Children’s & Young Adult
Reviews by current & former staffers, listed alphabetically by author.
~ Picture Books ~
“It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own.”
~ Arthur Conan Doyle
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
Here is a fun, silly, imaginative tale that is likely to be enjoyed by any child. It was one of the most reached for books on our bookshelf growing up – by all four of us kids. It all begins in the small town of Chewandswallow, a town, for the most part like any other small town except for the strange weather they have there. For when it storms it doesn’t actually rain water. You never know what the weather might bring- there may be a “brief shower of orange juice, with low clouds of sunny side up eggs.” I like how clever this story is and the illustrations are detailed and awesome. It isn’t necessarily for toddlers but it’s certainly a book worth keeping on your shelf until your kids can really enjoy it. It’s a good, wholesome, silly story that leaves you happy in the end. Everyone should have a copy in their home!
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Do I even need to say what a wonderful, classic book this is?! I hardly think so but I will go on just in case. This book is very simple and I say that in a positive way – it’s important when trying to keep the attention span of a toddler. Clemet Hurd does a magnificent job illustrating. Bright yet warm colors on one page and black and white on others. When I was taking care of a special needs girl, we used to read this book over and over every time I saw her. Honestly, I never got tired of it. She especially liked “the quiet old lady who was whispering hush!” and “the kittens and mittens” and “bowl full of mush”! One of the first books I had growing up (that I didn’t have to share with my older siblings) was another book by Brown, The Runaway Bunny, which still holds a dear place in my heart. She has written MANY children’s books and she is in the top three of my favorite children’s authors!
Horace and Morris by James Howe
Horace and Morris stories are about two best friends and the little adventures they encounter while growing up. They go to school and are friends with a girl named Dolores. So far there are 3 Horace and Morris books: Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores is about the boys joining an all-boys club, which leaves Dolores feeling left out. Dolores then decides to make her own club just for girls – but is it really more fun when everyone can’t play together?! Horace and Morris Join the Chorus (but what about Dolores) is about when Horace and Morris make the chorus but Dolores does not. With determination and some practice, along with the help of Moustro Provolone (did I mention these are mouse characters?!), Delores develops her talent for songwriting and is able to participate. Horace and Morris Say Cheese is about, yup you guessed it, cheese! To them swiss is bliss, muenster is magnificent, and nothing’s better than cheddar. I’m sure you can already tell how funny these books are. For the most part, these are simple stories and they will easily hold a 4-5 year old’s attention. Each book has some type of problem but in the end they figure out how to fix it or better deal with the situation. There is problem solving and lessons to learn. These are great books for boys and girls, and would appeal equally to both.
The Birthday Book, Cats You’re Going to Love! by Suzanne Green
It’s Julie’s birthday party and kitty has to get ready. He starts by taking a bath. Then it’s time to wrap the present, and his friend mouse helps out. I found this book at a library sale. The book was pretty beat up – but the cover had pictures of kittens, so I had to read it. The pictures are realistic, with real kittens that really fit their part. They are all dressed in fancy doll clothes and the scenes are set with miniature furniture. After I had the book home and sitting on my coffee table, a couple of my friends came over, picked it up and got just as excited as I did when reading it and seeing how it was illustrated. After some searching I found Suzanne Green has written four books with these adorable kittens: Busy Day, Seasons, Going to School and The Birthday Book. These books, with their bright and fun pictures, would not only be great for very small children but also for the adult reader. It will brighten your day!
The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey; illustrations by Gustaf Tenggren
This was my absolute favorite book when I was a toddler, probably due in no small part to the fact that I was a bit on the “poky” side myself. My Mother has told me many times how I used to repeatedly ask her to “read it again!” I loved it so much, I even still have that very copy from when I was a little girl. Looking past my nostalgia, I still find this to be an endearing book. The simple, soft illustrations are colorful and yet soothing at the same time. In addition the text is fun and engaging, especially when the four little puppies go “roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble” to see what their poky sibling is up to. This classic children’s picture book is a perennial favorite at the store. When the subject of the Little Golden Books comes up and I mention The Poky Little Puppy, people always get the same nostalgic look on their faces and say “I remember that book; I loved it!” And no wonder – first published in 1942 as one of the first few Little Golden Books made, it was the bestselling children’s book of all time as late as 2001. I recommend this book for all small children (quick or poky!) and to any adult who wishes to revisit a sweet, small place and time from their own childhood.
Little Bunny on the Move by Peter McCarty
A bunny on the move! Past one brown cow, past five fat sheep, this bunny would not stop! Peter McCarty, whom I was unfamiliar with until I happened upon this book while perusing the shelves of A Novel Idea, Chapter Two’s Children’s section – as I often do for books I think my nieces and nephews might enjoy. I instantly loved this one! Peter McCarty is the author as well as illustrator – which is half the appeal for me when it comes to Children’s books. The illustrations have this sort of whimsical feel to them and somehow make you feel peaceful and at ease. The pictures in a sense are detailed but yet still very simple and would be great for small children that need that ‘simple’ quality to a book. Little Bunny on the Move was named New York Times best illustrated book of the year, for good reason. This particular story reminds me a lot of a most beloved story to me, The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. And not just because of the bunnies. Both aren’t too lengthy and both show the importance family has. Other books by McCarty are: Night Driving, Hondo and Fabian, T is for Terrible plus, a few others. I’m going to keep an eye out for the rest!
Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.” This is a very sweet and loving story about the the special bond between mother and child. It’s starts off with the mother and her newborn and continues as he grows and goes through the typical stages of “having strange friends, wearing strange clothes and listening to strange music!.” It’s a touching story. I recently purchased a copy of this book for my own collection for when the nieces and nephews come to visit and my friend who is currently visiting expressed how much she loved this book. She told me when she was little her mother used to read it to her all the time and she plans to get a copy herself one day for her own children. I also had a copy growing up and it was very dear to my Mom’s heart. Rarely do I read it without having a tear in my eye at the end. (It’s a good tear though!) I enjoy the fact that the illustrations are on one page and the story is printed on the opposite page. I think you can appreciate the pictures more and I feel it makes it easier to read. I think kids of preschool age would best enjoy this particular read, but I have memories of it at an earlier age. Robert Munsch has written over 40 children’s books including, Mortimer, Promise Is A Promise and Put Me In A Book.
The Kitten Book, by Jan Pfloog
Having this picture book as a child is probably the reason that I am such a cat lover today. Also, it is one of the few books that I can remember having as a child, remembering the wonderful drawings exactly as they were from all those years ago. The first thing you notice are the big eyes staring back at you, and that the book isn’t squared off like others , it takes the shape of the cats on the cover! It takes you through kitties – development from their eyes being shut to discovering their world. The illustrations are colorful, expressive and full of movement, just like kittens should be. My favorite is the one of two kitties discovering a turtle. This is just right for a child around 4-years old and they’ll treasure it for years to come.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
With the recent loss of our beautiful store cat, Silas, my thoughts have naturally turned to dealing with grief and the process of acceptance. Someone once asked me what I do when I feel lost and drifting, and my answer was heartfelt: I go back to my children’s books, as they hold wisdom in simplicity while not being simplistic. I took my own advice and opened up The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. In this picture book, a boy is mourning Barney the cat, who has just died. The boy’s mother suggests he think of ten good things about Barney to say at the funeral…he can only think of nine. His process of discovering the tenth is his story about traveling through grief and coming to terms with his loss. This is a fantastic book to share with a young person undergoing his or her own coping journey and I believe it excellent for us older folks as well. Simple, not simplistic. As I thumbed through The Tenth Good Thing About Barney last night in preparation for writing this recommendation, I learned when I had last opened this book. Falling out of the book were photographs of our first great store cat, Mr. O.K. It seems I had taken my own good advice before, and before this book closes again, it will have a picture of Silas resting next to the photograph of O.K.
~ Chapter Books ~
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
~ Dr Seuss
Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt
A family drinks from an everlasting spring of water – and becomes immortal. This family moves from place to place over the years to escape attention – and comes upon a girl who needs some attention. Learn about what can happen between them through this book, and what wisdom people can have as they travel through their lives – however long they last.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
This is a wonderful book to read aloud to your kids. Isabel was 5 the winter we read Because of Winn-Dixie . Every night for a week, we curled up to read for an hour or so. She loved Opal (10), who has moved with her preacher father to a new town. Opal has questions about her absent mother and feels out of sorts in her new environment. She finds a dog that she names Winn-Dixie. Winn-Dixie offers humor and companionship and gives Opal a sense of responsibility. Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal meets new friends and draws closer to her father. Kate DiCamillo creates great characters. This is a touching and entertaining book. After our week of reading, Isabel & I watched the movie based on the book. It was a good adaptation, and a great experience to see my daughter notice differences between the book and the movie. That launched a conversation about decisions writers/directors/costumers make when adapting a book for the screen. (“EVERYTHING in movies is a choice? Even the CLOTHES people wear? Whoa!”) Yeah…whoa. One of the best things about parenting is opening up their little minds!
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
Wanda has 100 dresses but she always wears the same plain blue one to school where the other girls tease her. When she moves away suddenly she leaves behind some precious gifts, tangible and intangible, for her classmate Maddie. Teaching compassion, tolerance, and the value of not making assumptions, this book is perfect for a girl between 7 and 11 years old.
The Music of the Dolphins, by Karen Hesse
This remarkable book, suitable for children ages 9 and up, raises several important questions about the primacy of human society over animal society and how we define families. At the age of four, Mila is shipwrecked and raised by dolphins. When she is rescued as a teenager she is taught human language, music and social mores, but yearns for her “true” family. Hesse describes the journey Mila takes very effectively and the story sweeps you along. I highly recommend Karen Hesses other books as well.
Bunnicula, by James Howe
Its hard to beat a vampire bunny for sheer entertainment value. One who sucks vegetables white. Beware, crispers of the world! Toss in a paranoid cat and a somewhat less concerned dog, along with an innocent human family, and you’re ready for mayhem around the house. Check out the sequels as well, including The Celery Stalks at Midnight. My copy notes and 8-12 year old age range, but dramatic readings from this book on road trips with your friends make the time fly by.
Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene
Whenever I finish what I consider to be a heavy book and am looking for something a little lighter, first that comes to mind is Nancy Drew. There are plenty of titles to choose from and I have yet to get bored with them. Also, you don’t have to start with book #1. With each case, the reader is briefed about the prime characters and a bit of their history. Each case is easy to slip into. These books are great for a range of ages – young adult and up. I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next guy, but more times than not, I find they can be too much for me and I wind up huddled under the covers at night! With Nancy Drew, on the other hand, I can read and sleep in peace. Mystery and suspense, I keep turning the pages! Growing up, my friend Sarah and I had our own idea of a slumber party – which consisted of good food and staying up late, reading as many Nancy Drew mysteries as possible before falling asleep … or as many as we were allowed to check out at the local library. They still have not gotten old for me!
Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
One day Ronia, who lives in the forest with her family and their robber clan, was out exploring the woods. While in the woods she meets Birk, the son of a rival robber and enemy to Ronia’s father. Enemies at first, they soon become friends and must keep their friendship hidden. It is only a matter of time before the plot thickens and their secret is revealed. You’ll find all sorts of characters in this book. Ronia’s story is full of fantasy, imagination, adventure, danger and fun. It will teach you important lessons such as to love, to forgive and to never give up! Ronia is a headstrong heroine who will capture your imagination instantly! I first read this story when I was a teenager along with my best friend. Even though it is a children’s chapter book, it didn’t take away from the enticement of a well written story. This tale always makes me want to go exploring in the woods and find my own adventure. I still have hopes of becoming a forest child! This is just one of Astrid Lindgren’s classic children’s stories – Pippi Longstocking is another book you have probably heard of! I am ready to reread Ronia’s tale the moment I finish it. Definitely in my top 10 favorite books. I love it and I think you will too!
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry
Many people know Lois Lowry from her most famous works Number the Stars and The Giver, but fewer have read her very first novel A Summer to Die. I first read the book when I checked it out from my grade school library and I have never forgotten it. The book starts out seeming to be a story about a very typical sibling relationship. There is jealousy, clashing personalities, and the usual amount of bickering. However when one of the two girls falls ill with leukemia it quickly becomes apparent that this is an entirely different type of story. While Meg is forced to watch as her sister Molly suffers from both the disease and the treatments designed to fight it, life goes on for the family and those they know. Meg learns about photography and Molly about wildflowers. When a pregnant couple moves in next door it causes a small scandal amongst the townspeople who incorrectly assume the couple is unmarried because they have different last names. The girls become friends with the couple, who even invite Meg to photograph the birth of their baby. When Molly is rushed back to the hospital she makes Meg promise to tell the baby to wait to be born until she returns. I won’t spoil the ending, but I promise it will make you both laugh and cry. This is a touching story that I recommend to adults and children old enough to deal with issues of life, death, and the varying emotions that accompany both.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell
This Young Adult selection is a former Newbery Award Medal winner. My fifth-grade teacher read it aloud to our class, and when I saw it on our shelf at the store, I decided to re-visit this classic. It is based on true events, about a young woman who was found to have spent 18 years alone on the island of San Nicholas.
As it starts, Karana is only 12 years old, and is the daughter of the chief of Ghalas-at, as they called San Nicholas. In the spring, a group of Aleuts led by a Russian came to hunt otters on the island. They made a deal with the chief to give half to the tribe. As they were leaving, they reneged on their deal, and there was a fight between the Aleuts and the tribesmen. Many were lost.
Life is hard on the island after that, and the workload is redistributed between the remaining men and the women of the tribe. The next spring, one of the elders decides to find a new island to the East for them to live, with the white men. A ship returns with white men to take the tribe to the new land, but Karana is left behind. And now she must learn how to survive – how to find food, make shelter, make clothes, make weapons, repair canoes, and fend off wild animals. But what will be her biggest enemy – the wild animals, or loneliness? This is a beautifully written book – you can almost picture the island in your mind, it is so well described. Even after so many years, I still remembered parts of it. If you like this book, you might also like “Julie of the Wolves” by Jean Craighead George.
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katharine Paterson
One of the reasons why I like this story is because it involves a close friendship between a boy and a girl at an age when these relationships tend to be discouraged a child’s peer group. Written for children ages 8-12, the book still has appeal for me as an example of thinking outside of the box and the power of imagination. Paterson also deals very tenderly and realistically about loss. One of the many children’s books I reread.
Lizard Music, by D. Manus Pinkwater
Imagination. This is the most important element of children’s books. Imagination nurtures brain development, addresses worlds children live in, and provides a vehicle for education. D. Manus Pinkwater lives and works in a world of imagination for children of ages up to fourteen and beyond, and one of my favorites is Lizard Music. Think Home Alone with musical lizards, an enterprising “street person,” Claudia the chicken, and Walter Cronkite. Guaranteed to surprise, satisfy, and stimulate the imagination. Wait until you see Thunderbolt Island.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Not since Rebecca’s World by Terry Nation (which I have been looking for a copy of for years now) have I been so absolutely absorbed by a children ‘ s story. This book actually forms a dichotomy between an adult and child ‘ s understanding of the story. To a child, it is a great adventure; there are deserts, small planets in outer space, and of course lots of imagination. For an adult, it is an allegory on life, love, and society, seeing what ‘ s not really there, using your heart. Did the sheep eat the rose? This book is required reading for, well, everyone.
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden; drawings by Garth Williams
This was one of my favorite books as a child. It is a sweet story of friendship, self-sacrifice for the good of others, and finding your place in the world. While a few parts of the book can seem dated (it was first published in 1960), these central themes are timeless. I also love that some of the friendships in the book are between animals that in reality would be more likely to have a predator-prey relationship: a cat, a mouse, and a cricket. I think my favorite scene is when Chester the cricket gives his final concert in Times Square, and blocks of New York City fall silent to listen. I have a distinct memory of that giving me goose bumps as a small child. While the ending is somewhat wistful, the book still leaves me with a happy, content feeling. The book is such that it can either be read to a small child who cannot yet read on their own, or given to an older child who can read chapter books (although, again, due to the era it was written in, some discussion of race and stereotypes might be necessary for older children). If you can find one, I highly recommend getting an edition with the original drawings by Garth Williams; they are precious!
The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
This book is the first in the line of the Series of Unfortunate Events books, a line of young adult fiction that is easy to enjoy for young and old alike. The books chronicle the misadventures of three young orphans as they try to find happiness in their lives while a vicious relative schemes to steal their inheritance from them. The prospect seems very gloomy; even the narrator tries to dissuade the reader from continuing. These books remain among my most favorite because the style of narration is so fresh and original–the narrator, Mr. Snicket, asserts his voice strongly at times, hinting that he is in some sort of dire, implausible situation. Some of my favorite parts of the series are the way Snicket defines words. Rather than giving a basic definition, the reader is given a quirky explanation sometimes relevant to the orphans’ predicament, sometimes referring to something completely bizarre. The books are short, but sweet (perhaps bittersweet at times), making them a perfect choice for young readers and a treat for literary veterans.
I would recommend each and every one of the thirteen (would you expect anything else from a series like this?) of Snicket’s books, but I’ll settle for recommending the first, and I guarantee it’ll be so good you won’t need anyone to tell you to pick up the next.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
My daughter, Isabel (9), and I just finished this. What a great read! We first meet Reynard Muldoon, an orphan who responded to a newspaper ad: ‘Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?’ He is taking a series of tests, along with other gifted children. It isn’t clear who placed the ad – and the tests are full of tricks. (Izzy & I both enjoyed this section of problem-solving. Sometimes, she would see the answer before I would. As adults, we tend to follow well-worn paths of thinking. Reading this book was a good reminder for me to think more freely.)
Four children are selected for a special undercover mission. George ‘Sticky’ Washington, who remembers everything he sees; Kate Weatherall, who brings a bucket full of tools with which she can accomplish nearly any physical task; Constance Contraire, who is, well, contrary; and Reynie, who is a calm thinker and proves to have good leadership skills. Mr. Benedict steers them toward Nomansan Island and charges them to find out what’s happening there. Secret messages that make people complacent are being broadcast. Government officials have gone missing – and no one is looking for them. Something sinister is afoot and the fate of the world may be at stake – not to mention the lives of four children.
This book is compulsively readable and full of exciting twists and turns. Isabel & I agree that it’s our favorite book since Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. It’s clever, funny, entertaining and thought-provoking. Read it with your kiddo – or by yourself. Either way, you’ll enjoy it!
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Little House series was one of my favorites as a young girl. If all you know of Laura Ingalls Wilder is from the slightly saccharine television series from the 1970’s then you have missed out on a true children’s classic. Told from a child’s point-of-view and in a child’s voice, this series, which starts with Little House in the Big Woods, is the author’s recollection of her childhood. It details all the usual childhood themes, events, and drama – family life, school, friends and “frenemies”, with the additional challenges and experiences of being a pioneer girl in the late 1800’s. What I love most about this series is the stark honesty with which it is told. Laura never tries to portray herself or her family and friends as perfect, but only as people struggling to do the best they can in whatever circumstances they find themselves. With its simple and sweet style, these books at once convey strong moral values and the story of a strong girl learning to make her way in the world. I highly recommend this book to parents (in particular parents of girls) who wish their children to grow up with a solid sense of right and wrong, and always striving to do your best.
The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams with Illustrations by William Nicholson
Like most people I first read The Velveteen Rabbit as a child. At the time I had mixed feelings about the book. While I enjoyed the story of the rabbit’s quest to become real, I was disturbed when he was thrown out with the trash after the young boy who owned him became ill with scarlet fever. When I came across a copy of the story at A Novel Idea recently, I had a chance to re-read it and examine my childhood feelings on it. I realized that of course the reason I was upset by the rabbit’s treatment was because I, like all small children, secretly suspected my toys were alive in some way. I especially recall believing that they had feelings, and could feel loved or hurt just as I could. I believe I am not alone in having these memories, as literature is filled with descriptions of toys either coming to life or already being alive. In addition to The Velveteen Rabbit there are stories such as The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Pinocchio, and Winnie the Pooh – and of course, we still produce modern versions of such stories, as the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes and the movie Toy Story demonstrate.
As many A Novel Idea customers probably know, I am a huge fan of children’s literature. I believe the stories we produce for our children say a lot about who we are as a society. In this light, I have come to revise my opinion of The Velveteen Rabbit. I think that stories such as this validate children’s feelings and allow them the space to explore the world on their own terms. It is discoveries such as this that keep me re-reading the literature of my childhood. I would recommend this book not only to children but also to adults who have not had a chance to read this story since their own childhood.
~ Young Adult ~
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist,
but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
~ Neil Gaiman
Tithe by Holly Black
Disclaimer: A younger incarnation of myself was enchanted by this story of war in the unseen world of the faeries. Kaye, the human (?) protagonist returns with her musician mother to her grandmother’s home in New England. There, she becomes entangled in a battle for domination of the real world. She is called upon as sacrifice (tribute, to use a Hunger Games reference) to maintain the tenuous balance of light and dark. With the help of an angsty faery knight (dedicated to the queen of the light, traded and forced to do the bidding of the queen of the dark) and a selfish selkie, Kaye plunges into this other world – and pieces of her own follow. This is a gritty young adult novel. I would suggest this story to any fan of the goth-glam-teen-romance books. Tithe is sharper (and older!) than Twilight. Black’s other works include the Spiderwick Chronicles, a series aimed at younger readers, featuring faery companions without the sex, smoking, or threat of violent interruption of life by dark faery forces. The illustrations of Tony DiTerlizzi in the Chronicles are quite pretty ‘ check them out in our Children’s Literature section. Final verdict: Holly Black’s stories of the fae breathe new life into a world overrun by vampires and werewolves.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
There are some books out there that really do choose you. Sometimes, not in the noblest way.
Ms. Hanson, my sixth-grade teacher, required every Friday we sit in silence for forty-five minutes in class and read a book of our choosing. To get twenty-some odd ‘tweens’ to sit in quietly anywhere is idealistic at best; expecting them to /actually read /while surrounded by their peers probably borders on delusion.
So Friday comes along and I haven’t a clue what I’m going to bring to class. I hadn’t had anything the previous weeks and was getting pretty sick and tired of staying after school “serving time” for my blatant disregard for this completely unreasonable exercise. I literally run into the library between passing classes, grab the first book I see, and head on in.
Ender’s Game blew me away.
A group of young gifted children are groomed in simulated war games to fight off an alien species that had attacked earth decades before any of them were born. It wasn’t the action, or even the science fiction appeal that pulled me (and many of the other Card fans I’ve met) in. Orson Scott Card does a remarkable job of telling the /story/ of his characters. Themes of forgiveness, the “grey” areas of morality, and the awkwardness of family ties permeate this book; really forcing the reader to love characters not out of their inherent goodness, but because ultimately we forgive them for their faults and weaknesses.
This is a perfect book though, for young and old alike. I revisit Andrew “Ender” Wiggin’s story at least once a year. Easy to read, fast-paced, and enjoyable. There is little ‘literary flare’ in this tome, be aware; if you are looking for an excellent novel from a master story-teller, this is for you.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
People love reality television shows. We get involved with the characters and feel their passion. We compare ourselves to them, or against them, judge them, get caught up in the drama and escape our less exciting lives. There are hundreds of reality shows right now: imagine one in the future, post-Apocalypse. What would it look like, and what would it mean?
In The Hunger Games, the first book in a young-adult trilogy, Suzanne Collins tells of Katniss and her participation in the new reality TV. Teenagers are chosen by lottery to play The Hunger Games, a fight against almost overwhelming odds to be the last one standing. Literally. To be a contestant means her family will have food. To win means her family will have food for life. To lose…means one less mouth to feed. And everyone watches: it’s the national sport, and obligation.
I blew through this book like a windstorm, and as soon as I finished I wanted to read it again – which I’m doing now. The Hunger Games well deserves a place in the post-Apocalyptic literary pantheon, which serves as both allegory and warning. And like all good young-adult literature, it tests boundaries by showing us a mirror of ourselves and what we could be.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
John Green is one of today’s best Young Adult writers. In this book, we are introduced to Miles, a 16 year-old, whose life so far has been unremarkable. He is drawn to biographies, has a fascination with famous last words and knows that there is more to life than the little he has experienced. Searching for what Rabelais called “The Great Perhaps”, he heads off to boarding school in Alabama. There he bonds with a poor, short, scholarship genius nicknamed “the Colonel” and sassy, literary, alluring Alaska Young.
Green writes his characters so authentically – the maddening combination of inexperience, passionate intellect and quirky humor that captures the wonder and potential of that tender age. It is a time of experimentation – and the Colonel and Alaska teach Miles to smoke and drink. It is also a time for tentative sexual exploration, a subject that Green handles with kindness, grace and gentle humor. We see Miles broaden his horizons in a way that is relatively safe – and we are drawn to genuinely care about him. When situations arise that cause him to struggle with heady philosophical questions and their place in his very real existence, we feel a mixture of empathy and hope. Miles is changed by the events in this book – and his process of growing older and wiser is terribly, beautifully poignant.
This is the kind of book that is likely to save the life of a smart, introspective teenager looking for kindred spirits.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Like most of you, I first read Flowers for Algernon in middle school. While I enjoyed it at the time, my understanding of it was of course at a middle school level. And like many classics of children’s literature, Flowers for Algernon has emotional and intellectual levels that can only truly be appreciated by an adult. So when I re-read it recently I was struck by how differently I viewed a work that I had thought I so thoroughly knew. The very first thing that I noticed was the craftsmanship and detail of the work. The novel is written entirely as journal entries by Charlie, an adult male in his thirties with an IQ of 68 who undergoes an experimental procedure that ends up giving him an IQ of 185. The reader is able to watch Charlie’s intellect grow as the journal entries change from the understanding and abilities of a child to those of a genius. The second thing that I felt was extreme pain and grief for Charlie as his growing intellect gives him the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and motivations. One of his first realizations is that people whom he had considered friends were in fact cruelly laughing at him. And then comes the cruelest twist of fate, Charlie’s discovery that he will deteriorate just as Algernon has, and with his increased IQ he has the ability to understand just what that loss will mean for him. If you haven’t read this book since your school days I recommended reading it again as soon as you can. You will be surprised at how complex and moving this book for children really is.
Liz ‘s Review
The Fairy Tale Books of Andrew Lang
I cut my teeth on this series at a very early age, particularly The Red Fairy Book. We had a red (natch) cloth-bound copy that I read literally to shreds. Since then I’ve collected the entire series (thoughtfully reprinted by Dover), all twelve “colors.” Andrew Lang was a collector of fairy tales from Grimm and Andersen and beyond, and printed them, along with gorgeous woodcuts, in a series of red, blue, lilac, yellow, etc. Im sure that early on they were read to me, but I sought them out ever after. A glorious collection, including old favorites and the obscure stories one delights in finding.
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’engle
You might have read this one when you were a kid, or you may have not. If you haven’t, go read it now. If you have, read it again. This among others is the story that really launched a fascination with science fiction and stories of the fantastic. The book is a very smart piece of work when viewed through the eyes of a 10 year old, and even as an adult you’ll be surprised at just how smart it really is. A story of adventure following the slightly off-kilter Murry family, A Wrinkle in Time is also a great introduction to far-fetched, mathematical concepts and questions of theology that people of every age will ask themselves. Yes, there is some Christian undertone here, but it’s not nearly as preachy or heavy-handed as that found in CS Lewis’ Narnia or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Despite that, it is still a novel.
Messenger by Lois Lowry
Messenger ends Lowry’s dystopia series that began with her Newberry Award winning novel The Giver. In Messenger, characters from The Giver and Gathering Blue have escaped or left their unwelcoming communities to travel to Village, a place that supports and nourishes undesirables. Lowry gracefully weaves social criticism with a touching story about fitting in and individual strength. Like her other novels in the series, Messenger leaves the reader with only some closure, but with an overwhelming sense of hope. Messenger not only satisfies young adult literary requirements by providing a mix of genre, a fast paced story, and a main character, Matty, who begins to move to adulthood, but also tells an enjoyable and magical story. I enjoyed this novel because Lowry reminded me that family and community are important. She does so without being didactic, but rather by telling a wonderful story about the good of humanity.
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
If you’re a fan of dystopian literature such as Divergent, The Hunger Games, I Am Number Four and so on, The Lunar Chronicles is for you. The series takes a futuristic twist on the classic tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. Although the series is an excellent mix of intrigue and action, it is also very violent in many parts. I would recommend this series for young teenagers around the age of 13.
This series takes a third-person view of multiple characters. In the first book, we view Cinder’s world. Cinder is a highly skilled mechanic in the futuristic city of New Beijing. Although Cinder is just as hard-working, witty and strong as any girl, she has a major difference from her fellow city dwellers that she is ashamed of; and she does her best to keep it hidden. A plague has broken out recently in the area. She is contacted by someone of high status, and Cinder’s life skyrockets. Discover and dive deep into these books as Cinder’s, and two other equally amazing characters’ alluring stories unfold in The Lunar Chronicles.
The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is with no doubt in my mind the best work of children’s fantasy to be written since CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Much like Narnia, The Golden Compass and sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, are at their core fantastic novels of magic and adventure being cast upon ordinary children. Again, like Lewis’ work, layers can be peeled away by more learned adults and individuals will be surprised at how much depth, allegory, symbolism and metatext can be found here. Theologians, historians, linguists and scientists of all kinds can find something in these books to spark their imagination and curiosity.
Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls
My fifth-grade teacher, Miss Pepper, read this to us as a class, and it was a profound experience. Yes, she was an excellent reader, but the experience wasn’t diminished by the fact that she couldn’t read some of the last parts of the book: she had a student read it aloud instead while she hid in the closet. She couldn’t bear it and would start crying. Tragedy and grief affect kids every day, and I think it is an important subject for them to explore in literature as a way to deal with and learn from their actual experiences. Don’t get me wrong: this book isn’t such a downer. A boy, his two coon dogs, the Ozarks, their escapades – and lots of sheer joy, which is the flipside of sadness.
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan has the magic and monsters of Harry Potter mixed with an element of X-Men that creates a captivating and wonderful adventure story. Percy Jackson has ADHD and has been kicked out of several schools. He doesn’t seem to fit in, that is, until he accidentally vaporizes his math teacher. What we discover is that Percy is no average 12 year-old, but rather the son of a Greek god. In fact, his ADHD is merely caused by his incredible ability to read ancient Greek. I wish I had that problem! What is wonderful about Riordan’s story is that not only does Percy’s quest introduce the reader to Medusa, Cerberus, Procrustes, Titans, and Minotaures but it successfully blends a modern coming of age story with classical storytelling. It kept me captivated. The hero in this book really is a hero, whether he succeeds or not. The Lightning Thief is a clever and fun read. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading about Percy’s other adventures.
Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
I’m sure I am preaching to the choir on this one. It seems like I was one of the last living members of society to read these books; however, if you haven’t, and you want more convincing, read on. Perhaps I was scared off by people talking about Dumble-something-or-other and Griffin-whose-it-whats-it, or maybe it was the (to put it mildly) enthusiasm shown over a Children’s book that kept me away from this series, heck, maybe I was just stubborn, however I am glad I got over it. This is a really fun and (dare I say) intelligent read. I struggled through the first two books – sometimes being highly annoyed by the writing, but if you get through those, I can promise the books after will be a real treat. And don’t just say, “oh, I’ve seen the movies.” Seriously, these make the movies better. If you’re looking for a good spring and summer series to sink into (perhaps while lying in a hammock?) put these on your list.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
I picked this up at my 6 year-old daughter’s book fair with the intention of reading it myself. She was intrigued and asked slyly, “So…if you’re going to read that book to yourself…what if I just sit next to you and you SAY the words OUT LOUD?” And that is how we came to read this book together. It’s a huge book, practically a door stop, but don’t let that deter you. We were entranced. Hugo is an orphan who winds the clocks at a train station in Paris. Isabelle is the bookish, eccentric granddaughter of a cranky old toy shop owner. Hugo gradually begins to trust her enough to allow her into the mystery surrounding his prized possession: a mechanical man he has been slowly repairing over time. What does the mechanical man do? Why was he created? Who created him? These questions drive Hugo & Isabelle to visit bookstores, theaters and a film school. It’s a great story. What’s remarkable about it, though, is the illustrations. There are pages of them at a time…and they not only illustrate the text but serve to move the plot on their own, which makes for especially fun reading with a 6 year-old! Winner of the 2007 Caldecott Award, this is an innovative book geared toward younger readers…but it is thoroughly enjoyable at any age.
Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
Amazing! This book is easily the favorite of all the books my daughter Isabel (9) and I have read together this year. We were drawn to Selznick’s first full-length novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a few years ago – and I was thrilled to encounter his latest. Like Hugo, Wonderstruck showcases Selznick’s art and his unique way of using illustration to move the plot. This story alternates between the tales of two characters, Ben (whose story is told all in language) and Rose (whose story is told entirely in pictures). Ben lives in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977. The death of his mother leads him on a journey to find the father he has never known. He carries a “museum box” with him – a collection of objects with special meaning to him – and follows leads to New York City. Rose lives in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. She is fascinated with the New York City buildings she sees in the distance. She is preoccupied with her absent mother. Her older brother, who works at the Museum of Natural History, turns out to be a strong ally.
This book is inspiring on multiple levels. It’s full of epiphanies about itself – a plot point is revealed that suddenly draws earlier elements into focus, leaving the reader with a great sense of “Oh! That’s why…” It also lends the reader a new sense of excitement about the natural world and the mysterious way life unfolds and points intersect. It’s a fantastic read-aloud with your kiddo; a great selection for yourself; a spot-on gift for that 9-14 year-old niece/nephew. Anyone who reads this book will be wonderstruck.
When Thunders Spoke, by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
This is a contemporary Dakota Sioux story about a reservation family experiencing strange occurrences when the fifteen-year-old son recovers a old coup stick from the land. A coming-of-age story told with mysticism and history, with values familial and cultural. Check out her other books written for pre-teens and teens, especially High Elk’s Treasure.
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
“She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow. She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl. We did not know what to make of her. In our minds we tried to pin her to a corkboard like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” Transfer student Stargirl Caraway surprises her new classmates at Mica Area High School when she approaches each one of them warmly. She lives without the self-consciousness exhibited by the majority of the students. Narrator Leo chronicles Stargirl’s transition from the subject of curious gossip, through her earned popularity as the cheerleading squad’s newest member (who cheers whenever either team scores), during Stargirl’s ensuing social isolation and beyond. I adored this book as a pre-teen, due mostly to Stargirl’s indomitable spirit. The wisdom contained in this short (at 186 pages) novel is relevant at any age, though the experience of high school is vividly expressed. Keep a kleenex handy, and prepare to feel the urge to be yourself. Stargirl’s passion for life can be contagious.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
The way I feel about this book can be summed up quite easily with a quote by its author, Markus Zusak. “Sometimes you read a book so special that you want to carry it around with you for months after you’ve finished just to stay near it.” I first read The Book Thief when I was a junior in high school, and I remember sitting in the back row at a student assembly and crying as I finished the last chapter.
Narrated by Death, this book follows the story of Liesel Meminger, a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. It tells of the complexities of growing up, learning to decide what is right and what is wrong, and it shows that no relationship is as simple as it seems from the outside. An interesting part of this book is that Death, as the narrator, tells you the ending before it happens, and yet, when you get to the end, it’s still just as heartbreaking as if you had no idea what was coming.
Zusak’s writing style is bewitchingly poetic and compelling. Though this book is often listed as Young Adult fiction, I think that people of all ages will enjoy it.