1. Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliet
Chasing Vermeer is a fantastic mystery-adventure--think of it as The DaVinci Code for the tween set. Here you meet Petra and Calder, unlikely 6th grade friends who are swept up in an investigation of art theft. You'll learn a lot about the famous renaissance painter, Jan Vermeer and some of the controversies related to his work, but it's wrapped up in hidden pictures, secret codes, and a quirky storyline that will capture the interest of pretty much every child to whom I've recommended this book. One of my very favorite books all around--not just kids' books!
2. Nightjohn, by Gary Paulsen
I love this book. I hate this book. I've told many of my former middle-schoolers that they may not graduate until they've read this book. It's less than 100 pages long, but that doesn't mean it's an easy read. In fact, it's challenging in several ways. Nightjohn tells the story of a slave in the American South who, against all the rules of the dominant culture, learns to read...and teaches fellow slaves how to read. Of course, there are repercussions, which is why I hate this book--it is the truest and rawest picture of slavery I've ever read.
This book is written in a way that suggests the linguistic style of a slave--it's told as a first-person narrative from that perspective--which can make it challenging to read silently; it almost reads easier spoken aloud. No spoiler, but a big content warning here: this one is not for the young kids to read on their own, and in fact, I'd encourage parents to read the book themselves before putting it in their kids' hands...but this is one that they should read at some point.
3. Twenty and Ten, by Claire Hutchet Bishop
Twenty and Ten tells the story of twenty children living in a French orphanage at the outset of World War II. The nun who runs the orphanage asks the children to consider hiding ten Jewish children amongst them, explaining that the children will need to share their rations with them to do so. The twenty welcome the ten to join them, and all seems well enough at first. But of course, the nun is detained in town while the Nazis come to search the orphanage for the Jewish children in hiding, and the children have to rely on their wits and courage in the face of grave trouble. Both suspenseful and touching, this is a great book to encourage kids to think about the role they can play in resisting evil they encounter in the world, and instead become a force for good.
4. Danny, the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl
How do you begin to choose from among Roald Dahl's books? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG...there's too many good ones, right? (I could have 13 just from Roald Dahl!)
I make Danny, the Champion of the World my pick from Mr. Dahl's repertoire, probably because it's one of his less known books, and that is a shame! The book tells the story of Danny, a young boy who grows up with his single father--and has a lovely life. Unbeknownst to Danny, his father is secretly a poacher who is out to get pheasants, but not with a gun...by craft and skill. Danny discovers his father's nighttime habit, and of course joins in the fun, and comes up with a crafty means of poaching birds of his own--so crafty that his father dubs him the "Champion of the World." Sort of weird to be cheering for law-breakers, but the story is so lovely, you can't help it!
5. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
This is a WEIRD book, but I love it! Full of word fun and math games and an engrossing story of embracing creativity. Our hero, Milo, complains of the boredom of his life, and is given a mysterious gift: a tollbooth. He throws in a few coins and drives his toy car past the tollbooth...and winds up in a very strange world full of strange inhabitants: the first being Milo meets there is a watchdog--a timepiece-canine hybrid--and that's just the beginning. This new land is full of odd events and interesting places for Milo to experience: he watches the great Chroma's orchestra, which paints the sunset in the sky as it plays, he literally jumps to conclusions (an island land you reach by making outrageous assumptions), and helps to mend fences between the Mathemagician, who rules the math city of Digitopolis and his brother, King Azaz, who rules the word city of Dictionopolis. Eventually, Milo saves the Princesses, Rhyme and Reason, and restores order to the land. A very clever book, though perhaps not for everyone's taste...
6. The Arkadians, by Lloyd Alexander
I had a hard time setting on just one book by Alexander--because he's written so many good ones--but I settled on The Arkadians because of its wide appeal. Here we meet Lucian, a bean-counter who has an unfortunate incident involving the King for whom he works, which causes him to have to run for his life. He meets up with Joy-in-the-Dance, a girl with what seems to have some magic in her, and a talking donkey named Fronto, who turns out to be a poet who made an "ass" of himself, and thus was turned into an...well, you get the idea. Together, they travel through the land of Arkadia, which will call to mind the Greek mythology you've read in the past. A fun adventure story!
7. The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin
This is the most lovely mystery I've ever read. The fabulously wealthy Mr. Westing (who is as eccentric as he is monied) dies, and in his will names 16 heirs who will compete in a game. Whomever wins the game, wins the money. Absolutely engrossing from the first page, full of bizarre characters and odd plot twists, and I can almost guarantee that the last 10 pages will make you go back and re-read the entire book. I can't say any more than that!
8. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle
As much as I love science fiction as a genre, I'm surprised how few sci-fi books I put on this list. (This is the only one!) Meg Murray is the quintessential high school misfit, and her young brother, Charles Wallace, is...unique in his maturity. With her new friend, Calvin--a high school super-star--and Charles Wallace in tow, she meets up with a trio of curious old women (who might actually be witches, or maybe even angels?) and with their help, takes a surprising trip across space in search of her father, who had gone missing in a strange scientific experiment. Fundamentally, the book is a compelling story of Good versus Evil.
This book will likely be a challenge for younger readers, but it's the sort that will also challenge the thinking of older readers, especially if a parent or teacher is willing to engage in some thoughtful conversation about why characters in the book make the choices they make.
9. The Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald
Set in late 1800's Utah, The Great Brain tells the story of Tom, who has christened himself the Great Brain. And while he does have above-average intellect, Tom tends to use his smarts to swindle his friends and family, and in particular, his younger brother J.D. who serves as narrator for the story. Hilarious, touching, and occasionally over-the-top, the book brings the reader into the world of small town life of "gentiles" in a Mormon-dominated society at the turn of the 19th century. This is actually the first of half a dozen books about Tom and J.D.'s misadventures.
10. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
Young Hugo is an orphan who lives in a Paris train station, surviving by stealing what he needs. He is seeking to rebuild an automaton left to him by his father, and steals parts for this task from a toy vendor in the train station. This sets up a series of events in which Hugo and the toy man eventually become friends, and we find out that the toy man is not all that he originally seems.
This book defies genres in some ways--it is equal parts graphic novel and traditional novel, and almost reads as though you are watching a film. The pictures that make up over half of the book's several hundred pages are as important to telling the story as the text.
11. The Pushcart War, by Jean Merrill
The pushcart vendors who work the streets of New York City are being crowded out by the Big Trucks that run all over the city. The pushcart vendors band together to fight back, which leads to retaliation by the truckers, resulting in an all out war. Equal parts allegory and comedy, there are great themes of standing up to injustice and the problem of oneupmanship. It would be a shame for kids to miss out on this one.
12. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien
Mrs. Frisby is a widowed field mouse who is needs help; her home is soon to be plowed over by the farmer who works the land, and her son, Timothy, is too ill to be moved. She receives advice to go and see the rats for aid, and find that the rats living nearby are super-intelligent, able to read, technically advanced...and they know her dead husband, with whom they were once imprisoned at the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). But will the rats help her? And at what cost to Mrs. Frisby and her family? An adventure story for animal lovers!
13. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
Okay, so this is actually a 7-for-1 deal, because I love this whole series, and I can't pick just one!
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first book written, though not the first chronologically, and tells the story of how Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie enter the land of Narnia for the first time--a land full of talking animals and figures from mythology ruled by an evil witch of a queen, with a Lion rumored to be coming to save Narnia from her clutches. A story of good and evil, sacrifice, and redemption.
- The Magician's Nephew tells the story of the beginning of Narnia, including how the Witch became queen. Some absolutely hilarious moments, and some that are downright spooky in this story, with reminders that the choices we make have profound consequences not just for us, but for those around us.
- The Horse and His Boy is a story set within the narrative of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and tells of events in neighboring nations to Narnia. The Pevensies figure in, but not as main characters. Young Shasta, being raised in a foreign country, finds out that there is more to him than first meets the eye, with the help of a talking horse who befriends him.
- Prince Caspian explains what happens in the years after the Pevensies leave Narnia for our world again, and how Edmund and Lucy come back to Narnia to help a young prince in trouble.
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader sees Edmund and Lucy back in Narnia, with their awful cousin, Eustace, along for the trip. They go exploring realms unknown with their Narnian friend, Prince Caspian. (Probably my favorite book of the whole series. Probably.)
- The Silver Chair tells of Eustace's next trip to Narnia, with a schoolmate named Jill. They aid another king of Narnia and help in setting things right.
- The Last Battle is the end of the story--the end of Narnia. A shifty ape and a donkey in lion's clothing are at the center of a plot to take over Narnia in this tale. All of the visitors from our world from throughout the series again find themselves in Narnia in this climactic story.
C.S. Lewis is an unabashedly Christian author, and these books have some clear allegories to the Christian faith. While they don't necessarily come out and beat you over the head--they are great stories on their own merits!--those who have ears to hear will find Gospel truths proclaimed here in the cloak of fantasy.
So that's my bakers-dozen of great chapter books for tweens and young adolescents. Which ones have I missed? Which would you add to the list, and why?