New Found Land by Allan Wolf (Candlewick Press, 2004)
Here's a unique retelling of Lewis and Clark's journey across the continent, written by a poet. Each short entry, usually a page or two, is written in one of 14 distinct voices belonging to various members of the Corps of Discovery. Except for the entries by the prose-writing Oolum, a Newfoundland dog, they are poetic and reveal the various ways the characters understood their journey. It may take some prodding to get kids to pick up this big book, so parents or teachers may want to make it a read-aloud.
Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (Hyperion Books for Children, 2004)
Upper elementary/middle school
Peter and his band of fellow orphans are shanghaied and put on the Never Land, a creaking old ship that will take them to serve a far-off king. Peter then discovers on board a trunk of magic "starstuff" and must help to keep it away from pirates and cannibals. In this prequel to Peter Pan, readers discover where Tinker Bell came from, what makes Peter fly, and why Captain Hook has a crocodile on his tail. It's an old-fashioned story told with some of Dave Barry's wise-acre style. He's managed to restrain his tendency toward crude humor, although in one scene the pirate Black Stache gives the command to "Raise the Ladies," which turn out to be sails in the shape of an enormous black brassiere (with accompanying illustration).
SilverFin by Charlie Higson (Miramax Books, 2005)
Middle school and up
There's a problem with SilverFin, and it's not with the plot or writing, because the book is a terrific adventure story pitting a brave boy and his friends against an evil genius intent on creating a race of super soldiers. The boy shows grit and determination, as well as a well-developed sense of right and wrong, as he takes on a pre-WWII baddie who's creating monsters in his lab. The problem is that the book is about the young James Bond, who grows up to be the amorous spy of movie fame. Only those willing to have their teens watch the movies should take up the book, because it's a page-turner.
Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood by Ann Brashares (Delacourte Books for Young Readers, 2005)
Girls in Pants, the third book in a series about four best friends and a shared pair of propitious jeans, takes place the summer before they go off to college. These books are understandably popular because Ms. Brashares understands how teenage girls think. The problem is the morally permissive world in which the characters all operate. In the first book, one of the girls loses her virginity and sinks into a deep depression afterwards. The book's message was not that premarital sex is wrong, but that it's heavy-and she wasn't ready to bear the weight. That's pretty much the worldview of the books: The girls support each other no matter what, they do well at school, work hard, and use their feelings to guide their actions.
Wanting to Be Her by Michelle Graham (InterVarsity Press, 2005)
Here's one nonfiction book to round out the list. Many girls aren't able to enjoy who they are because they compare themselves to more beautiful girls. Michelle Graham tackles biblically the topic of body image, with the aim of getting girls to see themselves the way God sees them rather than through the lens of popular culture. Ms. Graham shares stories from her own life and others' as she writes about weight, body shape, and standards of beauty. Girls and their moms, who are sometimes the worst critics, will both benefit from reading it.