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The Best Books for 21st Century Kids

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The Best Books for 21st Century Kids

Young adult novels are a special and sometimes controverisal breed; though perhaps some may say that their premise risks triviality, really good ones like those on this list (and many more) can change the way children think in a formative phase of their life. Young adult novels deal with issues around growing up, making friends, and coping with the joys, hardships, and changes that life inevitably thrusts upon kids . Good books serve as an early guide to the way others think and live, and can give helpful insight into the self at a time when self-identity is still a half-formed picture. Books aimed at young adults provide entertainment, intellectual excitement, and solace to readers of any age.

As adults, it’s often hard to remember the books we read in our childhood and the ways in which they have shaped us. This list might either spark some fond memories, or offer you some good books to read for yourself or to give to someone in your life. The following 14 young adult books are the ‘best’ of the new millennium; they’re ordered them chronologically, based on which books won the Newberry Medal each year since 2000. Beginning in 1922, The Newbery Medal Award has honored excellence in young adult fiction for 92 years and counting.  While there have been plenty of amazing books written in the past 14 years that are not mentioned here – and some perhaps less amazing but more commercially successful – this list will serve as a good place to start. Of course, it’s difficult to do a book justice in only a short paragraph; the best way to give these books the attention they deserve is to read them!

2000: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

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This novel tells the story of Bud Caldwell, an orphan living in Michigan. It takes place in 1936, where the town of Flint is still feeling the effects of the Great Depression.  When Bud is taken in by a family with a bully of a son, Bud escapes, and sets out to find a man he believes to be his father, Herman Calloway. Meeting some helpful folks along the way, Bud makes it to Grand Rapids, where he convinces Calloway’s band The Dusky Devastators to take him in, even though Calloway denies that Bud is his son. Author Christopher Paul Curtis also won a Coretta Scott King Award, a prize given to outstanding African-American authors, in 2000.

2001: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

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This young-adult historical fiction novel takes place in 1937 in the midst of the Great Depression. The story centers on the Dowdel family; 15-year-old Mary Alice is sent to live with her grandmother in rural Illinois. The story documents Mary Alice’s life “down yonder;” and all she learns, accomplishes, thinks and does. Some memorable scenes include Grandma helping her outsmart a school bully, and those involving Mary Alice’s crush, Royce McNabb. A Year Down Yonder is a sequel to the novel A Long Way From Chicago, which received a Newbery Honor in 1999 (it lost to Holes by Louis Sachar – remember that gem?).

2002: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

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This Newbery Medal winning story’s protagonist is an orphan boy named Tree-Ear, who lives in a 12th century Korean potter’s village. Being homeless, Tree-Ear lives on scraps of food and sleeps under a bridge. However, one day, he sees a workplace filled with pottery and sneaks inside. When he breaks a pot, he is forced to work for the master to pay for the damage he caused. Tree-Ear sets out on a journey to show the King’s Court the master’s pottery – he encounters plenty of obstacles along the way; by the end, his life is changed forever.

2003: Crispin: The cross of Lead by Avi

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Crispin tells the story of a thirteen year old boy in the year 1377 in England who sets out on a quest to find out who his father was. He carries with him a cross, which was given to him by the only friend he had in his home, a Priest (who is murdered). Learning that the cross belonged to his mother, Crispin also must discover what the writing on the cross says, for its words are undeniably important. Crispin begins his journey and befriends a travelling jester named Bear, to whom he becomes an apprentice. The two embark together on what becomes an action-packed adventure. Avi’s book is part of a trilogy; the other two books that follow this one are entitled Crispin: At the Edge of the World and Crispin: The End of Time.

2004: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo, illus. by Timothy Basil Ering

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This story is about mouse named Despereaux Tilling. He is on a quest to rescue a human princess named Pea, who has been kidnapped. Despereaux is unlike other mice in that he prefers to read books rather than to nibble on them, and is fascinated by the concept of fairy tales with knights in shining armor. The story is divided into four books: the first tells the story of Despereaux’s past, the second is about a dungeon rat, the third about a servant girl whose father sells her for a tablecloth, and the fourth book finally concludes the novel. You may recognize the title since it was adapted to movie form in 2008 (starring Matthew Broderick and Emma Watson).

2005: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

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Kira-Kira tells the story of Katie, a Japanese-American girl living in the 1950s living in Georgia, where her family moved after the Asian supermarket her parents owned went out of business. Once in Georgia, Katie often finds herself struggling with both grades and cultural difference at her new school. Katie idolizes her older sister Lynn, who the family soon learns has lymphoma. Struggling with her sister’s illness and searching for ways to care for her family, Katie must learn how to live her own life while keeping Lynn and the things that she taught her in her heart and mind. 

2006: Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

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Criss Cross follows the life of Debbie, who makes a wish that something good will happen to her soon. The book follows her as she grows up: making friends, going on shopping trips with her mother, finding an important necklace, meeting a boy from another town, and learning how to drive a stick shift. Perkins’ book is full of interesting idiosyncrasies: for example, the book is illustrated with black-and-white pictures, comic strips and real photographs by the author herself. One chapter is told in verse. While some have criticized this young adult novel for not having a clearly set ‘plot,’ like with any good book, you gotta read it to hear the real story!

2007: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron illus. by Matt Phelan

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This young adult novel’s protagonist is a 10-year-old girl named Lucky. After her mother’s death, her father’s ex-wife Brigitte came to the United States from France to take care of Lucky. However, Lucky believes that Brigitte has tired of caring for her and is planning to go to go back to France and abandon her. When she sees a suitcase, she becomes convinced, and resolves to run away from home with her dog, HMS Beagle. She winds up in a very small town (population of 43!) in the California desert with her two friends Lincoln and Miles. From there, Lucky’s story unfolds. Author Susan Patron has also written two sequels to the book entitled Lucky Breaks (2009) and Lucky for Good (2011).

2008: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

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This book takes place in England in the year 1255. It tells the tale of twenty-two individuals, each with their own monologue (and occasional dialogue). All of the characters are 10-15 years old. From these humorous and historically accurate vignettes the book draws its depth, theatricality, and appeal. The book’s author, Laura Amy Schlitz, also recently received the 2013 Newbery Honors for her children’s book called Splendors and Glooms.

2009: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illus. by Dave Mckean

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This fantasy novel tells the story of a boy named Nobody Owens, who has been adopted and raised by a graveyard’s occupants after the death – by murder! – of his family. The story traces Nobody as he grows up, and documents his life, which features a young neighborhood girl named Scarlett, a strange creature called a Sleer, and even a gang of ghouls that only he can see. This book was released at the same time in both America and the UK, and also won the British Carnegie Medal for outstanding children’s and young adult fiction.

2010: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead 

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This science fiction and mystery novel takes place on the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1970s. The action begins when protagonist Miranda Sinclair receives a series of notes, some of which predict things that have not yet happened. These mysterious letters lead her on a twisted journey through the city. Each message makes Miranda more sure that she is the one who must prevent a certain death. Author Stead based the book on the classic A Wrinkle in Time and an article about a man suffering from amnesia.  Filled with references from L’Engle’s classic, fans of mystery and fully realized fantasy will enjoy this critically acclaimed story.

2011: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

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Moon over Manifest, author Clare Vanderpool’s first book, tells the story of Abilene, a young girl who travelled around the country with her father during the Great Depression. In the summer of 1936, Abilene’s father sends her to a new town – called Manifest, Kansas – where she finds, among many things, a map. From there the story unfolds. This book explores themes of friendship, belonging, history, and even the tension of economic and ethnic difference. It also mentions and explores several historical events like Prohibition, World War One, Spanish Influenza, and immigration. Given the topics this book gracefully tackles, it is no wonder it has received such praise.

2012: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

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Dead End in Norvelt not only won the Newbery Medal Award, but it also won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Sprinkled with historical facts, the book tells the story of a child named Jack Gantos, who is “grounded for life” during a vacation. Escaping his bickering parents, Jack is hired to do chores for his off-kilter neighbor. His first assignment? Typing up the obituaries for the people who founded his town. The book is filled with unexpected and often bizarre twists, and is both funny and gripping. Jack Gantos recently released a sequel entitled From Norvelt to Nowhere.

2013: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

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This story features a kindly gorilla – “the ape of Exit 8” – who lives at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Each day, humans come and go, watching Ivan within his glass encasement. Ivan is content with his life and seldom misses his home (the jungle), finding comfort in his friends: an elderly elephant and a stray dog. Ivan loves art, and often thinks about the way to capture the essence of every day objects – for example, the sweetness of a mango – in a painting. One day, Ivan meets a young elephant named Ruby, who has recently been taken from her home and placed in captivity with Ivan; when Ivan meets Ruby, everything changes. The book is beautifully written, and is a must read for lovers of literature or animals, regardless of age.

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