A common question parents ask me is, how can I encourage my child to read more broadly? While I am a big believer in letting kids read whatever they want without shame or judgment, acceptance is not incompatible with encouraging exploration, as with deliberate exposure to new foods, cultures, and other experiences. Sometimes young readers get stuck in ruts because they aren’t sure what else is out there or are overwhelmed by all their options. Often there are so many other things happening in their lives—changing friendships, challenging math problems, the awkwardness of growing bodies—that the benefit of comfort reads cannot be overstated.
As adults, it’s also easy to forget how much mental effort it can take to be a young reader: decoding unfamiliar words, assimilating new vocabulary, grappling with various narrative structures, interpreting allusions, and making inferences are all skills that fluent adult readers are used to taking in stride. But even in the upper-elementary grades and middle school, young people are still actively learning how to read. Books that seem predictable or formulaic to adults serve an important purpose in introducing young people to the way literature works in different cultures. You can’t appreciate originality unless you understand and have internalized conventions, after all.
So, when it comes to nudging your middle grader outside their comfort zone, books that defy easy categorization can be a great starting point because they often overlap with something the young reader already knows and loves. These books can therefore serve as a bridge or scaffold from well-worn favorites, opening up new reading vistas. Below is an assortment of recent summer releases to try, each combining strong reader appeal and literary merit with plot elements that bring together the beloved and familiar with the novel and exciting.
Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne (Scholastic, July 6): This story set in Barbados combines the deep emotional pull of a family relationship story with spine-tingling suspense and the thrills of mythology-inspired fantasy. Jo is grieving the loss of her mother and suspicious of her father’s new girlfriend, who seems to have supernatural powers.
A Discovery of Dragons by Lindsay Galvin (Chicken House/Scholastic, July 6): High-seas adventure, the wonders of natural history, and a wilderness survival story come together in this original novel that combines true facts about Charles Darwin’s Galápagos visit with, yes, dragons. The tale is narrated from the perspective of a boy who is the ship’s fiddler on the Beagle.
How To Be Brave by Daisy May Johnson (Henry Holt, July 6): The perennial charm of an English boarding school story is combined with a plucky young heroine, a kidnapped mother, a rare species of duck, and lots and lots of cake. The droll narrator keeps this creative story—both cozy and suspenseful—moving along. Readers will be captivated.
Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa, illustrated by Miho Satake (Restless Books, July 6): A what-should-I-do-over-summer-vacation story meets a ghost mystery in this novel about a boy, his funny best friend who’s always on the lookout for the next delicious snack, a strange girl and her even stranger mom, a grumpy old lady who’s definitely hiding something, and a most unnerving cat.
Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Heartdrum, June 1): This book places beloved characters from Peter Pan inside a fresh, new storyline. The magical framework of the original becomes the foundation for a contemporary story about love in a blended family, the diversity and inclusivity of Indigenous heritage, respect for the environment, and girl power.
Laura Simeon is a young readers' editor.