The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stefvater
Established author of teen fiction Maggie Stiefvater has written a book that departs from her formulaic paranormal romance novels. She has taken an obscure Celtic myth about carnivorous horses from the sea, spun it into a story about both humankind’s love/fear conflict with nature and its endless struggle for and against power, and made it contemporary by smoothly pairing these timeless themes with a more modern one—girl empowerment.
The two main characters have both lost their parents—not unusual on an island that is besieged by wild carnivorous water horses—and both must win the Scorpio races in order to get what they feel they cannot live without. Sean has won the races before and must win this time to gain both his freedom from a heartless employer and ownership of the water horse he loves. Puck has never run a race, no girl has, and she has only a regular horse to race against the much faster water horses, but winning is her only chance to keep her house and her dignity. They admire each other; they become true friends, and romance blossoms.
The resolution of this conflict is masterful and every reader must take a solemn vow to never divulge the ending to anyone who has not read it, or skip ahead to read the ending. It is a book for teen readers of both genders, appropriate for younger readers, and fun for adults.
Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
by Kenneth Oppel
I just recommended Kenneth Oppel’s new children’s book, Half Brother, to my 86 year-old grandmother. It is that good.
I knew it must be good when I heard that Violet got in trouble at school for reading too much. At home I was envious of her complete absorption in the book, but also excited because I knew I would get to read it next. I asked her, “Is it ‘Hunger-Games-Good’?” She just grunted and waved me off. “Violet if you don’t answer me I’m going to take the book away.” She looked up at me and said, “Oh yeah, it’s good. Can I just please read to the end of this chapter?”
Later she told me she loved it because it made her feel like she was the main character, thirteen year-old Ben. When I got my turn, I felt the same way. Now I’m curious if my grandmother will feel likewise. Any book that can make a ten-year old girl, a forty-year old mother, and an eighty-six-year old great-grandmother feel like a thirteen year-old boy is impressive.
There are stories that are compelling, and there are books that are insightful and complex. Half Brother is a masterpiece that combines the best of both. A page-turner for sure, we are dropped into a world of being new in junior high school while having a stormy relationship with a driven father. Just the thought of it makes most grown-ups cringe. Add on top of that the complexity of developing a close bond with a species so near to our own, but still clearly animal – and you have one of the best children’s books I have ever read.
I would not recommend this book to children younger than ten years old. The complexity of relationships might be harder for younger children to grasp, and there are some sexual references. The sexual references are not explicit, and they are appropriate to what a thirteen year-old boy would say and experience but some parents might be uncomfortable with younger children reading them. This is one of those books that would be a pleasure to read so you can judge for yourself.
Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppel
When enough of my students tell me a book is good, I like to get around to reading it at some point–first because it probably is good, and second because I want to know what they like. I have a very low willingness to suspend disbelief when it comes to anthrophmorphic tales (aw come-on, would a wolf really say something like that) but I had no trouble with Silverwing. Shade, the endearing juvenile bat, and his enemy, the giant and cold-hearted carnivorous jungle bat named Goth, were both completely believable for me.
Shade is a runt and as such he has a relentless need to prove he is as brave and as tough as the other juvenile bats. This need leads him to make a terrible mistake that puts his entire clan in grave danger. In the first book of this trilogy, Shade shows great courage and intelligence as he strives to redeem himself and protect his clan. Goth is only one of the overwhelming dangers Shade must outwit; the adventure is non-stop, very visual, and well-paced.
Silverwing is perfect for kids in grades four through eight who like adventurous stories about other species, for reluctant as well as experienced readers, for boys and girls. It will make them want to read the rest of the trilogy and want to know more about bats–try Shadows in the Night by Diane Ackerman or some of the ones listed on Anastasia Suen’s 5 Books blog.
The Georges and the Jewels
This book was so perfectly right for me, that I originally felt I couldn’t judge it objectively. So, first I gave it to my daughter who is just starting to ride. And, then I gave it to my mother who was never bitten by the horse bug. We all absolutely loved it. It is a wonderful book that while just right for a nine year old, has the ability to appeal to children and adults alike. I would recommend it to people of any age and with varying degrees of interest in horses. It is that good.
It is the story of a 7th grade girl named Abby growing up in 1960’s California horse country. She helps her father train horses so that he can claim, “Kid’s Horse for Sale.” There are several great story lines that come together in this fast read to make us truly feel for Abby. A central theme is Abby’s evolving relationship with a particularly difficult horse, that continues to throw her off. Through the course of the book we see various adults interact with the horse with mixed success, and eventually are able to witness a coming around thanks to a horse whisperer. The horse training details are simultaneously specific, graphic and enlightening. Most of all, it is particularly nice to witness it through the frank eyes of a young girl.
At the same time, Abby is growing up in a born-again Christian household where she is faced with the challenges of having her family’s beliefs conflict with the things she is learning at school as well as the estrangement of her brother. This element of the book is important to the development of Abby’s character, but is not overly described and is consistently presented without judgment. I wondered if Violet would ask questions about this religious component, but she didn’t. She took it at face value, and was much more interested in the social dynamic in Abby’s school. As Jane Smiley so adeptly puts it, “The best thing that can happen to you in seventh grade, really, is that you float from one classroom to another like a ghost or spirit, undetected by the humans.” Ms. Smiley is a master of the human dynamic, and perfectly brings her skills to bear in helping us experience a little bit of that dreaded 7th grade one more time. Fortunately, it is not too painful to re-live, while there is at least one character in there that each of us can relate to. There is nothing remotely inappropriate in this book for children. Most of all it has a fairly just ending, which I really do like in books – especially children’s books.
There are many accomplished children’s authors out there. And, then there are great adult authors such as Ursula Lequin (Catwings) and Alexander McCall Smith (Max & Maddy, Akimbo) who do us a kindness by writing books for children. We can now add Jane Smiley to the list of fantastic authors that we can be grateful to for writing exceptional literature for our kids. Thank you, Jane. I also want to add a special shout out to the illustrator, Elaine Clayton. She graces the beginning of each chapter with illustrations of various horse accessories, and they are delightful. While I was sad to finish this book, it is nice to be able to go back and look at the illustrations from time to time.
– Jessica Wheeler
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
There are two gifts I would like to give my children. One is a love of reading and the second is a love of nature. What better way to do that than great stories about children making it on their own in the wild? Books about survival in nature are great because they inspire kids’ imagination, while encouraging them to learn more.
Like Ronia the Robber’s Daughter and Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain is another great book about a kid living off of the land. Published in 1959 and the recipient of a Newberry Honor, this book has a timeless quality that holds up 50 years later. It is ranked as a 6th grade reading level, but will appeal to strong younger readers as well. It is not a fast paced adventure, but it is interesting with lots of detail about animal, seasons and nature. For example, Sam manages to capture and train a falcon to help him hunt – something he learns from the library. I think this book is perfect for thoughtful children who like learning about how things work. If you are going camping or think you will be spending time in nature soon, this is a great book to get your child excited about your trip. If you are not planning any nature trips soon, I strongly encourage you to read, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and join the “No Child Left Inside” movement.
– Jessica Wheeler
Trouble, by Gary D. Schmidt
In Trouble, award-winning author Gary D. Scmidt delivers a book that reminds me what a gift reading is. Not just beautifully written with exquisite imagery, a tightly woven plot, and myth-like symbolism, it is a story that nourishes the spirit. Enacted in the person of a fourteen-year-old boy, innate inhumanity and innate grace battle for hegemony.
Trouble brings sorrow. It strikes Henry’s family even though they may have every reason to believe they should have been able to avoid it. With his parents and sister engulfed in grief, Henry embarks on a quest with a good friend, a faithful dog, and a misunderstood enemy. Together, they overcome those who wish to do them harm, stumble upon one island of refuge, and battle their own demons.
This book is such a joy to read, I want to give absolutely nothing away. I would not recommend it for the reluctant reader, although experienced readers from middle school on up, both boys and girls, will most likely enjoy this book.Trouble is literature for kids at its finest.
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
For twenty years, teachers and librarians have recommended Hatchet to eight to twelve-year-olds, so most kids will get the opportunity to read this book at some point. Kids like the adventure in this story and adults like the message that self-pity hinders survival.
The sole passenger in a single engine plane flying over northern Canada, thirteen-year-old Brian must execute a crash landing into a lake after the pilot dies of a heart attack. He survives but has only the hatchet his mother gave him right before she sent him on this trip to visit his father.
Though the idea of finding oneself all alone in a deep northern wilderness with nothing but a hatchet is terrifying, it is also hynotically appealing. What would you do to survive? How would you make use of the natural resources to eat and to protect yourself? Brian contends with what he can control – his intelligence and his will to live – and with what he cannot – the weather, fellow critters, and the elusiveness of food. He makes dreadful mistakes and he toughens up. His experience in the wilderness is almost unbearably difficult but his accomplishments are deeply satisfying.
This is a story where the reader can effortlessly tag along with the protagonist. There is some frightening imagery but this is not a horror story. It is more of an encouraging story of the strength of the human spirit. If you know a child who has not read this book yet and likes realistic adventure, give him this book. Or read it together; it is an enjoyable read for any age.