The best books for children and young teens
Emma Lee-Potter asked heads, teachers and librarians from schools across the country to tell us about the books they think every child should read by the time they are 13
- This article first appeared in The Week Independent Schools Guide 2021
The Butterfly Lion by Michael Morpurgo (9+)
Marie Gibson, English coordinator, Kingswood Prep School
Truly one of this gifted writer’s best works, The Butterfly Lion is about the friendship that develops between a young boy and an African white lion. It encompasses the themes of friendship, loyalty and bravery and traverses the globe, from a boarding school in Wiltshire to the velds of South Africa and France during the First World War. Best enjoyed by nine to 11-year- old readers, it has been described as heartwarming and bitter-sweet but don’t be fooled. It is more than it seems at first – it’s a story within a story and saves its best twist for the last pages.
Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone (9+)
Rachel Craig, head of English, Fettes Prep School
A magical and enthralling story of adventure, friendship, the importance of nature and how it is fine to be different. Set in a magical kingdom in the frozen north, the developing friendship of the two protagonists, Eska and Flint, allows them to overcome the rule of the evil Ice Queen, as well as tackling their own personal challenges and lack of self-belief. It is an incredibly gripping adventure story which includes the themes of family, interdependence and self-reliance. It shows children the power of unity and teamwork, and opens their minds to new ideas and cultures.
The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt (11+)
selected by Rachel Knight, Librarian, Walhampton School
There is something almost cinematic about The Letter for the King – the rich and sweeping description of far-off lands, a quest almost Arthurian in its atmosphere and essence and a beautiful structure and style that transcends all generic conventions. The book, translated from the original 1962 Dutch text, pulses with peril, hidden identity, secrets and a journey of epic proportions. An exceptional tale of courage, valour and pure adventure, it features hand-drawn maps and remarkable illustrations. The language is lavish and vivid and there is never a sense that Dragt is intending to patronise her younger readers. The text stands as a glittering beacon in children’s literature and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Legend of Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood (9+)
selected by Penny Casey, Librarian, University College School, Junior Branch
On Bramblemas Eve, a bard weaves his way through the deep snow of an ancient woodland to regale “The Legend of Podkin One-Ear” to the rabbits of Thornwood Warren. He describes a fateful evening when the young playful Podkin and the surviving rabbits in his warren flee from an attack of the Gorm, the most terrifying of threats to rabbits. Podkin takes on the role of leader but will he be able to lead his clan to safety? This book will delight readers who enjoy the mystical fantasy and intelligent plots of The Hobbit. The legend is beautifully written and David Wyatt’s stunning interior illustrations bring the riveting adventures and dangers that Podkin faces vividly to life.
Once by Morris Gleitzman (9+)
selected by David Amdurer, Librarian and archivist, Strathallan School
Once is the first book in a series telling the story of Felix, a young Jewish boy who is searching for his book-keeper parents after he sees the Nazis burning books from the Catholic orphanage he was staying in. Along the way he rescues a young girl, Zelda, telling her stories to alleviate her worries. It is a fast-paced book, historically accurate, written in a heartfelt manner and perfect for children in their late tweens. It’s also a great book for encouraging reluctant readers, especially boys.
Wonder by RJ Palacio (11+)
Emma Goldsmith, Head, Winchester House School
Wonder tackles a myriad of taboos with a lightness of touch and you are led skilfully through some potentially painful moments. This is the story of a boy who is an outsider starting school for the first time following home-schooling. The novel tackles prejudice, challenges stereotypes and portrays family life with candid realism. It is set in America, which gives a little comfort of detachment. However, we can all recognise those unpleasant bullies, the inspirational teachers and the awkwardness of youth. The novel is aptly named as you feel wonder for the protagonist, wonder for the clarity of the vision of young people and ultimately wonder for humankind.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon (12+)
selected by Colin Baty, Head, Bedales Prep, Dunhurst
This novel follows the plight of an unlikely boy-detective with Asperger’s syndrome. It shows children that there are those whose brains are wired differently and gives a voice to those who might see something of themselves reflected back in Christopher. It isn’t always an easy read, dealing with themes of family, trust and braving the unknown. Perhaps more suitable for 12+ readers, it examines the power of swearing, opening a debate about language as Christopher is unaware of the offence that it can cause. And in our post-lockdown world, there is little we need more than awareness, understanding and kindness.
The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher (9+)
selected by Rachel Gibb, Librarian, Merchiston Castle School
Published in 2019, this already feels like a classic. Anna Fargher draws on the real-life stories of animals and resistance fighters from the Second World War in this poignant story of courage and selflessness seen through the eyes of a mouse. Pip the mouse is orphaned during the London blitz but is befriended by rescue dog Dickin, homing pigeon GI Joe and German defector Hans the rat, who are all working with the resistance movement to help the war effort. Pip’s story is woven into the real events of the time and this novel teaches history without it becoming a lesson. An exciting wartime adventure that’s full of courage and friendship, and beautifully illustrated.
Lampie by Annet Schaap (9+)
selected by Stitch Byrne, Head of English, Perrott Hill
In a world where children all too often face challenges beyond their years, Lampie sends an inspiring message of positivity and encouragement to those who fear failure or feel they are “different” and don’t fit in. Dutch author and illustrator Annet Schaap couches the story within the fairytale genre, helping to capture a younger audience as well as older readers who see the allegorical significance of the book. This is a wonderful insight into the way children see and bring out the best in one another. The two protagonists enable one another to look beyond their physical and learning “differences” to recognise the unique gift that each child possesses but hitherto has not been recognised as a gift.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner (11+)
selected by Angela Tawse, Head librarian, St Leonards, St Andrews
In today’s appearance-obsessed society this book shows that it is what you do that matters, and that you set your own limitations, not other people. With his mismatched eyes, overall awkwardness and abysmal failure at school, Standish Treadwell occupies the bottom societal rung in the Motherland. Yet it is up to Standish, who sees clearly, loves absolutely and does not flinch when it comes to doing what must be done, to expose the big fat lie of what the Motherland is really up to. In her award-winning book Sally Gardner has created in Standish someone who epitomises the dedication at the start of the book: “For you the dreamers, Overlooked at school, Never won prizes, You who will own tomorrow.”
Being Miss Nobody by Tamsin Winter (9+)
selected by Alison Fenton, Librarian, Cranleigh Prep School
The winner of our 2019 Awesome Book Awards, Being Miss Nobody is one of those books that stays with you long after you have finished it and supports readers without preaching to them. This book is important because it highlights so many aspects of life that young people have to contend with growing up in the 21st century, including the effects of social media, anxiety, bullying and cyber-bullying, and ultimately teaches them the power of words, empathy and that it is OK to be different. Tamsin Winter, an English secondary school teacher, cleverly introduces the profound quote by Maya Angelou: “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” A gem of a story.
The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Raúf (9+)
selected by Sarah Keegan, Junior School librarian, North London Collegiate School
This remarkable book is narrated by an ordinary nine-year-old, attending an ordinary school with three best friends, all of them expecting another ordinary year. But three weeks into the autumn term, new boy Ahmet joins the class, leading to “the most exciting thing that could ever happen to anyone”. The boy seems strange – he doesn’t talk and never smiles. When the friends discover that Ahmet is a Syrian refugee who doesn’t speak English, they resolve to find a way to reach out and welcome him. This is a hugely enjoyable story about the importance of friendship and empathy.
Holes by Louis Sachar (10+)
selected by Tom O’Sullivan, Head, Cheltenham College Preparatory School
One of those rare books that comes along once in a generation, Holes defies definition by genre or age group. Adults and children alike will love the story of the seemingly unlucky Stanley, wrongly convicted for a crime he did not commit and sent to Camp Green Lake in Texas, where he is made to dig holes in the desert all day. This is a book that speaks to us all, especially children, through the universal themes of friendship, honesty and loyalty – and our need to find our true place in the world. It is wrapped around an enchanting and completely original tale which stays with you long past the final page.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis (8+)
selected by Sarah Skevington, Head of juniors, Blackheath High School GDST
A timeless classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a book that has been enjoyed for generations and one that continues to enchant readers, young and old. It stands out from my own childhood reading and continues to draw a lot of excitement and intrigue from girls at school. The idea that you enter a whole new world through a wardrobe captures young minds and imaginations. For young children, this fantasy world and its enchanting characters are a perfect way to help them explore important ideas and values, from honesty and integrity to forgiveness and courage.
Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (12+)
selected by Colin MacIntosh, Headmaster, Ashfold School
I started teaching English during a golden age for children’s literature (Northern Lights, Harry Potter, Alex Rider, Lemony Snicket and others), but the one book from that time that stands out as required reading is Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses. It is an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl story, set in a society of segregation, racism and hatred. That might sound familiar, but Blackman’s genius is to present an alternative history where the dark-skinned Crosses are in control of the light-skinned Noughts. The result is an extraordinary book that changes the way that you see both the world and every history lesson you ever had.
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell (10+)
selected by Jonathan Melville, Head of English, King’s Junior School, Chester
Some stories only stay with you fleetingly while others remain long in the memory. The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell certainly falls into the second category. This beguiling and compelling book is beautifully written and tells the story of the principled and plucky Feo, who teaches previously tamed wolves to fend for themselves and, most importantly, to be wary of humans. Feo comes into conflict with ruthless Russian soldiers who have arrested her mother and are determined to kill the wolves. Throughout this daunting conflict Feo develops an unlikely friendship and ally in her quest to fight back.
The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (10+)
selected by Olivia Payne, Junior School librarian, Highgate School
A life-affirming story about found-family and overcoming obstacles, set during the Second World War, this book deals with huge topics such as prejudice, disability, abuse and grief in an age-appropriate and sensitive manner, and provides new perspectives on a fascinating part of history. Similar to the excellent Goodnight Mister Tom, Ada’s first-person narration brings an even greater sense of immediacy and heart and the reader becomes immensely invested in every part of her story, from learning to ride a horse to thwarting German spies. Emotional and impactful, insightful and exciting, it’s a book that children should read.