When I was in middle school, I thought Mulan was the coolest Disney princess, but I related most to Belle. I felt a kinship with the woman more delighted by a castle’s giant library than its wardrobe of fancy gowns, and who often hid behind books as a way to escape social interaction.
In some ways, a love of reading feels like an innate personality trait, similar to personal preferences about other hobbies. I grew up in a house full of books and frequent trips to the library; yet, in my immediate family the numbers are split right down the middle between the avid readers and those who don’t spend much time reading for fun.
Research suggests that there are plenty of external factors that do influence people’s reading habits, however. One study by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012 found the likelihood that an adult had read a book for leisure in the past year was directly proportionate to their education level. Reading with your child, discussing books with them and providing them access to books they enjoy helps too.
The benefits of frequent regularly reading for pleasure are great. Reading builds vocabulary, strengthens communication skills, increases knowledge, improves memory and fosters empathy. I worry that the pandemic has caused more students to fall below grade level in their reading skills, increasing the likelihood they will see reading as a chore.
It’s vital, then, that we make sure students are reading books they will truly enjoy. If you’re looking for books to tempt more reluctant preteen or teen readers, or to keep feeding the diet of your voracious reader, here are a few suggestions that helped feed my love of reading at that age.
One book I absolutely loved (still do, actually) is “The Watsons go to Birmingham — 1963” by Christopher Paul Curtis. The book stars fourth grader Kenny Watson, who recounts the exploits of his 13-year-old brother Byron and Byron’s buddy Buphead as he tags along. Most of the book is funny, but it turns serious and moving at its final destination in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 for what the book jacket calls “one of the darkest moments in America’s history.” The book is alternatingly hilarious and heartbreaking, and for me, as a kid, it was a great introduction to the Civil Rights era by a Black author.
If you’re looking for books about spunky teens bucking the system, two I loved were “No More Dead Dogs” by Gordan Korman and “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” by E. Lockheart.
The first features an eighth grade football player who gets himself into trouble by writing a book review criticizing his English teacher’s favorite book. The second features a teenage girl at a boarding school who anonymously takes over running a secret “boys only” club at the school.
If you’re looking for more strong heroines, “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones is a great choice. The fantasy novel features Sophie, a young hat maker who is turned into an old woman after angering a witch and seeks a powerful wizard to undo the curse. The book was turned into an anime movie, which may entice some anime fans to pick it up.
“Running Out of Time,” by Margaret Peterson Haddix, is another fun one, as the main character Jessie is shocked to discover she did not grow up in a village in the early 1800s as she believed, but in 1990s tourist attraction where visitors can watch “authentic” frontier living from one-way mirrors.
One of my favorite fantasy authors growing up was Robin McKinley. I love her fairytale retellings, and “Beauty,” featuring Belle as a gangly tomboy, is one of the best retellings of “Beauty and the Beast” I’ve read. I also particularly enjoyed her original novel “The Hero and the Crown” and its prequel “The Blue Sword.”
Other fantasy favorites from juvenile literature are “Ella Enchanted” by Gail Carson Levine and the “Goose Girl” series by Shannon Hale. For older teens (or those reading at a more advanced level) I would recommend the “Inheritance Cycle” series by Christopher Paolini or the “Books of Pellinor” series by Alison Croggon.