Recommended Titles For Tweens Through Teens

  • December 20, 2011

Lisa Smilan and others provide mini-reviews for those who are seeking quality books for the young people on their gift lists.

With the generous help of several of my colleagues, many of whom are teachers or librarians who also write for children and young adults, I have assembled this compilation of condensed reviews. We at The Independent thought this type of feature would be useful to our readers who, in the midst of this busy holiday season, might be seeking quality books for the young people on their gift lists. I hope it is helpful.

Happy Holidays!
Lisa Smilan
Associate Editor, The Washington Independent Review of Books

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu
Wendy Wan-Long Shang
312 pp.
Ages 8-12

Reviewed by Lisa Smilan

Washington-area debut author, Wendy Wan-Long Shang, serves up a well-crafted story with lots of heart and a perfect balance of emotion and humor in The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. Lucy Wu is a relatable, likable protagonist, surrounded by a cast of well-drawn, believable characters. Lucy is about to start sixth grade and is planning to have the best year of her life! Overjoyed that her perfect older sister is finally leaving for college, Lucy can’t wait to claim sole ownership of their shared bedroom. These plans are abruptly derailed when Lucy learns that she will soon share her room with a long-lost, elderly great-aunt who only speaks Chinese. This is the first of several unfortunate occurrences plaguing Lucy as the school year ensues. Lucy, who views herself as a hyphenated person — Chinese and American — is outraged when her parents insist that she attend Chinese school to study Chinese culture, language and history, especially because the class conflicts with basketball practice. Some serious issues, e.g., the Cultural Revolution in China, are addressed in a way that informs without overwhelming young readers as they learn alongside Lucy. During her great-aunt’s visit, Lucy discovers that sometimes family and friends come from unexpected places, and sometimes both can be found in the same person. Girls ages 8-12 who enjoy wholesome, contemporary stories addressing real-life issues should read this book. Lucy’s obsession with basketball may also appeal to boys in this same age group.


Down the Mysterly River
Bill Willingham
Mark Buckingham, Illus.
328 pp.
Ages 10 and up

Reviewed by Jess Stork

At first glance, Max The Wolf seems like an ordinary boy scout lost in the woods. But after meeting a talking badger, a feral barn cat and a bear who claims to be a sheriff, Max’s story becomes a bit more unusual. Neither he nor his companions can recall how they arrived in the forest. In fact, there are a lot of things missing from their memory. To make matters worse, a vicious group of hunters called the Blue Cutters are pursuing them through this mysterious wood. The Blue Cutters inflict a unique type of wound that steals more than just blood. Max and his companions have no choice but to follow the Mysterly River and hope it will lead them to the Wizard Swift’s Sanctuary … and some answers. Down the Mysterly River is a book for those who love a fast-paced thrill. The story is an exciting read with twists at every turn as drastic as the Mysterly River itself. Adventure-loving boys will particularly enjoy Max The Wolf’s resourcefulness as he tries to unravel the mystery of his origins. The children’s book debut for Will Willingham, creator of award-winning graphic novels for adults, this is a story for readers who relish the Hardy Boys with a dash of sword fighting. It is well worth following Max and his companions to their exciting finale.

Brian Selznick
640 pp.
Ages 9 and up

Reviewed by Susan Kusel

Wonderstruck tells the parallel and intertwining stories of two deaf children set 50 years apart. Ben’s story begins in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977 as he struggles with the death of his mother. When he is suddenly rendered deaf by a bolt of lightning, he runs away to New York City in search of his unknown father. Rose, a young deaf girl in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927, escapes to Manhattan to search for what’s missing from her constrictive life. Each protagonist’s journey of self discovery leads them to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. These stories intersect through a compelling and twisting plot, culminating in an unexpected ending. Ben’s story is told through the text of the book, while Rose’s story is conveyed masterfully through hundreds of stunning pencil illustrations. Wonderstruck is perfect for fans of Selznick’s groundbreaking 2008 Caldecott Medal winning book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Readers will also want to seek out E. L. Konigsburg’s novel From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler since Selznick has scattered multiple clues to this classic throughout his book.


A Girl Named Faithful Plum
Richard Bernstein
270 pp.
Ages 8-12

Reviewed by Terry Lim Diefenbach

Modern China is a topic of much interest but few writings explore the daily realities of the common people. A Girl Named Faithful Plum, based on the true preteen experiences of the author’s wife, provides some insights. At the center of the story is 11-year-old Zhongmei, “a Girl called Faithful Plum,” a poor but gifted village girl who is driven to become a professional dancer. The timeframe is post-Mao, post-Cultural Revolution China. The main setting is the Beijing Academy of Dance. The plot of the story is classic: underdog makes good. However, it plays out in a very foreign and complex world which we negotiate through Zhongmei’s letters to her sister and through flashbacks, as we trace her first year at the Academy, far away from home. As a girl from the country, Zhongmei suffers humiliation at the hands of classmates and some of the faculty. However, her talent, resourcefulness and tenacity win her support from some key people when the bullying denies her access to crucial classes. Girls ages 8-12 especially will empathize with how Zhongmei overcomes the obstacles to her success, and those with an interest in the performing arts will identify with her intense devotion to her craft. The book also shows a part of China at a time not yet forgotten, the canvas for this inspiring portrait of a girl with faith and courage. Thoughtfully, the book includes a list of names with cultural notes and a glossary to explain unfamiliar terms.


The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales
Chris Van Allsburg and noted contributors
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
202 pp.
Ages 10-14

Reviewed by Jonathan Roth

Great art and unsolved mysteries only become more fascinating with age, and the surreal, thought-provoking drawings of Harris Burdick are no exception. For those unfamiliar with the long-vanished illustrator, Burdick was “discovered” over 25 years ago by Chris Van Allsburg, the best-selling creator of Jumanji and The Polar Express. His 14 unrelated black-and-white illustrations were subsequently published as the collection The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and have since acquired a legendary status as addictive writing prompts. Why was an ocean liner barreling into the canals of Venice? What was that strange bump moving under the rug? Who left a lone harp in the woods? How could a house blast off? In this lavish new release that should appeal to anyone, young or old, with an active imagination, 14 Amazing Authors share their own inspired responses. And they were clearly having fun. While some stories go for humor (first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Jon Scieszka, of course), some mine the poignant (Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo with a World War II era epistolary tale), and some go so far down the rabbit hole (National Book Award Finalist M.T. Anderson’s mind-bending treat) that you can’t help but get chills. Other noted contributors include Stephen King, Louis Sacher, Linda Sue Park and Sherman Alexie. Not too shabby.


Camo Girl
Kekla Magoon
224 pp.
Ages 10 and up

Reviewed by Cynthia Unwin

Sixth grader Ella refuses to look in a mirror. Her blotchy brown and beige face makes her the butt of “Camo Girl” jokes at school, and she has exactly one friend — a small misfit by the name of Zachariah (Z) who sleeps at the local Wal-Mart and otherwise lives in his own fantasy world. Enter Bailey James, a new black kid whose gregarious nature and skill with a basketball makes him a friend magnet. For the first time, Ella is not the only African-American student in her grade, and she finds herself drawn to Bailey and away from Z. Dismayed, Z retreats even further into his imagination, and then runs away. Ella and Bailey sneak away on a quest to rescue Zachariah, learning much along the way about themselves and the unique baggage that every person carries. Camo Girl, written by the award-winning author of The Rock and the River (2009), will ring true with any adolescent girl who discovers parts of herself that don’t fit in. Magoon’s depiction of Ella poignantly illustrates the inner conflict that defines every young adult on the path to self-discovery. The most striking portrayal of Ella, however, lies in Magoon’s unveiling of her inner strength and moral center, equally important in navigating the rough waters of adolescence.


Sound Bender
Lin Oliver and Theo Baker
262 pp.
Ages 10 and up

Reviewed by Heather Tourkin

Leo’s 13th birthday comes with a few surprises. First, Leo and his younger brother, Hollis — both orphans — move into a warehouse in Brooklyn, N.Y. with their sketchy but rich antiques-dealer uncle. Second, Leo receives a mysterious package from his dead father that has a special message: Leo is a “sound bender,” which means that from now on when he touches certain objects he is able to hear their histories. Leo finds a strange helmet in his uncle’s collection of antiquities: when he puts it on, what he hears haunts him. Leo knows the only way he can get the sound out of his mind is to find its source. To do that, he must steal the helmet and travel to a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. While Sound Bender is a well-paced novel with enough action and intrigue to keep any tween reading until late at night, what I liked most about the book was Leo. He’s a great kid with a winning spirit.


Body of Water
Sarah Dooley
Feiwel and Friends
326 pp.
Ages 11-14

Reviewed by Corinne Wetzel

When a mysterious fire destroys their trailer home in rural West Virginia, 12-year-old Ember and her family move to a lakeside campground where they scrape by with little money and a dwindling reservoir of hope. Themes of fire and water flow and crackle through this reflective coming-of-age story, in which Ember struggles to process the powerful emotions generated by the losses of her home, her beloved dog, and her friendship with Anson, whom she suspects of setting the fire. Already marginalized by poverty, her weight problem, and her family’s Wiccan religion, Ember copes dysfunctionally by pushing away the kids at the campground who try to become her friends. Her only escape is to float, weightless, on the lake, where the water covers her ears and buffers her from the world. As the hot summer wears on, Ember begins to open herself up to others, and discovers that connection leads to healing and to release of her burning anger. The approach of her first day of seventh grade as a homeless student raises the stakes, leading to critical decisions that will affect her, her family and her friends. Middle school-aged girls who enjoyed Susan Patron’s Newbery winner The Higher Power of Lucky in elementary school will now enjoy Body of Water, recognizing similar themes of overcoming adversity, the importance of relationships, and the search for spiritual grounding in a hard-luck world. Readers will cheer for Ember as she rises from the ashes of misfortune in this contemplative story that is, ultimately, about hope.


Unison Spark
Andy Marino
Henry Holt
232 pp.
Ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Erin Teagan

Mistletoe lives in the subcanopy of Eastern Seaboard City, separated from wealthy topside. She longs for access to Unison, the ultimate social network, a shimmering simulation of a perfect world that is used by topside inhabitants. The rich and the poor have no interaction, their worlds physically divided by a manmade canopy. Topside residents have the best of everything — BetterFood, top of the line holo-clothing, widespread network access — while those living in stacked dwellings in subcanopy use old technology and struggle for survival. When topside Ambrose Truax, the son of UniCorp’s CEO and Unison’s youngest and most gifted associate, finds himself in subcanopy’s city Little Saigon, it is Mistletoe who whisks him to safety when his life is in danger. It doesn’t take long for Mistletoe and Ambrose to realize that despite coming from two different worlds, they share a dark and dangerous secret. Andy Marino does a superb job creating this new and interesting world where social media no longer requires a computer screen. This book will interest a wide audience ages 12 and up, fans of dystopian and science fiction, as well as anyone looking for a fast-paced story infused with mystery and conspiracy, and driven by great characters. Readers who enjoyed Feed, by M.T. Anderson, and Divergent, by Veronica Roth, will want to pick up this book. As well, the alternating male and female perspectives of Mistletoe and Ambrose will appeal to both girls and boys.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Catherynne M. Valente
Feiwel and Friends
247 pp.
Ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Jess Stork

It used to be that any boy or girl could stumble into Fairy Land and experience an adventure, mayhem and near-death experiences without any bit of difficulty. But since the Marquess came to power, Fairyland has not been the same. She’s chained the wings of the dragon-like creatures, called “wyvern,” forbids the Green Wind from entering Fairyland and even forces the fairies to be nice. This is the Fairyland that September encounters after she escapes with the Green Wind from her kitchen one day: A world of witches without spoons, a city made of luxurious cloths, and a golem fashioned of soap. September befriends a Marid from the sea and a wyvern that is knowledgeable in all dictionary subjects from A through L. But as the Marquess threatens the safety of her friends, September is thrown into a wild quest for a mysterious sword. The rich descriptions and eloquent language in this book create a vivid world for the reader to explore. Certain aspects are even reminiscent of Alice In Wonderland. But don’t mistake September for Alice. She has more spunk and boldness than any Victorian lady. This is a tale for any girl who has the courage to brave an unknown adventure or get lost in an uncertain world. A tale where it’s not clear where the next page will lead. But in the words of the Wyvern A Through L, “splendid things are often frightening.”

The Project
Brian Falkner
Random House
275 pp.
Ages 11-14

Reviewed by Mary Goodie

Award-winning young adult novelist Brian Falkner’s most recent release, The Project, takes readers on a wild, dangerous ride with a frightening historical spin. Middle school boys will likely find it easy to relate to main characters Tommy and Luke, who at 15 are willing to swap boredom for the risk of punishment. After committing a particularly amusing but ill-fated act of defiance, the boys accept a challenge from their school’s headmaster — prove their claim that the book they’ve been assigned for English class is considered boring not only by students, but also by “experts,” and there will be no punishment. Motivated to avoid a harsh reprimand, the boys begin researching dull books, only to find that there is one book that is considered the most boring in the world, and the only copy is within their reach. Recognizing the book’s value, the boys orchestrate an impromptu plan to steal it. Their pursuit, however, ultimately lands them in the midst of a time-altered quest through Nazi Germany. As the hidden secrets of the rare book unfold, the teens are faced with the realization that their actions can have profound effects on others — and there are far worse things than being bored. Faulkner’s creative use of setting — rising floodwater and frigid temperatures — adds additional, palpable tension to the boys’ already dangerous situation. For young male readers captivated by mystery, suspense, and particularly for those interested in World War II history, Faulkner’s novel offers an exciting, thought provoking read.


Belle’s Song
K. M. Grant
300 pp.
Ages 12 and up

Reviewed by Sarah McGuire

Belle is a spirited young woman whose carelessness caused the accident that crippled her father. She can’t scrub away her guilt with a pumice stone. Her obsessive attempts to group her steps, sights, and experiences into threes can’t order her world. After an encounter with Luke, a pilgrim on his way to Canterbury, Belle wonders if making the pilgrimage might miraculously restore her father to health. Still skeptical, but determined to make things right, Belle joins Luke and the band of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. At first, Belle thinks only of avoiding the lecherous Summoner Seekum and deciding whether she prefers the squire, Walter, to Luke. Soon, however, she discovers that Master Chaucer is involved in a dangerous mission for the young King Richard. Chaucer’s life, and the lives of those around him could be forfeited — and Summoner Seekum is watching for any sign of treason. Belle must decide whether to aid Master Chaucer. King Richard’s monarchy, her father’s safety, and possible romance hang in the balance. While readers familiar with The Canterbury Tales will enjoy meeting Chaucer’s pilgrims, Belle’s Song is still a treat for those unfamiliar with the tales. The book will delight fans of historical fiction. However, those who don’t normally consider historical fiction will enjoy their time with Belle. She is an interesting, thoroughly believable character with whom modern readers can identify. The novel is a perfect match for Chaucer’s tales, introducing readers to the complex, sometimes bawdy world that his characters inhabit.

The Future of Us
Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
356 pp.
Ages 13-18

Reviewed by Kelly Fiore

Two of young adult fiction’s greatest authors have come together to go back in time, but not in the way you’d expect. Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler have collaborated to create The Future of Us, a novel about the world before social media — and the world after it. The year is 1996 and Emma has 100 free Internet hours from an America Online CD-ROM. She and her best friend, Josh, log on and stumble across Facebook and their own profile pages … 15 years in the future. The story has rotating perspectives, switching back and forth between Emma and Josh, and the Facebook dialogue, status updates, and messages are imbedded within the text. This book will appeal to teenagers, both boys and girls, because of how timely and relatable the content is. At the same time, it provides a window back to a world of dial-up connections and “You’ve Got Mail!” Asher and Mackler skillfully capture 1996 and the birth of the Internet, while still making the characters and story pertinent to today’s youth. In the end, this is a tale of appreciating the present by discovering the future — and understanding that your decisions now can change your life forever. Readers who enjoyed Asher’s and Mackler’s other YA novels won’t be disappointed by The Future of Us. On the contrary, this is a book that spans time and space to connect generations, which, in itself, is an impressive feat.


Terry Lim Diefenbach, a writer/illustrator, lives in California. She is working on a middle grade novel based on her early childhood on Java at the end of World War II.

Kelly Fiore lives and teaches in Frederick, Maryland. Her first young adult novel, Food Fight, will be released Winter 2013 from Walker Books for Young Readers.

Mary Goodie is a writer, editor and teacher. She lives in Montgomery County, Maryland with her husband and three sons.

Susan Kusel has worked as a children’s librarian for Arlington County, Virginia, and a children’s bookseller for Politics & Prose and Barston’s Child’s Play. She currently is the children’s book selector and buyer for Words Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey and the owner of Dream On Books, a children’s book consulting company.

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

Jonathan Roth teaches art in Maryland to scores of creative elementary students by day, and dreams up his own mysterious tales by evening and long summer nights.

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.

Erin Teagan is currently taking a break from her science career to be at home with her two children. She reads many children’s books and is a reviewer for Children’s Literature Database.

Heather Tourkin has written two books for tween readers and is currently working on her third. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two teenage children.

Cynthia Unwin, Ph.D., is a reading specialist in the Fairfax County Public School system. In her rare moments of spare time, she writes fiction for children and young adults.

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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