Readers 12 and up

10 Historical Fiction Picks Guaranteed to Enlighten and Entertain

Historical fiction helps us view the events of history in new and meaningful ways. The best novels teach us about our past while entertaining us in the present. With that in mind, today’s list contains ten historical fiction novels (for a variety of ages) that will inform and entertain your young reader. Specifically, the books on this list taught me about events in history I knew almost nothing about. Each one is a gem, well-written and worth the read.

The Faithful Spy

Part graphic novel, but also not really I wasn’t sure how this book would read when I picked it up. Wow, it was so inspiring I couldn’t put it down and closed it with tears in my eyes. I could not wait to recommend it to you.

Bonhoeffer’s story is amazing on its own. He stood up to Hitler when so many Germans did not. John Hendrix tells Bonhoeffer’s story in a fresh way. He uses illustrations and color to tell the story of Hitler’s rise to power in tandem with Bonhoeffer’s story. Sharing so much of the history of the Nazi party and Germany gives readers a wider perspective as they read. Obviously, Hendrix could not include everything, but the parts of the story he did tell were well-chosen and well-told. This book was amazing.

A Monster Calls and Why Reading Sad Books is Important

Sometimes I hesitate to recommend sad books; they aren’t for everyone. Plus, who wants to intentionally make their kids cry?

A Monster Calls is a book I have wanted to recommend for a long time. While listening to a podcast last week, I was reminded why sometimes it is good to read sad books. It gave me the push I needed to share this special book with you.

Author Focus: Jennifer L. Holm

I have noticed the covers of Jennifer L. Holm’s numerous books on the shelves of our school and public libraries for years. Last month, I picked one up for the first time. Followed by another, and another until I’d read a good chunk of them. I am now a fan.

If you are looking for quality middle grade books for almost any kind of reader, Jennifer L. Holm might be just the author you are looking for. A few of the categories her books fall into include: historical fiction, science-themed stories, novels starring girls, books starring boys, a pinch of fantasy, humor, and a host of graphic novels that she co-wrote with her brother Matthew Holm.

Plus, her stories are really good!

Many of her novels are based on or inspired by stories of Jennifer’s own family. I learned bits of history that I never knew before, discovered characters I loved, laughed, cried and was thoroughly entertained by the stories that fill up her books.

The following books are excellent middle grade reads (including 3 Newbery Honor books) and I am excited to recommend them to you.

Books that Quietly Change Culture

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats is a classic in children’s literature. Written in 1962, it was well-received from the get-go and even won the Caldecott Medal that year. Who can’t relate to the wonder of a fresh blanket of snow? The Snowy Day was also one of the first picture books to feature an African American child as the main character. Written in the midst of the Civil Rights movement this book quietly made a very important statement.

I read an article that ran on NPR on January 28, 2012 (the 50th anniversary of The Snowy Day) that shared one of the ways this book made an impact:

A Book List of Mysteries for All Ages

Mysteries are the perfect type of book to read on a cold and blustery fall or winter night. If your child loves the thrill of following clues along with the danger and suspense that literary detectives always encounter. I’ve got a list for you.

So get a fire going in the fireplace, grab a cozy blanket and a mug of hot chocolate, and dive into one of the following books.

Author Focus: Steve Sheinken

Sometimes history gets the bad rap of being boring. If your kids think this, or if they think the opposite and LOVE history, I have an author for you to check out immediately.

Steve Sheinken used to write history textbooks, but don’t let that stop you from picking up one of his middle grade or young adult books. His first book King George: What Was His Problem? is filled with stories from the American Revolution they wouldn’t let him put in the history books. It has a cover that is anything but boring and might be the perfect way to help your kids dip their toes into the subject of history in a way that is not at all boring.

In one of Steve’s most recent books for elementary-school aged kids, Abraham Lincoln, Pro Wrestler, I found the following quote:

“‘Kids say [history] is… Abby lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘boring.’

‘Some shows are boring, some books,’ Mr. Douglass said. ‘But history is just stories. Surprising, sad, funny, gross stories. Set in all different times and places. What’s boring about that?’”

To me, this feels like the perfect description of what Steve accomplishes with his books. He finds and shares unique stories from history that have been overlooked or forgotten and shares them in an exciting and very readable way. His knack for creating historical books that read like suspenseful novels is legit.

Mysterious, Classic, Scary and Sweet - a Fall booklist perfect for cold nights and cozy blankets

Fall is the perfect time for reading. The shorter days and colder nights drive us inside and create the ideal opportunity to snuggle up with a cozy blanket and a good book.

Yep, Autumn and reading go together like peanut butter and jelly, a classic combination.

There are certain genres of books that feel especially appropriate this time of year. Cold and gray outsides, make the insides extra cozy and the thought of diving into a thick book or classic work more inviting. Shorter days and longer evenings can be motivating to start a longer series of books. A spooky story or compelling mystery can be just the thing to set the mood for a late night read in bed while the wind howls outside the window.

Today’s list contains ideas and recommendations from all of these categories, making it a fairly diverse list. If you have a sensitive reader, some of these books might not be a good match. But, if your young reader enjoys the thrill of a scary story every once in awhile, I am excited to share some new discoveries.

Wherever your child falls on the spooky spectrum, I think today’s list has a little bit for everyone. Hopefully you will find the perfect book for your kids to dive into this Fall, to read on their own or to share together.

Exploring Castles and Dealing with Dragons - a book list

A little over a month ago I had the opportunity to travel to Scotland. Throughout our visit we hiked trails, rode trains, toured castles and (of course) looked for Nessie all amidst beautiful and varied landscapes. At times, it felt like we were in another world, a world where fairies and dragons most definitely exist.

Now that we are home, I will grudgingly admit that these fantastical creatures (probably) don’t exist. But, I will always be thankful they ARE meant to live in our imaginations and come alive through the telling of fairy tales and the reading of good books. Scotland was a place where their existence felt possible and that is one of many reasons why I hope to return.

Until then, I am thankful for books filled with castles and dragons that give us the opportunity to get lost in a good story and visit far-off lands.

Today’s list, inspired in part by Scotand, contains books and series where castles come alive, dragons live and peasant girls try to become princesses.

Author Focus: Jennifer A. Nielsen

We (and I say “we” a lot in this post, because Jennifer Nielsen books have become a family affair) were first introduced to Jennifer A. Nielsen through her historical fiction novel, A Night Divided. While I haven’t read it yet, most of my kids have. They love it and are continually shocked when they remember I haven’t read it yet. If you ask us for a historical fiction recommendation, A Night Divided will surely be on the list.

My oldest picked up the first book in the Ascendence Trilogy, The False Prince when she was in junior high. She was hooked. She couldn’t stop reading until she had finished all three books. The same was true of my son when he read it this past summer. This fantasy series is full of high adventure, twists, turns and a good dose of humor. It is a lot of fun and has become a favorite at our house.

I finished Nielsen’s newest book Resistance this week. Resistance is another historical fiction novel and in my opinion it is her best yet. Set in Poland just before the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, it follows a young Jewish girl determined to do everything she can to fight the Nazi’s. It was excellent. I have told my kids they HAVE to read it.

With such strong feelings towards so many of her books, I wanted to share them with you. Below are short descriptions of Nielsen’s books. Most fall in the fantasy genre, but the two historical fictions listed we highly recommend.

If you are looking for quality books for your teens and pre-teens, Jennifer A. Nielsen would be a great author to try.

Quick Picks: What My Kids are Reading

As I have been blessed with a large passel of kids with a variety of ages, interests, and reading likes and dislikes, I thought I’d do a “quick pick” list inspired by them. Below are the books my kids are currently reading. If you are looking for ideas for your young reader, maybe one these books will inspire them.

Recommended Reading for your Teenager from Mine

I am often asked for recommendations for readers that fall into the teenage sector. It can be hard to find books that capture their attention and aren’t overrun with sex, violence and language. So, I asked my teen reader for her recommendations. She gave me a list of eleven. A few have been pulled from middle-grade shelves and one is geared towards adults, but the majority come from the YA shelves of our library. Maybe one of them will spark the interest of your teen reader.

From Amazon: Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life -- until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father's prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?

From Mya: I love the sense of community between the people and the family in this book as they travel through labor camps and other hard trials. I also love the kind, loving and determined mother in this story.

From Amazon: World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

Told in alternating points of view and perfect for fans of Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Erik Larson's Dead Wake, and Elizabeth Wein's Printz Honor Book Code Name Verity, this masterful work of historical fiction is inspired by the real-life tragedy that was the sinking of the
 Wilhelm Gustloffthe greatest maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity and love can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.

From Mya: I had never heard of this ship sinking and I was astounded and horror struck by the story. This book is amazing at portraying the emotions and trials at the end of World War II in Germany. I couldn’t put it down.

From Amazon: Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones. With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger. As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.

From Mya: I love the character of Cal and how she is always trying to learn new things and how she doesn’t follow the norms of the time period. I also really loved her relationship with her grandpa.

From Amazon: Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. For two years what has mattered are the number of cacao pods he and his younger brother, Seydou, can chop down in a day. The higher the number the safer they are. The higher the number the closer they are to paying off their debt and returning home. Maybe. The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how much he and Seydou owe, and the bosses won’t tell him. The boys only wanted to make money to help their impoverished family, instead they were tricked into forced labor on a plantation in the Ivory Coast. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive—until Khadija comes into their lives. 

She’s the first girl who’s ever come to camp, and she’s a wild thing. She fights bravely every day, attempting escape again and again, reminding Amadou what it means to be free. But finally, the bosses break her, and what happens next to the brother he has always tried to protect almost breaks Amadou. The three band together as family and try just once more to escape.

Inspired by true-to-life events happening right now, The Bitter Side of Sweet is an exquisitely written tour de force not to be missed. 

From Mya: I love this book because it was a story that I had never heard of before. I also love how close the brothers were to each other and how they looked out for each other. I hate that this actually happens and isn’t always a happy ending.

From Amazon: In this companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, Doug struggles to be more than the "skinny thug" that some people think him to be. He finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer, who gives him the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.

From Mya: This book is sooo good! I love it because of it’s Jane Eyre references (one of my favorites!). And, I love how this kid hates everything about the town he moves to, but as life goes on he falls in love with it.

From Amazon: As the fiftieth anniversary approaches, there's a renewed interest in this infamous 1955 murder case, which made a lasting mark on American culture, as well as the future Civil Rights Movement. Chris Crowe's IRA Award-winning novel and his gripping, photo-illustrated nonfiction work are currently the only books on the teenager's murder written for young adults.

From Mya: This book told the story of Emit Till and his murder case from an unbiased perspective. It was thought-provoking and a book I was glad I read.

From Amazon: In the four most bloody and courageous days of our nation’s history, two armies fought for two conflicting dreams. One dreamed of freedom, the other of a way of life. Far more than rifles and bullets were carried into battle. There were memories. There were promises. There was love. And far more than men fell on those Pennsylvania fields. Bright futures, untested innocence, and pristine beauty were also the casualties of war. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece is unique, sweeping, unforgettable—the dramatic story of the battleground for America’s destiny.

From Mya: I love, love, love how this book gave me a totally new perspective on the Battle of Gettysburg. I also love how the author gives you a good understanding of the men who fought in that battle in a way that makes you root for them as the story is told.

From Amazon: It was the summer of storms and strays and strangers. The summer that lightning struck the big oak tree in the front yard. The summer his mother died in a tragic accident. As he recalls the tumultuous events that launched a surprising journey, Samuel can still hardly believe it all happened.

After his mother's death, twelve-year-old Samuel Chambers would do anything to bring her back. Prompted by three strange carnival fortune-tellers and the surfacing of his mysterious and reclusive neighbor, Sam begins his search for the Tree of Life--the only thing that could possibly bring his mother back. His quest to defeat death entangles him and his best friend Abra in an ancient conflict and forces Sam to grapple with an unwelcome question: could it be possible that death is a gift? 

From Mya: This was a good book. It did a good job of showing the pain of a loved one’s death and the fight between good and evil during that time. I am looking forward to reading the sequel!

From Amazon: As twelve-year-old Marlee starts middle school in 1958 Little Rock, it feels like her whole world is falling apart. Until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is everything Marlee wishes she could be: she's brave, brash and always knows the right thing to say. But when Liz leaves school without even a good-bye, the rumor is that Liz was caught passing for white. Marlee decides that doesn't matter. She just wants her friend back. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are even willing to take on segregation and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.

From Mya: I love how the main character wants to fight for what is right even though it might risk the safety of everyone she cares about. I could relate with her and really loved reading this book.

From Amazon: It's 1943, and eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is en route to New Mexico to live with her mathematician father. Soon she arrives at a town that, officially, doesn't exist. It is called Los Alamos, and it is abuzz with activity, as scientists and mathematicians from all over America and Europe work on the biggest secret of all--"the gadget." None of them--not J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project; not the mathematicians and scientists; and least of all, Dewey--know how much "the gadget" is about to change their lives.

From Mya: This book gave me a new perspective on the atomic bomb and what it might have been like for the families of the scientist who worked on it. I really enjoyed reading it.

From Amazon: The New York Times bestselling true story of an all-American girl and a boy from Zimbabwe and the letter that changed both of their lives forever.

It started as an assignment. Everyone in Caitlin's class wrote to an unknown student somewhere in a distant place. 

Martin was lucky to even receive a pen-pal letter. There were only ten letters, and fifty kids in his class. But he was the top student, so he got the first one.

That letter was the beginning of a correspondence that spanned six years and changed two lives.

In this compelling dual memoir, Caitlin and Martin recount how they became best friends --and better people--through their long-distance exchange. Their story will inspire you to look beyond your own life and wonder about the world at large and your place in it.

From Mya: The amazing thing about reading this book is getting to watch this unique relationship survive and bloom even though hardship and distance. Their friendship was so special and powerful to read about. My coach told me the audio book is amazing too.

Let’s keep the list going. What have your teens been reading that they would recommend?

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Book #2: The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

My kids are back in school and I am excited to get back to sharing books with you. To transition into business as usual, I'm starting things off by highlighting my favorite reads from this summer. Today is day 2; let me tell you about book 2.

Book #2:  The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

Quick Picks - May Edition

Some of my current reads make it into lists that go straight to the blog, others will make it to future lists yet to be determined. And some best fit this list, a list of what I've been reading lately.

Below are three books (all very different from each other) I have enjoyed over the past month and wanted to share. 

What have you and your kids been reading lately? 

6 Sporty Books that are a Must-Read for the Sports Star and the Athletcially Challenged

There is a stereotype that says kids who are athletic and involved in sports don’t like to read. As with all stereotypes this doesn’t always hold true, and when it does I wonder if the athletes who claim they don’t like to read either don’t have the time or simply haven’t found the right book. 

So, I figured if you are trying to interest an athlete in reading, maybe a book about athletes could be just the hook you are looking for. While today’s list is of the nonfiction variety, there are many options in the fiction world too. However, that list is for another day. 

And, for those of you who are not sport’s enthusiast, don’t stop reading!!

This list is for you too.  As I quickly found out, you don’t have to be an athlete to love these books. They are filled with amazing stories of people who overcame great odds. Their lives are an inspiration to anyone who chooses to read or listen along. 

12.75 year-old Boy Seeking Books of Sport and Adventure

Jonah is an almost teenager who loves the Cubs, playing with his dog and playing video and board games. The thing he likes most about reading is that you can go at your own pace and do it whenever you have the time. However, he says that when a book is slow reading can be boring, especially when you are a slower reader. When he is looking for a book to read, he looks for sports books, graphic novels and books filled with adventure. He will also pick up a book if his friends are reading it and it looks good. 

I am excited to help Jonah with a few personalized picks. To help me help him, I asked Jonah to share three of his favorite books and one he was not so crazy about. Here are his favorites:

5 (or more) Novels in Verse that Will Make you Fall in Love with the Genre

The first time I pulled a novel in verse off the shelf, I opened it, saw that it looked like one long poem and quickly put it back. A year later I decided to give one a try and checked out a copy of Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. I quickly learned I had made a mistake by putting that book back on the shelf so long ago. After that, it did not take long for me to fall in love with the genre.

 Most novels in verse contain well-crafted stories told through carefully chosen words. I am often amazed at how different authors utilize poetry, some through free verse and others through more structured forms of poetry to tell their stories.  The novel in verse is also accessible to a wide variety of readers. Because of the large amount of white space on the page, they are relatively quick reads making them a good pick for avid and reluctant readers alike. 

Below are five-is to get you started. Please add to the list in the comments. I am always on the look out for more. 

Eleven-year-old Boy Seeking Page-Turning, True-to-Life Stories

Drew is a eleven-year-old boy who loves to be outdoors. Some of his favorite things include:  nerf wars, exploring, rip-sticking and jumping on the trampoline. Drew doesn’t love reading, but he doesn’t hate it either. As his mom says, “he is growing in his like of it.” A slower reader by nature, Drew’s favorite books draw him in right away with a strong hook. He leans towards nonfiction and historical fiction and if a book looks too big or has too small of print he has a hard time starting it. 

Drew’s mom asked me for a few personalized picks. To help me help him, I asked Drew to share three of his favorite books and one he was not so crazy about. Here are his favorites:

Inspiring Biographies for Black History Month

Black History Month began this week. In an effort to celebrate the contributions and beautiful color so many African Americans have added to our country I thought I’d highlight a few inspiring biographies I’ve discovered over the years. I hope these are titles that will connect with your kids, engage their hearts, and inspire them to learn more about these amazing people who have impacted our country in big ways.