, is so hilariously vulnerable and real that you can't help but identify with him as he struggles through a holiday beset by doubts and bullies, while praying to receive a genuine Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Reading the story itself stretches out the enjoyment a little longer, and I recommend it highly.
Hoot by Carl Hiassen.
We got lucky here. Hiassen normally writes suspenseful satire for adults--biting, witty prose that exposes our unthinking and often-callous treatment of critters and the earth. In this story, he's concerned about the tiny burrowing owl, whose habitat is being destroyed by builders/developers. The main character is middle-schooler Roy Eberhardt, a newcomer to Florida, who sees an unusual-looking kid (no shoes, no backpack, running somewhere--not to school--on a school day). In time, Roy follows him and learns that he's working secretly to save the burrowing owls. I can't reveal the plot, but I loved the way this story unfolded, its characters, its themes, its writing style--everything about it. I have a first edition and it's one of my favorite possessions. You need a copy, too!
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer.
Edgy, humorous fantasy told by first person narrator, Fowl himself. He's a 12 year-old mastermind, genius, and all-around brainiac who's also something of a criminal. Well, not exactly, but Artemis can and will do just about anything. This is the first book in a growing series that appeals to kids, but not always to me. I really enjoyed the first book, but thought the second one just okay. The third one seemed scattered--unfocused. Nonetheless, my motto holds: If a kid is reading, leave him alone.
The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm, by Nancy Farmer.
Wow, can this woman write! All readers 11 and older will find this story of Tendai, Rita, and Kuda downright dynamite. These children of Amadeus Matsiki are obvious targets for kidnappers, as their father is Zimbabwe Chief of Security -- in an Africa of the future. This tale of courage blends the past, the future, Shona mythology, and an unforgettable cast of black, brown, white characters. Oh yes, one character is blue, this is a very funny book, and it was a Newbery Honor title in 1995.
Smart Dog, by Vivian Vande Velde.
Such fun! Sherlock, the smart dog, has escaped from a research lab and now all he wants is to be a normal dog. But he talks. He talks so well that when he asks Amy for help, she can't resist him. After all, she's always wanted a dog. Nothing is that simple, of course.
Babe, The Gallant Pig, by Dick King-Smith.
Yes, you may have seen the movie, but the book is just as wonderful, maybe even wonderfuller. Everything this author writes becomes a must-have book at our house.
Shiloh; Shiloh Season ; and Saving Shiloh , by P.R. Naylor
This trilogy of realistic books set in West Virginia gives readers believable, sympathetic characters in Marty and his family, who are too poor to adopt the abused, stray beagle that Marty names Shiloh. Marty's dad says no firmly after he learns that Shiloh belongs to a neighbor, a man known to beat and starve his dogs. Mountain honor demands that Shiloh be returned to his owner. Marty cannot bear the thought. Who is right?
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
While this series has mistakenly been attacked by adults, more children have become avid readers because of these books than ever before. Why? Because kids love the idea of magic. It's fun. They KNOW it is not real. At age four, our kids enjoy Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk, and even then they know the difference between real and pretend. Whenever kids are reading, parents should tiptoe away and be grateful.
Anything by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory; The BFG (big friendly giant); James and the Giant Peach, etc.
More wacky, funny stuff. Kids read these books and roll around on the floor with joy. Dahl is gifted at blending reality with fantasy, and teaching along the way--lessons readers happily absorb. Now that's a reading experience! Dahl is another British author who knows better than American publishers what kids love to read, and will read voluntarily. (See J.K. Rowling above, and try some of Diana Wynne Jones's books. E.g., Dogsbody)
Randall's Wall and Yolanda's Genius, by C. Fenner
Real characters in real situations. Both books feature kids that readers will love right away--a virtue in any literature. Randall is a throwaway child, whom no one loves, apparently, until a friend finds him in school. Yolanda is a tough, 10 year-old African-American girl, convinced that her younger brother is a musical genius. How she proves it makes a terric book. In fact, anything Fenner wrote is wonderful.
The Alice series, by P.R. Naylor
These are the books all girls need as they grow up in a complex, shifting society where roles are often unclear and values fuzzy. No fuzziness here, just old-time stuff like honor and honesty. Alice and her friends are real, funny, and endearing as they take on life's challenges. Check out the the Alice website, and begin with the first story, The Agony of Alice, if possible. Boys also like these books, as they eagerly tell the author in school visits.
Journey to Nowhere; Frozen Summer; and The Road to Home , by M.J. Auch
This historical fiction features a family that emigrates from Connecticut in 1815 to a farm in western New York. Eleven year-old Remembrance (Mem) Nye is separated from her family, then nearly lost in a flood on the dangerous trek. As pioneer stories, all three books show life as it really was, and it was demanding. (Also, Ashes of Roses , by Auch, for young adults.)
A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, by R. Peck.
Readers like anything by Richard Peck, actually, but these two are especially fun. Terrific characters--brother, sister, and larger-than-life Gramma--in a realistic, midwestern, small-town setting, enlivened by humor and a vivid picture of "the old days." These are read-again favorites of many.
Catherine, Called Birdy, by K. Cushman
Set in England, in 1290, this tale is told in diary entries by 14 year-old Birdy, whose father is eager to marry her off--to a much older, wealthy man. Her mother is trying to turn her into a lady. Birdy resists all of those hopes with spirit and humor, becoming a highly likeable, real person in the process.
Remember, old is not always dopey. Don't miss Little Women , by Louisa May Alcott, and Anne of Green Gables, (Children's Classics) by L.M. Montgomery. Also, how about Black Beauty (Illustrated Library for Children), by A. Sewall (classic horse story) and Owls in the Family and The Dog Who Wouldn't Be , by Farley Mowat.