Just Read It is a regular feature in which the State Journal seeks recommendations from authors, literary enthusiasts and experts, focused on the contributor’s particular genre of expertise.
Rebecca Behrens is the author of “When Audrey Met Alice,” a work of contemporary and historical fiction for readers ages 9 to 14 that imagines what life might have been like for one famous presidential child, Alice Roosevelt, and a fictional first daughter living in the White House today. Here, Behrens chooses three middle-grade books that hold a special place on her shelves.
1. “Catherine, Called Birdy” by Karen Cushman (Clarion, 1994) is one of the historical novels I loved most as a young reader. Through its diary format, it tells the story of free-spirited Catherine, nicknamed “Birdy,” the young tomboy daughter of an English nobleman. Set in 1290, the book is rich in its factual details of medieval life — from festivals to flea bites — but it also presents a well-developed protagonist and a realistically harrowing plot, as Birdy tries to use her wits to fend off the suitors to whom her greedy father wants to marry her.
2. “What the Moon Said” by Madison-area author Gayle Rosengren (Putnam, 2014) is a new, and instant, classic in the tradition of the Little House books and “Caddie Woodlawn.” It tells the story of Esther Vogel’s move from the big city of Chicago to a hardscrabble life on a Wisconsin farm. The book paints a picture of rural life during the Great Depression, and despite the hardships that Esther’s immigrant family faces, it always remains a story of hard work and hope. It’s that perfect kind of historical fiction that teaches about the past and resonates with the present.
3. “The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin (Dutton, 1978) is a book I first read in Mrs. Gerlach’s fifth-grade class at Thoreau Elementary, and I’ve loved it ever since. The clever mystery at the core of “The Westing Game” hooked me and my classmates — trying to solve it together was one of the first times I realized that books aren’t just a great way to learn and escape, but they can bring readers together, too. The whip-smart protagonist, Turtle Wexler, is my all-time favorite. She’s not a perfect heroine—she can be a little arrogant and aloof, and she does have that bad habit of kicking people in the shins. But she is determined, resourceful, and good-hearted: qualities that make it impossible not to root for her to win the game. (The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at UW-Madison has wonderful archival materials from Ellen Raskin, an alum, available on their website.)