World Cultures (6th/7th Grades)
Most of these recommendations come from teachers of 6th grade World Cultures in Texas. Many states have similar courses split between 6th and 7th grade – usually Western (slightly more familiar and a bit easier for many little people) in 6th grade and Eastern (more challenging even for tall people) in 7th grade. Rather than split them here, I’ve kept the list in roughly chronological order based on their subject matter. Hopefully it’s fairly obvious which books would best align with which course based on their descriptions. As to appropriate grade level, these are all books which could work for MANY 6th or 7th grade students. As we all know, that doesn’t mean they’d work for all of them. It’s never THAT easy.
The Children's Homer: The Adventures of Odysseus and the Tale of Troy (Padraic Colum) – As the title suggests, this is a retelling of key elements of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for kids. “Travel back to a mythical time when Achilles, aided by the gods, waged war against the Trojans. And join Odysseus on his journey through murky waters, facing obstacles like the terrifying Scylla and whirring Charybdis, the beautiful enchantress Circe, and the land of the raging Cyclops.” Multiple reviews of this one look make it look quite promising.
The Story of Rolf & the Viking Bow (Allen French) – This one has come highly recommended and seems to exist in several versions. Around A. D. 1000, a generation or so after the introduction of Christianity to Iceland, sixteen-year-old Rolf the son of Hiarandi the Unlucky lives with his father and mother Asdis at Cragness above Broadfirth. One stormy night, at the urging of his wife, Hiarandi lights a signal fire on a dangerous point of his land to save ships instead of letting them crash so that he could take their plunder. This decision indirectly leads to Hiarandi’s death, sending Rolf on the run and into a quest for redemption of the family name. Based on reviews (I’ll be reading this one soon), this book does an unusually good job of handing Christianity in a tasteful and positive way while still being about choices and morality rather than preachy. I’m especially curious as to your thoughts if you’ve read this one.
Blood Red Horse (K.M. Grant) – This novel follows two brothers as they leave England to fight as part of the Crusades, and incorporates both Christian and Muslim perspectives, in the field and at home. Tying these stories together is the red horse, Hosanna, who is apparently quite the steed. The historical setting and the vocabulary may challenge some readers, but it’s an engaging adventure and handles both perspectives well without getting all preachy or too terribly touchy-feely.
Homeless Bird (Gloria Whelan) – Modern India and centuries-old traditions surround Koly, a 13-year old girl, who is sent away as part of an arranged marriage. Her beloved turns out to be a sickly child whose parents are only interested in obtaining dowry money to help pay for his care. The plot ends up following a rather ‘American’ fairy tale path, but the culture and familiar adolescent struggles along the way make up for it. It's a nice balance of "wow, her life is very different from mine" and "hey, I recognize these feelings and worries!"
Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess (Richard Plat) – This book mixes a faux-medieval style – sufficiently different from modern English to evoke a historical setting, but familiar enough to remain accessible to young readers – to describe a year in the life of Tobias Burgess, a typical English page; he waits on patrons, learns lessons (Latin and the Scriptures, archery, horseback riding, and sword fighting), fights and plays with fellow pages. Tobias's wry observations focus as much on castle events as on his own role within them. An informative and amusing introduction to the medieval world.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (John Boyne) – You’re probably familiar with this one. It’s a Holocaust story made even more poignant by the protagonist’s tiny perspective played against the reader’s broader understanding. It’s told through the eyes of nine-year-old Bruno, whose family moves from Berlin after his father gets a promotion. Their new home is nice, but the surroundings are desolate – especially the large camp on the other side of a big fence, behind which all of the people, except the soldiers, wear gray-striped pajamas. Bruno explores and meets Shmuel from the fenced-in area. He never quite understands why his new friend is behind the fence, but understands instinctively that he should keep quiet about their visits. We all know how this one ends, but that hardly reduces the impact.
Number the Stars (Lois Lowry) – As the German troops begin their campaign to "relocate" all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war.
The Cay (Theodore Taylor) – Phillip is excited when the Germans invade the small island of Curaçao. War has always been a game to him, and he’s eager to glimpse it firsthand – until the freighter he and his mother are traveling to the United States on is torpedoed. When Phillip comes to, he is on a small raft in the middle of the sea. Besides Stew Cat, his only companion is an old West Indian, Timothy. Phillip remembers his mother’s warning about black people: “They are different, and they live differently.” But by the time the castaways arrive on a small island, Phillip’s head injury has made him blind and dependent on Timothy.
Colors of the Mountain (Da Chen) – A semi-autobiographical novel of the author’s years growing up during Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. Da Chen narrates his rise from the persecuted landlord class up into the revered educated class during one of China's most turbulent periods, giving us a glimpse of the madness that pervaded China during that time. Woven through the chaos is the idea that life goes on, and that while some will be overwhelmed, others will come through the craziness. I’m not sure how appropriate this one is for young readers, but it's worth checking out and making that call yourself.
A Long Walk To Water (Linda Sue Park)
Two narratives of two very different children in the African nation of Sudan, nearly a quarter-century apart when the book begins. Nya, an 11-year-old girl, spends the better part of each day fetching water for her family and worrying about conflicts between her people – the Nuer – and the neighboring Dinka. Salva, an 11-year-old boy, is from a Dinka family successful enough that he’s in school much of the year. When the ongoing war between rebels in in the south and the ruling Muslim government in the north reaches his village, Salva becomes one of the “Lost Boys” and loses pretty much everything he’s ever relied on to give meaning to his world. The story manages to confront war and loss and sickness directly while avoiding sorts of details or brutality which might be difficult for younger readers, and stays so engaging that I finished it in a single sitting despite having no particular intention of doing so. It’s never cheesy or forced, but you’ll walk away wanting to be a better person and maybe even a renewed faith in the human race despite the darkness around us.