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Modern-Yet Worthy-Children’s Books

~ by Catherine Wise ~

As engaged parents and educators, I feel reasonably confident that most adults reading this pull from a fantastic reservoir of high quality classic children’s literature for family or classroom read-alouds. I would probably be preaching to the choir were I to recommend to you Charlotte’s Web or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or even Anne of Green Gables or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, though don’t get me wrong, I would happily spend time making a case for any of these excellent classics. For today’s purposes, though, I’d like to advocate for reading some lovely books that have been (*gasp*) recently published. I am passionate about curating quality reading experiences for our family and want to share some delightful middle-grade novels we have shared together in the hopes of encouraging you to pick up one (or three!) of these this summer. Each of these deals with big themes that invite meaningful conversation, including courage, self-sacrifice, hospitality, and hope. I commend these books to you as ones that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike, and I am confident that reading and discussing any of these books with your students will help create shared memories, inside jokes, and a tight-knit family or classroom culture.


The Green Ember series (begins with The Green Ember)-S.D. Smith weaves a tale of rabbits with swords fighting wolves and hawks, awaiting the return of a lost prince and the restoration and healing of their broken wood. At first glance, I thought this series would be childish. The first book begins with a pair of rabbit siblings playing a game of their own invention. Suddenly, though, wolves attack and these siblings join the hidden resistance. There are now ten books in the Green Ember world, and the battle cry stirs my heart, “My place beside you/ my blood for yours/ ‘til the green ember rises/ or the end of the world!” 


The Wingfeather Saga (begins with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness)-Andrew Peterson is a master world builder. He pairs silly, fantastic creatures with a tale of such deep meaning that I could barely finish reading aloud the final book because of my tears. Siblings in an oppressed village come to grips with shocking truths about their family history and seek to overthrow their cruel overlords and restore peace to their people. These masterpieces invite contemplations of forgiveness and restoration, the consequences of past actions, humility, and leadership.


Sweep-This was our first book by Jonathan Auxier but it won’t be the last! This is the account of an orphaned chimney sweep and her magical protector. This is historical fiction blended with magical realism and combines the poignant, realistic portrayal of these children’s working conditions with the fantastical creature our protagonist raises. This book is a celebration of life and an invitation to walk in the shoes of others.


The Wilderking Trilogy (begins with The Bark of the Bog Owl)-I won’t spoil the reveal here, but Jonathan Rogers’ retelling of a biblical account is one I’m sure most of you would recognize, yet it’s also a wild adventure tale set in a quirky, wild world. This read-aloud will invite lots of voices and accents and sound effects! The main character is a boy with a big future, according to a wise prophet, but he has much to learn before he’s ready to fulfill his destiny.


The Midadventured Summer of Tumbleweed Thompson-This western by Glenn McCarty, reminiscent of Twain’s Tom Sawyer, is set in 1870s Colorado, and the protagonist’s often less-than-truthful sidekick gets our two main characters into all kinds of scrapes, including a brush with the law, the pursuit of bandits via train and on horseback, and a competition for the attention of the mayor’s daughter. My kids could often see the trouble that was coming before the book’s characters did, so it was all the more satisfying as different elements of the plot came together. 


A Place to Hang the Moon-This was our family’s favorite read-aloud of last year and we are eagerly awaiting more by this author. When I heard that Kate Albus named one of her main characters after The Chronicles of Narnia’s Edmund and also sent the siblings in this book to the English countryside in WWI to be protected from the Blitz, I knew we had to read this! Any story that prominently features a librarian  scores extra points with me, and the fact that my kids were in stitches laughing at different points was an added bonus!


The Midnight Children-Dan Gemeinhart’s book may be our favorite read-aloud of this year and we aren’t even halfway through 2023 yet! The style is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the messages of hope and found family are truly precious. I keep thinking of lines from this book even weeks after we finished it. There is much to relate to in our protagonist, and the struggles and choices he deals with are worth wrestling through. A truly beautiful, memorable story.


The Inquisitor’s Tale-A slightly irreverent book with strong echoes of The Canterbury Tales, this one by Adam Gidwitz had me nervous about not having preread it before sharing it with my kids. I trusted the source of the recommendation, though, and I’m glad I did. Our main characters are three children representing different faiths and cultures during the Inquisition. While it does include some potty humor (a flatulent dragon, for example!) and many quirky individuals, this book is also a powerful tale of overcoming prejudice and not taking the easy way out of tough situations. 

Reading aloud is one of the great joys of our school day and our family rhythms, so I hope you’ll take one of my recommendations as you pursue meaningful reading experiences with your children or students this summer. I believe any of the relatively recently published suggestions on this list would spark rich discussion and contribute to the cultivation of delightful memories. If you want more recommendations, some of my favorite sources for book ideas are Sarah Mackenzie of the Read Aloud Revival and the many authors and illustrators that have been featured on Withywindle, the bookish podcast for kids.

Catherine “Cat” Wise has loved to read since before she started school. Raised in a military family, she attended public school in Italy and then was homeschooled before obtaining a BA in elementary education with a Spanish minor at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor in Texas and becoming a bilingual kindergarten teacher. When her oldest child was a toddler, Cat discovered classical education and fell in love with the idea of cultivating wisdom and virtue through great books, fascinating histories, and the beauty of language. Cat has been classically homeschooling her three children for eight years and is honored to learn alongside them of the Creator and His magnificent works. She wholeheartedly believes engaging with stories is one of the best ways to foster virtue and wisdom, so she’s excited to join the instructors at Scholé Academy and share her love of literature and language with others.

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