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.
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 Ivan. Charlotte’s Web may be enjoyed be younger children as a read-aloud, but I would refrain from introducing Ivan to readers younger than eight.
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).
He’s afraid of elevators, tunnels, bridges, airplanes, thunder, substitute teachers, kimchi, wasabi, the dark, heights, scary movies, scary dreams, shots, and school. And of course, girls, because the scary thing about girls is that they are not boys. He won’t go to school without his PDK – personal disaster kit – complete with emergency plans of how to survive show-and-tell.
Meet Alvin Ho. He is the middle child in an Asian-American family living in Concord, Massachusetts. In Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things (written by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham), Alvin is navigating the second grade (using the advice of his older brother Calvin), all while learning how to be a gentleman, like his dad.
The Alvin Ho series is full of warmth and is downright hilarious. If you are looking for a fun read the entire family can enjoy, consider these books. They are also appropriate choices for those reading at a third to fourth grade reading level. There are six of them in the series. And don’t forget to check out Alvin Ho’s Woeful Glossary at the end of the book.
I am generally not a fan of survival and wilderness stories, so the fact that I tore through The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford and Pax by Sara Pennypacker is a testament to the authors and the gripping stories they have written.
Published in 1960, The Incredible Journey tells the tale of three household pets who make their way through the wilderness in an effort to return home. The book is jam-packed with action, full of encounters with wild animals, hostile weather conditions, and challenges against the forces of nature. It may not be an appropriate choice for the faint of heart or sensitive child, as there are descriptions of the pets hunting and eating birds and rodents, but this is all just a reminder of how nature works. I know I kept turning the pages, hoping Luath, Tao, and Bodger would defy the odds and reunite with their loving family.
Similarly, Pax is a beautifully written story about the special bond between a boy, Peter, and his pet fox, Pax. Pennypacker throws us immediately into the action with one of the most gut-wrenching opening chapters I’ve ever read. Peter’s father forces him to free his pet fox into the wild before the boy goes to live with his grandfather. For the remainder of the book, Peter and Pax desperately search for one another. Although human characters are scarce, the ones in the story are unconventional and richly brought to life. Likewise, the animals (we meet a few more foxes along the way) are well characterized. Through alternating points of view, we join Peter’s quest to reunite with his fox, while also following Pax as he learns how to live in the wild for the first time.
These stories of adventure will especially resonate with animal and nature lovers, and I believe they will appeal to both girls and boys. I would suggest The Incredible Journey be read by children ages ten and older. I find Pax to be more appropriate for a slightly older audience – perhaps twelve and older, unless the child is an advanced reader and more mature.