By Carol Kennedy
Here are a few of my picks for young readers who are looking for something fun to read over the summer months.
Mary Downing Hahn’s 2015 thriller Took has just the right mix of terror and realism to appeal to middle-grade students who like ghost stories. When Daniel and his little sister Erica move with their parents from urban Connecticut to an old house in rural West Virginia, they have a lot of adjustments to make. First, everyone tells them their new house is haunted. In addition, the kids at school are mean, the house is in terrible shape, and Daniel’s parents are unhappy with their new jobs. Everything seems to be stacked against them. And they keep hearing about an old witch who haunts the woods near their house and captures young girls to be her slaves, keeping each girl for 50 years. When Erica suddenly disappears one day, things go from bad to worse. This story is creepy and will keep readers turning pages, with its well-drawn characters and fine pacing.
Rodman Philbrick, author of Freak the Mighty, published The Big Dark this year, also suitable for middle-grade students. When the electricity in Charlie Cobb’s small town suddenly goes out, everyone is left without heat or electricity. The power outage has been caused by an electromagnetic pulse, and nothing can be done except for people to survive as best they can through community effort and cooperation. In the midst of the crisis, one man proves himself a natural leader, while another, a crazed militiaman with white supremacist ideas, becomes the town bully, stealing supplies, burning down the supermarket, wielding his rifle irresponsibly, and even attempting murder. In this gripping adventure, the reader gets to meet different kinds of people who make up a community. The result is a satisfying read that points to the strength of community and love in the face of a dire ecological crisis. Philbrick keeps the tension going until the very last page, and he has a gift for bringing characters and situations to life and making the reader care about them. Recommended for older elementary and middle-school kids of both sexes.
Martine Leavitt’s Calvin is a great choice for young-adult and adult readers alike. The author’s language is concise, lyrical, and full of WOW moments. The main character Calvin’s journey is told as a letter to the cartoonist Bill Watterson, for whose “Calvin and Hobbes” he was named. The reader enters Calvin’s schizophrenic mind as he contemplates things such as school courses that provide no foundation for practical living, bullies, math, brain neurology, and possibly the mystery of love. Calvin, seventeen, knows that if he could just get his Watterson to do one more Calvin cartoon without Hobbes, his schizophrenia would disappear and he would be “normal.” Calvin sets out with Hobbes and Susie as he treks across Lake Erie to find Watterson. The reader is left to discern fact from fantasy. Possibly only true “Calvin and Hobbes” fans will get all the references, but Calvin’s journey is fascinating regardless of the age of the reader.
In Cynthia DeFelice’s Fort, a summertime adventure story, the author presents two twelve-year-old boys who are building a fort in the woods in which to camp out. The story concerns their relationship to two older boys who are bullies, which turns from one of fear to one of defending themselves and teaching the bullies to stop their behavior. Each step of the way, DeFelice skillfully depicts the importance of friendship, the love of adventure, and the boys’ burgeoning sense of self-reliance. Readers will keep the pages turning to see what happens next. DeFelice writes some very good realistic fiction for middle-school readers.
In David Klass’s Losers Take All, a high school with a win-or-die approach to sports that has resulted in several state championships hires a new principal, who requires every senior to be on a sports team for one season. Jack is a senior who is uninterested in sports even though his father and two older brothers are high-school football legends. He decides to form a “C” level soccer team made up of sports haters and athletically uncoordinated students. They call themselves the Losers and just want to have fun, with no serious drills or practices, and the commitment to play any junior-high team who will agree. There are wild moments of humor interspersed with serious moments referencing the violence in school sports, bullying by athletes, family relationships, and questionable journalism practices. The characters are all very believable. The first four pages will hook even reluctant readers at the high-school and middle-school levels.
Carol Kennedy is a retired school librarian and a member of the TriState Young Adult Review Committee (tristatereviews.org).