Saturday, July 17, 2010


For children, so much of the school year is clogged with assigned reading, it's a treat as delicious as an orange push-up to get to choose books that reflect personal tastes without judgment or tests and that can be read at any pace, books that are relaxing and friendly and plain old fun, books that make us laugh or carry us away! I had such a wonderful time recently on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook show, discussing some of the best summer reading (click to listen!) with experts Pete Cowdin of Reading Reptile Bookstore and Monica Edinger of the blog Educating Alice!  My only complaint was that when we were finished, I felt we were just getting started.  So in the spirit of "to be continued," here are a few favorite summer fiction picks for children old enough to get lost in a book.

The Strange Case of Origami YodaTHE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA by Tom Angleberger (Amulet, 2010)
This hilarious book in short chapters is presented like a collection of scientific evidence to discover whether the goofy origami Yoda puppet that Dwight insists on wearing on his finger is an oracle, able to give advice on such important middle-school matters as what to do when splashed water makes it look like you’ve wet yourself or how to talk to a girl, or is it just a wad of green paper? At the start of the story, Dwight is often called a weirdo and a geek, but by the end of the book, the characters sense that isn’t very nice, and maybe isn’t even that accurate. Friends (and the opinions of friends) rightly play an important role, and commentary is inserted throughout, making for the kind of eclectic format that appeals to reluctant readers. Of course, instructions for folding your own origami Yoda are in the back. This pitch-perfect middle school book full of clever resolutions to common conundrums is both a solid pick for independent fun or discussion with groups. Fans and finishers of DIARY OF A WIMPY KID by Jeff Kinney will find what they’ve been wishing for here. If you have a child going into the sixth grade all the way through sophomore year of high school, you need this book, and if you have a boy in that age group, you need this book yesterday. (11 and up)

WindblowneWINDBLOWNE by Stephen Messer (Random House, 2010)  Many of us of a certain generation may remember poor Charlie Brown and the Kite-Eating Tree?  Well, in comparison, Oliver makes Charlie Brown look like a kite-flying master.   This is a terrible problem considering that Oliver lives in the town of Windblowne, where kite-flying is the apex of achievement.  In a desperate attempt to save face before the big kite-flying festival, he tracks down his mysterious uncle, a kite-flying champion whose disappearance catapults Oliver into a mysterious and magical world where kite-flying may turn out not be the most important thing.  So many books start out flying high with a promising premise, but become entangled in poor execution; this book avoids such snags through beautiful descriptions, thoughtful pacing, distinct voice and glimpses of humor as bright as a red kite fluttering against a blue sky.  What child wouldn't want to imagine being carried away by magical kite, or rising from the ranks of flop to hero?  Said to be inspired by the work of Diana Wynne Jones, it also smacks of the inventive imagination of Laura Ruby's THE WALL AND THE WING or Alex Williams' THE DEEP FREEZE OF BARTHOLOMEW TULLOCK...but let's give credit where credit is due, too, this is some very original and refreshing work that meshes both fantasy and mystery, a solid single volume in a world of overextended series.  (10 and up)

LOVE AND POLLYWOGS FROM CAMP CALAMITYby Mary Hershey (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2010)  I confess, I was hesitant to depart from my favorite and very perfect camp story of last year, Brenda Ferber's JEMMA HARTMAN, CAMPER EXTRAORDINAIRE, but I'm glad I welcomed this new cabin mate, because Effie Maloney could easily be Jemma's Catholic school cousin.  I loved this author ever since her first book, MY SISTER IS SO BOSSY SHE SAYS YOU CAN'T READ THIS BOOK, full of insightful and inciting little girls, and in this new title, Effie's sister "Bosszilla" is a camp counselor poised to ruin summer fun.  This has all the elements of a great camp story, including a ghost,  al fresco dining ("She said we were having diner au fleuret sachet at our cookout.  That's French for 'dinner in a foil packet'"), swimming tests and just a touch of homesickness.  Like Jemma, Effie aspires to be an outstanding camper.  To readers, she will be.  (9 and up)

But a single book does not a care package make.  Don't forget to also pack SUMMER ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY by Betty Birney (Putnam, 2010).  Kids get to go on vacation. Why shouldn't the class pet?  So our furry friend joins his human classmates at summer camp, only to discover the woods can be a pretty bewildering  place for a small mammal.  Birney's writing is never boring, chock full of laugh-out-loud dialogue, a unique point of view and Humphrey's clever "note to self " asides ("Note to self:  winning is good, but not winning isn't as bad as most human imagine," or "Note to self:  Nothing can cheer a person or hamster up faster than seeing an old friend"). When this hamster wins your campster's heart, there's plenty more in the series to get young readers though the fall.  (8 and up)  Also, you're never too late to register for SPORTS CAMP by Rich Wallace (Knopf, 2010), where Riley Liston struggles a bit, being the smallest kid there.  The author taps into a straightforward anecdotal style and does a fine job of tuning into the competitive spirit and secret anxieties of boys, as well as their longing for friendship and teamwork.  (9 and up)  And you can take a long reading hike with Jane Kelley's NATURE GIRL (Random House, 2010), in which Megan is forced to spend the summer with relatives in Vermont sans internet, cell phone and no best friend.  Things go from bad to worse when she finds herself lost with her dog, and what starts out as a modern-day UNDERSTOOD BETSY becomes a real page-turning survival story with a surprising splash of humor, in which Megan discovers maybe she's been just a wee bit spoiled...and maybe there's more to her than she even expected.  (10 and up)  And just for good measure, why don't you tuck in Jarrett Korsoczka's LUNCH LADY AND THE SUMMER CAMP SHAKEDOWN, the latest in the funny-bone approved  Lunch Lady graphic novel series, perfect for reading by flashlight. (7 and up)

ROCKY ROAD by Rose Kent (Knopf, 2010)  What could be more refreshing in the summer than a nice scoop of ice cream?  How about having it served up by Tess, whose single mother has moved her and her deaf brother from sunny Texas to snowy Schenectady to follow a dream of opening an ice-cream shop on the wrong side of the tracks?  While I am not a fan of the "let's pile on the quirky characters!" books, the author takes care to develop each of the cast believably.  This book handles some heavy situations with a deft, light touch; many children will recognize the depressive swings of this mother, and appreciate the changes that occur in a family when finances are tight, as Tess and her family find housing in a complex intended for senior citizens.  Most of all, the author really does a great job of depicting a child's vulnerability in having to follow where the grown-ups lead, whether the grown-ups are capable of leading or not.  Fans of realistic fiction--and good spirit--will find a lot of flavor here.  (11 and up)  And if you like this storyline, you can invest in more summer entrepreneurship via Eileen Spinelli's THE DANCING PANCAKE and Lisa Schroeder's IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES.

A FARAWAY ISLAND by Annika Thor (Delacorte, 1999) Her parents promised twelve-year-old Stephie that she and her eight-year old sister would only have to live with strangers in Sweden until their parents fled to Amsterdam, but with the Nazi occupation of Europe, Stephie realizes she is stranded and stuck. Based on the author's parents' true stories of their experience among the five hundred children evacuated to Sweden before the borders were closed to further refugees,(including the parents of these children), the author doesn't sugarcoat the divisions between the hosts and their wards, such as a differing values about continuing school as opposed to farm work, the expectation that the Jewish children embrace church services, and the general (and sometimes unrelenting to read) glumness of being treated as an outsider and not being able to communicate daily needs and feelings.  Readers share in Stephie's frustrations, made more immediate in the first person present tense.  This book is a part of a series that was a runaway bestseller in Sweden and adapted for television, and is finding its audience here in the states through readers interested in historical fiction and WWII.  When I was young, I was given Judith Kerr's WHEN HITLER STOLE PINK RABBIT, which read like a travelogue to me; this is the book I wish it would have been, offering age-appropriate, non-fictional insight into the real trials of the war from a child's POV.  Likewise, graduates of of Lois Lowry's NUMBER THE STARS will find this is the next book they were looking for. (11 and up)  Readers can also find out what was happening on the other side of the world during that same time period by checking out TURTLE IN PARADISE by the award-winning (and BABYMOUSE) author Jennifer Holm, about a girl spending the summer in 1935 in Key West with relatives she has never met before. (10 and up)

Bamboo PeopleBAMBOO PEOPLE by Mitali Perkins (Charlesbridge, 2010)  Well, in full disclosure, I am crazy in love with this author ever since RICKSHAW GIRL, which I needed thirty copies of for a classroom read-along, but I must say this new novel for older readers really blew me away.  Fifteen year old Chiko is forced into the military by the Burmese government, and in order of escape to get back and become a teacher, as his imprisoned father would have wanted, he has to befriend a boy who would have been his enemy under normal circumstances.  This story is stirring, exciting and dramatic but non-sensational, balancing a boy's natural longing to be liked, to have a girlfriend and to help his family against an unspeakable backdrop.  The plot plays on a young adult's developing moral imagination: it's easy to read this and imagine, "that could be me."  Somewhere in the world right now, it is someone like them.  American children need to know this, and Perkins is the author I would trust to tell them.  (12 and up) Nicely paired with FREE?  STORIES ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS, written by various children's authors for Amnesty International.

The Sixty-Eight RoomsTHE SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS by Marianne Moore (Random House)  What's a summer vacation without a trip to the museum?  This time, it's the Chicago Art Institute, in particular, The Thorne Rooms, housing dioramas of elegant little historical living spaces.  Having visited, it's hard to look at them and not want to be part of the scene, and the author ran with that, allowing her characters to find a magic key that would allow them shrink to dollhouse size and explore the rooms, discovering the secrets and mysteries within.  What a magical game of hide-and-seek!  This book has the promise of Koningsburg's THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, but in practice is more akin to  the Blue Balliet's CHASING VERMEER with its slightly more plodding, elite style dedicated to set-up and requiring some patience.  Still, it manages to cast its spell, its best moments lighter and reminiscent of John Peterson's THE LITTLES series.  A solid field trip into fantasy.  (11 and up)

The Owl KeeperTHE OWL KEEPER by Christine Brodien-Jones (Delacorte)  In a dystopian world, Maxwell Unger has been necessarily sheltered and home-schooled. Allergic to sun particles, he finds solace and fun in the world of the night, where at twelve years old he finally discovers the truth behind his beloved grandmother's stories: the time of the Owl Keeper will  indeed return, and the legendary silver owls will lead the way.  With the help of a mysterious girl, Maxwell has to dig deep for the bravery to battle a world of evil. While this is some elegant and imaginative stuff, my problem with high fantasy is that it can be hard  for the average young reader to follow.  This title, too, requires some capability, but it is battle action-packed a la Brian Jacques' REDWALL series, inspiring adventure lovers to hold tight to their saddles across this new terrain.   Hoo-hoo boy, this one's also an owly older-kid follow-up to Kathryn Lasky's terrific animal fantasy series, GUARDIANS of GA'HOOLE.  Okay, it's a keeper. (12 and up)

The Tilting HouseNecessary to a perfect summer: old house with hidden surprises, to be discovered with new friends.  One place to look is THE TILTING HOUSE by Tom Llewellyn (Tricycle Press, 2010).
"A secret?" asked Aaron.  "What kind of secret?"
"I don't know."  Dad grinned as he struggled to get up from the tilting couch.  "A house built with tilting floors has got to have secrets."
John and Aaron Peshick and their neighbor Lola discover the hidden diary of F.T. Tilton, revealing a fairly creepy mystery that must be solved to avert disaster (tick, tick, tick, can you say THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS by John Bellairs?). While the telling is a little discombobulated with every chapter being a bit of an island unto itself, the writing is smart, tart and funny ("For Dinky [the neighbor's white dog], it was love at first sniff.  I don't think she'd ever smelled an eight-year-old boy before").  A gross discovery to the murder mystery was not my style but it did please a number of kids. Ultimately, it had old-fashioned elements for new-fashioned children.  Scary story wins again. So does a snazzy website and video. Potions and rats, anyone? (10 and up)

Palace BeautifulMoving on to other real estate, we have  PALACE BEAUTIFUL by Sarah DeFord Williams (Putnam).  Here, Sadie, little sister Zuzu and new friend Bella with a flair for the dramatic discover a journal penned by Helen, a girl alive during the flu epidemic of 1918.  Beautiful is right; this is a rare little story that could have gone a more pedestrian route of ghost stories or mysteries, and while those tantalizing elements are present, the focus is on three children who are truly interested---and determined--to discover how Helen's story ends.  The connective bridge between the past and the present is steadily built as Sadie moves from diary entries to her immediate family concerns, mainly, the pregnancy of her stepmother.  Genuinely touching (even tear-jerking!), well-written, and great for independent reading as well as mother/daughter book clubs, this debut novel is a special one that stays in the mind and the heart.  (10 and up)

Even though the summer days are long, there's no time to waste when it comes to pleasure reading! I am a slow reader and it takes some time to share with kids, but I don't want that to prevent you from knowing the best of what's coming, so here's a peek into my to-read pile.  Perhaps you've beaten me to the punch!

Elvis & Olive: Super DetectivesELVIS AND OLIVE, SUPER DETECTIVES by Stephanie Watson (Scholastic, 2010).  I loved ELVIS AND OLIVE so much I had hoped it would win a Newbery honor for outstanding contribution to children's literature, so I am excited to see this dynamic duo is back! Solving little mysteries is one thing, but I wonder if Olive will solve the big mystery of where her absent mom is this time?  I believe this author knows how to balance the little stories with the big picture.

Alchemy and Meggy SwannALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman (Clarion, 2010).  I loved  Brat, a.k.a THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE, I loved RODZINA as she rode the orphan trains, and I think we all  loved the fourteen-year-old CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY as she tried to finagle her way out of a Medieval marriage arrangement.  So who can wait to meet Meggy?  Karen Cushman has yet to write a bad book, and her historical fiction is always illuminating.  

The DreamerTHE DREAMER by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sis (Scholastic, 2010). Two award-winning, unflappable talents (author of ESPERANZA RISING, illustrator of MADLENKA) work together to create an interpretation of the childhood of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.  With its sophisticated premise and magical realism, I look forward to discovering if it is a book for children, a book for grown-ups who love children's literature, or both!

Out of My MindTwo well-reviewed books about children with disabilities:  OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper (Atheneum), about a girl with cerebral palsy who has been unable to communicate but finally gets the chance to shine with the help of technology,  and MOCKINBIRD by  Kathryn Erskine (Philomel), about a girl with Asperger's sydrome dealing with loss. 

Sweet And Sunny (Sunny Holiday)SWEET AND SUNNY by Coleen Murtaugh Paratore (Scholastic). I love love LOVE the character of Sunny Holiday, the adviser to the mayor of her hometown.  Next on Sunny's to-do docket?  Make Kid's Day a national holiday! This author always infuses lots of kid-power and initiative in her stories.  Remember THE WEDDING PLANNER'S DAUGHTER?

What's on your children's book loving bureau to read next?


Christianne @ Little Page Turners said...

Thanks, Esme, for another fabulous list of recommended books! Do you have (now or in a previous post) recommendations for GOOD chapter books appropriate for 5 year olds? My daughter is reading at approx a 3rd grade level, and I can't feed her books fast enough. Thanks!

Esme Raji Codell said...

That's tricky, because I don't know your daughter...a trip to the public library's always the best bet, but it sounds like you already do that. :-) So check out:
EMMALINE AND THE BUNNY by Katherine Hannigan
THE DOLL FAMILY series by Ann Martin
BEANY AND THE MEANY by by Susan Wojciechowski
She's already into series, yes? Like Ramona, Frannie K. Stein, Guardians of Ga'hoole, Babymouse, Clementine, or the hilarious Horrible Harry series?
Good luck...and happy reading!

Esme Raji Codell said...

Maybe also try THE TAIL OF EMILY WINDSNAP series by Liz Kessler? A little challenging, but mermaids may be a motivator!

Betty Birney said...

Esme, when I was at Seven Stories in Newcastle (the largest independent children's book store in the UK) last October, they had a fantastic Judith Kern exhibit in their museum - several rooms of things. I think I took some pictures and I scored the last signed copy of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. That book is truly revered in England. (P.S. Thanks for making Humphrey and me happy campers.)

sonia said...

Ooh, great recommendations! Can't wait to order them from my library!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great recommendations. My reading list always grows after I read your posts. By the way, I LOVED Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper.

Rawley said...

Esme, you ROCK! I just wrote down every one of these titles.
Only 4 more weeks to read, read, read! Ahhhh!!!

Teju said...


Your recommendations are fabulous. We joined Baker Dem the year you were leaving and unfortunately did not get to connect in person. I have heard so many wonderful things about you and I do follow your blog.

I have two daughters ages 8 and 10 and half and both of them love reading - although very different kinds of stuff. Your recommendations have something exciting for both of them.


Emily said...

Thanks for the great list! I loved Palace Beautiful. I hope it gets a lot of attention.

middle grade ninja said...

What a wonderful list of books for me to check out. Thanks for posting. I'm very happy to have found this blog.

Bookstore 4 Kids said...

The first book that caught my eye that my son and I might like to read together is Windblowne. Your review of the plot and the description of the writing technique has won me over. Thanks for your post!

Bedbug Books said...

I remember in grade school that we were allowed to pick out our own books and order them from a catalog. I loved this because we weren't forced to read something that held no interest. I ordered 6 books and read all of them.

Kids love to learn if learning isn't regimented to the point that one's eyes glaze over.

Anonymous said...

this site is cute and has a cute book for girls. great story and moral lesson.

Elisabeth Marie said...

I did enjoy The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (have to make time in all my school reading to read 2 & 3 soon!). Great idea to suggest it as a read alike for Wimpy Kid.
I did not particularly care for The Dreamer. :(
-New follower (Fellow Kidlitosphere-er) YSPrincess


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