Tag Archives: children’s literature

Short But Meaty: Middle School Books for Less Prolific Readers

You may dream of reading thick classics of literature, long YA historical novels, and piles of other great works in middle school. But not all kids are up for those choices. Some kids read fine but rebel at required literature. Others have reading issues. Others excel at nonfiction and want to keep their required books as short as possible. Basically, there are lots of reasons that the dream of starting in on the canon of Western lit may not be happening at your house like you anticipated.

And so I give you an alternative to giving up: the short but meaty middle school novel. Middle grades and young adult novels started becoming tomes in the wake of Harry Potter two decades ago. But many older classics are shorter. What follows is a list of twenty books that are all about 200 pages or less (page counts can vary greatly by edition, obviously). All of them have rich themes, language, or both.

2839

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Pages: 143
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy to understand.
What it’s about: A boy becomes friends with a new girl who lives nearby and they invent an imaginary world together, where she encourages his love of art and imagination.
Why it’s worth the read: This book tends to starkly divide readers, which is interesting in and of itself. The very jarring, sudden death of one of the main characters causes some readers to feel betrayed by the quiet narrative up to that point. However, the author wrote the book that way on purpose to try and reflect her own child’s experience of a friend’s death. There are class and economic themes as well as family relationships all worth discussion, but the main theme of grief is the reason to read this story.

47281Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Pages: 137
Difficulty: This is a very easy read in language and style.
What it’s about: This is the story of how a Danish girl and her family help their Jewish friends escape to safety on the eve of being rounded up by the Nazis. It’s one of the gentlest Holocaust related novels you’ll find.
Why is it worth the read: The writing isn’t a standout, but the themes around the Holocaust are really important ones and discussion of the true story of how the people of Denmark saved so many Jews from the Nazis is a really inspiring story. It’s told with such a child’s innocence and exploring how that innocence changes during the novel is an interesting topic of discussion.

22232Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 186
Difficulty: This is a fairly easy read.
What it’s about: A formerly homeschooled girl begins attending a suburban high school and really shakes things up. The narrator slowly develops a crush on her but has to figure out how important fitting in is to him.
Why is it worth the read: The tension between conformity and individuality is basically the tension for all middle schoolers. Discussing Stargirl and Leo’s various choices is one of the meatiest discussions you’re likely to get at this age for many kids.

3636The Giver by Lois Lowry
Pages: 208
Difficulty: This book is very much on the easy end.
What it’s about: A boy grows up in a seemingly perfect society and is chosen to become the next Giver. However, as he acquires knowledge his peers and even parents lack, he may never fit in again.
Why is it worth the read: The ideas and themes that are thought provoking and discussion worthy in this dystopian novel. Imagining a world without color and passion can spark discussion, as can the costs of living in a utopia where everything is orderly. What are we willing to give up for such a world? What is the value of conformity? The ending of the book is nebulous (there are sequels, though they don’t pick up the story right away) and talking about why the book ends where it does is also worth the time.

18131A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Pages: 211
Difficulty: It’s not a hard read, but for a novel that has a great deal of plot, it also has a lot of discussion of ideas, which may not carry all readers forward very easily.
What it’s about: This book is difficult to describe. In a nutshell, Meg, her brother, Charles Wallace, and her new friend Calvin, are taken by three mysterious alien women to help save Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, who is being held captive on a strange, evil planet.
Why is it worth the read: There’s an amazing looking film adaptation coming soon! If that’s not enough, the ideas about good and evil are thought provoking and worth discussing. Readers may identify with how Meg often feels like she’s not the special one. Exactly what makes IT so evil, and what makes the darkness so pervasive and how we see it in our own world are all wonderful discussion topics. The science tie ins to dimensional theory and hyperspace may also hook some readers.

598117Sounder by William Armstrong
Pages: 116
Difficulty: The language in this is pretty simple, but the fact that it’s slow moving in places as well as a small amount of colloquialisms and dialect can make it a little harder for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age novel about a black boy in a sharecropping family. He and his dog, Sounder, survive hardships after his father is imprisoned.
Why is it worth the read: This Newbery gem isn’t read like it used to be. However, its depiction of racial issues and poverty in the Jim Crow south still have a lot of resonance. Reading this book and pairing it with some modern discussion of how small tickets and fines can keep poor people always under water would be a good way to bring the issues even more to the forefront. The language is stark but beautiful, so it’s also worth a read for the writing. There are many other great books by African American authors that are commonly read in middle school, but most of them are a lot longer. This is one of the shortest books on this list.

1852Call of the Wild by Jack London
Pages: 172
Difficulty: The vocabulary level and excellent descriptions make this a difficult read for many kids. It’s a good stretch book for middle schoolers.
What it’s about: Buck is a well cared for city dog who is sent to the Alaskan wilderness and must learn to survive.
Why is it worth the read: Obviously, this book is worth a read for its status as a classic. It’s a good choice for nature lovers since the power and cruelty of nature are major themes. The descriptions of the landscape are excellent, as well as Buck’s transformation as the story goes on. The whole theme of survival of the fittest is one that’s full of meaty discussion potential.

84981Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Pages: 132
Difficulty: This book is fairly easy.
What it’s about: The Tuck family has the ability to live forever. A young girl, Winnie, joins them, but learns that their lives are not all others might imagine.
Why is it worth the read: Babbitt is just a great storyteller and created a very good fable in this book. The language is easy to read but rich with metaphors. The book begs the reader to consider immortality for themselves and what they would do in Winnie’s place.

231804The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Pages: 192
Difficulty: Some of the bygone language may throw kids off, but overall it’s not a very difficult book.
What it’s about: This is a story of 1950’s era teenage gangs. When a fight leads to a death of a rival gang member, the main characters have to deal with consequences of their actions.
Why is it worth the read: The themes of violence and youth are still ones that resonate today, especially with class overtones like in the novel. The extent to which people are a product of their environment and to which they can change their fates is also a theme. It’s also still just a compelling read for many kids.

4381Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Pages: 158
Difficulty: The language is somewhat old fashioned and may be difficult for some readers. The themes are definitely more adult than some other books on this list.
What it’s about: In a future dystopia, the main character has the job of burning books. However, as the story goes on, he begins to question whether or not that’s right.
Why is it worth the read: The themes definitely hit you over the head in this one. There’s nothing subtle about book burning as the story’s central plot. Even the melodrama in the characters’ personal lives is over the top. However, sometimes over the top is good for readers this age. And no one does over the top but thought provoking like Bradbury.

13642A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Pages: 183
Difficulty: The language in this is definitely a stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: This is a coming of age story about a young man named Ged who becomes a wizard. He must grow up and undertake a quest to defeat a mysterious dark force that’s after him.
Why is it worth the read: This story is so dripping with archetypal plots and characters that it nearly bursts at the seams with them. It’s incredibly well-crafted and the writing is strong. However, introducing students to these recurring archetypes in writing is a must and this book is one of the best for doing that. Reading it will enhance any fantasy reader or movie watcher’s enjoyment of the genre by deepening their understanding of it.

18553The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Pages: 105
Difficulty: The old fashioned style of this book and the dialogue written in dialect may make it a slight stretch for some readers.
What it’s about: A boy is shipwrecked and blinded and must turn to an impoverished West Indian man to help him survive.
Why it’s worth the read: I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of this novel, but some people really love it. Taylor does a great job of building up the adventure and survival elements of the story and those are things that many students love. The racial and class issues at the heart of the story are obviously worthy of discussion. In some ways, the story feels a little pat by today’s standards, so that’s definitely something to bring up in thinking about the book as well.

87226Crash by Jerry Spinelli
Pages: 176
Difficulty: This is a pretty easy read.
What it’s about: Crash and Penn, two seventh grade students, are opposites in almost every way. A series of events bring them together and force Crash to change his bullying attitudes.
Why it’s worth the read: This book covers a great deal of ground in short time. There are references to literature, history, and religion. There is a lot about friendships and bullying as well as family relationships. Penn’s religious beliefs are worth a discussion. It’s also just a very identifiable “everyday kid” novel for most middle schoolers.

15595The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman
Pages: 128
Difficulty: The language is very sparse and easy, however, some of the style and historical terms might throw off some readers.
What it’s about: A young, homeless girl in the middle ages is taken in by a midwife and trained, but she may lose her confidence before she ever delivers a baby.
Why it’s worth the read: This book has one of the most amazing, beautiful passages in a children’s book about confidence and the loss of it. While the story is from the middle ages and the details are true to life then, the author does an amazing job of making the themes feel very contemporary and very much something middle schoolers will identify with, especially girls.

139253The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Pages: 110
Difficulty: This is a surprisingly easy read, though the style is probably different from what most students are used to and smatterings of Spanish may throw some students off.
What it’s about: This book is a series of short tales about a Latina girl growing up in Chicago.
Why it’s worth the read: The writing is often lyrical and compelling. The story looks at coming of age issues like identity through a different lens than most other novels. Racial identity and immigration are both strong themes of the book as well as women’s roles. It’s very short, but it packs in a lot of worthwhile topics to consider.

39963A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Pages: 160
Difficulty: The language isn’t too difficult, but it’s not a breeze either.
What it’s about: These are short tales about a brother and sister and how they spend summers with their grandmother during the Depression.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a hilarious book. I can’t think of many books better for looking at characterization and humor in writing. The writing makes a great creative writing model as well.

24780The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 190
Difficulty: The old fashioned language is denser than some students may expect, though the plot is straightforward.
What it’s about: Taran is an assistant pig-keeper who gets swept up in a quest and a fight against an invading bad guy with a prince when his magical pig is kidnapped.
What it’s worth the read: Like A Wizard of Earthsea, this book is a classic of fantasy and reading it brings a better understanding of the conventions of the genre as well as archetypes in literatures. It’s also just a very well crafted, well-written, classic quest story. It’s a good book to read for sense of place as the writing vividly brings to life a world that only exists in imagination.

24783Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
Pages: 184
Difficulty: The language is slightly dense. Some students may struggle with it.
What it’s about: This is a fantasy story without magic. In Westmark, Theo becomes a wanted man through a mistake and ends up traveling with a con man and a homeless girl who is more than she seems.
Why it’s worth the read: This series explores ideas related to the Enlightenment in a sort of fake European country of the 1800’s. It especially looks at what makes good governance, why freedom of the press is important, and how power corrupts. What people can morally do to survive when hunted by the law unjustly is also explored. This first volume of a series just touches on those issues, but it does it within a lively story and a short page count.

Homeless BirdHomeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
Pages: 192
Difficulty: The writing is pretty easy in this book.
What it’s about: A young girl is sent to an arranged marriage in India, but when she becomes a widow, she has to figure out how to make her own way, even though she’s still only a child.
Why it’s worth the read: Whelan is really good at conveying complex historical and contemporary themes in a simple way through a straightforward story. This is no exception. Gender, religion, and tradition are all strong themes in this book. The symbolism of the title and the various homes that Koly finds are good ways to look at symbolism. It’s excellent for learning about one side of contemporary Indian life (it would be wise to pair it with something else, such as a film, that shows other aspects). There are literary allusions to the great writer Tagore and reading some of his poetry would be a good tie in for the novel.

165149The Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi
Pages: 176
Difficulty: The language is fairly simple in this plot driven story.
What it’s about: A Korean family struggles with what to do as World War II ends and their country is divided, with them on the wrong side of the line. It’s written like a novel, but it’s actually a memoir of the author’s childhood.
Why it’s worth the read: This is a great look at history that has deep connections with current events today. It’s also a good story of political oppression and how individuals deal with it.

 

 

 

What We’re Reading

Read Alouds
The Austin Family books by Madeleine L’Engle
Loyal blog readers may recall that last year I held down my children and forced them to read L’Engle’s most famous work, A Wrinkle in Time, and they really disliked it. It was the moment I had to really face that they simply wouldn’t love the books I had loved. But luckily, I tried again on the L’Engle front (I was a bit obsessed with her as a middle schooler and the heartbreak at their refusal to enjoy her work was intense) to much, much better results. L’Engle’s Austin series, about a contemporary family and their everyday struggles, has been a much bigger hit here. The books focus on one of the middle children, Vicky, and her struggles to grow up and find her place in the world. In Meet the Austins, the family temporarily welcomes an orphan, Maggy, who was raised very differently than them.  They struggle to adjust her to their small town, positive thinking lifestyle. In The Moon By Night, the family takes a cross-country trip to visit Maggy in her new California home, all while Vicky is trying to figure out her place in the world. Vicky is twelve in the first book, but nearly fifteen in the second. There’s a romance with a young man, Zachary Gray, who they meet camping and who follows the family from campsite to campsite, in part to romance Vicky. He’s much more grown up and pessimistic than Vicky or her family and it creates one of the primary tensions in the book. We’ve just started the final book in the original set (there are a few others with Vicky that L’Engle wrote at other times), A Ring of Endless Light, which deals with the approaching death of Vicky’s grandfather while she helps a young scientist study dolphins and deals with Zachary’s attentions again.

The books were contemporary to L’Engle’s time as she wrote them, but that was the early 1960’s and they now read like historical fiction in many ways. References to “phonographs” and other outdated technology litter the pages, as well as early 60’s fears about nuclear war and slang vocabulary like “slob” and “beatnik.” Overall, the kids have loved the books. They have sparked lots of discussions about the philosophy shared in the books, the quotes, and the attitudes of Vicky and her family. The family are religious and artistic and thoughtful so there is often a great deal of food for thought. The rich, meandering sentences have also been great for longer dictations. However, the time period is also occasionally a barrier. The kids were shocked by the idea that it might be seen as acceptable in any way for a seventeen year old to follow a younger teen around the country when her parents didn’t approve and she was ambivalent. “He’s a stalker!” they said, something I’m guessing previous generations of readers didn’t take from Zachary’s behavior. In general, the romantic element of the story has been a mixed element for my 12 year olds, but that’s more of a reflection of their age than anything else.

Mushroom’s Pleasure Reading
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
Mushroom has really been tearing through books lately and he read this one with a great deal of focus and interest. It focuses on our very own fair city in the 1960’s and features a work of art we’re well familiar with, The Throne of the Third Heaven, which we’ve visited many times at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book explores an imagined friendship between the main character, a young boy who has just lost his father, and the “junk man” who is working on his artistic masterpiece. This book, which had a touch of deep thinking and a lot of interesting issues, was right up Mushroom’s reading alley. He had read a review of this one and wanted to read it right away.

BalletBoy’s Pleasure Reading
Click Here to Start by Dennis Markell
I picked this new book up a couple of months ago in Portland (it’s not a trip to Portland unless you get to go look at books in Powell’s!). It’s about a boy who uncle leaves him a treasure in his will, but only if he can find it in the escape room style game that he turns his apartment into. I like that this genre of fun, light mystery books for kids has been growing lately. Books like this one, the Winston Breen books, and the Lemoncello’s Library books are perfect for a certain sort of reader. Click Here to Start has an added video game motif running throughout the story. A perfect light read for both Mushroom and BalletBoy.

Graphic Novel Reading
Red’s Planet by Eddie Pittman
Pittman is a former Phineas and Ferb writer and artist. The story here, about a girl from Earth who accidentally finds herself in space, dealing with a motley crew of characters, is reminiscent of Zita the Spacegirl. The full color art is lovely and imaginative. So… you’d think with a pedigree like that and an appealing story line that this would have been a huge hit here, right? Meh, the boys said. It was just okay. I also felt like there was some magic missing in this one, though I can’t say exactly what. Overall, though, I think it’s as much that Mushroom and BalletBoy are starting to outgrow this particular level and style of graphic novels (just as they have really hit boom status in the marketplace). So I’ll say highly recommended… for the 8-10 year old set.

BalletBoy’s School Reading
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
This was a challenge book for BalletBoy. One of his school topics this year, chosen by him, was time travel, so it seemed like the time was ripe to do a classic novel like this. He didn’t love it and there were a lot of moments that we had to pick through it and discuss what was really going on. I remember reading it when I was younger and the narrative is unsatisfying in places, especially the abrupt resolution. However, the issues it brings up are interesting, with the two strains of humanity developing into the Eloi and the Morlocks. And Wells does a good job with the reveal of the time traveler’s realization of who the Morlocks really are. Overall, I’m glad I assigned it.

Mushroom’s School Reading
The Wright Brothers: How They Invented the Airplane by Russell Freedman
This was a Newbery honor book from several years ago. It was a great length with the right level of text for Mushroom covering the lives of the Wright Brothers. It interweaves the Wright brothers’ quotes and photos into the text. I assigned it as part of Mushroom’s study of the history and science of aviation, one of his big topics for the year. He read it fairy quickly and retained the information well. However, if this review sounds lackluster, it’s because the book was really just okay all the way around. The old photographs throughout the text were nice, but the book design feels woefully old fashioned compared to the layout of newer nonfiction books at this level. And we agreed that the text just wasn’t that amazing. I would like to see more nonfiction books under consideration for the Newbery in general, but we’re a little unsure what made this one such a standout.

Farrar’s YA Reading
American Girls by Alison Umminger
This YA novel was an interesting tale. Fifteen year old Anna “borrows” her step-mother’s credit card to run away and stay with her sister in Los Angeles for the summer. Back at home, things are a mess with her parents, her school, and her best friend. In LA, her older sister, an actor, helps her stumble into making some money doing research for a director who is filming a movie inspired by the Manson girls. She alternates time doing her research and hanging out on the set of what is basically a Disney sitcom, flirting with one of the stars. To say that there’s a lot going on here is an understatement and by no means are the loose threads all tied up in the end. The setting is a bit wild, as are all the Hollywood characters and the background information Anna keeps reflecting on about the Manson murders. I can’t say I loved this book, but in the end, it was a compelling story. Anna was believable and I liked how she kept managing to do all the wrong things by accident and with good intentions. I think that’s pretty much what being a teenager is like much of the time. Definitely a teen read what with the references to abuse, drugs, and other vices, but Anna herself is pretty tame and there’s nothing graphic going on here.

My 16 Favorite Fantasy Books and Series for Kids and Teens

If you read my post last week, you’ll know that I recently had to come to terms with the fact that Mushroom and BalletBoy, while they may enjoy an occasional jaunt through a fantasy novel, just aren’t true aficionados of the genre and might never be (though apparently I can hold out hope that they’ll learn to appreciate it better). Still, I was a complete fantasy nut as a kid so I give you my absolute favorites. Most are from my own childhood though a few are newer, but even those appeal to the middle school reader in me. They’re in no particular order below. Note that these aren’t “the best fantasy books ever.” They’re my favorites, particularly my favorites for younger readers.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle
I waffled about listing “The Time Quartet” (or Quintet) but decided that really, for me, it was all about these two books, which stand alone just fine, while the others are fine, but nowhere near as good as these two. In the first one Meg and her little brother Charles Wallace travel through other dimensions to rescue their father, who is held captive on another planet. In the latter, Charles Wallace, now a teen, travels through time Quantum Leap style while Meg, now a young adult, helps him from the present by linking to his mind. Both books are completely genre-breaking and weird by any summary, but both work and spoke deeply to me as a kid about good and evil. L’Engle’s liberal Christian theology bleeds through in both.
Perfect for: About age 10-12, when kids are first ready to think deeper about stories.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can deal with the darker themes. Planet in particular has some violence and a couple of shocking events, though nothing gory.

The Young Wizards by Diane Duane
I found this series, which still gets new additions every once in awhile, when I was in college. It follows Nita and her best friend Kit as they become wizards in the modern world and have to deal with quests. The big good and evil themes are very present in these books and I love the way Duane blends the modern, urban world with those big good and evil battles. It’s also fun to see Nita and Kit take on evil across the galaxy and then come home to chores and sibling rivalry. A great bonus is that unlike many of the books on this list, this series does a great job with diverse characters and with gender roles. Kit is Latino. Later books have an autistic character who is handled very well. This series hasn’t been in vogue in awhile, but it’s so good.
Perfect for: Kids who ran out of Madeleine L’Engle books and want more in that vein.
Appropriate for: Any kid okay with darker themes like death.

The Crestomanci Books by Diana Wynne Jones
I read a tiny smattering of Jones’s work as a kid, but it was only later that I realized how much she had written and how amazing her books are. This series is probably her most accessible to readers who haven’t encountered her before, but it’s also my favorite. Crestomanci is an enchanter who helps regulate magic for the government, but in some of the books, as a kid, he gets into all kinds of mischief. All of Jones’s books wind you around through a maze and spit you out the other side. I especially love The Lives of Christopher Chant. For the most part, these can be read in any order, which is just an indication of what a great and slightly twisty writer Jones was.
Perfect for: Doctor Who Fans. Really, it has that feel sometimes.
Appropriate for: Any kid who can keep up with the plot twists.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is the best Arthurian retelling in my opinion, beating out any others (and I read a lot as a kid) by far. In some ways, it’s just a straight retelling of King Arthur and his knights. In other ways, it turns the whole story into something completely new, a psychological exploration of power and justice. The opening section, about Arthur’s boyhood, shape shifting with Merlin, was reworked into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. For many fantasy lovers, White’s book stands with The Lords of the Rings and Gormenghast as some of the greatest British fantasy ever written.
Perfect for: A kid ready for a really dense read.
Appropriate for: The first section can be read as a standalone and is appropriate for anyone. The rest of the book isn’t graphic, but it is a lot more grown up and includes the affairs and jealousies of adult relationships and marriages.

The Hero in the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
It’s impossible to explain how much I adore these books. They’re connected only loosely as they take place hundreds of years apart. The first is much for traditional feeling fantasy, about a girl who fights dragons. The second takes place in a world where an imaginary British-like empire has conquered most of the magical lands without ever realizing there was magic in them. McKinley’s writing is rich and paints a vivid picture of Damar. The Hero in the Crown won a Newbery.
Perfect for: Me, age 12.
Appropriate for: There’s a veiled reference to sex in the first book, but it’s very veiled. Both books have romance as a central theme and feel very YA, but they’re not inappropriate for younger readers if they pick them up.

The Belgariad by David Eddings
This is a thick five book series originally written for adults but which is now being read by older kids and teens pretty regularly and sometimes sold as one big, fat volume. It follows a boy, Garion, as he realizes his destiny to fight a giant battle against a god. As an adult, I can see that Eddings’s world is problematic, in large part because it’s so segregated and borderline racist. The darker skinned characters are the baddies. And being good or bad is determined in large part by your race and culture. And while there are several strong female characters, it’s a man’s world rife with sexism. I have extremely mixed feelings about all that, but I also remember how much I enjoyed the vivid cast of characters and the epic qualities of the story. I think it’s still worth enjoying by kids who are able to understand what elements of the set up aren’t so good.
Perfect for: Slightly older kids who want to sink their teeth into a big fantasy adventure.
Appropriate for: Because these were first written for adults, there are numerous references to drinking (but note that characters generally suffer when they drink too much) and sex, though nothing graphic is described. Also note the above about sexism and racism. I wouldn’t suggest this series for a kid before they were ready to be a little critical of those elements, even if it was with guidance.

The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper
This series is hard to explain if you haven’t read it. There are a couple of books about some average kids and another few that focus on a boy with magical powers to bend time and space. Along with an old man who is secretly Merlin in the modern day, they work for the side of the light and against the mysterious dark. Lots of Arthurian tidbits continually come into play. Mushroom and BalletBoy really liked the first book, where the average siblings find the Holy Grail, but they found the next one, about the magical boy, harder to enjoy. It’s my favorite. I loved that young Will had a secret identity and was sometimes normal and other times wise beyond his years. The jumps in time and place were interesting to me as a kid and, of course, those big good and evil themes came into play. This series has much denser and richer language than a lot of fantasy being written for kids today. Note that the film version of the titular series book is dreadful. Avoid at all costs.
Perfect for: Fans of rhyming prophesies in fantasy books, Arthurian nuts, fantasy weirdos. Really, these books are classics, but they’re also a bit hard to pin down.
Appropriate for: Any child who can keep up with the language.

Tales of Magic by Edward Eager
This series includes Eager’s wonderful classic Half-Magic, which is probably my favorite. In that book, four siblings acquire the ability to use magic wishes, but the wishes only ever work halfway, making them half invisible or sending them halfway on a journey. Later books include other sorts of magic that comes and then goes, giving the siblings a brief bout of adventure before their mundane lives resume. While the plots are fantastic, the siblings and their relationships feel very real. All Eager’s books feel very much like real magic games kids play come to life. This is one of the few series Mushroom and BalletBoy also genuinely loved, perhaps because they feel so much like real life with pretend.
Perfect for: Read alouds once your kids are really into their read alouds.
Appropriate for: Anyone at all.

The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
This series was an adult discovery for me. I only found it a few years ago, but I was blown away by its complexity and good writing. The main character, Gen, is the titular thief, who must steal something very important. To say much more would give away the first book, which is by far the best. As the series goes on, it changes, covering politics and intrigue as well as romance in the complex world Turner created. That world is very realistic with very few supernatural elements, making it mostly just an imagined universe and not a traditional fantasy setting.
Perfect for: Kids who want “good” fantasy YA.
Appropriate for: There’s nothing inappropriate, but the characters are all adults and the romance in the later books feels very grown up. I wouldn’t suggest it before 12 or 13 to most kids.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
Most of McCaffery’s Dragon books aren’t really for kids, though these two absolutely are and they’re also by far the best of the bunch. On a planet where the weather can be literally deadly if you don’t have proper shelter, Menolly lives alone and finds tiny dragons before moving to the Harper Hall to play music. Because these were a tiny duo of books (there’s also a third that’s nowhere near as good and follows another character) meant for younger readers inside a vast series, the world building is impeccable and complex yet totally accessible to new readers.
Perfect for: Girls who like music and dragons.
Appropriate for: Any age, but note that the other Dragonrider series have a lot more adult content and the final book is this trilogy, Dragondrums, also has a lot more romance, including a brief but not terribly veiled pre-sex scene.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
This was my real gateway drug into fantasyland as a child. Through the wardrobe I went and I never totally returned. The books follow the magical land of Narnia over time and the children from Earth who stumble into visiting there. I feel like it has to be said that the books are a Christian allegory, something that I didn’t quite get as a child, but which is beyond obvious as an adult. I don’t mind this most of the time. Lewis is an interesting Christian thinker and I appreciate the elements of Christianity he brings to fantasy. However, The Horse and his Boy is beyond racist and anti-Muslim. I think it’s worth just pulling out of the box set and hiding, to be honest. The final book is also a conundrum, being a book with numerous references to Revelations and an interpretation of both adult life and Narnia that never sat very comfortably with me, honestly. Still, the magic and story in the first books is so excellent. The messages about faith and belief were also ones that have stuck with me for a long time.
Perfect for: Reading aloud the moment kids are ready for it.
Appropriate for: Children before they’ve become too analytical. Seriously, I think these are better read before you can see the Christian allegory.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
I’m a bit too old to have read these as a kid. In fact, my own kids were tiny when I dragged them to a release party to get my copy of the final book. While I can only assume no one needs a summary, the series follows Harry, an orphan, as he attends a school for wizards and learns the tools he needs to take up his destiny and fight Voldemort, the wizard who killed his parents. Like everyone else, I loved these books and I even can say that (gasp), the fifth one where Harry is just so mad may actually be my favorite. Oh, teenagers.
Perfect for: Everyone on the planet, apparently.
Appropriate for: A lot has been made in many families about making kids wait on this series. While obviously there are some dark parts to the ending, the writing is much easier than many of the books on this list and the dark stuff is pretty mild when you come down to it. In some families, the kids are reading things I think are just as dark or even more so while being told not yet for Harry Potter. While I wouldn’t suggest them to younger kids per se, I think they’re fine for any kid who really wants to tackle them, even accelerated younger readers.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
This series is, for me, one of the best examples of classic fantasy ever written. It follows Taran as he goes from lowly pigkeeper to epic hero. The setting and characters are drawn from Welsh mythology and have a very pre-medieval feel. As a child, this set me off on a strange love of all things Welsh that I’ve never really given up. Just seeing a Welsh flag with a dragon on it still gives me a little warm fuzzy for no reason I have any right to. The final book in the series earned a well-deserved Newbery award.
Perfect for: Kids who have exhausted all the easy, breezy fun fantasy of today and want something with more depth.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot, which are a little dense by today’s standards. There are some darker themes and scary bad guys.

Moomintroll Books by Tove Janssen
These books are so odd and charming. I especially adore Comet in Moominland. All the books follow the odd Moomins, a family of funny looking creatures, and their various friends. It’s hard to say what happens in any of them exactly, because even though there are floods and panics and robberies and so forth, you come away from all the books feeling simply like you got to dwell in another place with some strange characters for a little while. And when I say strange, I really do mean strange. When they were younger, BalletBoy and Mushroom really liked these whimsical tales.
Perfect for: Read alouds for kids who like odd stories.
Appropriate for: Anyone and everyone.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
In many ways, I like this series better than Collins’s much better known Hunger Games. It also uses many of the same themes about how much we control our own fates when others are trying to use us and the long term effects of violence on individuals. Despite those dark sounding themes, this is a story about a boy and his baby sister who stumble into an underground world populated by intelligent rats, mice, and bugs. The main character Gregor may be part of a prophesy. These books were obviously a more recent discovery for me, but I really love them. One of the things I love is that unlike so much fantasy, the book features non-white characters as the heroes, not the villains.
Perfect for: Animal fantasy lovers.
Appropriate for: Any child who can deal with some of the darker themes and violence. Note that even though the violence features animals for the most part, sometimes it’s pretty grim, such as a mouse genocide that Gregor sees from afar.

The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. LeGuin
In high school, an English class I was in used the first volume of these books as an introduction to archetypes in literature. It illustrates one of the great things about fantasy books: the metaphors and symbolism is often more overt and complex than in other works, making them excellent first books to deconstruct and discuss in depth. The main books follow the wizard Ged. I remember that as a young reader, I especially loved the power of words and names in Earthsea and the way the magic system worked. These are considered some of the most influential fantasy classics out there.
Perfect for: All fantasy lovers. They should be required reading.
Appropriate for: Anyone who can keep up with the language and plot. They’re definitely intended for a YA audience, though there’s nothing inappropriate for younger readers.

 

Confessions of a Failed Geek: My Kids Don’t Like Fantasy

IMG_0581
Imagining… but maybe not swords and dragons.

In the last few months, a horrible truth has come down in our home. While the kids enjoy a little Harry Potter, like playing Dungeons and Dragons, and looked forward to seeing the new Star Wars, they just don’t care for fantasy.

I have been trying to deny this for years. I’ve been pushing the Diana Wynne Jones, the Lloyd Alexander, the Gregor the Overlander books on them. They often tolerate it. Sometimes they find it enjoyable. But the truth has been written on the wall for a long time. The fantasy books get an, “okay,” but they would much rather hear The Saturdays, The Great Brain, a pile of historical fiction, a mystery novel.

I was a fantasy fanatic as a kid. I read nearly everything that was labeled fantasy on the children’s shelves – Narnia, Edward Eager, Robin McKinley, and so forth. Then I moved into the adult section and tried out books like the Dragonriders of Pern and The Belgariad.

The idea that fantasy is “just escapism” has been pretty well refuted in the last few decades as children’s and now young adult literature has become more saturated with it and even adult literature has leaned more and more speculative with writers like Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin as some of the most blockbuster bestsellers out there.

Fantasy was so influential in forming the way I looked at the world. Fantasy is big battles between good and evil. It’s big questions about right and wrong. It’s about power and responsibility. And it lays it all out in a way that’s more epic and more philosophically bare than most realistic fiction for kids. It’s not an escape from reality, it’s reality heightened for young readers, where you can really think about what you believe and challenge your imagination.

I can remember flying through and then rereading fantasy novels, especially in middle school. Obsessing over the details, copying the maps of imaginary places, and then dreaming up my own imaginary places. I can remember imagining, all Mary Sue style, what it would be like to be in these fantasy places, visiting Narnia, tempted by the Dark Side, tromping into Mordor, fighting the power of IT, training to battle dragons.

And now, I realized, my kids just won’t have those moments or anything like them. It made me want to cry.

But, gathering myself together. It’s okay. I would have groaned at some of the long classics and historical fiction that they actually adore. They adored The Secret Garden when they were little. They actually really enjoy classics that other kids often find sort of dull, like when we read Island of the Blue Dolphins. And far from shying away from tough topics, Mushroom’s favorite books are critically acclaimed books about tough topics like Mockingbird and Counting By 7’s. Those aren’t the sort of books I would have read at that age at all, but they’re undoubtedly giving him different perspectives on the world. They get excited about a new Penderwicks book and reveled having a new Calpurnia Tate book to listen to.

And while they may not be fantasy nuts, they don’t lack for imagination, playing out long soap operas of intrigue and love between their toys and coming up with elaborate spy, ninja, and mythology inspired games with their friends. For them, art, history, and politics can be just as much fodder for the imagination as Narnia or Middle Earth.

Fall Book Roundup

This is our periodic round up of mini-reviews of just a few of the things we’ve been reading lately.

Read Aloud
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Is it possible that this sequel is even better than the original? I think I like it even more than the first book. The writing is so beautiful and detailed and the characters and world are so well drawn. Calpurnia is the only girl in a large, prosperous Texas family in 1900. Her grandfather, a Civil War veteran, encourages her interest in nature and science while the rest of her family want her to be more feminine. In this book, the Galveston Hurricane, the greatest natural disaster in American history, is explored. Calpurnia becomes closer to her younger, animal loving, soft-hearted brother Travis, considers becoming a veterinarian when she grows up, and learns about the weather. Like the previous book, each chapter begins with a quote from Charles Darwin, though these are drawn from The Voyage of the Beagle. Build Your Library sells a unit study about evolution that uses the first book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate as a core part of the study. This book lends itself even more clearly to being used as the literary backbone of a science study. Calpurnia builds her own barometer, astrolabe, and other instruments, as well as dissects several creatures, such as a grasshopper and a worm.

Audiobook
Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm

We’ve really enjoyed all of Holm’s books inspired by her family history. This book takes place in 1950’s New Jersey, where Penny is caught between her mother and her late father’s large Italian family. Most of the book is light and funny, filled with vivid characters. Penny’s cousin Frankie is constantly in and out of trouble, her grandmother cooks only inedible food, her uncle sleeps in his car, her other grandmother wears only black in mourning for her father, even many years after his death. Meanwhile, Penny spends her time trying to sneak away and have fun despite all her mother’s rules. However, I have to issue a warning and a spoiler. More than midway through the book, Penny has an accident with a clothing wringer that is so gruesome I nearly had to pull the car over because we were all freaking out so much. It works out in the end, but it was really a pretty horrible accident.

School Reading
Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle

This book is a great introduction to evolution. We are studying paleontology this year and I wanted to begin with a look at evolution. This book has such a clear text with such great illustrations by Steve Jenkins as well as illustrative photos. It was at exactly the right level for the kids to read independently and the chapters were very well organized. Evolution can be hard to understand, but this book explains it well, including the history of our understanding of evolution and how natural selection and adaptation works.

School Reading
Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age by Cheryl Bardoe

Because we had the opportunity to see an IMAX film that covered the same material during a homeschool science center day, we skipped ahead a little bit in our paleontology study to look at the Pleistocene animals. This book was very well written with great photos. It’s not long and was also at just the right nonfiction reading level for the kids. The opening part focuses on the find of a baby mammoth in Siberia. The mammoth was perfectly preserved and can now be seen in museums. The mystery of the extinction of the mammoths and their kin is also covered.

 

Mushroom’s Reading
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale

Mushroom has been loving these nonfiction graphic novels and has already read several of them. Each book covers a different American history topic, generally with a slightly dark or violent topic, including several wars and the infamous Donner Party. Mushroom says he likes the first one, about Revolutionary War spies, the best. A lot of the nonfiction graphic novels that are coming out now are dry or formulaic, but this series has creative storytelling and good details as well as a friendly art style. I think it would appeal to a lot of the fans of the Horrible Histories series.

BalletBoy’s Reading
The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar

BalletBoy wanted something light to read and he picked this book off the shelf. It’s not one of Sachar’s better works, honestly. It’s part of a series of books about middle school kids. This one is about a boy who joins the popular crowd, but it comes with a price. Soon, not only is he not part of the popular crowd anymore, but he’s pretty sure he’s cursed. This is one of those books that explores all the awkward, sometimes terrible things that middle school kids can do to each other. The end message is positive and funny, but BalletBoy didn’t end up loving the book, in part because he felt uncomfortable with how the kids treated each other. My kids have definitely seen some doses of meanness, but maybe not in this same way.

Farrar’s (regrettable) YA Reading
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Why do I always get sucked into these? But good reviews, a little buzz, and an interesting concept and I was suckered into trying this book. In the end, I gave up on it toward the end, not quite finishing it. Mare is a poor “red” girl. She has no abilities and is subject to the powerful “silvers” and their never ending war. That is, until it’s discovered she does have mysterious powers and is swept into an arranged marriage in order for the royals to hide that fact. There’s a rebellion (of course), a love quadrangle (double of course), and a lot of hand wringing. There’s a twist that was a reasonable good idea, but on the whole the book fell very flat for me. It was yet another formulaic dystopian style YA novel with mediocre writing. Bah.

 

 

Book Roundup

I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing our periodic book roundups. However, as always, we’ve been reading. Here’s a few things from our shelves from the last few months and I’ll try to get back to doing more book blogging again.

School Read
Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd
We took this book out of the library and let it inspire our final project for fifth grade: graphic design. This was such a readable book for my design loving kids that they both read it for pleasure reading first before I could assign it, which is a rare occurrence around here indeed. It’s a well designed book (as one would hope) and filled with great visual examples. The text also breaks down important elements of design in a way that’s simple for the reader. At the end there are ten projects for readers to try so they can do their own graphic design. As always, the kids has their own takes on how to do the projects, but it was a really good introduction. I highly recommend it.

Nonfiction Practice Reading
TIME: Modern Explorers
We have struggled a lot to hit the right length and difficulty level for nonfiction reading in our house. I may write more about this in a future post, but in the meantime, I found a good solution for now, which was to seek out adult magazines geared toward more casual readers by simply running through the offerings at the bookstore. This one has been the biggest hit. It’s a special issue of Time about explorers in all different fields: medicine, oceanography, outer space, climbing, and more. There’s a nice variance of lengths and both the boys have been excited by what they read. The opening article, about twin astronauts, was especially interesting to them. The writing is at a high enough level to be challenging, but not as challenging as many other publications geared toward adults and the length of the articles is just right, which has been a key element for my not so fast readers.

Required Reading
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
We do very little required reading, but I did choose a couple of shorter books to be read by all three of us at the same time then discussed at a poetry tea and this is the one that finished up our school year. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a boy named Jess, a middle child in a poor, rural family who dreams of being an artist. Leslie moves in next door and they quickly become friends. Leslie’s family is affluent, there because they’re fleeing the city for a country oasis. She’s different, smart, and well-read. She introduces Jess to a fantasy world and they play games in the woods across the creek. However, on a fateful, stormy day when Jess isn’t there, she is swept into the creek and drowns. I know this book is divisive for many. Some people feel utterly betrayed by the story and Leslie’s very unexpected death (there is some foreshadowing, but it’s limited). However, I felt like the book is one that has a strong impact on readers and generally elicits a strong response. I talked to the kids about how the book is sad and that there’s a surprise shocking thing that happens. Even with the warnings, BalletBoy cried when he read about Leslie’s death and it led to a lot of good conversations, which was exactly the goal of having a required reading book like this one.

Mushroom’s Serious Read
Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Mushroom has a book type these days, one that can best be described as “issue books.” He likes books where difficult things happen to kids or where kids have to overcome various issues. That’s why I was sure this book would be right up his alley. Willow, the main character, is profoundly gifted, but also misunderstood by everyone but her parents. Unfortunately, they die in a terrible accident, leaving Willow on her own without anyone. A bizarre cast of characters step in to help her out, but slowly, as Willow resurfaces from her grief, she’s the one who helps them out. I read this one alongside Mushroom and we both really liked it.

Mushroom’s Graphic Novel Read
El Deafo by Cece Bell
You know how I just said that Mushroom likes “issue books”? Well, here was one that brought together his two great literary loves in one volume: a book that was both an issue book and a graphic novel. What could be better? El Deafo won a much deserved Newbery Honor last year, hopefully making it the first graphic novel to be honored among many. The characters are all rabbits, but the story is based on the author’s own childhood. Cece loses her hearing and must adjust to having an awkward hearing aid, but one that soon helps her hear in places that no one else can. It’s a story that’s both serious and funny.

BalletBoy’s Serious Read
The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne
BalletBoy generally refuses to listen to any books I suggest for him so he always runs through the shelves and finds his own interesting titles, often of books I’ve never heard of. That was the case with this book, which is a sort of fanciful tale about a boy who is born floating. In a twist a bit like the classic Rudolph Christmas special, Barnaby’s parents are ashamed of his unusual state and do everything they can to hide it, that is until Barnaby floats away to have a series of adventures. BalletBoy really loved this book and immediately dove into another book by Boyne (who is probably best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). I only skimmed a bit of it, but I can’t say I was as enchanted as he was, still, I think the fairy tale and moral qualities of the story appealed to him as a reader.

Farrar’s YA Read
Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
This Printz award winner from last year begins like a typical teenage boy book. Narrator Austin is a bit of a stoner, a bit funny, a bit confused about his sexuality, and a bit disgusting in the way that teen boys can be. However, after introducing the characters, the book slowly veers into science fiction as a virus that ends the world by turning people into giant bugs is unleashed thanks to a series of accidents. This was one of those darkly fascinating books for me. It really stayed with me for weeks afterward and I liked how the book swung from being one sort of book to being another entirely. Austin’s voice reminded me a little of the main character from Youth in Revolt – a teenage boy who is both disgusted with himself and yet unable to stop himself when it comes to poor decisions. But by the end of the book, it felt like I was in a comedic Starship Troopers. This book is definitely not for everyone, but I liked what Smith had to say in his thank yous about how he wrote it just for himself, just because. Obviously, that led to a unique, interesting book.

Farrar’s YA Graphic Novel Read
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
I read this all in one sitting because I was so compelled once it got started (I know, not so hard for a graphic novel, but still). The setting is a sort of alternate universe where medieval values and trappings live alongside modern technology. At the start, the title character Nimona, a young teen with a medieval punk look, offers her services to the most famous super villain, a man who washed out of being a knight after his arm was destroyed in a jousting explosion. It quickly becomes clear that Nimona, who happens to be a shapeshifter, is dangerously unstable and bloodthirsty. The story makes you feel for her despite the high body count she racks up. But as the story continues, it becomes less clear who the good guys and bad guys even are and what Nimona is as well. I highly recommend this one to anyone who likes a good graphic novel. I liked the balance it struck between humor and seriousness.

Ten “Girl” Books My Boys Have Loved

Anyone who knows me knows I love to recommend books to people. I’m a children’s book nut and I like helping people find good books for their book devourers and picky readers alike. But often I feel like people who want book recommendations want to start in the wrong place, which is gender.

It’s important for all kids to be able to see themselves in the characters they read about (not to get onto a tangent, but that’s exactly why #weneeddiversebooks). Books are a mirror for our lives and help us understand our own experiences by identifying with others’ stories. However, I think it’s just as important that kids have the opportunity to read about different perspectives and that includes reading about what it’s like to grow up as a girl.

When people talk about the need for there to be books with strong female characters, the focus is usually to help girls become strong women. However, as the mother of boys, I think it’s just as important that boys read these books to learn how to respect, admire, and be understand strong women when they grow up. We do just as huge a disservice to boys when we don’t give them “girl” books as we do when we box girls into a reading corner.

So here are just a few of the many “girl” books my boys have read and enjoyed over the years. Many of them are books that are consistently on the “for girls!” lists.

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Conner
Last Christmas, my sister-in-law gifted BalletBoy a very amusing picture book: Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century, signed by the author. He had a great blush. Why is she giving me this? But I knew immediately. As a preschooler, BalletBoy had loved Fancy Nancy so very much that he had announced that he planned to marry her when he grew up. We may have grown out of Nancy a long time ago, but her girly, vocabulary rich, pink-loving charms were once really enjoyed here.

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Mushroom and I recently reread this one curled up in bed late at night. It’s probably no surprise that this would have been a much loved girl picture book for my anxious kid. Henkes’s world has many boy characters as well – we especially liked Owen too – but Wemberly has a special place for us.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch
This classic tale of princess empowerment is funny for boys too. My boys always thought the picture of the annoying prince who needed rescue was very amusing. I especially thought it was good for boys to see that princesses can rescue them.

Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows
Not long ago, BalletBoy noticed a newer Ivy and Bean book he’d never read and picked it up sort of wistfully before putting it back and declaring he was too old for it. However, these books about two neighbor girls with very different personalities and a close friendship was one of the first chapter book series he read independently.

Ramona series by Beverly Cleary
Not that we didn’t also enjoy Henry Huggins or Ralph S. Mouse, but Ramona’s struggles from pest to older kid have been Cleary’s most loved books here. She is one of the most real characters in children’s literature, with some of the most real family relationships and struggles.

The Penderwicks
 series by Jeanne Birdsall
We loved meeting the Penderwicks again in the most recent book.
The books are so sweet and touching positive with such great sister relationships. We have read every one and loved them all.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This classic was a read aloud ages ago and both boys enjoyed Mary’s transformation from contrary to happy. They may have also really liked my poorly done accents. I highly recommend the beautiful Inga Moore version, which was the one we had.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
This fairy tale with a girl power twist was a much enjoyed story for both my boys, who both liked Ella’s unlucky tale. I like the determination that Ella has to show and the way the romance evolves through the story. The boys thought the movie wasn’t all that great, but I’m pretty sure everyone agreed on
that.

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
Mushroom read this book not too long ago for pleasure reading. Wendy Mass has several more boy-centric titles, but most of her books are solidly female-centric. This light and funny one with a magical twist, with worries about middle school cliques and birthday party attendees, feels especially girl-centric. But he enjoyed it a lot and I like that the final message is so positive toward girls and boys continuing to be friends, even in middle school and
beyond.

Smile
by Raina Telgemeier
This coming of age graphic novel was based on the author’s real life and deals a lot with learning to figure out who your real friends are and how to be yourself, lessons that both girls and boys have to learn. It has a cult following among girls, but I have noticed a lot of boys reading it as well. I’m embarrassed to say that I initially didn’t give this to either of my kids, thinking that it might be to middle school girly. However, Mushroom specifically asked to read it. Clearly, he knows that “girl” books aren’t just for girls.