While gender doesn’t determine if a book is great or not, it does help if children can identify with some of the characters in the stories. This is especially true for reluctant readers. The books in this particular category are noted for the predominance of boys as main characters.
Theme: Freedom and Slavery
Best for: 12 and up
“I’d started with ten fish and now I was down to six, and even though I ain’t particular worthy at my schooling, it’d take a whole lot of doggone humbug algebra and trickaration geometry to make ten percent of ten come out to four.” In this skillfully written historical fiction children’s book, we see the world through the eyes of a freeborn child, whose parents had been slaves.
Best for: 9 to 12
“It is better to light a lantern than to bemoan the darkness,” Madame Change said softly to herself, as if in a dream. “Can’t we light more lanterns, then?” Peiyi said eagerly, “to make up for the light of the moon?” In another lovely children’s book, Grace Lin deftly weaves a dramatic story of forgiveness around the retelling of classic Chinese tales.
Published: 2012, 2014
Theme: Fantasy Exploring
Best for: 12 and up
“We Explorers have always been redrawing the maps. That map was no less correct when it was made than the ones made by Ortelius or Mercator. A map of the world isn’t a fixed thing. We know only what we can see.” This series is superb. The adventures, the dangers, the daring, the unstated metaphors to today’s warped political world, are both disturbing and important…
Theme: Good vs Evil
Best for: ages 10 and up
“As if reading her mind, a large porpoise rose straight up, using its powerful tail to lift its head well clear of the water, dancing on the churning water. It looked at Molly, grinning, and said, “Hello.” ” An action packed pirate story, with lots of fights, heroes, and drama, this is a magical prequel to Peter Pan…
Theme: Native American lifestyle
Best for: 9 and up classrooms
“I believe that in many instances where the white settlers had trouble with the Indians it all started because the Indians were just curious to know what in the world the white settlers were doing, and not be because they …even knew they were doing any damage.” This nonfiction children’s book is simple and informative, giving a full and loving picture of a culture that tragically has disappeared.
Best for: 9 to 12
“The children took off, hurrying away from the castle. Down, down along the twisting cobbled street, weaving through pedestrians, crossing tiled plazas, down and down to where the street grew still more narrow and began to branch off into…alleyways.” Think James Bond, non-stop action, fights, captures, escapes, but no one getting killed, and you have a bird’s eye view of this adventure.
Theme: Destiny and Inner Power
Best for: 9 and up
“Maybe destiny isn’t something that just happens. Maybe destiny is something you do. Maybe destiny is like a seed and it grows. I wasn’t powerless.” This excellent children’s book offers a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, focusing on the theme of destiny and magic, and how to understand inner power.
Theme: Friendship, First Chapter Book
Best for: 5 to 8
“Under the kitchen sink, where the beetles live, there is an art studio just for Marvin. James gives him paper and ink. He can draw and draw. Marvin loves making pictures. But today he just doesn’t feel like it.” This children’s book succeeds on several counts – imagination (the world as seen by beetles), clear simple writing, and a single message: friendship.
Theme: Coming of Age
Best for: Boys 11-12
“San Ysidro is the patron saint of our village of Los Cordovas…He keeps an eye out special for Los Cordovas…For as long as I can remember, there have been no complaints about how San Ysidro has handled things for our village.” Miguel is twelve years old, a middle child in a large family of shepherds who have lived on the New Mexico lands for hundreds of years. Somehow he has a way of muddling everything he tries to communicate…
Theme: Divorce, Compassion
Best for: Boys, 10 and up
“Who wants to be friends with someone who scowls all the time? asked Mr. Fridley. “So you’ve got problems. Well, so has everyone see, if you take the trouble to notice.” This book takes us on a journey with a young boy and his feelings towards his estranged dad. The entire story is …
Theme: Historical Fiction
Best for: ages 10 and up
“The troops from Andover appeared in there dashing red uniforms, every button shining, leather gleaming…The church bells chimed. Then a great shout went up. For there was President Washington – a tall, commanding man, riding horseback to enter the town.” Here’s a children’s book that is so informative, it’s a little hard not to compare it to a dull textbook that might teach the same subject. The subject matter is navigation, discoveries, and life at the time of the American Revolution.
Theme: Courage, Immigrants
Best for: 12 and up (PG)
“How much he missed Rachel. Would he be able to hold out long enough for the revolution? Would he survive? Would he ever devote endless hours to practicing a Brahms concerto? Would he ever play games with his sister again?” Here is a painfully beautiful and difficult children’s book that I must recommend particularly because I want my son and grandson to read it…
Best for: 9 – 12
“Cat laughed again. In case you hadn’t noticed, she laughs a lot. That’s one of the things I like about her. …And she doesn’t judge people all the time. Cat figures that if someone is always cranky like Grandma Melvyn, it’s just who they are. It doesn’t mean they are a bad person.” Drum roll. Lights. Ta-Da! Applause, as Robbie himself would say in this immensely likeable, creative, and somewhat wacky children’s book. I love it…
Theme: Courage, Destiny
Best for: ages 8 and up
“Mattias cut a comical little figure as he wobbled his way along the cloisters, with his large sandals flip-flopping, and his tail peeping from beneath the baggy folds of an oversized novice’s habit. He paused to gaze upwards and tripped over the enormous sandals.” I have to admit I was hooked on this children’s book with the opening lines even before I realized this was a book about mice and small animals. One of the amazing features of this fantasy children’s book is that it is so real…
Theme: Friendship, Courage
Best for: ages 11 and up
“He was angry, too, because it would soon be Christmas and he had nothing to give Leslie. It was not that she would expect something expensive; it was that he needed to give her something as much as he needed to eat when he was hungry.” When I put this children’s book down, my shirt was dampened with teardrops, and I couldn’t do anything but sit quietly for a while. I felt like I had just lost my best friend, as Jess had. The impact was astounding…
Theme: Loyalty and Courage
Best for: Boys 6 and up
“He had promised Joseph he’d protect him. But he didn’t. They were best friends. Best friends were supposed to stick together. Even if it meant being called names…Even if it ruined the sport you loved more than anything in the world. Even then.” This first chapter book delighted me from beginning to end. It places the dilemma of friendship front and center…
Theme: Expressing Emotions
Best for: ages 10 and up
“The chair in my room
is like a pleasingly plump momma,
big and squishy,
with stuffing poking out.”
This book is not like any other. For one thing, it is a novel, written all in verse, that deals with a boy’s sadness over the loss of his dog…
Best for: ages 9 and up
“In what way was attacking a peaceful neighboring country heroic? He degraded Erick’s men for being thieves even as he planned to steal all of Carthya from me. My fingers itched to pick up my knife and start the fight.” I love heroic characters. I don’t have much tolerance for fighting. Somehow they always seem to go together. Yet in The Runaway King, the fighting seems to be somewhat tolerable, especially because the good guy always wins…
Theme: Respecting Differences
Best for: ages 10-12
“He used to live up on Hessian Hill, Onion John did, in a house he built out of piled up stone and four bathtubs and no running water. Once a month he’d get up in the middle of the night, according to the way the moon was, to cook up a stew…It was a stew to get gold out of the moon…” I read this children’s book with some trepidation, turning each page expecting something bad to happen. Yet, in fact, it turned out to be a rather heartwarming turn of events that I enjoyed…
Best for: ages 9 and up
“Your mind knows that you are going to Songdo. But you must not tell your body. It must think one hill, one valley, one day at a time. In that way, your spirit will not grow weary before you have even begun to way.” In this lovely, art-inspired children’s book about a potter and his apprentice, the feeling of the way of the ancients comes through loud and strong. The image of the apprentice who serves the master potter for the love of the art is…
Theme: The Power of Kindness
Best for: Boys age 9 and older
“As with all good magic, there is a bit of skill involved, so proceed with caution, particularly right at first. And above all, use discretion. Remember, there must be absolutely no public notice.” Who would imagine that doing good deeds, without really planning them, could have terrific results? This imaginative children’s book has a subtle way of bring the interconnectedness of life to children, without ever saying so.
Theme: Finding One’s Path
Best for: 11 and over
“Gwydion caught Taran’s look of disappointment. “It is not the trappings that make the prince,” he said gently, “nor, indeed, the sword that makes the warrior…” Lloyd Alexander’s children’s book series on his invented land of Prydain undoubtedly has an enormous following. Fantasy books tend to create a real cult if they are good, and there is no question that this series is good…
Theme: Overcoming Fear
Best for: 8 and older
“Mafatu lay there under his lean-to, relaxed in every nerve. He had fire, food, shelter. He had faced Moana, the Sea God…There was a new-found confidence in his heart. He had found a new belief in himself.” This tale is told as if on one long breath, an exhalation that ends in exultation. There is not a moment where you can rest until the tale is told, which of course, is what makes a great tale, and a great children’s book.
Theme: Caring for the Planet
Best for: 9 and up
“His mind was full of clouds in space, huge explosions, and the millions of years it took to make a star. These thoughts took him far, far across the Universe–“ What a wonderful discovery this children’s book is, in so many ways. As a work of fiction, it makes great reading, with plenty of humor and drama all the way through. However, add to that the scientific accuracy of the genius of Stephen Hawking and…
Theme: Compassion for all creation
Best for: good readers over age 10
“The Wart did not know what Merlyn was talking about but he liked him to talk. He did not like the grown-ups who talk to him like a baby, but the ones who just went on talking in their usual way, leaving him to leap along in their wake, jumping at meanings, guessing, clutching at known words, and chuckling at complicated jokes as they suddenly dawned.”
Theme: Compassion, Friendship
Best for: Boys age 10 and up
“You know, it wasn’t so much about being in the wheelchair that I learned about, but how people reacted to me being in the chair. People treat you different. They act like you’re…you’re…” “Stupid!” David snapped.” What a courageous book for someone to write. And what a perfect book for middle school boys. The author is a middle school teacher, and clearly knows the issues boys are up against…
Theme: The Grass is always greener…
Best for: 5th or 6th grade
“What was he looking for, a prince in fine velvets and a crown cocked on his head? Was it clothes that made a prince, Jemmy wondered, just as rags made a street boy?” What a great children’s book this is! I first heard of it last year when the fifth grade class in my Waldorf Charter school was reading it. A superb example of writing with humor, and capturing an era of the past…
Best for: 6 to 9
“King Arthur covered his eyes with his hands. Sometimes in those early days he wondered what it would take to prove to his knights that courtesy was as important as courage.” In this series, Morris takes some of the same King Arthur legends, but reworks them for a younger audience. Children could read this book cover to cover, and enjoy both the writing and the message.
Theme: Chinese Immigrant experience
Best for: 12 and over
“All of a sudden I saw that if life seems awfully petty most of the time, every now and then there is something noble and beautiful and almost pure that lifts us suddenly out of the pettiness and lets us share in it a little.” This beautifully written and sensitive book covers the experience of the Chinese immigrants in the 1900s in San Francisco.
Theme: Life in the Future
Best for: 2nd grade boys
The series of six children’s books in Galaxy Zack are brand new, and intrigued me at first glance because the writing seemed accessible to early readers, especially boys…