The House of the Scorpion and More: Summer Reading List for Ages 8-15

Mom, I’m Bored

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
— Francis Bacon, Essays

This is not a compendium of the latest beach books, nor is it a list of classics everyone needs to bone up on (you know, those books many of us substituted with Cliff’s Notes backing junior high). Nah, this is another sort of list. (drumroll, please) Enter the abbreviated PopMattersIt’s Hot Outside, Ma, What Can I Do Today? book list for ages eight through 15.

Most likely every human within the sound of my virtual voice knows that J. K. Rowling just came out with another Potter. Millions paid for it, sight unseen. So the question is, once they finish the 890-plus page Potter tome, what can you give your kids to read this summer?

Books listed here are aimed at seventh through probably tenth grade (some older, some younger, it’s hard to know exactly what age kids read what level of book. Some third graders read Potter, for goodness sakes. If you don’t have time or the inclination to read these books along with your children, be aware of them and encourage dinner table discussions about the ideas these writers present. Parents will probably be amazed at what thoughts these authors inspire. I read every one of them and was amazed. The books were entertaining and fun. The moral lessons and the ensuing philosophical discussions that can arise out of the reading are a delightful by-product.

I requested these books because I wanted to know more about what was being offered by the reading groups forming online — in book clubs for kids. Fascinating stuff. It’s up to the social scientist to determine what are the causes for such a spurt in reading and I’m sure it’ll be argued into the ground. Some will say Harry Potter, others will believe it’s the Internet and our new global village. For example, Random House’s website, has a great section for younger children called “The Magic Tree House Readers and Writers Club”. (Random House Children’s Books is the largest English-language book publisher. They publish classics and new children’s literature. Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group Division comes in under the umbrella of Random House Children’s Books.)

It may not be that kids are reading more – Perhaps it’s more that reading has become a shared activity. Begun in solitary but finished in a group?

Dell Laurel-Leaf Books, another division of Random House, has launched a teen-based “Readers Circle” with an official USA Teens Read Tour begun in May. Authors Lois Lowry, Kimberly Willis Holt, Adam Bagdasarian and others will tour ten US cities to promote their books and other Readers Circle titles. Anyone who thinks there’s no money in publishing for kids (and no one really thinks that, do they?) needs to pay attention to this full court press by Dell Laurel-Leaf Books to promote the Readers Circle. Their direct-mail campaign to 2500 young adult librarians (detailing the educational market) and the 65,000 copies of a “how to start your own book group” printed and distributed nationwide through bookstores proves there’s muscle and advertising dollars behind the page.

Beverly Horowitz, VP & Publisher, Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Reader’s Group, says, “This format has already proven successful with adult book clubs. We hope to expand this success for a younger audience.” No publisher is going to say they print crap, so obviously Horowitz finishes out her statement with: “We are delighted to offer quality literary fiction in a new format we hope will spur discussion among teenagers.”

HarperCollins responded to the children-teen reading needs on its website where they’ve published author interviews and links to writer’s websites, book giveaways, discussion groups, and references (teaching guides, posters, promotional materials, etc) for librarians and teachers. Harper Collins, publishers of Lemony Snickett books, also feature classics like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairiebooks.

Publishing giant Simon and Schuster’s interactive website for children and young adult books seems to be geared more toward parents, librarians, and booksellers. I surfed around a bit and, if there was a discussion group for non-adults, I couldn’t readily find it. Small presses and kids who are enthusiastic about books have started their own group discussion websites also. Do a Google search of individual titles for more information.

Below is a short list of some of the juvie fiction and non-fiction I’ve read in the past few months. Actually, I enjoyed all of them. They may not all be prize-winning fiction, but, in my opinion, kids need to learn to discern the quality of writing in the same way they must learn to discriminate between value and waste in other life experiences. I also think kids need to learn that, if you don’t like a book, if it doesn’t grab your interest after you gave it a decent shot, then grab another one and try again.

The House of the Scorpion

The House of the Scorpion
Nancy Farmer

A Richard Jackson Book, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster
Nancy Farmer, National Book Award Finalist, gives us an unbelievable the house of the SCORPION. In this two time Newberry Honor author’s latest, readers get more than just a compelling science fiction tale. It’s an ethical journey through a futuristic world where the US borders are patrolled by dangerous men who control the mindless clone slaves who work the poppy fields in the country of Opium — a strip of land between Mexico and the US. A powerful book that is both timely and entertaining, it wouldn’t be out of line to suggest parents read it first, then pass it on to their children. The fast moving plot will keep anyone’s attention but the readers will dwell on the implications long after they’ve finished reading. This book begs for attention. Pass it around the entire household and prepare for long discussions. It should liven up dinner table conversation, that’s for damn sure. Cloning, slavery, drugs, and violent over-throw of dictatorial leaders — what could be more timely? Probably a seventh grade and up level.

Finding Our Way
René Saldana, Jr.
Wendy Lamb Books

Saldana, a native south Texan, creates an absolutely marvelous book of short stories geared at a middle-school through high school audience. Containing first-person narratives written in compelling Southern and Hispanic vernacular, these stories illustrate how kids feel when they screw up, when they’re ridiculed, or when they just “are”. The last story, “Finding Our Way” is a heartbreaking journey of loss and change, told through the eyes of adolescent boys whose schoolmate is murdered. Saldana’s characters find their way out of their troubles and back into the world. These stories will undoubtedly make their way in the English literature books of the future. Reading these stories along with your kids will open up a dialogue about self and community.

Wandering Warrior
Da Chen
Delacorte Press

This is a very popular book. The identity of Luka, the future emperor of China, is kept a secret while he is raised by Atami, a monk. When the monk, is captured by the enemy Mogo warriors, the eleven year old Luka meets a new master, finds a new secret kung fu school and eventually battles the enemy, his own father. Da Chen’s writing is fast paced but somewhat stilted and choppy. Written at a fifth to eighth grade level, it would be a perfect substitute for a rained-out baseball game or when the PlayStation II is broken. It’s an action book, complete with kung fu, high kicks, and warriors that must be defeated. I hate to be sexist, but it probably won’t appeal to girls as much as boys. The age level depends on the kid, probably 10 to 15, it’s not necessarily challenging.

Sorcerers of the Nighwing

Sorcerers of the Nighwing
Book I, The Ravenscliff Series
Geoffrey Huntington

This book came out late last summer. The second book in the series, Demon Witch is due out in July 2003. Totally entertaining. Buffy the Vampire Slayer squared, hyper-extended. A definite read for anyone (even adults) who ever feared monsters lived in their closet or under the bed. Huntington [the pseudonym for the author of several acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction who happens to live in Massachusetts — hmmmm! wonder who that is?) creates a delightfully scary new series. Compare it to the Potter books with less detail and faster reading time. While many Potter-wanna’ be’s have come down the pike in recent years, few of them are actually decent books. This series, while it may be riding on the coattails of Rowling, is worth buying. Probably could be read by younger kids, depending on their vocabulary. It’s scary but resolves itself. If your kids can sit through Buffy they’re old enough to read this — boys or girls.

American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military From the Revolution to Desert Storm
Gail Buckley, adapted for young people by Tonya Bolden
Crown Publishers, Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group

A little non-fiction on a summer reading list never hurt anyone. This book, for ages 10 and up, is the young reader version adapted from Buckley’s Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and Los Angeles Times bestseller of the same title. The book, touted as “perfect for school research and independent study”, discusses the lives of African-Americans such as Colin Powell, Benjamin O. Davis, Crispus Attucks and more. Written in an easy to read style, the short biographies are compelling and downright interesting. These biographical sketches ought to provide the background for some interesting conversations. Get your kids to read it and then tell you what they’ve learned. Girls and boys need to learn about the “American spirit” of sacrifice and honor in the name of country, especially during the “post-war” summer of 2003.

The Angel Factory
Terence Blacker
Simon and Schuster

This is one creepy freakin’ book. Reading this one goes hand in hand with The House of the Scorpion. These are two books destined to make your kids think. While the Scorpion book will begin the discussion on ethics, responsibility, and free will — this one will drive it up a notch. The great thing about these novels is that the kids reading them won’t know you’re lurking in the background, waiting for them to finish reading. They’ll think they’re reading some great science fiction and they’ll slam through each one. Then, just when they think they’re going to have a nice sit down at the table for some roast beef and green beans, parents can hit them with “So, what are the political ramifications of a society based on free will versus a controlled one?” The scary thing is, your kids will have an answer. Both these books will work their way, insidiously, into your kid’s subconscious and create a base for lively discussion. Be prepared, you may not agree with their conclusions. The authors don’t make it easy. After all, it’s about free will, your kids will have to decide how they feel about the way the book works.

Deaf Child Crossing

Deaf Child Crossing
Marlee Matlin
Simon and Schuster

When I read this book last January, the fifth “Survivor” hadn’t begun to air. I wanted to read it because it was penned by Marlee Matlin, who I think is profoundly talented as an actress and I wanted to test her mettle as an author. I couldn’t help but think of this book as I watched this season’s Survivor. Christy, the hearing-impaired young woman, showed amazing resilience as she played the game. What was curious to me (and I’m sure countless others) was that the men on the show helped her, the women treated her like dirt. They didn’t jump in to help her because she was disabled or female and it wasn’t chivalry on their part. It was just plainly the way to behave as one human being toward another. Maitlin’s book would be a great read for anyone to buy for their 5th through 8th grade daughter, especially if they all watched together. The book is a lesson in how far you need go to help someone and how to recognize when to stop. I’m not sure Maitlin would agree that her book is a companion piece to the TV show, but there is a parallel. It’s also a great book for girls because it’s about having a best friend. That may sound trite, but if you know any adolescent girls (or if you’ve ever been one yourself, duh) best friends are the cornerstone of existence from grade school through high school.

Into the Labyrinth (A sequel to The Great Good Thing) Roderick Townley

This book is so damn much fun I read it twice. Get this — whenever a book is opened, the characters have to rush to their places and “be” the book. No matter where the reader is, Bangkok or Boston, it’s “Everyone — to your places!” A long forgotten book, found on the shelf, is loaded onto the Internet and the characters scrambled to keep up with the readers. Rather than a linear stage (think reading from left to right, then turning pages) the Web books contain text that floats up and down, sideways and backwards, (think hypertext and links). Then, when an evil hacker (think Pugsley Addams online) comes along and cuts and pastes text in all the wrong places, imagine what the characters must do. Princess Sylvie must go into the labyrinth (the Internet), work her way through the Cookies and Firewalls, learn programming code, and regain control of her story. Rated in terms of pop culture, this one is so current it screams to be read right this second. Hopefully Townley has another sequel coming up soon. Boys and girls will read this one.

The Second Summer of the Sisterhood
Sequel to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Ann Brashares
Delacorte Press

Miriam Keyes for teenagers. The prelude to the Anna Maxted reading years, Steele Magnolias for the prom aged, don’t question it, just go out and buy both of these books. Get Brashares for your daughters. Now. You’d better grab copies for yourself because your daughters won’t let you have theirs. If you read The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants you know what I’m talking about here. The sequel is just as good.

Other notable books:

The official Alias Books, published by Bantam Books, are fun, even for adults. Based on the TV series, there’s even an Alias: Declassified, The Official Companion with DVD, to get the ball rolling. The prequel series, Alias: Recruited and Alias, A Secret Life, and Alias, Disappeared are available now.

Gary Paulsen’s The Glass Café, Or, The Stripper and the State, How My Mother Started a War with the System That Made Us Kind of Rich and a Little Bit Famous is a funny little book (and I mean little — $12.95 for what is basically a short story) would probably appeal to any teenager.

For skateboarders, Tony Hawk’s been pumping out books for the last couple years. Factual and interesting, his books might bring the kids in off the street ramps for a few hours. They’re published by ReganBooks, and imprint of HarperCollins.

A RandomHouse teens book, Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen, offers eighth-graders a really cute “he-said, she-said” romance. Even the Chicago Tribune liked it.

The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian, this is one of the Readers Circle authors/books from RandomHouse. Tashijan is part of the tour. The book has its own website and a reading group discussion guide. It’s a good place to start if teens are checking out the Readers Circle. (For the record, I loathe the word “teen” but it’s necessary to delineate between age groups in this review, eh?)

Authors Laura and Tom McNeal’s Zipped will foment quite a discussion at the dinner table because it starts with an e-mail, meant for someone else, mistakenly read by 15-year-old Mick Nichols.

Visit publisher’s websites or visit your local bookstore and ferret out a list of possible contenders for your children’s summer reading list. Lead by example and read every day (as if you need more parenting advice).