This article is by Barbara Saylor, children’s literature specialist and author of THE STORY HOUR LIBRARY: DEVELOPING CHARACTER: Teaching Character Using Popular Children’s Story Books.
- This book provides summaries and activities for 50 popular children’s books that explore values and principles including honesty, kindness, responsibility, self-discipline, respect, courage, and many, many more. For example, “The Empty Pot” engages children in a discussion of honesty and integrity; and “Babushka’s Doll” and “Tooth Fairy’s First Night” invite a discussion about patience. All 50 selections are books written by well-known authors, and the books are easily accessible at local libraries. Each double-page spread in “Developing Character: Teaching Character Using Popular Children’s Story Books” includes a summary of one children’s book, discussion points, activity ideas with instructions, and an activity page. A text box next to the book title on each spread lists the character traits and life skills found in the story themes. This book is a resource and guide for selecting good children’s books and engaging children in discussion and activities that focus on developing and building character. It is a user-friendly resource to help parents, teachers, and homeschoolers teach moral lessons.
Do you know what your children are reading?
It can be a challenging task to be certain your children are reading novels that are appropriate in language and content. I’m providing a list of some of my favorite novels that are more seasoned and are often overlooked for more recent and popular publications.
BE A PERFECT PERSON IN JUST 3 DAYS! by Stephen Manes
(80 pages, fiction, humorous, 4th grade reading level)
When a book with the title Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days falls on Milo’s head at the library, he decides to take the book home and follow its instructions. The instructions include doing hilarious things like wearing broccoli around his neck.
THE BFG by Roald Dahl
(207 pages, fiction, humorous, 4th-5th grade reading level)
The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) spends his life blowing happy dreams to children. Sophie, an orphan, and the BFG concoct a plan to save the world from nine mean giants.
CASTLE IN THE ATTIC by Elizabeth Winthrop
(192 pages, fiction, fantasy, 5th grade reading level)
William receives an amazing gift…..a toy castle complete with a drawbridge, a moat, and a tiny silver knight. Magically, the knight comes to life when William picks it up; and William is suddenly off on a fantastic adventure to another land and time.
FOG MAGIC by Julia L. Sauer
(107 pages, fiction, fantasy, 5th grade reading level)
Greta loved walking in the fog, and one day she found herself taken back in time that existed only through the magic of the fog.
FRINDLE by Andrew Clements
(112 pages, fiction, fantasy, 5th grade reading level)
When Nick learns about how words are created, he gets a clever idea. Why should a pen be called a pen? Why not call it a frindle? Nick’s new word creates hilarious results.
FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (ages 9-12)
by E.L. Konigsburg (Newbery Award Winner)
(168 pages, fiction, mystery, adventure, 5th-6th grade reading level)
When Claudia and her younger brother, Jamie, decide to run away from home, they decide that the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be a good place to live. So they hide out there and get caught up in a mystery involving a statue.
HATCHET by Gary Paulsen
(186 pages, fiction, adventure, 5th grade reading level)
Thirteen-year-old Brian is flying on a single-engine plane on his way to visit his father, and then the plane crashes. Brian is the sole survivor and finds himself alone in the Canadian wilderness with nothing but a windbreaker and a hatchet.
HOLES by Louis Sachar (Newbery Award Winner)
(240 pages, fiction, social issues, 5th grade reading level)
After Stanley is sent unjustly to Camp Green Lake, a detention camp, he is forced by the warden to dig holes in an old dried up lakebed. The warden claims that he has the boys dig holes to build character, but Stanley soon figures out that there is more going on than character building and sets out to dig up the truth.
THE HUNDRED DRESSES by Eleanor Estes
(All ages, young and old, should read this book! It’s a good book for families to read together.)
(80 pages, fiction, social issues, 5th grade reading level)
This powerful, timeless story centers around the ridicule that a young Polish girl faces at school when she wears the same dress to school every day while claiming to have 100 dresses at home in her closet.
THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD by Lynne Reid Banks
(227 pages, fiction, fantasy, 4th-5th grade reading level)
A nine-year-old boy receives a plastic toy Indian, a cupboard, and a key for his birthday and becomes involved in a magical adventure when the Indian comes to life.
ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS (ages 9-12) by Scott O’Dell (Newbery Award Winner)
(177 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
This novel is based on the true story of a Nicoleno Indian girl living in solitude between 1835 and 1853 on a small island off the coast of Southern California. It’s a story of Karana’s survival, strength, and courage–and vivid descriptions of island life.
JEREMY THATCHER, DRAGON HATCHER by Bruce Coville
(151 pages, fiction, fantasy, 4th-5th grade reading level)
Twelve-year-old Jeremy Thatcher stumbles into a magic shop and leaves with a small dragon egg which hatches into a dragon that only he and Mary Lou can see.
JULIE OF THE WOLVES by Jean Craighead George (Newbery Award Winner)
(170 pages, fiction, adventure, 5th grade reading level)
A 13-year-old Eskimo girl runs away from home to avoid an arranged disagreeable marriage and becomes lost in the Alaskan wilderness. Slowly, she is accepted by a pack of wolves who becomes her family. She depends upon the wolves and things her father has taught her to survive day by day.
THE ORDINARY PRINCESS by M.M. Kaye
(128 pages, fantasy, fairy tale, 6th grade reading level)
Princess Amy received a special fairy gift….ordinariness. When her parents arrange a royal wedding for her, she runs away and becomes a kitchen maid at a neighboring palace and meets a prince just as ordinary (and special) as she.
PEPPERMINTS IN THE PARLOR by Barbara Brooks Wallace
(208 pages, fiction, mystery, 6th grade reading level)
Emily has fond memories of her Aunt and Uncle Twice’s mansion, Sugar Hill Hall. But when Emily goes to live with them, everything has changed. Uncle Twice is missing and Aunt Twice is a prisoner in her own home. Something is very wrong, and Emily is desperate to find out what is going on, but time is running out.
SKINNYBONES by Barbara Park
(128 pages, fiction, humorous, 4th grade reading level)
Author Barbara Park has updated the text of this award-winning novel and made it even more hilarious. Alex “Skinnybones” Frankovich is the smallest player on his baseball team but is famous for his big mouth. Alex knows he’s gone too far when he brags his way into a battle of skills with T.J. Stoner, a cocky Little League legend with a perfect hitting record.
SNOW TREASURE by Marie McSwigan
(156 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
Based on a true story is this daring adventure about a group of children in Norway who smuggled 9 million dollars in gold on sleds sliding right past Nazi soldiers during World War II.
STONE FOX by John Reynolds Gardiner
(96 pages, fiction, adventure, 4th grade reading level)
Ten-year-old Willy needs to win the dogsled race so he can use the prize money to pay the back taxes on his grandfather’s farm so his grandfather doesn’t lose the farm. But that means winning against the legendary Indian, Stone Fox, who always wins.
THERE’S A BOY IN THE GIRLS’ BATHROOM by Louis Sachar
(208 pages, fiction, humorous, 4th grade reading level)
Bradley Chalkers is the oldest kid in the fifth grade, tells big lies, and picks fights with girls. No one likes him except Carla. Carla is the new school counselor and thinks Bradley can change. But when no one likes you, believing in yourself can be one of the hardest things to do.
TIME FOR ANDREW: A GHOST STORY by Mary Downing Hahn
(165 pages, fiction, ghost story, 4th grade reading level)
When he goes to spend the summer with his great-aunt in the family’s old house, eleven-year-old Andrew’s fantasies of ghosts and the past become real when his great-great-uncle (also named Andrew), who lived at the beginning of the century and died young, appears.
WAIT TILL HELEN COMES: A GHOST STORY by Mary Downing Hahn
(184 pages, fiction, ghost story, 4th grade reading level)
Molly and Michael dislike their spooky new stepsister Heather but realize that they must try to save her when she seems ready to follow a ghost child to her doom.
(a little spooky)
WATCHDOG AND THE COYOTES by Bill Wallace
(112 pages, fiction, humorous, 4th grade reading level)
Sweetie, a Great Dane, is very gentle because he knows he is off to the pound if he misbehaves. When a burglar comes, he wags his tail. But when coyotes come calling, he tries to make peace…..but his friends are in danger. What should he do?
THE WISH GIVER by Bill Brittain
(192 pages, fiction, fantasy, 4th grade reading level)
When a strange little man promises he can give people what they ask for, some young believers in magic each make a wish. Their wishes come true in unexpected ways.
AGES 10 and UP
AIRBORNE by Kenneth Oppel
(544 pages, fantasy, adventure, 5th-6th grade reading level)
In the early 20th century, a young orphan serves as a cabin boy aboard an airship and is witness to life-and-death battles in the sea and above land.
THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau
(288 pages, fiction, fantasy, 5th grade reading level)
The underground city of Ember was designed as a last refuge for the human race, but when food gets scarce and the lights dim, it’s up to two teenagers to decipher an ancient parchment and find a way out of the city.
THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper
(232 pages, fiction, fantasy, 6th grade reading level)
Will learns on his 11th birthday that he is the last-born of the Old Ones and begins a quest for six magical signs that will be needed in the battle between Dark and Light.
THE ENDLESS STEPPE: Growing Up in Siberia by Esther Hautzig
(256 pages, historical fiction, 6th grade reading level)
Forced from their home and friends in Poland, the Rudomin family is herded into crowded cattle cars and taken to the endless steppe of Siberia. For five years, Ester and her family live in exile, weeding potato fields and working in the mines, struggling for enough food and clothing to stay alive. Only the strength of family sustains them and gives them hope for the future.
FEVER, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
(256 pages, historical fiction, 5th-6th grade reading level)
In 1793, a coffeehouse outside of Philadelphia is a haven for those fleeing from the fever sweeping across the mosquito-infested city. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook loses her childhood playmate to the fever and struggles to keep her family and its business alive.
THE GIRL WHO OWNED A CITY by O.T. Nelson
(198 pages, fiction, dystopian, 5th grade reading level)
After all the adults in the world have died of a plague, Lisa and her younger brother must compete for survival roaming among lawless gangs in Chicago.
LETTERS FROM RIFKA by Karen Hesse
(148 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
Rifka flees from Russia with her family in 1919 and records her experiences of her challenging journey to America in the form of letters to her cousin back home in Russia.
LYDDIE by Katherine Paterson
(182 pages, historical fiction, 5th-6th grade reading level)
A story of determination and personal growth, Lyddie works as a servant to help her family and then eventually works at a textile factory in Lowell, Massachusetts.
MAGGIE’S DOOR by Patricia Reilly Giff
(158 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
In alternating stories, Nory Ryan and Sean Red Mallon, tell about their challenging journey from Ireland to America after the Irish potato famine.
MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli (Newbery Award Winner)
(192 pages, fiction, 5th grade reading level)
Orphaned Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee changes the lives of a racially divided town with his legendary running.
A MURDER FOR HER MAJESTY by Beth Hilgartner
(241 pages, historical fiction, mystery, 6th grade reading level)
After witnessing her father’s murder and fearing that the killers are agents of Queen Elizabeth I, eleven-year-old Alice Tuckfield hides in the Yorkshire cathedral by disguising herself as one of the choirboys.
RUNNING OUT OF TIME by Margaret Peterson Haddix
(192 pages, fiction, adventure, mystery, 5th grade reading level)
Jessie lives on the frontier in 1840….or so she thinks. When there is an outbreak of diphtheria, Jessie’s mother reveals to her that it is really 1996, and Jessie must venture out into the modern world to find medical help. But she is up against many obstacles, including a sinister man who will stop at nothing to make sure the frontier village remains locked in their 19th century existence.
SIGN OF THE BEAVER by Elizabeth George Speare
(135 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
Matt is a little nervous about being left alone by his father to guard their newly built cabin in the wilderness. But when he meets the proud, resourceful Indian boy Attean, Matt discovers new ways to survive in the forest. And in getting to know his friend, Matt also begins to understand the heritage and way of life of the Beaver clan.
TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN by Philippa Pearce
(240 pages, fiction, fantasy, 6th grade reading level)
Tom’s brother, Peter, has the measles, so Tom is being shipped off to stay with relatives in their boring apartment until Peter gets well. Tom is bored there with nothing to do until a wonderful, magical adventure begins.
TRAPPED IN DEATH CAVE by Bill Wallace
(176 pages, fiction, adventure, 4th grade reading level)
Gary’s grandpa supposedly died in a fishing accident, but Gary suspects he was murdered. Grandpa left a note telling where a million dollars of gold is hidden in a cave and of an old Indian curse promising that anyone who touches the gold will die.
THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE by Avi
(215 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
Charlotte finds herself to be the only girl on a ship on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1832, and she learns the captain is cruel and the crew is mutinous. (Included are instructions for drawing a ship, a recipe, helps to identifying knots, and hints on keeping a journal.)
TUCK EVERLASTING by Natalie Babbitt
(144 pages, fiction, fantasy, 5th grade reading level)
After drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family is blessed…or doomed…with eternal life; and the family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously as they can. Ten-year-old Winnie stumbles onto their secret, and a stranger who has followed Winnie wants to market the spring water for money.
THE VIEW FROM THE CHERRY TREE by Willow Davis Roberts
(192 pages, fiction, mystery, 5th grade reading level)
From his favorite perch in a cherry tree, Rob sees a murder committed. But when he tells his preoccupied family, no one will believe him. However, there is one person who believes him….the murderer.
THE WHITE MOUNTAINS by John Christopher
(195 pages, science fiction, 6th grade reading level)
When the Tripods…huge, three-legged machines…descended upon Earth and took control, the people accepted their power. The people had no control over their lives. But for a brief time in each person’s life, he is not a slave; and young Will uses that time to attempt an escape to the White Mountains where there is a possibility of freedom. (Prequel is WHEN THE TRIPODS CAME, and sequels are THE CITY OF GOLD AND LEAD and POOL OF FIRE. You’ll want to read them all. Read with a world atlas nearby, so you can figure out where the settings are. The geographical names in the novels are futuristic names.)
THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare (Newbery Award Winner)
(249 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
In 1687 in Connecticut, Kit Tyler, feeling out of place in the Puritan household of her aunt, befriends an old woman considered a witch by the community and suddenly finds herself accused of witchcraft facing trial.
A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L’Engle (Newbery Award Winner)
(245 pages, fantast/science fiction, 5th grade reading level)
A tesseract is a wrinkle in time. This is the story of the space and time adventures of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete and popular boy in high school) and their search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while doing secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.
AGES 12 and UP
BEAUTY: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley
(325 pages, fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, 7th grade reading level)
This is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast in a young adult novel.
DAY OF TEARS by Julius Lester
(192 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
Told through flashbacks and first-person points of view by various characters, this novel is about slavery in America, and the beginning of the story is based upon an actual event…..the largest slave auction in U.S. history. This novel superbly portrays the inhumanity of slavery. (note of warning: In the story, both blacks and whites use the word “nigger” liberally.)
DEALING WITH DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede
(212 pages, fiction, fantasy, 6th grade reading level)
Rather than marry a boring prince, Princess Cimerone runs away from her kingdom and becomes an assistant to a dragon.
THE FIFTH OF MARCH: A Story of the Boston Massacre by Ann Rinaldi
(333 pages, historical fiction, 5th grade reading level)
Rachel Marsh is a servant in the Boston household of John Adams. But her loyalty to the Adams family is tested by her friendship with a British private who leads his soldiers in firing upon a mob of Boston citizens.
HOPE WAS HERE by Joan Bauer
(186 pages, fiction, social issues, 5th grade reading level)
After moving to Wisconsin with her aunt, 16-year-old Hope finds herself caught up in her friend’s mayoral campaign to defeat a corrupt opposing candidate.
RUBY IN THE SMOKE by Philipp Pullman
(230 pages, fiction, mystery, 5th grade reading level)
Sixteen-year-old Sally Lockhart becomes involved in a deadly web of events as she searches for a mysterious ruby in 19th-century London.
STORMBREAKER by Anthony Horowitz
(234 pages, fiction, espionage, 5th grade reading level)
After the death of the uncle who had been his guardian, fourteen-year-old Alex Rider is coerced to continue his uncle’s dangerous work for Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6.
WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams
(476 pages, fiction, fantasy, 6th grade reading level)
Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of rabbits on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home.
YEAR OF IMPOSSIBLE GOODBYES by Sook Nyul Choi
(176 pages, historical fiction, 6th grade reading level)
It is 1945, and life has been turned upside-down for ten-year-old Sookan and her family. As the Japanese military occupy North Korea, police captain Narita does his best to destroy everything of value to Sookan’s family, but he cannot break their spirit. The war ends, but new suppression starts, and Sookan’s family knows their only hope is a dangerous escape to South Korea.