Several years ago, I met Christine through on online writers’ critique group. We became friends as writers, but also as moms. Our respective children have grown up, but we occasionally recall and share our child-rearing experiences of the past. One of the best parts of raising kids, we agree, is that it brings another realm of great literature into a grown-up’s consciousness.
Here are Christine’s recommendations for eight enchanting contemporary and classic kids’ books for ages 8 through 12.
How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell
A Viking adventure set on the Isle of Berk. (“It’s twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It’s located solidly on the Meridian of Misery.”) This is the first in a series by English author Cressida Cowell and has been made into a movie. Having just passed his dragon initiation program, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, a young Viking, sets out to hunt dragons. First he must catch a dragon and train it. Then he unexpectedly becomes the friend of a young dragon and finds there may be more to dragons than he’d thought.
Publisher’s Weekly: “A rollicking finale finds the duo rescuing Vikings from a ravenous, mountain-size dragon. Short chapters, clever slapstick, kid-pleasing character names (e.g., Fishlegs, Dogsbreath the Duhbrain) and goofy, childlike drawings will keep even reluctant readers turning these pages—and chuckling as they go.”
What Christine says: This beautifully characterized story has witty dialogue, a wonderfully comic plot and an exciting climax. I loved it.
Quote from the story: “I was not the sort of boy who could train a dragon with a mere lifting of an eyebrow. I was not a natural at the Heroism business. I had to work at it. This is the story of becoming a Hero the Hard Way.”
The Castle Blues Quake by Linda Covella
After leaving her best friend behind in New York, Pepper and her family move to California, where Pepper discovers a boy named Corey hiding out in their backyard shed. Corey is a ghost, but Pepper doesn’t realize this. Corey is trying to make contact with his grandfather, Boppie, before he crosses over. He tells Pepper he needs to find his grandfather before Social Services sends him to a foster home. Pepper agrees to help. Time travel, earthquakes, haunted house rides, poltergeist activity, and crystal ball readings lead to a surprising ending and an understanding of what it means to be a true friend.
Literary Classics: “Linda Covella has written a teen mystery full of unique twists which keep this story moving at a pace that will keep readers engaged clear through to the suspenseful finish. The Castle Blues Quake is the first book in the Ghost Whisperer Series. Even the most reluctant readers will find this book intriguing and are sure to anxiously await the next book in this series. The Castle Blues Quake is highly recommended for home and school libraries.”
What Christine says: An original and deliciously scary story by award-winning contemporary children’s author Linda Covella. Perfect for middle-graders, with wonderful characters and lots of tension.
Quote from the story: “A horror movie. That’s what my new house looked like. Something straight out of a horror movie. Mom’s dream house? More like nightmare house. The peeling paint; the crooked stairs and broken railing that barely made it up to the warped back door; the spindly branch scratching the awning above the door like a skeleton’s hand. Yeah. A horror movie.”
Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Set in the 1970’s, this is the story of Danny, whose home is a gypsy caravan and who is the youngest master car mechanic around. His best friend is his dad, who tells fantastic stories and is, according to Danny, “ . . . without the slightest doubt, . . . the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.” But one night Danny discovers a shocking secret that his father has kept hidden for years, which changes everything.
Emilie Coulter: “An intense and beautiful father-son relationship is balanced with sublegal high jinks that will have even the most rigid law-abider rooting them on. Dahl’s inimitable way with words leaves the reader simultaneously satisfied and itching for more.”
Christine’s take: One of the funniest and most delightful Roald Dahl books my children and I have read. A movie version featured Jeremy Irons as Danny’s dad (1989).
Quote from the book: “I will not pretend I wasn’t petrified. I was. But mixed in with the awful fear was a glorious feeling of excitement. Most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death. They wouldn’t be exciting if they didn’t.”
Stig of the Dump by Clive King
A classic of children’s literature, first published in the UK in 1963 by British author Clive King. This is his most famous of numerous children’s novels. It follows the adventures of a boy named Barney, who discovers a Neanderthal cave dweller living at the bottom of a disused chalk pit in Kent that has been used as a rubbish dump. The caveman has made a home out of all of the discarded items he has found in the dump, and he and Barney become friends and embark on many adventures.
Alfred Hickling, The Guardian: “King’s story could be reinterpreted as an eco-parable about the benefits of recycling – Stig implements the home improvements of jam jar windows and a tin can chimney at least five years before the Wombles came up with a similar idea. The book equally stands as a plea for understanding between alien cultures: the caveman gradually acquires a vocabulary of basic English, while Barney absorbs a smattering of prehistoric sounds, such as Stig’s word for magic, which sounds a bit like ‘mahoo’.”
What Christine says: I loved the way the story is told matter-of-factly, with no magical explanations for why there’s a cave dweller living in the dump, and the way it’s narrated with delightful British humor. Imaginative, funny and absorbing.
Quote from the book: “Then he was falling, still clutching the clump of grass that was falling with him. This is what it’s like when the ground gives way, Barney thought . . . . His thoughts did those funny things they do when you bump your head and you suddenly find yourself thinking about what you had for dinner last Tuesday, all mixed up with seven times six.”
Stuart Little by E.B. White
Born to a family of humans, Stuart Little lives in New York City with his parents, his older brother George, and Snowbell the cat. Though he’s shy and thoughtful, he’s also a true lover of adventure. When Stuart’s best friend, a little bird named Margalo, disappears from her nest, Stuart ventures away from home for the very first time in his life in order to find her.
Isabel Schon, Booklist: “The fluid text resonates with the original wit and whimsy that marked White’s clever intermingling of fantasy and real life.”
Christine’s take: My kids and I loved this original story every bit as much as E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and also loved the skillful and droll illustrations by Garth Williams. Stuart Little is brimming with delightfully subtle humor.
Opening lines: “When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse. Before he was many days old he was not only looking like a mouse but acting like one, too—wearing a gray hat and carrying a small cane.”
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Orphaned Maia is sent off to Brazil to live with distant relatives. Happy to have a family at last, she is soon disappointed when she finds her relatives to be cold, calculating and mainly after her money. However, the governess is interested in Maia and sympathetic. Soon she and Maia escape from the house and enjoy exotic adventures deep in the Amazon rainforest.
Publishers Weekly: “Ibbotson (Island of the Aunts) offers another larger-than-life adventure featuring lovable heroes and heroines, nasty villains, much hilarity and a deliciously gnarled plot . . . . [R]eaders will come away with the satisfaction of knowing that the good guys are amply rewarded with bright futures and the bad guys get their just desserts.”
Christine’s comments: I enjoy children’s books like this, with an exciting plot and lovely prose. This one is especially captivating and moving.
Quote from the book: “But it was not the secrecy of the lake that held Maia spellbound, it was its beauty. The sheltering trees leaned over the water; there was a bank of golden sand on which a turtle slept, untroubled by the boat. Clumps of yellow and pink lotus flowers swayed in the water, their buds open to the sun. Hummingbirds clustered in an ever-changing whirl of colour round a feeding bottle nailed to a branch . . .”
The Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
When five children discover an ancient Psammead, or sand-fairy, living near the country house where they are staying, they have no way of knowing all the adventures its wish-granting will bring them. Soon, the children discover that their wishes have a tendency to turn out quite differently than expected—something often goes hilariously wrong.
Quentin Blake, Introduction to Puffin Books 2008 edition: “Some of E. Nesbit’s books—such as The Railway Children—depend on her ability to remember what it is like being a child and to give a convincing account of a family of children in difficult circumstances. Five Children and It goes further by introducing the possibilities of fantasy . . . .[Nesbit] had the brilliant idea of inventing Psammead . . . who is almost the opposite of what you would expect of a benevolent fairy. He’s bizarre in appearance, really very like a temperamental and difficult adult; the children have to learn how to humour him and there’s a sort of special zest in the wishes being granted grudgingly.”
Christine’s take: I tremendously enjoyed reading this with my kids, with its fanciful narration and its fantastic, irascible creature, Psammead. It’s aimed at children ten or older, but could be read to younger children.
Quote from the book: “He had no difficulty in finding the Sand-fairy, for the day was already so hot that it had actually, for the first time, come out of its own accord, and it was sitting in a sort of pool of soft sand, stretching itself, and trimming its whiskers, and turning its snail’s eyes round and round.”
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
The hilarious escapades of an unconventional girl who lives alone with her monkey and horse in a Swedish village and becomes friends with her neighbors, Tommy and Annika.
Eva Maria Metcalfe, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly: “The humor in the Pippi Longstocking books is a humor of extravagance and excess. It seems especially appropriate for children, who can and do laugh more often and sometimes at different things than do adults. Lindgren herself has noted that, while reading parts of her books to mostly adult audiences, she has more than once heard the high ringing of laughter of a child among a crowd of hundreds of seriously attentive adults. Lindgren knows that there is a humor which adults seem to have outgrown and forgotten. She has not.”
Christine’s comments: Metcalf is right—writers like Lindgren somehow are able to capture outrageous situations that delight children and appeal to their special sense of humor. Pippi is one of my very favorite characters from children’s literature. As a child, I couldn’t get enough of Pippi’s amazing feats and adventures.
Quote from the story: “Pippi was indeed a remarkable child. The most remarkable thing about her was that she was so strong. She was so very strong that in the whole wide world there was not a single police officer as strong as she. Why, she could lift a whole horse if she wanted to! And she wanted to. She had a horse of her own that she had bought with one of her many gold pieces the day she came home to Villa Villekula. She had always longed for a horse, and now here he was, living on the porch. When Pippi wanted to drink her afternoon coffee there, she simply lifted him down into the garden.”
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Christine and I have both written children’s stories. Mine remain unpublished. But she has a fantastic chapter book out called The Mystery of the Ancient Stone City, an adventure story set on an island in Micronesia. Published by Hillrow Editions in 2017, the book includes a Reader’s Guide, which is also printable from her website: christinezmason.com.