July 1, 2021

YA books and children's books: recommendations from me (and my kids)

Summer break is just starting here in British Columbia, Canada, where I live and in many other parts of the world. With all that time off looming, maybe your kids or teens are looking for books, or maybe you feel like reading some YA / Middle Grade/ children's books yourself (there's a lot of good stuff in the kids/YA section). 

Here are some of my favourites and some of my kids's favourites (they are 14 and 18 right now). Some are old, some are new, and of course, this is only a small fraction of what's available out there.

I want to start off with a special shoutout to Rick Riordan's books (my daughter loved the Percy Jackson series and I tore through the Magnus Chase books) and his imprint Rick Riordan Presents which is teeming with amazing writers and books for kids and teens. You can start off with:

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

This is a gripping, hugely entertaining read and the first in a series of books about Tristan's adventures. 

Seventh grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan chases after it–is that a doll?–and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American gods John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

Some of the best writers of speculative fiction today have books out with the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, including Yoon Ha Lee, Roshani Chokshi, and Rebecca Roanhorse, so there is a real treasure chest of stories to explore here, including:

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe and Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe (and its sequel) is funny, sharp, smart, and full of magic, science, food, friendship, family, life, love, and even death, and Hernandez keeps the story moving at a great pace throughout. It’s a zany book, but there’s real heart in it, too, and the laughs are good laughs – with jokes that are irreverent, hilarious, and thoughtful in a way that I really appreciated as I read the story. (Read my full review of the first book from 2019.)


The Ninety-Ninth Bride by Catherine Faris King

Dunya is fifteen when her father, the Grand Vizier, gives her over to the mad Sultan for his bride. Ninety-eight Sultanas before Dunya have been executed, slaughtered at the break of dawn following their first night with their new husband. But on her own wedding night, the ninety-ninth bride finds help from the mysterious and beautiful Zahra, who proposes to tell the Sultan a story…

A lovely and beautifully told twist on One Thousand and One Nights: “...a story of sisters and magic, and a kingdom on the brink of disaster.


The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman

I loved this book and so did my daughter (she was 10 when we read it). It's got magic, spells, shapeshifting, a very intriguing bookshop, a werewolf with a coyote pack riding motorcycles, plus a lot more. All of it is mixed with a lot of real life tragedy and comedy, and all the children in it (especially the main character Nick) are engaging and realistically ornery characters. It is moving without being maudlin, and a real page-turner. Highly recommended for kids and adults.


The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, is kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster named Glerk and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, Fyrian. Xan rescues the abandoned children and deliver them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. 

One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic.

An amazing story about family, magic, and what happens when you keep secrets (even from yourself). It's beautifully written with a lot of tragedy and sorrow and strife beneath the beauty of the prose. I loved this story so much, and it made my daughter a Barnhill fan (check out Barnhill's other books: they're all fantastic)!


Astrid Lindgren’s books

Some of Lindgren’s books, like Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter, Mio, My Son, and The Brothers Lionheart take place in fantasy worlds. Others, like The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, and Karlson on the Roof blend fantasy elements and the real world. And many, like Lotta on Troublemaker Street, take place in the real, Swedish world of the early 20th century. No matter what the setting, they’re all great reads for kids. (Confession: I detested Karlson of Karlson on the Roof as a child and I still do. Nothing to do with the writing, but the character of Karlson infuriated me even as a child: I thought he was just too tude and selfish and mean. Lots of people love him and the books, though, and find him funny rather than annoying!)


The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

It’s six books now, all outstanding works of literature, and the original trilogy were part of what made me fall in love with fantasy in the first place. Le Guin pitches you into a vivid and mesmerizing world with magic, dragons, wizards, “true names”, and dark undercurrents of death and fear. Both the older books, and the newer ones (starting with Tehanu), are brilliant works of fiction. The Tombs of Atuan in particular absolutely floored me as a teenager and still does. 

The books in the series are:

  1. A Wizard of Earthsea
  2. The Tombs of Atuan
  3. The Farthest Shore
  4. Tehanu
  5. Tales from Earthsea
  6. The Other Wind

Read my review of Tales From Earthsea.


The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

These books were part of what turned me into a huge fan of fantasy fiction in my tweens/teens. Cooper weaves together fantasy with bits of Celtic folklore, and strands of the King Arthur legend. The story is set in 1970s Britain, as well as ancient Britain, and other fantasy-realms in-between the worlds.

The books in the series:

  1. Over Sea, Under Stone
  2. The Dark Is Rising
  3. Greenwitch
  4. The Grey King
  5. Silver on the Tree


Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, is faced with a terrible problem. She must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and must not be moved.

Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma. And Mrs. Frisby in turn renders them a great service.

This is a wonderful tale about some very unusual rats, and how they end up helping Mrs. Frisby move her house, and save her family. It was made into a Disney movie as well, but (at least in my opinion) the book is far superior.


The Wrinkle In Time Quintet by Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L’Engle’s classic middle-grade series, A Wrinkle In Time Quintet, follows the lives of Meg Murry, her youngest brother Charles Wallace Murry, their friend Calvin O’Keefe, and her twin brothers Sandy and Dennys Murry. Beginning with A Wrinkle In Time, each novel features the characters encountering other-worldly beings and evil forces they have to defeat in order to save the world. The characters travel through time and space and even into Charles Wallace’s body in this beloved series that blends science fiction and fantasy.

If you’re looking for a classic read for kids, check out the Wrinkle in Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle. I read all these books with my kids, and they are fantastic (though some of them get pretty darn weird. I'm looking at you, Many Waters!)

  1. A Wrinkle in Time
  2. A Wind in the Door
  3. Many Waters
  4. A Swiftly Tilting Planet
  5. An Acceptable Time


Comet in Moominland (and all the other Moomin-books), by Tove Jansson

Finland’s Tove Jansson created a unique, strange and enchanting (strangely enchanting? enchantingly strange?) world in her stories about the Moomin-family and their life in Moomin-valley. If you haven’t checked out this particular fantasy-realm, it’s well worth a visit.

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) was born in Helsinki and spent much of her life in Finland. She is the author of the Moomin books, including Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll. Born into an artistic family—her father was a sculptor and her mother was a graphic designer and illustrator—Jansson studied at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, and L’ร‰cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In addition to her Moomin books, she also wrote several novels, drew comic strips and worked as a painter and illustrator. In 1966, she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for her body of work. Jansson had a studio in Helsinki but spent most of her time at her home on a small island called Klovharu.


Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary

Having a little sister like four-year-old Ramona isn’t always easy for Beezus Quimby. With a wild imagination, disregard for order, and an appetite for chaos, Ramona makes it hard for Beezus to be the responsible older sister she knows she ought to be…especially when Ramona threatens to ruin Beezus’s birthday party. Will Beezus find the patience to handle her little sister before Ramona turns her big day into a complete disaster? 

This book was published way back in 1955, but it holds up really well all these years later. Maybe because it's so honest about what sibling-hood and family life can really be like: full of chaos and strife and love, all at the same time. Beezus and Ramons is absolutely delightful and at times hilariously, laugh-out-loud funny. Ramona is the quintessential trouble-making little sister, and Beezus is her long-suffering older sister. The stories about their trials and tribulations are so close to real life, I feel I might have lived some part of this.


Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl's castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there's far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

In this giant jigsaw puzzle of a fantasy, people and things are never quite what they seem. Destinies are intertwined, identities exchanged, lovers confused. The Witch has placed a spell on Howl. Does the clue to breaking it lie in a famous poem? And what will happen to Sophie Hatter when she enters Howl's castle?

My kids already loved Hayao Miyazaki’s movie version of this story before we read the book, but the book is a masterpiece in its own way. The story and characters are rather different than in Miyazaki’s adaptation, but I think that the differences just makes the reading more interesting (my kids agreed). Also, Sophie’s adventures after she’s cursed by the witch of the Waste, her encounter with the wizard Howl, and the fire demon Calcifer, make for a great story to read aloud.


The Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland

My daughter was obsessed with this series for a long time, and why not? It has dragons, dragons, and MORE dragons. Also, Sutherland has a real knack for writing stories that are very hard to put down. "Just one more chapter", my daughter would say when I read these books to her, and usually, I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen next too. This is a huge series by now, with a ton of books, maybe enough to last a voracious reader through the summer?

More about the world of these books:

Pyrrhia is a world ruled by dragons. Dragons are everywhere, from the depths of the sea to the mountain peaks, from the icy arctic to the tropical rainforest. Each tribe has adapted to their habitat and is fiercely hostile to outside dragons. For instance, SeaWings can breathe underwater, but they can’t produce fire like the SkyWings. SandWings have poisonous tails like scorpions, but they’d die quickly of the cold in the frozen caves of the IceWings. But all the tribes have a matriarchal system where each is ruled by a queen—and all dragons, no matter where they live, have a powerful love of treasure.

There are humans in this world, but the dragons think of them as prey, like the cows and deer and buffalo. Then again, the dragons have noticed that human prey acts a little odd sometimes. Humans keep showing up outside dragon caves, waving tiny swords and trying to start a fight (which doesn’t bother the dragons much; if the prey chooses to come to them to get eaten, that’s quite all right). The humans also seem as enamored of treasure as the dragons are themselves, and will run off with gold or jewels if they get anywhere near the dragons’ hidden hoards. As a result, the dragons see humans as annoying magpies and refer to them as “scavengers.”


Red Shift, by Alan Garner

Three separate stories, three utterly different lives, distant in time and yet strangely linked to a single place, the mysterious, looming outcrop known as Mow Cop, and a single object, the blunt head of a stone axe: all these come together in Alan Garner’s extraordinary Red Shift.

This book is a twisting, trippy and hard-to-describe tale that winds through three different historical times, all set in the same place. It’s a story that I first read in my teens, but it has stayed with me over the years. It is tragic and brutal and unsettling, and also full of sadness and loss, beauty and love. I really love how Garner uses the same area for each storyline, and the connection to the land, to the landscape, is strong here and part of the story's innate magic.


My daughter read her way through three series of books by Neal Shusterman recently. I haven't read the books myself, but based on her reaction, and if your teen is into the darker side of things, I'd recommend them:

Arc of a Scythe series by Neal Shusterman

In a future where no one dies unless a Scythe mandates it, Citra and Rowan are chosen to learn the “art of killing” in preparation for the scythedom. What follows is a thrilling adventure where the two must work together to uncover the corruption in their supposed utopian society.

The Unwind Dystology by Neal Shusterman

In Neal Shusterman’s New York Times bestselling Unwind Dystology series, three friends fight to change their fate in a world where all teenagers are at risk of being unwound—having their bodies dismantled and all the parts distributed for transplant.


The Skinjacker trilogy by Neal Shusterman

Nick and Allie don’t survive the car accident—and their souls don’t exactly get where they’re supposed to go. Instead, they’re caught halfway between life and death, in a sort of limbo known as Everlost: a shadow of the living world, filled with all the things and places that no longer exist. It’s a magical, yet dangerous, place where bands of lost kids run wild and anyone who stands in the same place too long sinks to the center of the Earth.

When they find Mary, the self-proclaimed queen of lost souls, Nick feels like he’s found a home, but Allie isn’t satisfied spending eternity between worlds. Against all warnings, Allie begins learning the “Criminal Art” of haunting, and ventures into dangerous territory, where a monster called the McGill threatens all the souls of Everlost.



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