Fifth grade is a major transition year in the life of students. They are still in elementary school and in a sense still kids, yet they are also about to embark on the journey to the middle grades. As they approach their teenage years, it’s important that students are exposed to certain novels—books that teach valuable lessons, start important conversations, merely make them laugh, or all of the above.
We’ve compiled a list of our favorite 5th grade books. Run—don’t walk!—to your nearest library or bookstore for this essential reading.
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1. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
When Raina trips and falls, injuring her two front teeth, she’s forced to have surgery and wear braces, making sixth grade even wilder than it already is. This graphic novel, based on Telgemeier’s life, has everything from boy problems to a major earthquake.
2. Holes by Louis Sachar
Moving and funny with an edge, Louis Sachar’s Newberry Medal-winning novel Holes revolves around Stanley Yelnats (his surname is Stanley spelled backwards), who has been sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center, to dig holes. Soon after picking up the shovel, Stanley begins to suspect that they are doing more than just moving dirt.
3. Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
This is historical fiction at its finest. It’s the story of Esperanza, a wealthy girl living in Mexico, who must go with her family to the United States during the Great Depression. Esperanza’s life gets turned upside down, but she pushes through and learns that pleasant surprises can result from change.
4. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Read the book before you see the movie! The hero of Wonder is Auggie Pullman, who has an extremely rare medical facial deformity. After having undergone many facial surgeries, Auggie has been homeschooled by his mother, but soon he will be attending mainstream school for the first time. This lovely story of acceptance will have every pre-teen rooting for Auggie the “wonder.”
5. Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
”I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for a while.” Freak the Mighty is the tale of the unlikely friendship between Max, a strong boy with a learning disability, and Freak, a brilliant, small boy with a heart condition. Together, they are Freak the Mighty: nine feet tall and ready to conquer the world.
6. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
Words always swirl around in Melody’s head. However, due to her cerebral palsy, they remain stuck in her brain. Out of My Mind is the powerful story of an intelligent young girl with a photographic memory who cannot communicate her thoughts. No one believes Melody is capable of learning, but she eventually finds her voice.
7. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Moose Flanagan isn’t growing up where most kids grow up. He is a resident of The Rock, also known as Alcatraz, the infamous prison where his father works as an electrician. In an effort to help his sister, Natalie, who has autism, Moose gets help from an unlikely—and notorious—new friend.
8. I Am Malala (Young Reader’s Edition) by Malala Yousafzai
The inspiring memoir of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teen who was shot by the Taliban, who became an international symbol of peaceful protest. Every pre-teen should hear the wisdom in the words, “When you’ve nearly lost your life, a funny face in the mirror is simply proof that you are still here on this earth.”
9. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Jerry Spinelli’s classic Maniac Magee follows an orphan boy looking for a home in a fictional town in Pennsylvania. For his feats of athleticism and fearlessness and his ignorance to the racial boundaries around him, Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee becomes something of a local legend. This timeless book is essential reading for learning about social identity and finding your place in the world.
10. Baseball in April and Other Stories by Gary Soto
Gary Soto uses experiences from his own life as a Mexican American growing up in California as the inspiration for eleven stellar short stories, each describing small moments that showcase bigger themes. Crooked teeth, girls with ponytails, embarrassing relatives, and karate class, all are wonderful fabric for Soto to weave the beautiful tapestry that is young Gary’s world.
11. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Fifth graders will enjoy Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel The Secret Garden. Mary Lennox is a spoiled orphan sent to live with her uncle at his mansion full of secrets. Generations young and old love this book that showcases the true meaning of the word family.
12. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Jess meets the smart and talented Leslie after she beats him in a race at school. Leslie transforms his world, teaching him how to have courage in the face of adversity. They create a kingdom for themselves, called Terabithia, an imaginary refuge where their adventures take place. In the end, Jess has to overcome heartbreaking tragedy in order to stay strong.
13. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
The city of Ember was built as a last refuge for the human race. Two hundred years later, the lamps that light the city are beginning to die out. When Lina finds part of an ancient message, she’s sure it holds a secret that will save the city. This classic dystopian tale will light up your heart.
14. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Lois Lowry’s classic The Giver begins as a utopian tale but is later revealed to be a dystopian story in every sense of the word. Jonas lives in a world where society has eliminated memories, pain, and emotional depth. When he becomes a Receiver of Memory, he struggles with new emotions he’s never before felt. And as you read, so will you!
15. Number The Stars by Lois Lowry
Lois Lowry does it again! Be prepared to answer lots of questions while reading this classic must-read about Annemarie, a young girl, who helps keep her Jewish friends safe during the Holocaust. The details are so precise, you will feel as if you are right in the middle of the story.
16. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
This adventure tale is also a great example of huge character growth. Brian must try to survive the wilderness after a plane crash, but he has only the clothes on his back, a windbreaker, and the titular hatchet. Brian learns how to fish, how to build a fire, and most importantly, patience.
17. The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
History unfolds in this book set during the Civil Rights Movement when the Watsons, a family from Flint, Michigan, takes a road trip to Alabama. Chock-full of family dynamics, adolescent angst, and humor, this book will encourage much discussion about what Birmingham was like in 1963.
18. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
This classic diary documents the life of Anne Frank while she was in hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The diary has since been published in over 60 languages. It’s a gripping and heartbreaking tale for kids and adults to read and discuss together.
19. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
This story is an exciting tale of love and adventure that your fifth grader never forget. Ten-year-old Billy raises hunting dogs in the Ozark Mountains. Throughout the story, young Billy encounters his share of heartbreak.
20. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Two heartwarming, compelling stories are woven together in this delightful tale. As 13-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle takes a cross country trip with her grandparents, a story of love, loss, and the depth and complexity of human emotion is revealed.