There may be no skill as liberating as learning to read. Children eagerly anticipate the year in school when they are taught this exciting ability that allows them to dive into the many worlds books offer. Not only does reading offer endless entertainment, but it also is a key component of mental development in education as well as in long-term professional success.
Reading is the primary way to broaden one’s vocabulary, and according to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, vocabulary is one of the best predictors of overall success in school and of performance on the SAT-Verbal. The foundation explains, however, that vocabulary knowledge is not an “aptitude,” as anyone can learn new words. The research shows that people with strong vocabularies tend to enjoy reading and learning about new ideas.
David Ransom, president of the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, says, “Whatever a person’s pattern of aptitudes, if he fails in precise articulation of ideas, he is likely to be considered less competent to perform a task than is a person who, although perhaps not naturally as adept, has a better vocabulary and is thus able to express himself more convincingly. This superior word knowledge does not necessarily cause a frequent verbal flaunting of unusual words; rather such words reflect a good thinking vocabulary, well-honed tools for thought.”
It is not surprising then that several studies of the vocabulary levels of business executives conducted by Johnson O’Connor demonstrate that an extensive vocabulary is positively correlated with success in business. These studies examined company presidents and executives and reported that as a group their average vocabulary levels were higher than were those of the norms used in their research. In fact, only 12 percent, as opposed to 50 percent, scored below the average of those with similar levels of education.
With the proven import of vocabulary in view, exposing children to rich literature that sweeps them away in engaging stories is paramount. Then the addiction takes a life of its own and will hopefully lead to late nights of sneakily hiding under the covers with a flashlight in one hand and a good book in the other.
The following book summaries are of less trendy classics and present great literature that children are not as likely to pick up such as Harry Potter, for example, nor that typically appear on school syllabi like Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird or Jane Eyre — all of which should be required reading. A sampling of those better known literary works is included in the general list alongside this article. The following books also have been chosen to suit the tastes of both girls and boys unless otherwise noted. Whether reading to young children or watching the older ones take books off by themselves, the following literature has been loved for many generations and will both delight and enrich the minds of the young readers.
Kindergarten: Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales
Andrew Lang was one of the foremost Scottish poets, novelists and literary critics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lauded by writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien. He is perhaps best known for his Rainbow Fairy Books, a series of 12 collections of fairy tales published between 1889 and 1910. An anthropologist as well as a writer, Lang traveled the world collecting fairy tales and folklore, many of which had been preserved only through oral tradition. He recorded them in a style, content and length suited for children but without sacrificing sophisticated writing and the complexity of the stories, which he termed “adapting to the conditions of young readers.” His tales include favorites such as “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast” in the Blue Fairy Book, but in the Olive Fairy Book, for example, he includes tales from India, Armenia, Denmark and Turkey.
1st Grade: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Most Americans know this title by the beloved Disney rendition, but the actual book includes many more stories than that of Mowgli and his wolf brothers, which is actually quite a different story than the Disney movie and will not disappoint. The Jungle Book presents the tale of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the fearless mongoose who wages war against the cobras inhabiting the garden of the British-Indian family who rescued him, and the tale of “The White Seal” about Kotick, a rare white-furred Northern fur seal who perseveres beyond the bounds ever traveled by his kind to find a new, safe home for the seals. Rudyard Kipling was the first English-language writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and to date, he remains its youngest recipient having received it in 1907 at the age of 42.
2nd Grade: The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
C. S. Lewis is quoted as having said of George MacDonald, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.” Indeed, George MacDonald could very well be called the “Master of Fantasy” as his children’s fiction is sure to entice even the adult reader. The Princess and the Goblin follows the lives of Irene, a princess living in a castle in the mountains, and of Curdie, a poor little miner boy, who comes to her aid in resisting the malicious ploys of the goblins below ground. This is a tale of adventure and of the complexity of trust and belief in human relationships. MacDonald later wrote a charming sequel entitled The Princess and Curdie.
3rd Grade: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
In The Little Princess, the author of The Secret Garden delivers what is arguably the most magical story ever written without falling into the realm of fantasy. It was also listed in 2012 as one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time by School Library Journal. The book centers around little Sara Crewe who is separated from her beloved and wealthy father when she reaches the age of 7 and is required to attend Mrs. Minchin’s boarding school. She challenges herself in all situations to behave as gracefully as a princess, even when she is treated like an indentured servant, and she maintains her faith that magic just may exist in the world.
For the little men who will not be drawn into a story about behaving like a princess, Where the Red Fern Grows narrates the tale of Billy, a young farm boy in Oklahoma, who aches for a pair of coonhounds to partner with him in hunting the best hills of the Ozarks. Where the Red Fern Grows is a classic bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, about the rewards of hard work and perseverance, the glory of steadfastness in teamwork and the beauty of sacrificial love.
4th Grade: Redwall by Brian Jacques
The first novel in Jacques’ famous animal series, Redwall was first written for the children of the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind, whom he first met as their milkman. As he spent time reading books to the children, he became dissatisfied with the state of children’s literature. He felt it had too much adolescent angst and not enough magic, and so he eventually began to write stories for them. His stories accordingly are very descriptive of all the senses, emphasizing sound, smell, taste, gravity, balance, temperature and touch as opposed to just visual sensations. The Medieval world of Redwall is comprised only of wild fauna as Redwall Abbey is inhabited by mice and other friendly woodland creatures, such as hares and moles. However, the peaceful Abbey is attacked by a rat known as Cluny the Scourge and his horde of weasels and other wicked creatures. Redwall is Book One in a series of 22 novels, and chronologically is number nine. However, each book stands independently as its own story and does not require knowledge of any previous books or the commitment to read others to finish the story’s plot.
5th Grade: At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
At the Back of the North Wind is the tale of a little boy named Diamond who is the son of a coachman and sleeps in a hayloft above his namesake — his father’s favorite horse. One night, the wind keeps blowing through a small hole in the wall, and nothing Diamond tries can stop it. The North Wind, introduced as a beautiful lady, begins to speak with him, explaining that he is stopping up her window. Thus, Diamond begins his adventures of traveling with the North Wind in the nights, situated behind her in a nest woven out of her long dark hair. Eventually he travels with her to her country in the far north, blown together by the South Wind, and there encounters a land of paradise at the North Wind’s back. Incidentally, At the Back of the North Wind is referenced in the Anne of Green Gables series.
6th Grade: Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
This famously hilarious autobiographical book recounts the story of a family with 12 children. Their father, Frank Gilbreth, Sr., is an efficiency expert by trade and applies the same principles that he uses in counseling businesses to become more efficient in his own home and runs it like a factory: “He even used two shaving brushes to lather his face, because he found that by so doing he could cut seventeen seconds off his shaving time. For a while he tried shaving with two razors, but he finally gave that up,” (Gilbreth, 2). And then there’s Mother, who partners with their father in everything except discipline. Their comical escapades, such as forgetting Frank, Jr., at a roadside restaurant, or having their tonsils removed en masse prove that truth is stranger than fiction.
The title allegedly comes from one of Frank’s favorite jokes to play on innocent pedestrians when he and his family were out driving and stopped at a red light. People would often ask, “Hey, Mister! How come you got so many kids?” Frank would pretend to ponder the question thoughtfully, and then as the light turned green would reply, “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know,” and drive away.
7th Grade: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
For any child at all interested in the murder-mystery genre, Agatha Christie, “The Queen of Crime,” is a must. Worldwide, she is only outsold by the Bible and William Shakespeare, and she has published 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections in her lifetime. She also authored the world’s longest running play, The Mouse Trap.
Christie’s charming detectives, usually in the form of the fluffy old maid, Miss Marple, or the distinguished Belgian, Hercule Poirot, always follow the rules of “fair play” in detective fiction. They are never exposed to more information in solving the murder than is the reader, thus allowing the reader a fair chance at guessing the murderer before the “big reveal.”
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered to have one of the greatest plot twists in the history of detective fiction and takes “whodunit” to a whole new level.
8th Grade: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Gouge
Heralded by J. K. Rowling as her favorite childhood book, The Little White Horse is a beautifully written tale with just a smidge of magic. Thirteen-year-old Maria Merryweather is sent to the Moonacre Manor after the death of her father, accompanied by her governess, Miss Heliotrope, and her spoiled lapdog, Wiggins. Her cousin guardian, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, becomes her guardian, and she adores him immediately. Maria discovers that there is a mystery from many generations ago in the estate, which seems to abide almost in another world, keeping perpetual turmoil below the calm surface.
9th Grade: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Yearling is the beloved story about a young boy living in the backwoods of Florida in the late 1800s who adopts and raises a fawn he names “Flag.” Rawlings’ elegant writing weaves together themes of survival, bildungsroman, family rivalries and the beauty of nature, all in an enticing storyline. It was the best-selling novel in America the year of its release in 1938. Rawlings had previously submitted several manuscripts to Maxwell Perkins, editor for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and other 20th century American literary champions, and he rejected every one. He encouraged her to write from her own life, and The Yearling was the result.
10th Grade: Call of the Wild by Jack London
Set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, Call of the Wild recounts a period when robust sled dogs were in high demand. Buck, a domesticated dog living at a ranch in California, is stolen from his home and sold into the brutal existence of an Alaskan sled dog. Forced to adjust to and survive both cruel treatments and the fight to dominate other dogs in a bitter climate, he reverts to atavistic propensities. Finally shedding the veneer of civilization altogether, Buck relies on his primordial instincts and the lessons he has learned to emerge as a leader in the wild.
11th Grade: Dracula by Bram Stoker
The author of the original vampire novel, Bram Stoker is credited with popularizing the villain of Eastern European folklore. However, this novel is much deeper than just a sensual vampire thriller, delving into issues such as superstition verses science and medicine, insanity, hypnotism and the changing roles of women in the 19th century. It also explores the compulsory importance of the written word, issues surrounding Catholicism and matters of British colonial xenophobia. Interestingly, Stoker toured America two years before writing Dracula and spent substantial time with President Theodore Roosevelt; it is strongly arguable that Dracula’s American Bowie knife-wielding hero, Quincy Morris, is based on Roosevelt.
12th Grade: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Taken from a poem by 16th-century British dramatist George Peele, A Farewell to Arms is the gold standard for wartime love stories. It is set during the Italian campaign of World War I and narrated by American Lieutenant Frederic Henry, who is serving in the ambulance corps of the Italian Army. While recovering from being wounded, Frederic falls in love with his nurse, Catherine, and so begins a romantic affair that blossoms from playful seduction into a love that is powerful and devoted, amidst the backdrop of war, cynical soldiers, and the displacement of populations. A Farewell to Arms became Ernest Hemingway’s first bestseller and was famously described by Michael Reynolds as “the premier American war novel from that debacle World War I.” The novel was not allowed to be published in Italy until 1948, as it was considered detrimental to the honor of the fascist regime.
Recommended Reading for Elementary School
The Trumpet of the Swan and other novels by E. B. White
Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
The Gift of the Christ Child and Other Tales by George MacDonald
The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
The Littles by John Lawrence Peterson
Five Little Peppers and How they Grew by Margaret Sidney
Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene
The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
The Bobbsey Twins series by Laura Lee Hope
Historical American Girl Doll books
Fantastic Mr. Fox, and many other novels by Roald Dahl
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Malu’s Wolf by Ruth Craig
The Adventures of a Brownie by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik
The Wednesday Witch by Ruth Chew
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Aesop’s Fables by Aesop
Recommended Reading for Middle School
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart
Big Red, and many other novels by Jim Kjelgaard
Islands in the Sky: Voyage of the Basset 1 by Tanith Lee
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Broken Blade by William Durbin
The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Billy and Blaze series by C. W. Anderson
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Rascal by Sterling North
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and many other novels by Avi
Christy by Catherine Marshall
Treasure Island by Robert Louise Stevenson
Lassie Come-Home by Eric Knight
Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune
Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Secret Adversary, and many other novels by Agatha Christie
Recommended Reading for High School
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
White Fang by Jack London
Poetry and Short Stories by Edgar Allen Poe
Norton’s Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tartar
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Burning Sky by Lori Benton
The Last Sin Eater by Francine Rivers
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas