Summer Reading: Ten Children’s Titles to Steal from Your Kids
In book-crazy families, sharing summer reading material is nothing new. Parents enjoy kids’ books alongside their children during bedtime reading; high school students filch J.D. Salinger from their parents’ collections; mothers furtively swipe young adult paranormal romances from their teenage daughters. But while young adult fiction is all the rage among many adult-adults, middle grade novels (written for ages 8-12) rarely make it into serious rotation with the grown-ups. Which is a shame, because many middle grade novels are excellent reads for kids and adults alike.
In honor of summer reading season, have a look through the following list of great children’s books that are sure to appeal to adults as well. All of the following—a mixture of classics and newer releases—are common features of elementary and middle school summer reading lists this year, and with their remarkable depth and wit, all are worthy of spots on your summer reading list as well. Enjoy!
1. The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs
Supremely creepy and imaginative, this gothic mystery—originally published in 1973—is perfect for warm summer reading nights that could use a few chills. When young protagonist Lewis Barnavelt’s is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan after Lewis’s parents’ untimely death, he quickly discovers that Jonathan is a warlock. The problem is, he’s not a very good one—certainly not good enough to combat the evil spirit that Lewis unwittingly releases while trying to impress a new school friend. Set in the titular ticking house and full of surreal Edward Gorey illustrations, this novel is both strange and sweet, evoking the genuine awkwardness of childhood alongside the sinister thrill of dark magic.
2. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Chances are you’ve read this one before, or at least seen one of its many adaptations. But return to it as an adult, and you may be surprised and delighted by its beauty and subtlety. Unlikeable child protagonist Mary Lennox’s change from a spoiled, unhappy brat into a kind, open-hearted girl is an eye-opening commentary on childhood and its challenges, and the theme of nature’s transformative power is all the more meaningful for adults caught up in the daily urban or suburban grind. As Mary learns to be more appreciative, compassionate, and confident, readers will also be inspired to slow down and use this summer reading as an opportunity to take stock of their own inner lives.
3. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Another childhood classic, again more meaningful upon a rereading in adulthood. The story of a young boy named Milo on a magical rescue mission in the Kingdom of Wisdom, this book appeals to children for its zippy plot and spot-on tone, as well as its charming illustrations by Jules Feiffer. For adults, however, its witty puns and literary wordplay make it even more fun than you might remember. From Milo’s visit to the world’s word marketplace to his tribulations in the Mountains of Ignorance, The Phantom Tollbooth is engaging and philosophically rich for readers of any age.
4. Son by Lois Lowry
Chances are you’ve read, or at least heard of, The Giver, Lois Lowry’s acclaimed middle-grade novel about a boy who becomes the repository for his entire community’s understanding of life, emotion, and death. What you may not know is that The Giver is actually the first book of a four-part cycle, which Lowry completed with the release of Son in 2012. Returning to the original novel’s setting, Son delves deeper into the questions of identity and responsibility raised in the previous books, and through immersing readers in an outwardly idyllic alternate reality, it coaxes them to confront their own assumptions about such thorny subjects. It’s emotionally dense, ethically complex, and just as relevant for adults as it is for children.
5. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Since its 2012 release, Wonder has garnered praise from literary communities of every stripe, and with good reason. Its protagonist is an elementary school student named August who was born with a rare facial deformity, and the book follows his experiences in fifth grade—his first year of conventional schooling following several years of home schooling. Neither melodramatic nor sugar-coated, this novel—which is told from the perspectives of both August and several of his family members and classmates—paints a comprehensive and deeply resonant picture of how communities cope with difference and individuality.
6. The Sally Lockhart books by Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman is best known for the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy, but he’s also the author of a dark, gritty series of mystery novels set in the far-from-magical world of Victorian London. Starting with The Ruby in the Smoke, Pullman introduces readers to Sally Lockhart, a scrappy sixteen-year-old girl who is attempting to unravel the nefarious mysteries that surface after her father’s death. Full of menacing figures and historical intrigue, Sally’s adventures are always intricately plotted and fraught with suspense, making them perfect choices for anyone’s summer reading list.
7. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
A novel about the fact-based trials of a young Lithuanian girl deported to Siberia in 1941 may not seem like a light enough choice for summer reading, or even for children at all. But Ruta Sepetys’s even-handed debut novel is about the human experience and spiritual resilience above all else. Its combination of harsh historical detail and vivid characters makes it both page-turning and thought-provoking, and while its extremity provides a sort of escapism, it also remains thoroughly grounded in its difficult reality. Transporting and illuminating, it’s perfect for summer reading.
8. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
You might be familiar with Martin Scorsese’s well-received adaptation of this 2007 novel, but the original work of historical fiction is well worth checking out as well. The novel tells the story of real-life French filmmaker Georges Méliès and his fictional relationship with two inquisitive children, and while the story’s eccentric mystery is compelling on its own, what really elevates this book is Selznick’s extensive illustrations. Neither a picture book nor a graphic novel, the book’s images and text share its storytelling burden equally, creating a uniquely immersive reading experience. With summer reading comes the freedom to bask in the worlds that books create, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret offers an ideal opportunity for doing just that.
9. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Although I Capture the Castle was first published in the 1940s, its spunky teenage narrator and her observations about family and growing up still feel completely contemporary today. Similarly, it’s hard to peg an intended age group for this novel; it might appeal as easily to first graders as it would to grandparents. Cassandra, an aspiring writer who tells her story through a series of heartfelt and hilarious journal entries, lives in a crumbling castle in the British countryside. Her novelist father once had a great deal of money, but now the family lives in poverty and is at the mercy of the newly arrived (and handsome) American heirs to their rented estate. Sharp and authentic, this novel is a winning combination of familiar emotion and fresh insight.
10. Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
Rebecca Stead is perhaps best known for the excellent When You Reach Me, her 2010 Newbery Medal winner. But 2012’s Liar & Spy is, in its own way, even more immediate and haunting, despite its mundane setting and lack of the science fiction elements that When You Reach Me features. Seventh grader Georges is struggling with moving to a new apartment and losing his best friend when he meets Safer, a home schooled loner who takes Georges on as his Spy Club protégé. The mysteries that the two new friends explore are compelling, but even more so is the boys’ friendship itself. As they each struggle to define who they are and what they care about, it becomes clear that these middle school dilemmas are more universal than they initially seem. From Georges’s beautifully meandering narration to the social hierarchies of his school, every element rings perfectly true.
The above titles are just a sampling of the many excellent children’s titles you might want to check out this summer. For more summer reading suggestions, take a look at the reading lists provided by the Association for Library Services to Children.
Are you planning to incorporate any children’s titles into your summer reading? And what have your experiences been when it comes to rereading childhood favorites? Share your thoughts in a comment!