stack of wonder

Ultimate Children’s Booklist (Part 3: Upper Elementary to Highschool)

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C.S. Lewis

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Good books don't cease when you outgrow picture-books. (Though I'd beg to suggest – as I add more Polacco to my wish list – that there are some picture-books one never outgrows. 🙂 ) There are plenty of books for kids ages 10+ that are not only engaging, but thought-provoking, informative, and soul-stirring.

This age bracket includes the exciting genre of historical fiction, where the world becomes a stage and children can peek into scenes from other lands and times. We can also drink in more allegory and symbolism, which add depth appropriate for children's burgeoning maturity of thought and feeling.

Most of the titles here are absolutely “safe” for younger siblings to listen along (though some things may go over their heads). Where I feel something is genuinely too mature, that is noted with the title. Read-alouds are a great way to streamline topics for Mama, give older siblings practice with expression (if they're reading aloud instead of Mom), and introduce younger children to well-developed literature and language skills.

Read on!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Dahl/various) – I completely surprised myself when I fell for Dahl's own reading of his outrageously imaginative yarn. If the story has been spoiled for you by the awful TV adaptations, don't let your kids suffer the same fate. Dig up that cassette player in the basement to enjoy one of the many tapes still circulating (I haven't found Dahl's reading on CD, unfortunately). Midst the (shocking) goofiness, you'll encounter several useful lessons – as well as one of my favorite quotes on reading. CAUTION: Some of the consequences that befall the errant children might be scary to the youngest listener when taken literally. Also, as I dug around to find the edition with which I was acquainted, it became apparent Charlie was a rather divisive book in the literary world. There were many, many editions of Charlie; it was frequently revised and illustrated by several different artists. So please, especially if you come across one of the very earliest versions (which are purportedly even more fantastical), preview it, yourself. 🙂

Phantom Tolbooth (Juster) – This outlandish-at-first-glance tale is a fantastic way to introduce young readers to various premises of logic, all while gobbling up the tale to determine if Milo will ever find his way home. Not nearly as outrageous as Charlie, this story is a perfect creative foray for left-brained readers.


The Golden Goblet (Jarvis-McGraw) – Ancient Egypt, around 1400 BC. Pharaohs, papyri, and pyramids weave through a story of intrigue and honesty inspired by the 1905 discovery of Tuya and Yuya's tombs.


Between the Forest and the Hills (Lawrence/Molan) – Ancient Rome/Fantasy. The tiny town of Iscium thought its main headache was outdated baths. But when threatened with a Barbarian invasion, their world is turned upside down, and it is the unlikeliest of characters who rise to the occasion. Aside from being an exceptionally engaging story imagined during the declining years of the Roman Empire, there is a bonus treat for those who pay attention to names in this tale.


The Bronze Bow (Speare) – Ancient Rome/Early AD. Jewish boy Daniel seethes with anger at the brutal treatment of his people by the occupying Romans. He vows to join a local band of warring Zealots until news reaches his ears of a strange Rabbi who was once a carpenter from the good-for-nothing town of Nazareth.

King of Glory (Bramsen/San Martin) – One of the best chronological tracings of Biblical history in plain speech, for new-to-Scripture and need-a-revived-perspective readers alike. Richly illustrated. The style is laid out in 70 page-length “scenes” (with a fresh illustration for each story), making this a great devotional for a tween or teen.

Tales of Robin Hood Told for Children (or Robin Hood and His Life in the Merry Greenwood) (Woolf/Davie/Vredenburg) – There are plenty of Robin Hood collections, and this does a nice job balancing readability with a period-authenticity feeling. (Language includes “thee/thou” but not archaic spellings like “wyfe” for “wife”, etc.) It would make a good read-aloud, or an excellent literary exercise for comfortable readers.

Otto of the Silver Hand (Pyle) – Medieval period, 13th Century Germany. Young Otto's life is upended when his warrior-baron father reclaims him from the peaceful monestery which had hitherto been his home. When his father's violent past catches up to him, it catches Otto in the crossfire. Despite being subjected to great trials and tragedy, he not only overcomes them, but submits his heart to the only One who can heal and restore from the inside out. Gripping historical drama.

The Door in the Wall (de Angeli) Middle Ages, England. Robin is the son of a great lord, but he is ashamed of his weak legs and trembling courage. Trials abound with absent family, deserting friends, spreading plagues, and a treacherous castle seige. With the mentoring of a kind monk, Robin not only regains his physical strength, but finds his spiritual anchor, as well.

The Great and Terrible Quest (Lovett) – Medieval/fantasy. Young Trad lives a bitter life, until he discovers a mysterious, wounded knight. The knight convinces him to flee with him to a neighboring kingdom, frequently repeating a curious reference to “silver, hidden in the gold.” The strange knight, who was wounded on the head, cannot recall the entire message, their way is beset with danger, and their strength and trust is tested in harsh conditions. You'll have to wait with Trad til the very end to discover the secret meaning behind their great and terrible quest.

I, Juan De Pareja (Borton de Trevino) – Renaissance, Spain. This excellent historical fiction piece takes us to Spain during the Spanish Golden Age. The title character secretly apprentices under Diego Velázquez. Society's perceptions do not embitter Juan, nor does he let them keep him from honoring God with the gifts with which he has been endowed. While the story utilizes creative license for details for which we do not have record, Juan De Pareja was a real person, immortalized for us by Velázquez's portrait.

The Second Mrs. Giaconda (Later spelled, Gioconda) (Konigsburg) – Renaissance, Italy. Who was the woman who posed for what might arguably be the most well-known painting in the world? Meet Da Vinci through his servant Salai's eyes, and explore an answer to the question that has teased historians for centuries: Who was the real “Mona Lisa”?

Master Cornhill (Jarvis-McGraw) – London, England, during the period of of the Great Plague and Great Fire in 1665 and 1666. The city of London through the eyes of an undaunted street-wise boy and the exceptional characters who befriend him.

Last of the Mohicans (my favorite) or The Deerslayer (my husband's) – North America, 1700's. As mentioned in my author spotlight, Fennimore Cooper wrote his historical novels a few generations after the events portrayed, hence there is a bit of romanticism imbued in the accounts. That said, there is a great deal of history to glean, including of the Native tribes in the area, how they viewed each other and (especially in the Last of the Mohicans) how the French and English, in their quest to claim America, used tribal rivalries to their own advantage. Readers be advised, there are unvarnished accounts of warfare. The combination of some “mature” elements and 1800s English puts this in the highschool level.

Journey from Peppermint Street (DeJong) - This 1800's Dutch journey is more suited to older independent reading, with a young protagonist that makes it great read-aloud material. Seibren leaves home on a foot-journey with his Grandfather for the first time and, together, they share many exceptional adventures. NOTE: There is a bit of spiritualism (references to trouble-makers as “handballs of Satan” as well as Dutch folklore). While informative from a historical point of view, they may be confusing to young listeners, depending on your family's beliefs and your child's ability to discern literal vs. allegorical.

Diary of an Early American Boy (Sloane) – This incredible genuine diary from 1805 is enhanced with Sloane's authentic illustrations of tools and architecture from the period. Enjoyable and educational – another good book for boys (or anyone who loves history).

Rush Revere series (Limbaugh) – I was quite amused by Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, and since I read it in one day (speed reading through nursing sessions), I'm pretty sure it qualifies as engaging. 😉 I also learned something new about the first settlement of the Pilgrims that my history book had overlooked, so it gets definite points for that! Easy to read, slightly irreverent (but not inappropriate) at times. The children who time-travel are middle-schoolers, but I think it would appeal to older elementary students who are comfortable readers as well as being a quick and fun history supplement for high-schoolers (who just might pick up something new, as I did!) There are currently 5 titles in the series, though Pilgrims is the only I have read.

Caddie Woodlawn (Ryrie-Brink) – 1800s. Wisconson Frontier, based on true stories from the author's grandmother. Aside from being a Newberry Medal winner and wonderfully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (the 1973 edition), Caddie is dear to my heart for containing perhaps the best explanation of and homage for true femininity.

Jane Eyre Bronte Eichenberg

Jane Eyre (Bronte) – If I may soapbox for a minute, Jane Austin's titillating dialog and predictable plots (as much as they make great BBC dramas) can't hold a candle to the intensity of Jane Eyre, nor her prim and pining females stand in the presence of the heroine of Bronte's famous work. Romance? Yes. Dark, brooding anti-hero? Yep. Strong, feminine heroine? Oh, sister. Trials and tribultions? Abounding. Moral high ground? Yes. If you can, get a copy with Fritz Eichenberg's woodcut reproductions (pictured); it adds to the character. Reading in front of a fire on a windy night would also not be amiss for the setting. 🙂

Just David (Porter) – Now that I've tempted you with lurid details of Jane Eyre ;), let's shift style and visit my favorite Porter offering, what some have called Pollyanna for boys. The title character, bereft of all worldly goods, makes himself at home on the farm and eventually in the hearts of a time-worn couple, proving to them that worldly goods are not the only riches. If you're reading this aloud, keep your tissues handy.

The Great Wheel (Lawson) – A fascinating turn-of-the-20th-century tale with Lawson's signature illustrations. Ferris wheels are commonplace at today's fairs, but in 1893, Mr. Ferris designed the biggest wheel in the world to debut at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. This engaging story follows the grand adventure of building said wheel against the backdrop of the larger adventure of an Irish immigrant finding his way (and a bit of romance 🙂 ) in his new country

Rascal (North) – Rascal is a moving coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of the woods, family ties, and healing from loss. A true story and a great book for boys.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) – If you haven't read the unabridged story, you're missing one of the greatest novels of our time. Against the backdrop of racial injustice in the Depression Era South, Harper Lee exposes many layers of human prejudice in her Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative. One of my favorite threads follows Scout as she rises above her own misconceptions and acts out forgiveness for a perceived enemy. Far from being merely a scathing exposé of bias, Mockingbird sings the story of souls: the inquisitive Jem and Scout, the resolute Atticus, generous Tom, degenerate Bob Ewell, embittered Mr. Radley, unbridled Dill, slighted-but-loving Arthur. Don't skip this one. NOTE: References to rape (not graphic by today's standards) and themes of racial prejudice (including slurs) keep me from recommending this as a full-family read-aloud (unless your kids are older).

I am David (Holm) – World War ll, Holocaust. A young Jewish boy's harrowing escape from a concentration camp, his journey to freedom, and reflections on the people he meets along the way.

The Hundred Penny Box (Mathis/Dillon) – Georgia, USA. 1970s. Rich illustrations draw us into the young protagonist's world as he wrestles with generational clash and processing grief over the impending death of a loved one. This was marketed a children's book, but I think the subject matter better suits slightly older children who have already begun to encounter the subject matter covered.

The Giver (Lowry) – A futuristic look at where some of our current theories and practices might take us if not checked. Gripping and thought-provoking: Is there really such a thing as utopia? NOTE: There is a brief, coming-of-age moment (a discretely-worded wet dream) as well as an incident of euthanasia (of an unwanted child). For older readers.

Late Elementary and Up Series

Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis) – The Library of Congress category lists this as Fantasy, a categorization that does not do justice to incredible breadth of this exciting seven-book series. Any fantasy novel might contain time- or other-dimension travel, talking animals, or magic. A good one will deliver the reader more than a pleasant ride; perhaps some historical insights or allegories, maybe even a challenge to consider the effects of one's actions. It is the greatest novel that can not only provide all these, but provoke reader to examine “the thoughts and intents of [her own] heart.” It is this incredible reflective quality that is perhaps what makes the Chronicles so powerful. Themes of justice, honesty, courage, responsibility, greed, betrayal, self-sacrifice and forgiveness are just as relevant to readers today as when Lewis first penned The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1950, explaining why the Chronicles continue to appeal to children and adults around the globe to this day. If you don't read any other series with your children, make sure this one is on the list!

Viking Quest (Walfrid Johnson) – Vikings/invasion of Ireland/settlement of Greenland – An engrossing and satisfying quest that follows Irish lass Bree during the years of her Viking captivity. Introduction to Irish and Norse culture, with themes of self-sacrifice, forgiveness, courage, and faith in Christ in the face of trials.

Little Britches (Moody) – Early 1900s onward, following the author's life from the age of 8 to manhood. A family moves west and makes a home in what some would call a desolate plain. Despite hardships, however, the family's deep roots enable them to persevere and triumph over circumstances that would cause others to crumble. Has been called the Little House series for boys and the best collection of coming-of-age stories for young men. Sterling North, who wrote his own coming-of-age autobiography in the Newberry Honor-winning Rascal, was quoted as saying Moody's works “should be read aloud in every family circle in America.” NOTE: This is one series I have actually not personally read (I'm stepping out of protocol, here!), but after so many recommendations, I felt it would be amiss to omit what sounds like an incredible addition to any mama's – especially a boy mama's – book collection.

Black Stallion (Farley) – If you have horse lovers, this is probably one of the best series for older readers. Marguerite Henry's works, highlighted in my authors post, are different in style and also highly recommended. Unlike Henry, who wrote various stories based on true accounts, Farley's most famous fictional works follow a single horse and rider team, the famous desert stallion-turned-racer known as “The Black” and his chosen companion, the young man named Alex. Farely's knowledge of horses was exquisite, and it breathes across his novels. Throughout the series, Alex and The Black encounter adventure in many forms, but every book includes at least one heart-and-hoof-pounding race. For younger readers who prefer less words and more illustrations, look at Farley's Little Black series.

...and that is all she wrote! (or not...since my “add to the lists” pile has grown to over 40 titles... 😉 )

What titles would YOU add to a tween/teen list?

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