Seeking comfort from books is something we've been thinking about here at Read NZ Te Pou Muramura this week.
We dug from our archives this helpful reading list compiled by our first ''reading doctor'', Kate De Goldi, back in 2014.
It's still relevant though, and gives reading recommendations for young people going through times of change and stress. Let us know if you know of other books we should add to the list!
Q. ‘We have recently gone through a lot of changes in our family – divorce, moving house, transition to new schools, etc. I have 9- and 11-year-old boys who are struggling to deal with some of this (unsurprisingly) and I wondered if you could suggest books about change and growth that might help them feel less alone and deal with some of their new challenges?’
A. It seems a really good idea to be thinking broadly in this situation – books generally about change and growth, rather than stories dealing specifically with, say, divorce, new schools. The fictional experiences never ‘match’ in a satisfactory way, somehow… Happily, there’s a great load of lovely children’s books with absorbing stories (a comfort all by itself) and beautifully subtle underlying themes of loss, change and growth. I’m giving a range here, bearing in mind that your sons have a couple of years between them and may have different reading capacity. Another thought: reading together is very comforting for everyone, of course, but there’s not always time for that (and some children prefer the experience to be a solo one experienced at their own pace) – however audio books are marvellous, comforting, sustaining companions. It might be worth checking which of these titles are available on CD – either at your library or online.
1. Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Brothers Damian and Anthony are dealing with the loss of their mother when they come most unexpectedly into possession of the proceeds from a train robbery. Damian (mildly obsessed with saints) believes the money comes from God and they must therefore do good with it, but Anthony is more entrepreneurial… A very touching – and highly amusing – story, nicely plotted and with attractively imperfect adults.
O’Connor has the lightest of touches but her stories have real depth. (This story has another train bestowing a surprise!) Owen’s father has lost his job and the family have moved in with Owen’s grandfather, ruining Owen’s plans for the summer. But then he makes an extraordinary discovery and is obliged to confide in the annoying girl next door…
3. Getting Near to Baby by Audrey Couloumbis
Willa Jo and her little sister are sent to stay with their aunt after the death of their baby sister. One morning they climb up onto the roof and refuse to come down. Instead Willa Jo thinks back over the time before baby died and in time her aunt and uncle join the girls on the roof… A simple story, beautifully told.
4. A Likely Place by Paula Fox
Lewis feels pummelled and pushed around by everyone – his parents, cousins, the teachers at school. While in the care of the singular Miss Fitchlow for a week he meets an elderly man in the park – Mr Madruga – who asks for his help writing a letter to his son… Fox is one of the great American writers for children. Like all her books, this is a quiet, almost interior, story (though often very funny) that focuses with great subtlety on relationships and the way they affect profound changes in us…
A modern classic. Jessie’s ambition to run faster than everyone in class is skewered when the new girl, Leslie, outruns him. Despite this the two become good friends and over time construct an imaginary kingdom, Terabithia. But then tragedy strikes… This book has been justly acclaimed for its subtle and sensitive – but unshrinking – treatment of death and grief as it is experienced by a child.
6. Crash by Jerry Spinelli
A wonderfully touching story but also hilarious. Spinelli pulls off the difficult feat of making his bullying narrator, Crash Coogan, irresistible to the reader. Crash struts his way through neighbourhood and school – and is outrageously mean to his (mostly oblivious) neighbour, Penn – but the alert reader sees that Crash has a shameful secret and some anxieties. When his grandfather has a stroke, Crash suddenly has to reassess his world and his behaviour.
7. See Ya, Simon by David Hill
A New Zealand classic. Nathan narrates the story of his friendship with Simon, who has muscular dystrophy. Simon is confined to a wheelchair but just as eager and able to take part in the usual school boy pastimes. But Simon’s illness is gradually getting worse… A thoroughly affecting – though never sentimental – story of friendship, loss and the getting of a little wisdom.
I seem to have recommended this book in response to many different enquiries – testament to the book’s rare qualities, I guess. Morpurgo is a consummate storyteller with a big heart and a sense of the great moral questions underpinning human behaviour. His stories have weight and depth but are first and foremost very readable and involving. Anya is set in a French village in the Pyrenees during WW2. Jo is a young shepherd boy forced to grow up quickly when his father leaves to fight. The cast of characters are beautifully drawn, the events heart-stopping at times, and Jo’s road to maturity is hard won indeed.
9. The Midnight Fox by Betsy Byars
Tom is a reluctant guest on his aunt and uncle’s farm while his parents are on holiday. He spends his days mostly by himself, wandering in the woods or writing (very funny) letters to his friend back home, Petie Burkis. But after catching sight of a beautiful black fox he becomes preoccupied with tracking her and discovering her secret den. Then his uncle declares his intention to track the fox too and shoot her. A mere recital of the story’s outline does it no justice. Tom’s obsession with the fox, his relationship with his relatives, the evocation of the natural world and his entertaining correspondence with Petie are all beautifully caught. The story is by turns sombre, hilarious, tense and poignant. And by story’s end Tom is changed in small but significant ways.
10. Counting Stars by David Almond
Almond is inimitable – a writer of great grace and clarity, unafraid of difficult subjects and complex emotions, and incapable of cliché – in his writing and thinking. This title is a collection of stories inspired by his own life. Family is at the heart of the collection, as is love, loss, alienation, reconnection, growing up and looking back…
11. Journey by Patricia MacLaclan
Journey refuses to believe that their mother has permanently abandoned him and his sister. Over one summer at his grandparents, and through the lens of a camera, he slowly comes to accept the truth. MacLaclan is the sparest of writers but her stories have great power.
A delightful, surprising – and free verse! – novel told in diary form. Jack hates poetry and reluctantly submits to his teacher’s assignments. Slyly and cleverly, she beguiles him with great verse from a variety of poets and Jack begins to write verse of his own… As he writes we learn about his daily life and the loss he has been trying to disguise.
13. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
This is a marvellously intricate puzzle story and the story of a friendship that’s gone a little wrong – and the narrator’s anxious attempts to fix things. Miranda’s best friend Sal stops speaking to her, the apartment key is stolen and mysterious notes addressed to her suggest only she can prevent a tragic death… Stead’s style is simple and accessible, the narrator is engaging and the relationships between the school friends are subtly portrayed. The ending is a glorious surprise.
14. Feather Boy by Nicky Singer
Robert’s parents are newly divorced; he is under threat at school and in his nightly dreams. When he is invited along with the class to a rest home, he is alarmed to discover he has dreamed already about the place. Then an old lady sends him on a strange quest… This novel has been widely acclaimed for its skillful mix of drama, suspense and emotional issues. Robert is touchingly drawn – a slightly awkward, anxious loner – who is called on to be braver than he’s ever imagined possible.
A classic survival adventure story – loved by two generations of boys. Travelling to visit his father in northern Canada, Brian survives a plane crash in the wilderness with only the hatchet his mother gave him before he left. His struggle for survival requires maturity and courage and, coincidentally, enables him to think lengthily about his parents’ divorce. His battles with animal threats and his foraging, mechanical skills and general bushcraft make for a marvellously gripping (and instructive!) story.
For prompts and supplementary information I often consulted:
- The Ultimate Teen Book Guide, Daniel Hahn & Leonie Flynn (eds), A&C Black Children’s and Educational, London, 2006.
About Kate De Goldi
Kate De Goldi is an award-winning short story writer, an author of young adult fiction, a children’s book author and a writer of journalism pieces. De Goldi also presents book reviews regularly on radio and television. She won the American Express and Katherine Mansfield Memorial awards for short stories, as well as the New Zealand Post Book of the Year Award in 2005 and 2009. She was named an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate for 2001. The 10pm Question (2008) was shortlisted for and won the Young Adult section of the 2009 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Find out more about Kate De Goldi in her Book Council writers file.