My mother had the knack of giving me a book every Christmas that kept me up all night … after I had opened it on Christmas Eve. I particularly remember the “oh-boy-it’s-dark-outside” year that I received The Lord of the Rings and accompanied the hobbits into Woody End where they first meet the Nazgul, the Ringwraiths. That was a Christmas Eve when I couldn’t go to sleep. The books I received as gifts are a part of the magic fabric of my memory. I hope you’ll entrance the readers in your life in the same way. Here are a few books I can recommend:
The Apothecary and The Apprentices
with illustrations by Ian Schoenherr
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
The Apothecary is set in 1952, wherein a mom and dad who are Hollywood screenwriters are beset by the climate of McCarthyism, so they move themselves and their daughter, Janie Scott, to England. There, Janie attends a private school with a different set of rules and a student body that isn’t exactly welcoming. She’s immediately pulled into a cold-war spy story featuring Benjamin Burrows, the son of an apothecary (we would call him a pharmacist), Pip, a resourceful teen with con-man tendencies, Sarah Pennington, a disdainfully proper British teen, and secretive adults from other countries who are either defending or trying to steal The Pharamacopeia, a centuries-old book containing the valuable secrets of … chemistry or magic, you decide. It’s a breathless reading experience, filled with adventure and surprises, and it’s an intelligent book, respecting its readers. The sequel, The Apprentices, continues the saga in 1954. This time, Janie is at a school in New Hampshire. She doesn’t know where Benjamin is, but he’s in the jungles of Vietnam trying to help peace take the upper hand. When Janie is kidnapped, Benjamin calls on Pip to come to her rescue. It’s a wonderful blend of characters we can care about, a detailed plot that keeps the reader turning pages, good writing, and illustrations that support the stories.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library
If your favorite readers likes games and puzzles (either paper, board, or electronic), they’re going to enjoy this fast-paced, filled-with-thrills-and-surprises book. Luigi Lemoncello is the benefactor for an entire town but his most magnificent gift is a new library filled with books and — literally — games and puzzles and adventures. The town kids write essays to win a chance to be one of twelve kids to spend opening night at the library, engaged in puzzles and games. Kyle Keeley, an underachieving student (one might call him the class clown), loves any type of game and soon finds himself pitted against smart kids, wily kids, good kids, and seemingly nefarious kids to win the coveted prize and, more seriously, find the way out of the library which they discover is locked down tight. The games and puzzles are set up so the reader can play along. That’s at least half the fun of reading this book. You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp (more than once), you’ll cheer the game players on. It’s a delightfully engaging book that references and tempts the reader to find out more about other books in the library. So much fun that the reader might not realize they aren’t pressing buttons on a game controller.
Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave and Tower of the Five Orders
Derin R. Hicks
illustrated by Mark Edward Geyer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
When the first book appeared in 2012, I read it in one sitting, then fretted because I didn’t know when the next book would be available. With delight, I found it awaiting me this fall, put it at the top of my reading pile, and eagerly sat down to read it in one big gulp. The author is so good at planting clues in this mystery that I will go back and re-read it to savor the revelations, especially now that I know where we’re heading. Twelve-year-old Colophon Letterford, her brother Case, her true-blue cousin Julian, and her black-hearted cousin Treemont are part of a much larger family descending from a publisher who began his work in the 1600s, not coincidentally around the time of Shakespeare’s renowned work. It seems that someone wisely foresaw a time when certain information — and books — would be needed by the family and they cleverly stashed clues in paintings, books, and other surprising places that Colophon, Case, and Julian detect … and Treemont swoops in to claim. The plot swoops, whoops, and swings from scene to scene, providing plenty of thrills for even the most reluctant reader. Now I’m worried because I don’t know when the next installment is due.
Turn Left at the Cow
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I had to include a straightforward, modern-day mystery in this group, not only because it’s one of my favorite genres, but because kids love them and there are too few mysteries that are as funny — and pulse-quickening — as this one. From the minute 13-year-old Trav sets down in Minnesota, having run away from his mother and stepfather to his grandmother’s house on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, we’re on a wild ride that takes us from the crisp opening line, “There were so many dead bodies stuffed into Gram’s freezer chest that it was kind of like wandering through a cryonics lab,” to the truly breath-arresting ending. As California-raised Trav learns to navigate a small town that knows everything about his deceased father and the crime he committed right before Trav was born, we learn more about Trav’s new neighbors, his grandmother, and an interesting cast of lake-town characters. We want to find the missing money as badly as everyone else in town. It’s laugh-out-loud funny with a touch of romance and a lot of heart. I had to keep reading this one until I turned the last page … and then I wanted more.
What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World
illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
This is kooky … and lovably so. You may have thought so from reading the title, hmmm? Three kids who wait every morning at a bus stop are bemused to find a sofa there one morning. They assume it’s a curbside castoff from the reclusive’s mansion in front of which they hang out on the way to school. For various reasons, they all live in a dangerous, chemically-destroyed part of town, and they are uneasy companions. River, Freak, and Fiona dig around in the cushions of the sofa, discovering a zucchini-colored crayon. This leads them to discover that the planet’s in danger and they’re the only ones who haven’t been sucked into complacence by their cell phones. Will they be up to the task of saving humanity? Clever, filled with humor, awash with danger, with a perfectly paced plot, this is a great choice for most of the young readers on your list.
And, if you buy these for yourself, I won’t tell.
(Note: My reviews of these books are based on: copies of The Apothecary and The Apprentices that I purchased at an independent bookseller, an e‑book of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library that I purchased, copies of The Secrets of Shakespeare’s Grave and Tower of the Five Orders which was kindly sent to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review purposes, a copy of Turn Left at the Cow which was provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review, and a copy of What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World provided by Little, Brown for review.)