It can be so hard when you have a talented, curious, advanced new reader who is looking for challenging books that don't go into some of the "After School Special Issue" suburban/urban trauma drama things (rape- Speak, murder - Monster, cutting- Cut, suicide - 13 Reasons Why, school shootings - Hate List blah blah blah). Not that these books don't serve a purpose and find their readers, but just like adults want to read fun books, kids do too.
These titles are, to the best of my (usually pretty good!) recollection and sense of wholesomeness (no laughing, ok?) the ones I feel comfortable handing to a friend's very charming and smart 10 year old daughter who was nearly put off reading all together by having ventured into the YA section and got traumatised by a couple of books she chose at random.
In some cases, they are older titles that may seem obvious, but can often be forgotten, because they're not on the New Book shelf at your library, or on the endcaps at the bookstore. Also, if I can be a total judgmental PIA, I'll also list some that I would avoid giving a young reader, and explain why.
In no particular order:
Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild (1936)
(and the rest of the Shoes series- look for Dancing Shoes, Tennis Shoes, Skating Shoes, Theater Shoes, etc- although Circus Shoes was pretty bad.)
These are, I'd say, age appropriate from 8 on, but the London setting and distinctively English colloquialisms and rather challenging language compared to what is offered to children here today, make them satisfying and interesting reads. Ballet Shoes is, I have to admit, my favorite book, and has been since I was 8. The story of 3 orphans who learn to make their own careers on the stage gives fascinating insight into between the wars London, into the rarefied world of professional performers, and the fantastic characterizations make Pauline, Petrova, and Posy Fossil seem real and like people you would love to meet. Of especial interest to girls with an interest in the arts, the book was made into a 1997 film adaptation starring Emma Watson as Pauline, which was really well done until the very last scene, when it got a bit daft, sadly.
The Grimm Legacy, by Polly Shulman (2011)
Charming and absorbing young fantasy, set in the special collections are of the New York Public Library. The magical objects mentioned in the Grimm fairy tales are kept in the Grimm Collection, but evildoers are out to steal them. Elizabeth Lew, a student in a nearby high school, is one of a handful of workers allowed access to the special collections. The exceedingly far-fetched plot is one of the reasons I think this was more of a children's book than YA, but Shulman's special brand of clean and delightful characters made this a great read. She is an author I often recommend to young readers who are reading above their age level, but aren't ready for some of the darker actual YA out there.
Enthusiasm, by Polly Shulman (2007)
Jane Austen fanatic finds romance, but sweetly.
Now, I've read Jane Austen, but I've been baffled by the flood of Jane Austen based books lately- everything after Bridget Jones left me high and dry. But this was a blast- with teen female characters who I totally wanted to know, a clean romance that I wanted to work out, interesting characters and language, and it was so much fun. Yay!
Cheaper by The Dozen, (1948) and Belles on Their Toes, (1950) by Ernestine and Frank Gilbreth
When I was 12 or so I think I read Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes over and over and over. About a year ago I found a yard sale copy of Cheaper By The Dozen (with awful movie-tie-in cover- Hillary Duff- spare me) and it went into serious bath-reading rotation, so I was really pleased to get ahold of Belles On Their Toes, the sequel.
After Frank Gilbreth dies, his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth steps into his shoes running their motion-study business, and their 11 children (Anne, at 18, is the eldest) have to run the household while she tours Europe giving speeches trying to convince the world that a woman can run an engineering consulting firm in the 1920s.
I love these books, the detail and the sense of time and place- the slang, the wet smacks and ukeleles, the flappers, and Martha's big scene at the beach where she refuses to wear a 2 piece bathing dress anymore- I love the way the boys coach Jane into being a bobby-soxer rather than a vamp, I love the warmth of these stories. I cried like a baby at the end- literally sitting there howling. It is so lovely to read something that was clearly written to tell people a good story- a real, loving story. Wonderful.
The Velvet Room, by Zilpha Keately Snyder (1965)
(and other books by her- still writing, incredibly!)
Just a lovely children's book. Migrant farm family has a car breaksdown near a farm with an abandoned mansion nearby. When her father finds work on the farm, Robin finds her way into the round, velvet curtained turret room, and finds an escape in books. This gave a lot of interesting information about circumstances of the Great Depression, and while not depressing, ha ha, may give a curious reader a lot to think about and look into.
Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge (1964)
(and others by the same author- notably, The White Horse)
Really lovely classic English childrens' classic. The Linnet children enter and change the lives of the aristocratic but troubled Valerian family, with hints of pagan magic and a great deal a old fashioned charm.
Scones and Sensibility, by Lindsay Eland (2010)
Well, as weary as I am of the Jane-Austen-tribute books, this was well done, and really cute. Some very funny bits- the main character, Polly Madassa, worships Anne of Green Gables, Elizabeth Bennet, and the whole classic crew, and tries so hard to speak like them, but it makes her almost incomprehensible to everyone around her. I would definitely recommend this to kids at the library who are looking to read up but aren't looking for heavy issue books.
The Mother-Daughter Book Club series, by Heather Vogel Frederick (2008-2011)
Review from the first of the series:
This was lovely. 4 girls, living in Concord, Mass., are forced by their mothers to spend a year reading Little Women in a book club that meets once a month. Of course, the 4 girls are all very different, mall-crazy Megan, hockey-happy Cassidy, bookish Emma and Goat-Girl Jess, but the book had a gentle, warm feel to it. I enjoyed it tremendously.
A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)
Obvious, but sometimes forgotten in the shadow of The Secret Garden. Slightly darker, but still beautifully written, and with language (as in Streatfeild) that will certainly challenge a contemporary reader. For girls who have read and loved A Little Princess, there was a surprisingly good sequel written that they may enjoy, below:
Wishing for Tomorrow, by Hilary McKay (2009)
Very sweet and well done sequel to A Little Princess. This was lovely, and I was so glad that even Lavinia and Miss Minchin were somehow redeemed.
The Haunting on Devil's Den Road, by Karen Chilton (2008)
Pretty fantastic children's/YA book! I'd say this is pretty firmly targeted to tweens, but it was really actually very good, and not just because of the Rhody-local stuff!
That said, it was great fun to read such a South County book- from the tow trucks from 'north of the towers' to the realtor called Lila, I loved all that.
Paige Parker is 13 (almost 14) when she and her mother, a professor who teaches about architectural history, move into the Hazard house, in Heather Hollow (Exeter crossed with Hope Valley, I think). They are both reeling from her father's death, and her mother thought that moving from Providence and their memories there, and taking on the project of restoring the Hazard house would bring them a new start.
Paige is reluctant about the move to start with, and her best friend Amanda adds to her unease by telling Paige about Mercy Brown, the local 'vampire'. As soon as Paige and her mother move in, strange things start happening, and well, I won't say more.
It was really good, though, and had a pretty cool intellectual and feminist flavor. I'll definitely be looking forward to book 2.
Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2005)
This was fantastic, bizarre, tear-making, hope-filling, funny, and so very very strange. It was a delight.
Damien is an English 11 year old obsessed with saints and his dead mother, and he finds a bag of cash, weeks before the pound switches to the euro. (Yeah, I know- but go with it!) He and his 14 year old brother try to spend it all, without their dad finding out. It was such an odd book, but I loved it.
The King of Mulberry Street, by Donna Jo Napoli (2005)
and other books by the same author
Wonderful book. It's childrens/YA, but I thought it had huge adult appeal- maybe even more appeal for adults than for kids. Dom is 9 years old when he comes, alone, to America from Naples. The story was based on the author's grandfather, and it left a major impression on me. It was harrowing, inspiring, and so so real.
From the book:
“Do you have people waiting for you in New York?”
“That’s what I was afraid of.” He gave a brief whistle. “There are plenty of kids on their own in America but it’s hard. Harder than in Napoli. Head for Mulberry Street.”
The Railway Children, by E.Nesbit (1906)
Classic family story, set in an England of barges on canals, friendly station masters, Doctors who made housecalls, Russian exile writers, hawthorne flowers and buns with icing for special occasions. If there's a heaven, it will be that England, for me. I don't think it exists now, and maybe it never did, but should heaven be real, for me it will be a place with bunches of roses and tea and coal fired stoves and friendly bakers and parcels wrapped in newspaper.
The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright (1941)
Lovely, warm story of 4 children who pool their allowances so that every fouth Saturday, one of them can go do something splendid.
Randi goes to see an art exhibit, Mona gets her hair bobbed, Rush goes to see the opera, and Tim goes to the circus, in an episodical book- great for reading to a child, I imagine.
A lonely old neighbor turns out to be full of exciting stories and to serve tea with petit fours, and all in all it's kind of a lovely and dreamy book. Before I make it sound too dementedly sappy, let me say too that while reading it I was all lulled along, and thinking how much easier this world seemed, peaceful and trustworthy and safe, and then boom-
"What was it like when the world was peaceful, Cuffy?"
"Ah," said Cuffy, coming up again. "It seemed like a lovely world; anyway on top where it showed. But it didn't last long. First there was a long, bad, war, and then peace like the ham in a sandwich, and now a long, bad bad war again."
The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages (2007)
Ellen Klages wrote a great book here- I found the story gripping and interesting from the start. Great cover, solid, fast writing, and as Dewey's story becomes more entwined with Suze's, I came to feel these characters were very real.
The setting (at Los Alamos before and immediately after the Trinity tests) was an immediate attention catcher, and the conflicts between the scientists over the ethics of their work seemed like it would make this book a great starting point to intense discussion. I also thought that the female scientists, like Suze's mom, were gracefully brought into the story and the differences between them and the female 'computers' could lead to a great group talk too. Suze's character growth didn't feel forced, and Dewey- what a protagonist!
I enjoyed this more than I can possibly express- I will be handing this book to everyone who comes up to me looking for 'something good to read'. This book made me want to reread every other book I've read that was set at Los Alamos, made me want to visit that area, reminded me that abstract ideas can lead to devastating consequences, oh, it was a good good read.
Reel Life Starring Us, by Lisa Grunwald (2011)
My Life in Pink and Green, by the same author (2009)
Both are charming and well done, clean and fun. Late middle school protagonists, but with a nice healthy attitude to the world.
Exerpt from reveiw of My Life in Pink And Green:
Lucy is worried that her mom's pharmacy is going out of business, and somehow decides that what they need is a local green grant to create an eco-friendly spa.
Ruby Red, by Kirsten Geir (2011)
International (originally written in German, set in London) sensation. A bit sci fi, a bit steampunk- hugely popular, and despite being written as YA, there's nothing that an advanced reader of 9 or 10 could be upset by, I think. I didn't love it, but a lot of people do, and it might make a great read for girls interested in ghost stories/time travel etc but who don't want to get too spooked out. A hint of romance, but nothing remotely graphic.
Shutout, by Brendan Haplin (2010)
(Some off-scene drinking in this one, not by the protagonist) Published as YA, but clean and healthy, with a focus on girls' soccer, which is nice.
Really wonderful, well done YA about girl's sports, friendship, sportsmanship, and so much more. Amanda and Lena have been inseparable friends for years, and partners on the soccer field, but when, as freshmen, Lena is chosen for the varsity team and Amanda feels sidelined onto the junior varsity, their friendship is challenged, and they grow apart. This was just so well written, the characters were real and believable, it was great YA without being manipulative or trauma drama.
Little Blog on the Prairie, by Catherine Devitt Bell (2010)
Really fun, sweet book. Genevieve's family goes to prairie camp to live out her mother's dream of experiencing life as it was for the settlers, but Genevieve's furtive and secret text messages to her friends at home gain a life of their own when her friend uses them to create a blog about the pleasures and perils of life in the 1880's. A dash of romance, a splash of 'finding oneself', and a really unusual and creative setting made this a really enjoyable read.
The Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang, by Amy Ignatow (2010)
Very funny and well drawn young YA/older elementary level book. Lydia and Julie decide to observe what the popular girls at school do, to try to draw a blue print for social success. Field hockey, drama club, and secret keeping feature largely. This was really kind of charming, a girlie version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Running Out of Time, by Margaret Peterson Haddix (1997)
13 year old Jessie lives with her parents in 1840's Indiana, in a small frontier town. Children being dying of diphtheria, and her mother, the town midwife, tells Jessie that she needs to get help from outside- that it's really 1996, and that their entire world is a tourist attraction, and that all the adults had volunteered to 'live in the 1840's" for various reasons of their own. Jessie has to deal with that, and with the modern world, to try to find out why they are being denied modern medicine.
Interesting idea, and funnily enough though, when I watched that "Colonial House" show on PBS where the people volunteered to live like the Plymouth settlers I wondered about the ethics involved with the kids on that show, so I guess Haddix was on to something.
Catherine Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman (1995)
In 1290, Catherine, a 13 year old girl, the daughter of a knight, is keeping a diary of her life at her parents’ manor house. Hilarious, moving, and surprisingly vulgar and violent, Catherine’s diary is a glimpse into life 718 years ago.
From the book:
“12th DAY OF SEPTEMBER
I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.”
City of Ember series, by Jeanne DuPrau (2007-2010)
MUCH better than the movie.
Excerpt from review of the first book, City of Ember
This book was fantastic all the way through. Lina and Doon live in an underground city with failing infrastructure and corrupt officials. They explore and have wild adventures and find an exit, escaping at last and saving most of the residents of Ember.
The plot was intriguing, and plausible, the writing was smooth and clean and the descriptions of Ember were chilling and conveyed the claustrophobia of the underground world. I loved the scenes set in the municipal greenhouses and the fact that farmers were so respected, I loved the appreciation of maintaining infrastructure, Lina and Doon were great characters- it was wonderful.
The Red Blazer Girls series, by Michael Biel (2009, 2010, 2011)
These are clever, math-y, puzzle based mysteries set in a New York Catholic school, with 4 female protagonists who are healthy, smart and proud of it, and not superficially obsessed with clothes etc- that makes them sound so dry and wholesome like ryevita toasts, but they are actually delicious and fun books.
Review from the first of the series:
This was so much fun! A quick, entertaining YA (6th or 7th grade target, I guess) about girls who work together to solve a puzzle that leads to the ring, and all the clues are set out in the book so one could solve them along with the characters, if only one remembered Algebra 1! It kind of reminded me of The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler, it had a lovely feel to it. Looking forward to the next.
The 39 Clues series, by various authors
Really fun, fast paced, and filled with interesting historical tidbits- action adventure, with equal boy/girl appeal. Young, but worthwhile, if your reader hasn't devoured them yet.
Excerpt from review of the first book, The Maze of Bones, by Rick Riordan:
The Cahill family, whose members have included just about every important historical figure, is divided into 4 branches, who are racing each other around the world to solve a set of 39 clues left by the family matriarch in her will. Excellent puzzles, history, setting- this one was Paris, and made me want to crawl around the Catacombs and climb Mont Martre on a stormy night- great (if briefly introduced) characters- this was a wonderful start to what I hope is a great series!
For a slightly older reader ready for some interesting speculation and slightly disturbing bioengineering:
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary Pearson
This was so good. Wonderfully done, and not just for sci-fi people. There were some things ( her sexuality, for one) that I wish had been addressed that weren't, but maybe that was deliberate, to keep it more all-ages or to keep the 'debate' focused on the point. Loved the image of the butterfly. Plot holes you could drive a truck through, but it didn't even matter. If I had read this book as a young teen, I would have LOVED it. I even kind of loved it now.
DO NOT RECOMMEND
Anything by Lisi Harrison. I think she is evil.
This is from a 2007 article I wrote:
(NOTE- NOT RECOMMENDING GOSSIP GIRL TO YOUNG READERS- THIS ARTICLE WAS ABOUT YA BOOKS)
"Another series that wrapped up this year is Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl — but don’t think for a second that you won’t be hearing that title anymore. The popular and occasionally controversial book series was often called Sex and the City for teens, and The CW is taking a chance on that; the television network is producing a series based on the novels, and slotting the program right after America’s Next Top Model, a ratings powerhouse. Starring Blake Lively (from the movie version of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) as Serena, and Veronica Mars’s Kristin Bell as the eponymous Gossip Girl, the show seems set to be a success. Before watching the series, though, give the books a read. They are delicious — fast, breezy, catty and fun — and von Zeigesar’s writing in the early books captures that ineffable New York vibe.
While critics as prominent as Naomi Wolf were troubled by the Gossip Girl series, calling it “corruption with a cute overlay,” nothing in these books would shock a teen in modern America, and the characters, while wealthy and slightly dissolute, are very focused on their futures, with college applications, interviews, and acceptances driving a significant portion of the plots. The characters do face repercussions for their actions, and bad decisions are followed by consequences — they live in a moral universe. The original set of characters — Blair, Serena, Nate, et al — move on in the final book, Don’t You Forget About Me, which was published in May. But von Zeigesar intends to continue both the Gossip Girl series (with a new crop of students) and the successful spin-off series, The It Girl, which is already up to title four, Unforgettable, published this June.
By contrast, another huge breakout young-adult series, The Clique, by Lisi Harrison, is set in a world apparently without interested adults or a moral center. These books are immensely popular, and are written for a slightly younger set than the Gossip Girl series. The characters Massie, Alicia, Claire and others — are not experimenting with intoxicants or with sex as do some older teen characters in Gossip Girl, but they are no more innocent for that; rather, these characters are the embodiment of the “mean girl” culture. Rather than practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty, the Clique girls are more likely to randomly cyberbully another student and spend senselessly on designer wear that young readers may be tricked into thinking is stylish. The Clique series is on a roll, however, with Harrison’s eighth book in the series, Sealed with a Diss, due to be released on July 2."
Excerpt from my review of book 1 of The Clique series:
This was one of the most horrific and revolting things I have ever read.
Claire's parents (improbably) move into Massie's parents' guest house. Massie is a dreadful little bitch who is senselessly cruel to Claire, because Claire's parents aren't as rich as Massie's, and because Claire is (at 13) still wearing jeans and keds. Massie makes her 'friends' be cruel to Claire as well. Claire is a cardboard character and a total masochist, so she keeps trying to befriend the sociopathic girls.
Everything about this book was heartbreaking. The fact that it was not only published but is such a huge best-seller is nauseating. It is completely sick.
The cruelty is astonishing, the lack of any kind of adult authority figure is disturbing, the consumerism makes Teen Vogue look wholesome, and the writing is nothing short of astoundingly bad.
Excerpt from my review of book 1 of The Alphas series:
This may have been the worst book ever. Lisi Harrison's manipulative and misogynistic tween writing has hit a new and exceptionally low low. I felt brain cells leaping off cliffs to get away from this drivel as I read it. Wildly depressing.
Anything by Meg Cabot- except maybe the Princess Diaries, which can be sweet, but her newer series Allie Finkel's Rules For Girls is APPALLING.
Excerpt from review:
Allie Finkle is a little bitch in training, her moral compass is broken, her parents should send her to boarding school in Liberia, and I can't believe anyone published this piece of shit.
The Willoughbys, by Lois Lowry
This is a shock, because she is usually so very very good, but this was AWFUL.
Excerpt from review:
It was totally Lemony Snicket-y, and that's been so overdone. Also, it gave away the ending to Little Women. Shame on you, Lois Lowry. You're better than this.
Sarah Dessen. I know, it's heresy, but she is definitely NOT for younger readers, and for older readers, I find her books to be manipulative, predictable, and Hallmarky.