Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Book Review: Better with Books by Melissa Hart

Pile of hardback books, including Charlotte's Web, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, The Jungle Book, and The Illustrated Treasury of Poetry for Children.

Some of the books my Book Aunts gave me all those years ago. I snuck off with as many of our collective treasures as I could when I left for college. (Photo: Michael Howell)

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Better with Books by Melissa Hart

The cover of Better with Books shows a reader standing triumphantly on top of a pile of books.

Genre: Reference

Publisher: Sasquatch Books

Year Published: 2019

Format: Paperback

Source: Purchase

My Rating: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️

My Review: ☕️☕️☕️☕️☕️

Growing up, younger me was blessed with not one, but two Book Aunts, who had the most marvelous taste in books. Every Christmas, my Great-Aunt Marian and my Aunt Jeanne used to send beautiful editions of books like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Charlotte’s Web, and The Illustrated Treasury of Poetry for Children.

Their taste in books aligned so neatly with my own, that I would try to sneak off with my siblings’ books as well while the wrapping paper that had disguised them still littered the floor. My older brother quickly learned the intricate art of crafting traps that were just dangerous enough to protect his books without doing too much damage to me, but my sister shared a room with me and was forced to accept the fact that I would treat her books as my own. Fortunately, she didn’t mind that nearly as much as she minded sharing her socks. 

Now that I’m a responsible adult with nieces of my own, I am doing my best to carry on the family’s Book Aunt tradition by sending my nieces books for birthdays and major holidays. At first it was easy. Picture books are so short, it’s trivial to read several in the bookstore before picking my favorites to wrap up and mail out. But now that three of my nieces are in middle school and high school, screening appropriate books before gifting them is much more time consuming. Frankly, I’m starting to struggle a bit, even with two voracious readers in the house ready and willing to help me. But that doesn’t mean I should just stop. 

I don’t need to tell you how emotionally tender middle schoolers can be or how fraught with potential and stress the high school years can feel. The ability to see themselves in the books they read can be an invaluable source of comfort for tweens and teens. Reading a wide range of books can also help teens develop empathy and compassion for those whose stories aren’t their own. In many respects, my role as Book Aunt has never felt more important.

That’s where Melissa Hart’s Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens comes in. 

“The right book read at the right time can change a life, and that’s why Better with Books belongs in every library. Timely, compassionate, and wise, this is a remarkable reference guide.”

Katherine Applegate, Newbery Medal award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan.

Better with Books includes reading guides on a variety of topics: 

  • Adoption
  • Body Image
  • Immigration
  • Learning Challenges
  • LGBTQIA+
  • Mental Health
  • Environment
  • Physical Disabilities
  • Poverty
  • Race / Ethnicity
  • Religion and Spirituality

Hart’s reading lists are divided into sections for tweens and older teens. She provides a brief summary of each book that succinctly describes the setting, point-of-view character, main issues, and genre. Published in 2019, Better with Books obviously doesn’t include the absolute latest publications, but there are still plenty of relevant and engrossing titles in it that I see the kids at my middle school devouring daily, such as Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko (Learning Challenges), Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan (Adoption/Foster Care), and Brave by Svetlana Chmakova (Body Image). Hart’s lists are detailed enough to make it easy for parents, teachers, librarians, and book aunts/uncles to find at least one book that would appeal to every reader on their list. 

I find this book so useful, I’m planning to keep my copy of it at the circulation desk to refer to when the students ask me to help them find their next great read. Marked up, of course, because this is a book meant to be used, not just read.

My copy of Better with Books, all marked up and ready for its debut at the circulation desk on Monday morning. In addition to the color tabs marking each list, I’ve highlighted in yellow the books already in our library’s collection for easy reference. (Photo: Michael Howell, who kindly framed it to include my other weekend project, a BB-8 blanket based on the pattern in Stars Wars: Knitting the Galaxy.)

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