The books that kids read in grade school – when they are discovering reading and the faraway worlds that books open up for them – are the books that become cherished, comforting childhood friends. It was from my squishy beanbag reading spot as a child that I first experienced Victorian England, the American frontier, Prince Edward Island, turn-of-the-century New York City and fantasy worlds of elves, dragons and wizards.
I’ve been collecting books since I was a kid and love sharing them now with my own four kids. They are all voracious readers too, and we’ve put together a too-long list of our combined favorites here to share. These are the battered paperbacks with softened edges and musty scents that keep my kids and their favorite fuzzy blankets company on a gray day.
The Great Brain by John D Fitzgerald
A cherished series from my youth, The Great Brain is a very funny collection of stories, loosely based on the author’s childhood in turn-of-the-20th-century Utah. John D Fitzgerald writes as the little brother who both admires and suffers from the scheming escapades of his too-clever big brother Tom (the Great Brain). The themes in this book of family, sibling rivalry, and childhood mischief are timeless. And the amusing adventures in small town Utah will paint a vibrant picture for your kids of life before electronics. Lively illustrations by Mercer Mayer don’t make it into the Kindle version, so I highly recommend the print books.
Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
If I were stranded on a desert island, the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder might be the books I take with me. I read them countless times in my childhood, and I’ve read them all again to my kids. The stories of life on the American frontier are told with great fondness and verve by Wilder, who published the first of the series when she was 65 years old (incidentally, John D Fitzgerald, another late bloomer, published the first of his Great Brain books when he was 49). When I read them, I’m transported to another time, where family, resourcefulness, self-reliance and persistence were the basis of daily survival.
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor is a fun chronicle of a family of four sisters in a working-class Jewish family living in New York’s bustling Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to the heartwarming stories, I loved learning about the Jewish holidays, traditions and food, not to mention life in a New York City tenement (before the word came to have negative associations). Sydney Taylor published the first of the series when she was 47 years old – more inspiration to mid-lifers like me.
Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger
Ever since we discovered Keeper of the Lost Cities a few years ago, my kids have waited anxiously every year for Shannon Messenger’s latest installment to arrive. They all love this series, starring 12-year-old Sophie Foster who has secret telepathic abilities. Now stretched to volume 7, every one is a cliffhanger.
The Wide Awake Princess by E.D. Baker
My boys and girls all love everything E.D. Baker writes, but The Wide Awake Princess tops the list. A retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale from the perspective of Sleeping Beauty’s sister, who (spoiler alert) manages to stay awake and have a rollicking adventure trying to save the kingdom.
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
In Princess Academy heroine Miri, along with every other teenage girl in her small village, are sent to princess training to see which of them will be the one to fulfill a prophecy. Complications arise in the kingdom, and Miri uses her smarts and pluck to save the day. Friendship and teamwork are big themes, and there’s a bit of romance too.
The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer
Sixth-grade boy-girl twins Alex and Conner tumble into a magic book in The Land of Stories. It’s a high-adventure fairytale mashup, a romp into what happens after happily ever after. There are six books in the series, and yes, the author is the same Chris Colfer from TV’s Glee – he sings, he acts, he writes bestselling books.
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Mayrose Wood
In The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, 15 year old Penelope Lumley is hired to be governess for three children who to date have been raised by wolves. Very funny, dry and cute, the stories are pure innocent amusement with enough witty irony for parents to enjoy too. The first in a series of six.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
A team of kids are recruited by Mr Benedict to thwart and evil scheme in this cleverly crafted, fast-paced mystery. Full of plot twists and humor, this is a clean, engaging adventure.
Fablehaven by Brandon Mull
In Fablehaven, a brother and sister discover a secret world when they are sent to spend the summer with their reclusive grandfather. With fairy tales, adventure, a family mystery and both boy and girl heroes, there’s something in this story for everyone. Brandon Mull is a terrific writer of many series for kids, and the Fablehaven series (a total of five books) is our favorite.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
Author Rick Riordan has legions of young fans for his blockbuster series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which chronicles the adventures of twelve-year old Percy. Mythology mixes with adventure, appealing characters, great humor and a little romance. You can safely buy the five-box set from the start.
Spy School by Stuart Gibbs
Belly Up Fun Jungle series by Stuart Gibbs
Stuart Gibbs books, featuring fast-paced action, winsome characters and laugh-out-loud humor, are a great start for reluctant readers. Spy School (first in a series of six), features middle-schooler Ben Ripley caught in a series of misadventures in his quest to be a spy. Belly Up (first in a series of five), follows 12-year-old Teddy Roosevelt Fitzroy in his dogged effort to solve a mystery in an animal park that adults don’t seem to want solved.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
In The War that Saved My Life, the start of World War II in England brings opportunity to ten-year-old Ada, immobile with clubfoot and kept hidden from the world by her abusive mother. Children are being evacuated from London to the countryside, and Ada finds the determination and courage to push through her limitations and brave a new life with her brother Jamie. Kids will be riveted by the action story and inspired by the very real characters.
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Penderwicks is a modern book but an old-fashioned story about four sisters and their long summer holiday away. They make friends with a boy at the summer estate, and the book is a charming story of friendship and sisterhood. Girls and boys both enjoy these books – a total of four in the series.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Like Rick Riordan with Greek mythology or Brandon Mull with fairy tales, Grace Lin weaves Chinese fables into her fresh, imaginative adventure stories. My kids loved Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and the second book, Starry River of the Sky, is an equally delightful prequel to the first.
The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy
Another fairy tale rewrite, this time from the point of view of the princes, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom features boy humor and amusing illustrations. It’s an adventure tale with fun characters, and the first in a trilogy if you want more (followed by The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle and The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw).
Eleven Birthdays by Wendy Mass
Eleven Birthdays is a great book about weathering the ups and downs of friendship. In this kids’ version of Groundhog Day, two friends who share a birthday, Amanda and Leo, for the first time spend their birthdays apart. A touching story about communication, understanding and learning from mistakes. There are three more books in this Willow Falls series by Wendy Mass.
False Prince by Jennifer A Nielsen
Wisecracking orphan Sage is the hero of The False Prince, a smartly-crafted adventure story about a pauper masquerading as a prince. The multilayered story unfolds with many plot twists and a lot of humor. Your reader will be happy there are two more books to follow in this Ascendance Trilogy by Jennifer A Nielsen.
Harry Potter illustrated edition, by JK Rowling
It goes without saying that the Harry Potter series, which took the world by storm 20 years ago, is a must for any child’s bookshelf. The new illustrated editions are stunningly rendered. We didn’t need another set of Harry Potter books, but I did break down and buy a few of these heavy but gorgeous works of art.
MIDDLE SCHOOL | TWEEN
I accidentally left this one out of my favorite teens/tweens books. I’ll append it here but also add it to the tween list.
The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick
The Mother-Daughter Book Club features four moms who start a book club with their 6th-grade daughters, who are classmates but not really friends. As they read their first book, Little Women, together, the girls reluctantly get to know each other, and their relationships develop from there. The book also explores the tensions between moms and daughters. My daughter loves each of the characters in this book so much she wishes they could be friends in real life. The full collection is seven books.
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