Great Books (But Not for Everyone)
While some books appeal to almost everyone (literature rated G, so to speak), some great books require the right book at the right time to be appreciated. Let's face it--some kids are just picky.
One of the quintessential hard-case types are those male readers (aged 9-99) who turn up their noses at any novel, no matter what. As kids they only like real stuff, thank you, and stick to nonfiction, often within a narrow subject range. If it's not about dinosaurs, or motocross, or fishing, or the Civil War, fageddaboudit! As a school librarian, I often struggled to find required fiction books for these guys, so I've seen their eye rolls all too often.
If it's history or war buffs you're dealing with, here are some Civil War books that might meet the reality test for those guys.
For the hard-core biography reader, try Russell Friedman's Newbery Award book Lincoln: A Photobiography. Friedman's text provides one of the best bios of Abraham Lincoln, and the photos from the period are fascinating in their ability to evoke the era. If a novel is required, look for these tried-and-true titles, available online or at most local libraries: Jayhawker, in which author Patricia Beatty takes the reader into the all-too-real world of border insurgents such as Jesse James; also take a look at Charley Skedaddle and Eben Tyne, Powdermonkey, both also by Patricia Beatty. Some other tried-and-true novels are Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt, Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, With Every Drop of Blood, by James and Christopher Collier, and The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele. All of these authors have kept American history fans happy in a fiction framework for years.
In contrast to the keep-it-real kids, some proto-philosophical young readers are already looking for what literature has to impart about the meaning of life. For the reader who is looking for more than a thrill or a laugh in his or her fiction, here are a few recently published novels to consider.
Lois Lowry, known for her "serious" fiction through such books as Number the Stars and The Giver, has a new book, Gossamer, whose improbable premise is the coming of age of a dream giver, a fantastical creature who strengthens humans against the world's evil by gathering memories and providing restorative dreams. In the hands of the right reader, the book is both life-affirming and deeply moving.
Another author with a reputation for strong novels about strong girls is Karen Cushman, known for her Medieval period novels The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Also Known as Birdy, has set her new book The Loud Silence of Francine Green in McCarthy-era America, where the issue of freedom of speech and association comes down to Francine's choice between being a quiet (and therefore "good") girl at her Catholic school or joining her outspoken friend Sophie in speaking the truth.
A disturbing but intensely absorbing book by Susan Beth Pfeffer, Life as We Knew It, deals with the life of a 15-year-old girl after an Apollo object disturbs the moon's orbit enough to bring normal life to an end on earth. The novel is written in the form of a journal kept by a middle child who watches her single-parent family cope and survive as life as they knew it disappears. What typical teenager Miranda learns about the importance of family, community, and the joys of daily life will not be lost on thoughtful readers of any age.
Finding worthy reads for the discriminating kid who eschews the popular series is challenging but satisfying, because it is at the heart of reading guidance--putting great books in the hands of the intelligent, strong-minded people for which they were written.