MORE KIDS’ BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS, from a children’s librarian who also happens to be my mom:

Kids in the intermediate and middle school grades can be a hard sell for reading fiction. But fiction is pain-free way to vicarious experience, and experience is what these kids need to find, safely, outside their comfort zone.

In one way or another, most serious fiction for this age falls into the “coming of age” genre, not because authors set out to teach lessons, but because writers know that we’re all “coming of age” as long as we live. That is say, we all struggle to get a handle on managing the various choices and constraints we deal with daily. Here are a variety of novels whose characters deal seriously, and often humorously, with their own coming of age:

Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. Houghton Mifflin, 1995 (hardback); Simon Pulse (paperback), 1999.

Even the most reluctant reader will be hooked by Paulsen’s opening in which 13-year-old Brian takes off with a bush pilot to spend the summer with his estranged father in the North Woods. When the pilot dies at the controls, Brian survives a crash into a lake and manages to stay alive for 54 days and to bring about his own rescue. To do that, Brian has only a hatchet given by his mother, the untried strengths of his own character, and the words of a teacher who reminded him that all he’d ever learned would be there when he needed it. Brian learns that what he has is all he needs.

(Sequels: The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return, and Brian’s Hunt.. Outside this series but with the same theme are The Voyage of the Frog, Tracker, Dogsong, and many others by Paulsen).

Lest you think Paulsen is one of those rugged survivalists who ask no help from any quarter, the middle reader shouldn’t miss these nonfiction memoirs:

My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen. Yearling, 1999.

From Cookie, the sled dog who rescued him from the icy waters of the Arctic, to Caesar, the Great Dane who hid in terror of trick or treaters, the stories of Paulsen’s real-life pets make you laugh out loud or blink back a tear as he relates how much they had to give..

The Cookcamp by Gary Paulsen. Scholastic, 2003.

In this reminiscence with the dreamlike quality of early childhood memory, Paulsen tells how he (“the boy”) recalls being sent to live with his Norwegian grandmother, a camp cook for a World War II construction crew who are, in the boy’s mind, as mythic and mighty as tall tale heroes, yet more loving and protective than his own parents.

(Tie-ins from Paulsen’s autobiographical works for the persistent nonfiction reader: Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod, Harvest Paperbacks, 1995, in which he describes his two entries into this epic dogsled race; Dogteam, (illustrated by Ruth Wright Paulsen) Dragonfly, 1995, an evocative pictural description of the blending of human and dog in a wild night ride; and Guts, Laurel Leaf, 2002, in which he relates the personal experiences (including repeated encounters with Joe, the moose with a personal vendetta), that became parts
of the narrative of Hatchet.

Meanwhile back in suburbia, kids also have to deal with choices and constraints:

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, by Jack Gantos. Harper Collins, 1998.

Joey’s ADD means that he’s always “wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad, or wired glad,” but Joey is a strong and sweet kid who survives in a situation in which, in the words of his dying, manic grandmother, “…you got better, and the rest of the world didn’t.” (Sequels: Joey Pigza Loses Control and What Would Joey Do?)

Lunch Money, by Andrew Clements. Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Money-loving Greg thinks he’s got a sure thing turning his artistic talents into Chunky Comics to sell at school. Then, aargh, his arch enemy Maura starts selling her sappy unicorn sagas and cuts into his profits, and then, whoa, the principal says no selling comics at school. But, wait, Maura really knows how to move product, and, wow, she points out that the school-sponsored book club is hawking paperbacks from a big publisher. It all comes to a conclusion at a heated school board meeting, and Greg learns a few things about navigating the pitfalls of business, education, and life. (See also by Andrew Clements: Frindle, The School Story, The Report Card, A Week in the Woods, The Last Holiday Concert, The Landry News, and more.)

For slightly older Clements fans:

Things Not Seen,
by Andrew Clements. Puffin, 2004.

A lot of students feel like they are invisible to their peers, but Bobby really is! He wakes up one morning and–he’s not there in the mirror! Bobby seeks a sort of refuge in the library and finds the only person to whom he’s, like, real, a blind girl named Alicia. Bobby and Alicia pool their talents to hack the Sears corporate computer and get him back to the visual realm, and Bobby learns a bit about who he really is. (Semi-Sequel: Things Hoped For by Andrew Clements, Philomel, 2006.)

Even in the world of fantasy, there’s no escape for the plucky protagonist! For example:

Ella Enchanted,
by Gail Carson Levine. HarperCollins, 1997, 2004.

Cursed by “that fool fairy Lucinda” with a spell that makes her always obedient to any command, Ella has to contend with an absent father, an evil stepmother, and abusive step-sisters, not to mention the handicap of always having to be, if not willing, at least compliant with any order. How she manages to fight her way through the usual fantasy foes and rescue her prince proves a girl’s gotta have game! Levine turns the Cinderella story on its head with humorous and page-turning results. (See also by Gail Carson Levine: all of the Princess Tales, (singly or boxed setsHarperCollins; The Wish, HarperCollins, 2002, and her newest, Gifted, HarperCollins, 20, 06.)


I’m hoping to talk her into starting a children’s book-blog. Maybe the reaction to these recommendations will help!