Recently, I made a list of my very favorite children’s literary novels that included classics as well as recent books. I was surprised to see that the vast majority of them were under 200 pages. That seemed like great news for any kid who struggles reading big chunks of text, so I’m sharing them here. Take note: These books are all also wonderful to read aloud, whether to a group of mixed-age kids or to a child who’s reading on her own already.
[Want more book recommendations for younger readers? See more Story Times for ages 2-5 here, here and here. For ages 0-2, here and here. For ages 5-10, here and here. For ages 12 and up, here.]
‘Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea,’ by Lynne Rae Perkins
Two Midwest sisters take their first beach vacation in this compact story about working through conflict and embracing new experiences. Perkins sprinkles in her own lovely drawings, and there’s some quietly breathtaking nature writing when one of the sisters gets to work with a falcon at a sanctuary and releases him into the wild.
‘Danny, the Champion of the World,’ by Roald Dahl
This underrated novel flies by in a heartbeat but is full of suspense and emotion, and it will inspire moral debate with your youngsters. Danny lives happily with his father in a cozy trailer until one day his father reveals his deepest secret: He sometimes disappears at night to poach pheasants from a rich neighbor’s estate. Naturally, Danny wants to join him, and the danger ratchets up. There’s a happy ending, rest assured.
‘The Birchbark House,’ by Louise Erdrich
The acclaimed literary novelist Erdrich is also a crackerjack writer for kids. This short but powerful historical novel, narrated by a curious, animal-loving girl named Omakayas, kicks off a series about an Ojibwe family facing white settlers for the first time. The setting evokes Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, but with a Native American perspective.
‘Sweeping Up the Heart,’ by Kevin Henkes
The heroine of this smart, affecting story is an 11-year-old girl who lost her mother at a young age. Now she’s stuck at home with her emotionally unavailable father while her friends are away for a spring school vacation. When an intriguing new boy shows up in her pottery class, it brings a fresh perspective and the possibility of making her very own life into an adventure.
‘Harbor Me,’ by Jacqueline Woodson
In this quiet, uplifting book, six fifth graders, all struggling with challenges at home and school, are assigned to spend one period a week together in an empty classroom, doing nothing but talking. Can just talking really help them bridge race, class and family difficulties, such as a parent’s imminent deportation? The outcome is satisfying, hopeful, yet utterly realistic.
‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,’ by E. L. Konigsburg
It may be 50 years old, but this Newbery Medal winner still shines brightly. Claudia Kincaid has decided to run away from her suburban Connecticut home to spend a night at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Together with her little brother Jamie, they evade the guards and settle in, stumbling on a mystery only the irrepressible Claudia can solve. No one who meets her in these brisk pages will ever forget her.
‘Hatchet,’ by Gary Paulsen
This modern classic delivers a suspenseful story of a boy who is stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash, surviving with nothing but a hatchet and his ingenuity. Useful lessons abound in this brief, indelible book, including how to craft a bow and fishing spear, as well as how to get through the pain of parents divorcing.
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