Book Recommendations for Back to School

If you’re like me, you’re always looking for a reason to give a book as a gift. They’re perfect for every holiday—and happen to be an ideal way to celebrate the first day of school for your child. I’m departing from my usual list of medieval (and pre-medieval) book recommendations with some of my favorite books of the recent past, ones that my son (aka the Lad, a middle grade book enthusiast) and I recommend for 9 to 12-year-olds keen on great narratives and deep adventures. (These are also perfect read-alouds for the younger crowd.)

We start with:

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl (2016, Usborne)

A genius inventor, loyal robots, and a deadly search for the most fantastic creation of all draws two children into tragedy and flight tragedy in this fast-paced Victorian steampunk adventure. Lily Hartman lives in a world of mechs—thinking, feeling humanoid (or animal) machines—with the mechanical fox Malkin, a wise-cracking pet, as her most trusted companion. Malkin witnessed the disappearance of her inventor father in an airship crash, and soon thereafter, Lily finds herself in the middle of a search for her father’s secret masterpiece: the perpetual motion machine. With murderous thugs and a greedy housekeeper willing to destroy anyone or anything for this machine, Lily flees, inadvertently drawing Robert, a clockmaker’s son, into her desperate bid to survive. Not all is what it seems (very little is what it seems, in fact), and soon Lily finds herself in mortal danger for an invention she carries much closer than anyone but her father ever knew. Courage, loss, sacrifice, and resilience are key themes of this swift-paced tale, topped with a nail-biting climax in Big Ben’s clock tower. Enjoy each mech’s distinct personality, hold your breath through the action of the story, and bask in the peace found by the characters at the end. A worthy read.

Let’s dip into a fairy tale world, though not the kind you might usually expect, with:

The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill (2014, Algonquin Young Readers)

In the first chapter of this powerful novel of magic and loss, Sister Witch’s twin sons, Ned and Tam, are parted when Tam dies in their attempt to sail. Sister Witch, a crucial but under-appreciated member of her village, secures Ned’s life through magic—a dangerous resource that seems to have a complex life and personality of its own. It’s an act that leaves Ned with a stammer and his brother’s voice lingering in his head. Sister Witch’s magic is dangerous, but contains unmistakable power. A stranger to the town sees it, and wants it for himself. This is the Bandit King, who has had a taste of magic and knows what it can do. He tries to steal it when Sister Witch is gone, and Ned takes the magic onto himself. This is no gentle, obedient, fairytale magic: it’s painful in every sense. This magic sears into Ned’s flesh, skittering a web of words over him. Now it’s not just Tam’s voice in his mind, but the magic’s multiple voices: taunting, teasing, and commanding Ned, even as he begs it to desist. Pursued by the Bandit King, Ned ends up deep in the woods and outside the Bandit King’s own home—and in the longbow sights of the Bandit King’s daughter Àine. A resourceful girl haunted by her mother’s death and fearful of what her father will become if he gains the magic he so deeply desires, Àine knows she must keep Ned and his magic away from the Bandit King. Ned and Àine escape the bandits sent by her father within a forest of changing paths to a collection of ancient stones where the magic is more powerful than ever, and to a final choice of self or sacrifice. Read this if you like your fairy tales dark, your characters conflicted, your plots tense, and your prose rich and precise. A powerful story.

Onto a historical laced with magic (and with rooks! I love a novel with corvids, even if they’re not quite heroes):

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox (2016, Viking/Penguin Young Readers)

It’s WWII, and Londoners Kat Bateson and her siblings Robbie and Amelie travel to a boarding school in a creepy Scottish castle to flee from the Blitz. You’d expect to find ghosts at Rookskill Castle with its maze of rooms and hallways that seem to disappear, but there’s more: grinding and screeches sound from a secret room, and sounds of a radio. This seems clear evidence of a German spy. But something much darker is at foot: a being that seeks all children in the castle and will take their lives and souls for a purpose unknown. The children at the school disappear one by one. Kat’s quick thinking protects her, but so does a secret she carries: her great-aunt’s chatelaine, a silver ring of charms on chains—a pen, scissors, and a thimble—that may be the way to defeat the powerful creature that seeks her life. The Lad and I loved the fast pace, haunting atmosphere, and splendid writing of this book—but also the narrative sections from the villain’s perspective, which help the reader understand, if not wholly side with, the tormented Leonore.

These fun, thoughtful middle grade novels from the not-so-distant past would be fabulous gifts to ring in the new school year for any student.

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