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.
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.
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.
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
I spend a lot of time trying to find books that my children will love. And, just when I think I’ve figured it out with an exceptional choice, my daughter will discard the book with one glance at the cover. I thought for sure I had a winner with The Underneath. It is simultaneously award winning and about the friendship between kittens and a hound dog. How could I go wrong?
Well, let’s just say that we were all surprised by this book. First of all, don’t let the promise of cuddly friendships between animals lull you. This book has very dark elements touching on themes of domestic violence, anger, animal abuse, alcoholism, starvation, evil, jealousy and revenge. However, despite these grave aspects of the book, it is ultimately a poetic tale that leaves you feeling fulfilled. It is a book that resists all labels – it is a dark book about true love, it is a suspenseful book that reads like poetry, and it is an ancient tale and a modern one. Some children’s books are page-turners. This one is not – it is a work of art, with all of the complexities of an innovative masterpiece.
If you read the reviews people either love it or hate it. When I mentioned we were reading The Underneath to the lady in the bookstore, she cringed. She stopped reading the book as soon as she got to the hound dog cruelly chained to the porch. She knows these award-nominating librarians all too well. They just love sad animal stories. According to her, stories of beloved pets dying of prolonged painful diseases make their day. I’m going to go back and recommend she give this book a second chance. It’s a shame if people pass this book up because of concerns with its dark themes. It ultimately delivers a redemption that makes you feel good about the love in this world. Plus, it is fantastic writing.
However, I wouldn’t recommend it to young children to read by themselves. For the right young teenager this could be the perfect book. They need to be a patient reader comfortable with a slower pace who is entranced by the darker themes. I read the entire book to my girls over a couple of weeks. Every night the girls looked forward to it, but neither one of them ever grabbed it and tried to finish it on their own. I’m glad because I enjoyed reading it to them. It is an exceptional tale.
– Jessica Wheeler
Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver
In the time of hunter-gatherers when ancient forest covered the land, a boy loses his father to an evil in the shape of a monstrous bear that threatens their entire world. Possibly the father is partially culpable for this evil, but before he dies he makes his soon-to-be orphaned son promise to destroy the bear. The boy will be helped in this seemingly impossible task by a prophecy, a riddle, three lost artifiacts, an orphaned wolf cub, and a young girl from another clan.
A boy who must make right the errors of his elders by successfully appealing to the Mountain of the World Spirit is a classic tale of renewal. The spirit of life will overcome the powers of destruction through the courage, fortitude, and intelligence of the newest generation. Many perils stand between the boy and his goal; the constant challenge to survival and the pressing need of the mission keep this story moving at a breakneck pace.
A similarly intrepid look on the faces of the many boys in my classes who kept asking for the next book in this series, Chronicle of Ancient Darkness, prompted me to find out what was appealing to them and to read the book. Danger never abates, courage must constantly be renewed, and purpose is unrelenting. This book has appealed equally to well-seasoned readers and to reluctant readers, so far only boys though girls who like animals and wilderness survival stories should enjoy it as well. Ninth graders as well as middle school students have enjoyed this book, but it is not a complex plot and enthusiastic readers as young as fourth grade will probably like it.
by Nick Bruel
Bad Kitty Gets a Bath
Bad Kitty Gets a Bath
My younger daughter is right at what I find is the most difficult phase in learning to read. The easy books that are perfectly at her level are way too boring, and the more interesting books, i.e. the ones her older sister is reading, are way too hard. But, we recently discovered an absolute gem in Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel.
We first met Bad Kitty a few years ago with the original alphabet book about a kitty forced to eat healthy vegetables. It starts, “She wasn’t always a bad kitty. She used to be a good kitty, until one day….” You get the idea. Its good – one of those picture books I’m still happy to pick up because it is perfectly silly with humor that both kids and adults find funny. As opposed to say, Amelia Bedelia.
Now Bad Kitty is back in a chapter book and she needs a bath. The drawings are plentiful and expressive, and the pacing of the book is perfect for a 1st grader bored with Nate the Great but not quite ready for Geronimo Stilton. Some pages are a little more difficult with a lot of text, but then some pages have only a couple of lines or even just one word, such as “LICK”. There are a few difficult words in the book, but it is so engaging that Georgia was encouraged to struggle through them and ask what they mean. There is a glossary at the back of more difficult terms. Of course the glossary is just as silly as the rest of the book and includes a definition of glossary (as it should).
This phase of learning to read is challenging for me as a parent because I get impatient and find so many of the books at this level are mind-numbingly simple. At the same time, I know there is a part of Georgia that is reluctant to leap head first into reading by herself because it means I won’t read to her as much. If I could find a hundred books like Bad Kitty Gets a Bath, I would be happy to stay in this phase for a long time.
– Jessica Wheeler