If you want the children in your life to understand uncommon words and complicated syntax when they encounter it, then you already know why you should read challenging books to kids. Reading books to children that they cannot tackle alone enriches their independent reading experiences by bolstering vocabulary and reading comprehension.
Kids can reap those benefits even if they're already reading independently. Because, let's face it, understanding The Cat in the Hat and decoding Artemis Fowl require two completely different skill-sets. Kids who stall when reading multisyllabic words that they're familiar with otherwise just won't be able to enjoy the book as much as if someone were to read it to them.
Most of the books on this list come in at about a 5th grade reading level, but don't worry, you probably won't lose younger children's attention. The narratives here are compelling, even for young readers. If, by some chance, you do lose your audience, just swap to another title and try again.
Remember: we can't all enjoy books the first time we read them, and just because Little House in the Big Woods bored your child, that doesn't mean they will never, ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder over the course of their life. It just means that the book wasn't right for them at the time.
1. Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Esperanza comes from a wealthy family, but a series of tragedies force her to flee Mexico with her mother. The little family ends up in a California camp for farm workers, laboring hard for subsistence in the middle of the Great Depression.
2. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord
Shortly after World War II, Shirley Temple Wong and her parents leave China to start a new life in Brooklyn. Shirley has big dreams, but she doesn't speak English, and that complicates her pursuit of friendship. But a baseball standout named Jackie Robinson is about to show Shirley that she lives in a land of infinite possibilities.
3. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Ten-year-old Hà has always lived in Saigon. When war reaches their door, her family must flee for safety. Resettled in Alabama, Hà faces a host of new and unpleasant experiences in her new home. Told in verse, Inside Out & Back Again is based on Thanhha Lai's childhood immigration to the U.S.
4. A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla
Set in the early 17th century, A Lion to Guard Us centers on the Freebold siblings — Amanda, Jemmy, and Meg — who must make their way across the Atlantic to the Jamestown Colony, where their father has lived for three years, after their mother's death leaves them in the care of her cruel employer. Based on the real-life shipwreck story that inspired The Tempest, Clyde Robert Bulla's 1981 children's classic is a gritty adventure in colonial life.
5. Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
Assateague Island is home to two herds of wild ponies, and population measures require the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company to hold an annual pony auction. Every year, an elusive mare named Phantom has avoided the Saltwater Cowboys' roundup. When she and her foal, Misty, are finally corralled, they're bought by the Beebes, whose grandchildren help to raise and train the difficult pony and her daughter.
6. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Mildred D. Taylor's brilliant tale of class struggle centers on the Logan children, who live with their parents on an expansive 400-acre farm. The children navigate a complicated social dynamic, in which their relatively well-to-do economic situation brings ire from both the sharecroppers who work their farm and their racist neighbors in town.
7. The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
When Kenny's older brother Byron starts getting into trouble, their parents load the boys and their younger sister into the car for a road trip from their home in Flint, Michigan to their grandmother's house in Birmingham, Alabama, hoping Grandma can help Byron clean up his act. But when a horrific act of terrorism rocks Birmingham, the entire Watson family will be changed more than they ever anticipated.
8. Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Hayaat's grandmother is dying, but the 13-year-old girl believes that a handful of Jerusalem soil could save her life. Unfortunately, Hayaat and her family live on the wrong side of the West Bank barrier. When she and her best friend, Samy, get a free day to travel, the two girls set off on a six-mile-long journey into the city, intent on saving Hayaat's ailing relative.
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