A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.
— C. S. Lewis
One of the great benefits of youth fiction is that, when written well, and so many are, any adult can pick a book up, read it and find deep joy in stories that are engaging and delightful. Yes, the characters are almost always ten, eleven and twelve year olds, but the stories often delve into the deep themes of life that touch the human heart. They are well told and leave behind the hubris and unnecessary sensuality of young adult fiction. They are a joy to read aloud to our children as child and adult alike can be drawn into the sometimes fantastical, sometimes heart wrenchingly realistic plots that unfold in so many of the books written for youth.
I remember finding myself unable to continue a chapter near the end of Okay for Now that I had been reading aloud to my kids as I fought back tears. Other books have had me laughing out loud or raging with anger at injustice or simply smiling with joy at the kindness of a character. These books, written for young children, are often some of the best I’ve read. Yes, they can lack the depth of plot of the classics and the sentence structure is usually not as complex as adult fiction, but they are more often than not, just as good.
This is the reason when we review books in this genre we always place the age as: 8, 10, or 12 – 99, though I suppose centenarians can enjoy them as well.
A good place to find these books – aside from our top ten lists – is the John Newbery Medal books. Each year since 1922 they have awarded one winner and any number of Newbery Honor awards to books in the children’s literature genre. You can find the whole list of Newbery winners and honor books here: Newbery Medal
by Aaron G Myers
There is something in a good book that carries the reader away on a journey into goodness, truth and beauty, that leads out into an unknown and imaginative land where anything perhaps is possible. Sometimes this is fiction, the lie that tells the truth, after all as Neil Gaiman says. Sometimes however it’s autobiography mixed with remembrances that may or may not be fiction so long ago was the memory from the writer.
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of those stories that our family has enjoyed twice in the last ten years, narrated wonderfully to us through the voice of Cherry Jones. The audiobook has twice carried us south to Kansas from South Dakota, to visit family, usually as the cold of winter sets in around Christmas time. Mrs. Wilder’s stories are always painted in the hues of Michael Landon’s television series, robbing our own imagination of creating the pictures, the faces and the landscape of the series. But we don’t worry about that too much. The TV series did the stories well.
The Long Winter is just as the title describes. The length and intensity of the winter is solemnly prophesied by both a muskrat and a stoic native American right at the outset and neither were wrong. The first blizzard storms across Dakota Territory in October and the snow doesn’t melt until May. Everything in between is snow and wind and blizzard and a desperate struggle to survive. It’s a mesmerizing story, surprisingly captivating seeing as how much of the story is trapped by snow inside the Ingalls home. But there is something in it that captures the imagination, that draws the reader into a time and place, something about the experience of winter that slows a person down and causes one to take stock.
Winter is that way, isn’t it? Or at least it could be if only we’d lean in, shut off the TV and listen. The short days and cold weather drive us inside to books and to reflection. Annie Dillard put it this way: “It’s winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.”
The Long Winter is an excellent choice of book to read in the cold of winter. As the days grow shorter and then miraculously, slowly begin to lengthen again even as the temperatures drop, it’s a book that will help you slow down, take stock, and find the blessings of the year that has passed even as you begin to dream about the one that lies ahead.
by Aaron G Myers
When their Uncle Jim dies, leaving Becky, Dick, Phil and Joan Linville orphans, the only thing they have left is the land in Dakota Territory their uncle had claimed and his written instructions to lead them. Leaving their town in the east, the siblings, guided by Becky’s mothering instincts and Dick’s growing strength, set off to “prove” the land by living on it and improving it for fourteen months. When they arrive in Tripp County and to the home their uncle has left them, they are enamored by the beauty of the prairie. Things go well at first as they set to planting a garden, making a home in the barn and getting to know their neighbors. Soon however challenges begin to mount up. Another family who has also laid claim to their land, squatting in a makeshift shack, begins to make trouble for the young settlers. A desperate drought sets in, destroying their crops and much of the food they had hoped to put up for winter. Life becomes a struggle to survive but with a little luck, a lot of determination and the kindness of neighbors, the Linvilles not only survive, they begin to thrive.
If you like the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ll love this book. Written three years before the first Little House story, The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely is an adventurous and touching story of determination, grit and the kindness of good neighbors. The children are likable and refreshing as they mature and grow. The struggles they face – mean spirited and cruel squatters, the stone cold harshness of prairie weather and their own assailing doubts – ring true to the real life biographies of those early settlers making this a masterfully written piece of historic fiction. The story will leave you rooting for the Linville kids and hoping they will succeed. The Jumping-Off Place is a great piece of historic fiction set in the last days of the settling of the prairie in the early 1900’s.
- Ages: 12 – 99
- Awards: Newbery Honor Book (1930)
- Pages: 319
- Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
By Aaron G. Myers
Nan Sparrow is young, covered in soot and an orphan. She is a chimney sweep living in the Victorian London of the late 1800’s and five years ago her beloved benefactor simply known as the Sweep left, leaving her with but one gift, a small lump of coal. With no one else to care for her, she finds herself working for a heartless chimney sweep overlord named Wilkie Crudd who regularly sends young children down dangerous chimneys. Through hard work, cunning and a little luck, Nan escapes one tight spot after another. But then one day, as she is cleaning the chimneys at Miss Mayhew’s Seminary for Young Ladies, Nan gets caught in a chimney fire and her luck runs out. In a fantastic miracle, her small lump of coal mysteriously transforms into an ash and coal monster who has carried her away to safety. For the rest of the story, Nan and her monster who she calls Charlie make a way for themselves in this cruel world, protecting one another and helping other sweeps along the way.
A Dickensian tale of adventure, fantasy and history, Sweep by Jonathan Auxier is a wonderful story of friendship, compassion and courage. Auxier is masterful at creating characters rich with personality that readers will immediately grow to love. The story itself is a mixture of historic fiction and fantasy and I thoroughly enjoyed the plot as it climbed to its climax. The description of the people and places of late 19th century Victorian London are masterful. One reviewer wrote that the story was, “at once both magical and moralizing, hopeful and heartbreaking.” I couldn’t agree more. Sweep by Jonathan Auxier is a great book that I’ll be reading again soon.
- Ages: 8 – 99
- Awards: 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award
- Pages: 344
- Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
by Aaron G. Myers
When a traveling circus goes under and is set to sell all of its possessions, including a large Asian elephant, a local gang leader sends in a young, mute street urchin under his power to scope out the hoard in search of clues to a rumored treasure that the past owner has hidden. For the boy, later named Danny, a chaotic turn of events leads him to the zoo keeper Mr. Jamison. Danny helps Jamison buy Maharajah the majestic elephant and discovers he has a bond with the animal. From there the story careens forward, Danny and Maharajah at the center of mystery, adventure and a race from Scotland toward England, all under the pressure of Mr. Jamison’s quest for publicity, a rival zoo keeper’s ploys to slow the journey down and Danny’s past. It is a topsy-turvy journey and will keep readers on the edge of their seats.
The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr is a wonderfully written historical fiction based on the very real Asian elephant, Maharajah, and its 200 mile walk to the Belle Vue Zoo after he refused to board a train. While the original trek seems to have been rather devoid of the adventure that Kerr brings to her story, it is still a fun fact of history and, if you are ever in Manchester, England you can see the skeleton of this great elephant, preserved since it’s death at the age of eighteen in 1890.
As to the story itself, Kerr does a masterful job of adding adventure, mystery and great character development to the uneventful walk. The adventure is fast paced and exciting and throughout the journey the mystery of where the hidden treasure lies continues to surface. The character of Danny is wonderfully developed and the other characters are realistic and fun. All in all The Elephant Thief is a race through the English countryside even as it is a race against time and bad characters with nefarious intent. Our family each found ourselves racing through the story as it was hard to put down. We enjoyed it immensely and we think you will too.
- Ages: 8 – 99
- Awards: None
- Pages: 325
- Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
By Aaron G Myers