Recommended Books for Tweens and Teens

  • April 3, 2012

Selected by Lisa Smilan, Associate Editor, The Washington Independent Review of Books.

Our five titles present young people dealing with adult-sized problems.


Barbara Wright
Random House Children’s
291 pp.
Ages 8-12

Reviewed by Terry Lim Diefenbach

It is 1898, and the aftermath of Reconstruction has left the South in spreading turmoil. Moses Thomas, 12 years old and black, experiences its painful consequences in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C.

Wilmington has a thriving middle-class black population. However, the laws imposing separate but equal societies for the races are fragile. A white militia succeeds in a violent takeover of the town.

It is an eventful year for Moses; he learns that being black means being short-changed. He finds a white friend, but both boys know to hide it. He learns of his mother and grandmother’s family secret. He teaches his wise but illiterate grandmother to read. Her earthy opinions clash with those of his rational, college-educated father who teaches him civility in social situations. In the short term his grandmother’s views win out, but the book suggests Moses eventually will benefit from the seeds planted by both.

Crow is a work of fiction built around a real event, the Wilmington Massacre. The endearing main characters will appeal to individual readers between 8 and 12 with their wit, language and resourcefulness in the face of humiliation. For class and family discussions, the story effectively introduces historical issues that continue to echo in our lives today.

The book includes a historical note.


If Only
Carole Geithner
327 pp.
Ages 10 and up

Reviewed by Lisa Smilan

“Death is a different kind of anniversary than a birthday or a graduation day. You mark it, it marks you, but you don’t celebrate.” These are the words Carole Geithner so eloquently shares through the voice of 12-year-old Corinna Burdette, an eighth-grader coping with the death of her mother.

Corinna is a likable, well-adjusted girl living in Bethesda, Maryland. She plays the flute, is on a soccer team, and is generally a good student. She is “normal.” But entering eighth-grade the summer after her mother dies, Corinna now feels completely abnormal, no longer herself but “the girl whose mother died.” Corinna regrets not holding her mother’s hand or saying “I love you” the day that she died, and feels isolated and betrayed when her best friend doesn’t know what to say or do to provide comfort.

Corinna comes to realize that it isn’t only kids who have trouble knowing how to talk about death and dying. Adults — including her mother as she withered away before Corinna’s eyes, and her father, afterward — have similar difficulty with this toughest of subjects. Other adults tell Corinna, “Be strong for your dad” and “Don’t cry.” None of this is even remotely helpful. What she yearns to hear is, “What can I do to help you feel better?” As suggested by the school grief group counselor, “Having people listen instead of telling feels much better.”

Geithner is a clinical social worker and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The George Washington University School of Medicine. This is her first novel. She has done a fine job allowing her characters authentic space in which to grapple with the trauma, confusion and finality of death and its aftermath. If Only is a quality novel and also a valuable resource on grief for those suffering and those hoping to be a source of comfort.


Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip
Jordan Sonnenblick
304 pp.
Ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Sarah McGuire

Peter Freidman is an All Star pitcher, and with his skill and dedication, he’ll only get better. He knows that he and AJ, his pitching partner and best friend, will take high school by storm.

Then he destroys his elbow the summer before freshman year.

Peter begins high school unsure of who he is without baseball, and he still hasn’t told AJ that he’ll never play again. If that isn’t enough, Peter knows something is wrong with his grandfather. The man who traveled the world as a photographer can’t remember how to drive home — and Peter’s mom doesn’t want to talk about it.

Still, there is photography class and the cute freshman who might actually like Peter. Yet Peter might lose his growing relationship with Angie if he can’t face the new reality in his life.

Curveball is a funny, heartfelt story that will appeal to middle school and young high school readers. The story revolves around Peter’s relationship with baseball, but it is never only about sports. Jordan Sonnenblick uses humor to explore life, not to hide from it. This rare gift gives Curveball great depth without it ever feeling heavy-handed.

My Family for the War
Anne C. Voorhoeve
402 pp.
Ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Corinne Wetzel

Franziska Mangold is caught between worlds in war-torn Europe. While her family has been Christian for generations, the Nazis persecute the Mangolds for their Jewish ancestry.

In Berlin, 10-year-old Ziska is beaten by Hitler Youth; her father is arrested and imprisoned. As opportunities dwindle for the family to escape Germany, Ziska and other refugee children are sent to England on a kindertransport. Frightened and resentful, Ziska must leave behind her parents — Mamu and Papa — and her best friend, Bekka.

Taken into a Jewish home in London, Ziska is torn between her need to connect with her new family and her feelings of responsibility toward those she left behind. Her teacher tracks the war’s progress with pins on a map; newsreels capture frozen moments of triumph and tragedy. Franziska’s journey through adolescence, however, cannot be so narrowly or easily defined.

In this richly individual story, Ziska comes of age and comes to grips with her identity as a German, as a Christian, and as a Jew. Over a period of seven years, Ziska becomes Frances, finds comfort in religious faith, learns to love her new family, and discovers where she truly belongs.

Voorhoeve’s intricately plotted and well-paced story tackles themes of belonging, family, tolerance, and acceptance that are as relevant now as they were during World War II. Middle and high school students who enjoyed The Diary of Anne Frank or Marcus Zuzak’s The Book Thief will discover new and satisfying perspectives in My Family for the War.

Born Wicked
Jessica Spotswood
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
326 pp.
Ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Jess Stork

“Protect your sisters.” That was the last thing Cate Cahill’s mother asked of her before she died. But she’s not shielding them just from scraped knees. Cate and her sisters are witches, born with powers to mold the world around them to their will. If the Brotherhood discovers them, they’ll find themselves swinging from a noose … or worse.

Born Wicked is set against a velvet backdrop of the 19th century. Witches fled to America for the promise of religious freedom, only to be met with a violent witch hunt headed by the Brotherhood. Cate has three months until her Intention Day, the day she must announce her resolve to join the religious sisterhood, or her betrothal for marriage. The clock is ticking, and Cate must make sure her sisters are safe, at all costs.

Spotswood’s rich descriptions and whiplash plot keep the reader guessing to the very end.  Older sisters will identify with Cate’s complicated relationship with her sisters, and how these relationships clash with her own ambitions. Readers will relish Cate’s unique brand of gumption as she struggles against fate. But beyond all else, Born Wicked is for any reader who wonders if one love can overpower another.

Terry Lim Diefenbach, a writer/illustrator, lives in California. She is currently working on illustrating the Myth of Andromeda.

Sarah McGuire works as a high school teacher in central Virginia and is currently writing a young adult novel.

Lisa Smilan writes novels for adults and young adults and is an associate editor for The Washington Independent Review of Books. She is an attorney and lives in suburban Maryland.

Jess Stork works in a Children’s Room for the DC Public Library where she concocts crazy programs such as the Poetry Carnival and the Haiku Egg Hunt. At night, she stamps out middle grade stories. Most recently, she published an article in the Fall 2011 issue of The Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Newsletter on Creating Catchy Opening Lines.

Corinne Wetzel teaches English to 120 awesome 7th graders in Chantilly, Virginia. She is an avid reader of young adult fiction.

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