Looking for just the right chapter book to give as a gift? I’ve broken down some of my favorite novels by interest for this gift guide. I’ve tried to include a healthy dose of book series because what voracious young reader doesn’t love to unwrap a box set. Oh, the box set! That was my favorite type of gift as a kid. (I am such a nerd.)
These chapter books are all middle grade books, and primarily aimed at 4th graders and up. I’ll be putting out a list of chapter books for younger kids shortly, so hold tight! As always, find all our book lists on the master index of book lists for kids. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
Books For Kids Who Love Fantasy:
You will find a heavy dose of fantasy themed books on many of my lists because it is a genre I particularly enjoy. For more books in this vein peruse Books for Kids who Like Harry Potter, Books for Kids not Ready for Harry Potter, and for younger kids, Magic Early Chapter Books. The books below are terrific places to start. The first is great for kids ages 7 and up, the second for kids ages 10 and up.
The Spiderwick Chronicles, the Complete Series. (series) This well-loved series has everything you need for a great fantastical story: mystery, magical creatures, and lots of fun. I’ve never seen the movie, but my son has gobbled up the books.
Inkheart (Inkheart Trilogy). It’s a tome of a book, but if your child was able to read one of the later Harry Potter books, he can certainly get through this one. I adore the metafictional aspect of this book. There’s something so wonderful about characters escaping the confines of their stories. Meggie’s father’s read aloud skills are so magical is actually able to read characters out of the books! Unfortunately an evil character he has read out of a book is on a mission to bring him down and Meggie’s father has accidentally read his wife into a book. Spellbinding.
For Kids Who Like Graphic Novels:
I find that graphic novels are challenging for me to read (ironic, since they are often recommended for reluctant readers), which is why I have yet to compile my long promised list. My son really enjoys them, so I should perhaps just make a list of his recommendations. Here are two graphic novels which have universal appeal.
El Deafo is a graphic novel memoir narrated by Cece, who loses here hearing due to spinal meningitis. A very funny and charming book about the experiences, imaginings and wishes of a deaf girl (actually everyone is a rabbit). Although the story will help hearing kids to see challenges of the deaf, they will also see similarities.
Zita the Spacegirl (Zita the Spacegirl Series). My son and his friends love the Zita books. Zita rushes off to space in order to save her friend who has been abducted by aliens. Space turns out to be inhabited by some seriously bizarre, but entertaining creatures. There is a bit of a Wizard of Oz like feel to Zita’s quest and the series is tons of fun.
Books for Future Detectives:
Brixton Brothers (series). 12 year old Steve dreams of being a detective and has studiously read and re-read “The Baily Brothers Detective Handbook.” He knows everything about solving crimes, which comes in handy when he finds himself thrown into the middle of an exciting mystery. Every book in the series has tons of adventure, twist and turns, loads of intelligent humor and a satisfying ending. Can you tell yet that I love them? These would be a great choice for kids who like Encyclopedia Brown.
Under the Egg is part mystery, part treasure hunt, part friendship story and a suspenseful, engaging read. Just before her grandfather died, he whispered to Theodora, “There’s a letter… And a treasure” hidden “under the egg.” Theodora, whose mother is incapable of taking care of her, must find away to pay the bills and she starts her search for this mysterious treasure involving a work of art. Her hunt takes her all over New York City, into the past, and introduces her to a diverse group of new friends. The ending is slightly convenient, but the book is so engaging that everything works.
I still remember my 5th grade teacher reading The Westing Game to the class. I was completely riveted and it continues to be one of my favorite chapter books of all time. Mr. Westing, an eccentric millionaire writes his will as a game. The named beneficiaries must discover who murdered him in order to inherit his fortune. “Players” are separated into teams with clues. This unusual mystery kept my son on the edge of his seat, with its host of curious characters and surprising plot twists. I love how this book requires listeners to pay attention to details, thus exercising kids’ reading comprehension skills.
Books For Future Spies:
The Mysterious Benedict Society. These books are very popular and for good reason! They are impossible to put down. I find the plot hard to describe in just a sentence or two, there are so many puzzles and mysteries to be solved. The story centers around 4 children who answer an advertisement for gifted children and find themselves at the center of an elaborate adventure that puts all their mental strengths to the test.
The Apothecary (Series) by Maile Meloy. This is fantastic and both my son and I are awaiting the third book, due out shortly. The action is set in 1952 against the backdrop of the cold war. In London, 14 year old Janie befriends Benjamin, the son of a mysterious apothecary. Benjamin wants to be a spy and enlists Janie in his efforts. When his father disappears, Janie and Benjamin get caught up in a plot involving a magical book called the Pharmacopoeia, spells which allow humans to turn into birds, Russian spies, and unbelievable potions. I couldn’t put it down!
Books For Kids Who Like Mythology:
Has your kid been reading Percy Jackson or D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths? You could go the Rick Riordan route and pick up one of his other series of books. Or check out the two books below that contain heavy mythological elements. Or, try one of the thrilling adventures on my list of books for kids who like Percy Jackson.
Rick Riordan series:
- Greek Myth-inspired: Percy Jackson and the Olympians
- Egyptian Myths-inspired: The Kane Chronicles
- Norse Myths-inspired: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard
- Greco-Roman Myths-inspired: The Heroes of Olympus Paperback 3-Book Boxed Set
Icefall. Solveig and her brothers, along with berserkers set to protect them, wait anxiously through the winter, trapped in a fortress near snowy mountains and the frozen sea. While they wait for word from their father the king, it slowly becomes clear that someone amongst them is a traitor, but who? This is a thrilling mystery for kids who like stories that keep them perched on the edge of their chair in tense anticipation.
The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Trilogy). It’s been a while since I read this series but I was riveted by it. Two kids, Lyra and Will, cross parallel universes in a world where their souls (for lack of a better word) exist outside of their bodies as animal companions. The plot is complex and is heavily involved with philosophy and theology. It is a fantastic trilogy but I recommend it for ages 12 and up.
Books For Young Historians:
I’ve been reading books to create a stand-alone list of historical fiction books but these will keep your kids busy in the meantime. You can find more stellar titles on my list of books about African-American history.
The War that Saved My Life. Wow. This was a great book! Ada, born with a club foot, has never left the apartment that she shares with her younger brother and cruel mother. When her mother sends her brother out of London to the countryside at the start of WWII, Ada runs away with him. In the country they begin to make a new life with Susan, a woman who reluctantly takes them in. The three of them form a bond and Ada finally gets to truly live. This is one of the best books I have read in recent months, with interesting historical details and a compelling narrative voice.
Keeping Score. Maggie is a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan (off to a good start!) thanks to her fireman friend, Jim, who teaches her all about keeping track of the scores. When Jim gets drafted and sent off to Korea, he and Maggie correspond until he suddenly stops writing back. When he returns from Korea, Maggie is determined to help him heal. I liked how Maggie was persistent in her desire to help her friend, and made such an effort to learn about Korea. Her maps and notes are included in the story, which takes place over several years. You may be put off with the idea of your kids reading a book that involves the Korean War, but please don’t be. This book is quite special.
Books For Kids Who Like Fairy Tales:
I am a big softie for books with fairy tale elements and I have two more lists with books to choose from if your child likes these magical tales. Fairy Tale Chapter Books with NO Princesses! and Strong & Fierce Princess Chapter Books.
Half Upon a Time is the first book in a clever trilogy staring Jack, the son of “Jack of the Beanstalk” fame. Jack, firmly rooted in fairy tale world is trying to restore his family’s good name when suddenly May, a “punk princess” with a cell phone falls from the sky. It turns out May’s grandmother is Snow White and the two pair up to rescue the kidnapped grandma. Riley brings in material from several familiar fairy tales to create a story that is more of a fractured fairy tale than a retelling per se. But all three books are tons of fun, with humor, and clever plot twists.
Book of a Thousand Days is one of the books here in which the main protagonist is not the princess. Shannon Hale adapts Grimms’ fairy tale, “Maid Maleen.” In the steppes region a mucker, Dashti, volunteers to be shut up in a tower with Lady Saren, when that Lady refuses to wed the man her father has chosen. In the tower, Dashti and Saren survive, but Saren’s mental health deteriorates and Dashti plays her Lady’s role. They do finally escape the tower and Dashti’s efforts and wits save the girls.
Books For Kids Who Prefer Realism:
Not every kid likes a magical tale, or perhaps you want to encourage your child to try a new genre. These are two great books with which to start. You can also take a peek at Chapter Books to Teach Empathy, and Chapter Books about Diverse & Loving Families.
Out of My Mind. Full disclosure: I cried a few buckets of tears while reading this book. That said, I read it from a mother’s point of view and I believe a child’s point of view will be totally different. In fact, it is a very positive book. Melody is an 11 year old with cerebral palsey. She has never spoken and can perform almost no physical movement. The school and doctors claim she is also mentally disabled but her mother insists Melody is intelligent. Her mother is right. Melody has a photographic memory and is smarter than any of the other kids. Melody narrates her story, sharing her frustrations and triumphs, and when she gets a communication device and others can finally appreciate her for who she is, not for who she is not. This is another book I read straight through. I think it would be a great read aloud with your older kids, but have tissues ready, because even if your child is focused on Melody’s experiences, you will be bawling.
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. Unlike most of the books on this list, there is no fantasy element to this novel — no magic potions, no alternate universes or mythological creatures. It’s just plain good fun. The year is 1935 and 12 year old Moose and his family move to Alcatraz after his father gets a job there. Moose’s older sister is autistic and their mother attempts to get her into a special school while Moose gets wrapped up with crazy money-making schemes dreamed up by the warden’s daughter. This is fast-paced, realistic fiction that has big heart and big humor. There are two more books: Al Capone Shines My Shoes and Al Capone Does My Homework.
Books For Kids Who Love to Ride the Rails:
Not every kids outgrows his or her love of trains! Here are two books to capture their attention.
The Boundless, one of the critics’ favorite books last year, is an action packed adventure, just the kind of book that is currently grabbing my son’s attention. Will embarks on the maiden voyage of “The Boundless”, a train with 987 cars! One of those cars contains priceless treasures that nefarious individuals would like to get their hands on. Will teams up with colorful characters in order to save the train and the treasure.
On the Blue Comet. Like the Hogwart’s Express, the Blue Comet is a magical train that takes children on unexpected adventures. However, the Blue Comet crosses time and space, taking its riders back and forth between the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. You can only board the Blue Comet if you possess an intense need to escape your current situation. That’s exactly what happens when Oscar witnesses a crime. He is transported through time and must find his way back again. Suspenseful.
Books For Kids Who Wish There Was More Magic in the World:
I suppose these books could also be filed under “fantasy” above, but why not include a few extra favorites for you?
The Magic Half (2 books in the series — so far) is by the author of the popular Ivy + Bean series. Miri is sandwiched in between 2 sets of twins. Her family has just moved to an old house and one day after being sent to her room for inadvertently injuring one of her older brothers, she finds part of a set of old glasses. When she looks through it she is transported back in time to 1935 where she meets Molly, an orphan living with her rather sinister relatives. Miri and Molly must work together to help Molly escape “back to the future” and when they do they discover the most surprising thing of all! (I simply cannot give it away!)
Tuesdays at the Castle begins a 3 book series about a living castle. Every Tuesday the castle adds a new feature; it could be a room, or a turret. Celia spends her time exploring and mapping the castle. Celia’s brother is off at wizard school and when their parents travel for his graduation, the castle comes under attack. The castle aids Celia and two of her siblings as they try to keep the marauders at bay. The idea of a living castle is wonderful. I’m not sure I’ve even encountered such a conceit before (or at least I can’t think of another book that does the same) but it does rather remind one of the magic world of Hogwarts, although I’ve never thought of Hogwarts as “alive.” The story continues withWednesdays in the Tower and Thursdays with the Crown. Fridays with the Wizard is soon to be published.
For Drama Queens (and Kings):
The following are two books from my Theater Chapter Books list, which is the obvious place to send you if you want more books about the best business in the world.
Surviving the Applewhites. Jake has gotten kicked out of his last school and now has come to live with the eccentric, artistic, homeschooling Applewhite family. The father has taken on directing a local production of “The Sound of Music” and no one is more surprised than Jake when he finds he loves performing. I loved the quirky characters and the boundless energy of this book. When the family has to pull together to get the show up after they are blackballed by a local stage mom, the results are hilariously successful. I really enjoy how the story reinforces the necessity of cooperation when putting on a play. I also recommend this as a terrific read aloud. A 2003 Newbery Honor book.
Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate!. 13 year old Nate’s snappy narrative about his adventure in New York City auditioning for E.T. The Musical (yes, that’s right) is marvelous and incredibly funny. The scene in which Nate reads the “sides” during his audition had me laughing so hard I could barely see the words through my tears. I am currently reading the sequel, in which Nate experiences the ups and downs of rehearsing for a Broadway show and it is just as wonderful as the first. Also on my summer reading list for 8-12 year olds. A New York Times Notable Book of 2013.
Books for Artistic Savants:
Masterpiece. My kids LOVED this book, especially my 6 year old who couldn’t stop talking about the betrayal by one of the characters. Marvin, an artistically talented beetle makes friends with James, a young boy. The two become embroiled in an art heist when Marvin’s drawing is mistaken for James’s work.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret. This isn’t exactly a book about fine art, but the illustrations are such a key part of the story, it seemed like a great book to include here. Detailed pictures are just as essential (if not more so) to communicating the story as the text. My standard few sentences of a review are inadequate. Hugo lives in the walls of a Paris train station when his secretive life is interrupted by the connections he makes with an unusual girl and an elderly toy vendor. A magical, marvelous, intricate, mysterious and stunning book.
Books For Future World Leaders:
The Red Pencil contains some tough subject matter, but it is a marvelous book. 12 year old Amira lives in the Darfur region of Sudan on her family’s farm. It is 2003, just as war is breaking out in the area. She loves her family and dreams of going to school. When the Janjaweed arrive in her village, the survivors make the long walk to the refugee camp, where conditions are hard. Amira receives the gift of a red pencil and yellow notepad which becomes a catalyst of sorts, both for her spirit and for her mind. The most difficult scene in the book is when the Janjaweed terrorize the village and Amira sees the death of her father. The ending of the book leaves a lot of questions unanswered but curious and thoughtful children will want to learn more.
The Giver. It is rather ironic that a book about the dangers of restricting information would be challenged and banned, yes? 12 year old Jonas lives in “The Community” in which sameness is valued and everyone’s life is pre-determined by the elders. Jonas learns the truth, however, when he is designated as the next “Receiver of Memory”, the only person who is allowed to learn about the past and the outside world. There are some heavy issues in the book, but the message is clear: freedom for people to learn and follow their own path, despite pain and chaos, are more valuable than ignorance and safety. That’s a lesson I want to teach my kids.
Books for Future Comedians:
There are plenty of funny novels sprinkled throughout my book lists, but you can find a few more on my list of Funny Read Aloud Chapter Books.
Leon and the Spitting Image. When I was quizzing Kiddo on his favorite recent books for this post he said, “Mom, this was the book I couldn’t get my head out of when MorMor was visiting.” Translation: two thumbs up. I haven’t read this book, but here is what I’ve gathered from talking with my son and reading the reviews: This funny, rather wacky story is about 4th grader Leon, whose teacher loves sewing so much, she makes the kids in her class sew stuffed animals with perfect stiches. Leon fashions a doll that looks like Mrs. Hagmeyer and it turns out to have voodoo-like qualities. Kiddo agreed that this was a very funny read and reminded him of Dahl’s books.
Fake Mustache: Or, How Jodie O’Rodeo and Her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind. I have a bit of a soft spot for crazy long names (you’d know this if you know my kids’ names!) so how could I resist this one? 7th grader Lenny Flem Jr.’s friend, Casper, comes into an unexpected windfall and purchases a suit and fake mustache. Shortly afterwards a string of robberies takes place and Casper makes a grab for world domination. Sound absurd enough for you? One of the surprising twists of this books is that half-way through, the narration switches from the Lenny (male) to Jodie (female) and somehow Angleberger makes it all work brilliantly.
Books for Young Scientists and Naturalists:
This was a bit more of a challenge category for me, but the Calpurnia Tate books are a standout. For younger kids, try Early Chapter Books with a Science Theme.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. In 1899, Calpurnia loathes the expectations set for 12 year old girls; she’d much rather read Darwin’s The Origin of Species and catch and study wildlife with her naturalist Granddaddy. I loved this tale of a girl coming of age at a time when natural science and engineering discoveries were changing the world. There is now a sequel, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate.
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