I don’t know about you but I’m in awe every time I walk into a bookstore. So many up and coming authors are writing so many truly outstanding books.
Here are 12 of our family’s favorites, some are classics, some brand new.
There are no affiliate links in this post. I’m sharing these books because I love them.
If you’ve read or decide to read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them in the comment section below.
And yes, I know. We’ve interrupted our 3-part series on Vaxxed. I’ll post the summary of the local panel discussion on this blog next week.
1. The Penderwicks
This is a charming book about four motherless girls, two rabbits, one dog, a lonely boy named Jeffrey and a distracted but loving widower named Mr. Penderwick.
The five Penderwicks and their dog Hound go to Arundel for their summer vacation. Despite a dangerous encounter with a bull, Mrs. Tifton’s obsession with her gardens, and Dexter Dupree’s unkindness, Batty, Jane, Skye, and Rosalind have the time of their lives. Many tears are shed. Many mistakes are made. Much worry is had by all.
Have a handkerchief by your side when you read it. You’ll need it for the tears. Or to channel Jane and effect a rescue in a hot air balloon.
2. The Mysterious Benedict Society
The story of four gifted but lonely children, two adults with noses like vegetables who are now adults, and twins, but were separated at birth, and a fabricated state of emergency. The Mysterious Benedict Society is a brilliant, charming, disturbing, compelling, and moving young adult novel. I’ve read it three times–this time aloud to my 6-year-old who instructed me to give it 100 stars. I thought it would be too old for her but she liked it so much that she and her 12-year-old brother immediately and eagerly listened to the audio of the second book in this series together when the print book wasn’t available at the library.
3. A Little Princess
This story of a motherless young girl who is born in India but is sent to boarding school in England grabs at your heartstrings from the very first sentence. The reader laughs and cries along with little black-haired green-eyed Sara Crewe, who is one of the most compelling and best drawn characters in children’s literature. An absolute classic. A masterpiece of story telling, character development, injustice, poverty, cruelty, and kindness and redemption. Read this book! Then read it again.
A lyrical, complicated, and utterly brilliant fairytale by Neil Gaiman about a young man named Dustan Thorn who goes on a quest for a fallen star to win the heart of the young woman of his dreams. His journey into Faerie becomes perilous, as several others are also hunting for Star. I love everything Neil Gaiman writes and this book is an amazing read for kids and grown-ups alike. My 12-year-old and I really loved this book, though I may have, um, skipped over some of the more sexually explicit parts when I was reading it aloud to him.
5. Homer Price
Homer Price, a capable young man who lives in Centerburg, catches robbers, helps his bakery-owning uncle with his newfangled machinery, and lights fires by rubbing sticks together while dressed like an Indian.
This middle grade novel, replete with skunks, edible fungi, and an epic yarn contest, is wonderful. It’s quirky and crazy and totally heartwarming.
6. Winter Turning
Another slam dunk in the Wings of Fire series, Winter Turning is the story of an angry IceWing dragon on a quest to find his brother, who has been kidnapped by Queen Scarlet. Much to Winter’s surprise, he can’t get rid of his three friends, Quibli, Kinkajou, and Moon, who insist on leaving Jade Mountain to help him. Brought up to believe that IceWings are superior to every other dragon tribe, Winter is confused by his feelings towards his three new friends. Wings of Fire is a fabulous series for 12-year-old readers (though, interestingly, I think the first book is the least well done of the lot). These books are compelling, clever, and with just enough unexpected twists to keep the reader totally intrigued.
7. The Last Dragon
When he tries to say his full name to humans, they think he is clearing his throat. Elves like him are so clever that humans despise and persecute them. “Born lately,” Yorsh suffers the loss of his home and his family, only to find himself shivering with cold, wracked with hunger, and on the verge of death. The world he is born into is one of strife and rain and hatred. A prophesy suggests that he will not die. But his is a life of loneliness, confusion, and desolation.
This book is full of sadness and joy, hope and despair, kindness and cruelty. Despite the hunger and unkindnesses, and the many tragic deaths, The Last Dragon (which is called The Last Elf in Italian) is a beautiful book and a joy to read.
8. A Confusion of Princes
Prince Khemri is arrogant, entitled, and completely inexperienced. He has been programmed with superhuman enhancements and grown up to believe he is someone special, a prince who could some day become Emperor and join the Imperial Mind.
He quickly finds out that he is one of millions of other Princes, and that they all want to kill him.
My son and I both really enjoyed this book. My husband, who loves both science fiction and fantasy, hated the part of it he heard us reading aloud. I’m not sure why he disliked it so much. But I thought it was a well done, well written book.
9. An Invisible Thread
The true story of an unlikely friendship between a lonely white advertising saleswoman named Laura and a starving African-American boy named Maurice, An Invisible Thread had me in tears from start to finish. I read it aloud to my 12-year-old, who also really liked and learned from it. The book weaves the story of Laura Schroff’s difficult childhood on Long Island with the story of Maurice’s struggles growing up the son of a drug addict in subsidized subhuman housing in Manhattan.
When Laura was growing up, her father would come home from his job as a bartender drunk and in a blind rage. Nunzie would wake up her brother Frank, and the rest of the children, by shouting insults. For no discernible reason but his own mental instability, he terrorized Laura’s mother, Laura, Frank, her sisters, and even her littlest brother. One day her father smashed every one of Frank’s sports trophies. Another time he insisted on driving drunk in a white out snowstorm and nearly killed all of them. Though Laura manages to describe her father with forgiveness and compassion, I am horrified by how he treated his family, how little her mother did to protect her children from his drunken and uncontrollable cruelty, and how much Laura and her brothers and sisters (especially Frank) suffered because of it.
But Maurice’s childhood is even worse. He tells Laura one day that he has never seen food in the small refrigerator in his apartment. His mom is too busy turning tricks and selling drugs to get money for crack to pay attention to whether her children have anything to eat. Maurice shares a one-room apartment with as many as twelve people at a time: his uncles (all addicts and drug dealers), his sisters, his mom, and random strangers or friends of his family who come over to do drugs. He has one set of clothes. Anything he owns gets stolen. He has no bed time, no routines, no way to tell what time it is. He goes to school exhausted and spends his time after school begging, hoping to get enough spare change to buy himself something to eat.
Though his grandmother is loving, the cards are stacked against Maurice in almost every way imaginable. But Maurice is a bright young man with a smile that lights up his whole face. That day she passes him on the street and then turns around and goes back, Maurice and Laura go to McDonald’s. Then they walk through Central Park and get ice cream. He tells her he likes to play video games. He is polite and serious and grateful for the food. Their friendship is mostly defined by their weekly meals together at the beginning. But then Laura starts packing sandwiches for Maurice and leaving them with her doorman. And she takes him places: to a ball game, to her sister’s house outside the city.
This book is painful. My son and I were both sorry when Laura got together with Michael and I cheered when they got divorced. That Michael showed no interest in learning anything about Maurice was a big red flag for me as she described the giddy beginnings of their relationship. That Laura let him win the argument about not having Maurice join them for holidays (because it wouldn’t be appropriate, in his words) broke my heart. I hated Michael right from the beginning. She describes having so much fun with him and falling in love with him. But as an outsider looking in, I was left feeling like Michael was a racist self-centered rich boy who was too selfish to love and appreciate Laura for who she was. It’s hard for me to forgive her for not standing up to Michael.
In an afterward, Maurice writes that the book is about “a mother longing for a child and a child longing for a mother. That longing had nothing to do with umbilical cords or DNA. It had to do with two people who needed each other and who were destined to meet on the corner of 56th Street and Broadway. Every Monday, that mother got to know her son, and that son learned about his mother.
“And on those Mondays their hearts were sewn together with an invisible thread.”
10. The House of the Scorpion
Among the most haunting and interesting books for younger readers I have ever read. Well written, fascinating, and deeply disturbing, this novel won the National Book Award and the Newbery Honor for good reason. There is so much darkness in it, including child abuse, drug addiction, and cruelty, that I think this is a book best read WITH your 12-year-old
The book’s main character, Matt Alacran, lives in Opium, a nation ruled by El Patron that lies between Aztlan (what was once known as Mexico) and the United States. He understands from a very early age that he must remain out of sight. He spends long hours by himself daydreaming and imagining the world he cannot be part of. Matt does not understand why he is kept hidden but he does understand everything Celia–the woman who looks after him as best she can while most of her time and attention is taken up cooking for the Estate–tells him.
The premise of this book feels particularly timely as the use of heroin is on the rise in the United States and the prevalence of heroin has more than tripled in southern Oregon, where I live, in the last four years, according to local police statistics.
Matt’s life is full of horror, unhappiness, and utter confusion. No one tells him the whole truth and it takes him years to piece together what is really going on. I won’t spoil any of it but I will say that it is unfathomably horrifying, yet realistic enough to be plausible. Set in the near future in a time when there is untold pollution, hover cars, and technological “advances” that can alter human and animal brains, The House of the Scorpion creates a world that is just believable enough to be what we might expect in the future.
I teach writing classes to writers of all ages–from elementary schoolers to adults–and one of the tips I give my students is to create likable memorable characters and then have bad things happen to them. Each time something goes wrong for your character, a part of his or her personality is revealed.
In his 1987 Newberry honor book Gary Paulsen proves himself a master at having bad things happen to good people. Well, one good person anyway. Thirteen-year-old Brian Robeson is on his way to visit his father in the oil fields in Canada when the pilot of the Cessna 406 bush plane has a heart attack. It’s the smell Brian notices first. But the pilot, who is clearly in pain, is too polite or inhibited to say anything. He dies in the cockpit, right next to Brian, without giving Brian instructions on how to control the plane.
Surviving a crash landing is just one of the many horrible, sometimes unspeakably horrible, things that young Brian endures. His first night in the wilderness he is swarmed by hungry mosquitoes. Later in the book he is attacked by a wild animal. With nothing but the tattered clothes on his back and the hatchet his mother gifted him, Brian Robeson fights to find food, build a shelter, and survive the sometimes hostile wilderness.
12. The Sign of the Beaver
Loosely based on a true story of a young white boy left in Maine alone for the summer and befriended by an Indian and his son, The Sign of the Beaver is a brilliant, touching, compelling, well written, lovely book about a 12-year-old named Matt and his struggle to survive.
and one for good luck … Anne of Green Gables
Poor Anne (with an “e”), a child from the orphan asylum who is completely alone in the world, wearing an ill-fitting wincey dress, and eagerly hoping she has found a home with a middle-aged brother and sister: the stern and proper Marilla Cuthbert and the desperately shy Matthew Cuthbert.
But the Cuthberts had requested a *BOY* to help them work on their farm, not a redheaded freckled young girl who doesn’t know how to hold her tongue.
Anne Shirley must surely have been born under an ill-fated star. As she tries to find a place for herself in Avonlea, a settlement on Prince Edward Island, often the only help she has is her own imagination.
This novel is as well written as it is compelling and heart warming; the descriptions of nature are charming; the ending both triumphant and terribly terribly sad.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning book author and investigative journalist based in Oregon. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine. Her next nonfiction book, The Vaccine-Friendly Plan (Ballantine, 2016), co-written with pediatrician and addiction expert Dr. Paul Thomas, M.D., will be available in August, wherever books are sold.
What were your favorite books when you were twelve? What are your children’s favorites?