2016 Book Recommendations!

NWSMA’s summer reading contest kicked off on June 1, so I figured I’d throw out a few recommendations to get y’all started. Obviously, my recommendations will be colored by my own interests (fantasy, Middle East, SE Asia, Japan, history, comics), and I also tried to pick things I’ve read more recently, things with universal appeal, and also things that are pretty squeaky clean in terms of content.

Speaking of content! Parents, if you haven’t heard of it, Common Sense Media is a wonderful site to add to your favorites. It allows you to check out what your kids are reading, watching, and, playing. Each entry rates the piece of media in several categories, including violence, positive messages, role models, and drugs/drinking/smoking.

Another note for our readers: if you’re having trouble finding a book, try the following 6 ideas:

  • Read a book that was made into a movie or tv series
  • Re-read an old favorite
  • Ask a friend (or your kids) for a recommendation
  • Read a book that is part of a series
  • Browse AT the library (novel concept I know!)
  • For adults: read a YA or teen novel

Recs after the jump!

Picture Books

Tokyo Digs a Garden by Jon-Erik Lappano One of my newest favorite picture books, Tokyo Digs a Garden tells the story of a boy who lives in a city—a city that has “eaten” the meadows and forest that used to surround his tiny house. He receives three seeds from an old woman, and they grow into something delightful! The art is great, and so is the story’s message about two totally different things that learn to live together.

Yoshi’s Feast by Kimiko Kajikawa This clever picture book involves an eel-seller, Sabu, who tries to charge his neighbor for smelling his delicious cooking. The neighbor, Yoshi, then “pays” him with the sound of his money jangling in a box as he shakes it and dances along. This mocking response soon turns into a great idea, and Yoshi ends up helping Sabu bring in customers by dancing in the street. A witty, fun tale about problem solving and harmony among neighbors.

Cactus House by Brenda Z. Guiberson Here’s an excellent entry in the nonfiction category. I’ve seen kids as young as grades 1-2 be able to read this book on their own. The story follows the life cycle of a Saguaro cactus (a variety that can grow to 50+ feet). It’s a fascinating book that really shows the interconnectedness of animals and plants in a habitat. The language is precise and has lots of good verbs and vocabulary. I remember reading this one over and over as a kid.

Middle Grades

Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume Trials and tribulations of Peter, an older brother, and his toddler brother Fudge, whose antics will have your kids laughing out loud as they read. If they like this one, there are further entries in the series. A classic book simply because it’s so great!

BFG by Roald Dahl Read this one soon, because the movie is on the way! The BFG tells the story of Sophie, who witnesses a giant lurking in the streets of her quiet English town. She gets snatched away in the night, but soon comes to realize the BFG is not your typical giant… Together, they plot to save the children of the world from terrible, man-eating giants. Great read aloud!

Tweens to Teens

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan The Lightning Thief is a popular book about a young man who discovers that he has the powers of a Greek hero, because his dad is a Greek god. The book follows his quest to clear his name for a crime he did not commit. Made into a movie, it’s a good page-turner with a decently complex story that also serves to introduce readers to various mythological figures and stories.

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson This is a great new superhero comic by G. Willow Wilson (who also has a couple of novels that might be intriguing for teen and adult readers). The new Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, an American teen who is also a Muslim, and the series makes for a great, light intro to her culture. While she tries to learn how to use her powers, Kamala struggles with issues of faith, family, and fitting in. It’s a highly relatable comic for tween or teen girls who are also from strong faith backgrounds, and provides an opportunity to compare/contrast their own beliefs with Kamala and her family. The book also present Muslim-American characters with a variety of perspectives, making it a valuable lesson in understanding, tolerance and going beyond stereotypes.


I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai Malala is famous as the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and this is her autobiography. She tells the story of growing up in Pakistan, and how she came to be an activist for girls’ education. She also tells about how the Taliban boarded a bus and shot her—which makes this book a better choice for teen readers. Throughout the whole story, she touches on issues of poverty, politics, helping others, and her recovery process. Fascinating, and available in an abridged (short) edition, as well as a picture book for younger readers.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson If you’re into dystopias or X-men, Brandon Sanderson’s YA series might be for you. Brandon Sanderson is a fantastic writer who builds great worlds. In this one, a boy seeks revenge for his father’s death. But his father died at the hand of an Epic (humans with superpowers), and the one he’s after is supposed to be invincible. Dun dun dun. Good action, drama, and pacing!


Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown What I love most about this exciting story (about the UW rowing crew who won gold at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics) is how it weaves together a great underdog sports story with history. The author primarily follows the life of one of the boys, Joe, and he shows how historical events affected the life of a single person. Even better, the book espouses one of NWSMA’s primary values: hard work takes you a long way in life. Read it before the movie comes out.

Dragon House by John Shors The daughter of an American Vietnam veteran promises her dying father to continue his dream of building a school for poor children in Ho Chi Minh City. When she departs Chicago, she brings along a childhood friend who is an Iraq veteran and amputee. In their quest to start the school, they encounter street people, and realize how deeply they suffer in abject poverty. I’m a big fan of the author; John Shors truly has a gift for going beyond the cliché in foreign settings. This tale is full of tragic suffering and tremendous healing, all in one big, messy jumble of humanity.

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