Top 5 Books For Backseat Readers (Age 9 And Up)

NPR's Back-Seat Book Club
Emily Davis for NPR

Since NPR started the Backseat Book Club for young listeners, I've been swimming in what folks in the book industry affectionately call "kid lit." Lucky me! I've always been a fan of children's literature — even before I had youngsters of my own — because it allows us to see some of the world's most complex issues through the eyes of a child.

In that sense, middle-grade fiction (for ages 9-14) is particularly rich terrain, because it targets an audience whose protective veneer of childhood innocence is starting to peel away. Sometimes it melts away slowly, like ice cream. Sometimes it's snatched away quickly, like a band-aid off a skinned knee. In any case, a door opens to a wonderfully complex and infinitely interesting chapter in a young child's life.

There were so many strong middle-grade titles released this year that culling the list to five was infinitely difficult. This list does nor necessarily include blockbuster best-sellers. None of these books is a blowout blockbuster; they are, rather, books that seep into your heart and leave you thinking about the characters long after you reach the last page. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Heart and Soul

Heart and Soul

The Story of America and African Americans

by Kadir Nelson

Hardcover, 108 pages, Harpercollins Childrens Books, $19.99, published September 27 2011 | purchase
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  • Heart and Soul
  • The Story of America and African Americans
  • Kadir Nelson

This is a beautiful and beautifully illustrated book by an artist who's often described as the Norman Rockwell of his generation. Kadir Nelson got his start as an illustrator, often using his talents to help young readers understand African-Americans' contributions to American history. A few years ago, he crossed over into writing with a stunning debut, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. With Heart and Soul, he continues his mission of highlighting black history, but on a much more complex level. This is a story of courage and pride. But it's also filled with hard truths — from the violence of slavery to the contradictions of racism — that can be difficult to share with a young audience.

Nelson traces the American story through Colonial times, slavery, civil rights and integration, to the inauguration of the first black U.S. president. The story is told from the perspective of an elderly black woman reminiscing about her life and the stories she heard from elders. That technique, combined with almost 50 stunning, full-page illustrations, allows Nelson to take young readers on a graceful and yet powerful journey through some of the most thorny periods of U.S. history. This book is a work of art and an act of courage.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Catherynne M. Valente

Paperback, 272 pages, Feiwel & Friends, $6.99, published May 8 2012 | purchase
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  • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
  • Catherynne M. Valente

I'm a softie for a good Alice in Wonderland story, so this tale about a girl named September who yearns for adventure stole my heart. She lives a life of dreary routine, washing the same dishes every day and playing the same games with her strange little dog. But an even stranger character takes pity on her and swoops into her room one evening just after her 12th birthday. It's one of the Six Winds. In this case The Green Wind, who takes the form of a natty gentleman dressed in a green smoking jacket and jodhpurs. He comes bearing a list of commands and rules, but also a promise of great adventure if she agrees to head toward Fairyland and track down a particular item from the Marquess, who has taken over as the new dictator. Along the way, September encounters a series of screwball and yet highly intelligent characters, including a blue boy named Saturday, a soap golem, trolls with splendid epaulets and a companion with the curious name "A-through-L."

Though this is a book aimed at children, it will tickle adult readers as well. For example, when September encounters a four-way sign whose directions are carved in deep and elegant letters, only someone with several years under her belt could fully comprehend the quadrant of choices: To Lose Your Way, To Lose Your Life, To Lose Your Mind and To Lose Your Heart. In addition to Alice in Wonderland, author Catherynne Valente also tips her hat to The Phantom Tollbooth as September visits places like Pandemonium — a city that's allergic to "Loiterers, Lackadaisicals and other Menaces." Valente makes September thoroughly modern and feisty, even though she inhabits a world where the language is strangely formal and so buttoned up that she had our family making regular trips to the dictionary.

You'll want to read this book aloud, because the sentences dance and frolic across your tongue. The illustrations, by Ana Juan, at the start of each chapter are also weird and wonderful. The story was first published online as a crowd-funded project, though I can't quite imagine digesting this little gem on a flat computer screen. This is a book you'll want to hold in your hands and keep in a cherished place in your library.

The Secret History of Balls

The Secret History of Balls

The Stories Behind the Things We Love to Catch, Whack, Throw, Kick, Bounce, and Bat

by Josh Chetwynd and Emily Stackhouse

Paperback, 221 pages, Penguin Group USA, $13.95, published May 3 2011 | purchase
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  • The Secret History of Balls
  • The Stories Behind the Things We Love to Catch, Whack, Throw, Kick, Bounce, and Bat
  • Josh Chetwynd and Emily Stackhouse

You might not find this book in the children's section of your local bookstore, but that's where it deserves to be. Tossing it onto young people's plates is a bit like serving up broccoli slathered in cheese: It's so yummy they'll forget it's also nutritious. In this case, the book sneaks in a high-fiber dose of history, culture and, yes, sportsmanship, along with stories about all those spherical objects that fill up our basements, mudrooms, car trunks and closets.

Author Josh Chetwynd explores and examines balls of all kinds, serving up trivia that you know kids will pass on at the first chance. Who knew that the roulette ball was first designed by a French physicist while working on theories of perpetual motion? Or that the eyeballs of sturgeons were used as the cores of baseballs at the turn of the century in America's lake regions? (This is the kind of gross-out information that some kids LOVE.) Or that the basketballs used today have an orange hue because it shows up better on TV than the original dull brown. Along with the trivia, there are tales about inventors, technology and how many sports are rooted in fascinating ancient traditions.

Chetwynd knows a thing or two about sports himself. He's a former professional baseball player and a former baseball broadcaster. He's also a great storyteller who scores with this slim little book — small enough to fit in a Christmas stocking.

Drawing from Memory

Drawing from Memory

by Allen Say

Hardcover, 63 pages, Scholastic, $17.99, published September 1 2011 | purchase
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  • Drawing from Memory
  • Allen Say

In some ways this is a book Allen Say, an acclaimed artist, has been working his way up to for years. Many of Say's books are drawn from his own childhood memories. His novel The Ink-Keeper's Apprentice looked back at the years he spent as an assistant to his favorite childhood cartoonist, Noro Shinpei. Drawing from Memory is an extension of that work. In the first pages, we're introduced to the school-aged Say, who grew up by the seashore in Yokohama, Japan, and yearned to be an artist. But his father hated that idea, saying artists were "lazy and scruffy" people. He wanted his son to be "respectable."

When WWII begins, Say escapes the city with his mother to live in the mountains in a big house with a mean and stingy man. It's here that Say's book begins to take a sophisticated turn as he notes, under a picture of that crotchety old guy, that one day he'd write a story about him that "would be told in the language of the people who were bombing us." After the war, Say wins a spot in a prestigious school but pours all his energy into his work with Noro Shinpei. The artist becomes a "Spiritual Father" who helps Say understand the gift of bliss.

With each page, you see not just why but how Allen Say became an artist as he combines sketches, paintings, cartoons and family photos. You see the artist trying out various genres the way young people try on fashions or haircuts as they mature. When Say finally admits to his mother that cartooning has taken precedence over his schoolwork, his mother reveals that she finally understands the true meaning of an old Japanese proverb: "Let your dear child journey." This is a story with important lessons for both parents and children about following your heart and cherishing the family you find along the way.

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach

by Brenda Woods

Hardcover, 137 pages, Penguin Group USA, $16.99, published September 1 2011 | purchase
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  • Saint Louis Armstrong Beach
  • Brenda Woods

Many Katrina books for kids have been published, but few of them balance the sorrow of that storm and its aftermath with the joy of childhood and the joie de vivre of New Orleans. Saint Louis Armstrong Beach achieves that balance, in part by sandwiching the hurricane per se within a story that focuses on life before the devastation and the determination that follows.

The book's hero is a kid named Saint. (You gotta love that.) He plays the clarinet on street corners, and he knows all the best places and just the right tunes to coax money out of tourists' pockets. That's a good thing because he needs $2,000 to buy a decent clarinet. He's a happy-go-lucky kid who is reaching an age when he has to work harder to chase his good fortune and hold onto the things that bring him joy. He has a stray dog that his family won't accept and a best friend who's suddenly sending signals that she has no time for him.

When the hurricane heads to New Orleans, Saint has to evacuate the city — alone. His parents feel committed to stay behind and help others. But when he goes back to save his dog, Shadow, he winds up stuck in an attic with a sick neighbor as the water rises quickly below them. The question of whether or not they will be saved, or when or if Saint will be reunited with his parents, give this story both tension and depth. But there isn't enough high anxiety to rankle a child in the way that watching that real life drama unsettled so many of us adults. More than anything, this story will help a young reader understand why Katrina was so heartbreaking, because it paints such a vivid and heartfelt picture of life in the Big Easy before the storm.

This list was hard to narrow down to just five choices, so I am also offering a few honorable mentions:

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay
Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cotrell Boyce
The Romeo And Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone

Happy Reading!

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