Thursday, May 12, 2011

Great Books for Pre-Teens and the Young at Heart

Compiled by Ceilidh

We at The Book Lantern are big YA nerds but we’d be doing a disservice if we only raved about the books shelved in the teenage section, especially since there are plenty of brilliant, and often criminally underrated, books for the middle-grade age group that deserve your attention. I, along with a few friends and bloggers and friends who happen to be bloggers have put together a nice jam-packed recommendation post for your enjoyment. 

Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede (Blurb by LJmysticowl)

There are two entry points into Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles: the chronological order and the published order. I managed to start the series with one of the middle books, and it still didn't fail to draw me into its magical, adventure-filled world. The Chronicles are Wrede's irreverent, but loving, deconstruction of the fairy tales we all grew up on. The books are filled with dragons (and their princesses), witches (and their cats), sorcerors (and their staffs), wicked stepmothers (and their Traveling, Drinking, and Debating Society), and all the others creatures and characters without whom a fairy tale just wouldn't be a fairy tale. The first-published book is a journey of self-discovery of a very polite young man; as the journey is through the titular enchanted forest, his politeness serves him well. The first-chronologically book features a kick-ass princess who felt like she was tailor-made to be my role model. I don't think any literary character ever meant more to me than Cimorene and her swordfighting, magic-casting, Latin-learning, cherries-jubilee-cooking ways.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (Blurb by Katya)

Shelved both as YA and MG, “Leviathan” is one of those books that you might be reluctant to pick up, but you will be hard pressed to put it down once you do. It’s a novel about the First World War, and how it would have been if you added the conflict of animals vs. machines to the rest of the motives – colonies, power thirst and debts  to be paid.

I loved how Westerfeld builds this world – adding to it, rather than changing the actual historical events. As a history nerd, I realize it takes a profound and serious study of the actual war, the reasons behind it, the events leading up to it and the changes it triggered, in order to create such a convincing and ambitious book.

Another plus: Alek is a smartass and Deryn has swagger. How can you not love them?

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams. (Blurb by Ceilidh)

I know I wasn’t the only one surprised to hear that “Little Britain” star David Walliams had turned his hand to writing children’s books, and I’m also pretty sure I wasn’t alone in being surprised by how good they are, especially his debut, centred around a lonely schoolboy called Dennis, raised in an ultra macho household, who finds he enjoys wearing women’s clothing as much as he does playing football. Walliams has a sharp wit and young-at-heart attitude that works well with his writing, appealing to adults as much as it does to kids. I was pleasantly surprised by how deftly he handled the potentially touchy subject of boys’ and girls’ gender roles, both with care and humour. Things are a little over-simplified but it was refreshing to read a book so full of wit and heart that didn’t treat the idea of a boy wearing dresses and make-up as something wrong or shameful. This charming book, as well as Walliams’ other children’s books, also have the honour of being illustrated by the legendary Quentin Blake. If that doesn’t make your nostalgic ears perk up, nothing will!

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata (Blurb by Severus)

Cynthia Kadohata is probably one of my favorite authors. I adored Kira Kira, and so it makes sense that I would probably enjoy her later book, Weedflower. Weedflower is about a Japanese girl who is living in the time of Pearl Harbor. Her fear and shock rings in the novel, as she watches her world change around her. You are able to feel what she's feeling, and understand her. The supporting characters, such as her brother and her friend, seem real -- not like the cardboard cutouts you sometimes encounter in Middle Grade fiction. This book is able to be enjoyed by all ages, and despite the time it takes place in it is refreshingly and startlingly clean. There isn't enough praise you can shower this book in, and I would be overjoyed if more people read Mrs. Kadohata's books and enjoyed them as I have.

Redwall by Brian Jacques (Blurb by Nathaneal Smith, contributor to

When Ceilidh asked me to write about my favourite pre-teen novel, I knew what I had to write about, for as a child there was only one series of books I ever read. Discovered when I was around ten years old, Brian Jacques' Redwall series tells the stories of a group of rodents (primarily mice, but also badgers, hares, squirrels, and more) who lived in an Abbey and each book had to fight off the more violent animals that also lived in that world (rats, foxes, ferrets and weasels being the main baddies). There was a giant mountain populated by extremely violent badgers and armies of overly British hares, there were mysterious islands populated by lizards, and there were enough battles per book to elicit gleeful joy from any young boy.

Every book followed a rather specific formula: the Abbey, Redwall, would be threatened by some outside force. The peaceful abbey dwellers would be reluctant to fight, save for a couple of fiesty warrior types. There would be a quest, some comic relief, lots of feasting, even more fighting and some much beloved characters would end up dead. Yet this formula was filed with enough invention and adventure that I would read and re-read these books over and over again. In fact even now as a twenty one year old I feel a strong desire to go and pick up a Redwall book again. See you in a couple of days...

The Earthsea Series by Ursula K. Le Guin (Blurb by Seneska

When I first picked up the Earthsea stories I didn’t know what an archipelago was. I soon learnt. A fantasy world based on islands was a very different concept to read about. It allows for a great breadth in cultures that can captivate and enthral, from the barbarous raiders of a rival empire to Roke’s school of magic. The characters are no less compelling. On the cusp of adolescence it is very easy to empathise with the clever, brash and tortured Sparrowhawk. The consequences of his actions and his foibles make him a very human character. His strength of character as he grows puts Harry Potter to shame. And then there is the exceptional Tenar in the chilling book The Tombs of Atuan. Trapped by exceptional circumstances her fire and bravery make her a valuable role model for any pre-teen determined to grasp her own destiny.

And in case all this wasn’t enough, did I mention the dragons?

The Children of the New Forest by Captain Frederick Marryat (Blurb by Vinaya) 

Some children's classics, like The Secret Garden and Little Women form a staple in most children's libraries. Some, however, fall into obscurity over time. One such book is Marryat's The Children of the New Forest. Set in the Cromwellian era, this is a book about the four orphaned Beverley children who are hidden from the Roundheads by an old forrester, Jacob Armitage and forced to pretend that they are his grandchildren. Suddenly displaced from their aristocratic home to a simple cottage in the New Forest, the children must learn how to adapt to the challenges of their new life.

I LOVED this book when I was a kid. My copy is in tatters, and I still go back to read it every once in a while. As with most classics written in the Victorian era, this book adheres to certain clichés, but it is the best sort of escapism for anyone wishing to be transported to another era, one of adventure, political intrigue and romance. 

Becoming Naomi LeonKira-Kira and The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Blurb by Cory) 

When it comes to my MG books, there are three that stand out in my mind: Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Muñoz RyanKira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata and The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis. All three feature people of color as the narrator, one earned the Newberry Award, and another received a Newberry Honor.

If you're interested in a book with a complex family relationship, Becoming Naomi Leon is for you. It tells the story of a Hispanic girl who longs to meet her father and overcome the difficulty of reuniting with her abusive mother. Kira-Kira features a strong bond between two sisters that will bring many to tears. The author, Cynthia Kadohata, has written two of my all time favorite books. The Watsons Go to Birmingham is a hilarious story told from the perspective of an African-American boy in 1963. Christopher Paul Curtis later won the Newberry Award for his equally funny book, Bud, Not Buddy.

These books are not to be missed, trust me.


  1. Gail Carson Levine and Tanith Lee owned my formative years. (I would add J.K. Rowling to the list, but she was a part of many people's formative years.) Ella Enchanted and Wolf Tower (and its sequels) are definitely books I would recommend to any preteen looking for strong heroines, wonderful worlds, and great stories.

  2. Jane Yolen also definitely belongs on any list of great children's literature. I'm almost ashamed somehow to not have taken the opportunity to write about her, but Wrede's Chronicles filled me with joy and gave me a role model when I was bitter for one. Yolen's books were necessary to me in many ways, but the necessary, harsh lessons of The Devil's Arithmetic are harder to think about than the bright hopefullness of The Chronicles.