To aid with shopping I have put together a suggested reading list. It has gone out to all of our families, but here it is for others looking for a good read.
To create this list I started at the beginning of my books-read list (1993) to pick some oldies that I still remember. Then I jumped to the end of my list for books that I have read in 2009. In each case I picked only the best. I’ll note with an asterisk those that may be so old that you will be best served by having Nicola order them for you. I will keep my notations brief. If they interest you, ask me about them. Be sure to browse through all the other books at the store. The staff at Nicola's always has great suggestions. They all are avid readers with a wide range of tastes.
Alias Grace*and many more by Margaret Atwood are high on my list. While some of her books appeal to me more than others, I consider her to be a safe bet for an enjoyable novel. Alias Grace is historical fiction at its best, the saga of a young Canadian woman who is arrested for murder in 1843. Her other books encompass many genres.
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum * is a rare book in that it considers and gives voice to German gentiles who had to make tough decisions to survive during the Third Reich. It shows compassion for the many on all sides of the issue who made tough decisions in order to survive.
Midwives by Chris Bohjalian is sure to stir debate with those who can convince to discuss this intriguing novel with you. Did the midwife of the title kill the mother or save the baby? For another discussion of midwifery, read The Birth House by Ami McKay which takes places in the early 20th century in Nova Scotia and focuses on the meeting of old ways of delivering babies with the new practices of obstetrics.
The Tortilla Curtain* by T. Coraghessan Boyle is just one of many fascinating novels by T. C. Boyle. Told from alternating points of view this will make you think again about the issues of illegal aliens settling in
Paddy Clark, Ha, Ha, Ha by Roddy Doyle will take you to
Ella Minnow Pea* by Mark Dunn has fun playing with language. The town in which Ella lives takes pride in the sentence about the “quick brown fox” that is famous for using all the letters of the alphabet. It was, they say, written by a resident of the town. It is emblazoned on a tower in the center of the city. When letters begin to fall, it is deemed a sign that those letters should no longer be used. It is an interesting premise with interesting results. Emerson students and I enjoy playing a game inspired by this book.
The Monster of Templeton by Lauren Graff is full of the kinds of strange, quirky characters that I enjoy. The town of
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson was his first well-known novel and, in my opinion, remains his best. The story is of Japanese people living in
Plainsong* by Kent Haruf will take you right to the heartland of
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is my favorite Kingsolver novel, but don’t overlook her many other fine novels. The story takes the reader to
The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason follows the adventures of a piano tuner who is sent to
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett takes the reader into a fictional South American country to which a famous singer has gone to perform for dignitaries who have gathered for a world wide meeting. Suddenly the home where they are gathered for dinner is taken over by critics of the government and everyone is taken hostage. This is the story of the musician, the dignitaries, and the kidnappers and aptly shows the thinking of all involved. By the end of the story it is increasingly difficult to take sides.
Pobby and Dingan* by Ben Rice is set in the dry center of
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is a difficult read because of his many jumps from one thing to another. The language is beautiful and chock full of meanings. It is also one of the best books around about the partition of
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows came as a complete surprise to me. I was soon caught up in the letters that look at live on this little island when it was under Nazi control. Although it is fiction, the people in this novel quickly become real personalities. I predict that tourism to
NON-FICTION FOR ADULTS
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali follows Ali’s life from her childhood in a strict Muslim family in
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What? by Dave Eggers show the range of Egger’s talents. The heartbreaking work is the necessity of having to take care of his much younger brother when their parents die. He deals with the changes in his life as a young college students with humor and love. What is the What? is based on the true story of one of the lost boys of
Ambivalence: Adventures in
American Vertigo: Traveling
A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will rule the Future by Daniel Pink is the most readable book on the workings of the mind that I have read. It is a do-it-yourself manual for increasing your creativity as well as a look at the importance of developing creativity in ourselves and our children.
I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad by Karolyn Smardz Frost is not a light beach read. This carefully—sometimes with too much detail for my taste—researched story is of a run-away slave who, with his young bride, made it to
The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness* by Simon Wiesenthal was introduced to me by my daughter who read this for a college class. The book is thin with one half of it devoted to a simple story of a Jewish prisoner being asked to forgive a Nazi soldier. The second half of the book is a collection of responses to this question of forgiveness. Philosophers, theologians, scientists, and others give their reasons to forgive or not to forgive. This book is made to be discussed.
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester is more fascinating than you would ever believe a story about a dictionary could be. The Meaning of Everything will give you more about the Oxford Dictionary. The kids at school were pretty tired of me talking about it for months after I first read it. When you finish reading those two or if dictionaries don't appeal to you, you might want to read others by
FOR GRADES 8 TO ADULT
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay is the story of a young man growing up in
Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man* by Fanny Flagg is a good choice for light reading. I enjoy Flagg’s humor and this one, which I read with my daughters when they were in Middle and High school, is lesser known than Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe but a favorite in our house.
The Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-Time by Mark Haddon was written as a young adult novel but quickly caught on with adults. The protagonist and narrator is an autistic young man with a talent for math. He uses this talent to unravel the mysteries surrounding his parent’s failing marriage and the death of a neighbor’s dog. (Confidentially, I find the orange cover quite appealing, too.)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle* by Shirley Jackson took me back at least 40 years to when I first read and enjoyed this frightening story. Perhaps this novel is when I first really honed my fascination with quirky characters.
Allegra Maud Goldman* by Edith Konecky is the story of a strong willed upper-middle class Jewish girl living in pre-World War II Brooklyn. The reader gets to know her as she goes from age three to 13, criticizing her life at every step. Allegra is clearly an early feminist with strong ideas about the role of women as it is and as it should be. There is plenty of humor to balance the tale.
Monster by Walter Dean Myers is a truly chilling novel told in a most unusual and compelling format. Part of it is a movie script being written by the young protagonist while another part is the court reporting on the case that has put that young man in jail. Many times even he is not clear about his guilt or innocence. It shows how powerful guilt by association can be. Myers also has books for younger readers including poetry and a memoir as well as several novels.
Meely LaBauve* by Ken Wells got rave reviews when it first arrived and then seemed to slip away. I thoroughly enjoyed this a coming of age novel set in the
NOVELS FOR GRADES 2-8
Be sure to look at all of the selections that Nicola’s has to offer. They probably have the best children and young adult section for miles in any direction. Linda, their buyer, is knowledgeable and always ready to help. If she is busy, ask around. Their multi-cultural stories collection is a real gem.
The Masterpiece by Elise Broach (gr. 4-7) is a little bit art history and a little bit mystery plus a lot realistic fiction and a solid dose of fantasy. A young beetle helps a young boy save a series of stolen Durer prints. I have never considered the possibility of a beetle creating miniatures by dipping its front legs in ink, but by the end of this novel I was ready to believe it could happen.
Frindle by Andrew Clements (gr. 3-6) is the story of a boy who invents a new word. His teacher refuses to let him use it—despite his convincing arguments and his power to get all of his classmates to use the new word—until the word appears in the dictionary. This becomes a good look at how language and proper usage develop. Clements has many other popular books that keep kids coming back for more.
Getting Near to Baby by Audrey Couloumbis (gr. 4-8) touched my heart with a story of two little girls coming to grips with major changes in their lives, including the death of their baby sister and their mother’s inability to deal with this latest tragedy. Aurprisingly, it is also very funny at times.
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (gr. 5-7) should be read by every family that travels between two cultures. Based in part on Nye’s childhood as the daughter of a mid-Western woman and a man from Palestine who came to the U.S. to study, this novel tells of a family’s move to Palestine and how a young girl and her brother deal with the culture shock along with the universal issues of growing up.
A Long Way from
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rats by Terry Pratchett (gr. 4-7) offers a clever take on the Pied Piper story. Pratchett is very popular for science fiction for older readers and adults as well as several fantasies for this younger age group.
I Was a Rat! by Philip Pullman (gr. 2-5) is my favorite
The Desperado Who Stole Baseball by John H. Ritter (gr. 4-6) is the second in a series about baseball but the only one that I have had a chance to read. I am not a big baseball fan, but I enjoyed this Wild West adventure that features Billy the Kid, baseball, race relations, and a darn good story. If you like baseball fantasies you will also want to read The Baseball Card Adventures series by Dan Gutman which has as much history as it has baseball.
The Bomb by Theodore Taylor (gr. 4-8) was inspired by
Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (gr. 3-6) are just two of her many retellings of familiar fairy tales; in this case they are Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
NON-BORING NON-FICTION, GRADES K-8
How to Scratch a Wombat: Where to Find It…What to Feed it…Why It Sleeps All Day by Jackie French (gr. 3 and up) is packed with facts and stories about wombats by a woman who has lived with wombats in her backyard for many years. French also wrote the charming picture book Diary of a Wombat that is a perfect step into this enjoyable non-fiction.
What to Do About
The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, bumps and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum by Kathleen Krull (gr. 3-5)will make you want to re-read all of the Oz books with a careful eye to see the connections to Baum’s life.
Motel of the Mysteries (gr. 5 and up) and Cathedral and Mosque and City and Pyramid and How Things Work by David Macaulay (all ages) are now classics in young non-fiction. Motel of the Mysteries is written with tongue firmly in cheek as it offers up an archaeological dig of the future at a motel on a site that was once the East Coast of the
The Great Fire and Blizzard by Jim Murphy (gr.4 and up) are both great examples of non-fiction at its very best. The first title is a look at the Chicago Fire and the second is about the East Coast blizzard of 1888. Both books are well illustrated with plenty of maps and very readable and exciting stories of the people who lived through these catastrophes.
Mr. Lincoln’s Boys: Being the Mostly True Adventures of Abraham Lincoln’s Trouble Making Sons Tad and Willie by Staton Rabin (gr. 3-6) is one of many books about Lincoln that came in honor of his 200th birthday this year. This picture book biography is especially moving because it shows how important his children were to helping
Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka (gr. 4-8) is the memoir of an author loved by all ages for his wacky view of the world. The short chapters in this book with a comic-book style cover look at the life of a typical boy growing up in
United Tweets of
Eat, Shoots, and Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference and Twenty-Odd Ducks: Why, Every Punctuation Mark Counts and The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage Without Apostrophes by Lynne Truss are three picture books that use goofy illustrations to show how the addition of a single punctuation mark can change the meaning of a sentence. Some usages are a little obscure, but all are designed to get a laugh as well as make a point. Even if you did not like the adult version of Truss's treatise on punctuation, you will probably enjoy the humor offered here.
AUTHORS WITH A
Philip Ardaagh: The Eddie Dickens Trilogy is one of the funniest series I have ever read. Imaghine The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket set in Dickensian times with much more outrageous humor. (gr. 3-7)
Avi: Who Was that Masked Man Anyway?(gr. 5-8) and Poppy series (gr3-6) and The Man Who Was Poe (gr 4-7) and Perloo, the Bold (gr. 4-6) and many more mark the talents of Avi. The subject matter is about as diverse as anything you could possibly imagine from fantasy to animal stories to historical fiction to serious realistic fiction and short stories. Amazingly, I have yet to read an Avi book that I did not enjoy.
Sharon Creech: Walk Two Moons and Chasing Redbird and Love That Dog and Hate That Cat (all gr. 4-7) come from an author who was once considered to be writing for girls because so many of her titles were focused on young women, but with Love That Dog she not only wrote in verse, she turned to a male protagonist. Now boys are discovering the “girl” books and finding that a good story is a good story no matter who is the main character.
Christopher Paul Curtis: The Watson’s Go to
Edward Eager: Half Magic (gr. 2-5) and the others in this series began my passion for fantasy as a youngster. To this day, you can’t beat these friendly stories of four children and their summer adventures, though the books of
Nancy Farmer: The
Cornelia Funke: Inkheart (gr. 4-7) is the first in one of the most popular trilogies today. The concept of someone reading so well that characters come out of the books leads to very exciting fantasy. Funke has many popular fantasy novels that put her in a league of popularity with J. K. Rowling.
Neil Gaiman: Coraline (gr. 4-7; also in graphic) is an amazing dark fantasy of family that was recently made into a movie. The Graveyard Book (gr. 5-8) is an odd, dark book that won the Newbery Award this year. The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (gr. 2-5) are very unique and appealing picture books that some younger children may find a bit frightening but older readers will enjoy. Gaiman also writes fantasy for adults.
Margaret Haddix Peterson becomes more popular with each new publication. I have liked her Just Ella (gr. 4-6) retelling of Cinderella for a long time, preferring it to Levinie’s Ella Enchanted. Then I read Turn About (gr. 5-8), attracted by its odd cover. This is a story of people who are aging backwards and now must find someone to care for them in their increasingly younger ages. (Imagine a 15 year old come to you and saying "I am your great-great grandmother, please take care of me as a baby." Yes, it does have shades of Benjamin Button.) The Among the Hidden (gr. 4-7) series is amazingly popular, with good reason. Running out of Time (gr. 5-7) offers a unique twist to the idea of time travel. Uprising (gr. 6-8) views the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire through the eyes of three different young women and is the only one in this series without a bit of fantasy, just solid historical research in novel format. Found (gr. 4-7) is the first of a new series that features adopted children who are mysteriously forced together and then to embark on travels back in time.
Karen Hesse experiments freely with different forms of writing. My two favorites are written in free verse that easily becomes a gripping story. Out of the Dust is set during the Dust Bowl. Witness features the voices of residents of a small
Eva Ibbotson reminds me of Roald Dahl in many of her fantasy books because of their empowerment of children, sometimes at the expense of the adults. This is especially true in Island of the Aunts (gr. 3-5) which features unlikable parents plus a menagerie of mythical creatures. Which Witch? (gr. 3-6) is a classic battle for superiority, this time amongst some rather inept witches. The Secret of Platform 13 (gr. 3-6) may remind some of Harry Potter because it features a special gate in the train station that leads to a magical world. Journey to the
Richard Jennings has a very twisted sense of humor that he expresses through some wild ideas. Orwell’s Luck (gr.4-7) features a lucky rabbit and a wise girl who knows how to use that magic.
Alan Katz now has several books of Silly Songs that are parodies of familiar folk tunes. These would be perfect to take on a long drive to be enjoyed by the entire family.
Dick King-Smith is the former pig farmer who introduced the world to Babe, the Gallant Pig. Three of his many titles for readers who are just beginning at read chapter books (gr. 2-4) are Lady Lollipop about a princess who gets a good education in manners from a pig, Titus Rules about the queen of England’s pet dogs, and George Speaks about a boy who is born with the ability to speak.
Gordon Korman began writing books when he was a teen-ager and he just keeps turning them out. His first stories, based on his experiences in a bordering school, are both realistic and hilarious. Look for any of his MacDonald Hall books (gr. 4-7) for a good laugh. No More Dead Dogs (gr. 5-8) and Schooled (gr. 5-8) both offer new ideas about the old favorite topic of school.
Amy Goldman Koss really knows pre-teen and teen-age girls. My favorite is The Girls (gr. 5-8) which uses the voices of several girls to show the impact that a clique can have on all of its members, including those they push to power and those they push out. If you know a girl who is having some issues with friendships, this may be the perfect read. Then read other books by Koss that deal with similar issues with equal skill.
Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series (gr. 4-7) is very similar to Harry Potter and some people believe it is even more exciting.
Mary Pope Osborne keeps turning out Magic Tree House books (gr. 1-4). The readers of these fantasies are so fond of them that they often simply call them “Jack and Annie” books. Along with the fiction stories Osborne has written many non-fiction books that accompany the stories.
John Scieszka offers a crazier version of magical time travel in The Time Warp Trio series which features three goofy boys and a book that allows them to travel to new times to learn a little history and make a lot of truly awful jokes. You will also want to take a look at his many crazy picture books like The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and my personal favorite Baloney (Henry P.) If you are thinking about science or math this summer, take time to laugh at those often serious subjects with Science Verse and The Math Curse.
Wendelin Van Draanen has a series for girls in grades 4 to 7 about Sammy Keyes who solves mysteries without losing her young energy. Shredderman (gr. 2-5) will appeal to younger brothers as he is a younger, goofy brother who solves problems in his own way, often using modern technology. Runaway (gr. 5-8) was inspired by a character that Sammy Keyes meets, a girl who has run away from home. This book is that runaway’s journal writings as she tries to find her way. I found it moving and realistic.
Picture books are always good for all ages. The nice thing about them is that you can get a good idea of whether or not you like the book by flipping through it to enjoy the pictures and get a sense of the story. Look at the amazing selection that Nicola has and pick for yourself. Their children's book shopper has a wealth of good suggestions for all levels of reading from the simplest board books to sophisticated young adult novels.
Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel is an alphabet book with a twist. Kitty gets upset when offered new food and turns into a crazy beast out to destroy everything in sight. All turns out well when new food arrives, but not before Bad Kitty takes a bite out of the book itself. The sequel is an easy chapter book (gr. 2-4) called Bad Kitty Gets a Bath.
Stuck in the Mud by Jane Clark seems like a familiar tale of critters rushing to help a young chick who is stuck in the mud, but this one has a clever twist at the end.
Olivia by Ian Falconer is destined to be a classic that will be read for generations to come. It is hard to resist this spunky little pig with a taste for exaggeration and flights of imagination. If you haven't met Olivia yet, you are in for a treat.
A Book by Mordecai Gerstein introduces you to the character in a book who can't decide what kind of book she wants to be. This crazy little story does an excellent job of explaining genres without being preachy. I have great plans for using it with classes of all ages next year.
Turtle’s Penguin Day by Valeri Gorbachev won my admiration when the teacher in the story runs with the topic that has inspired Turtle. He comes to class in a homemade penguin outfit and teacher lets him get the entire class imagining life as a penguin. The illustrations add to the humor.
Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek : A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing the Forgotten Frontier Friend) by Deborah Hopikinson is a tall tale based on scant historical hints of an adventure that Abe Lincoln had with a childhood friend.
Tacky Goes to Camp by Helen Lester is the latest about Tacky, the penguin, and perfect for summer when you might be planning a camping trip yourself. Tacky has a different approach to camping than his very neat, good, perfect friends. Thank goodness he does because his oddity is once again what saves the day.
Monkey with a Tool Belt by Chris Monroe can fix anything with the huge array of tools in his belt. The humor is in no small part the naming of all of these tools. The adventure comes when he has to save himself from a tricky situation. The sequel Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Noisy Problem offers new tools and new problems to solve.
Fancy Nancy’s Favorite Fancy Words From Accessories to Zany by Jane O’Connor is a pink an glttery alphabet books of words appropriate to explain Fancy Nancy's lifestyle and the many things she loves. I am a big fan of alphabet books and this one is unique and often inspired.
Little Oink and Little Pea and Little Hoot and Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal are clever little books that mark the differences between human cultures and those of other things while showing how we are all alike. Yes, we are even like a spoon because we may be envious of the human equivalent of knives, forks, and chopsticks. Even the older students search these books out in the library and laugh at the absurdity and the familiarity of the stories.
Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton features one of the most appealing cats in children's literature. Splat is naive, sweet, shy, and a great ball of fluff. The story has some surprising twists that mirror things that might happen at human school. Scotton also creates greeting cards, posters, and other art which is quite popular in
Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems has a moral, good illustrations, and the appeal that comes with everything Willems does. In this story, there is one mole rat who does not want to be naked. He likes dressing for every occasion. The others are shocked at his behavior and take him before the wisest old mole rat who makes a very wise decree that surprises and pleases everyone. It is hard to beat anything that Willems has done with his picture books or his new early readers.
GRAPHIC WORKS FOR GRADES K-8
Graphic is the way to go these days as the graphic works move beyond comic books and manga. There are now non-fiction as well as fiction works that feature both high quality art and a good story. Here are a few that I enjoy.
Phonics Comics series by various authors is perfect for the beginning reader (gr. k-2). The pictures and the stories are both quirky and interesting. The illustrations help with comprehension and make the story more appealing to most young readers.
Baby Mouse by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (grs. 1-4) has a series of stories that include many worries of elementary school girls plus a solid dose of imagination and humor. My biggest complaint is that they have too much pink. When I can get a boy to read them, he is usually caught by the stories, but the pink is a real turn-off for a lot of boys. The girls love them.
To Dance by
Bone by Jeff Smith (gr. 4 -7) is growing to a large series about an odd little creature and his many adventures. I have seen more than a few boys discover the joy of reading through these books and move on to be voracious readers of all genres.
Jellaby by Kean Soo (gr. 3-7) had people waiting on the edge of their seats until book two came out just a few weeks ago. It is a tender story of a young girl who befriends a lonely creature. Together they set off to find their family histories with plenty of adventure along the way.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan (gr. 5 to adult) is one of the most beautiful books I have ever encountered. With no pictures, it tells the story of a person emmigrating to a new, unfamiliar land. The seventh grade used this book for their immigration unit this year and created some amazing things based on what they found in the book. It is the kind of book that will bring some new understanding with every reading. Tan's latest work is a collection of short stories called Tales from Outer Suburbia.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (gr 6 and up) mixes realistic fiction with fantasy to look inside the mind and life of a Chinese boy trying to come to an understanding and acceptance of having to juggle two cultures. This book has won many well-deserved awards.