So last week I shared some recent titles for 4 to 8 year olds. This week, let's consider some outstanding new books for kids ages 6 to 12. If summer is starting to get a little long for you and your kids, or you maybe want to keep their reading skills up when school's out, consider checking these out. And don't worry if the thought of throwing a chapter book your child's way evokes images of revolt; I've included some engaging one-sitting picture books, just in case you need to ease your kid into remembering that reading outside of school can actually be totes fun.
Non-Fiction Picture Books
Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham
I have a heartfelt affection for picture book biographies that introduce children to historical figures of whom they most likely haven’t already heard, and in this post I feature several that have been recently published. I am continually excited about the quality of children’s biographies, which far exceeds anything available a few short decades ago. These books provoke kids to think about different lives in different places, moving them toward an understanding of diversity and an excitement about the possibility inherent in their own young lives. And just as important, a thoughtfully created picture book bio introduces kids to a particular personality in a manner that is not only educational, but also exciting. Thus the key to a great children's picture book bio -- learning that leads kids to pursue their own dreams, couched in artwork that thrills and entertains.
A Home for Mr. Emerson is an outstanding example of a modern picture book biography. Kerley and Fotheringham don’t seem to be losing any steam with their fourth effort, this time introducing kids to Ralph Waldo Emerson. If you’re like me, you never heard of Emerson until at least high school, although he’s certainly a literary and philosophical figure worth knowing about earlier in life. Kerley intersperses the text quite often with Emerson’s own words, introducing him as a young man, and noting his love for books, friends, and journaling. Fotheringham, once again, uses digital media to add interest to the prose. These cartoon-like drawings are an essential piece of the Kerley/Fotheringham team's continued success; exhilarating artwork keeps kids hanging on through the exuberant ride of Emerson's beautiful (and ironically sometimes quiet) life. A prime example can be seen on the cover, in which a college-aged Emerson rides on a super-sized journal through the air of his hometown as he wonders, "Could he build a life around those things he loved?"
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” and this picture book reflects that zest for life through its exciting prose and dramatic illustrations. It encourages kids to think about “what kind of life you dream of living,” and to know that they can make those dreams a reality.
I you check this book out, I encourage you to share this author/illustrator duo’s other titles about Alice Roosevelt (particularly excellent for any budding strong young women!), Mark Twain, and the tempestuous friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. They’re all a lot of fun (nothing like learning while enjoying yourself) and well worth the read.
Barb Rosenstock and Mary Grandpre´
I am quite excited to have recently encountered another superb picture book biography about a person with whom many kids are probably not familiar. The Noisy Paint Box highlights abstract artist Kandinsky’s probable synesthesia, a genetic condition in which one sense triggers another. Of course the author doesn’t explain this in such technical terms; rather she and Grandpre´ describe and illustrate the stunning ways in which Kandinsky literally heard colors and saw music. The author also describes Kandinsky’s struggle to break away from the traditional landscape and still-life painting of his day to become the first recognized abstract artist. The author’s note at the end of the title fleshes out Kandinsky for readers who are interested in knowing more about him, and features four pieces of his art.
The Noisy Paint Box received starred reviews across the board from each of the four major children's book review journals; I found it to be one of the foremost picture book artist bios I've encountered in many years. It will open young readers' minds to consider art at a deeper level, encourage them to stand by their dreams, and engross them simultaneously. And by the way, if you (or your child) are a Harry Potter fan, you might recognize Grandpre´ as the illustrator of the American (Scholastic Press) version of Rowling's series. In The Noisy Paint Box, you'll get to enjoy Grandpre´'s talent in a much larger, more detailed venue.
Tracey Fern and Emily Arnold McCully
You know I’m a sucker for a good picture book biography about lesser-known characters (mentioned above a few million times), and also for any book that tells kids, and particularly girls, that they can do and be anything their imagination dreams up. Dare the Wind is a magnificently-told true story about a woman I certainly had never heard about prior to picking it up. Born in 1814, Eleanor Prentiss, the daughter of a schooner captain, learned navigation at a young age, and continued to hone her skills even after marrying her merchant husband. In 1851 Eleanor took a huge risk by following a new scientific navigation approach in order to sail a merchant vessel from New York to San Francisco. She achieved this feat in record time. My 9- and 11-year-old daughters liked this title very much because the story was full of the excitement and danger of the high seas and featured a smart and brave heroine. I liked it because there are so few stories out there about women making scientific achievements, especially more than 150 years ago. A book about science, math, and women's history couched in a breathtaking and thrilling voyage.
Alicia Potter and Matt Tavares
Like Dare the Wind, Jubilee tells the story of a little-known historical event and the determined person behind it. Composer and concert-master Robert Gilmore conceived the idea for the National Peace Jubilee, a band concert in Boston that would celebrate the end of the American Civil War. Despite the poor reception of his initial idea, and the monumental cost of an event that would feature a thousand musicians from across the country, Gilmore persevered. The event turned out to be a huge success the likes of which had never been previously executed in the United States. Gilmore’s name has largely been lost to history and the fame of John Philip Sousa, although historians credit Gilmore with heralding the golden age of American bands.
Jubilee is an exciting retelling of both the event and the man behind it, and provides a great way to excite elementary students about music performance. I’m very impressed with this book’s ability to portray the energy and power of music as a medium for emotional expression and community, with only the use of illustrations and words.
Laurence Pringle and Joan Paley
I have a son obsessed with non-fiction books about reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Fortunately, there are some excellent science picture books available for elementary school kids. Laurence Pringle is a prolific writer in this genre, and he’s been awarded several prizes for the quality of his work. The Secret Life of the Woolly Bear Caterpillar is highly accessible to kids because Pringle is an expert at introducing a lot of complicated factual material into storytelling that both draws the reader in and maintains her interest. Paley’s eye-catching cut paper and mixed media artwork makes the woolly bear caterpillar and her surroundings just benign enough to balance out the introduction of predators and other dangers. Another thing I like about this title is the way it can be read for fun to first and second graders, while older kids could use the extensive notes at the end for a research report, or to learn about caterpillar anatomy. This is a really neat look at one of Mother Nature's amazing small creatures.
I hope you’re already familiar with Lois Ehlert’s 25+ years of picture book success. Perhaps her two best known titles are Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Color Zoo, although my personal favorites are Waiting for Wings and Ten Little Caterpillars (I have a thing about butterfly books). At any rate, if you haven’t had a chance to share her books with your favorite young reader, check out the “E” section of the your local children’s library as quickly as possible!
Ehlert specializes in collage and cut paper, and with The Scraps Book, introduces readers to the process by which she conceives and produces a book. This is such an ingenuous idea for a children's book. Usually, authors and artists write about themselves, which is often more than a little interesting, but I don't think I have ever seen a picture book author share with kids the creative process of making a book come to life. Kids will feel as if Ehlert has offered them the key to both her art studio and her visionary mind, and find Ehlert’s technique fascinating, and I would be genuinely surprised if readers are not inspired to create a little art or writing (or both!) of their own. Ehlert ends the book with, “You may ask: why did I choose to be an artist? I think maybe it’s the other way around. Art chose me. If you feel that way too, I hope you’ll find a spot to work, and begin. I wish you a colorful life!” Serious (and fun) inspiration within these pages.
Fictional Chapter Books
My 11-year-old daughter was thrilled when her copy of this title, the final book in the Elsewhere series, arrived on the library’s hold shelf with her name on it just a few weeks ago. Still Life is the last of five books about a young girl who moves into a rundown mansion with some creepy paintings on the wall. She stumbles upon a pair of spectacles, only to learn that when the glasses are worn, she is able to travel through the paintings to a magical, but dangerous, world. She meets some very cool talking cats, and quickly comes to find out that a dark force in this otherworld is not on her side.
If your fourth through sixth grade boy or girl is looking for something fun to read after Harry Potter (or even before, as these are nowhere near as long as Rowling’s later tomes), I highly recommend the bestselling Books of Elsewhere series. These fantasies are spooky, mysterious, and fun, and the smart kid always wins! Check out this super cool book trailer here:
In addition to this series, I’d recommend The Familiars to kids who enjoy this type of Harry Potteresque fantasy. It's a series that runs much along the same lines (cool animals and smart kids), and is also well-written.
E. D. Baker
This novel, published in April, is the third installment in the Wide Awake Princess series. E. D. Baker has a knack for turning familiar fairy tales into chapter books for kids who are ready to take the next step from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. If you’re looking for “strong-girl” books for your chapter book reader, you’ll be happy to get her hooked on these, as Baker’s protagonists tend to rely more on their wits and originality than on Prince Charming to save the day. Baker also pads the story with a lot of humor, which makes fairy tales much more interesting! Once you’ve read through this quality fractured-fairy tale chapter book series, try Gail Carson Levine, Shannon Hale, and Christopher Healy next.
My 9 year old couldn’t put this book, told in diary format, down from the moment she started reading it. I brought it home to her from the library after having read about it on a library journal blog, because it featured two sisters a few years apart in age. As the middle child, my daughter is often looking for ways to define herself separately from her big sister, all while trying to get her attention. It’s a complex relationship, and I was attracted to this book because it’s told from the little sister’s point of view. There’s also a subplot surrounding wordplay, including palindromes, similes, and a creative writing contest, which is right up my daughter’s alley. This is a page turner of a realistic fiction novel that I think many sisters will enjoy.
This is another fun chapter book expansion of a well-known fairy tale, which my older daughter, age 11, really enjoyed. She put away the first in this series, Half Upon a Time, in about three days, and was thrilled to learn our local library had both the sequel (Twice Upon a Time) and finale (Once Upon the End) available for download to her Kindle. In this series, an all-American girl clad in an awesome Punk Princess t-shirt ends up in the land where Jack, of Beanstalk fame, resides. He assumes she’s a member of the royal family in the country of Punk, and hilarity and wild adventure ensue. Fast and fun, and in case your reader enjoys this genre, consider reading the Twice Upon A Time trilogy by Wendy Mass, The Tale Dark and Grimm series by Adam Gidwitz, or Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series. Fractured fairy tale chapter books have become a sub-genre of fantasy all unto themselves, and these are sure to keep your reader engaged and entertained.