5 tips for reading middle grade novels with your kids

Written by contributor Sarah Mackenzie of Amongst Lovely Things

When my oldest children were small, I couldn’t wait until we could read middle grade novels together. I enjoyed reading picture books with them, of course, but it had been Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl who had sparked my own childhood imagination and turned me into a lifelong reader.

I couldn’t wait to introduce favorite books and characters to my kids.

The first novel I tried to read to my kids was Little House in the Big Woods. It was wildly unsuccessful.

I hadn’t yet developed my own read-aloud skills enough to deliver the long descriptive passages in an interesting way, and my girls hadn’t had enough practice painting pictures in their heads and following along with longer narrative to keep up with what was going on. It was such a disappointment.

Now, I maintain that Laura Ingalls Wilder has written some of the best books ever written (and we have gone on to read her entire series three times as a family), but I don’t usually recommend that parents just starting to read novels with their kids start there.

Novels require something of your child that reading picture books doesn’t- namely, a longer attention span and an ability to imagine without visual prompts.

If you’re just getting started with reading novels with your kids (lucky you- you’re in for such a treat!), choose books that set you up to be successful right out of the gate. Make those first forays into longer fiction a stepping stool, and you’ll set yourself up for years and years of happy reading aloud.


Here are some tips for getting started with reading novels to your kids:

1. Some books make better first novels than others.

There are a lot of wonderful books that are hard to read aloud. When you’re choosing your very first chapter books, look for those with short chapters, lots of dialogue, and memorable characters (they are easier for your children to picture in their mind).

Collections of short stories are also a good choice while you’re getting little minds used to longer narrative. There’s a good list of first novels here to get you started. Choose books that make the transition easy!

2. Read when you’ve got a captive audience.

Audio books in the car are a perfect way to capitalize on your captive audience. Mealtimes are another good choice- they’re sitting still and they’re mouths are busy, so chances are good that you won’t have to work quite as hard to keep everyone settled.

By the way, your child doesn’t actually need to be sitting still to listen well. Dump out a pile of Legos or a mound of play dough to keep little hands busy, and you’ll have a lot more success right out of the gate.

3. Keep it short.

Short spurts are your best bet. I love to tell people that reading aloud for just five minutes a day (and not a minute more!) for the course of a year would equal 30 hours of reading aloud. That’s a lot of shared reading!

Five minutes a day every day, is enough to make a lasting difference in your home. In fact, doing just a little bit every single day is far more effective than an hour once per week, because it helps you form a read-aloud habit, and lets shared reading become a part of your family culture.

4. Read what you love

When I am not enjoying a particular book, I have a hard time maintaining enthusiasm to keep at it day in and day out. There have been plenty of books others love that I have just not gotten excited about.

Instead of feeling insecure about why I don’t love to read The Hobbit or Swallows and Amazons, I’ve learned that I need to focus on reading books that I really enjoy.

If you read what you love, your children will feed off that enthusiasm. You’ll find a lot of momentum radiating from the fact that you are enjoying yourself.


5. Never stop reading picture books.

Just because you are venturing into middle grade novels doesn’t mean that picture books have now become a thing of the past. Some of the most eloquent and complex stories are told in picture books.

When you move into novels, think of it as expanding your world and inviting a whole new slew of books into your child’s literary repertoire. The title of this blog post is a bit misleading, I suppose- you aren’t really moving from picture books to novels.

You’re simply inviting longer text into your already rich literary life.

Chances are good that read-aloud time will become a favorite part of your child’s day. The best thing I can tell you as you reach for those very first novels to share with your kids is to relish it.

Set yourself up for success and then just enjoy the ride. Parenting doesn’t get much better than this.

What are some middle grade novels that have been a success in your home?

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About Sarah Mackenzie

Sarah is a smitten wife, mama of six (including twins!) and the author of Teaching from Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakable Peace.
She hosts the Read-Aloud Revival Podcast and spends her time running the vibrant, active membership community there.


  1. We started with Winnie the Pooh and found it wasn’t a smashing success. We moved onto Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little which both went well. Then we started the Little House on the Prairie series and it’s going really well! We read at dinnertime and find it helps the kids eat better to listen to a story and listen better to be eating while listening.
    Steph’s latest post: If Kids Were Robots

    • You know, I have it on good authority that Winnie the Pooh is best read when the kids are just a smidge older. I know that we tried to read it when my oldest was six and struggled with it. I’m going to try it with my older elementary crew soon!
      Sarah Mackenzie’s latest post: That Will Be $3, Dane Doo :: November Daybook

      • The audio version of Winnie the Pooh (with different actors) is wonderful. We loved it and have listened to it several times from the library.

      • I had but didn’t read WTP until just this last fall, when my son was seven. He LOVED it. I think it’s a little harder to understand than we may realize because of the subject matter being so cute. When we first started reading chapter books my son was four, and I read Charlotte’s Web because I loved it as a kid. We read books by Roald Dahl, Stuart Little, etc. They all went over well. At that time, I also tried Little House, and it was a definite failure. Now, recently, my son has seemed interested. We’re too busy reading the Avonlea books AND Treasure Island right now though.

      • We are reading Winnie the Pooh this year. My kids are 9-11-13-15 and loving it! Last year they loved Rascal. Harry Potter narrated by Jim Dale comes on all our long car trips 🙂

    • Charlotte’s Web is the best starter book in our family. We have also had tremendous success with (believe it or not) Wind in the Willows, although this may be because the kids like how I do all the voices

    • I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who picked up WTP and waved the white flag. I never made it out of the first chapter!

      • Please try the audiobook version with Peter Dennis as the reader. That’s what hooked all my kids on Pooh, and waiting until they’re at least 7 🙂

        • My family LOVES the Peter Dennis recordings! They are excellent. My husband, who lived in England for two years, gets such a kick out of the characters, and my children have grown up with these stories.

  2. Love this! I just had the revelation that I should never stop reading picture books to them! That was so cool to see on your list. I love picture books! And we pulled out some old favorites the other day and they hold up. As far as novels go, Stuart Little, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Nim’s Island, and The Hobbit have been huge hits around here.

  3. So right that you should read what you love. We made it through a couple of books from our curricula like Detectives in Togas, but it was painful. Red Sails to Capri did us in for a long time. It wasn’t until I started Anne of Green Gables that we actually read an entire novel, happily! Even my teen (boy!) enjoyed it.

    • So funny how different experiences are for different families. While Red Sails to Capri is far from a first novel for us, I read it aloud to my oldest a couple of years ago and she still talks about how great that book is. I think she was 7 at the time.

  4. Oh! Melissa Wiley said the same thing about Red Sails to Capri in an episode of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast. Let me see if I can find the right episode for you…. http://amongstlovelythings.com/7

    I’ve never tried it, but maybe that one is better for reading alone?
    Sarah Mackenzie’s latest post: That Will Be $3, Dane Doo :: November Daybook

  5. Erin Johnson says:

    Our first chapter book was Because of Mr. Terupt…LOVED THIS BOOK – and, more importantly, so did my 10 year old =) The chapters were short, the characters were memorable, and the writing was fun and face-paced.

  6. We’ve found that the best time for us is right before bed, when they can get in bed (or play) while I read. I got them hooked with the first three Harry Potter books, then we did Charlotte’s Web, the Troubletwisters books (their choice), and we’ve begun Jerri Massi’s Derwood, Inc mystery series. I’ve found that books have to be funny or it becomes a slog.

  7. We read The Witches by Roald Dahl. My (then) first and second grader couldn’t get enough of this wildly amusing fantasy, and begged every night for me to continue reading. I happily obliged, because it is such an entertaining read aloud book!

  8. Oh, I wish I would have read this 2 years ago 🙂
    So, so helpful! Right now, we are reading Wind in the Willows. I haven’t been super thrilled about reading it – but my oldest really enjoys it, thankfully! Since the story isn’t hitting me like I want it to – I often times have my husband read it aloud in the evenings. He does a great job and the kids like having Daddy read to them VERY much.
    GREAT post.

    Many blessings,
    Kate 🙂
    Kate’s latest post: The Post

  9. Very timely post. I’ve been struggling to find the right book for me to read. I’m better at choosing audiobooks for the car which have been a hit. Best success has been Neil Gaimen’s Fortunately the Milk…

  10. I’ve noticed that when I’m reading picture books to my toddler that often my older children stop what they are doing and gather around. I can always tell when I’m reading a family favorite, such as Dooly and the Snortsnoot, then everyone is gathered! Such fun and takes just 5 minutes.

    We’ve just started reading aloud Lemony Snicket and the Series of Unfortunate events. So far it’s going well. 🙂

  11. Great tips! It’s funny, but the Little House on the Prairie series was probably the first novel I read to my oldest, and it was a big hit with her at age 4. Now the big challenge is reading to a wider age range (2-9). My toddler tends to get so vocal, it’s hard for the big kids to listen! I hate breaking up reading time (I’d love the littles to learn to listen better), but it seems like that is our best option for now. :/ Our favorite middle grade read aloud this year has been the Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson. 🙂
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  12. Anything by Hilda Van Stockum (The Mitchells series, The Cottage at Bantry Bay series- helps if you can affect an Irish accent!) – my kids loved. The Chronicles of Narnia are also giod choices. I found some books are better to listen to via Audio books when professionally read- like Pooh. I could never get into Beatrix Potter until i heard Claire Bloom read her stories- soooo good. Also the Redwall series is great to listen to as read by the author, Brian Jacques. Voices make such a difference!!

  13. Trumpet of the Swan, too!

  14. We started with The Boxcar Children (success!), tried a bit or Narnia (not ready yet), and are now on book 2 of the Little House series (wildly popular!). Now, getting my 7 year old to read by himself ( something beyond a book about dinosaurs) proved the most challenging. I caved and bought him The Diary of a Wimp Kid and that was a big win. Now he’s off and running all on his own. Makes a momma’s heart happy. 🙂

  15. The Grand Adventures of Inspector Toadius McGee. It’s a detective book for young boys (and girls). It’s like a Sherlock Holmes for kids. My nephews love it. It has everything from criminal monkey master minds to fun Marx brother type word play. It has tons of zany characters, which makes fun for reading out loud. It’s short but interesting. If you want to get your boys to read. It’s a great book. My sister found it on amazon.

  16. One of our favorite family pasttimes is to read aloud. It all started years ago on our annual drive from NJ to NC-a 10-11 hour drive each way. The kids were young (probably 5 and 7), and we got Audio books of Encyclopedia Brown, Little House on the Prairie, and Winnie-the-Pooh. They were hooked! So now every road trip we take, we listen to books. We’ve never had to use a DVD in the car. When we’re home, my husband or I do the reading and also have our kids take a turn to practice their read-aloud skills (just brief stints, because it’s difficult for my son, so it takes the enjoyment out of the book if he reads too long). The kids are now 8 and 10. I love that we can read books that are above their reading level, so they can get a taste of good literature and hear more complex stories than what they can read independently.
    To add to #4 above “Read what you love”, I would add “Read what THEY love”. So far, they’ve loved every book we chose except one(“Alice in Wonderland”). So we stopped. It was torture for all of us to continue reading, when the kids really weren’t into it. Sometimes, they will protest a bit when we start a new book that they *think* they won’t like, but most of the time, they end up loving it. I tell them they have to give it a chance. Through reading aloud, we’ve been able to introduce so many authors and genres to them and once they are hooked, they often seek out these books on their own to read by themselves.
    Elaine’s latest post: Thanksgiving Art, Science, and Thankfulness project

  17. Excellent points. Middle grade action-adventures @ mystery fiction are primarily what I write. Kids say reading one is like being in an exciting movie. Ten books are published and I have contracts for 13 more. In my case, middle grade is alive, well, and getting stronger.
    Amazon Author Page http://www.amazon.com/Max-Elliot-Anderson/e/B002BLP3EE
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  18. We love audiobooks in the car. I am terrible reading aloud, and have never gotten to where I can do voices, and I get tired and start yawning uncontrollably after about 10 minutes. Now, even just a quick trip to the grocery store is a great chance to hear some of the current story. In fact, my daughter (6) loves the audiobooks so much, she will pull out her iPod while playing and re-listen to stories we’ve already finished. It also took some work for us to get into the genre that both of us really enjoyed listening to. Her preference is fantasy, which was something I knew nothing about, but now love the fantasy/sci-fi stories that are geared toward middle grade readers (like A Wrinkle in Time).
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  19. We have found Milly Molly Mandy to be very successful as a first chapter book particularly with our daughters. Each chapter stands alone so there is no complicated plot to remember. It is set in England in the 1920s so English accents are good (I have one anyway!) but not essential.
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator have also been well received: I had to read both books twice, last year, to my then five and seven year olds.
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  20. One of our first chapter books was the Frog and Toad compilation. My boys literally roll in the floor laughing. Other shorter chapter books we’ve loved have been: Little Bear by Maurice Sendack, My Father’s Dragon, and recently, Little Pear. (Longer chapters, but my boys were mesmerized)
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  21. We started with Wheel on the School (kept all three entertained 6,8, and 13) then Cricket in Times Square. We are now in Bridge to Terabithia (my oldest’s choice!). It’s a bit much for the younger ones, but we will give it a few more chapters to see if they can grasp anything. If it doesn’t work, then I will choose one from this list! Is there a Lexile number that I can go by to know what might be too hard for the littles to understand?

  22. We have loved “James and the Giant Peach” and “The BFG.” I was hesitant about them because I didn’t think I would enjoy them and that that would taint my children’s view of them. I decided to go with the audio versions and I have to say that I loved, loved, loved the shared listening experience! And Roald Dahl has such command of the language! I was so inspired!
    Angela Awald’s latest post: The Big Book Pile-Up Reading List

  23. Our very first audiobook was Nesbit’s “The Enchanted Castle”. It was FABULOUS!! And, began our love with audios and Audible. “Wonder” is a fav as are the “Chronicles of Narnia”. “Holes” makes the middle school list as does the “Myth-Adventure” series. So many to explore!!

  24. Elizabeth Nieves says:

    Thank you all for sharing your experiences! I love reading to my kids and have been since infancy. I am glad to have attended a Carol Joy Seid seminar before embarking on homeschooling because her experience and expertise have proven true! I used all the books she suggested and they now have a good pallet for good books. My son at 11 read all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit in one summer. He still loves for me to read to him and says when he grows up he’s going to make sure his wife reads to the kids…lol
    I like that Andrew Pudewa said I his interview with Sarah, “reading aloud is NOT optional” kids truly come to love it; especially when the words seep like tea.

  25. Our most beloved books have been the Chronicles of Narnia. We’ve read them two or three times aloud, and we’ve listened to the audio books about 30 times, I think. We’ve also loved plenty of others. The books that get re-requested are The Hobbit, Winnie The Pooh, and Beatrix Potter. Right now we’re going through Avonlea, which I’m enjoying so much because I’ve not read them since I was a kid. I wasn’t sure if my son would like them, but he does. We’re also just starting Treasure Island.

  26. I just want to share a website that got our family doing read-aloud/audio stories. Storynory.com It’s wonderful! There are classic stories and some originals. My kids and I have enjoyed them for years.

  27. We finished Five Children & It a week or so ago. We LOVED it. One of my favorites but it had very long chapters…but also loads of dialog! Excellent. I had not read it before so it was new for me, too!

  28. Oh…& now we are 1/2 way through Blue Birds. Beautiful.
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  29. I know that this is hardly quality literature, but I read the junior novel of Planes: Fire and Rescue to our 4 year old a few months ago. I figured it would be good intro to books without pictures since he already knew the story and characters. He loved it, but when we tried another chapter book after that he wanted nothing to do with it. I’m hoping to try again soon. I’m thinking Paddington.

  30. We loved reading Mr Popper’s Penguins aloud! So much humor in the antics of both Mr Popper and the penguins!
    A great classic, The Secret Garden, as well as A Little Princess and the others by Frances Hodgson Burnett. : )

  31. Cracking up about the Swallows and Amazons mention. We tried…we tried SOOOOO hard to read that book aloud. While it is a delightful book, I agree it is a painful read aloud. Phew. Relieved it wasn’t just me!

  32. I tried reading Little House in the Big Woods and The Lion, The witch and The Wardrobe to my kids and dive-bombed. I thought for awhile that I disliked reading chapter books aloud and stuck to poetry and fairy tales. When I started homeschooling, I discovered that I just hate reading aloud books I know and love. It has to be a book that I’ve never read before! Then I’m not disappointed when my kids don’t evidence love for my favorite part.

  33. Carrie DeZwaan says:

    We read aloud a lot in our home and when on overseas outreaches. A favorite with all of my kids(4 boys ages 10,10,7,5) is The Mysteriois Benedict Society series! And they are fun and engaging for me too! 😉

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