“There is creative reading as well as creative writing.”Ralph Waldo Emerson“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time(or the tools) to write.” Stephen King
If you are inclined to write for 6th-8th graders, you’ll want to read some of the best of what’s out there now. Here are my top 12 picks:
Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury is historical fiction. It’s about a young Hawaiian man who decides to enlist in the army after Pearl Harbor is attacked. He joins a special unit of Japanese Americans who are being used to train guard dogs on the theory that the Japanese smell different than Americans. These soldiers are used as the bait to try to train the dogs to sniff out Japanese infiltrators. The story is based on events told by veterans who served in this capacity.
Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson is another historical fiction about a little-known piece of American history. In late summer, 1793, mosquitoes brought a deadly fever that swept through Philadelphia. At that time, Philadelphia was the seat of government, and the leaders fled town. Many of the citizens tried to as well, but the roads out of town were blocked for fear that they’d spread the fever to other towns. The story is told from the perspective of 16-year-old Matilda Cook.
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is an alternate history of WWI. This is a genre called Steam Punk, which is akin to the stories of Jules Verne. Steam Punk takes place in a time before industrialization, but with machines that weren’t around at the time of the story. In this case, the two sides are represented by Prince Alek, a Clanker who believes in the use of mechanical machinery, and Deryn, a girl passing herself off as a boy so she can work on the Darwinist machines made of animals.
The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt takes place in 1967. Holling Hoodhood is the only student in his class that doesn’t leave early on Wednesday afternoons for Catechism or Hebrew school. His teacher, Mrs. Baker, uses the time to read through Shakespeare’s plays with him. It seems that the Bard has the answers to all the problems going on in Holling’s life at the time.
The Circuit by Francisco Jiménez is an autobiography of a boy growing up as a migrant worker. Life on the circuit is hard. He has trouble learning English in school and never gets to be in the same school for a whole year. Friends come and go. The work is hard and the housing isn’t always adequate. Family life suffers. It isn’t the land of opportunity that the family had envisioned when they crossed illegally into the US. And there’s always the fear of the dreaded milagre.
Any Small Goodness by Tony Johnston is a series of vignettes of life in the barrio of east Los Angeles. Arturo and his family and friends experience the good and the bad, but they are determined to look for any small goodness and to spread goodness themselves. This is an uplifting book.
Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry (an Oregon author) is about a 12-year-old boy that everyone calls “Brother” who is left to tend the family ranch in eastern Oregon with his grandparents when his father is deployed to Iraq and his older brothers are away at school. I particularly like the portrayal of his grandparent’s relationship as his grandmother is Catholic and his grandfather is Quaker. It’s obvious that in spite of their differences, they love each other.
The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd is truly puzzling up until the finale. Ted has Asperger’s, so he sees things differently than most people would. When his cousin, Salim, goes missing, impossibly while Ted and his sister, Kat, are watching, the brother and sister try to piece together what happened. With Ted’s unique point of view on things, he labors over details others would consider trivial, and he comes up with some implausible theories that work.
Half-Moon Investigations by Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer, is a more light-hearted mystery. I recommend listening to it as an audiobook because the producers did a tongue-in-cheek Sam Spade-type rendition of the book, complete with a single wailing saxophone. This book is about a young boy who has to solve a schoolyard mystery, so the pulp detective treatment is a fun touch!
Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy is another fun detective story. Skulduggery is a detective mage who is full of mischief and not much else. He is actually a living skeleton and he associates with some unsavory people, but he comes to the rescue of a 12-year-old girl who has just inherited her strange uncle’s estate; and with it, a heap of trouble.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is a supernatural mystery. A girl living in New York City begins finding notes that tell her things no one could know. Shortly after the notes begin, events in her life get really strange. A boy comes up and punches her best friend for no apparent reason, but then turns out to be friendly. A crazy man on the corner mutters some things that seem significant. And her mother is trying to get on The $20,000 Pyramid.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman seems to start out backwards. A toddler named Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, finds his way into a cemetary on the night the rest of his family is murdered, and the ghosts and other beings there take pity on him and offer their protection. He grows up learning everything the dead can teach him. Frightening as that may sound, he is safer in the cemetary than outside where the killer is still looking for him.