You love classic children's books for their veneer of a "simple life" and "old-fashioned," tech-free adventures. But you've read all those books and are looking for something new. Enter these 21st century books with old-fashioned flair! These are books that whisk you away on an adventure and introduce you to dynamic characters who take on the world with determination and imagination.
There was no scientific reasoning behind the choice of these books. No boxes to be checked off. Just a feeling. A je ne sais quoi, if you will.
But these aren't just books about white English kids having tea (to be fair, that's not what true classics are about, either). It's not a list of books which present the world as an homogeneous place, which, unfortunately, many classic children's books do. These are books which, no matter where or when they take place, acknowledge a world that is difficult, messy, and glorious, but never keeps their protagonists from pursuing their goals.
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VOYAGE OF THE SPARROWHAWK by Natasha Farrant
Farrant's marvelous novel reads like a classic. In 1919, 13-year-old Ben wants to find his adoptive brother, Sam, who disappeared in France during the First World War. Back in England, he meets Lotti, who is being looked after by her unsympathetic aunt and uncle. Lotti is about to be sent away to boarding school and so she and Ben decide to take the Sparrowhawk, a narrowboat that is Ben and Sam's home, across the channel to find Sam and Lotti's grandmother. On their journey, Ben and Lotti meet supportive adults who help them to their destination. The story is full of dynamic characters that pull at your heartstrings. Don't miss this one; it also makes a terrific read aloud. Ages 9 and up.
THE VERY, VERY FAR NORTH (series) by Dan Bar-El
This is my new favorite read aloud, and I don't say that lightly! Duane the polar bear has a curiosity and sense of adventure that leads him first to a shipwreck where he meets C.C. the Owl. He then encounters even more new friends like Handsome the musk ox, Magic the artic fox, and Major Puffin. Together, they explore the wonders of the northern landscape. The cast of animals is as diverse in their personalities as they are in species and the thread of the story focuses on learning to appreciate one's friends. An absolute must-read book. Ages 7 and up.
LIZARD'S TALE by Weng Wai Chan
Half-Cantonese, half-British Lizard went to live with his Uncle Archie after his parents died. However, when Uncle Archie disappeared unexpectedly, Lizard finds his way to Chinatown, surviving by doing odd jobs. One of those jobs involves stealing a mysterious teak box. When things don't go according to plan, Lizard is left with the box. He and his friend try to understand the mystery of the box, which somehow connects to the war, secret codes and the disappearance of Uncle Archie. Lizard's Tale has a lot going for it. An uncommon setting of 1940 Singapore, themes of belonging, prejudice and friendship, surprising turns of events and character revelations make this a book not to be missed. Ages 9 and up.
THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141ST STREET (series) by Karina Yan Glaser
This lovely novel may put you in mind of Elizabeth Enright's The Saturdays. It is just before Christmas and the Vanderbeekers are going to be forced to move from their beloved Harlem brownstone unless they can change the mind of their grumpy landlord who just happens to be their upstairs neighbors. This creative, bi-racial family sets to work to win him over in this heartwarming story that makes a great read aloud the whole family will adore. Ages 8 and up.
THE SEASON OF STYX MALONE by Kekla Magoon
Caleb and his brother, Bobby Gene, live in a small town. Caleb wants to get out and see the world, but their father insists everything they need is right where they live. But this summer, Caleb and Bobby Gene meet Styx Malone, a super cool teenager whose magnetic personality draws them in, and takes them on adventures. The three boys begin Styx's "Great Escalator Trade" in which they barter up a series of items in hopes of finally getting a moped. Most of the story takes place outdoors without phones or televisions, where relationships are paramount. Ages 8 and up.
DA VINCI'S CAT by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Modern day, 11-year-old, Bee, from New Jersey travels through time to meet Federico, a political hostage of the Pope in 16th century Rome. Connecting the two are a wardrobe made by Leonardo DaVinci and a time-traveling cat. Also coming through the wardrobe is Herbert, an art dealer hoping to get a sketch that looks mysteriously just like Bee signed by Raphael. As you can imagine, complications arise and Bee and Federico must make sure history doesn't get too messed up! Ages 8 and up.
ASTRID THE UNSTOPPABLE by Maria Parr
We fell in love with Astrid in this Norwegian import and this book is by far one of our favorite read alouds. Plucky Astrid, with her nickname, "The Little Thunderbolt," may remind you of other intrepid heroines like Pippi Longstocking or Anne Shirley. She loves to explore her beloved Glimmerdal, and her best friend is her crotchety old godfather, Gunnvald. One winter, a family comes to stay in the holiday cottages and Astrid finally gets some local friends to go adventuring with. But then she learns a secret about Gunnvald and things might never be the same. Ages 8 and up.
THE WIND CALLED MY NAME by Mary Louise Sanchez
During the Great Depression, Margarita Sandoval's family farm in New Mexico is devastated by drought and her father takes a job with the railroad, moving the family to Wyoming. Their new community doesn't appreciate the Sandoval's Hispanic heritage, her father works to organize rail workers into a union and her family must prevent the loss of Abuelita's land in New Mexico. This book fills a much needed gap in children's literature by portraying the diversity of the American frontier. Ages 8 and up.
TIME SIGHT by Lynne Jonell
This engaging novel takes readers to Scotland, where Will and his brother Jamie have been sent while their father goes to find their mother who is in an unspecified difficulty. While staying with cousins at the family castle, Will discovers he has "time sight," the ability to open up doorways into time–but only on the castle grounds. The two boys and their female cousin, Nan, take the doorway and travel to several time periods including the Bronze and Iron ages, and medieval Scotland. Lots of fun and the story reminded me of E. Nesbit's Enchanted Castle. Ages 8 and up.
MORE: Children's books about castles (picture books & novels)
AS BRAVE AS YOU by Jason Reynolds
We loved this book about 11-year-old Genie and his brother who have come to rural Virginia to spend the summer with their grandparents. Genie is a boy who loves to ask questions and when he learns about his grandfather's blindness he has a lot to ask! During the summer Genie struggles with making sure he makes the right decisions as he uncovers the secrets of his family's history. Ages 9 and up.