The summer months are upon us and, as always, parents and educators are searching for a way to keep kids engaged and prevent them from losing what they have learned during the previous school year over the coming weeks and months.
With an additional three month gap added to the academic calendar due to COVID-19, this is more important than ever. And one of the activities proven most effective at helping kids retain learning also happens to be one of my favorite pass times – Reading.
As much as I wish it were so, reading may not be your child’s favorite recreational activity. Incorporating reading into a regular weekly or daily routine, and showing your child how much you enjoy reading yourself can be incredibly useful. But finding a book that your child resonates with and is actually interested in, even if it is at a lower reading level.
With that in mind, I have pulled together a diverse list of books in different age ranges, subjects, and genres. If you happen to have an avid reader at home, you can always check out last year’s list HERE. But hopefully, this list should at least give you a few good reads to start with
Early Readers (K-2)
At this age range, most books are best enjoyed sitting in the lap of an adult who carefully sounds out the words, makes silly voices, and occasionally, just occasionally, asks them if they recognize a word.
Hair Love by Mathew A. Cherry is an adorable story that has recently been made into a Pixar Short. Readers can follow along between the animated feature, which uses no words or text, and the beautifully written poetry in the story itself. Being able to entice kids with a follow-along video is something that has been proven to help encourage reluctant readers.
Lullaby by Langston Hughes is a beautifully illustrated night time tale about the love between a mother and her child. Great for bedtime and soothing tiny minds, it is perfect for reading over and over and over again.
Sulwe by Vashti Harrison is visually stunning with an important message. The story centers on self-love and learning to appreciate your own qualities while hitting on bullying, colorism, and the importance of family.
I am Loved by Ashlee Bryan is a collection of short poems with bright and vibrant illustrations that are sure to catch kids’ eyes. The poems themselves all center on parents’ love for their child but are reminiscent of some poems and books by Shel Silverstein, who we mentioned in last years reading list.
Hidden Figures by Margaret Lee Shetterly is another great picture book inspired by a movie and, ultimately, real-life events, that gives women a strong voice in the Science and Engineering fields at a time when they really were expected to have none at all.
Elementary Readers (2-4)
The following list includes mostly more text-dependent picture books as well as lower-level chapter books better suited for kids between 2nd and 4th grade depending on proficiency. Again, your kid will let you know when a book is too difficult for them. But don’t be afraid of letting them ready ‘easy’ books that are below their level or ‘hard’ books that they might get stuck on. As long as they are interested and curious there is no such thing as a book at the ‘wrong level’.
I can be anything, Don’t tell me I can’t by Diane Dillon is a personal favorite of mine as it echoes a lot of the same themes I use in my own kids books (The Girl and Her Stars in particular). Particularly the inclusion of STEM and STEAM options for little girls. This is an inspiring book and a definite add to the collection.
Imani’s Moon by Janay Brown-Wood is a beautiful story about a little girl with big dreams and her journey to pursue them. The story is backed by myths and cultural stories rooted in legends among the stars and. This is a wonderful transition book from picture to chapter as it is longer and has more text than many traditional picture books, but is still a step below a chapter book. 550L
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe recounts an African legend with beautiful illustrations. The story highlights the value of kindness and a good heart over pettiness and vanity and is a wonderful story for young girls especially but holds value for everyone.
Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson is another text heavy picture book for intermediate readers. It is a retelling of the events of the Civil Rights Movement from a much younger perspective and offers readers a unique look at those events.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was a recommendation from a friend. A whimsical retelling of the first snowfall of the season, the experience is something I can’t really relate to (again, I am from Florida) but have been dutifully informed that the book is a perfect cozy winter afternoon tale.
Grandpa Cacao: A Tale of Chocolate from Farm to Family by Elizabeth Zunon piqued my interest not just because of its cute pictures, but because of the underlying messages of family history, sustainability, family, and exploring your roots.
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete is an absolute must-read for families with children of special needs but is an amazing story that would benefit all children. Told from the point of view of Charlie’s sister as the family goes through the process of realizing and diagnosing Charlie as Autistic, the story paints a childlike view and explanation of many of the different ways in which spectrum disorder can affect a child’s behavior, but never once diminishes the families love for Charlie or his love for them.
Early Middle Grade (4-6)
By fourth grade, most readers have moved onto at least early chapter books, which is reflected in the following selections. These books are still a relatively easy read and many offer in chapter illustrations, but are longer and more story driven than the picture books that came before.
Miami Jackson Gets It Straight by Patricia and Frederick McKissack focuses on the misadventures of Miami Jackson as he enters his final five days of third grade. The perfect transition book from picture to chapter, this illustrated story of full of silly moments and wacky hijacks as well as a few thoughtful insights.
The Watsons Go To Birmingham was written by Christopher Paul Curtis, the author of children’s classic ‘Bud, not Buddy’. This equally heartfelt classic captures the story of a loving family tossed into tragic circumstances as the entire family is driving down to Birmingham. First published in 1963, the book has remained a favored classic for almost 60 years for a reason.
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston is a recounting of the real-life efforts of Arturo Schomburg, who collected the songs, stories, music, and literature from his culture and fought to preserve them for future generations. His work would eventually become one of the most visited halls in the New York Public Library.
Celeste’s Harlem Renaissance by Eleanora E. Tate is honestly the kind of early chapter book that I would have gravitated towards personally in elementary school. Following the quite bookish Celeste, as she moves from her safe and comfortable surroundings in North Carolina to live with her big movie star aunt in Harlem. She is in for a whirlwind of scary intimidating buildings, unfamiliar sights and sounds, and a whole world of new experiences as she discovers the heartbeat of Harlem.
Middle Grade 5-8
As kids transition into middle school, the books they read will increase in difficulty. This means both in terms of the language used and the topics discussed. While children’s books can touch on sadder moments, they rarely linger there. Good Middle-Grade fiction should be able to dive headfirst into the overwhelming tangle of emotions and real-world problems that preteens will face. The list below embraces that.
Blended by Sharon M. Draper is an excellent transition book between elementary and middle grade fiction. Centering on 11 year old Isabella as she is torn between the split household of divorced parents from different backgrounds. As each of those households begin building new lives with new families, Isabella struggles with understanding where she belongs.
Love Like Sky by Leslie C. Youngblood is difficult to capture in words. This story, which focuses on a young girl trying to find her place in a blended family, waxes almost lyrical in it’s writing. Our main character must balance searching for the approval of her new step sister and her relationship with her younger sister. It truly is one of a kind.
New Kid by Jerry Craft is a graphic novel that is a great way to transition more reluctant readers from picture books to fully fledged chapter books. A classic coming of age story, New Kid follows, as perhaps you may have guessed, new kid Jordan Banks as he struggles to fit into his new school when he really wants to do nothing but draw comics.
The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley is a quirky, almost wayside story kind of tale drawing from multiple points of view woven together by a dark mystery. All these dissonant characters must come together if they want to solve the mystery and save their neighborhood. Imagine The Goonies meets West Side Story. With heart, compassion, and more realism than you would expect, Natasha Tarpley is a master storyteller in her art.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks is, in the world of books, a relative infant. Published only this past January (2020) this quirky book wraps heart and family dynamics around a compelling mystery. Zoe Washington must unravel the case of a father she never knew in an effort to prove his innocence. Between cracking the case and struggling with figuring out how to interact with a parent figure she’s never had, I would be very much surprised if we didn’t see this fast-paced book as a Disney movie within the next two years.
Some Places More than Others by Renee Watson, published just last year, managed to win both the Newbery Honor- and Coretta Scott King Author Award. The book follows a middle-grade girl as she looks at the places and people that impact us and understanding how the places we call home can help us understand ourselves.
Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callendar would have been EXACTLY the kind of book I would have snatched up and devoured in a single afternoon as a middle schooler. The book combines superstition and magic with preteen drama and family struggles as Caroline, who was born during a Hurricane (a sign of bad luck in MANY cultures) must endure teasing from her classmates, free her island from the spirit that is stalking it, and deal with her feelings for the new girl at school.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander was awarded as being one of the best books to inspire reluctant readers. Twelve-year-old Josh Bell excels at two things; basketball and music. But as he and his twin brother Jordan race up and down the court, the brothers begin to get pulled apart with the arrival of a new girl in the neighborhood and Josh’s rising love for the beat. Think High School Musical meats verse but with fewer musical numbers and montages.
A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee is the kind of book your middle schooler needs to read. As preteens, kids are exposed to more and more of the real world, and a lot of that is filtered through the lens of an adult. Reading about characters their same age dealing with these tumultuous times can give kids a better understanding and a place to vent emotionally. After all, Shayla just wants to manage 7th grade by staying out of trouble, focusing on her schoolwork, dealing with her relationships with her friends, and without her stupid giant forehead getting in her way. But when something happens, she needs to reassess. And maybe, just maybe, some things are worth getting into trouble.
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste is, again, the kind of book that I would have immediately reached for. Elements of mystery and fantasy and magic woven through the real world and real-world problems, that’s kind of my jam. Because jumbies are just fairy tales, right? And Corinne has no time for silly stories of tricksters between dealing with school and the boys who tease her. Until of course she winds up in the Forbidden Forest and it is a Jumbie that follows her home with plans to take over the Island.
High School and YA Reading
By high school most teenagers, unless it’s an assigned book for class, are reading YA. Now YA can fall into a lot of tropes and patterns which, while cliche for adults, are the lifeblood of teenage readers everywhere. The list below tries to offer a few suggestions outside the typical teenage norm but if your teen devours were wolf romance books, let them enjoy their fandom and just be happy they’re reading of their own free will.
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in The Sky by Kwame Mbalia is actually a recent Rick Riordan Presents publication. Yes, that Rick Riordan, Greek gods, Olympians and Norse mythology Rick Riordan. The Author of the Percy Jackson series has been highlighting phenomenal authors of other cultures and backgrounds so that their voices are the ones who can bring you these incredible adventures. A perfect bridge between middle grade and YA, this easy read grabs readers by the shoulders and holds on for 248 pages.
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon has recently been made into a feature-length film. While the book and the film differ, they share enough commonalities that I would strongly recommend reading the book before watching the movie. For teenage Maddie, who is literally allergic to everything, life in a hypoallergenic container is the norm. Enter Olly, the free-spirited boy next door who starts to make her question whether a life lived in a bubble is really a life lived at all.
The Opposite of Always by Justin A Reynolds is a hilarious and razor-sharp read perfect for the John Green fans out there but with a mysterious edge. Without giving too much away, there is a boy, then there is a girl, then a tragedy, but… then there isn’t? If this is time travel Jack isn’t going to ask any questions, as long as he can save her this time.
When You Were Everything by Ashlee Woodfolk is the heartfelt, friendship imploding, grief-stricken book I wish I’d had in my early twenties. While many teen and YA books commiserate over the loss of a romantic relationship, there is no bond so devastatingly broken as that of a true best friend. But even though they will never be what they were, that doesn’t mean Cleo can so easily erase the memories of her friendship with Layla, especially not when she is assigned to be her tutor. Heartfelt, stunning, and breathtakingly beautiful.
The Voice in My Head by Dana L Davis is sure to hit home with fans of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. When Indigo Phillips perfect twin sister Violet is terminally ill, Indigo somehow convinces their entire crazy wacky grief-stricken family to pile into an old bus and drive into the desert where she is convinced she will find a way to save her sister. But why is she so sure, you may ask? Oh, only the little voice inside her head claiming to be God.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is a YA like you didn’t know existed. Steeping in magic and danger and roots. Between run magic thrumming through the soil into their blood, runaway princesses, elemental magic burning and turning tides, reapers gathering souls, and a monarchy to overthrow… this is a must-read for high fantasy fans.
I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest is the classic tale of a teenager pursuing a lifelong dream and going against expectations parental wishes to do so. In this case, it is Chloe Pierce’s dream to apply to a prestigious dance academy, and she is determined to apply even though her mother forbids it. Enter a wild plan for an epic 200-mile road trip, a reluctantly allowed tag along with the neighbor boy and his dog, and experiences to last a lifetime.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone is a gripping story centered around Justyce McAllister, the straight-A student who, despite leaving his old neighborhood behind, can’t seem to leave behind the prejudices and preconceptions of others, especially not of the cop who is putting him in handcuffs. Justyce begins writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Junior throughout this process, exploring race and prejudice with a brutal honesty that many YA books routinely gloss over.
Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud would be an absolute cliche if it were not so brilliantly written. A girl is admitted to a prestigious summer program, intent on focusing on her studies and the academic opportunities, she ends up catching the eye of a Prince. Yes, and honest to goodness prince. Think Cinderella meets the library scene from Beauty and the Beast. Again, if not for the way in which this book is written I would have written it off on the premise alone, but trust me- this is very much worth the read.
Watch us Rise by Renee Watson & Ellen Hagan reads like the set up to an offbeat Hulu series… potentially involving Kat Dennings. When two best friends get sick of how women are treated they start their schools first Women’s Rights Club at their progressive NYC high school. When their collective works of poetry, responses to microaggressions, and essays in video form go viral, they become the target of real-life trolls. As things escalate and the Principal shuts the club down, the friends discover what they are willing to risk in the absence of silence.
Monday is Not Coming by Tiffany D Jackson was recommended to me by a fellow author tuber who described her reading experience as ‘brutal and shattering’. “When Claudia’s best friend, Monday, goes missing, it feels like she’s the only one who’s noticed she’s gone. Everyone tells her to mind her own business, to stop snooping around. But she knows something is wrong. When she finally finds someone to help her investigate Monday’s disappearance, she unearths some painful, shocking secrets about her best friend’s life.”
Legend Born by Tracy Deonn- okay okay okay, technically this one isn’t out yet. But the info bumf looked so incredibly amazing I just had to include it! And you can bet I will be tearing through this book just as soon as it is published! Between a dark history surrounding her mother’s murder, hidden powerful magic, chilling creatures stalking the campus, and a secret cult of magic wielders at her new school Bree Mathews has got a lot on her plate. “A modern-day twist on a classic legend and a lot of Southern Black Girl Magic.”