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September 30, 2010

New Books: Novels for (Older) Kids

To a parent of infants or toddlers, reviewing picture books comes pretty naturally. They’re short, often illustration-driven, and precisely what you spend your evenings reading to your own kids at bedtime. While you do need to be careful not to violate the old rule about books and their covers, it’s not difficult to identify standouts in short order. Early chapter books are slightly more challenging, but even there, the well-written and especially imaginative ones make themselves known as such within a few pages; also, there aren’t all that many of them on the market, comparatively speaking, so a high proportion of those published are at the very least worth a look.

Novels aimed at older children—basically the categories known as “tween” and “YA”—are another matter entirely. Thanks to the immense success of books like Twilight, dozens of them come out each season from each major publishing house. They’re for the most part far longer than chapter books for very young kids, and more complex, so finding out whether a given one is any good requires a decent time investment. And if, like me, you don’t have a kid at home who’s old enough to be interested in and ready for books of this length, on these subjects, you can end up feeling a bit at sea; it’s hard to trust your adult critical instincts entirely. (There’s nothing like a moody tween novel to make a relatively new parent realize that his or her own childhood is even more distant than the years would imply.)

For all these reasons, I’ve rarely ventured into books for this age range, both back when I was at Cookie and in this blog. But I’ve always felt a pang of guilt about that, too—isn’t this, for all the same reasons I just listed, the very category of children’s books with which parents and gift-givers need the most help?

To solve the problem, I finally got wise and enlisted an expert: a 12-year-old, naturally. Elizabeth, the older sister of one of my older son’s best friends and a voracious reader, graciously agreed to be my test reader for the ever-growing stack of tween and YA novels piling up on my shelves. With remarkable speed and insight, she separated out the best of the lot for me, and I’m going to gratefully pass along her thoughts, along with quick summaries of my own. (As long as she’s interested in continuing, I’ll make this a recurring column.)

Here, then, are some of Elizabeth’s favorites from my stack of books that have come out in the last several months:

Shiver and Linger, by Maggie Stiefvater. It’s tempting to take the Hollywood-pitch approach and describe this series (the first just out in paperback, the second a new hardcover) as “Twilight with werewolves.” That may be broadly accurate, plotwise, but it’s glibly unfair to the author, who’s written a pair (so far) of evocative, atmospheric page turners, adroitly alternating between the first-person points of view of both of the main characters.
Elizabeth’s take: Shiver is an amazing book! It has the perfect blend of romance and action. I even bought the sequel in hardcover!

Extraordinary, by Nancy Werlin. An engaging (and well-researched) story of a teenage girl from the famous Rothschild family. We learn right off that Phoebe's closest friend is not who she appears to be, but a fairy with an ominous agenda that’s compounded when her irresistibly gorgeous older brother appears on the scene. Werlin, the author of several YA best sellers, expertly doles out pieces of the puzzle to readers, always leaving them just enough steps ahead of Phoebe to keep the suspense taut.
Elizabeth’s take: A great fantasy! I really liked it. It has a great plot, and the intermittent “Conversations with the Faerie Queen” really add to the story.

The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan. The debut entry in a new series by the author of the mega-successful Percy Jackson books turns from Greek mythology to Egyptian. In it, a brother and sister who’ve been raised separately try to rescue their father from an ancient, evil being he has released into our world. As always, Riordan fills the pages with great historical and mythological detail while maintaining a blisteringly fast pace of action.
Elizabeth’s take: I did not find this book to be as good as the author’s previous series [Percy Jackson], but it is still a worthwhile read. Anyone who enjoys mythology and fantasy will love it!

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. The final book in the dark three-part Hunger Games series (plunges the reader directly back into its dystopic-future version of the U.S. In it, a repressive government forces each district to send two children to battle to the death, gladiator-style, against one another. Katniss, our heroine, has managed improbably to survive two rounds of the Hunger Games now, and the rebellion is looking to her to be the public face of their revolution. But even as she agrees to this, she has growing concerns that the potential new boss may be, as ever, no better than the old. Collins has created one of those great immersive worlds here, so fully fleshed out that you feel the author has given consideration even to unmentioned details. (I knew this series had to be good when I saw fellow parents eagerly anticipating this book’s release in their Facebook status updates!)
Elizabeth’s take: Very well-written plot and characters—but you really have to read the whole series to understand it. I own all three books in hardcover, and I enjoy reading them over and over again. I highly recommend the entire trilogy to anyone who enjoys action, romance, or sci-fi.

[Cover images courtesy of Penguin USA (Extraordinary), Hyperion (The Red Pyramid) and Scholastic (others)]


  1. Pooh. I thought I was gonna get away with not reading Mockingjay, but now....

  2. Thanks for the insightful YA reviews! These all seem like books I would have liked as a tween/teen because of their fantasy/sci fi bent. Of course that means my own tween/teen will have nothing to do with them. Is there any good new reality based YA fiction out there?

  3. I'll have to check with my expert, though (clearly, from the picks) those are certainly the genres she prefers. From my far-from-expert vantage point, it seems the trend right now is very much either Twilight-y in one way or another, or dark and apocalyptic like Mockingjay. But I'll look for some good reality YA for my next update on the subject!

  4. I loved, loved Mockingjay and passed it to my husband and dad to read. I don't think my mom would like the theme and of course my kids (ages 4 and 2) are WAY too young to read! But, I definitely recommend it to teens and other adults.

    Great blog, by the way! Thanks for all the great info!

  5. Rick Riordan is my hero:) His books have captured my 10 year old's imagination. My son is a very, very reluctant reader and the Percy Jackson series was a godsend. For almost 2 months now he has been managing his library account, requesting books, picking up holds, getting audio playaways etc and has worked his way up to the Red Pyramid, the Kane Chronicles. The amount of info he gleaned re; Greek mythology is totally astounding. We look forward to hearing all about the Egyptian gods.