Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is my favorite book of 2018 (adult or children’s), and one of my favorite children’s novels of all time. The themes are timeless, the story is riveting, and the writing is beautiful. I believe this book will stand the test of time – a modern classic indeed.
Nan Sparrow is a chimney sweep in Victorian London. Although she is old by chimney sweep standards (not yet a teenager), she is one of the best in the business. She knows how to navigate the treacherous flues in London homes, and has managed to stay unscathed in a profession that regularly claims the lives of its young workers. Until the day she gets stuck.
When a fellow sweep uses the “Devil’s Nudge” tactic of lighting a fire in the chimney to, shall we say, encourage her to break free, Nan finds herself trapped in a chimney fire and figures death is imminent. She blacks out, and when she wakes, she is not injured … and not alone. A creature made of ash and soot, called a golem, has rescued Nan, and is, in fact, her monster.
As others have noted, Sweep has a Dickensian feel to it, highlighting the terrible and brutal conditions that children endured as chimney sweeps. I honestly had no idea that children were used in this way, and I suspect many contemporary readers share this ignorance. I commend Auxier for not shying away from the disturbing truth, but rather mining for the glimmer of hope in a hopeless existence.
Sweep received a lot of accolades, and it deserves every one. I would have gladly bestowed all the stars and awards it could possibly earn. I highly recommend this book for ages 10 and up, though 12 and up may be more appropriate for sensitive readers.
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.
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.
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.
I may be biased towards liking this book, because I am a female mathematician. There had been a time when I had considered becoming an aerospace engineer. I wanted to work for NASA. After I discovered that engineering wasn’t quite the right path for me, I instead earned my Ph.D. in applied and interdisciplinary mathematics (what a mouthful!), specializing in mathematical biology. Still, I can’t deny that I still find the idea of space exploration rather captivating.
When I found out there was a Young Readers’ edition of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, I knew I wanted to check it out. This book highlights the lives and achievements of a handful of African American women who made substantial contributions to aviation and our nation’s space program. The fact that they were female mathematicians at a time when few women earned college degrees made this story worth telling. Add to that the extra obstacle of being treated as less-than-equals to their caucasian peers, and one can’t help but feel admiration and respect for these intelligent women and all that they accomplished.
Hidden Figures will appeal most to children ages 10-12, and maybe even ages 8-10 for very strong readers. Of course, older readers may also appreciate learning about this fascinating slice of history – I know I did. This book will encourage all readers to rise above adversity and work hard to realize one’s dreams.