I read A LOT. Like seriously, an embarrassing amount. It’s how I stay sane in the mundane world of motherhood. And, you know, it’s fun. I read fiction only (with a VERY few exceptions), mostly YA, fantasy, sci-fi, but also a lot of the classics, some historical romance, and (ahem) the occasional literary fiction. (My husband always wants to know what that means. I tell him it mostly means it’s modern and depressing. Am I right?) My kids also read a ton, so in the categories for their age groups, I’ve got some recommendations from them. They are smart and funny little nerdlings, so I feel confident endorsing their taste.
Since I am always on the hunt for more good reads, and coming across compatible lists is like discovering gold for me, I’ve been working for a while on compiling my list of my own recommendations. This is and always will be a work in progress. I’ve tried to organize it by genre and age appropriateness, but there is a lot of crossover, so check out all the categories. This list only includes title and author and a one line description, but I’m slowly working on adding book reviews to the blog, so as they are up, the links will be here, too.
If you liked Harry Potter (and if you didn’t, I can’t help you)
For kids of all ages (With a focus on the 7-11 crowd)
- A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket – Just so, so much word play and sibling awesomeness. Since these are two of my favorite things, I have been smitten for a long time. And both my girls (even the one who just turned 5) have loved these.
- Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket – First of a four-book series called All the Wrong Questions which is already genius before you can even get past the title. Classic Lemony Snicket style with a twist of mystery thrown in.
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis – Not like you wouldn’t have thought of these on your own, but in case you’re wondering, the first five books (original numbers) are as good as you remember (really wonderful and surprisingly short) and the last two…eh. Do not make the mistake of starting with The Magician’s Nephew. Also, this is the one case where the movies are as good as/better than the books.
- The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley – Gets five stars as my 9-year-old daughter’s favorite series ever. Fun and funny and full of fairy-tale references. [end of alliteration]
- N.E.R.D.S. by Michael Buckley – More by the author of The Sisters Grimm, this is a team of geeky kid spies of both genders which appealed to all of my little nerdlings.
- Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown (of Vader and Son fame)- This one is for the younger end of the spectrum, but you can’t go wrong with the Star Wars universe and kids who don’t have a clue.
- Warriors (Start with Into the Wild) by Erin Hunter – I really hate to do this to you, parents, but my 9-year-old and her darling nerdy friends are obsessed. Warrior cats living in clans in the wild. Elaborate world-building. Apparently hundreds of books. Great intro to future fantasy geekdom.
- On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson – Have you heard of this one? A little more overt Christian allegory than I would like, but I loved the tongue in cheek style and the fast-paced action.
- Leviathan by Scott Westerfield – Super steampunky, this is a fun kid adventure in alternate history. Imagine WWI if the Brits had giant flying airbeasts and the Germans had advanced mechanical walkers. Creative world building and interesting, well-developed characters.
- Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins – I’ve only read the first in this series about a boy who falls down into an underworld adventure with roaches and bats and rats. So you can see why I quit and also why kids would love it. Remarkably heart warming and (obviously) well-written.
- The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson- This is an odd one, but if you have a math-obsessed nerdling who isn’t as in to reading, I’d recommend giving it a try. Elaborate system of fighting with chalk drawings, more mentally stimulating than emotionally gripping.
- Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe- Do you remember reading this series as a kid? I hope so. Easy read for those who are just getting into chapter books, and they are so fun. Plus it inspires you to search for white carrots to freak your kids out.
- The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee – A motley collection of odd bright children? Mysteries to solve and puzzles to puzzle over? Yes and yes, please. This one is probably better for the 9 and over crowd (just based on difficulty, not on content).
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle- Just read these again as an adult and man, they are weird. But I can still remember reading about Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace for the first time all those years ago and feeling understood.
- In the Hall of the Dragon King by Stephen Lawhead – A more obscure pick from my childhood. These were my favorite books, my intro to the fantasy genre (went straight from here to The Hobbit), full of kings and sorcerers and brave young men who have to save them all. Obviously Christian, but leans toward world-view shaping rather than allegory or preachiness.
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster- Please tell me you know about this wonderful classic gem. So smart, so clever, and so resonant and wise. Kids may need to be older to get into it, but this is a book that will make your life better.
- Stick Dog by Tom Watson – Not remotely in the same genre as Harry Potter, but the concept is clever and the writing nimble and my 7-year-old who loved HP finds these books hilarious. Tom Watson makes a bid deal about how he illustrated this with his own self-proclaimed terrible drawings, and that’s the kind of creative awesomeness I want to support.
- The Brixton Brothers by Mac Barnett – A modern Hardy Boys. I haven’t read more than a page or two, but my 7 -year-old son ranks them at the top of his list. My favorite bit? There aren’t any brothers. It’s just one kid who is trying to imitate his detective heroes.
- The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau – These books are a really interesting look at human nature and the effects of culture on our choices. So yeah, even though they are definitely for kids aged 9-12, they are serious. A serious adventure. Good books, but not going to appeal to everyone.
- The Book of Sight by Deborah Dunlevy – What? You didn’t think I was going to recommend my own books? I’ve been living with Alex, Adam, Dominic, Logan, and Eve long enough that they’ve become some of my favorite people. Book Three will be out in just a few weeks! For the record, this is the category I would file these under. So far my happiest fans are aged 9-13.
If You Liked The Hunger Games (even if you hated the ending)
Some sci-fi and fantasy for those 13 and up.
- Divergent by Veronica Roth – You’re probably already onto this one, what with the new movie and all. Book 1 struck me as the best of the Hunger Games inspired novels. Loved the character of Tris, was fascinated by the world created. Then Book 2 annoyed me a bit, but delivered just enough. Then I hated Book 3. I’ll do a review sometime to explain. Suffice it to say, I was mad enough that I haven’t watched the movie. So read Divergent! But maybe don’t finish the series. You’ll be happier that way.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry – These books are curious. Each in the series is apparently unrelated and yet obviously in the same universe. They involve kids making discoveries about their world and breaking away to make life richer and fuller. They are more cerebral than most in the genre and move a bit too slowly. I enjoyed them without being moved by them.
- Matched by Ally Condie – More dystopian romance. There isn’t a ton of depth here, though it likes to pretend there is, but if you are a fan of the genre, you’ll enjoy the series. It isn’t annoying like some. Not much more to say about it.
- The 100 by Kass Morgan – 100 juvenile delinquents are sent down from their space station home to see if the post-nuclear-war earth is livable again. Complete with a truly smart, pragmatic, kick-a** heroine. I highly recommend this one. The new CW series is pretty darn good, but the book is better. I can’t wait for the next in the series.
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – The rest of the series is probably more for adults than teens, but this book is amazing. Amazing. If you want to know what it’s like to be an exceptional child, this is the book to read. I’m not worried about content on this one. I’m only waiting for my kids to be old enough to really appreciate it because this one is going to make them feel understood, hopefully right when they’re at the age where they need that.
- Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – It’s really hard to do the super-hero thing in a way that doesn’t feel recycled, but he pulls it off. Solid world, interesting characters, fast-paced action. Here’s one your sons will like as much as your daughters.
- Legend by Marie Lu – More dystopian romance, but this is my new favorite (after the Hunger Games). Mostly that’s because of the awesome combination of Thinker Female Lead and Feeler Male Lead (a la X-Files). This is one of my favorite things. I love the rational girls and their intuitive men (probably because it’s my own life dynamic). I can highly recommend all three books, and the ending was slightly unexpected and perfect. How often can you say that?
- Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer – Sci-fi novel about a girl and her family trying to survive in a world where the moon has gotten too close and it destroying everything. I LOVE survival novels and this one gets all the family dynamics just right. It’s a gripping read.
- The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker – Another survival novel, but this time the world’s rotation is slowing. Not quite as strong as Life as We Knew It, but I still really enjoyed it.
- Graceling by Kristin Cashore – This one is fantasy, about a girl with supernatural fighting skills. It does get a little steamy in places, and takes a moral posture at the end that left me dissatisfied, so maybe save this for older teens? But. The main character’s thoughts and motivations throughout most of the book were so resonant for me that on balance I’m calling it a keeper. For the record, I have read some of the sequels, and the author continued to impress me with her unconventional intelligence while making me a bit uncomfortable with her worldview. Bottom line – approach the series with your critical thinking turned on.
I’d Skip Them
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner – More dystopian sci-fi, this time with lots of boys. Here’s the thing: I really liked the world he created, and the plot isn’t bad. BUT. The writing is terrible. Like painfully bad. I kept forcing my way through and managed to finish two books in the series, but I just couldn’t do any more. It’s too bad. It’s an interesting concept. Maybe the movie will be better than the books.
- Delirium by Lauren Oliver – Yet another dystopian romance, this time about a society where love (and any feeling really) is outlawed. Yes, that’s just as cheesy as it sounds. And just by telling you the premise, you can already tell me everything about the book. Let’s just say it involves the discovery of poetry by teenagers. The writing is decent, but the content is so trite and cloyed that I can’t recommend it.
Don’t Do It!
- Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi – Okay, I started this thinking it was another series inspired by The Hunger Games only to realize that it must have actually been inspired by Twilight (which for the record, I didn’t read and never will). The first book was bearable because, though the plot was totally unoriginal, it focused on an exploration of a deeply damaged girl who was mostly trapped inside her mind. Then it completely jumps the shark in the next book and just keeps getting worse and worse as it drags you through endless teenage drama, abruptly redefines characters, and shamelessly rips off the X-Men. Igh.
If You Liked The Lord of the Rings (because obviously you did)
- The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (First book is The Eye of the World) – This series is 14 books long, so you’ve been warned. Length does not daunt me, but I also didn’t know what I was getting into when I started. It’s a pretty basic premise: young men set out on a journey to save the world, realizing along the way that they have special powers. The basic premise barely matters, though, since it’s the wonderful characters and extensive interplay of cultures that I loved. This really requires a lengthy review. Let me just say that first book is great, which helps you buy in. It’s 14 books, so yeah, it wanders and drags along the way (and there is a lot of braid tugging and sniffing…just read it and you’ll see what I mean). The author actually died before finishing it, but he left extensive notes and Brandon Sanderson came on board to finish out the last few books. Those last ones are fantastic. I really, really liked the ending. And I was so invested in all the characters. Just really, really great.
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson – I started on his books after reading his work on WOT. There are many and all very original for the genre. Mistborn is by far my favorite. The whole world works and is enough different from anything else to be captivating. There are people with special powers, but they’re different from what you’ve seen before and follow very logical rules. There is an evil lord to overthrow, but even that isn’t what it seems. It has a female protagonist, which always works for me, but there isn’t a female sensibility to it, which also works nicely.
- The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier (First book is Daughter of the Forest) – This one is an Irish mythology creation, which drew me in right away but may not appeal to those looking for strictly new world building. More strong amazing female characters here but with equally strong male counterparts. Some harsh life reality but without dwelling on it in that voyeuristic way you sometimes find. There is a love story element to each book, but the main focus is home and family and protecting that. I look forward to my daughters reading these some day.
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – An unfinished trilogy! I was completely swept up in the first two books and so disappointed that I would have to wait for more. There’s nothing terribly original in the world building here, but the writing is strong and the main character is completely compelling.
- The Belgariad by David Eddings (First book is Pawn of Prophecy) – A friend recently put me on to this one (Thanks, Mike!), though it’s been around forever, and I haven’t finished yet, so I can’t speak to the ending, but I am completely in. It also has a fairly tired premise (boy is special and doesn’t know, is taken on journey by powerful people to save world), but none of that matters while you are enjoying the warm and witty writing. More great characters (can you tell that depth of characterization is my favorite thing?), but really it’s the writing style that makes me want to just sink in and let the pages flip by.
One last thing about The Lord of the Rings. If for some reason you find yourself here and you haven’t read it, just walk away from this right now and go get started. I mean, really. Don’t even tell me you’ve seen the movies and haven’t read it. Don’t even tell me you’ve never read anything that long. Just do it. And for the record, I’m reading it to my kids (9,7,and 5) right now. It’s taking us a loooooong time and we’ve taken breaks along the way, but I’m doing my best to do all the voices and I’m steadfastly withholding the films until we get to the end. Remind me sometime to tell you the story of the moment they realized (SPOILER) that Gandalf was really alive. Let me just say, this is totally paying off in more really great memories.
A Short List of Fiction That Will Open Your Eyes
I sat down and asked myself, “What books have I read that opened me up to a new perspective in a such a big way that I was actually different after reading them?” I discarded anything non-fiction for now. Books that teach us things didactically are fine, but they aren’t usually the ones that stick with me. So these are all fiction. They are all un-pretentious. But I’m going to go ahead and claim that they are all so well-crafted that you will understand something after reading them that you never understood before. (Unless, of course, you have lived what the characters are living. In which case, I assure you, these books will make you feel understood.)
- The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – If you only read one book on this list, it should be this one. Four sisters. One mother. A move to Africa. Each chapter is told from a different point of view, and each of them has a distinct voice. See the third world from many perspectives, all of them real. READ THIS BOOK.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon – This one is short and reads fast. The solving of a mystery by a boy with autism. I can’t tell you how much I loved this book.
- Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery – Did I mention un-pretentious? This is a light one, and written from a romantic and patriotic point of view that might seem odd, but even after all the many heavy novels I’ve read about WWI since, this is still my favorite. It’s how the people at home felt. And the fervor and optimism that seems strange to us now is part of understanding them.
- The Brothers K by David James Duncan – Highly recommended for any adult. Serious issues. But such a great look at men: brothers, fathers, and baseball. Men will love it. Women should read it even if they don’t like it to better understand the men in their life. But it’s so well-written, you’ll probably love it for itself anyway.
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – Yep, it made two lists. So far. Understand your kids. Understand gifted people. Understand space aliens who are completely different than you think. It’s all win.
- The Fault in our Stars by John Green – I normally avoid this corner of the genre…most books about sick kids are the kind of manipulative schmaltz that I can’t stomach. This is not that. This is what it’s like to face a hard, hard reality and still be yourself. Loved it.
- Invincible, Indiana by Nate Dunlevy – When I moved to small-town northern Indiana from the west coast, I could really have used this book. It’s about high school basketball. If you went to high school in IN, you’ll get it. If you didn’t, you should read it anyway. A huge part of this country is made up of small Midwest towns. This will give you an a peek into what that world is all about.
Picture Books to Make You a Better Storyteller
This is not a comprehensive list of our favorite picture books. I’m guessing our taste is common enough that you’ve already heard of them all anyway. Nope, today we have just three picture books you should absolutely buy and absolutely read to your kids and also absolutely use to build your confidence to tell more of your own stories. Books to inspire you!
- A Dark, Dark Tale by Ruth Brown – This book couldn’t be simpler. “Once upon a time there was a dark, dark moor. On the moor there was a dark, dark wood.” On and on it goes just the same, leading you through the dark, dark world to a tiny little surprise ending. My kids loved this book at a wide variety of ages. It’s wonderful. But here’s the thing, guys. It’s all in how you read it. You just drag out the words “dark, dark” in your most ominous voice, letting the suspense build as they hang on your every word until the anti-climactic ending seems hilarious. YOU COULD TOTALLY DO THIS. You could make up a story that didn’t even have a plot or anything, and if you infused your voice with enough drama and paced it nice and slow, your kids would be on the edge of their seats.
- Bark, George by Jules Feiffer – You’ve probably heard of this one. It’s a genius little book. George has an eating problem and tends to talk like whatever he’s eaten. Very fun and very funny. Your kids are guaranteed to like it. What I think you should see is that this is just one very, very fun idea. What would happen if a dog made the sounds of things it had eaten instead of barking? Then with some expert use of repetition (and sure, some awesome drawings) it’s a wonderful, entertaining book. This is basically just our four step storytelling method in action. The character: George. The weirdest thing he could do? Make noises of things he’s eaten. Obvious problem caused? Mom freaks out. Obvious solution? She takes him to the vet and has things removed. YOU COULD TOTALLY DO THIS.
- My Lucky Day By Keiko Kasza – My kids still really love this book, which is about a pig who is “captured” by a fox and then bathed, fattened, and massaged before slipping away. In the end we find out the pig arranged the whole thing and it’s his lucky day, not the fox’s. I’ll post soon about the topsy-turvy method of inventing a story. This is a great example. You just take a really ordinary concept (in this case, the big animal capturing and eating the little animal) and turn it on its head. It’s not as hard as you may think. It’s a world where you eat dinner in the morning and breakfast at night or a mouse who chases a cat who chases a dog. YOU COULD TOTALLY DO THIS.
Classic Stories That Can Still Thrill An 8-year-old
- The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss – What is it about figuring out how to survive on a deserted island that is just so dang appealing? Whatever it is, my son agrees with me that this book is the best. I do recommend a children’s version of this to simplify the language a bit.
- Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – From the moment that Tom tricks his friends into whitewashing the fence for him, my kid was hooked. Tom is clever and funny and his adventures are exciting. Mark Twain totally understood what it was like to be a boy.
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett – This is the first classic my daughter got into. We did a children’s version of this one to cut out some of the lengthy descriptions, but the friendship aspect of this book is so wonderful that it drew her in right away.
- Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink – Definitely in the same genre as Anne and Laura Ingalls, but this little book has some more exciting action to it that got my daughter’s attention in a way that the others didn’t. She got a little bogged down in the middle, but she made it through and in the end told me that it was great.
Three Books Just For You, Mom
I already gave you a list of books to make you a better person. These ones are just to enjoy. No lofty goals. Nothing but relaxation. These books are romances, but not the kind that make you stutter over the title or hide the cover. These books take you backward and forward through time, but their nods to science fiction are brief, and you won’t get lost. These books will pull you in and help you lose yourself for while, but they aren’t total cotton candy. All three are thoughtful, so your brain can feel good as well as your heart. Let’s start with the one everyone’s heard of, just to get it out of the way, and finish up with one that no one’s talking about but which blew me away from the first page.
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon – This one is world-famous and about to be a new TV show, so if you haven’t read it, now is the time. You could call it a time-travel romance because it is, but once the main character travels back from 1945 to 1743, it’s really just historical fiction for the rest of the book. This is a LONG book. It’s gritty and real. The time travel element adds serious interest to the dilemma that Claire, our out-of-time heroine, faces. The romance is solid, but the book is just as much about Claire’s journey and about the history of the time and place (pre-uprising Scotland). There are seven books in this series, and the time travel plays into the others even more than this one. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t like the other books nearly as much. But you should read Outlander all by itself, even if you don’t want to go on. It’ll satisfy the part of you that wants to wander the Scottish highlands. (Oh, please. Don’t pretend you don’t have that part of you.)
- The Time Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – This one is also a bestseller (and 10 years old, which is making me feel ancient), but I’m still surprised how many people I meet who haven’t read it. Please read it. Then watch the lovely movie. But read it first. If you don’t know, it’s about a man who has a disorder that makes him involuntarily travel through time. It goes back and forth between the point of view of the husband and wife and handles the complexity of their relationship so beautifully. It will make you laugh and cry and sigh and cheer and then cry a little bit more. So basically, it’s perfect.
- Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto – I’m guessing you haven’t heard of this one, and I almost don’t even want to tell you what it is about because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Okay, here we go, no spoilers: Shelley and Max are young and happily married, when Max is unexpectedly killed. Three years later, a young man shows up at the widow’s door looking very like her dead husband and bringing information that will lead her on a search through Europe and through her life. This is a wonderful love story. It is warm and thoughtful and builds on itself as it takes you back and forth through history in a way that won’t let you put it down.