Little Women – The Penderwicks

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.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. – Roller Girl

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.

Wishtree

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.

The Crossover

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 – Book Scavenger

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.

Hidden Figures

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.

Fenway and Hattie

If you are looking for a fun read aloud book for the whole family, try Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe. Winner of the 2017 Global Read Aloud award in the early reader category, this book will be a favorite for dog lovers as the story is told from the perspective of a dog!

Fenway is a feisty Jack Russell terrier who loves his owner, Hattie. When Fenway and Hattie (and big humans Food Lady and Fetch Man) leave their city apartment for a home in the suburbs, Fenway has a myriad of new challenges to overcome. Evil squirrels, a dog-less dog park, and the Wicked Floor. But none of these problems is as big as the possibility that Hattie may be drifting away. Fenway will have to think of a big plan to win back the affections of his favorite short human.

Fenway and Hattie can be read aloud to kids of all ages, but it will probably be most enjoyed by those ages 5-10. For independent reading, I recommend it for ages 7 (strong readers) to 10.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White

I’ve already mentioned several books illustrated by Caldecott Winner Melissa Sweet, but I didn’t want to leave this one out. In what was clearly a labor of love, Sweet wrote and illustrated Some Writer!, which is long enough to be a middle grade novel, but also has the feel of one of Sweet’s picture books.

Many will recognize E. B. White as the iconic writer of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Trumpet of the Swan, but I doubt many know much about his life. Even though Charlotte’s Web is one of my favorite books, I admit I did not know what E. B. stood for. (Elwyn Brooks, for those interested.)

Sweet covers White’s life from beginning to end, enriching the narrative by incorporating writing from White’s letters, essays, and books. We read of White’s summers in Maine as a boy, and readers of Trumpet of the Swan will see how much nature inspired White, even at an early age. We learn about the connection to Professor William Strunk, Jr. that would later lead to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. We are introduced to White’s adventurous days in which he roamed from one end of the country, supporting himself by odd jobs and various writing gigs. We gain a deeper connection to White’s personal life in learning more about his wife, son, and stepchildren. White’s granddaughter, Martha, even provided an afterword and granted Sweet access to some of White’s personal items and letters.

There are chapters that discuss the background and making of each of White’s books. Young readers may be surprised to learn about White’s ongoing employment with the elite literary magazine, The New Yorker. Through captions and editorial comments, we witness White’s sense of humor and his love for playing with words.

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White is a great nonfiction read for those who love his work, and it is inspiring to future writers. The book is appropriate for ages eight and up, though I suspect older readers will catch more of the details that make the book so interesting.

Charlotte’s Web – The One and Only Ivan

Two beloved stories with animal protagonists. Two critically acclaimed novels. And two books highlighting the value of loyal friendship and the power of expression.

One of the most read and certainly recognizable books in children’s literature, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White tells the story of Wilbur, a runt pig who was spared an untimely death by eight-year-old Fern. He lives in the barn at Fern’s uncle’s barn, surrounded by other farm animals, yet lonely. Then he meets Charlotte, a plain but extraordinary spider. Charlotte does more than befriend Wilbur – she devises a plan to once again save Wilbur’s life. She writes words in her web, which the humans interpret as a miracle. This turns Wilbur into a celebrity, and he becomes the pride of Zuckerman’s farm. Charlotte’s Web is poignant and full of heart, affirming all the beauty found in life’s simple pleasures.

In a similar way, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is about a small group of animals who have banded together. Living in less-than-ideal conditions in a run-down and cramped mall facility, Ivan the gorilla, Stella the elephant, and Bob the stray dog make the best of their awful situation through their relationships with one another. However, when baby elephant Ruby is added to the mix, Ivan takes it upon himself to save her from her new dismal future. Ivan paints pictures and his artwork gains much attention. As more people become aware of Ivan, the public is outraged by the inadequate living conditions for the animals, and they demand change. The One and Only Ivan demonstrates that we can all make a difference for the good of another, even when we are limited by our situation.

Although the reading level of Charlotte’s Web is a bit higher than that of The One and Only Ivan, the content of Ivan may disturb sensitive readers more than Charlotte. Both books could be read by independent readers ages 8-12, but I would suggest that ages 10-12 may be more appropriate for IvanCharlotte’s Web may be enjoyed be younger children as a read-aloud, but I would refrain from introducing Ivan to readers younger than eight.

James and the Giant Peach – Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes

An orphan. A bleak life controlled by ghastly grown ups. A fantastical adventure with a rich supporting cast. These are a few of the commonalities between Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach and Jonathan Auxier’s newer Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. 

Readers know Dahl for his dark humor and bizarre scenarios. In James, we meet a boy who was orphaned after his parents were trampled by rhinoceroses. His Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge became his guardians and have made his life wretched ever since. After magical beans grow a gigantic peach in his backyard, James begins a magical journey with a handful of human-sized bugs who were also magically transformed.

Auxier’s style draws much from Dahl’s, and in Peter, we also find similarities to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Peter is captive in a life of thievery, enslaved by a cruel master. To add to his woes, Peter is blind, though ironically it is his blindness that makes him a master thief. After he steals a box of magic eyes, Peter is transported to faraway lands and introduced to characters and creatures of all types in an action-filled adventure.

Fans of James and the Giant Peach might give Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes a try. A word of caution: both books could frighten sensitive children. Due to its length, content, and intensity, Peter is for the older reader. I would recommend James for children ages 6-12 (note the reading level is fourth grade, but younger readers may still enjoy the story if read aloud). I would recommend Peter for children ages 10-14 (reading level is sixth grade).