Start with the ’80s iconic movie The Breakfast Club. Replace the all-white teen group with a half dozen diverse pre-teens. Substitute school dilemmas for precarious real-world problems that are far bigger than the characters. Add exquisite writing. Now you’ve got Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me.
At the start of a school year, a teacher takes her six students to a private room and gives them a single task: talk with each other for an hour. Every Friday. Over time, the students come to trust each other, eventually confiding in one another. Woodson does not shy away from controversial current affairs. The students share there unique perspectives on illegal immigration, racial profiling, financial status, learning disabilities, a parent in prison, treatment of ethnic minorities, and bullying.
I admire Woodson’s writing style. She has a way of getting to the heart of the matter in the most beautiful way. Many will know Woodson for her widely acclaimed novel-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming. Although written in prose, Harbor Me uses the same rich language and poetic style.
I highly recommend Harbor Me for ages ten and up. I think younger readers (ages 8-10) would be okay to read it or listen in, but I do believe older pre-teens will be able to make a deeper connection with the content. It is a great choice for initiating meaningful conversations with young readers, helping to give new perspectives on many issues our society currently faces.
Stunning paintings, brilliantly placed cutouts, and the perfect thirty-two words make Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Blue one of my favorite pictures books of all time. Following in the style of her picture book Green, which won a Caldecott Honor, Seeger takes it one step further by adding an underlying plot of great emotional depth. I marvel at her ability to tell the life story of a boy and his dog over seventeen spreads, with minimal text. The result is profound and poignant.
I highly recommend this picture book for children and adults of all ages. Blue is a particularly good choice for anyone mourning the death of a pet. Younger children will appreciate the cleverness of the illustrations and cutouts, and at the very least, will learn to recognize various shades of blue. Older children will likely grasp the subtle plot and deeper feelings permeating through the book. I also recommend Green by the same author, though it is more about the colors and illustrations and does not have the same weight of the newer Blue.
There are two things you should know about this book: 1) I am generally not a crier, especially for books. 2) This book made me cry.
Sea Prayer is a poem – a father’s earnest prayer for protection over his young son, Marwan, as they prepare to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in a lifeboat. Fleeing war-torn Syria, they are among the refugees who are hoping to find a better life in another land. But first they must face the sea.
With lyrical language evoking a sense of longing, the father recalls happier times on the farm and in the bustling city. This is soon contrasted with the world Marwan knows, a world of protests, bombs, and death. Now their family is waiting by the sea for the sun to rise so they can depart, eager for safety, but dreading the uncertainty of a perilous journey.
Author Khaled Hosseini is a bestselling author, perhaps most known for his novel The Kite Runner. In Sea Prayer, his words are paired with illustrations by Dan Williams. Williams’ art captures every mood and adds yet another layer to the already rich text. My particular favorite spreads are of Marwan and his mother walking through a field of flowers, and Marwan cradled in his father’s arms as they wait by the sea.
Because this is an illustrated book, some may consider it a children’s book. One of my local libraries catalogued it with the juvenile fiction, while another placed it in the young adult section. This is where I will offer a word of caution. While it is a devastating truth that this story is a reality for far too many children, Sea Prayer may be too graphic for the youngest readers, especially sensitive ones. Furthermore, this is the sort of book that will impact adults (particularly parents) more than children and teens. As such, I would recommend it for ages ten and up, and parents may wish to preview it first. At the very least, I encourage all parents to read this beautiful, heart-breaking book.
Yet another graphic novel nails the precarious nature of growing up. In Be Prepared, Vera Brosgol carefully balances pre-teen angst with childlike naivete as her nine-year-old main character (also named Vera) navigates summer camp among older girls.
Vera has a hard time fitting in with her more affluent friends at school. Jealous of the girls who spend their summers at camp, Vera convinces her mom to let her go to a Russian Orthodox camp that they will be able to afford with financial help from their church.
As she soon discovers, summer camp isn’t the carefree vacation Vera thought it would be. There’s no running water, which means she brushes her teeth in the river, bathes in the lake, and uses an outhouse for a bathroom. There are lots of camp rules that are hard for a first-timer, like getting her uniform just so and remembering to speak in Russian all the time. But worst of all, her tent-mates are best friends and repeat campers who are much older than Vera, and at fifteen years old, they want nothing to do with Vera.
Away from home and on her own, Vera must confront her challenges. She does make friends while becoming more comfortable in the great outdoors, and most importantly, she learns how to stand up for herself.
Be Prepared is a wonderful coming-of-age middle grade graphic novel that will appeal to fans of Real Friends by Shannon Hale and Roller Girl and All’s Faire In Middle School by Victoria Jamieson. While none of the content is overly graphic, I do think Be Prepared is more mature in content than the other graphic novels mentioned, and would recommend this for ages 10 and up, maybe 12 and up, depending on the emotional maturity of the reader. There is some content to be aware of: the older girls talk of menstruation, one of the girls has soiled underwear after her period, and there is some teenage kissing. If the reader has not encountered these life experiences, then perhaps hold off reading until older.
Four sisters. A neighbor boy who becomes one of the family. Adventures and mishaps that strengthen sibling bonds. Which literary classic do these statements describe?
Just as an older generation might answer with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, tweens would say this describes Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks, and both would be correct! Both classics explore coming of age within the context of a close-knit family. Readers have the impression that the March family and Penderwick family are drawn closer to each other through the adversity that results from a missing parent. (In Little Women, Mr. March is fighting in the Civil War. In The Penderwicks, the girls’ mother has died of cancer.)
The Penderwicks centers around a three-week summer vacation in which the Penderwick family rents a cottage on the grounds of the fine estate Arundel. They meet young Jeffrey, who lives at Arundel with his wealthy mother, Mrs. Tifton. Jeffrey has led a rather sheltered life, and he relishes the excitement the four Penderwick girls bring. Birdsall writes of the summer’s adventures, adeptly weaving between the sisters and their contrasting personalities.
Although published in 2005, The Penderwicks has an old-world feel to it, likely due to the episodic story structure, as one would find in Anne of Green Gables. While focused on characters more than plot, there are certainly moments of tension and hilarity that encourage readers to turn the page.
The Penderwicks will appeal to a slightly younger audience than that of Little Women. While there is nothing objectionable for younger readers by way of content, I would recommend The Penderwicks for ages 10 and older, and Little Women for ages 12 and older.
Growing up can be hard. Everything changes: body, relationships, emotions, and responsibilities are in transition, and it’s difficult to know what to expect next. Authors Judy Blume and Victoria Jamieson both write about this phase of life with respectful honesty.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume has long been considered a classic female coming-of-age novel. Unafraid to tackle religion, boys, and the mysterious first menstrual cycle, Blume dared to explore topics that were considered taboo in books for kids and teenagers. Although written in 1970, the modern ‘tween will still find this book relatable.
Similarly, Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl tells the story of twelve-year-old Astrid’s steps towards maturity and independence. She used to do everything with her best friend, Nicole, but as the girls are growing up, Astrid is discovering that she doesn’t have as much in common with Nicole anymore. When Astrid decides to pursue Roller Derby Camp without Nicole, she learns that it is okay to be unique and pursue our own passions.
Roller Girl is the first graphic novel I ever read. I was so pleasantly surprised by the truth and profound material that it completely corrected the unfair stigma I had placed on this genre. Victoria Jamieson is a master of dialogue–both spoken and unspoken. The female relationships presented in this book (mother-daughter, friend-friend) are among the best I have read in any book for any age.
I would recommend Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Roller Girl for ages 10-14. I find the content of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. to be slightly more mature and philosophical, so emotionally immature readers may benefit by waiting until they are a bit older.
Katherine Applegate opened readers’ eyes to animal rights in her Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan by showing us the world through Ivan’s perspective. Applegate uses a similar technique in her newest middle grade novel, Wishtree, to explore difficult themes of inclusion and acceptance. Narrated by the oak tree Red, Wishtree weaves a story of friendship that dares to cross cultural boundaries.
Samar is new to the neighborhood. She is also Muslim. The neighbors are less than welcoming, and when a hate crime bluntly tells the new family to “Leave,” Samar is afraid her family will be forced to relocate again. Unwilling to stand idly by, Red breaks his own policy of staying out of human business. He orchestrates circumstances that in turn help next-door neighbor Stephen and Samar to become friends.
Wishtree is a lovely book that can initiate important conversations about how we interact with others. The reading level is appropriate for ages 8-12, though I believe the content is best for ages 10+. It’s a fast read, with many short chapters and beautiful illustrations (both also features of The One and Only Ivan), and with its important themes of acceptance and courage, Wishtree would also be a good choice for older readers with lower reading ability.
When I first read Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, all I could think was this sizzles. I had never encountered writing such as this. It is so full of energy and practically leaps off the page.
Josh is a basketball standout. He is rivaled only by his twin brother Jordan. Josh and Jordan have to learn to live with each other, both on and off the court. Josh has to deal with consequences for some bad decisions, but the value of family becomes most important as the book pushes to the final climax.
The Crossover earned Alexander a Newbery Medal. I highly recommend it for ages 12-14. The novel-in-verse format, with its open white spaces and lower word count will appeal especially to reluctant readers, while its literary merit makes it a solid book choice for any reader. The content will appeal to athletes, and I believe young men will be particularly interested in the story.
The Westing Game, for which author Ellen Raskin earned the Newbery Medal, has entertained young sleuths for nearly 40 years. Wealthy business tycoon Sam Westing has named the 16 tenants of Sunset Towers as heirs in his will. Furthermore, he placed the individuals into teams of two, gave them clues and $10,000, and charged them with figuring out the details of his death. The first team to solve the mystery will inherit his estate.
The Westing Game is full of puzzles, word games, and fun plot twists to keep readers on their toes. Once the solution is revealed, its cleverness almost begs the reader to start the book over again in order to re-read the book now having a full understanding of the events.
Fans of The Westing Game might also enjoy Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. Emily and her family move to San Francisco. Emily is excited for the change because that brings her closer to Mr. Griswold, creator of the Book Scavenger game that she loves to play. Players hide books and post clues of the books’ whereabouts on the internet. Players earn points by being the first to find books, so the race is always on!
Emily and her new friend, James, find a mysterious book that is directly tied to Mr. Griswold, who has recently been attacked. Emily and James learn that their hunt may not only help them win the game, but may also solve the mystery of Griswold’s attack.
Book Scavenger contains ciphers, word puzzles, historical references, and other clues. Emily and James create some of the clues themselves, so the reader also gets a behind-the-scenes look at the logical process that goes into these puzzlers.
I recommend both The Westing Game and Book Scavenger for ages 10-14. Book Scavenger is a bit heavier on the coding and ciphers, which might make it better suited towards older children in that age bracket, but readers who don’t fully grasp the puzzles will still enjoy the fast-paced plot.
On the hunt for a light-hearted young adult novel (I wondered… do they even exist???), I came across The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot. I enjoyed the movie starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews. I vaguely recalled that it had been based on a book, but I did not realize it was a YA book. On my next library trek, I picked up a copy, hoping for a breezy read. I wasn’t disappointed.
Main character Mia Thermopolis is an awkward high school freshman who learns that she is Princess of Genovia, a fictional European principality. She already has difficulty navigating school (algebra!), but now she has to take princess lessons from her grandmother, learn to live with the paparazzi, and deal with the fact that her mother is dating her algebra teacher. And that’s not to mention she is now trailed by a bodyguard all day long.
The Princess Diaries is the young adult counterpart to the adult Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Meg Cabot is delightfully funny. She mixes everyday occurrences with just enough of the ridiculous and over-the-top characters to create laugh-out-loud scenes. The diary format enables punchy one-liners and speeds the pacing. Cabot’s capture of a sarcastic but charming teenager is spot on.
A word of caution for those who are familiar with the movie: the book is SO very different. (Part of the entertainment for me was in identifying ways in which the movie deviated from the book.) The most glaring difference is in Mia’s grandmother Clarisse. The book character is completely opposite from Julie Andrews’s character in the movie. I suppose this may bother some, but to be honest, I often found book Clarisse’s blunt and rude comments hilarious.
I truly enjoyed both the movie and book, but I give the edge to the book. Even so, I do not believe the book is appropriate for young readers. The publishers suggest ages 12 and older but I would suggest 14 and older due to mature themes. The first book was innocent enough, but if a reader enjoyed the first book, then of course she would want to read the sequels. There are 10 young adult novels in the series, a handful of novellas covering short events that happen between some of the novels, and even a recently released adult book in which Mia gets married. There is more discussion of sex as the novels progress, because Mia is getting older. Nothing is overly explicit, but friends do talk about it. I find this to be true to the issues today’s teenager faces, so my personal stance is to not disregard it, but I would prefer my own daughter not read these books until she is in high school for this reason. Of course, each family will have to make its own decision regarding what is appropriate. Watch the movie with a younger audience if you would like, and then introduce the book to a high school girl looking for a quick and fun read.