If you were to make a list of must read chapter books and children's novels, what titles would you include? Would it be well-known books like Charlotte's Web and Harry Potter, or would you include sentimental favorites you remember from childhood?
As someone who has read thousands of children's chapter books and novels, I've come up with my own, out-of-the-box list. It's not filled with the usual books you'll find on "100 books to read before you grow up." After all, you're smart enough to know that A Wrinkle in Time is a great book.
Instead, this list of 52 essential books is filled with page-turning, funny, mysterious, compelling and emotion-inducing titles reflecting a diversity of genres and inclusive of a wide variety of experiences that may be new to you! And yes, there are still a few I simply could not leave off the list, despite their presence on every top 100 children's novels lists out there.
Which books will you share with your children, next?
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Ages 5 and up
Not every child is ready to read these books at age 5—and that is normal. These must read early chapter books are best suited for kids ages 5-9.
Bunjitsu Bunny (series) by John Himmelman. Delightfully humorous short stories about a bunny with serious martial arts skills. Mixed in with the laughs is a dose of philosophy.
My Happy Life (series) by Rose Lagercrantz. A sweet and realistic Swedish import about a girl who finds joy even amongst life's setbacks.
JoJo Makoons (series) by Dawn Quigley. JoJo, the clever, spunky heroine, lives on an Ojibwe reservation and navigates school life and changing friendships.
Super Duper Teddy (series) by Johanna Hurwitz. In a NYC apartment building, 4-year-old Teddy gets to take on some big kid responsibilities.
Too Small Tola (series) by Atinuke. Tola lives with her older siblings and grandmother in modern-day urban Nigeria. Tola's wit and intelligence help her to solve problems that pop up in the loving family's daily life.
Freddie Ramos Takes Off (series) by Jaqueline Jules. Freddie receives a mysterious package containing shoes which give him super fast skills.
J. D. and the Great Barber Battle (series) by J. Dillard. After J.D.'s mom gives him a terrible haircut, J.D. tries to remedy the situation and discovers he is a hair-cutting genius!
Badir and the Beaver by Shannon Stewart. In Canada, Badir and his friends rally to learn all they can about beavers to save a local specimen. Stewart deftly weaves themes of belonging and cultural diversity into this marvelous story.
The Mailbox in the Forest by Kyoko Hara. Mayu leaves a letter in a forest mailbox, thus beginning a unique correspondence with a mysterious letter writer.
Emil and the Great Escape (series) by Astrid Lindgren. Clever Emil has humorous adventurous in his family's farm in rural Sweden.
The Magician’s Boy by Susan Cooper. A magician's assistant gets a crash course on magic when he gets thrown into the Land of Stories on a journey to find St. George.
The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle. The Gigglers set in motion a super stinky prank and the kids and their dog must thwart it.
Ages 7 and up
All of these books are age appropriate for ages 7 and up, although not every 7-year-old will be reading at the same level. These are great choices for older kids, too.
Yours Sincerely, Giraffe (series) by Megumi Iwasa. Giraffe in Africa and Penguin in the Antarctic exchange letters and hope to met one day.
Dory Fantasmagory (series) by Abby Hanlon. An absolutely hilarious series about a girl with an overactive imagination.
The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Angela Barrett. When a fairy loses her wings she must survive the night in a world full of danger and discovery.
8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = Chaos (series) by Vivian Vande. A laugh-out-loud tale of the chaos created when a squirrel runs through an elementary school.
The Adventures of Nanny Piggins (series) by R. A. Spratt. An outrageously ridiculous nanny (she's a pig!) has hilariously unorthodox ideas about how to raise children, involving lots of chocolate.
Ragweed (series) by Avi. A charismatic mouse decides to set out to see the world.
Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins. Naima figures out a way to earn money for her family in Bangladesh.
The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman. An uppity prince and his whipping boy become embroiled in a kidnapping plot with comic results.
Ways to Make Sunshine (series) by Renée Watson. Ryan Hart is the optimistic heroine we all need. She is the first one to see the silver lining in any situation, even when things don't go according to plan.
The Very, Very Far North (series) by Dan Bar-El. Duane the polar bear and his friends explore the wonders of the northern landscape.
Detective Gordon: The First Case (series) by Ulf Nilsson. Detective Gordon and his young sidekick concoct a plan to discover the identity of the thief who stole Squirrel's nuts.
Ages 8 and up
8-year-olds (3rd graders) love funny books with mystery and adventure.
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan. This funny and touching story of Ravi, an Indian immigrant adjusting to middle school and Joe, a boy whose best friend moved awasy, is told in alternating voices.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (series) by Grace Lin. In an effort to help her impoverished family, Minli goes on a journey to find the Old Man on the Moon
The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity (series) by Mac Barnett. From reading The Bailey Brothers’ Detective Handbook, Steve knows everything about solving crimes, which comes in handy when he finds himself thrown into the middle of an exciting mystery
Melissa by Alex Gino. A 5th grade girl struggles with her gender identity and how to explain it to her friends and family.
The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (series) by Christopher Healy. Fairy tales get turned upside-down in this hilarious series in which princes and princesses set out to make a name for themselves.
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. In the 1930s, Buddy runs away from a series of unpleasant foster homes and sets out to find his father, whom he believes to be a jazz musician.
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell. A classic tale about a disgusting dare.
The Birchbark House (series) by Louise Erdrich. The first book in a series about a Ojibwe family in the 19th century.
Masterpiece by Elise Broach. An artistically talented beetle and a boy solve an art mystery.
The Best Man by Richard Peck. A boy learns valuable lessons about the men he considers to be his role models.
You Are Here: Connecting Flights, edited by Ellen Oh. Twelve different authors penned this collection of interwoven stories detailing the experiences of several Southeast Asian and East Asian American families at a Chicago airport.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Sure, it's probably on a lot of top book lists, but I could not in all good conscience leave the ultimate middle grade mystery off my list.
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. Jack learns how to express himself with the help of a sensitive teacher, his dog and poetry.
The False Prince (series) by Jennifer A. Nielsen. In this heart-pounding adventure with a surprise twist, a devious nobleman attempts to pass an orphan off as the heir to a kingdom in turmoil.
Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith. A re-envisioning of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan story centered around a blended Muskogee Creek and British family.
Ages 9 and up
As they get older, middle grade readers can tackle complex topics as reflected in these page-turning novels.
Mascot by Charles Waters & Traci Sorrell. In this verse novel, multiple narratives describe their experience working on a debate project exploring the controversy over a racially-charged school mascot.
It Ain't So Awful Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas. In 1970s California a young Iranian immigrant figures out how to be American without rejecting her heritage. Both funny and moving.
Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin. A surprisingly funny tale of a boy who starts to doubt the authority of the USSR in the time of Stalin.
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. In this compelling story, Annabelle befriends the local hermit and must stand up to bullies to do the right thing.
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. An absolutely fascinating story set in medieval Korea about an orphan who becomes a potter's apprentice.
As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds. 11-year-old Genie and his brother travel from Brooklyn to rural Virginia to spend the summer with their grandparents.
Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt. A haunting and classic tale about a girl waiting with her grandmother for a message from the sea. This book will stick with your kids forever.
Surviving the Applewhites (series) by Stephanie S. Tolan. A very funny story about a misfit theatrical family and the rebel foster kid who comes to stay with them.
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. A verse novel about Amira, who faces war horrors in Sudan.
Starfish by Lisa Flipps. Ellie is tired of being bullied about her weight but when a new family moves in next door, she makes a friend who understands what it's like to be judged by what you look like. Written in verse.
Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby. Solveig and her siblings are trapped, along with the king's guard, and a group of warriors known as the berserkers, in a fortress during a winter storm. Solveig attempts to uncover the traitor amongst them.
Show Me a Sign (series) by Ann Clare LeZotte. In 1805, Mary Lambert lives in a community where everyone speaks sign language and a quarter of the population is deaf. Tensions within the community are mounting, and the cruel intentions of a young researcher highlight the importance of fighting for what's right.
How to Stay Invisible by Maggie C. Rudd. A compelling survival story about a boy who, abandoned by his parents, is determined to keep his homelessness a secret. However, his growing friendships with several other misfits offer hope that he can finally find a safe home.
Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros. After his Ama is deported in a surprise raid, Efrén must look after the household, including his sibling who has a cognitive disability, while his Apa works hard to earn the money needed to bring Ama back to the family.
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