“Geography” and “amazing” may not be two words commonly used in the same sentence when talking about books for young people, so let’s change that. River: A Visual History from River to Sea by Peter Goes is indeed an amazing book of geography for young readers. And old readers. Everything about this book, from the oversize pages and format to the detailed illustrations surrounded by interesting facts, says, “Read me! … Read me again!”
As one would deduce from the title, Goes uses the rivers of the world to relate geographical, historical, cultural and even biological information. Rivers are grouped together by continent, and then each major river has its own two-page spread. Each spread has a solid color background with Goes intricate black-and-white illustrations on top. Readers are given a wealth of information that all pertains to the river. For instance, on the spread for the Thames, we learn the river once was also called Isis, the Thames tunnel was built between 1825 and 1843, the kingfisher likes to live near running water, and the Thames Barrier protects London from high tides. And that’s just a small sample of interesting tidbits.
Rivers has a way of making non-fiction readily accessible to a younger audience, but it is so engaging and sophisticated that it in no way seems juvenile. I suspect teens would pore over these pages. I highly recommend this book for all ages, though I suspect ages eight and up will enjoy it most. Goes also authored the book Timeline, which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to read, but can’t wait to get my hands on if it’s as good as Rivers.
I am convinced that Kate DiCamillo is a writing genius. DiCamillo tackles weighty topics while using half the words that others would use, and her word choice is deceptively simple. Her characters are well formed and memorable, and they weave together in beautiful storytelling.
Louisiana’s Way Home is DiCamillo’s first novel sequel, and it follows Louisiana Elefante, who we first met in Raymie Nightingale. The book starts with Louisiana embarking on a traveling adventure with her grandmother. Not long after they drive across the Florida-Georgia border, the grandmother has a dental emergency, requiring an unexpected stop in a small Georgia town. Things quickly unravel from there, and Louisiana must confront her past and determine who she wants to be going forward.
The book deals with heavy themes of loss, abandonment, and forgiveness, but DiCamillo frames them in a hopeful light. While the reading level isn’t too advanced, the emotional content may be too intense for sensitive readers. As such, I recommend this book for ages 10 and older.
Drawn From Nature by Helen Ahpornsiri is an exquisite picture book that will delight nature lovers, young and old. Ahpornsiri expertly uses real leaves, flowers, and other plant-derived items in collages that then create illustrations of animals and landscape. The intricate work demands a second look. And a third. And a fourth. And, well, you get the idea.
The stunning artwork alone makes this book superb, but the accompanying non-fiction text is also engaging and informative. We start by looking at the natural world during the spring season, and then follow the natural trajectory through the seasons all the way through winter. A glossary at the end is helpful for defining the more scientific terms that appear in the text, such as fungus, nocturnal, and photosynthesis. Curious artists will also appreciate Ahpornsiri’s note in the back that gives a little more information on how the art was created.
I highly recommend Drawn From Nature for all ages, but I think it would be best for ages eight and older. Although a picture book, it is in no way too juvenile for teens and adults. In particular, I suspect artistic and/or nature-loving teens will love this book and spend hours poring over its content.
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.
For a picture book with an old soul that also feels fresh, look no further than David Litchfield’s The Bear and the Piano. At its core, this is a timeless story of friendship and belonging that dares to ask if one can return after leaving.
The story itself is a bit magical. A bear cub stumbles upon a piano in the middle of the woods. Captivated, he returns day after day, year after year, mastering the instrument. The other bears in the woods gather to hear him play, until one night a human family offers to take him to the big city so he can play concerts there. Though he loves his home and his friends, he also longs for adventure, and sets out for the city, where he soon achieves great success.
Though he enjoys his time in the city, he misses his home and decides to return to tell his friends all about his adventures. When he arrives in the familiar clearing in the woods, the piano is missing. The bear is certain everyone has forgotten him. That is, until he follows a fellow bear deeper into the woods to a startling discovery.
The illustrations in The Bear and the Piano are gorgeous. Using a mix of techniques, Litchfield creates expansive scenes that are both spacious and focused. The color palette is varied and lively, yet restrained, lending to the classic storybook feel.
The Bear and the Piano is a beautiful book for ages four and up. Younger children will enjoy following the bear’s adventures in the city. Older children and adults will value the story’s deeper meaning when the bear returns to the woods. All readers will appreciate the lyrical language and detailed illustrations.
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.
The Day You Begin, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López, is an all-around beautiful book. Woodson’s lyrical text conveys the anxiety young students experience when they feel different from their peers. The overall tone is perfectly expressed in the opening line. There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you. Children feel isolated because of their physical features, their ethnic lunches, their foreign names, their capabilities.
Three-fourths of the way through, the text shifts gradually with a subtle addition to the opening line. There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin to share your stories. The children learn to be true to themselves in order to make connections with their classmates. In the end, we find that maybe we are not very different from each other after all.
The illustrations burst with color and life. López creates an inner dream world superimposed on on the real one. While the children’s facial expressions show uncertainty and loneliness, we also get a glimpse of the exuberant spirit that is just waiting to pour out.
The Day You Begin would be a wonderful read-aloud choice for building empathy. I highly recommend this book for readers of all ages, particularly ages 6-10.
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.