“Neither fish nor fowl…” Though adults often see a tween as a child, for the kids themselves they’re in an awkward nether-land that is equal parts wanting to be a teen and wanting to remain a kid. It’s often a confusing and frustrating time. The books that kids read and identify with at this age can really help them explore both who they are and who they want to become- which may be why the best of them are the books that as adults we remember so vividly and love them so deeply.
When we began to reminisce, our list grew longer and longer. Revisiting these classic texts helped us pare the number down a bit… but of course we also had to list some of the newer classics that have won the hearts of children in the past decade! We believe the classics we’ve listed below transcend time –and are terrific reads. So here’s a start. . .and as always, we’d love to hear from you about your experiences with these books, and your suggestions for additions.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Mary, orphaned in India and sent to live with a crotchety uncle in England, is the very picture of loneliness and misery until she discovers a garden and a cousin that have both been kept a secret and locked away. The care and wonder of the garden nourish Mary, and Mary in turn helps revive the garden, Colin (the cousin) and her uncle. This old fashioned book still connects with kids today- the need for friends and secrets and accomplishments has not lessened as the years pass. Girls especially will also like Burnett’s other timeless classic, A Little Princess.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
This book is one of the classics that also makes a great read-aloud. It’s an excellent discussion starter for a couple of big talks with your favorite tweens- feelings and art. Why does Claudia feel so ignored and un-special? Do you ever feel that way? Have you ever thought about running away? Why does Claudia react the way she does to the Angel? Have you ever reacted to a piece of art this strongly? Claudia and Jamie’s mystery and ensuing quest may inspire you and your child(ren) to hightail it to the Met yourselves- or your own local, wonderful museum. Segue from this book to another wonderful Konigsburg book, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
A favorite with children and adults alike, the story is set in the Deep South of the 1930’s and shows the strong family values and commitment of a poor, struggling–and very loving family. It is a deep and powerful novel that portrays heart-rending social injustice and bigotry. The story unfolds through the point of view of the narrator, nine-year-old Cassie. First published 25 years ago, this book is one that stays with young readers, who often move on to reading the two award-winning sequels that continue the saga of the Logan family: Let the Circle Be Unbroken and The Road to Memphis.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
There are such wonderful, strong and memorable characters in Harriet the Spy, that you may remember the book as being a funny account of that irascible Harriet who loved to spy on other people and write it down. Maybe you also remember Ole Golly, her nurse, or her friends Jane, Beth Ellen (who is also in The Long Secret) and Sport (also in Sport). You may not remember that this is also an unflinching look at coming of age, of being popular, outcast, bullied and finding a way to make amends. Harriet is often unlikeable and wrong, and it’s to Fitzhugh’s credit that this only makes us sympathize with Harriet more. (Seriously, who hasn’t taken an irrational and immediate dislike to someone? Or written something that should never be seen, only to realize we now live in a crazy digital age where our thoughts often end up finding the wrong audience?)
Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The Salem witch trials is a subject that continues to fascinate pre-teen (and up!) girls. It could be in part because it was a major historical event that was set in motion by young girls, it could be in part because it explores the persecution of anyone different or outside the societal norm, which many young girls feel describes them. This particular book dealing with the subject is a classic (and has more romance and accessibility than say, The Crucible). Kit lands in somber Puritan Connecticut fresh from being orphaned in sunny and gay Barbados. Her differences, starting with the ability to swim, mark her as other and a perfect target for the witch hunts. Though the tone of the book (and the blossoming romance with Nathaniel Eaton) make you pretty sure that all ends well for Kit, it’s still a nailbiter of a read.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Jonas is born into an “ideal” world, with no poverty, illness, or unemployment, and everyone lives in a perfectly happy family of four. Sounds pretty good, until you start to see the cracks in the facade of this strictly regimented society with real freedom, choices, passion, or even color. As designated “Keeper of the Memories,” Jonas begins to learn the secret of his society, and moves from being a complacent citizen to a bold rebel. The Giver is a skillfully crafted story which wrestles with profound issues in the midst of a suspenseful plot. This futuristic dystopian novel is a good forerunner to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and is a favorite read for many kids.
Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle
While A Wrinkle in Time may be her more famous book, it is L’Engle’s Meet the Austins (the first in the Austin family series) that finds a special place in your heart and nestles there. Vicki is the heroine that many young girls (especially those that love books and reading) identify with. The middle girl who feels she is lacking the beauty of her younger sister, the determination and brilliance of her older brother and the sweetness and happiness of her baby brother is the prickly one in her family. But it is such a loving and wonderful family that you never doubt that Vicki will blossom and find her place in the world.
Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
It’s 1849, in Buxton Settlement in Ontario. Eleven-year-old Elijah narrates the story, explaining about the people and their lives in his community, which is a haven for former slaves. As the first-born child in the community, Elijah has not experienced the horrors of slavery himself, but as the novel progresses, he meets escaped slaves, and some who have escaped and been recaptured. The book is in turn funny, suspenseful, and emotionally wrenching. While his situation is unique, his adventures with a wild array of characters and his courage in difficult situations connect to today’s readers and is written with an eloquence that appeals across generations. Though this is a fairly recent book, it is already being hailed as a classic by tweens, teachers, and librarians.
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
This story of a Japanese-American family moving to Georgia in the 1950’s is simultaneously warm, loving, funny and heartbreaking. Told by Katie, the younger daughter, it details the hopes and hard work, discrimination and poverty that the family suffers. Katie’s hope and determination is fed by her beloved older sister Lynn, who taught her to find all in life that is “kira-kira” (Japanese for glittery and shining), and she is temporarily lost when Lynn is diagnosed with lymphoma. Kids respond to the narrators realistic voice and emotions. Parents may find the description of the Mom wearing diapers to work in a chicken factory to support her family a perfect one sentence illustration of a Mother’s love.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Tellings and re-tellings of Cinderella abound, all achieving varying degrees of success. This one is a winner. Ella is given the “gift” of obedience from a fairy at birth. How she deals with it and tracks down the fairy are at the core of the story, and it’s fun to see how the glass slipper, pumpkin carriage and prince are all worked in. Ella’s spunk and charm put her squarely in the realm of Pippi Longstocking and The Paperbag Princess type heroines- in short a great role model for little girls (and boys!).