Page-Turning Classics for
9- to 12-Year-Olds
by Tom Burns
The word “classic” gets thrown around a lot when we talk about books, and it conjures different meanings for different people. For some readers, the term makes them think of a dusty, centuries-old brick of a book, the kind a particularly unsympathetic teacher might assign for summer reading.
But for others, classic means something magical. It means this book is special, unique, potentially life-changing. It means it’s the kind of book that you firmly press into the hands of your best friend and say, “OMG, you have to read this right now!”
If you want to introduce your tween reader to a book they can’t live without, here’s a selection of true classics they’ll treasure for the rest of their lives.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Yes, the movie adaptation with Jack Black and Cate Blanchett is pretty great — but that's probably because it was based on a pretty great book. Originally published in 1973, Bellairs’ macabre tale of witchcraft and suspense has been casting a spell over young readers for over 40 years. Kids love imagining themselves in the role of Lewis, the young orphan who moves into his uncle’s eccentric house and discovers that magic really exists. Plus, the sublime illustrations from legend Edward Gorey set the tone perfectly.Preorder from:
The Westing Game
This Newbery Medal-winning classic is one of the best juvenile mystery stories ever written. It’s all about a group of strangers who must solve an elaborate mystery surrounding the death of a reclusive millionaire. There are generations of kids who grew up to become obsessed with Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, and the Clue movie, all thanks to a love of mysteries that originated with The Westing Game.
Where the Red Fern Grows
This book is the 1961 version of those animal videos you encounter online and then find yourself happy-crying about all week. It's one of those foundational books where kids learn about the bittersweet joy of loving another living creature. We're told the story of Billy, growing up in the Ozarks and bonding with his two remarkable coonhounds, Old Dan and Little Ann. Their adventures together teach readers about friendship, empathy, and loss — lessons worthy of a true classic.
Bud, Not Buddy
One of the characteristics of an all-time great book is that it has a lead character whose voice you can hear in your head — the kind of character you can't forget about when the book is over. That's definitely the case with Bud. Curtis won the Newbery Medal for his exceptional tale of a young foster child in the 1930s who decides to track down his long-lost father. Bud is quick-witted, funny, and wise beyond his years. His voice draws readers in and never lets them go.
His Dark Materials Series
It's hard not to slip into hyperbole when talking about Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. It’s an epic fantasy in the grand tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, Kwame Alexander, and C.S. Lewis, but it’s also so timeless and emotional that it will leave modern middle schoolers breathless. The tale of young Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon exploring the infinite universe is unforgettable, and the recent addition to the series, The Book of Dust, is an absolute rarity: a prequel that doesn't disappoint.
Let's be honest. I could've picked ANY Dahl book, called it a classic, and I would've been right. The literary legacy of Roald Dahl is remarkable. He's that rare adult writer who can speak to the fantasies and anxieties of children, but in a way that thrills and delights all readers. The Witches is one of his best. It's the story of a kindhearted young boy who gets turned into a mouse — and rather enjoys it — then defeats a cadre of evil witches simply because it's the right thing to do.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
The true classics are the ones that impress upon their readers a genuine sense of empathy. They not only offer a glimpse into a character's life, but they also make sense of the character’s feelings. It's impossible to read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry without experiencing profound empathy for young Cassie Logan and her family. Set during the Great Depression in America's Deep South, this award-winning novel makes readers feel both the insidious harm of institutionalized racism and the unrelenting dignity of the Logan family in the face of such prejudice. It’s an extraordinary, vitally important book for all ages.
This is a book that kids go wild for. If you meet a young Hoot fan, they'll beam while talking about it. (They'll talk your ear off, too!) Hiassen, famous for his crime novels, does a fantastic job translating his mastery of dialogue and suspense for young readers. He introduces us to Roy, a new kid in Florida, who finds himself facing bullies, befriending local eccentrics, and becoming an environmental activist to protect a family of burrowing owls. It's fast, fun, and offers kids a lot to get excited about, while also teaching them about making friends and taking stands.