The New Classics by Kelly Gallagher-Mack
I was a fourth grader during the 1987-88 school year. I would say that was the year I really fell in love with books at school. From an early age, my mother instilled a love of books and reading, so I always enjoyed it as a favorite pastime. But that year, my teacher read aloud The Twits by Roald Dahl to the class, and I must have reread it a half dozen times that school year! I loved it! From there, I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and was completely enamored with the mystery of the story mixed with the imaginative fantasy elements driving the plot. Fourth grade was also the year that I read one of the most beloved classics in children’s literature, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. The teacher also read aloud Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Upon the conclusion of the book, we were ushered to the library for a special treat: The TV/VCR combo had been set up for us so that we could watch the 1974 film version of the book. I couldn’t believe it! A movie in school!
As I reflect back on my fourth grade year, I recall these books and the accompanying experiences, and I believe that seeing my teacher so excited about reading helped to shape the kind of teacher, fourth grade nonetheless, I have become. Looking back, my elementary, middle, and high school teachers exposed me to “classic” literature throughout my school career. I guess these books were only 20-30 years old at the time, but when you’re a kid, that seemed like forever ago! So I started to think to myself, “What are some of the best books for children that have been written in the 20-30 years prior to 2015? What do I consider must-read “new classics” for my students?” This top ten, in no particular order, is what I consider some of the best books within the past 30 years. I lovingly refer to these gems as “new classics.”
Frindle by Andrew Clements (1996)
In my opinion, Andrew Clements hits it out of the park with each book he writes. I love the “challenging authority” theme and how the antagonist in this book later reveals that she chose that role to help push this student toward success. No accolades were originally given to this book upon its publication, but I’m so happy to see that Frindle is the winner of the 2016 Phoenix Award. Deservedly so!
The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (1996 Newbery Honor)
This book has everything I want as a reader: humor, real-life family interactions, and an element of history, in the form of the Birmingham church bombing, woven into the plot. The Michigan-based Watson family is faced with some harsh realities as they visit relatives in Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights movement. A tear-jerker and eye-opener all in one.
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (1995 Newbery Winner)
I think this book is so beautiful that it reads like poetry. There are so many memorable and quotable lines from this book, and that is why it is an unforgettable read that touches your soul. My favorite quote from this book is one that has spoken to me in a deeply moving way. It reads, “You can’t keep the birds of sorrow from flying overhead, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.” Such sage advice written into such a beautiful, vivid visual.
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (2004 Newbery Winner)
Masterful! I was blown away when I read this story aloud to my class for the first time. The way Ms. DiCamillo created the characters with their individual stories and entwined them is beyond brilliant!
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006)
No disrespect to the Newbery Selection Committee, but I think they made a huge oversight by not awarding this book as the winner or even an honor book. To say that this book takes you on a journey is nothing short of truthful. My colleague and I have discussed how this book is an allegory for the human journey through life. A definite tear-jerker!
Holes by Louis Sachar (1999 Newbery Winner)
In a rare turn of events, I actually saw the 2003 film before I read the book. For a “kid’s movie,” I found it to be a wildly entertaining and creative story, so I had to read the book! As Ms. DiCamillo did with Despereaux, Mr. Sachar does with Holes–he created stories within the story and wove them together in a seamless and effortless way that makes the craft of writing look like a walk in the park.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1988 Newbery Honor)
I don’t know how I made it through school without reading this book, but I didn’t read it until I did my student teaching in a sixth grade Language Arts class in the fall of 2000. One word for this book: Intense! The energy in this book is palpable! A great book for hooking reluctant readers, especially reluctant boys, to the joys of reading. Especially since there are follow up novels that play off of this book such as Brian’s Winter and Brian’s Hunt in a series known as Brian’s Saga.
El Deafo by Cece Bell (2015 Newbery Honor)
I’m not usually a fan of graphic novels, but I decided to broaden my horizons and give this book a try. Boy am I glad I did! El Deafo is a poignant memoir of the author’s life and her struggles with being deaf in a hearing-person’s world. The story is told with humor, but you can also sense the main character’s frustrations. You can identify with her struggles, even if you are not a hearing impaired reader. A quick, marvelous read!
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (2013 Newbery Winner)
It’s hard to put into words the beauty of this book. Ms. Applegate wrote this book in such a way that the reader is put into a position to pause and reflect at various times throughout the book. I found myself doing this quite often and was appreciative of a piece of children’s literature that afforded me that opportunity. A definite tear-jerker must-read for the middle grade reader!
Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)
Perhaps the greatest oversight by the Newbery Selection Committee in the history of the award, Wonder went unrecognized by the committee, although the book did receive other awards. In a nutshell, this book is amazing because it is one story told from multiple perspectives. I think Ms. Palacio nails the vernacular of the many narrators of the story, and I think that takes some serious skill. This book is so moving, that I had to make a very conscious effort not to “ugly cry” in front of my class. I have a friend whose daughter has a similar story to that of August Pullman, the protagonist in this book. I share her story as I read Wonder to my class to make the story real. It is a great book for teaching understanding, tolerance, and character.
You may be wondering where Shiloh is on my list, and I can only say that this is a top ten list. If it were a top eleven, it would be here. So would Maniac Magee, Out of My Mind, Fish in a Tree, Lunch Money, Bunnicula, Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, Bud, Not Buddy, Because of Winn-Dixie, and The Giver. Hmm, too bad this couldn’t have been a top twenty list…
Kelly Mack is a fourth grade teacher and wannabe published author. She currently lives with her two daughters, her dog, and two cats in Brecksville, Ohio, and teaches in the nearby community of Stow. During her free time (ha!), Kelly reads books, writes, shuttles her children to extracurricular activities, and zones out to her favorite television shows. She hopes to continue to spread the love of reading to her children, her family, her students, and eventually, the world!