When I was a teen, I had summer ritual: Each July, I would re-read The Lord of the the Rings (by J.R.R. Tolkien, of course) and Little Women (by Louisa May Alcott, ditto). I read many other books, but these I were my summer vacation tradition.
My reading habits have changed over the years--I read far less fantasy than I did as a teen. That genre has been replaced by mysteries (especially Nordic noir and gritty police procedurals). But I still have a spot in my heart for good, old-fashioned storytelling with strong characters. That’s why I’m hoping to get some kids hooked on “The Penderwicks,” “The Children of Ashton Place,” and the Flavia de Luce mysteries.
These books will appeal to certain kids--quirky, intelligent, and a bit nerdy. Kids who appreciate a protagonist just like them. And those who think Jo should have married Laurie, but totally understand why she didn’t. (Well, maybe not totally.)
The Penderwick sisters have appeared in three books by Jeanne Birdsall so far: The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks of Gardam Street, and The Penderwicks of Point Mouette (two more are planned). Like the Marches of Little Women, the Penderwick family, when we first meet them, comprises four sisters and single parent. Birdsall has made sure each girl has her own personality and voice. The stories are simple, the plots not so complex, and that’s OK. It’s the girls that matter and are real. Reading these books you come to care about their lives.
You also care about the titular children in The Children of Ashton Place series, by Maryrose Wood. But the real joy is in their governess, Penelope Lumley. Some have likened her tale to that of Jane Eyre, but I love Penelope far more than I ever did Jane (I read tons of Jane Austen, but leave those Bronte sisters alone). These books, which feature wolf-raised orphans, now under the care of Ms. Lumley, are delightfully funny. I hope so much that every child reading these books laughs as much as I do. The story--put forth in the books “The Mysterious Howling,” “The Hidden Gallery” and the forthcoming “The Unseen Guest”--is also terribly mysterious. Is Penelope related to the wolf-children? Are the children being hunted? Why does their guardian Lord Ashton avoid the full moon? And will Lady Ashton ever have a moment’s peace from the little howlers? I have so many more questions, but I fear that finding out the answers will mean the series will end and I don’t want that.
Finally, I think there are some teen girls out there who will totally get Flavia de Luce. Alan Bradley’s mysteries are written for adults, but they are ripe for crossing over into teenland. Flavia is 11 years old or so at the beginning of the first novel (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie). She is super cunning and a chemistry wizard. The books are set in post-World War II England. Flavia and her father, older sisters and jack-of-all-trades Dogger, live in a drafty manor home that makes me wonder what will become of Downton Abbey if the Crawleys ever lose their fortune, as the de Luces are. Through no fault of her own, Flavia keeps stumbling upon death and she uses her knowledge of chemistry and her ability to lie and ferret out gossip to find the evil doers just as well as the local police can. The real charm, though, is in Flavia. She’s a lonely girl, often tormented by her older sisters (though she does try to exact revenge), but she’s also charming and smart and funny. I’m certain there are teens out there--let’s look for the nerdy ones who may be re-reading Little Women right now--who will love this series.
(As I was writing this, I noticed a trend, and I’m sorry it’s followed in these books: Motherless children. Some librarian out there searching for PhD topic should take on this. Why do so many children’s and YA novels feature motherless children?)