Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Classic fiction for preteens and young teens

My daughter is in fifth grade but supposedly reads at the eighth-grade level. Some teachers say it is hard to find fiction that is content-appropriate for younger readers who are able to read above their expected age and grade. Recently I have been trying to supply my daughter with some classic and/or older (pre-1960s), best-loved novels to read in place of the too-easy, age-inappropriate, or scuzzy "contemporary" novels supplied by teachers or libraries (see my earlier rant here).

Here is the start of my list, which I thought I'd share with you. The Accelerated Reading level of each book (roughly corresponding to grades in school, but you need to take them with a skeptical grain of salt) is included in parentheses, where known. My list offers a wide range of reading levels from which to choose for both boys and girls.

Happily, my daughter is eager to light into this list, as she is already familiar with the film versions* of several of these stories, and is willing to be steered toward better books and challenging vocabulary. (She is amazed and delighted, for example, to learn that the book version of The Wizard of Oz is so very different from the beloved Judy Garland movie, and can't wait to see what L. Frank Baum will reveal next!) Many of these classics can be purchased new for around $4 in paperback; some you can find for very low prices in used book or antique stores. Surprisingly, almost all of these books on my list below are in my daughter's elementary school library. Perhaps the teachers and librarians who say it is hard to find appropriate literature for advanced younger readers have forgotten these old chesnuts still exist.

Beware that some book publishers try to pawn off abridged, dumbed-down, or excerpted versions of older classics without being very clear about it. Hold out for the unabridged, original versions--the real thing--good literature and entertaining, challenging, educational reads. Reading aloud to children from challenging books is a great way to acclimate them to tackling such books on their own.

Of course, a kid diving into some of these older books needs someone to chat with about unfamiliar words, outmoded practices, different places and cultures of olden times, and background contexts for the new ideas he or she will learn that won't be covered in the school classroom setting. A parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle (with or without a teaching credential) usually works just fine in this role.

Do you have any other good classics to suggest for preteens and younger teenagers? Please add them in the comments below.

My links here to editions are for further informational purposes only; purchase these linked editions at your own risk....

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott (6.2/8.2?)

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott (6.4)

Little Men by Louisa May Alcott (8.1)

Little Women and Good Wives (Parts 1 and 2) by Louisa May Alcott (8.6 & 8.8)

Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott (You can tell I liked L.M. Alcott, and read all these books)

The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Anderson* (1952 Danny Kaye movie is memorable!)

Peter Pan* by James Barrie (7.7)

The Wizard of Oz* by L. Frank Baum (7.0/8.1?) (and others in the series)

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (6.0)

A Little Princess* by Frances Hodgson Burnett (7.6)

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (7.5)

The Incredible Journey* by Sheila Burnford (7.6/8.5?)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass* by Lewis Carroll (7.8/8.3?)

Pinocchio* by Carlo Collodi (original classic unabridged version)

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (9.2)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (6.7)

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (9.5)

Hard Times by Charles Dickens (9.3)

Oliver Twist* by Charles Dickens (11.5)

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (9.2)

Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge (8.0)

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (8.8)

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (11.3)

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (6.6)

The Moffats by Eleanor Estes (6.4)

Johnny Tremain* by Esther Forbes (8.1)

Follow My Leader by James Garfield

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

The Wind in the Willows* by Kenneth Grahame (8.3)

The Complete Grimms' Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm (may be too Gothic for your child)

The Jungle Book* by Rudyard Kipling (5.5)

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling (4.9)

Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (5.5)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe* by C.S. Lewis (5.8) (and others in the series)

The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle* by Hugh Lofting (5.4) (and the sequels, if desired)

The Call of the Wild by Jack London (7.3/8.0)

White Fang by Jack London (7.7)

The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle Treasury by Betty MacDonald (6.6?)

Winnie the Pooh stories and other books by A. A. Milne (the non-Disney version)

Gone With the Wind* by Margaret Mitchell (7.1) (I first read this in 6th grade)

Anne of Green Gables* by L.M. Montgomery (7.6) (and the rest of the "Anne" books if desired)

My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara (8.2)

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma B. Orczy (8.0)

A Dog of Flanders* by Ouida (see also this beautiful film for older children)

Pollyanna* by Eleanor H. Porter (5.5)

Pollyanna Grows Up by Eleanor H. Porter

The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle (8.0?)

Men of Iron by Howard Pyle (9.0)

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood* by Howard Pyle (8.2)

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (7.3/7.7?)

The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney (6.8/7.9?) (and the sequels if desired)

Heidi* by Johanna Spyri (8.1)

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (9.5)

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (7.6/7.8?)

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (8.0)

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (my daughter wants to read this after watching the musical, "The King and I")

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (10.0)

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor (5.0) (and the sequels, if desired)

Mary Poppins* by P.L. Travers (7.4) (and the sequels, if desired)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (8.0)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (8.3)

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain (8.4)

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea* by Jules Verne (7.6)

Charlotte's Web* by E.B. White (6.0)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm* by Kate Wiggin (8.9)

By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder (6.2)

The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder (5.5)

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (6.7)

The Swiss Family Robinson* by Johann Wyss (8.9)

I also like the Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter books, but they are too recent to be called "classic children's literature" yet--though I think they will eventually make the pantheon. Some of my suggestions here you may feel are hopelessly outmoded, insufferably irrelevant, downright sappy, or lacking literary heft. You may have a point on a few of these, but remember, it is not an adult, but a child who is reading these books for the first time, with fresh eyes. Acknowledging this, do feel free to comment and suggest better titles.

I must say, putting this list together makes me long to curl up with a good book!

And I can't help but think: Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of passing out lists of books to children for "Banned Book Week," (or anemic attempts at lists of "all-time classic books" replete with modern and postmodern forgettables) librarians and teachers routinely passed out lists of books to children in every grade for "Reading Your Way to an Excellent Education Through Classic Literature Week"?

UPDATE: More great suggestions can be found here. And also here. See also Diane Ravitch's book, The Language Police, which contains the substantial "Atkinson-Ravitch Sampler of Classic Literature for Home and School" as Appendix 2, and Books to Build On: A Grade-by-Grade Resource Guide for Parents and Teachers, Holdren and Hirsch, editors (The Core Knowledge Series), for suggested reading in all subjects for grade levels Kindergarten through sixth grade.

Labels: ,


  • At Monday, November 20, 2006 12:56:00 PM, Anonymous tansy said…

    how about the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor? also, Lad: A Dog is definitely fiction, ask anyone who owns a dog!!

  • At Monday, November 20, 2006 4:35:00 PM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Oh, I LOVED the All-of-a-Kind Family books as a kid! I had forgotten about them. I will definitely check them out--though I think they might be aimed toward 4-8 year olds?

    You're probably right about the LAD books too--it's been a long time since I read them.

    Thanks so much for your comments.

  • At Monday, May 19, 2008 3:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I agree about classic lit for preteens. In the seventh grade, I read the entire series of Oz books and LOVED them. Well, okay, that was 1963! My kids (around 5th and 7th grade) loved having the original "Heidi" read to them -- we were all surprised how different it is from the shortened versions and the movies. Thanks for your list! Tassy in Texas

  • At Thursday, February 03, 2011 12:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What about anything by E. Nesbit like the fabulous 5 Children and It or The Phoenix and the Carpet?? All my precocious readers have loved them. Also I never see the Freddy the Pig series by Walter Brooks on any lists....wonderful life lessons artfully tucked into amusing stories featuring Freddy the poet, detective and adventurer who readily admits his flaws.

  • At Thursday, March 10, 2011 5:05:00 PM, Blogger Carla said…

    We might be from the same planet. Thanks for this list. I fit your description but just a few years older. I write a column for the Washington Times called Truth be Told if you feel like checking it out.

    My 10 year old is so burnt out on the school library, which is devoid of any classic.

  • At Friday, March 11, 2011 9:16:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Thanks to all my commenters for writing and adding suggestions. It is so heartening to know there are other parents out there who share my feelings--and other kids who will be reading the classics.

  • At Sunday, April 03, 2011 11:31:00 AM, Blogger Rhonda Clark said…

    What about the first and original "Boxcar Children," not the mystery series (at least I think it's a mystery series). I loved that book.

    May be geared for more elementary age.

  • At Sunday, April 03, 2011 12:07:00 PM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Oh, I remember my third-grade teacher reading us The Boxcar Children and how I loved it! I had forgotten that book. The original is still available:

  • At Friday, July 08, 2011 5:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I also suggest the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I has looked at the Young Adult section in my library and less than 20% doesn't contain adult content or demons,zombies, etc. A member of our family is at the age (13) where these things become a problem but he is even worse off than your daughter as he has a collage level reading level and burns through books. He is simply appalled at the state of all books written from Harry Potter onwards with some exceptions. Thanks for the help.

  • At Saturday, July 09, 2011 6:35:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    That's a good suggestion.

    The Wall Street Journal has recently run some editorials on how bleak and creepy modern fiction for "young adults" (12-18) is. I think parents are wise to steer kids away from most of it:

    You have to wonder who is driving the demand for this stuff. What consumers are buying it? Is it being pushed by bookstores, librarians, and teachers? Or mostly by parents?

  • At Sunday, July 10, 2011 2:13:00 PM, Anonymous Tracy said…

    "Where the Red Fern Grows" -excellent story of the love a boy has for his two dogs set in Depression-era Ozarks. I read this every year to my students and they love it.

  • At Sunday, April 20, 2014 12:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thank you SO much for this excellent list of books. My daughter is 10 and a gifted reader. Although this year her scores dropped in reading comprehension and I feel it's because of the lack of current decent literature. We can't go to the bookstore because books like Dear Dumb Diary and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are prominently displayed and marketed to the hilt while the good literature is hidden in the cracks. We are going to a Library Book Sale and I set out to research classics books for preteens and voila I find your blog and my job is done. Thank you again.

  • At Monday, April 21, 2014 8:50:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Another good classic is THE YEARLING by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

  • At Monday, April 21, 2014 8:51:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    It is so nice to know there are still parents willing to raise exceptional children!

  • At Friday, January 16, 2015 1:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Other great books are Swiss Family Robinson (I was fascinated by their innovation through the whole book as a child), and The Rescuers (original story). Almost anything illustrated by Garth Williams is wonderful (he illustrated a Cricket in Times Square, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and many others).

  • At Thursday, October 08, 2015 7:09:00 PM, Anonymous lauradodson said…

    Thank YOU!


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home