In light of the last Children’s Day they would be celebrating, I asked my Primary 4-6 students (10–12 years old) for what books they would want to get. Their answers came as a pleasant surprise. I expected some teenage trash, like Sweet Valley High or something which I used to read, but many of the books they named actually deal with quite complex storylines or mature themes. Impressive—at 12 years old I was probably still reading Peter Rabbit.
(Kidding, I’ve actually never read Peter Rabbit. But one of my students did recommend it—as a joke, probably, since he reads Dan Brown—so I thought it deserved at least some honorary mention.)
Anyway, here’s a compilation of their requests, older kids’ at the top, so you know what to get for that cousin or sibling or student or child you know who’s undergoing the purgatory of tweenhood:
The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry
12-year-old Jonas lives in a seemingly utopian society, free of crime or sorrow, where everyone has a role decided for them. When Jonas is assigned the job of Receiver of Memory, to bear the burden of history in order to make decisions for the community, he must struggle with new ideas of good and evil, weigh the cost and value of pain, and find what it means to truly be happy. Think Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for kids—good way to get them started on the classics of dystopian fiction.
The Boy in Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
A tragedy whose Wiki page alone will make you cry (but no, don’t spoil it for yourself). Boyne is a master of dramatic irony, using the perspective of 9-year-old Bruno, whose innocent naivety would get under the frozen heartstrings of any reader suffering from Holocaust fatigue. When Hitler, whom Bruno thinks of as “The Fury” (Führer), promotes Bruno’s dad to Commandant, they move to this place Bruno calls “Out-With” (Auschwitz). There, he becomes a close and admirably loyal friend to a boy in striped pyjamas. This is Shmuel, a Jewish boy behind a wire fence, whose striped pyjamas are really his prison clothes.
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
A colourful, coming-of-age story of Native Americans and their heritage. This Newbery winner unfolds as a travel narrative framing another story told by Salamanca of her friend Phoebe Winterbottom and her unbelievable tales. Phoebe’s fantastical tales, Sal gradually understands, is her way of hiding from guilt and loss. The novel’s whimsical title comes from a maxim, of Native American origin, which Creech found in a fortune cookie: “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.” Definitely grabs your imagination more than “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes,” doesn’t it? The book even comes with Sparknotes, and a Google Lit Trip, so you’ll get lots of opportunities for exploration.
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
Another Newbery winner, this uproarious tale of a 10-year-old cynic and a super-squirrel is certainly not your usual bedtime story; it’ll send the kids laughing all the way to bed. Flora, daughter of a romance novelist, who has grown weary of romance due to her parents’ divorce, sees a squirrel ingested by her neighbour’s vacuum cleaner one day and says, “Holy bagumba”—whatever that means. The squirrel, who gains extraordinary strength, intelligence and a deep, poetic soul from that accident, is named after the Ulysses Super-Suction, and we get to experience a wacky world from both his and Flora’s perspective as they make friends, save Flora’s dad from a cat, and dodge her mum’s attempts at pest extermination.
The Da Vinci Code (The Young Adult Adaptation) by Dan Brown
Actually, you might not even need the YA version. But for some reason Dan Brown thought the world (or his pockets?) needed it, so here we have something that comes with twenty colour photos to give your tweens some knowledge in history and art, challenge religious assumptions, and get a head start in thinking critically about all the grand narratives the world tells us. I know some who forbid their kids from reading the book for religious reasons, but hey, the tween years are when all these important, identity-forming questions start bubbling up, and faith would ultimately stand stronger or fall depending on how one is guided through one’s doubt.
Harry Potter by J.K. rowling
(“The whole series,” my students reiterated. “A box set!” “I’m not that rich,” I said regretfully, “but when I make my first million, you’ll receive it by post.”)
Of course this had to come up. What can I say that hasn’t already been said, to the point of stupefying banality? HP is my childhood love, but I shall shut up here.
The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer
A perfect series of novels for children who love fairytales but are smart enough to cock an eyebrow at their Disney adaptations. Alex and Connor Bailey, one an intellectual, the other a clown, travel through an old storybook anthology to visit Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty living out some pretty bizarre lives. Colfer’s tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking humour might turn off some kids of more romantic leanings, though, so I wouldn’t recommend it to those who would rather keep their Cinderella stories intact.
The Last Dogs by Christopher holt
An easy read, packed with enough action to keep fidgeters and younger tweens quiet for a while. Max, a Labrador Retriever, searches for his family in a world where humans have mysteriously disappeared. Okay, so post-apocalyptic dog books are a bit cliché, but if it’s the first of its kind a child has read, don’t take it away from him, geez.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
Featuring a relatable, seemingly average 12-year-old hero who finds out he’s a demigod, this series will entertain, engross and even educate (you’d be surprised how many of my students got into Greek mythology after reading this). The first chapter hooks you immediately—I mean, vaporising your Math teacher! What kid wouldn’t appreciate this fantasy? There are five books and three graphic novels making up Percy Jackson’s mythological world, so kids can be absorbed for a long time.