Challenging Reads for Younger Readers


There are so many great books to read, but what can you read that might offer a bit of a challenge? You can, of course, read the classics. But what if you want something different? Then try these books. Most are at a relatively high reading level and many are relatively longer in length.  A few are from Britain and so use different vocabulary words.  And some offer deeper questions about life, so be prepared to think!

(Sometimes, people think that one should try to constantly improve one’s reading level. But the experts do not think so! If you are already a good reader, start expanding your knowledge of literature and your range of interests. To learn more, click HERE.)


Appelt, Kathi. The Underneath. New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010, c2008.
An old dog and two kittens survive under the house of a hateful owner in this 2009 Newbery Honor Book. AR reading level of 5.2. [Loneliness; Friendship; Survival; Texas; Fantasy fiction; Revenge; Cats; Dogs]

Armstrong, Alan. Whittington.  New York : Random House, 2005.
This novel tells three stories at once: Ben can’t who read and hates school; Whittington the cat who comes to live in a barn with horses, chickens, and a duck called Lady; and Dick Whittington who once lived in England and made his fortune with the help of a cat without a name. How do you keep up your courage when everything seems to be against you? How can stories save you life? Read this novel and find out!  A Newbery Honor Book with an AR reading level of 4.9. [Country life; Cats; Dyslexia; Farms; Historical fiction; England; Courage; Perseverance; Friendship; Storytelling]

Baker, Deidre. Becca at Sea. Toronto : Groundwood Books, 2007.
Becca is surprised by an eccentric aunt, bossy cousins and all sorts of adventures when she is sent to live with her grandmother on an island off the coast of B.C. This story could be compared to Arthur, for the Very First Time by Patricia MacLachlan. AR level: 4.4.

Birdsall, Jeanne. The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.New York : Knopf, 2005.
Four sisters, aged four through twelve, have adventures one summer while vacationing with their widowed father. This is the first in a series of three books. The humorous adventures continue in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (AR 5.3) and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (AR 5.6).

Christopher, Lucy. Flyaway. New York:  Chicken House, 2011.
Thirteen-year-old Isla meets Harry in the hospital where her father is a patient. Harry is battling a terminal illness, but he shares Isla’s love of the outdoors and the two conspire to save a struggling swan. This quiet hopeful story is reminiscent of the classic by Paul Gallico: The Snow Goose. It might also be compared to the more modern Ida B by Katherine Hannigan. [England; Family life; Swans; Wildlife rescue; Fathers and daughters; Hospitals; Friendship]

Cowley, Joy. Chicken Feathers. Philomel Books, 2008.
What if your pet could talk to you? What if it could help you solve mysteries? Josh’s chicken, Semolina, helps him solve the mystery of the disappearing eggs in this humorous, easy-to-read novel about a family who lives on a farm. If you want to combine the adventures of a picture book by Bill Peet, the hopefulness of a novel by Patricia MacLachlan and the flowing language of Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, be sure to read this story from New Zealand. AR level: 4.1.


Cowley, Joy. Stories of the Wild West Gang. Wellington, NZ: Gecko Press, 2012.
Michael would far rather be having adventures with his cousins than staying at home with his quiet, proper mum and dad.  This lengthy collection of 10 hilarious stories, originally published separately, will appeal to readers who enjoy laughing. A great read-aloud! [New Zealand; Cousins; Humorous fiction; Adventure and adventurers; Family life]

Creech, Sharon. Saving Winslow. New York: Joanna Cotler Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2018.
Louie’s father often brings home small animals needing to be rescued. Most of the time, they don’t survive. Louie usually doesn’t have any better luck. The worms he brought home? Dead after two days. The lightning bugs? Dead after three days. But Louie is determined. When his father brings home a motherless mini donkey on a cold January morning, Louie decides that this time he will succeed: Winslow will live. Beautifully written and heart-warming, this 165-page novel is most highly recommended for animal lovers 8 to 12 years old.

P.S. Of course, all Sharon Creech stories are amazing works of art. But this one is outstanding in its introduction to themes to encourage conversation between children and adults. How can you love someone if you know they might disappear? How do you regain hope after loss? How can you joyfully help someone fulfill their purpose in life even though it means they will leave you? 

Cullen, Sean. Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates. Toronto : Puffin Canada, 2006. 
“In the odd world of Hamish X there are cheese factories run by evil capitalists who employee defenceless orphans. When Hamish is dropped off, he looks rather suspicious, and you have good reason to think that because he is a different person. He has magical boots. But Hamish makes two friends, Mina, a hot-headed red-headed girl, and Parveen, small and very intelligent. Together, they make an awesome plan to break out of the forced-labour cheese factory but before they can escape, cheese pirates break into the factory and do what cheese pirates do, steal cheese. Hamish and his friends hop aboard the pirates’ ship, but the pirates find out and take them hostage but the three friends escape and make friends with the native animals at the cheese pirates’ home base. They all team up and defeat the pirates. I think this book was rather awesome and very funny. I highly recommend it.” Jake. The first in a series of three.

Enright, Elizabeth. Gone-Away Lake. San Diego, Calif. : Harcourt, Inc. 2000, c1957.
Ten-year old Portia and and her cousin Julian enjoy adventures during a family vacation. They discover an abandoned resort community and meet two elderly people who still live in one of the old houses. This Newbery Honor book has an AR level of 5.3.  There is an equally enjoyable sequel: Return to Gone-Away. [Vacations; Cousins; Lakes; New York (State); Summer]



Estes, Eleanor. Ginger Pye.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 2000.
The disappearance of a new puppy named Ginger and the appearance of a mysterious man in a mustard yellow hat bring excitement into the lives of the Pye children. – CIP  Winner of the 1952 Newbery Medal.  AR level: 6.0.  [Dogs; Family life; Brothers and sisters] 

Estes, Eleanor. Rufus M. San Diego : Harcourt, 2001, c1943.
Rufus encounters an invisible piano player and tries to learn ventriloquism. Set in the early twentieth century, this is the third story in a heart-warming series about the Moffat family. A 1944 Newbery Honor book.  AR level: 5.2.  [Connecticut; Brothers and sisters; Family life; Historical fiction]

Funke, Cornelia. Inkheart. New York : Scholastic, 2003.
Twelve-year-old Meggie learns that her father, who repairs and binds books for a living, can “read” fictional characters to life when one of those characters abducts them and tries to force him into service. – CIP  The first in the Inkworld series.  AR level: 5.4. [Bookbinding; Fathers and daughters; Books and reading; Italy; Magic; Fantasy fiction]


Hill, Kirkpatrick. Bo at Ballard Creek. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2013.
What a cheerful story! Set in Alaska in the late 1920s, this inspiring novel of a much-loved little girl will appeal to fans of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and ‘Sarah, Plain and Tall’ and ‘Anne of Green Gables’. Bo – abandoned by her mother, a good-time girl who is leaving town – is taken in by Jack and Arvid, two unmarried gold miners who can’t bear to see her sent to an orphanage. So now she has two papas. No mama, but as Jack tells her, “sometimes mamas don’t stick around, you know. Just walk off. Lot of animals like that” (2). But he adds, “…lucky for us, someone giving away babies. Just what me and Arvid needed” (2).  And just what all the other villagers in Ballard enjoy: a little girl who sees life as an adventure. She learns both Eskimo and English. She encounters a bear. She joins in the festivities when an airplane arrives, and lovingly welcomes a little motherless boy whose father has died.  This novel by an accomplished Alaskan author – and former teacher – is highly recommended for readers – and listeners – 7 years old and up.

Hoban, Russell. Mouse and His Child. New York : Scholastic Inc., 2017, c2001.

Have you read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis? Have you read Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White? If so, you know how great truths about life can be hidden in stories about ordinary people and ordinary animals. Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban is another great story to warm your heart. It will make you cry and laugh, worry and rejoice. It is the story of small little windup toys, besieged by rats, struggling to find a place they can call home. 

Be warned: this novel was published over 50 years ago and so the language is slightly different than what you are used to reading in more recently published books. The vocabulary is more sophisticated. And the story is not short. But the lively writing will carry you through the 244 pages in no time at all.

By the way, you might like to notice the illustrations when you read the book. They’re by David Small, who has illustrated many fine picture books. You might like to try some picture books by Russell Hoban, too: A Bargain for Frances and Bread and Jam for Frances.


Ibbotson, Eva. Journey to the River Sea. New York: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2001.
Sent with her governess to live with the dreadful Carter family in exotic Brazil in 1910, Maia endures many hardships before fulfilling her dream of exploring the Amazon River. — OhioLINK  AR level: 5.6. [Adventure and adventurers; Amazon River; Brazil; Friendship; Historical fiction; Orphans]

Kastner, Erich. Emil and the Detectives. New York: Overlook Press, 2014, 2007.

What a rollicking adventure! This classic novel from Germany – first published in 1929 and now translated into over 50 languages  – tells the story of Emil’s adventures while travelling to Berlin to visit his grandmother. Emil falls asleep on the train and when he wakes up, he discovers all his money has been stolen. Emil is not one to give up. He enlists the help of other boys and catches the thief, much to everyone’s delight. This new translation by W. Martin uses colloquialisms familiar to modern readers and includes an introduction by Maurice Sendak as well as the original line drawings by Walter Trier. [adventure stories; Germany; mothers and sons; travel]

Kelly, Jacqueline. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Henry Holt and Company, 2009.
Eleven-year-old Callie Vee isn’t interested in learning how to be a proper lady. She’d rather be outside studying the natural world with her grandfather. Set in Texas in 1899, this Newbery Honor Book will be enjoyed by competent readers in grades five to seven. AR level: 5.3. (Texas; Historical fiction; Grandfathers; Sex role; Family life; Naturalists)




King-Smith, Dick. Babe: the Gallant Pig. New York : Crown, 1985, c1983.
A piglet destined for eventual butchering arrives at the farmyard, is adopted by an old sheep dog, and discovers a special secret to success. – CIP



Kinsey-Warnock, Natalie. Gifts from the Sea. New York : Dell Yearling, 2005, c2003.
Twelve-year-old Quila  lives with her father, a lighthouse keeper. They never get to leave their rocky island and hardly anyone ever comes to visit.  But then a baby is washed up by the sea and, two years later, a stranger comes to visit.  Everything changes. This novel is best-suited for readers 9 to 14 years old or anyone at all who has enjoyed Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. [Fathers and daughters; Infants; Maine; Historical fiction]



Kinsey-Warnock, Natalie. True Colors. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
“In 1952 Vermont, ten-year-old Blue decides to set out in the middle of her town’s sesquicentennial celebration to find the mother who abaondoned her as a baby, but a series of events reminds her that she already has everything she needs.” – CIP AR level: 5.2.  [Identity; Historical fiction; Mothers and daughters; Vermont; People with mental disabilities; Foundlings]




Lawson, Robert. Rabbit Hill. New York : Viking Press, 1944.
All the animals are excited about the new people moving into the house on the hill. But how will that change life for them on the farm? This joyful story, the Newbery Medal winner in 1945, has an AR reading level of 6.4. [Moving, Household; Country life; Animals; Friendship]


Lowry, Lois. The Willoughbys. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
In this tongue-in-cheek take on classic themes in children’s literature, the four Willoughby children set about to become “deserving orphans” after their neglectful parents embark on a treacherous around-the-world adventure, leaving them in the care of an odious nanny. – CIP   AR level: 5.2.   [Orphans; Humorous stories; Brothers and sisters]

MacLachlan, Patricia. A Secret Shared. New York: Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2021.
Norah and Ben stumble upon a secret, thanks to the wonders of DNA testing. Their younger sister, Birdy, is adopted. Should they tell their parents what they’ve discovered? Should they tell Birdy? This 145-page present-tense novel, printed in a relatively large font with widely spaced lines and short paragraphs, is a wonderful story for readers 8 to 12 years old. As with all Patricia MacLachlan stories, the language flows gracefully and the ideas linger in the mind long after the book is closed. Highly recommended, of course. [Adoption; Family secrets; Love; Writers]

Millard, Glenda. The Naming of Tishkin Silk. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009.
Griffin is lonely. While he has a father and brothers and sisters, his mother and baby sister have disappeared. Then he starts school where he makes a new friend, Layla, who enters the magical world of his imagination and teaches him how to open his heart to the truth. This gentle story from Australia will be appreciated by readers of all ages who understand that courage can be quiet and that families can find love even in the midst of grief. AR level: 5.3.


Morpurgo, Michael. The Butterfly Lion. New York : Viking, 1997.
A young boy, running away from his British boarding school, meets an elderly woman who tells him a story about Bertie and a beautiful white lion. AR level: 4.6.  [Lions; Africa; England; Boarding schools; Runaways; Friendship]




Morpurgo, Michael. An Elephant in the Garden. New York : Feiwel and Friends, 2011, c2010.
In 1944, Elizabeth’s mother works at Dresden Zoo, where her favorite animal is the elephant, Marlene. When the animals must be killed to prevent them running amok when the town is bombed, Elizabeth’s mother moves Marlene into the back garden.– CIP   AR level: 5.2 [WW 2; Elephants; Germany; Zoos; Historical fiction]



Morpurgo, Michael. Kaspar the Titanic Cat. New York : Harper, [2012], c2008.
Fourteen-year-old Johnny Trott, a bellboy at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1912, becomes caregiver to Kaspar Kandinsky, the Prince of Cats, and soon the two are stowing away on the “Titanic,” where they are befriended by the Stanton family of New York. – CIP   AR level: 5.3.  (Cats; Titanic steamship; Stowaways; Historical fiction]


Morpurgo, Michael. Shadow. New York: Feivel and Friends, 2010.
Eight-year-old Aman and his mother escaped from Afghanistan. Six years later, the British government wants to send them back. Can Matt and his grandfather prevent their deportation? While written in an easy-to-read style at AR level 4.9, the story is best suited for mature readers eight-years-old and up. [England; Refugees; Afghanistan; Dogs; War; Friendship]

Naidoo, Beverly. Burn My Heart. Amistad, 2009, c2007.
Matthew and Mugo have been friends for years even though Matthew is the son of a wealthy landowner and Mugo is a household servant. But everything changes when the Mau Mau uprising begins in 1950s Kenya. Everyone becomes afraid and violence is around every corner. Based on historical events, this novel will appeal to adventurous readers who like books about real life. For mature readers nine-years-old and up. AR level: 5.2. [Kenya; Historical fiction; Friendship; Racism; Fathers and sons]

Obed, Ellen Bryan. Twelve Kinds of Ice. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Delicate pen and ink drawings by Barbara McClintock accompany vignettes vividly recalling winter memories from first ice to garden ice to perfect ice to dream ice. A lovely way to think about memories and learn how to write descriptive paragraphs. [Winter; Ice skating; Family life]

Orlev, Uri. The Song of the Whales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010.
At age eight, Mikha’el knows he is different from other boys, but over the course of three years as he helps his parents care for his elderly grandfather in Jerusalem, Grandpa teaches Mikhe’el to use the gift they share of making other people’s dreams sweeter. – CIP  A wonderful story that will appeal to imaginative readers of any age. AR level: 4.7. [Moving, Household; Israel; Family life; Grandfathers; Dreams]

Pearson, Kit. The Whole Truth. Toronto : HarperCollins, 2011.
Nine-year-old Polly and her older sister Maud travel from Winnipeg to a small island off the coast of British Columbia to live with their grandmother. Their mother has died, but will they ever see their father again? Set in 1932, this story will be enjoyed by girls nine to thirteen years old.  (Historical fiction; Moving, Household; Sisters; Boarding schools; Grandmothers; Secrets; Poverty; Family life; Islands; Mystery and detective stories)

Pennypacker, Sara. Clementine, Friend of the Week. Disney • Hyperion, 2010.
Reading Clementine stories will surely bring smiles to the faces of readers who have enjoyed Russell Hoban’s Frances and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona. In this episode, Clementine comes up with all sorts of ways to get her classmates to write wonderful comments about her, discovers her friend Margaret isn’t as confident as she appears, and loses her kitten called Moisturizer. She learns that everyone feels hurt sometimes, and that hurt feelings are part of being human.  A great read-aloud for students in grades two and three, this novel is sure to appeal to anyone with a fondness for funny stories about rambunctious children. 



Sharp, Margery. The Rescuers. New York: New York Review Books, [2012], c1987.

Do you have time to enjoy a classic novel of courage and adventure? Do you have the imagination to enjoy a tale of brave and noble mice? This 149-page story will capture your heart with its quietly lovely sentences. And the endearing characters will remind you that at any moment you, too, could be called on a mission to selflessly help others. “Miss Bianca, a white mouse of great beauty and self-confidence, travels with the ambassador’s son to Norway on behalf of the Prisoner’s Aid Society in a perilous mission to rescue a poet imprisoned in the dreadful Black Castle.” – CIP This edition is exquisitely illustrated by Garth Williams, the famed illustrator of countless classic stories.



Thor, Annika. A Faraway Island. Delacorte Press, 2009.
Twelve-year-old Stephie and eight-year-old Nellie are sent away from their parents in Austria to live with strangers in Sweden in 1939 . Nellie lives with a happy loving family, but Stephie does not. Nellie has fun at school, but Stephie does not. Stephie wants her parents to come, but they do not. Based on the experiences of children sent to safety in Sweden during the war, this novel will appeal to readers 11 to 14 years old. AR level: 4.4. [Sweden; WW 2; Jews; Immigration; Foster children; Loneliness; Bullies; Sisters; Historical fiction; Courage; Refugees]



Picture 3

Vanderpool, Clare. Navigating Early. New York: Delacorte Press, 2013.
“Odyssey-like adventure of two boys’ incredible quest on the Appalachian Trail where they deal with pirates, buried secrets, and extraordinary encounters.” (Provided by publisher.)  Jack has to leave Kansas behind after his mother dies and his father, a naval officer, sends him to boarding school in Maine. Only when he meets Early Auden does he finally start to come alive again. A wonderful adventure story!   [Adventure and adventurers; Boarding schools; Eccentrics and eccentricities; Grief; Historical fiction; Maine]

Wood, Maryrose. The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2011.
Fifteen-year-old Miss Penelope Lumley, a governess trained at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, takes the three Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place to London, England, and learns they are under a curse. – CIP  While the main character is a teenager and the reading level is quite high at AR level 6.8, the story will be more enjoyed by younger readers.   There is an equally humorous sequel: The Hidden Gallery (AR level: 6.5).  [Orphans; London (England); Governesses; Feral children; Christmas]



Kudlinski, Katheen. Mother Teresa: Friend to the Poor. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2006.
Born in a small village in eastern Europe in 1910, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu knew that she wanted to devote her life to helping people by the time she was twelve years old. And she did. Learn about the life of this famous humanitarian who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work among the poorest of the poor in countries around the world.  Part of the series Childhood of World Figures, this biography has an AR reading level of 4.6.



Peet, Bill. Bill Peet: an Autobiography. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
This well-known picture book author tells the fascinating story of his own life. AR level: 6.9.




Stanley, George E. Leonardo Da Vinci: Young Artist, Writer, and Inventor. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2005. This great Renassiance painter started life in a small town in Italy.  Rejected by his parents, sent to live with his grandparents, he became an apprentice to a famous artist while still a young teenager.  He worked hard and soon became not only a master artist, himself, but also an outstanding architect, sculptor and scientist. Part of the series Childhood of World Figures, this biography has an AR reading level of 6.0.


Click HERE for more biographies.

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Click HERE for a Grade 3 Literature Survey.
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Click HERE for a Grade 5 Literature Survey.

Click HERE for a list of children’s classics.

Click HERE for a list of British vocabulary words.
Click HERE for a list of American vocabulary words.

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