I love NPR's Top 100 Ultimate Backseat Books for tweens. I also love that the responses to the list are so passionate and insightful (don't skip the comments!). It's a wonderful feeling when books and reading generate animated dialogue.
I do sympathize with one commenter who said she wished reviewers would fill in more detail, especially when it comes to age appropriateness. The NPR lists spans a Grand Canyon of development—ages 9 to 14. (They generated a separate book list for teens, which I blogged about last year.)
In my sixth grade class, I navigate a tremendous, tumultuous gap in maturity among 11 years olds—let alone between 9 and 14. That's the nature of the tween beast.
When selecting reading material for my FREADom classroom library, I carefully assess issues with language, violence, death, religion, and more on a case by case basis. Adults in a child's life need to be aware of what children are reading, and that's part of my mission.
That said, my number one goal is to put good books in the hands and minds of tweens. So, I decided to narrow down the list and recommend one or two books in each category that I have personally read and that are suitable for ages 10 to 12.5—my sweet spot. I went for variety, including books that appeal to both boys and girls and, in some cases, that I know to be incredibly popular with my tween crowd.
Choosing wasn't easy (all of the books are worthy), but here's what rose to the top.
AMERICAN STORIES (12 picks)
Of NPR's choices, I would move Newbery honor winner A Long Way from Chicago, by Richard Peck to the top of my list, along with the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.
So, why not To Kill a Mockingbird? This book is one of my all-time favorites. I even nicknamed my niece Scout, after the narrator. Plenty of my sixth graders have read the novel on their own and loved it, but they are strong students who read with ease. They enjoyed and understood the introspective look at society.
A Long Way from Chicago, in contrast, is just plain, clean fun (with a little outhouse humor to appease that crowd). I often read aloud the chapter, Shotgun Cheatham's Last Night Above Ground 1929 (especially around Halloween). Richard Peck is a terrific storyteller and hooks a wide pool of readers. You can't go wrong here.
Many tween girls have loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Young Francie lives in brutal poverty, where every penny makes a difference. She is a very strong character, and you become immersed in turn-of-the-century life in New York, as seen through her eyes. This story sticks with you for years.
I note that in the comments section of the NPR post, a reviewer on the panel wanted to place this book on the teen list but didn't succeed, so she pushed for it on the tween list. It's definitely on the upper tween edge—not for 9-10 year olds. I think adults should be aware of the harsh parts and judge the reader's maturity and readiness to deal with these issues:
- Dad, though a loving father, is often absent and drunk.
- Francie is nearly raped in a dark stairwell.
- Francie's aunt leans toward promiscuity.
ANIMALS (13 picks)
It's hard to go wrong with an animal story in this age group. My FREADom library has a shelf devoted to this category.
I do find Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, by Robert C. O'Brien, to be a terrific story of bravery and ingenuity in overcoming challenges. There's plenty of action and suspense.
But, at the top of my list would be Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. Like Brooklyn, it's a stick-to-your-ribs classic with an honest, hard-working, independent hero, Billy, as a great role model. Be warned: keep a box of tissues handy. This dog story has a tough ending, as Billy loses both of his beloved pets.
BIOGRAPHY, MEMOIR, HISTORY (4 picks)
Whew —only 4 choices! That's surprising.
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, is an important work. Since 1989, when I began teaching, tweens have been fascinated with and drawn to all things World War II, including this true story of a Jewish teenager hiding in an attic from the Nazis.
Keep in mind, Anne is a tween speaking to her diary. She never thought her words would be published, much less turn into a global bestseller. She is brutally honest about life, her situation, the people she lives with, and her own body. This last fact generated quite a debate in my hometown of Northville last spring, as reported in the local news. The Washington Post wrote about a similar controversy in Virginia a few years ago.
Much less controversial and a good read is Russell Freedman's biography Eleanor Roosevelt, which is my other tween pick for this category. As I've said before, Freedman is one of my go-to authors for history.
EVERYDAY MAGIC (8 picks)
The terrific Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, deals with a classic theme: Should people live forever? And I cannot resist a good Roald Dahl story, like James and the Giant Peach!
But, my two picks are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, which is one of my can't-miss titles for speed dating.
Harry Potter has been controversial over the years (witchcraft seems to bring out the fight in people), but there's no denying the popularity with tweens and the fanatic staying power of the franchise since its debut publication in 1997.
The Graveyard Book has a dark beginning. The opening is violent, though not graphic. The man, Jack, murders an entire family with a knife—except for a toddler who wonders down the street and happens into a cemetery. From there, the story takes us through the life of Nobody, the young toddler fostered by the ghostly residents of the cemetery.
FAMILY LIFE (10 picks)
Right from the get-go, Walk Two Moons, the touching story of how 13-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle came to terms with her mother's disappearance, hooked me on author Sharon Creech.
But, my top pick in this category has to be The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis. Like Richard Peck, Curtis can spin a yarn that ensnares you from the start. Chapter 1: And You Wonder Why We Get Called the Weird Watsons is one of my favorite classroom read-alouds. The opening is a side splitter, and my students and I are breathless with laughter in a matter of minutes.
After this raucous anecdote of life in a Flint, Michigan winter, the book shifts into an emotional ride through a horrific event in history, seen through Kenny's eyes. He experiences, first hand, the horror of the Birmingham Sunday church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that took place 50 years ago.
FANTASY WORLDS (12 picks)
A favorite book from my childhood (I read it in eighth or ninth grade) was J.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Since the Lord of the Ring movies came out, the book series has been a steady choice for my sixth-grade boys who are strong readers, but it doesn't appeal to everyone.
More broadly popular is the mystery, action, and adventure filled The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau, which is my top pick for this category. Once kids read this fascinating story of a dying city, they immediately pounce on the rest of the series. They relate well to the central characters of Lina and Doon, who use their newly appointed positions as messenger and pipeworker to uncover the secrets of Ember.
For students who are are delving into the dystopian genre, The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is a must! Young Jonas lives in a perfect world where people have given up individuality to conform to a society that runs like clockwork. Then, he comes of age and is chosen to receive the community's memories, exposing him to color and emotions for the first time. Soon, life does not seem so idyllic.
Some younger tweens (9 to 11) can find The Giver too dark, especially the moment when people are "released" from the community—a euphemism for execution. The big draw is that you can chew on this novel for months. After reading it, I didn't want to fully escape this world that Lowry has created, so I eagerly read the companion books: Gathering Blue, The Messenger, and Son.
FRIENDSHIP, FINDING YOUR PLACE (10 picks)
This category posed a challenge for me. The 10 selections are so varied that I found it hard to narrow the choice to two. I do recommend that tween girls read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume. Since its 1970 debut, this rite of passage book has been updated and, if moms are ready to have the puberty talk with their daughter, I suggest reading it as a mother-daughter team.
My top pick, Wonder, by R. J. Palacio, is a book that I thought would be in the running for the Newbery award. The poignant story, told from the point of view of several characters, is about August Pullman, a boy who is about to start fifth grade after being home-schooled. That's not such a tough or uncommon experience, except that Auggie was born with a severe facial deformity. Readers will laugh and cry right along with Auggie as he discovers who his real friends are.
Two other stories that rise to the top are The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli.
GOOD FOR A LAUGH (4 picks)
Humor is important to kids. In the sixth-grade microculture, it's often more important to be funny than smart! So, only four picks in this category surprises me.
Matilda, by Roald Dahl, is a story of revenge and the weak overcoming the strong (as so many of Dahl novels are). A highly intelligent five-year-old, Matilda can play a practical joke on her ignorant parents like no other. But, her crowning glory comes when she defends her beloved teacher, Miss Honey, against the tyrannical headmaster, Miss Trunchbull.
In a Dahl novel, you can always expect evil people to be treated harshly and kids cheer the hero on all the way.
What's not to like about the Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster! This amazing story of young Milo's fantasy journey of self-discovery is full of surprises and clever word play. I recently purchased the 50th anniversary edition to add to my library. If your child has a strong sense of vocabulary and language, this book is sure to be a hit.
GRAPHIC NOVELS (3 picks)
I am still trying to develop a taste for this genre. I did read American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang this summer. I very much enjoyed this coming of age, self discovery story of three almost non sequitur characters (at first): the Monkey King, Jin Wang (Asian-American middle school student), and Danny (an all-American teen).
The author does a great job of tying the plots together, but I twinged at some mild sexual references and bullying that lean me toward recommending it for seventh grade and above. On the other hand, I do think it would be a good stepping off point for learning terrific Chinese folklore. (Gene Yang has a wonderful website on the Monkey King, but I wasn't able to link to it directly.)
Though I have not read the series Bone, by Jeff Smith, I can attest to its huge popularity among my sixth graders. There is always a waiting list for the books in my classroom.
MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS (6 picks)
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, has an intricately woven plot with a touch of science fiction. This complexity can challenge some tween readers, but when they stick with it, they are rewarded when all the pieces come together in a satisfying "Aha!" moment—the crux of a good mystery.
Miranda is a sixth grader whose world changes when her best friend won't have anything to do with her. She has other worries, too—like the fact that she is receiving mysterious notes and has to help her mother practice for an appearance on a game show, with the chance to win much needed cash. After reading When You Reach Me, several students became interested in the classic A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle, which is featured in the novel.
The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, first published in 1966, has stood the test of time. In a secret spot behind an antique store owned by a creepy "professor," six kids create an ancient Egyptian game world. In the midst of this activity hovers the shadow of murder.
As the Egypt game evolves and grows, some strange and unexplainable things begin to happen. When danger, in the form of the murderer, invades the secret world, things get pretty exciting. Snyder followed this novel with The Gypsy Game in 1997.
MYTHS AND FAIRY TALES (8 picks)
If the success of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, by Rick Riordan, is any indication, mythology and folklore are hugely popular! The gods show up everywhere—in movies, television series, and video games.
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire has long been a mainstay in my classroom library. It is beautifully illustrated, clearly lays out the complicated world of the Greek gods, and is a great introduction to Greek mythology.
Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine, is a fun twist on the Cinderella story. Ella is a strong and likable character who takes matters into her own hands, with plenty of humor and adventure.
POETRY (1 pick)
Surprisingly, only one pick: Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. It is a free verse novel, in the style of the terrific Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech, and Out of the Dust and Witness, both by Karen Hesse.
I loved Lai's book, and when I introduced it to my class, at least 10 of my students (all girls) jumped right on it. They enjoyed it; the consensus was an 8 out of 10 on our classroom rating scale.
I think, with this book, it helps to have background knowledge of the Vietnam War, which is not a topic typically taught before high school.
I agree with one of the respondents to the NPR list that not including Shel Silverstein (or Langston Hughes, or Jane Yolen, or Marilyn Singer, or Brod Bagert...) is perhaps an oversight. (Marilyn Singer does this backward writing thing she calls "reverso poems" or "reversible verse" that is amazing! You can read it forward and backward—talk about language dexterity!)
SCIENCE FICTION (3 picks)
A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L'Engle turned 50 in 2010, and it has not only survived the test of time but also become the quintessential science fiction title for the tween group. I've found that Wrinkle seems to work best for the strong reader and at the upper edge of the tween group (12-14).
SURVIVAL, ADVENTURE (6 picks)
Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, is still hugely popular with tweens—especially fifth graders. Part of the reason is the aforementioned draw to all things World War II, but I also think it is well written for this age group. Kids easily connect to the 10-year-old protagonist, Annemarie.
As far as survival and adventure, though, you cannot go wrong with Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. I've used this novel in my classroom for many years and have often thought of switching it out for something else, but inevitably, I know that it will be HUGELY popular. No book is of unanimous appeal, but still, Hatchet's ability to inspire reluctant readers and engage good ones is magical.
Some students are bothered by a gruesome beginning; a pilot flying young Brian to see his father in the Canadian wilderness has a violent heart attack. I've also had parents express concern over the infidelity of Brian's mother. However, this book is the one time I seem to be able to get dads involved in reading with their sons. (Read-aloud expert Jim Trelease has a special message for dads).
The novel is incredibly realistic and gripping, but if you're looking for a calmer survival story, My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, is a solid choice.
So, there they are. My chiseled list for ages 10 to 12.5. What's on your list?