Your kids might not view summer as the idea moment for delving into a classic novel full of unfamiliar vocabulary and situations. I would argue, however, that it’s the ideal time, when they can take their time and read slowly, ask questions, and have leisurely discussions about the story if they so desire.
I’ve included books for this classic summer reading list for tweens from the 19th century all the way to the 1980s. There are some with classic summertime themes, others with exciting adventures and some which focus on familiar childhood emotions and social situations. All of the books are appropriate for kids ages 8-12 (and up!!), the so-called “tween” age — approximately 4th grade through 8th grade — and they would also make wonderful read aloud novels. (Note: covers and titles are affiliate links.)
MORE: Classics for tweens – this is a good companion list, as I’ve been careful to not include duplicate titles
The beautiful Bridge to Terabithia, is one of my childhood reads that has stayed with me. Two 5th grade friends, Jess and Leslie, create an imaginary world they call Terabithia. One day a tragedy leaves Jess alone and he must rely on all he learned through his friendship with Leslie to work through his grief over her death.
Harriet the Spy. Don’t forget about this classic book about a girl who keeps a spy journal. When her journal is stolen and her peers learn the unflattering things she wrote about them she finds herself an outcast. What makes Harriet so wonderful is that she is a real person. She is not always (maybe not even often) pleasant to everyone, she makes mistakes, but she is smart and resourceful. Awesome.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. I remember loving this book as a child, and as an adult I love the alliterative title. It takes an ultra talented author like Joan Aiken to turn what could easily be a predictable, Gothic plot into an exciting, suspenseful tale. Two cousins persevere against all odds when they are thrown under the protection of rather sinister guardian with the Dickensian name of Mrs. Slighcarp.
Bright Island is probably best for older tweens, as it is quite long and dense. Thankful is a girl who loves the sea. However, her parents send her away to school on the mainland so she can learn “what a girl is good for.” The beautiful writing details Thankful’s experience at the school, her attachment to boating and the coast of Maine. It is a lovely coming of age story and is perfect for fans of books like Anne of Green Gables. I would also like to stress that BOYS will also enjoy this book. (Can you tell I feel totally worn out by “books for boys” vs. “books for girls” recommendations?)
The Castle in the Attic. The idea of a miniature castle coming to life was irresistible to me as a kid1 William’s housekeeper, Mrs. Phillips gives him a model castle set but things go awry when Mrs. Phillips is shrunk down to the size of the castle and William must shrink himself down to rescue her. Dragons, wizards, magic forests and knights make this a wonderful fantasy quest kids will love. Be sure to read the sequel, Battle for the Castle.
Treasure Island. It is safe to say that the characters in this book are not all virtuous, hard working and self-sacrificing, but it is loads of fun. Youngster Jim goes to look for treasure and gets mixed-up with pirates like the ruthless Long John Silver.
The Wheel on the School. In Holland, Lina and her friends wonder why there are no longer any storks in their village. They work together to build a nest for the birds on the school, and in doing so discover their individual and collective strengths. This past winter I read this book aloud and although I remember loving it as a kid, for some reason I was expecting my kids to find it boring. Quite the contrary! Even my then-6 year old couldn’t wait to hear more.
The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, a Newbery Honor book, is on many “top kid novels of all time” lists. A group of friends hang out near an old curio shop and engage in some imaginary world building. Mysterious and suspenseful, it will be especially loved by kids who like all things Egyptian.
Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright. Does anything say “summer” more than time at a lake? Siblings, Portia and Foster head out to stay with their cousins at their lake side home. When they arrive, they discover a mysterious ghost town and meet its two remaining inhabitants who teach them the town’s secrets. This is a wonderful story of children enjoying a “free-range” summer.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. Told from the perspective of a nine year old girl, this is an incredibly powerful book about an African-American family who struggles against racism in the South in their fight to keep their land and their dignity. If I were to make a list of books all children in the US must read, this one would be on it.
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner. Maurice Sendak said, “Read it and you will be happy.” I’m not sure you need a further recommendation for this German classic than that! It is generally considered the first novel to feature a juvenile detective. When Emil is sedated with laced chocolate and robbed on a train of his grandmother’s money he doesn’t want to let his family down and sets out to solve the crime himself. Fast-paced and suspenseful, this story will keep young readers (or listeners) eager for the resolution.
The Reluctant Dragon. If your kids balk at the unfamiliar sentence structure and vocabulary of many older classic books, a short novel like this one may be just the ticket. It is a charming, but engaging story. A boy befriends a poetry loving dragon in the caves near his village. When the rest of the village learns of the dragon, they assume he is a threat and enlist St. George to rid them of the beast. Instead the boy, dragon and St. George successfully conspire to bring everyone together and show the villagers that their prejudice is misplaced. A wonderful companion book is Tony DiTerlizzi’s contemporary retelling of the story, Kenny & the Dragon.
MORE SUMMER READING LISTS FOR TWEENS: