Great Summer Reads, Part One

Last week I promised to post the list of Great Summer Reads for ages 8 to 12 that I put together for a panel at my local library. This is part one–books, mostly fantasy, that I loved both as an 8 to 12 year old and later, as a library page who should have been shelving in the Children’s Department of the Mary Riley Styles Library but was too often idling by her heavily laden book cart, deep in a new discovery.

Key: A=animal stories, F=fantasy, FL=folklore, HA=historical adventure, M=mystery, S=supernatural/suspense, SF=sci-fi

Adams, Richard (1920-)

Watership Down

Imagine The Hobbit with rabbits. I loved this when I was a kid, and it held up well when my son and I read it while back. (A,F)

Aiken, Joan (1924-2004)

In my humble opinion, Joan Aiken taught Lemony Snicket everything he knows. Ingenious children emerge victorious against the plots of nefarious adults and other perils. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is a good place to start. (HA)

Alexander, Lloyd (1924-2007)

These books, now high-fantasy classics, engrossed and inspired me as a very young writer. The Prydain Chronicles, beginning with The Book of Three and finishing four books later with The High King. (F)

Cameron, Eleanor (1912-1996)

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

Two boys are recruited by mysterious Mr. Bass to build a spaceship and fly to the Mushroom Planet. (SF)

Christie, Agatha (1890-1976)

At around age 10, I discovered my father’s stash of Agatha Christie mystery paperbacks, beginning with the short-story collection The Labors of Hercules. The ones set in and around archaeological digs are good choices for kids. (M)

Cooper, Susan (1935-)

The Dark Is Rising sequence, beginning with Over Sea, Under Stone and continuing with The Dark Is Rising. For younger readers, her Boggart books. (F)

Doyle, Arthur Conan (1859-1930)

The real Holmes. Begin with shorter stories such as “The Speckled Band” and “The Red-Headed League” or the secret code of “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” then work up to “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” (M)

Eager, Edward (1911-1964)

These are especially good as audiobooks for long car trips. (F)

Among others:

Half Magic

Magic by the Lake

Knight’s Castle

Seven-Day Magic

The Well-Wishers

The Time Garden

Fitzhugh, Louise (1928-1974)

Everyone knows Harriet the Spy. But the better book, I think, is the overlooked sequel, The Long Summer.


Garner, Alan (1934-)

Highly atmospheric, spooky fantasy set in a highly atmospheric, spooky part of Cheshire, England. (F)

Among others:

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

The Moon of Gomrath

The Owl Service

Lang, Andrew (1844-1912)

The Blue Fairy Book and the other 11 colors in the fairy book series. (In fact, I recommend the whole Dewey Decimal range of 398—Fairy Tales and Folklore—for your summer reading pleasure.) (FL)

LeGuin, Ursula (1929-)

Her Earthsea books about the wizard Ged inspired me to become a writer. Originally a trilogy, now a series of six books beginning with 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Younger readers may like her Catwing books. (F)

L’Engle, Madeleine (1918-2007)

One of my very favorite authors. These are characters you really want to spent time with, or move in with!

The Time Trilogy, beginning with A Wrinkle in Time, and the other series about the O’Keefe and Austin families, including The Arm of the StarfishDragons in the Waters, and A Ring of Endless Light.

Beyond category, but if you must have one, mystical science fiction.

Nesbit, Enid (1858-1924)

The Enchanted Castle

The Book of Dragons

…there are dozens more! (F)

Norton, Mary (1903-1992)

The adventures of Arrietty Clock and her parents, Pod and Homily, under the floorboards. (F)

The Borrowers, followed by the Borrowers Afield, …Afloat, …Aloft, and …Avenged

Pyle, Howard (1853-1911)

The Wonder Clock (FL)

Fairy tales, wonderfully illustrated.

Snyder, Zilpha Keatley (1927-)

The Egypt Game

The Headless Cupid

The Velvet Room

Again, sort of beyond category. Supernatural mystery? The Headless Cupid has poltergeists. The Velvet Room was a cherished favorite ghost story. If you like these, there are dozens more titles from this gifted and prolific author. (S)

White, T.H. (1906-1964)

Mistress Masham’s Repose (F)

All kinds of Lilliputian wonderfulness. Recommended for fans of Mary Norton’s Borrower books. Ambitious readers could tackle The Once and Future King, the Arthurian retelling that starts with The Sword in the Stone.



Last month I led a worldbuilding workshop for kids at the summer camp my son was attending. Over the last year, I had been busy building a world of my own, a grassland planet that will appear in my next novel. It’s been a fun and absorbing exercise to invent a whole world, with culture and technology and traditions as well as its own unique flora and fauna. Of course, when I wrote high fantasy, I was building a different kind of world, with magical creatures. But the charge I’ve given myself for my current novel is to create plants and animals informed by the years I spent as a science editor, working with evolutionary biologists. It’s allowed me to stretch myself in ways I know are paying off personally and hope will eventually pay off on the page.

Then suddenly I found myself offering to lead a workshop at Parts & Crafts, a camp where kids learn “to make things, and make things happen.” I’ve previously led kids in writing workshops that used various prompts to inspire their own creative writing. I’ve used a poem by Craig Raine to inspire kids to write “Martian postcards.” And in 2008-2009, I led an afterschool fiction writing club for fourth- and sixth-grade kids. Our writing club had a “shipwrecked” theme, and over the semester of Tuesday afternoons they all managed to get their main characters marooned in various harrowing and hilarious situations, domestic and extraterrestrial. Now I planned to ramp up the workshop to something more ambitious–worldbuilding on the scale of a planet.

I agreed to lead a world-building workshop for kids without being really sure how to go about it. Because it was  a camp and not a school setting, I didn’t want it to feel too structured or didactic. I wanted to coach them more than teach them. There is a lot of good stuff online about worldbuilding, and I put links to a lot of it up on a Worldbuilding wiki on Wikispaces to serve as a resource, in case the kids wanted it.

But in the end they didn’t need any adults telling them how to build a world. It was pretty intuitive for them…and very hands-on. I showed up at camp with a huge tote bag of inspiration books about planets and real and imagined worlds. I also brought plenty of black construction paper and pastels, some drafting compasses, about 1000 blank and lined index cards, modelling clay, a laptop, and a webcam.

It soon became clear we were going to need more clay. Most kids seemed to feel the 2-D art and index cards were too much like a school assignment, but making aliens out of clay was immediately a hit, and by the second day they were using iStopMotion to make claymation films on a set we made with cardboard, paint, and found objects.

Older kids entered data about their planet and its flora and fauna on the Worldbuilders wiki. I’d provided a template to get them started, and then they figured out how to upload images and modify them using an online photo editor, Lunapic. One camper used Lunapic’s special effects to create a sepia map of a city and a “radioactive” specimen.

You can see the worlds they created at the Wiki and some of their claymation films on the Parts and Crafts channel on Vimeo.

What I love about worldbuilding as a creative activity for kids is that it’s almost endlessly scalable–from a single afternoon to a whole semester or summer–and customizable to what you have on hand. One day we did a taste test of “alien food” (exotic fruits from the store); on another day we used gold and silver Sculpey clay to make alien artifacts. It was also a great way to engage kids for whom the written word isn’t the first or best way in to creative thinking. Clay offered a way to create their world physically, and once they could see it, they could begin to put it into words, and create a story.

For more about how the Worldbuilding worked, visit the Worldbuilding wiki and see the How To page.