14 Kid-Approved Books for Advanced Fifth and Sixth-Grade Readers

by Kari Ness Riedel

Photography by Seana Williamson

Does your reader love books full of complex characters and thought-provoking themes? Do they get excited when they discover a “really thick” book they haven’t read yet? Do they want to be challenged but deeply immersed in a great story? It can be difficult for 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old readers who read at a high school (or higher) level to find books that meet their reading needs but are still appropriate for their age and experience. For readers like this, I worry less about what Lexile or Guided Reading level a specific book is and look for stories that will offer them a chance to go deeper in their thinking about characters and situations.

Here are 14 books that are loved by young readers on that offer unique character voices, complex plots and themes, and high page counts to engage fifth and sixth-grade advanced readers.

  • Fantasy & Science Fiction

  • Recommended for readers who enjoy interesting characters, extensive world-building, and masterful storytelling. 

  • The Glass Sentence

    by S. E. Grove

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    Time travel, history, and magic come together in this unique fantasy that spans time and place. Sophia is a clever and observant girl from a long line of mapmakers who have been mapping the New World since the Great Disruption of 1799 when all the continents were scattered into different time periods. The story begins in 1891 when Sophia’s parents and uncle go missing. She and her friend Theo embark on a mission to save her family and figure out what is happening to their world. Sylvie, 11, raves, “I loved this book because it had adventure, action, and great storytelling. I also loved the way the author created characters who I would want to be friends with.”

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  • His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (HBO Tie-In Edition)

    by Philip Pullman

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    In this immersive fantasy adventure series, Lyra goes on a dangerous quest to save her best friend and other kids kidnapped by dark forces. Parallel worlds, magical creatures, and morally complex characters make this an excellent pick for readers who like a challenge. Claire, 10, says, “It is one of my favorite books of all time. I think it is a great book for all advanced readers, especially kids because it is a good introduction to more sophisticated books without being too violent or inappropriate.”

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  • Life as we Knew It

    by Susan Beth Pfeffer, read by Emily Bauer

    Available in audiobook format and written as a journal, this dystopian story explores what would happen if a meteor entered our solar system and disrupted the natural world as we know it. Miranda and her family worry about survival as summer quickly turns into winter, and they must live on the food they have stockpiled. Adriana, 12, was hooked right away. “It pulled me in like a fish on a pole! This book makes you want to keep reading for years! I would recommend this great book to anyone that likes nerve-wracking mysteries and sad, emotion-filled stories.”

  • Mysteries & Realistic Fiction

  • Recommended for readers who like complicated mysteries or emotion-filled realistic fiction stories that make them think and feel.

  • One Came Home

    by Amy Timberlake

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    In Wisconsin in 1871, Georgie is best known for her perfect aim with a rifle and for always speaking the truth. When the town sheriff tells her that her older sister, Agatha, is dead, Georgie is convinced that this is not true. She sets out on a danger-filled adventure to discover what happened to her sister. Samuel, 12, shares his love for this book, “I was at the edge of my seat throughout the whole entire book. This book is great for anyone who likes mysteries, twists, and a whole lot of adventure.”

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  • The Westing Game

    by Ellen Raskin

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    A clever mystery centered on 16 eclectic individuals who gather to hear the reading of the will of Samuel Westing, an eccentric millionaire who loved games. Hoping to win Mr. Westing’s massive fortune, the characters pair up to solve a series of puzzles. Cliffhangers, new discoveries about each character, and tons of plot twists make this book a page-turner. Hayden, 11, recommends it, “Witty, fun, intelligent, and mysterious… this book [is] so much fun to read.”

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  • Counting by 7s

    by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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    Twelve-year-old Willow doesn’t fit any mold. A neurodiverse genius who is mostly a loner at school, she suddenly becomes an orphan after her adoptive parents die in a tragic accident. The book follows her journey to overcome grief by connecting with strangers who become like family. Kristy says, “It’s a touching book that will reach down into your heart and make you want to cry. This book has changed my life and how I think.”

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  • Navigating Early

    by Clare Vanderpool

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    This adventure-filled tale is about two unlikely friends, Jack and Early, who meet at a boarding school in Maine and head out on the Appalachian Trail to find a great black bear. It is a masterfully spun story of friendship, survival, and identity often called a more modern Huckleberry Finn. Ananya gave it five stars and shared, “Great book. It [gave] me a different perspective of life in general.”

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  • Return to Sender

    by Julia Alvarez

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    This is a poignant story about the complicated friendship between Tyler, the son of a white farming family in Vermont, and Mari, the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants who work for Tyler’s family. Deep themes about identity, belonging, and immigrant families’ daily hopes and fears weave together beautifully. “It was a good book about a brave, strong family,” says Naylia, 11.

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  • Historical Fiction

  • Recommended for advanced readers interested in learning about historical tragedies and hardships through characters who embody hope and perseverance.

  • Between Shades of Gray

    by Ruta Sepetys

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    Not to be confused with Fifty Shades of Grey, this is a beautiful and harrowing story of survival set during World War II. Lina is a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl whose family gets separated by Soviet officers. They send her to a Siberian work camp while her dad goes to a prison camp. Suspense and adventure abound as Lina tries to use seemingly innocent drawings to send secret codes to her family. “This is one of the best books I've read in my life. It gets sad, but then happy. Even if you don't like historical fiction, grab this book and read it anyways,” raves Briseida, 12.

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  • The Book Thief (Anniversary Edition)

    by Markus Zusak

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    Told through Death’s eyes, this story follows the journey of a young German girl, Liesel, who is being fostered by a poor family during the horrific events of World War II. She steals books being burned by Nazi supporters, and they become a source of hope that feeds her soul amidst her daily hardships. She shares these books with others she meets and tries to avoid the narrator. Claire, 12, wrote, “I love this book so much. I was on my toes the whole way through it! I recommend this book to people who like action, violence, and a little sadness.”

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  • The Lions of Little Rock

    by Kristin Levine

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    Set in 1958 during the Civil Rights movement and the famously rocky integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, this book centers on the deep friendship formed between 12-year-olds Marlee and Liz despite their racial differences. To save their relationship, they must fight against societal discrimination, family norms, fear, and violence. Ally, 10, says, “This is a great book that shows that the color of your skin is not as important as friendship.”

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  • Nonfiction

  • Recommended for advanced readers who enjoy going deep into true stories about people and places in our world.

  • All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys' Soccer Team

    by Christina Soontornvat

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    This narrative nonfiction by beloved Thai-American author Christina Soontornvat provides a suspense-filled account of the rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach from the caverns of Tham Luang Nang Non. Information about Thai culture, religion, and current challenges weave together with a play-by-play of how rescue workers and local volunteers showed the world what it means to be real-life superheroes. W.C., 11, enthusiastically recommends it, “Best nonfiction book ever! I like how it talks about community and people coming together, and [it has] all sorts of cool information.”

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  • Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation)

    by Laura Hillenbrand

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    Louis Zamperini is a clever delinquent turned Olympic athlete who became an airman during World War II and had an epic, real-life adventure when he survived his plane crashing into the Pacific Ocean. It’s a beautifully told and inspiring story of courage, tenacity, and ingenuity. Charlie, 12, exclaims, “This book is awesome… It told me to take chances on what looks like something difficult. I really hope you read this incredible book.”

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  • Undefeated

    by Steve Sheinkin, read by Mark Bramhall

    This audiobook offers a fascinating look at the history of football told through the experiences of superstar player Jim Thorpe and legendary coach Pop Warner. They created one of the best-known teams at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It examines details about the genius of their strategic plays and hard work and takes a critical look at the persecution and exploitation of Native Americans during this time period. Beck, 10, shares, “This book was very interesting and really challenged me as a reader.”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated in 2023.