There is a veritable sea of literature for young people, and it, like any other metaphorical sea, has its share of flotsam, and there is a lot you might be better off avoiding. A perfect place to start, if you are interested (and I hope you are) in beginning to navigate these waters, is the Newbery list. The winner for 2010 was Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. The honor books were The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelley; Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice, by Phillip Hoose; The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. I've read three of them so far, and am eager to read the other two.
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead- Newbery Winner
When You Reach Me is, at first, a story about a sixth grade girl named Miranda growing up in New York City in 1979. She has problems connecting with her mother, she and her best friend aren't on speaking terms, she misses the father she never knew and she can't stop rereading A Wrinkle in Time. As the story goes along, though, it becomes much more than your typical coming of age novel. A mysterious new homeless man starts shouting cryptic yet unintelligible advice to passersby and Miranda starts getting notes from someone with knowledge of the future and a tragedy that can be avoided if she can only figure out how to respond. Every bit of this intricately woven plot is a joy to read, and Stead pulls off the concept of time travel without being silly or cliché. The worry of why her best friend won't walk with her to school and the worry of discovering the meaning of her tiny place in the vast universe go hand in hand in this novel. Anyone who, as a child or an adult, loved A Wrinkle in Time, thought about the physics of time travel until their brain hurt or grappled with where to fit in, either at school or in the cosmos, will enjoy this book.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelley
Calpurnia Tate, in the unbearably hot summer of 1899, is living with her six brothers, parents and grandfather on a cotton and pecan farm in Texas. Like any upper-class girl, she is expected to learn needlepoint, play piano, be quiet and demure, enter Society and marry well. While there are probably good stories out there about the girl who actually does all those things, it's usually more exciting when she doesn't. There are many books that deal with feeling different, with wanting to do what is forbidden you based on some sort of prejudice. But it is a popular tale because it needs telling. No matter how progressive society may get slowly around to being, we'll always need a hero who defies society's expectations and does something brilliant. Calpurnia is growing up with a turn-of-the-century backdrop and new things like the one Telephone line which gets installed in town and this new "society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge," which is, of course, the National Geographic Society. During all this, she finds herself in an unlikely partnership with her grandfather, who is a naturalist. Together, and despite her mother's wishes, they discover what they hope is a new species of plant, and Calpurnia gets swept up in a new world of discovery. Plato, as her grandfather tells her, said, "All science begins with astonishment." The reader will feel the joy of the process of discovery right along with Calpurnia. Also, each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin's The Origin of the Species. This provides a wonderful and accessible introduction to a text a young adult might not normally read, and at the same time parallels what is happening in her life. This parallel ends up being beautiful- she learns about the living things around her and begins to feel truly alive, she learns about the way life evolves, and through the process, changes significantly herself. While there are not many thrilling plot twists in this book, there is a beautiful sense of the art of nature, and that beauty is found in calmness, because, as Calpurnia says, "it's amazing what you can see when you just sit quietly and look."
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
Minli is a young girl from a poor family in a poor village in China, overshadowed by a mountain where nothing grows. She spends a lot of time (too much, in her mother's opinion) listening to her father's fantastical tales of magic, dragons, and the Old Man of the Moon, whose strings of fate control the fortunes of all. Her mother tells her that stories are a waste of time, and that there is no point in fooling yourself into thinking you can change your circumstances. After one such argument, Minli heeds the advice of a talking goldfish and sets off to find the Old Man of the Moon herself in order to change her fortune. Along the way she speaks to fish, encounters a flightless dragon, a king, an orphan and a pair of crafty twins, finding many friends and foes along the way. Interspersed within the text are stories, taken from Chinese folklore, which she is told as she journeys. The stories, starting with the ones her father told her, aid her as the lines between her mythology and her life become blurred. As she searches for the Old Man in the Moon, and along with him the secret to wealth and happiness, the old stories become her story. The more she travels, the more she realizes that the true keys to happiness are different for everyone, but that they always have a great deal to do with humility and thankfulness. The richness of these folktales give weight to Minli's belief that stories are not only not a waste of time, but actually one of the best things you can do with what time you have.
The fish Minli speaks with only talk to those who will listen. Mostly it is just children who can hear the fish, but an occasional adult, including her father, still remember how to listen to the small things in the world. A story is a small thing, but the significance of what a small story can do is enormous, and it is something people of all ages should be able to appreciate. The kids in these books are growing up, and if the author has done their job, we readers, upon finishing, have learned something alongside these protagonists. And it might just be the optimistic budding librarian in me, but there is never a point at which we need to be done learning, if only we can remember how to listen.