My daughter, who is ten, likes to read. Understatement of the century. She inhales books. This is a much better habit than inhaling anything else, but it does have drawbacks, such as when she cannot be bothered to brush her teeth, get dressed, or set the table. Or answer her mother who has just called her name 14 times.
Still, I would be a liar if I said I wasn't pleased. The nicest thing is that, unlike me, she is not the least bit picky. As long as a stream of new books is making it's way onto her bedside table, be they in paper or electronic or audio format, she's satisfied. (By the way, I am going to digress here to let you know that if your local library carries audio books in the Playaway format, this is a super convenient way to listen to books ... you check out a little plastic thing smaller than an iPhone, which is powered by a AAA battery, plug in your ear buds, and put it in your pocket. My kids love them.)
Anyway, way back when, I spent a lot of time with one foot on my daughter's bouncy seat, keeping her entertained as an infant, while I read and wrote papers on kids chapter books in library school. I think I must have cosmically transmitted a desire to read these books into her three-month-old self. Then again, my husband's mother mentioned to me that she used to yell at him to put his books down and get outside and play like a normal kid, so maybe I can't take all the credit.
This summer I conducted a little experiment in which I asked my daughter to let me know which of the new books she read were really excellent. She picked the ones below, and I am sharing them with you in hopes that you might share them with your 8-12 year old. Better yet, read them together sometime ... talking about books with kids is one way to get inside their heads that is generally more successful than asking them what they did at school today. (Answer: nothing.)
The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R. A. Spratt
In a starred (that means they loved it) review, Booklist wrote: "Mary Poppins, move over—or get shoved out of the way. Nanny Piggins has arrived. Most recently employed at the circus as the pig shot out of a cannon, she assumes the title Nanny when she spies a Help Wanted sign on the lawn of the Green family. Mrs. Green is dead, and Mr. Green is so tightfisted he refuses to pay a human nanny. So when a pig applies . . . . But as the three Green children soon realize, Nanny Piggins is a jewel ... the high jinks and hilarity make excellent adventures. This is smart, sly, funny, and marvelously illustrated with drawings that capture Nanny’s sheer pigginess. Readers may worry that this first novel is so full of stories about Nanny Piggins there won’t be enough left for sequels. Never fear. The last line of the book predicts Nanny will be stirring up more adventures, possibly even before breakfast."
My daughter liked this book because she thought the idea of a babysitting pig was "hilarious. One crazy thing Nanny Piggins does is that the dad gives her $500 to buy school uniforms and instead she buys pounds of chocolate, grey dye, and a pink dress. She dyes the boy's dress clothes gray and colors the dress with pink crayons to make them look like uniforms." My daughter kept reading this book because she couldn’t wait to find out what Nanny Piggins would do next. Her younger sister (age 8) also read this title and said she liked that Nanny Piggins is "funny, eats lots of cake, and comes up with tons of crazy ideas."
A sequel is available, too.
Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle
According to School Library Journal: "Irrepressible 13-year-old Nate Foster is certain that stardom awaits, as soon as he can leave his stifling life in small-town Jankburg, Pennsylvania, behind. Using his ever-loyal best friend, Libby, as an alibi, he sneaks away to New York City to audition for E.T.: The Musical. A madcap adventure featuring bossy receptionists, cutthroat fellow performers, and wacky casting directors follows. With the help of an understanding aunt, Nate remains goofy and upbeat in the face of constant criticism and rejection. A fun and suspenseful ending will leave readers guessing whether Nate scores the part or not. Federle's semiautobiographical debut explores weighty issues such as sibling rivalry, bullying, religious parents, and gay or questioning teens with a remarkably lighthearted and humorous touch totally appropriate for young audiences. " Publisher's Weekly also gave this one a starred review.
Our in-house book critic enjoyed the lead character Nate's bravery and sense of adventure. She liked that this book featured serious issues, but was still very funny. And she loved the ending in which Nate uses his talent to get an unexpected part in the show.
Jinx by Sage Blackwood
This title received no less than four starred reviews from various trade journals. School Library Journal wrote: "Jinx is that staple of children's literature: the scorned, ill-used orphan who proves to be so much more gifted and important than he ever imagined possible. He occupies a world that is simultaneously original and familiar, influenced by centuries of folklore, but newly envisioned and vividly created. Blackwood has populated this magical place with convincingly conflicted wizards and witches who seem uncertain as to how much they should be using their skills to control events or the beings around them. Jinx is slow to recognize his own powers as he digs his bare toes into the earth of the forest and feels the pulsing heartbeat of its life, or finds that he can call up fire. He is even slower to divine the motives of the various people he encounters. Readers will thrill to the journey with Jinx as he discovers and grows into himself."
My daughter very much enjoyed this one, which she said is perfect for Harry Potter fans. She loved that it was about magic and had cool characters like trolls and werewolves. She especially liked that "Jinx’s special power was that he could tell how people were feeling by seeing different colored clouds around their heads."
The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders
My daughter especially enjoys books that feature anthropomorphism, and liked that this title includes a talking cat, rat, and ghost elephant. She loved that the kids in the story go on adventures with the animals and found it interesting that one of the lead characters is dyslexic.
Booklist wrote: "Mix chocolate, magic, villains, one immortal uncle, a few invisible and immortal animals, and a couple 11-year-olds, and viola!—a tasty morsel that, in some ways, is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Unexpectedly, the Spoffards inherit a house from Mr. Spoffard’s great-uncles, who tragically died young in a tram accident in 1938. Twins Lily and Oz are captivated by the house, especially after meeting the resident invisible and immortal (and talking) animals: Demerara the cat and Spike the rat. From one unpredictable plot turn to another, Saunders’ lively characters will endear themselves to readers from start to finish. A great read-aloud, too."
Paperboy by Vince Vawter
Books about kids with disabilities offer a way to help young people understand and empathize with those who are different from themselves. My daughter has a serious interest in books that feature a protagonist struggling with a disability, or as she refers to them, people who are "other-abled." Three such titles are Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper and Petey by Ben Mikaelsen, which feature lead characters with cerebral palsy, and Wonder by R. J. Palacio, about a boy with a facial disfigurement. Published earlier this spring, Paperboy, Vince Vawter's fictionalized memoir of growing up in segregated memphis with a stutter, was another that she very much enjoyed.
In a starred review Publishers Weekly wrote: "The name of debut novelist Vawter’s 11-year-old protagonist, Vincent Vollmer III, doesn’t appear until the very end of this tense, memorable story—Vincent’s stutter prevents him from pronouncing it. Vincent is an excellent listener and a keen observer, and the summer of 1959 presents him with the challenge of taking over a friend’s paper route in segregated Memphis. He engages with several neighborhood customers and characters while on the job, gaining new awareness of varied adult worlds, racial tension, and inequality, as well as getting into some dangerous situations. The story unfolds as Vincent’s typewritten account of the summer, and inventive syntax is used throughout. Commas and quotation marks are verboten—Vincent isn’t a fan of the former, since he has enough extra pauses in his life already—and extra spaces appear between paragraphs, all subtly highlighting his uneasy relationship with the spoken word." Paperboy was also named an Amazon Best Book and given a starred review by Booklist.
Libby liked the different characters that Vincent encountered along his paper route, especially a woman who teaches Vincent to talk more easily. She liked that the author didn't let the reader know Vince's name until the end of the book because he couldn't pronounce it. She found it said when he was bullied because of his speaking difficulties.
Doll Bones by Holly Black
This spring release garnered starred reviews from all of the major trade journals, so come January I expect to see it on awards lists for 2013. Here's what Kirkus Reviews had to say: "A middle-grade fantasy dons the cloak of a creepy ghost tale to deliver bittersweet meditations on the nature of friendship, the price of growing up and the power of storytelling. The lifelong friendship of Zach, Poppy and Alice revolves around their joint creation, an epic role-playing saga of pirates and perils, queens and quests. But now they are 12, and their interests are changing along with their bodies; when Zach's father trashes his action figures and commands him to "grow up," Zach abruptly quits the game. Poppy begs him to join her and Alice on one last adventure: a road trip to bring peace to the ghost possessing her antique porcelain doll. As they travel by bus and boat (with a fateful stop at the public library), the ghost seems to take charge of their journey--and the distinctions between fantasy and reality, between play and obligation, begin to dissolve....Veteran Black packs both heft and depth into a deceptively simple (and convincingly uncanny) narrative. From Zach's bitter relationship with his father to Anna's chafing at her overprotective grandmother to Poppy's resignation with her ramshackle relations, Black skillfully sketches their varied backgrounds and unique contributions to their relationship. A few rich metaphors--rivers, pottery, breath--are woven throughout the story, as every encounter redraws the blurry lines between childishness and maturity, truth and lies, secrecy and honesty, magic and madness. Spooky, melancholy, elegiac and ultimately hopeful; a small gem."
According to my daughter, if you like creepy books like The Series of Unfortunate Events or the Spiderwick Chronicles, you should read Doll Bones. She liked that the characters still use their imaginations and play with dolls even though they aren't little kids anymore, and found the adventure the friends went on to bury the doll in a graveyard thrilling.
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus
Our young critic had a lot to say about this title, which garnered a 2011 Newbery Honor award. She liked that it is based on the life of a real person who lived in another time and that it featured drawings actually made by the person. When Manjiro, the main character, gets stranded on the island at the beginning of the book, she couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. She liked that it was an adventure of a boy from Japan who gets adopted by a whaling ship captain and goes to America and that Manjiro achieves his dream of becoming a samurai by the end of the book and gets to go back to Japan and see his family. Manjiro is "interesting, brave, and very smart." According to my daughter, if you liked A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, which was also a novel based on a real person living in another part of the world, you would like this book.
Here's what the professional critics had to say: "Manjiro is 14 when a freak storm washes him and his four fishing companions onto a tiny island far from their Japanese homeland. Shortly before starving, they are rescued by an American whaling ship. But it’s 1841 and distrust is rampant: the Japanese consider the whalers barbarians, while the whalers think of the Japanese as godless cannibals. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story (although this fish goes into the water repeatedly), and it’s precisely this classic structure that gives the novel the sturdy bones of a timeless tale. Bracketed by gritty seafaring episodes—salty and bloody enough to assure us that Preus has done her research—the book’s heart is its middle section, in which Manjiro, allegedly the first Japanese to set foot in America, deals with the prejudice and promise of a new world. By Japanese tradition, Manjiro was destined to be no more than a humble fisherman, but when his 10-year saga ends, he has become so much more. Wonderful back matter helps flesh out this fictionalized version." (Booklist)
Rump by Liesl Shurtliff
In a starred review Kirkus Reviews raved: "Shurtliff turns the Rumpelstiltskin tale on end, providing the heartbreaking yet humorous history of the manikin's dilemma. When he is born, his mother only manages to say part of his name before she passes: "Rump." His name becomes the source of teasing, and while Rump can appreciate the humor--sometimes--he is concerned. His name is his destiny; how can he grow when he does not know his full name? To his surprise, Rump also discovers he can spin straw into gold--a curse, since when Rump trades the gold, he must accept whatever is offered. Using a crisp, cheeky tone and with the back story meticulously built, the landscape mapped out and the characters in place (including some nods to other fairy-tale denizens), Rump's romp begins. In his moment of triumph, children will want to dance alongside the unlikely, likable hero. As good as gold."
Most kids love fractured fairy tales, and my daughter is no different. She specifically mentioned that she enjoyed recognizing characters from other famous folktales as they enter and exit this novel. She thought it very clever that the characters' names spell out their destinies, and that Rump fears his destiny might forever be mucking out horse stalls or being served up as someone's rump roast dinner. She found Rump very entertaining and quite funny.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein
"Bibliophiles unite! Melvil Dewey is alive and well and residing within Mr. Lemoncello's new library. Billionaire game-maker Luigi Lemoncello wants to pay homage to his childhood library by constructing a technological marvel in his hometown that went without a library for 12 years. He invites a dozen 12-year-olds to a lock-in at the new building, and when they arrive they find the eccentric game-maker has offered them a further challenge-if they can find their way out using only what's in the library-they will become the new spokesperson for Mr. Lemoncello's company. Kyle Keeley teams up with other students as unlikely alliances form, some children's true (not so nice) personalities emerge, and suspense builds while the kids enlist the aid of Mr. Lemoncello's childhood librarian, an Electronic Learning center, and book clues and references galore. The story feels like a cross between a reality show, an online game, and a tightly woven mystery. Dewey Decimal clues will hook librarians and teachers, while book lovers will delight at myriad references fromMr. Lemoncello, such as, "And now, I must return to my side of the mountain… I have great expectations for you all!" Book and game lovers alike will delve into this delicious tale and put on their thinking caps." (School Library Journal)
My daughter was attracted to the premise of a boy who doesn’t like reading being trapped in the library and having to search for clues to get out. As a kid who reads incessantly, our critic loved the female character who recognizes similarities to certain books as the adventure plays out. “This was like a Willy Wonka world," said my daughter, "except with books!”
The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp by Kathi Appelt
I believe this novel is a serious contender for the 2013 Newbery Medal. Appelt already earned a Newbery Honor (the equivalent to runner-up) with another novel a few years back, and the reviews of True Blue Scouts are even better. The New York Times Book Review wrote: "Kathi Appelt can tell a story. Her mastery of pacing and tone makes for wonderful reading aloud, even to children who would happily take on a relatively long novel on their own. There is music in her prose: ‘For as long as raccoons had inhabited the Sugar Man Swamp, which was eons, they had been the Official Scouts, ordained by the Sugar Man himself back in the year Aught One, also known as the beginning of time.’ In short chapters... Appelt tells a mythic tale with a rich cast of characters. Appelt takes her readers to spy on a greedy land developer, Sonny Boy Beaucoup, who is plotting with Jaeger Stitch, the World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere, to implement a nefarious plan to create an adventure theme park on the land, destroying the swamp habitat. And if that isn’t enough excitement, a rampaging gang of huge wild hogs is headed in the direction of Sugar Man Swamp, wrecking everything in its path. ‘Mothers and fathers, lock your doors. Pull the covers up to your chinny chin chins. Head for the hills.’ Librarians often say that every book is not for every child, but The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is.”
My daughter raved about this animal adventure and mentioned that it reminded her of Carl Hiaasen's novels for kids (Hoot, Flush, Scat, and Chomp), which often have an environmental slant, and are wildly funny. She also really likes folktales with lyrical language reflecting the region in which the book is set; this novel is an extended folktale. If you only pick up one book on this list for your child, I believe this is the one to choose.