Along those same lines, I have decided to have a periodic feature called Read This, Not That. I am often asked to recommend books for young readers, so this feature will do exactly that; however, it will also encourage you adults who think kid lit is ... well ... childish to pick up a title and see what you get from it. The feature will offer an excellent Small People book alongside a somewhat comparable but not-so-highly recommended option. As is often true with adult fiction, the most widely-read or popular juvenile titles are not always the ones I recommend. Certainly, there are amazing classics - the Newbery committee has rarely failed me - but I also love to find new authors and relatively underappreciated books to share with folks, so I'll probably mix it up. With no further ado, I give you:
READ THIS: The first recommendation is from a tried-and-true author, Jerry Spinelli. Spinelli won the Newbery medal for his Maniac Magee in 1991, and I remember sharing it with a reluctant middle-school reader several years ago. He devoured it, and it marked his transition from Captain Underpants (hey, whatever gets them reading!) to literature. Such a cool teaching moment. Spinelli's 2002 book Loser is just as good and transforming.
In Loser, we meet Donald Zinkoff as an exuberant first-grader and follow him through elementary school and into middle school. From the beginning, we know Donald is different, but Spinelli does not put Donald in a box with a specific label. You do not read this book and think, oh, this is an autism book or oh, this is a book about a developmentally-delayed boy. Instead, you fall in love with Donald and his incredible family, and you see him just as Donald. I don't mean you see him as disabled in some way but then grow to look past it. You don't. You just see him as Donald. Donald who loves school, who has terrible penmanship, who wants to be a mailman like his dad, who "laughs as naturally as he breathes" (51), and who his fifth-grade classmates recognize as a "loser."
Donald is tolerated and then ridiculed and then ignored by his classmates, and it is hard to read at times. It is easy to show empathy to a child with a recognizable disorder, easy to cheer that child's successes. Where Spinelli soars is to make us love the child who simply doesn't fit in. He makes us appreciate the perspective of the child we could have made fun of or avoided when we were kids or, as adults, hoped our child would not become. It is a weighty, but funny, smart, but accessible, sad, but joyful book, and you should read it. I would recommend it for kids ages 9-12 and adults of all shapes and sizes.
NOT THAT: Several years ago, I read the original Boxcar Children book with my daughter and thought it was charming. There is the requisite orphaning and multiple siblings aspect (seriously, how many stories can we pull from this highly unlikely scenario?), but it is a unique twist on the standard, and their resourcefulness and care for one another is admirable. The book was so popular that the author wrote several sequels taking the Alden children on various adventures where they solve mysteries. At some point along the way, someone else took over, and there are now over 100 Boxcar Children books. I recently read one of the last ones with my son, who has inexplicably fallen in love with the series, and I can assure you the later titles are not worth your time. I would still recommend the original book, but I do not encourage anyone to read the subsequent stories. Though the characters remain cute, the situations are ridiculous, and the writing is just plain bad.
Read This . . . Not That will be glad to take specific requests for age groups, genders, special interests, etc. Just send me a message or comment below, and I'll get to work on your custom recommendation.