The glorious, hilarious, riveting, riotous, brilliant book list for kids

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What should your kids be reading? As the new school term starts once more, Carol Mitchell has come up with a super selection of books for tweens and young teens

Selecting 25 books that every Caribbean tween and young teenager should read was a daunting task. Data compiled from reports by the Book Industry Study Group suggest that approximately 22,000 children’s books were published in 2009 alone, and of those maybe 40% were aimed at children aged from 10 to 15. Even if that market were not growing – which it is – there will have been almost 80,000 books for this audience produced in the past nine years. That’s in addition to the rich library of books published before that. So how does one even begin to select 25?

One way is to take a scientific approach – to look at why children should read and then choose books that fill the criteria. Reading is vitally important, especially for young children – it helps them expand their vocabulary and develop skills in comprehension, and stimulates their imagination. Reading is a key building block in our children’s march towards a productive adulthood.

As children get older, however, school becomes more challenging, social lives more complex and reading is often sidelined and restricted to texts assigned in the classroom. So the role of reading changes a little when we start to talk about children aged 10 and over. Their books need to have stimulating language and challenging themes, and cover a wide variety of topics and situations, but they also need to be entertaining. As such, though there are many books we could have chosen only for their scholarship, they did not make this list unless they were also the sort of book a child would pick up and want to keep reading. That’s the magic of, say, Roald Dahl’s books. His characters are independent, smart and flawed but ultimately have agency over the bizarre circumstances in which they find themselves – and young readers will stick with them because the stories are hilarious.

Fantasy and folklore have a strong presence on the list. Many young readers enjoy books that allow them to escape their day-to-day reality. These books tick many of the boxes for successful children’s literature by including strong characters, complex themes and great descriptive and figurative language, but they do the additional duty of forcing the readers to stretch their imaginations and visualise the impossible. This fosters creativity and serves them well in adulthood. It is part of the appeal of books such as the Harry Potter series and The Jumbies.

Many of the books chosen have strong protagonists with varied backgrounds, ethnicities and characteristics. It is no mistake that the list is just about evenly split in terms of male and female leads, and includes many books with characters of colour. These books portray the fact that real-world heroes come in a variety of packages, and that the bottom line of any human interaction is our humanity. Books such as Wonder, in which the main character is a boy with a disfigured face, provide an example for young people to look beyond differences in others. Many of the books on the list also have strong themes of friendship and family, signalling to young readers the importance of nurturing relationships and developing community.

We want children and teen readers to be exposed to a variety of situations in books. The aim here is two-fold. When young people experience events through books, they can engage with issues that may not yet have affected them, develop empathy for others who may be in the midst of those circumstances, and perhaps be prepared for when they may be impacted by similar situations.
For young people who may be having a difficult time, dealing with bullying or a death for example, books offer a starting point for these conversations at home and in the classroom. Reading about other young people in challenging circumstances helps readers feel less alone and can encourage them to talk about their feelings. Books can provide relief to young people by revealing to them that emotions such as fear, anger and sadness are all natural reactions to traumatic events, and that they can be overcome.

This list of 25 books includes 11 from the Caribbean. In this regard, it goes against the grain of existing literature. Statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reveal only 10% of children’s books published in 2015 featured characters of African or Latin backgrounds, and the percentage of those which were Caribbean based is minute. We must make a concerted effort to expose our children to books that reflect their culture in a recognisable manner. According to Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita at Ohio State University, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

And so we must encourage our children to read widely and with relish, and we must actively seek to put Caribbean books into their hands.

Carol Mitchell is an author and the founder of CaribbeanReads Publishing (www.caribbeanreads.com)

25 great reads for kids

Build a palace of words with these inspiring titles. Books are arranged alphabetically by author, and we’ve identified key themes for each to help you consider which may be particularly suitable or helpful in specific situations for your children

Children of the Spider
by Imam Baksh, Guyana, 2016
A fast-paced novel following two children as they are chased through Guyana by the power-hungry Spider Gods from the land of Zolpash. Prize-winning fantasy with a deaf protagonist.
• Themes: Diversity, courage, perseverance

The Jumbies
by Tracey Baptiste, Trinidad & Tobago, 2015
Corinne must protect her island against a powerful jumbie – a vibrant mix of Caribbean folklore, non-stop action and a strong female lead.
• Themes: Justice, bravery, culture

El Deafo
by Cece Bell, USA, 2014
A graphic memoir chronicling Bell’s hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences. Entertaining and thought-provoking.
• Themes:: Acceptance, diversity, friendship

Serafina’s Promise
by Ann E Burg, USA, 2013
Serafina is determined to overcome her daily challenges growing up in Haiti, and to stay in school to become a doctor. But then an earthquake hits… Wonderfully told in image-filled verse.
• Themes: Family, friendship, love, determination

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl, UK, 1964
When poor Charlie becomes one of five children chosen to enter Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, he’s in for a wild ride! Intelligent humour, empowered characters, bizarre brilliance.
• Themes: Humour, family, poverty, greed, humility, hope

Untwine
by Edwidge Danticat, Haiti/USA, 2015
The touching story of Giselle Boyer and her identical twin Isabelle, dealing with tragedy, guilt and grief.
• Themes: Family, love, grief, forgiveness

A Wish After Midnight
by Zetta Elliott, USA, 2008
A rich, vivid, historical fantasy that sees 15-year-old Genna – a female lead of colour – hurtling back through time to the Civil War era where she must fight for her individuality.
• Themes: Racism, identity, coming-of-age

Stir It up
by Ramin Ganeshram, Trinidad & Tobago/USA, 2011
Young Anjali dreams of being a TV chef but her parents want more for her. A fun read filled with recipes and highlighting the importance of following your dreams.
• Themes: Perseverance, determination, family

All Over Again
by A-dZiko Simba Gegele, UK/Jamaica, 2013
A hilarious and enchanting coming-of-age story following a teenage boy in Jamaica.
• Themes: Humour, puberty, family

Musical Youth
by Joanne C Hillhouse, Antigua & Barbuda, 2014
Entertaining novel following Zahara and Shaka through their developing romance.
• Themes: Love, friendship, race

The Redwall Series
by Brian Jacques, UK, from 1986
A series about peace-loving mice and their brave, ingenious attempts to defend themselves against an army of rats. Contains unlikely heroes, fast-paced adventure and lots of laughs.
• Themes: Good vs evil, power of the underdog, humour

The Color of My Words
by Lynn Joseph, Trinidad & Tobago, 2000
Ana Rosa is a writer in the Dominican Republic at a time when words are considered dangerous weapons. This book reveals the reality of immigration through the eyes of a teenage girl.
• Themes: Community, identity, race

A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L’Engle, USA, 1962
Meg and friends travel through space and time to find her father. The strength of the family and a strong female lead make for a satisfying read.
• Themes: Good vs evil, family, love, adventure

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
by CS Lewis, UK, 1950
Four children enter the magical land of Narnia and find themselves faced with challenges and tough choices. Classic fantasy adventure.
• Themes: Forgiveness, courage, good vs evil

Gone to Drift
by Diana McCaulay, Jamaica, 2012
Prize-winning Caribbean coming-of-age story following Lloyd as he embarks on a danger-filled search for his grandfather on the Trinidad seas.
• Themes: Conservation, poverty, survival

Island of the Blue Dolphins
by Scott O’Dell, USA, 1960
The story of 12-year-old Native American girl Karana who is stranded alone for years on an island off California. An adventure of extreme courage.
• Themes: Nature, gender, isolation, self-reliance, responsibility

Wonder
by RJ Palacio, USA, 2012
Auggie was born with a facial disfigurement but just wants to be treated as an ordinary kid. A hero with a difference faces bullying and emerges with grace.
• Themes: Prejudice, bullying, acceptance, courage

A Long Walk to Water
by Linda Sue Park, USA, 2010
Alternating stories about two 11-year-olds in Sudan: a girl, Nya, who walks for hours each day to fetch water; and a boy, Salva, who becomes a refugee searching for his family. A tale of strength in the face of extreme adversity.
• Themes: Courage, survival, family, war

Bridge to Terabithia
by Katherine Paterson, USA, 1977
Leslie and Jesse invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. When tragedy strikes, it takes all of the community’s love to get Jesse through his grief.
• Themes: Loss, family, friendship

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
by JK Rowling, UK, 1997
On his eleventh birthday, Harry discovers that he’s a wizard and embarks on an incredible adventure – which became a phenomenon! The whole series of seven books, each of which charts one school year, provide gripping, magic-filled fun.
• Themes: Friendship, loyalty, good vs evil, courage

Holes
by Louis Sachar, USA, 1998
Stanley finds himself in a boys’ detention centre where the inmates must dig holes under the guise of building character – but Stanley soon realises that there is more to the work than that… A smart, darkly humorous package.
• Themes: Race, redemption, responsibility

The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart, USA, 2007
Four gifted children form the Mysterious Benedict Society and embark on a thrilling adventure. First in an award-winning series that features intelligent, empowered and diverse protagonists.
• Themes: Friendship, framework, courage

Island Fiction
by various authors, different Caribbean countries, 2012
This is a series of six books – Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, Time Swimmer, The Chalice Project, Escape from Silk Cotton Forest, Night of the Indigo, The Legend of the Swan Children – by various regional authors in which young heroes encounter dangerous and fantastical events in Caribbean settings.
• Themes: Culture, good vs evil, adversity

Charlotte’s Web
by EB White, USA, 1952
When Wilbur is born the runt of his litter, little girl Fern raises him until his fate seems likely to become that of most pigs – but he’s rescued by Charlotte the spider.
• Themes: Friendship, love, life, death

One Crazy Summer
by Rita Williams-Garcia, USA, 2010
Sisters Delphine, Vonetta and Fern learn much about their family history, country and themselves during one truly crazy summer. Vibrant and funny, this is a story of three girls discovering their roots.
• Themes: Race, identity, friendship

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