Be Prepared

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.

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.

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 Princess Diaries

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.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Wolf Hollow

Let me first say that I don’t believe Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird is a book for children. Many of the schools have kids read it in middle school, which baffles me. I suppose it is because the book’s reading level is fifth-sixth grade, and it is an American classic, but there are so many social and emotional nuances, that I think older readers benefit more from its content.

Similarly, I was shocked Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was given a Newbery Honor this year. I was not at all shocked that the book had received critical acclaim – it is masterfully crafted and praise is well due. Rather, I was shocked that it had been recognized for the Newbery as opposed to the young adult Printz Award, because the content seemed more appropriate for teenagers than elementary-aged children.

Personal opinions aside, both To Kill a Mockingbird and Wolf Hollow will be read by kids, and as such, I thought I would include them on this site. I am not the first person to make connections between these novels. The accolades on the back cover of Wolf Hollow even acknowledge its close similarities to Mockingbird. At their cores, these books are very much alike, each starring a young female protagonist who is forced to reckon with injustice and prejudice in an imperfect world.

Many will already be familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird, so I will focus on Wolf Hollow. Annabelle lives in a rural American community during World War II. The arrival of fourteen-year-old Betty upends Annabelle’s simple world. Betty is a bully in the fullest meaning of the world, with her actions leading to life-and-death consequences. Betty’s brutality and callous nature make for downright uncomfortable reading, though Lauren Wolk deserves credit for not shirking away from difficult material. Annabelle must learn how to stand up for herself and her special friend Toby, a misunderstood World War I veteran who Betty blames for various tragedies in the community.

The heavy themes in both books could lead to some wonderful discussions in older readers. To Kill a Mockingbird includes accusations of rape, racial prejudice, and social injustice. Wolf Hollow deals with prejudice and bullying (be warned this is full-blown, physical-threat harassment, not merely name calling). In addition, there are some difficult passages of physical injury to children and Toby’s horrific war memories.

I believe both books are incredible works of literature and should be read by young people at some point in their education. Having said that, due to the mature content in both, I think fourteen and up is an appropriate age to introduce these books, though very mature readers may be able to handle them at age twelve.