Everyone knows the importance of keeping kids reading over the summer. There are a number of programs right here in Memphis designed to encourage that very thing. But what to read? Assigned summer reading doesn’t typically begin until middle or high school (to which I say “thank goodness,” even as an English teacher), but the sheer amount of books in the juvenile/young adult section of the library and/or bookstore can be daunting, to say the least.
The library has lots of lists, particularly of award-winning books. If interested, I would direct your attention to the Volunteer Award first because those books have been voted on by school children in Tennessee. Also, novel. has a shelf dedicated to their summer reading suggestions, which are open to anyone, not just kids whose schools have a curated list.
But sometimes it’s helpful to have more personal recommendations. Rather than be overwhelmed myself, I asked people I know (so you don’t have to) for their top summer reading picks for upper-elementary aged kids. The following lists of books, series, and authors have been solicited from moms, teachers, and moms who are teachers.
The next time your precious sweethearts tell you that they’re bored this summer–and for some reason aren’t interested in the list of chores you have at the ready–hand them a book!
To me, the ideal summer read for kids is a high-interest book they can read and understand independently. I am all for finding things within a child’s zone of proximal development (teacher-ese for just beyond their ability enough to be challenging yet not too hard to be frustrating), but books that need additional context or explanation are much better for a read-aloud, either at home or in a classroom.
For that reason, graphic novels are ideal, particularly for reluctant or struggling readers. More than just comics (although there’s nothing wrong with those either), there is typically a strong storyline throughout the whole book, and the art is top-notch. Some suggested titles include:
- Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland and Mike Holmes: There is also a text-only version of this dragon fantasy series.
- The Babysitter’s Club and The Babysitter’s Club Little Sister by Ann M. Martin and various graphic artists (including Raina Telgelmeier): These retellings of the classic series stay quite true to the story.
- Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson: Like Calvin and Hobbes, although instead of a boy and his stuffed tiger, it’s about a girl and her best friend who is a unicorn named Marigold Heavenly Nostrils.
- anything by Raina Telgelmeier, such her autobiographical stories Smile, Guts, and Sisters (some of her later books start to approach more mature topics, so depending on the age of your reader, you may want to pre-screen any titles).
If you have a fast reader on your hands, a series is the way to go so the story doesn’t have to end. Fortunately there are plenty of highly recommended ones to try.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney: Written in comic form (but not quite a graphic novel), this series chronicles the life of a less-than-cool kid
- Way of a Warrior Kid by Jocko Willink: The main character in this series for middle grade readers becomes a warrior after his Navy SEAL uncle comes to visit for the summer
- The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau: This dystopian series is yet another in a string of dystopian series that comes HIGHLY recommended
- I Survived… by Lauren Tarshis (also a graphic novel collection): According to Tarshis, “each book in [the] series tells a terrifying and thrilling story from history, through the eyes of a kid who lived to tell the tale.”
- Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket: Have your child read the books about the unlucky Baudelaire orphans before checking out the hit Netflix show (unless you are also doing a tech-free summer).
- Land of Stories by Chris Colfer: My nine-year-old DEVOURED this fractured fairy tale series. (I continue to be in awe that it was written a decade ago by Kurt Hummel from Glee, who apparently reads the audiobooks.)
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan: Kids on quests are typically a winning formula, and this series that features Greek mythology is no different.
- Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich: Just as Laura Ingalls Wilder introduced pioneer life to readers through her descriptions of daily life, Erdrich introduces this same time period through the perspective of an indigenous Ojibwa girl
- Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger: Each book of this fantasy series involving mind-reading elves is longer than the last (like 800+ pages!), but apparently they are page-turners because my daughter can’t put them down.
Many friends suggested just authors themselves, recommending anything and everything in their collection. Just as with books in a series, if your kids find something they enjoy, it’s easy to find a new book to read.
- Kate DiCamillo: Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, etc.
- Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG, etc.
- Louis Sachar: Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Holes, etc.
- EB White: Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Trumpet of the Swan, etc.
- Stuart Gibbs: Spy School series, Moon Base Alpha, etc.
- Alan Gratz: Ground Zero, Refugee, etc.
- Andrew Clements: Frindle, Lunch Money, Keeper of the School series, etc.
- Sharon Creech: Walk Two Moons, Love That Dog, etc.
These books come highly recommended but are not part of a series or written by one of the prolific authors listed above.
- The Wild Robot by Peter Brown: A survival story with a twist: a robot finds itself on a remote island.
- The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: Historical fiction set during World War II.
- The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies: Two siblings have competing lemonade stands in a book that sneaks in some business and economic lessons.
- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman: Spooky book about a boy who lives in a graveyard.
- The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead: A story about divorce with an LGBT parent.
- The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin: The narrator, a girl with autism, deals with the death of a friend
- Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk: Great for nature lovers, the heroine of this story adapts to her new mountain home.
- Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan: Two friends from very different backgrounds team up on a common mission.
- Rules by Cynthia Lord: A girl who tries to teach her autistic brother the “rules” learns a lot about what is normal when she meets some new friends.
Several friends also enthusiastically named beloved books from their childhood. I know I certainly have some favorite books I can’t wait for my children to read. A word of caution with recommending these books to your reader, though. A teacher friend astutely pointed out that many of the books we enjoyed as kids haven’t aged as well as we’d like to think and just might not be as interesting to your child. I’d also add that sometimes these are the books that get read and discussed in school, so your kids might encounter them again in a classroom setting. But reading these books together is a great way to share your favorite classic titles if you can’t resist passing them on.
Hopefully these laundry lists of titles will help your reader fall into a book s/he loves this summer. We are always on the hunt for our next book, so please share your own recommendations in the comments!
**HUGE thanks go out to all who contributed to these lists! We have so many things to read now.**