Age: 10 – 99

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

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Book Review: The Jumping-Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely

Synopsis

 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.

Review 

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

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By Aaron G. Myers

Book Review: Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Synopsis

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.  

Review 

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

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by Aaron G. Myers

Book Review: The Elephant Thief by Jane Kerr

Synopsis

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.  

Review 

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

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By Aaron G Myers

Youth Fiction: Our Top Ten Lists

As a family of readers, we’ve shared hundreds of books together and collectively read hundreds more. We have varied tastes and find ourselves sharing a love of some books but also find there are others we just can’t agree on. With today’s post we want to share our individual top ten favorite books in the youth fiction category. Our family defines youth fiction as books which feature young protagonists, usually between ages eight or nine and thirteen to fourteen. Themes may be intense but the content – language, violence, sexuality, etc are appropriate for kids that same age. If these books were rated they’d be rated G or PG.  Finally, we heartily agree with C.S. Lewis who said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” 

Books with a star following (*) indicate that it is part of a series.

Without further adieu then, here are each of our ten favorite books in the youth fiction category.

Aaron’s List

  1. Towers Falling by Jewel Parker Rhodes *
  2. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpoole
  3. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
  4. Refugee by Alan Gratz
  5. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Johnathan Auxier *
  6. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis *
  7. The Elephant Thief by Jan Kerr
  8. Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt
  9. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley *
  10.  The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau *

Consuelo’s List

  1. The Jumping Off Place by Marian Hurd McNeely
  2. Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
  3. Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpoole
  4. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
  5. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Mary Rose Wood * (audiobook suggested)
  6. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
  7. Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
  8. Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes
  9. The Bark of the Bog Owl by Johnathan Rodgers * (audiobook suggested)
  10. The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder * (audiobook suggested)

Malachi’s List

  1. Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt
  2. Redwall by Brian Jaques *
  3. The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson *
  4. The Moffats by Eleanor Estes *
  5. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  6. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling *
  7. All the Wrong Questions by Lemony Snicket *
  8. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket *
  9. Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit
  10. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George 

Sonora’s List

  1. Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt
  2. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery * 
  3. The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon *
  4. Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Spear
  5. Nowhere Boy by Catherine Marsh
  6. The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall *
  7. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart *
  8. The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley *
  9. Boy by Roald Dahl
  10. The Avion My Uncle Flew by Cyrus Fisher

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Who Are We?

Book Review: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

Synopsis

Twelve year old Deza Malone has a decent life in Gary, Indiana. Her mother and father love her. She has a great teacher who believes in her and a wonderful best friend in Clarice Anne Johnson. Her older brother Jimmie may be annoying but his singing voice is that of the angels. There is only one thing. It is 1936 and her family is dirt poor.  So poor in fact that her one pair of shoes are way too small and her decaying teeth are left untreated for lack of funds. Her decent life begins to fall apart when her father loses his job and finds that no one will hire a black man.  Her father decides to take to the road in search of a job. Shortly after that, her mother loses her job as a maid and together they make the decision to leave Gary and go in search of their father. The family travels north to Flint, Michigan, her father’s home town and ends up living in a hooverville on the outskirts of town because the family they had hoped to find in Flint were no longer there. They cannot find their father, Jimmie leaves to try his luck at making money with a band and the police raid the hooverville and burn their tent to the ground. By the end of the story, the family is reunited but it is not without tragedy, a deep look at the causes and effects of poverty and the kind of grit and determination that give a girl like Deza the nickname, the mighty miss Malone.

Review

While Curtis’ book Bud, Not Buddy is probably a better written story, there is something about the spunk, determination and hope of the Malone family that make The Mighty Miss Malone my favorite of all of his books. While the book stands as a sort of exposé on the ravages of poverty during the depression and the deep racism of the time that made it even harder on black families, Deza Malone is a masterful narrator who invites the reader to get to know the whole Malone family.  With twists in plot and a great attention to historic detail, the reader will be drawn into rooting for the Malone family to find their father and for the family to find its way back together again. While the plot occasionally wanders down interesting paths that don’t add a lot to it, the overall story is quite good.  It’s a great book to help readers enter into the challenges of the depression era. If you liked any of Christopher Paul Curtis’ other books, you’ll surely enjoy The Mighty Miss Malone.

  • Age: 10 – 99
  • Awards: None
  • Pages: 320
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron Myers

Book Review: The Tugging String By David Greenberg

Synopsis

Duvy Greenberg is the son of NAACP lawyer Jack Greenberg, the close friend of Thurgood Marshall.  But that doesn’t matter. While Duvy cares about what he sees on TV and what he hears whispered from his parents’ bedroom, he is far more interested in not making a fool of himself in Football than Civil Rights. In Selma Alabama, Dorthy Milton wants to vote, but as a black woman living in the segregated south, this is easier said than done.  When she fails the ridiculous test that racist voting officials make up for her, Dorthy is determined to see change. She is ready for action and lucky for her, the Doctor Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is coming to Selma and she might just be able to help.  An interesting blend of historical fiction and autobiography, this book alternates between the fictionalized childhood of the author, son of a prominent Civil Rights Lawyer, and the dramatized events that occurred in Selma Alabama, 1965.

Review

The Tugging String is interesting because the author is the actual son of NAACP lawyer, Jack Greenberg.  Using memories from his childhood and fictionalization of historical events, Greenberg weaves a masterful piece of historical fiction that brings to life the troubling events of the Selma Montgomery marches and American life in 1965.  The book skips between Duvy and Dorthy’s perspectives and it is interesting because, unlike in most dual point of view (POV) books, the two main characters are completely different, both in their ages and their walk of life. On top of that, they never meet anytime during the story.  The stories do not connect very much and while they are somewhat parallel, it’s a crooked kind of parallel.  However, the dual POV sheds an interesting light on the riots in Selma, offering a close-up perspective with Dorthy while Duvy feels and sees the effects of the marches from afar.  The book perfectly captures a national struggle with racism, fear and freedom. It brings to life a period of American history clearly and honestly.  The book stays pretty close to history and is realistic in tone, yet the drama of the times is enough on its own to ensure a thrilling read. I would highly recommend The Tugging String by David Greenberg.  

  • Age:  9 – 99
  • Awards:  None
  • Pages: 167
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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By Malachi L Myers

Book Review: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Synopsis

Johnny Tremain is an apprentice silversmith and his career has nowhere to go but up.  Already the most valuable apprentice in his workshop, Johny even begins to rival his master in skill.  However Johnny wants more, things in Boston are brewing and Johnny can feel it in the air.  It’s 1773 and the Sons of Liberty and British regulars occupying the city are clashing at every opportunity, change is in the air, fresh and smelling of freedom.  On top of that, new revelations and old secrets surrounding the mysterious origin of Johnny’s family begin to resurface and the young silversmith is willing to do anything to get to the bottom of it.  All around him, Johnny sees people making choices, carrying secrets; everyone is somehow caught up in the tumultuous activities that are pulling not just Boston, but all of the American Colonies, closer and closer into conflict with King George.  As Johnny gets pulled deeper into the conflict he must question everything, his trade, his family, and his identity.  

Review

Johnny Tremain can take its place without question on the list of best historical fictions ever written.  It encapsulates the thrilling years leading up to the Boston Tea Party and Battle of Lexington, bringing historic figures like James Otis, John Hancock and John and Samuel Adams to life with perfect clarity.  The setting and characters are realistic, compelling, and relatable and the plot is fascinating and full of twists.  Without a doubt, it is the best historical fiction written about the American Revolution; not only does it bring to light the events and historical figures of the era as a main element of the plot, but it also has an independent and completely fascinating plot line that runs parallel to the historical events. The character of Johnny is particularly riveting.   Although advertised as a “children’s classic” the book in content and volume is probably more of a young adult read, with complicated plots and, as an older book, language that might be difficult for beginning readers to grasp.  I would highly recommend Johnny Tremain.  

  • Ages:  10-99
  • Awards: Newbery Medal
  • Pages: 320
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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By Malachi L. Myers

Book Review: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Synopsis

When 12 year old Sam Gribly gets fed up with big city life and his family’s crowded New York City apartment, he hatches a plan to run away to his great grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. There he begins to live out every twelve year old’s dream; learning to survive in the wilderness. Sam initially realizes that his wilderness survival skills – learned from books at the New York City Public Library – aren’t nearly good enough but with the help of a new friend and a few lucky breaks, he soon begins to make a life for himself in the woods. He learns to build traps to catch small game, to fish, to forage for food and soon begins the big project of building a home for himself in the burned out interior of a giant hemlock tree. Along the way Sam learns to avoid rangers, makes friends with the local wildlife and tames and trains a peregrine falcon who becomes both a companion and a skilled hunter.  The story wanders through the fall and preparations for winter and into the loneliness of solitude and the delight of unexpected friendships.

Review

My Side of the Mountain was one of my favorite books as a child. The author’s description of the mountain setting painted a picture of the glories of nature that thrilled my heart and made the story all the more real. While Sam’s character is far more mature than any twelve year old, his tenacity and can do spirit inspired me. Every page had a new adventure or a challenge to overcome and Sam was up for all of them. Characters pop up throughout the story at just the right time. Bill, Baron Weasel, Bando, Frightful the Falcon and many more wander in and out of Sam’s days on the mountain bringing him much joy and occasional grief. I loved My Side of the Mountain when I was a boy and I loved it still more when I read it again a few years back. It’s a great book for kids, filled with lessons of perseverance, courage and ingenuity.  And it would be a great book to introduce to young boys who are reluctant readers.

  • Ages: 10 – 99
  • Awards: Newbery Honor; ALA Notable Book
  • Pages: 177
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron G Myers

Book Review: Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt

Synopsis

Before jumping into the synopsis of Just Like That, it should be said that there is much in this novel that will make more sense and be more impactful if you have first read Wednesday Wars as this story begins just months after Wednesday Wars ends..  This is not essential but would certainly be my recommendation.

Now, on to the story.  When 8th grader Meryl Lee Kowalski is sent off to St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy for Girls in the fall of 1968, her world is already in turmoil. There she encounters the world of upscale privilege, boarding school tradition and the notorious “inner rings” of established groups driven by prestige, gossip and arrogance. Running north and parallel to Meryl Lee’s story  is Matt Coffin, who finds himself surviving on the Maine coast near St. Elenes with a pillowcase full of $100 bills and the daily fear of being found by the criminal he took it from.  When their paths cross under the watchful eye of the school’s mysterious yet kind headmistress, they both begin a journey toward renewal and growth – for them and for all those whose lives they touch.

Review

Just Like That is another masterpiece from Gary D. Schmidt.  Filled with adventure, mystery and deep lessons about friendship, accomplishment and what it means to be a good person, this book will surely be a family favorite for all who read it.  Meryl Lee actions bely a heart tuned to truth and justice and her pursuit of all that is right and fair and good will be an inspiration to any who journey with her.  She shows again and again the power of small acts of kindness. Exquisitely written, the story will suck you in so that you don’t want to put it down.  Everything about this book is wonderful!

  • Ages: 10 – 99
  • Awards: None
  • Pages: 403
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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By Aaron G Myers