1. Fleischman, Paul. Whirligig. New York: Macmillan, 1998.
My friend Kim has recently returned to the joy of reading. This one is especially for her. There is a seventeen-year-old kid named Brent who has just moved to a new school. He is nervous and insecure and trying to fit in, so when he is invited to a party by his new friend and he hears the girl he has his eye on will be there, he is excited about going. Unfortunately, one thing after another goes badly, culminating with public humiliation. Soon Brent finds himself driving home drunk, and the next thing he knows he is responsible for losing control and killing a girl his age who he never knew.
Brent’s parents and their lawyer want to get him out of it, but Brent wants to do something—even though he knows he can never make it right. Eventually, the girl’s mom agrees to meet with him and sets before him a remarkable task. The rest of the story is told in a series of connected but separate stories, some of which only feature Brent peripherally, but it is an amazing and powerful story about redemption and grace.
2. Fforde, Jasper. The Last Dragonslayer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2010.
I have always thought that one of the greatest things about The Last Dragonslayer is that it is a really great fantasy story, but at the same time, doesn’t take itself too seriously. The main character, Jennifer Strange, is a fifteen-year-old Volkswagen bug-driving indentured manager for the Kazam wizarding company. The world Jennifer lives in has been slowly losing its magic for decades. Partly this is blamed on the dragons, who occupy lands separate from the humans; neither race strays into the other lands because of a treaty and some pretty powerful spells. So Jennifer, her quarkbest (kind of a spiky dog) and her . . .
Look, this isn’t working, and here is why. It isn’t the plot that makes this book wonderful (though the plot is well crafted.) It is actually the writing. Look, you are just going to have to trust me on this one. If you like really clever and funny books that are page-turners with a lot of action and twists and stuff—pick this book up and give it a shot. Then give it to a middle school or high school kid with a good sense of humor.
3. Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York: Dutton, 2012.
Reading The Fault in our Stars is kind of like riding a roller coaster with quick turns that you do not see coming. This book takes a lot of quick turns. The plot line isn’t predictable, without being jarring, and the language is really breathtaking. These people you are riding this coaster with, Hazel and Augustus, are really smart and really funny and it is good to spend time with them.
Here is the plot: Hazel has cancer. It has destroyed so much of her lungs that she needs supplemental oxygen. At a support group meeting, she meets Augustus. Augustus also has cancer, which has already taken one of his legs. Hazel and Augustus are drawn together by a mutual love of reading and by a love of a book called An Imperial Affliction. That book ends inconclusively, and Hazel has always dreamed of tracking down the book’s highly reclusive author, Peter Van Houten, to find out what happens to the characters in the end. Augustus actually makes contact with Van Houten and arranges through the Make-a-Wish Foundation for the two of them to fly to Holland where Van Houten lives to ask him personally. But when they go, things get complicated.
If that description does not draw you to this book, here are its opening lines:
“Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost anything is really.)”
I found the whole book funny, and touching, and sometimes deeply moving. Maybe the plot doesn’t convince you. Maybe the opening lines don’t convince you, but I still think you need to read it.
4. Mikaelsen, Ben. Touching Spirit Bear. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
If you’ve ever wondered what to do with a high school reader who says the only books they ever loved were Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet series this book may be helpful. The main character in this story is a kid named Cole Matthews, who generally hates everyone and everything. He keeps getting in trouble with the law, though his rich father’s lawyers always seem to get him out of trouble. One day, for no reason at all, Cole beats his classmate Peter Driscal so severely that Peter suffers brain damage. When it looks like Cole’s anger and stupidity have finally caught up with him, a social worker offers Cole another option. Cole can submit to circle justice, a restorative practice in which Cole agrees to let a Native American council decide his punishment. Cole plays along, hoping that if he appears contrite, they will go easy on him. Their recommendation, however, is that he spend a year by himself on a remote Alaskan island. And so Cole finds himself stepping off a boat onto an island equipped with a small cabin and plenty of supplies to see him through. When the boat leaves, Cole laughs, confident that his years on the swim team will allow him to swim to the distant mainland and escape. He sets fire to the cabin and starts his swim. The cold water and the tide are against him however, and he finds himself back on the island, exhausted, without shelter or supplies. Then he hears something in the woods behind him and realizes there is a bear on the island.
The book gets better and better after that. There is action, desperation, atonement, redemption, and resolution. It isn’t perfect, though. The end of this book is not its strongest part. There are interesting descriptions about circle justice, but those descriptions seem unnecessarily drawn out. But that is a minor flaw. This book will grab you, and it will not let you go for a long time. This is an excellent book for students in upper middle school, high school, and beyond.
5. Palacio, R. J. Wonder. New York: Knopf, 2012.
I will admit that I really liked this novel, but it is not perfect. The main character, Augie Pullman, was born with a combination of unfortunate birth defects. His eyes are too low on his head, he has no external ears, a cleft palate, and a misshapen nose. His favorite holiday of the year is Halloween because he gets to wear a mask. Augie’s parents decide to homeschool him. As the book opens, Augie is getting ready to go to middle school for the first time. We see Augie’s journey of triumph, terror, ridicule, friendship, bullying, insensitivity, exultation, conquered fears, awkward mistakes, and triumph—all described through the eyes of his sister, his friends, and Augie himself. It is a powerful and moving book, but I did feel that the main conflict was never really resolved. I wish it had. Still, it is a book worth reading.