I know. I’m a bore about reading. A shameless bookworm myself, (see here for some good grown up reads) as a teacher, I expound endlessly the virtues of good quality literature for kiddiwinks.
I wrote a post some time ago with some of my favourite picture books for younger children, but if your sophisticated progeny are navigating the thrilling world of the chapter book, it can be tricky to help them choose something suitable.
As a primary teacher, I deal mainly in the under-11 populace, so the recommendations below are made with these in mind, though of course they’d be suitable for many in the early years of secondary school.
For the last few years, along with a colleague (and dear friend, I simply must add) I have run a Book Club for Key Stage 2 children, where we read a novel each month and then discuss over cake. It’s all very civilised. It is our life’s mission (possible hyperbole) to get the children of our school to love reading and it has been a pleasure to see how much some of the books we’ve read have delighted or affected or entertained or aggravated or amused the little bibliophiles. Of course, some meetings have been less of a success than others – the time when only the two of us turned up, and I hadn’t actually read the book, led to less lively debate than might have been hoped – but overall it’s been really worthwhile, and many of the books detailed below are those we have read together.
As teachers, we always say that it is better to be reading anything, than reading nothing, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that it wouldn’t be better that these clever little minds were soaking up a broad range of well-written literature rather than an endless series of the same old stuff. I am hopeful that in this list, there might be something new that will tickle your little reader’s fancy and introduce them to a new genre or new author.
It is slipshod of me to include only fiction – forgive me – but writing this list has been extremely difficult; there are more brilliant children’s books available than ever and I feel this only scratches the surface. I shall have to write a sequel.
Most of the books I’ve described below are most suited to independent reading by children of 8 or 9+, but would generally be appropriate to be read aloud to a 7 or 8-year-old – or younger – you know what you’re dealing with. I have included links to Amazon below so you can read more comprehensive reviews, but I hardly need say that most of these books will be available at your local – or school – library. Call in and check!
I cannot recommend Audible audiobooks highly enough. Most of these books are available there. Honestly, try a month’s trial – get a free book and then cancel it immediately, if you don’t think you’ll use it (it’s £7.99/month). I have a membership though and it’s saved many a tense car journey and fraught bedtime.
Chapter books for 9-11 year olds
Cogheart by Peter Bunzl is madly inventive and clever. A little Harry Potter-ish, though only in the way that it creates its own entire world; this time a world of mechanicals in an alternative Victorian era. It’s full of suspense and a twisty plot and went down a storm with the children I read it with.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio is super popular, and rightly so. The story of Auggie, a boy coping with life with facial disfigurement has been made into a film. I haven’t seen it, but I hear the book is still the best way to enjoy the story. It’s a good way in to talking to children about differences and tolerance and self-esteem and no end of other important topics, but most of all it’s a really good read.
My big girl is a massive fan of Jacqueline Wilson. Not all her books are appropriate for a 9-year-old just yet, I don’t think, but she absolutely loves the Victorian sagas – Hetty Feather et al, as well as The Butterfly Club, Candyfloss and Secrets. They’re all very issue-based from bullying to divorce to female suffrage, but they’re very readable and are what turned my girl into a fully-fledged bookworm.
Popular as Jacqueline is, she’s probably going to appeal more to girl readers – Who Let the Gods Out? by Maz Evans is certainly unisex. The main character is Elliot, who again is dealing with some proper problems in his home life – that are heart-wrenching to an adult – but it’s a funny read, and manages to make Ancient Greek mythology entertaining and accessible, which has got to be quite the feat. It’s good.
A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson is another popular read. Again, issues aplenty, but heart-warming and funny and sad. Both boys and girls seem to enjoy it.
Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens and its sequels are Agatha Christie for children. They’re great. It’s surprising how early the love for a good mystery(/grisly murder) begins and the Laura Marlin Mysteries and Kat Wolfe Investigates by Lauren St John and The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd are all quality examples.
Of course, on the subject of sleuthing, I’d be rather remiss if I didn’t mention Enid Blyton. It goes without saying that her books are old-fashioned and jam-packed with 1940’s prejudices… but she did write a good story and loads of the children I know still love her work. The Secret Seven is as good a place to start as any, and lots of 7 or 8-year- olds will be able to read them independently; if their reading isn’t quite at that level, they’ll certainly be able to enjoy listening.
The Famous Five is a step up, in terms of language, but is as full of jolly japes and ginger beer and Julian being as insufferably patronising as you remember. (Should your appetite for the quintet get a little out of hand, check out the beautifully 70’s TV series on YouTube, where Uncle Quentin seems to be played by Ben Folds.)
The Adventure Series are equally chock-a-block with villains and fatheads, and like the Famous Five, will leave you marvelling at the levels of child neglect permissible in Enid’s day, but again I find they’re still very popular.
For midnight feasts and gentle, systematic bullying and snobbery, Malory Towers can’t be beaten. My children love them all.
Journey to the River Sea is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. It’s beautifully written with humour and insight and detail and it’s a great story as well. I highly recommend it. In fact, Eva Ibbotsen is pretty faultless. The Dragonfly Pool (wartime, boarding school) The Star of Kazan (abandoned baby, reclaimed by aristocratic mother), The Secret of Platform 13 (a precursor to Harry Potter) and The Abominables (girl kidnapped by yetis, cares for them, tries to save them from peril) are all great.
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell has a similar setting to ‘Journey to the River Sea’ and again involves imperiled children making their way through the Amazon. I don’t truthfully think it’s as good as Eva Ibbotsen’s masterpiece, but the children I read it with absolutely loved it and boys being better represented in the main characters may swing it for some. And anyway, what do I know? It wasn’t written with me in mind. Other books of hers that have gone down a storm are The Wolf Wilder (girl moves from African farm to London school) and Rooftoppers (plucky orphans on Victorian Parisian rooftops).
The Treehouse Books by Andy Griffiths are good fun and won’t be too taxing for those for whom reading is a bit harder going. They’re appealing to both boys and girls and would be good to read to younger listeners.
I would absolutely love to know the books that are rocking the foundations of your library – please leave a comment or email me, I would be delighted to hear from you.