Read to your tweens. Or with your tween, reading a chapter ahead or behind in the same book. It depends on the child. And on the book.
Here’s what we’re reading.
by Katherine Rundell
Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2018 – ISBN 9781408882191
Four children are on their own in the jungle after a plane crash. This is the story of their quest to survive. It’s an adventure story, in which these are some of the survival skills you will need: follow ants, they lead to water; eat raw cocoa beans and the grubs they harbour, that’s protein; climb a tree to reach its ammonia, daub yourself in it to repel bees, then eat their honey. There’s climbing, rafting, camping, hunting and life-saving to be had between the pages of this adventure, which ends with a truly breath-taking….. No, I won’t give it away, but I was literally holding my breath as I read some of the last chapters. As the quest unfolds, the children realise that they may not be alone, but are they close to friend or foe? This is a fast-paced, page-turning story with short chapters and lots of action, but nothing scarier than ‘mild peril’ as they say on the film rating descriptions. The pace is pushed along by the taut, crisp, crystal clear language, which your tween will fly past whilst you linger – it’s practically lickable.
The further into the jungle they go, the more the children come to know each other and, as readers, the more we learn about them. We learn that “Inside, Fred was hunger and hope and wire”; that “[Lila’s] face was bones and eyes and nerves.” The characters are very real people, their emotions are exposed and in their responses to their situation and to each other they are recognisable as people we know, as people like us.
We can talk to our tweens about the emotions these characters are experiencing: what does that mean? How would that feel? Can you imagine feeling like that? When? Why? It doesn’t need to be a full-blown, full-on interrogation – just a question, maybe two, to suit your child, and their interests. Maybe it’s the jungle environment that prompts you to dream up a survival skill together; or maybe it’s a silly conversation about the most disgusting jungle-food imaginable; or why five-year-old Max produces quite so much snot, so often; or maybe it’s guessing together what will happen next in the story. Often, our children tell us things about a book that we hadn’t noticed, that we didn’t know. Those are the best times of all.
by Jessica Townsend
Orion Children’s Books, 2017. ISBN 9781510103825
Written in the genre of magical worlds and the debut novel of Australian author Jessica Townsend, Nevermoor is a well-paced, characterful and heartwarming story for any tween and their lucky parents to get their hands on.
The clear character development throughout the book is one reason to keep turning the pages well past bedtime. Morrigan Crow, the protagonist, has many challenges and obstacles to overcome, all of which deepen our knowledge and understanding of her, and with that our liking for her. But there’s many more characters to like – the story’s supporting cast of quirky Nevermoor inhabitants who we get to know includes Fenestra, the grumpy Magnificat; Jack, the boy with the mysterious eye patch; cheeky but loveable Hawthorne the dragon rider; and Cadence, who has an intriguing gift of her own that is surely ripe for further exploration in the second Nevermoor book, Wundersmith.
Morrigan has to take part in four trials throughout the course of the story, and it is these trials which particularly drive the plot forward. They also open up exactly the kind of discourse about values that we want to be able to explore with our tweens. The Book Trial is about honesty, about being honest with ourselves. I think learning emotional intelligence is about recognising emotions accurately, and this trial and the conversations it may prompt is a great way to think about accurately recognising and naming emotions with our tweens. In the Chase Trial, Morrigan turns around to pick up a fallen competitor in danger – would you do the same, or would you race on to the finish line which is in your grasp? Then there’s the Fright Trial, where real bravery demands that Morrigan overcomes her own, personal fears. Perhaps, to overcome our own personal fears, we have to be prepared to name them – an interesting discussion with our tweens, and one which, for me, relates to the above thoughts about honesty. Self knowledge can be a powerful thing. In the Show Trial, we learn that “if you are not honest, and determined, and brave, then it doesn’t matter how talented you are.” And as the plot reaches its crescendo, it is Morrigan’s determination to be true to herself that saves her.
Nevermoor is a perfect tween read. I love the values it explores, because these are the values that I want to explore with my tween. I love the story’s shadows, which never get too dark for a sensitive tween to read on their own, but which also encompass the presence of dark and light in our world. As our children move towards the greater independence that comes with their teenage years, they will encounter more of the darker side of life. I want to prepare my daughter, gently, because to be unprepared is to be vulnerable. For me, Nevermoor has just enough darkness to begin those preparations, time enough when my daughter is a teenager for darker stories set in other magical worlds.
Now I’m off to get the second book in the series, whilst my daughter gets on with the first.
If you want to read another review of Nevermoor, along with reviews of other tween books, click here: https://www.readbrightly.com/middle-grade-books-tweens-love-fall-2017/
Letters from the Lighthouse
by Emma Carroll
Faber and Faber, 2017, London. ISBN 978 0 571 32758 4
Emma Carroll’s Letters from the Lighthouse fits well under the banner of historical fiction for tweens. Equally, as Emma says on her website, her books are for all readers of all ages, and that’s what I like to hear as I certainly enjoyed this one as much as Nancy did.
Historical references abound, adding context to plot and characters and feeding those all-important conversations between you and your tween as you read together. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of food and fashion: ‘thick white bread with proper butter underneath the jam” is handed out to the children in the book like heavenly nectar but Nancy was unimpressed, thinking that clotted cream and scones should have been there with the butter and jam for a treat worth having. I loved the post-box red lipstick and the hairstyle, “curled like a film star’s”, conjuring up a strong visual image of young women in 1940s fashion, copied from the golden era of Hollywood films. Then the history gets more serious as descriptions of Kindertransport and Krystallnacht get us into the dark heart of the Nazi regime. An opportunity not to be missed, here, to compare the Jewish refugees in the story to contemporary refugees fleeing violence and oppression in current news reports.
The Week Junior have a great double-page spread exploring refugees: https://cdn.theweekjunior.co.uk/The_Week_Junior_All_about_refugees.pdf?_ga=2.53785839.617782544.1575373786-619862614.1575373786
There are real bombs and narrative bombs as the plot takes off. Nancy and I found this to be a real page-turner of a story, bounding along through an air raid, missing persons, dropping bombs, quicksand plight, plane crash, missing boat and code cracking all provide crackling narrative tension as event after event explodes between the pages.
The story is told in the first person from the perspective of Olive, who is on a quest to solve the plot’s puzzle and find the missing person. There are plenty of challenges for Olive, not least the conflicting loyalties and contentious values which she has to battle through to reach a new depth of understanding about herself and the people she loves. Her best line, in a particular moment of challenge, is this: ‘No, I wouldn’t keep quiet. I had a voice, and it was time to make some noise with it.” That’s my girl! There are plenty more of those girls, those strong, role-model girls and women in this book, and perhaps that’s the best reason of all to read it.
Nancy is currently reading The Somerset Tsunami, Emma Carroll’s latest novel. I’m next in the queue to read it and I don’t think I’ll be waiting long – Nancy’s romping through it at a rate of knots and I’m guessing we have another page turner plot to take with us into a semi-hidden Saturday afternoon corner and stay there for as long as possible.
Read about The Somerset Tsunami here: https://emmacarrollauthor.wordpress.com