I just returned for the summer from my first year of college. It’s weird and bittersweet to be back in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by relics of my upbringing—including a massive collection of French comic books (pictured above: me at age 5 devouring Les Schtroumpfs, aka The Smurfs). My first night home, unable to sleep, I found myself picking through my dusty bookshelves, and I realized that the most powerful childhood memories rested between the pages of books I hadn’t thought about in nearly a decade. Suddenly, I was hurtled back to middle-school summers, seven-hour road trips to visit my grandparents in Vermont, which flew by as I escaped on strange literary adventures through under-worlds and magical rhubarb farms. Now, I marvel at the clarity with which I can recall both the stories and my delight in them.
I found practically all of my reading material when I was 10, 11, and 12 by scouring the children’s section of the Philadelphia Public Library. While I loved finding refuge from the summer heat in the silence of the stacks and blasting AC, I had to suffer through a lot of bad, corny kids’ books to find the gems that line my shelves today. Here is a list of the books that made the searching worth it. Whether you have a bored tween in the house who’s exhausted the classics (Pseudonymous Bosch, Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket) or you’re lucky enough to have some summer evenings ahead, there’s a sweet escape for you in each one. —Violette Terjanian
Juniper Berry by M. P. Kozlowsky
In a nutshell: Juniper’s parents are beloved movie stars. But something’s not quite right—they’re not their usual selves. Juniper and her next door neighbor Giles discover their parents have been slowly selling their souls, bit by bit, to a demon under the tree in the backyard. Juniper and Giles explore the underground world to save her parents, encountering temptations and oddities along the way.
My Name is Mina by David Almond
Age range: 9-15
In a nutshell: The prequel to Almond’s book Skellig (see next pick; I recommend reading Mina before Skellig). The book is written in the form of a diary, from the mind of a young girl named Mina. She is the OG manic pixie dream girl: Mina is homeschooled and ruminates in the handwritten pages about poetry, myths, and math, dreaming of her dead father and wondering about birds.
I felt such a deep connection to this book that I wrote a letter to David Almond when I was nine. “I LOVED My Name Is Mina. Mina thinks just like me! I love to write, and My Name Is Mina made me want to write even more.” (And guess what? He wrote me the nicest email back – “It’s great that the book made you want to write – that’s exactly what I want to happen when people read it.”)
For people who like: Harriet the Spy, poetic and quirky books that aren’t plot based—sort of a character study. Excellent personality-inspiration for misunderstood tween girls who like to dream, write, and escape.
Skellig by David Almond
Age Range: 10-20
In a nutshell: Another mysterious and poetic book by Almond. Michael, a 10-year-old boy, is looking forward to moving into a new house when his baby sister becomes deeply ill. One day he steps into his crumbling garage and discovers a strange creature coated with spider webs, eating dead flies and Chinese take-out, and growing wings. With the help of next door neighbor Mina, Micheal brings Skellig out of the garage and into the light. Creepy but beautiful, entertaining, captivating— I couldn’t put it down.
For people who like: Neil Gaiman fairy-tales such as The Ocean at the End of the Lane, mysterious and eerie but moving.
Drizzle by Kathleen Van Cleve
Age Range: 9-12
In a nutshell: Eleven year-old Polly Peabody lives on a magical, world-famous rhubarb farm. The plants taste like chocolate, jewels appear in the soil, bugs talk to her, and her best friend is a rhubarb plant named Harry. But one day, the miraculously-timed Monday rainstorms suddenly stop and the plants start to suffer. Could it have anything to do with her aunt’s sudden desire to sell the farm, and her brother’s mysterious illness? Polly has to restore the rain and save the farm and her family, before it’s too late.
For people who like: The charm and creativity of Roald Dahl books, specifically Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach. Magic and childlike wonder combined with a family-centered plot.
Beswitched by Kate Saunders
Age Range: 10-15
In a nutshell: Flora is on the train, headed to her new private school in England, dressed in her bright red converse. But when Flora gets off the train, she finds herself in 1935, forced to live as an old-fashioned schoolgirl. In order to return to the 21st century, she has to figure out why she time-travelled in the first place. Her new friendship with a Jewish girl, about to head home to Vienna, just might hold the answer.
The Undrowned Child series by Michelle Lovric
Age Range: 11-17
In a nutshell: Adopted girl Teodora is visiting Venice, the floating city of her dreams, and discovers that things are not as they seem. The sinking city also holds an entire secret world, visible only to her, including an underground printing press run by mermaids, speaking statues, strange translucent ghosts, and librarians which transform into cats. Teodora soon realizes the power rests in her hands to save Venice from the sinister forces that threaten it.
For people who like: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, the Percy Jackson series, or Harry Potter – heavily inspired by mythology and magic, and impossible to put down.