IRW volunteers love to read. Here are some of our favorite books, old and new, for young readers. Books make wonderful and lasting gifts. Please roam around our website for other great selections from our programs.
Download the IRW Holiday Booklist for your upcoming book shopping!
** = Maine-related, either by author, illustrator, or setting
Journey by Aaron Becker for preschool to grade 3
A luminous, wordless, picture book in which a red crayon is the means for a bored and lonely young girl to enter an exciting world of her own creation. In this strong visual narrative, she visits a fantastic city in a rowboat she creates, draws a huge red balloon that drifts with her up into the sky, and encounters a menacing flying machine. When she is captured, an act of tremendous courage and kindness rescues her. This book will fire any child’s imagination.
This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen for preschool to grade 3
Told in simple sentences with beguiling illustrations of an undersea world, this is the story of a small fish who steals a tiny hat from a much bigger fish. He tries to convince himself he can get away with it, but eyes become slitty, bubbles emerge menacingly, and a crab gives little fish’s location away. This book is interesting on many levels for children and adults. Caldecott Medal winner (for illustration).
Big Questions From Little People and Simple Answers From Great Minds by Gemma Elwin Harris for grades 3 to 6 (**Our own Karen James as one of the contributors.)
A non-fiction compilation of weighty questions from precocious grade school children answered by notable scientists, specialists, philosophers, and writers. Authors Mary Roach and Phillip Pullman, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, chef Gordon Ramsay, adventurist Bear Gryllis, and linguist Noam Chomsky are among the top experts responding to such questions as “Do animals have feelings?”, “Why can’t I tickle myself?”, and “Who is God?” with well-known comedians, columnists, and raconteurs offering hilarious alternative answers. Great for reading together with adults!
** The Stormy Adventures of Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Keeper, by Peter and Connie Roop, adapted by Amanda Doering Tourville for grades 3 to 5
There have been many renditions of the true story of the indomitable Abby Burgess, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who managed to keep the lights burning during storms that lasted for weeks at Matinicus Rock in the late 1800’s. This new graphic novel is told in a simplistic version, but it captures the energy and terror of the perilous situation. Especially good for reluctant readers, children will find this version gripping.
The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech for grades 4 to 6
A humorous and enchanting book, weaving together two stories in a mysterious way that keeps readers guessing. One story is of Naomi and Lizzie, orphans in present-day Blackbird Tree, USA. The other is of Sybil and Nula, grown-up sisters from faraway Rook’s Orchard, Ireland, who haven’t spoken in decades. Blackbird Tree is filled with peculiar and memorable people. Mysteries abound—three locked trunks, a pair of rooks, a crooked bridge, and a boy who falls out of a tree. Soon Naomi and Lizzie find their lives changed forever, and as the two worlds come together in a satisfying ending, they and we realize that we are all connected.
The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck for grades 3 to 6
A fast-paced mystery and historical adventure in which a lovable orphan mouse goes on a quest for his identity. The smallest mouse in London’s Royal Mews is full of mysteries – he doesn’t know his name, nor who his parents are. He goes off to be educated at the Royal Mews Mouse Academy but it is just not for him, and soon he’s running for his life, looking high and low through the grand precincts of Buckingham Palace to find out who he is and who he might become. His voyage of self discovery includes a visit to Queen Victoria and to other strange and wonderful places. Cultural attitudes and social ranks of mice cleverly parallel the human ones. The book contains charming drawings depicting the two halves of Victorian society.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate for grades 3 to 6
Ivan lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, and is accustomed to people watching him through glass walls. He is a great ape, a western lowland gorilla, but he rarely misses his life in the jungle. Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog, and about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and lines. This fictionalized autobiography of an iconic and long-suffering primate won the Newbery Medal for distinguished contribution to children’s literature. The author blends humor and poignancy in a story of friendship, art, and hope.
** Finest Kind by Lea Wait for grades 5 to 8
Wonderful historical fiction that brings a part of Maine’s history to life, it is about a boy and his family who move from riches to almost rags, from city life to rural farm life, and how they cope. Father lost his job in the financial depression of 1837, and the family must let their servants go and leave their big house in Boston and take a small, run-down, 3-room farmhouse outside the village of Wiscasset, Maine. The lessons in the book are almost too numerous to list: bravery in facing a bully and rescuing people from a fire, meeting responsibilities, finding work and doing a good job, loyalty, friendship, and more.
** Wintering Well by Lea Wait for grades 5 to 8
Set in 1819 Maine, the Ames family suffers a tragedy when their 12 year old son Will injures his leg and it must be amputated. Having always wanted to be a farmer, Will is convinced his life is over. His 11 year old sister Cassie feels responsible and refuses to leave his side as he recovers. When Will and Cassie are sent to live with their older sister Alice in town, Will discovers that town life offers more opportunities for him than he would have on the farm. Cassie, who was never completely happy on the farm, finds advantages to being in town too. This story has a lot of information about life in 1819 and it’s medicine, attitudes towards women and people with disabilities, and historical events such as Maine’s becoming a state.
** Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness by Donn Fendler, Ben Bishop and Lynne Plourde for grades 3 to 6
Twelve year old Donn was on a day hike up Mt. Katahdin, when the weather changed. After a few bad decisions, he was hopelessly lost in a terrifying wilderness. This suspenseful graphic novel is a retelling of the perennial best-seller, Lost on a Mountain in Maine. It includes the text from actual newspaper stories of the time.The introduction is from the point of view of Donn in his eighties looking back at the adventure, and throughout the book the narration switches back and forth from the older Donn to his 12-year-old self. This uplifting graphic novel will inspire and amaze new generations.
** The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea by Anne Sibley O’Brien for grades 3 – 6
Maine illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien has created a beautiful and intricately illustrated retelling of the Korean fable of “The Robin Hood of Korea.” The theme of taking from the rich and giving to the poor is a timeless storyline and O’Brien’s rich setting translates wonderfully through the medium of a graphic novel.
Lulu and the Ducks in the Park by Hilary McKay for grades 1 to 3
This is a simple chapter book from the Lulu series. On a field trip, Lulu rescues a duck egg from a marauding dog, and keeps it in a nest of hats under her sweater until, unfortunately, it hatches at school. Early readers will connect with Lulu and her intense love of animals. They will also relate to her classic elementary school experiences, such as having a strict teacher. Themes include how to be a friend, how to behave properly in class, and how to handle a difficult situation. Readers will enjoy an ending that resolves happily.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool for grades 6 to 8
It is the time of the Depression, and Abilene Tucker has been sent to a tiny town in the Midwest to spend the summer with a friend of her father. After a childhood of riding the rails across America with her father as he looked for work, the town of Manifest seems very quiet and unexciting, but she is in hopes of learning more of her own background. Nobody is especially forthright about the subject, but with the help of some of the first friends her own age that she has ever had, she begins to unravel the town’s little-explored history, which might lead her to her own roots. Along the way, she meets many colorful characters who make the mystery of the town and her own past come alive via a series of old newspaper articles, letters and objects hidden under the floorboards of her new bedroom.
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schultz for grades 5 to 8
This book incorporates historically accurate details with elements of magic and time travel that will appeal to some of the same readers who have been enraptured with the Harry Potter series. Two orphan children, who end up being nominally in the care of a puppeteer/children’s entertainer, encounter a girl from an extremely wealthy family who suffers from the pressures of being the only sibling to survive an earlier ordeal. When this girl is discovered missing, the children realize that they must act to help find her and unravel the mystery of who or what is caught up in her story–and why.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen for grades 5 to 8
Cole Matthews has been stealing and fighting for many years. He is filled with rage when he attacks and seriously injures fellow student, Peter Driscal. In the Native American tradition, Circle Justice is offered as a way to provide healing for the criminal offender, the victim and the community. Cole goes along with the option of being banished to a remote Alaskan Island for one year in order to avoid going to prison, even though he blames everyone else in his life for his situation. While on the island, Cole is mauled by a mysterious white bear of Native American legend. As Cole expects to die, his thoughts change from anger to accepting responsibility for his actions. The author shows that the power of pain can destroy or lead to healing.
** Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce – Like A Willow Tree –Portland, Maine 1918 by Lois Lowry for grades 3 to 5
This book is set in Maine during World War I, when the world seemed to be exploding with the epidemic of Spanish Influenza. Eleven-year-old Lydia and her older brother were outside the bedroom door as both parents and baby sister died within hours of each other. The children are eventually able to contact their uncle, who rescues them, but is unable to keep the children. Lydia and Daniel are both independent children who find living within the closed Shaker society — which sometimes feels as foreign as another country – to be extremely challenging. Sister and brother are not even able to take comfort in speaking with one another, as males and females are separated in this religious community. Set in southern Maine.
Eva of the Farm by Dia Calhoun for grades 4 to 7
12 year old Eva is growing up on her family’s apple and pear orchard farm. She helps her parents by patrolling the deer fence so no deer or other animals can break through and destroy the crops. As she writes poems and creates artistic collages about what she sees on the farm and in the mountains surrounding it in rural Washington, the local bank prepares to foreclose on the farm’s unpaid loans. The recession has made it difficult to keep the farm, the sickness of her baby brother has taken all the money they have saved, and the death of her grandmother has made her mother so depressed it is hard for her to work. Eva tries through her poetry and artistic abilities to understand and to save her world.
Never Say Die by Will Hobbs for grades 5 to 8
Nick Thrasher is a 15 year old Inuit hunter living in the Canadian arctic. He is attacked by a strange looking bear, half grizzly, half polar bear who steals the caribou that Nick has just captured. The same day Nick receives a letter from his half brother, a professional photographer for National Geographic magazine inviting him for a month long rafting trip up a wild river into the primitive backcountry of the Yukon. They will photograph wildlife and explore the effects of climate change on the caribou herds and bear population. Their rafting trip results in wild river adventures including being trapped under an ice shelf, another frightening encounter with the strange bear and being caught in a ferocious storm where the river empties into the Beaufort Sea. A very exciting book that will appeal especially to adventurous children.
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate for grades 5 to 8
Everyone who read this book loves it, it is thought-provoking and funny, addressing serious subjects with a deft touch. Written in verse, it tells the story of Kek, a brave boy who comes to Minnesota from Africa, and the fears, hopes, joys and wonders he experiences. In America he sees snow, walks on ice, wears gloves and and sees a washing machine all for the first time. In Africa, Kek lived in Sudan with his mother, father, and brother. But only he and his mother have survived, and she is missing. Slowly, he makes friends: a girl who is in foster care; an old woman who owns a rundown farm, and a cow whose name means “family” in Kek’s native language. As Kek awaits word of his mother’s fate, he weathers the tough Minnesota winter by finding warmth in his new friendships, strength in his memories, and hopes for his new country.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos for grades 5 – 8
This book is a rare combination — both laugh out loud funny and historical fiction. Jack Gantos is “grounded for life” by his feuding parents, and his mom loans him out to help a feisty old neighbor with an unusual chore—typewriting obituaries. As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launched on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels . . . and possibly murder. The book won the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year’s best contribution to children’s literature and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.
** Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool for grades 5 to 8
It is 1945, 13-year old Jack Baker’s father is back from World War II, and he is uprooting Jack from their Kansas home to the coast of Maine – and Jack has never seen an ocean before. They are struggling with the grief of losing Jack’s mother. At his new school, Jack meets an unusual boy, Early Auden, who teaches Jack about boats, collects clippings about a great black bear, and can “read” the digits in the number pi as a story that mirrors the boys’ adventures. They hike the Appalachian Trail in quest of the bear. Along the way, they figure out the twists and turns of the trails they are following in their lives. Mixing historical fiction with a bit of magical realism, this story addresses issues of loss and friendship. It moves at a quiet pace but the adventure and plots twists will intrigue readers. Especially good for children who are new to Maine, are of military families, or who are interested in mathematics.
Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale for grades 5 to 8
This is a complex, spellbinding fantasy, a new version of a forgotten Brother Grimm’s tale, set for this retelling in a fictionalized “Land of Eight Realms” on the Asian steppes. No typical fairy tale, the heroine Lady Saren refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her; instead choosing to be walled up in a tower for seven years with her serving girl Dashti. Dashti keeps a journal and is our narrator through this alternate world, where servants read and write and nobles are not taught these skills. Rich in detail and language, Dashti is a strong heroine and her journal of their “thousand days” is filled with unexpected turns, heartbreaks and victories over the greatest of odds.
Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick for grades 7 – 8
The summer before he goes to high school baseball player Peter Friedman injures his elbow and is told he will never play again. He has to grapple with losing his identity, being honest with himself and his friends, and accept that he can move on. He takes up photography and the description of that art form may be an inspiration to budding artists. Themes of friendship, romance, family, and tragedy are all explored, while still managing to be hilariously funny.
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal for grades 6 to 8
Jeremy Johnson Johnson is odd — he hears strange whisperings and at times can suddenly curse in German; he is an outcast in the town of Never Better. In this adventurous fantasy with a touch of strange folklore, Jeremy’s mother takes a bite of a cake so delicious people say it makes you fall in love with the first person you see – so she runs away with another man. Jeremy’s father goes into his room and won’t come out. A gorgeous glrl takes a bite of the cake and falls for Jeremy, but has some crazy plans. All of this and more is observed a mysterious ancient ghost who turns out to be one of the Brothers Grimm. The language in this book is compelling, and the characters are complex; motivations are not all black and white. Questions about parenting, the value of stories, and good vs evil abound, as well as a dash of real history about the brothers Grimm.
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein for grades 7-8
Rose Justice, a young American pilot, joins the Air Transport Auxillary during World War II. While ferrying a plane from Paris to England, Rose is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp in Germany. In the camp, Rose meets a French novelist, young Polish girls who have been used for human experimentation, and a fighter pilot and military ace for the Soviet air force. Throughout her time in the camp, Rose writes poetry for herself and fellow prisoners as a way to keep hope alive. These strong women show great loyalty and bravery under the most difficult circumstances. Following the war, Rose meets a fellow prisoner, Roza, during the Nuremberg trials and the story of their treatment is made known to the world. These two friends find a way to move forward with courage.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green for grades 7 -8
Sixteen-year-old Hazel and 17-year-old Gus fall in love in a cancer support group, Hazel needs her oxygen tank and Gus has lost a leg, but they deal with each other and their families and friends with acerbic wit; they acknowledge the truth of their situations while trying to live as hopefully and productively as they possibly can. There are subplots which add depth and complexity to the book’s themes.This book is readable, deep, thoughtful, not maudlin, literary, funny and very, very special.
Doll Bones by Holly Black for grades 5 to 8
Holly Black delivers a story infused with friendship and adventure with an air of creepiness throughout. Friends Poppy, Zach, and Alice are fueled by their imagination and somewhat ruled by an off limit old china doll imprisoned in a cabinet at Poppy’s house. After Zach’s dad betrays his childhood by throwing away his “toys” and Poppy keeps having dreams about the ghost of a little girl who cannot rest in peace until the bone-china doll is buried in her empty grave, the three friends head off for an epic journey. Through hurdles, more dreams, and adversity, their travels will slowly unravel bits of the mystery and insight to what the china doll means to each of them.
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt for grades 4 to 8
Kathi Appelt knows the swamp and she can guide the most North Eastern New Englander through the forested wetlands of Louisiana. A few pages in and you will see the golden eyes of a peering gator; smell the fast drying dampness of the moss-draped canopy, and hear the slow sounds of the decaying bald cypress. There are a lot of characters and natural beauty to root for in this book. By writing in third-person omniscient narration (where the teller of the tale appears to be the author and they assume an all-knowing perspective on the story being told) the reader gains a multi-lens insight about swamp-ecology and an extended stay into the culture and heartbeat of the people who call it home.