The Common Good
May 2010

Books to Grow On

by Kate Bowman-Johnston | May 2010

While aimed at the young, these wide-ranging pages brim with insight, imagination, and one sharp-dressed naked mole rat suitable for all.

It's said that the best children’s literature appeals to the child in the adult and the adult in the child. Below, books for kids of all ages—and grown-ups who are young at heart—that simultaneously inform, challenge, and delight.


Picture Books for Young Children
Preschool to Grade 3

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Farmer Brown’s Holsteins presente! When the farmer won’t meet their demands for a warmer barn, the cows go on strike and rally other animals to bargain for better conditions. With goofy illustrations and plot details, the book is far from a heavy-handed treatise on union organizing, but children still take away the importance of speaking up for themselves and others. Simon & Schuster

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. The only words in this picture book are the lyrics to the titular spiritual, but Nelson’s lush illustrations make them sing. Beginning and ending with his place in the vast universe, the book follows a young boy as he flies a kite with his family, enjoys a rainstorm, and imagines life in distant lands. Dial Books

Silent Music, written and illustrated by James Rumford. As bombs fall on Baghdad in 2003, Ali finds comfort in soccer, pop music—and Arabic calligraphy. His pen strokes are embedded in the earthy collage style of the illustrations, with script adorning the background and details of garments. Drawing inspiration from a 13th-century calligrapher who made his art during another invasion, Ali observes that, in contrast to the word “war,” the pen “stubbornly resists me when I make the difficult waves and slanted staff of salam—peace.” Roaring Brook Press

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. Wilbur knows how to rock a seersucker suit, but his fellow naked mole rats find wearing clothes disgusting. When their leader makes a subversive appearance in his own outfit, the community embraces Wilbur’s no-clothing-optional lifestyle. See if you can spot the subtle, timely civil rights message buried in Willems’ droll spin on the old saw that it’s okay to be different. Hyperion Books for Children

Circles of Hope, by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Linda Saport. Facile wants to welcome his baby sister with the traditional Haitian tikado (Creole for “small gift”) of a tree, but is plagued by harsh weather, predators, and human-made problems. When his grandfather tells him, “You must have hope to plant a tree,” Facile discovers an innovative solution that produces beautiful mangoes. Parallels with the difficult realities of Haitian life and the tenacity of its people are unmistakable, yet do not overwhelm the story. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Books for Middle-Grade Readers
Grade 4 to Grade 7

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt. A breakneck baseball game, a magical rowboat ride with a whale, an old woman’s perverse dying words—this Printz Award winner is a high-spirited and heartbreaking goulash of one boy’s experiences in a small seaside village in Maine. Turner’s border-crossing friendship with a black girl is the novel’s centerpiece, as he and Lizzie defy locals who want to turn her family’s historic community into a tourist destination. Based on real events in the early 20th century. Clarion Books

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. A seemingly random attack on Miranda’s best friend triggers a series of events that reveal enemies as friends and reality as astonishingly complex and beautiful. In the tradition of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (which this novel’s heroine re-reads obsessively), 2010 Newbery Medal winner When You Reach Me explores the mysterious dimensions hidden in everyday life. Wendy Lamb Books

Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies, by Jill Wolfson. Her attention-deficit disorder compounded by a smart mouth, Whitney has been many a foster parent’s worst nightmare. When she’s placed in a dying lumber town, she discovers she loves the outdoors and bands together with other “fosters” to fight loggers who want to take down a giant redwood. The concerns of both environmentalists and townsfolk, whose livelihood is at stake, are portrayed fairly and with nuance—and humanized by Whitney’s irrepressible energy and humor. Henry Holt

After Tupac and D Foster, by Jacqueline Woodson. Tupac Shakur’s life and death provide the backdrop for milestones in the lives of three 12-year-old girls from Queens—but itinerant D Foster is the one who connects most deeply with the rapper’s struggles. As they cope with the family problems and neighborhood dynamics affecting many urban children and search for their Big Purpose, it’s clear that Neeka, D, and the unnamed narrator embody Tupac’s iconic “rose that grew from concrete.” G.P. Putnam’s Sons

A Young People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff. Most people read Zinn’s seminal A People’s History in college, but today’s kids don’t have to wait that long for his radical history lessons. Adapted with color images and a simplified narrative, this overview privileges stories of those usually left out of traditional history: slaves, Native Americans, immigrants, women, and—in many cases—children. Teachers may find the volumes encourage critical thinking when used alongside conventional texts. Seven Stories Press

Books for Teens
Grade 7 and up

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney. What would you do if you found out your mother used the exact same school textbook as you, 30 years before? Junior, a Spokane Indian, snaps—and decides it’s finally time to leave the rez, where educational opportunities are few, to attend the white school the next town over. His humor and despair are deftly realized in Forney’s cartoons and Alexie’s trademark style as Junior wrestles with who he is and where he really belongs. Little, Brown and Company

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party and Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, by M.T. Anderson. In pre-Revolutionary Boston, Octavian learns the truth about his elite upbringing among philosophers and scientists: He is a slave being used to determine how African bodies and minds differ from European ones. When his keepers push their experiments too far, Octavian joins the patriot force to secure his own freedom, only to learn that he is the very property for which white Americans are fighting. A sobering perspective rarely covered in fiction of any kind. Candlewick

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. Following a terrorist attack, everyone is a suspect in the new police state. Teenage hacker Marcus and his buddies band together to overthrow the Department of Homeland Security using Xboxes, a homegrown internet, and flashmob tactics. Set in the near future, this fast-paced exploration of civil liberties in the new millennium will hit close to home for teens—who already know how to use the technologies that will save the U.S. from itself. Tor Teen

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart. Frankie is the anti-Gossip Girl, infiltrating and eventually destroying the Skull and Bones-esque society at her exclusive prep school simply by being cleverer than male classmates give her credit for. While the word “feminism” never comes up, it’s clear that Frankie is wrestling with major identity issues—especially because her crush liked her better when she wasn’t trying to bust up his boys’ club. Hyperion Books for Children

Once Was Lost, by Sara Zarr. Pastor’s kid Samara is pretty jaded about the trappings of faith. How could she not be, with a mother who drinks to make it through Sunday morning and a father who pretends they’re the perfect Christian family? When her friend’s sister is abducted and her mother heads to rehab, Samara’s faith is tested in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s felt like an outsider at church. Zarr’s piercing but hopeful depiction of evangelical subculture rings with the truth of one who’s been there and lived to tell the tale. Little, Brown and Company

Kate Bowman-Johnston, a former Sojourners intern, is a children’s librarian at a neighborhood branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

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