A friend of mine recently asked me for book suggestions for a reluctant tween reader who loves animals. Since many of you have or teach children ages 8 – 12 who might also like animals, reluctant or not, you’ll want this list, too.
I have several posts with ideas to help reluctant readers. But one thing I want to emphasize, having taught reluctant readers and raised one, is that it’s your job to find ways to get them to love stories. The best way that I’ve found is to read aloud to them. Even when they’re older. Audiobooks work, too.
Kids who struggle with reading for whatever reason may not yet have fallen in love with the magic of a good story. That’s the ultimate goal. Because that can help them persist with the challenges that might be facing them when it comes to reading.
The below book list is generally listed in order of difficulty starting with easier chapter books and continuing to more complex text for older tweens.
Give your child a choice of two or more books. As you know, choice is often the most motivating part of reading a new book.
Fiction Books for Animal-Loving Tweens
Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
Quirky and delightful, this is the tale of a girl named Flora who rescues a squirrel and keeps it as a friend. Together they experience the world in a unique, funny, and wonderful way, and straighten it out, too — along with Flora’s mother.
Olga and the Smelly Thing From Nowhere by Elise Gravel
Mango and Bambang The Not-a-Pig by Clara Vulliamy
Ranger in Time #1: Rescue on the Oregon Trail by Kate Messner, illustrated by Kelley McMorris
This series is on the easier side and about a golden retriever named Ranger, a trained search-and-rescue dog. In this first book, he travels back in time to the Oregon Trail in order to help a family in need. It’s a simple story that introduces the ups and downs of traveling on the Oregon Trail.
Farm Friends Escape! (Animal Planet Adventures #2) by Gail Herman
Dolphin Rescue (Animal Planet Adventures #1) by Catherine Nichols
The Curious Cat Spy Club by Linda Joy Singleton
What a fantastic new book series — my daughter and I devoured this first book. (She’s currently enjoying the 2nd.) Three kids from seemingly different social circles band together to rescue kittens they found in a dumpster — and solve the mystery of who would try to kill the kittens.
Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes
REALISTIC — IMMIGRATION / ANIMAL RESCUE
I picked this book because of the cat pictured on the front cover — and found it to be more meaningful than I had expected. Gaby loves animals and hopes to one day adopt a cat. But that’s not possible since her mom was deported to Honduras. Now Gaby had to live with her neglectful father but she hopes that when her mom returns, everything will be better and she can adopt her favorite shelter cat.
One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans
Cress Watercress by Gregory Maguire, illustrated by David Litchfield
With delicious figurative language and deliberate word choice, this is a stunningly beautiful story about family, community, and grief. After the death of her father, Cress and her family move from their cozy burrow into the Broken Arms oak tree ruled by a cranky Owl with a noisy neighbor squirrel family. There, Cress helps her mom collect moths to pay their rent, leaving her mom time to work and gather ingredients for her sickly brother’s tea. As Cress navigates her new environment, the natural world, and the stories around her, it helps her understand her inner world, especially how grief waxes and wanes like the moon’s cycles. Filled with immensely lovable characters, a gentle storyline of adventure and discovery, and lavish illustrations!
The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan
Short but filled with tenderness! When a grief-stricken dog rescues two lost children in a terrible snowstorm, he takes them to the cabin of his former friend, a poet named Sylvan who rescued him years before. Told from the dog’s perspective we watch the kids and dog bond all the while wondering who saved who. (And the beautiful ending WILL make you cry!)
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
I LOVE THIS BOOK and so will you. Narrated by a gorilla named Ivan, this true story will immediately grab at your heartstrings. Ivan is kept in a cage in a run-down mall for 27 years without seeing another gorilla. (!!!) When his maltreated elephant friend dies, she asks Ivan to help the new, younger elephant find a better life outside of the cages. With the help of the janitor’s daughter, he does just that.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, illustrations by Katie Kath
We loved this book so much, it’s one of our favorites. The book is written as letters from a girl named Sophie, who is newly living at the farm of her deceased great-uncle Jim. She writes to her dead abuelita, her dead great-uncle Jim, and Agnes of the Extraordinary Chickens catalog. While her parents are figuring out their new lives, Sophie figures out the farm. Specifically, the magical chickens who seem to have telekinesis, invisibility, and carnivorous chicks. What!? Unfortunately, a neighbor chicken thief is also interested in Jim’s magical chickens, too — and Sophie must use her wits to stop her. Exceptional writing, characterization, and plot!
Whale of the Wild by Rosanne Parry, illustrated by Lindsay Moore
ENVIRONMENT / OCEAN / ANIMALS
I absolutely love this beautifully written story about two orca siblings separated from their families, trying to find food and their seasonal home. After her mother loses a calf, Vega leaves her pod to bury her little sister, her brother chasing after her. Then, a Tsunami hits, and they both are lost from their pod. Vega, a stranger, and her little brother travel together towards recognizable landscapes and hopefully, food. As they journey, they meet other orca pods with different customs and who eat different foods, as well as other sea creatures. The story, an adventure with danger and suspense, shows the importance of keeping nature in balance.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
SCI-FI/ ADVENTURE (series)
This is a must-read, excellent Newbery winning book about incredible, super-smart lab rats and mice who have escaped from a laboratory and form their own thriving community. Until Mrs. Frisby’s home is set for destruction. That’s when she turns to the rats for help and learns the truth about her husband. This was always one of my fifth graders favorite read-alouds, it’s amazing.
Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson
A story about finding your strength even if it looks like a weakness…McKenna enters a long dog sled race in order to bring awareness to her sister’s degenerative eye disease. (Which McKenna is positive that she has, too because her eyesight is worse every day. Only she just doesn’t want to tell her parents and be treated differently.) During the race, she relies on her lead dog to guide the sled. Another racer, a boy with a blind dog, shows her that his blind dog is a powerful leader. The challenges of the race and her new friendship help McKenna realize that just like Zesty the blind dog, she is not disabled and that her differences make her better.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
REALISTIC – DEAF, LONELINESS
Iris is a lonely Deaf girl who feels alone at her school and in her immediate family. When Iris learns about Blue 55, a whale who is called the loneliest whale in the world because his song is at a different hertz than other whales, she immediately feels a connection to him. Iris uses her compassionate heart, intelligence, and tinkering skills to write and record a whale song that Blue 55 will hear so he’ll know that he’s not alone. Her subsequent adventure is profoundly life-changing. This is a heartening, poignant story that gives readers insight Deaf children, the richness of Deaf culture, and the power of compassion.
Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher
Pax by Sara Pennypacker
I almost couldn’t read this story because I was so sad at the beginning when Peter’s father forces Peter to leave the fox Peter’s raised from a kit in the woods, then drives Peter 300 miles away to his grandfather’s house to live. I mean, talk about heartbreaking! Peter feels just as awful and sets off, on foot, to find his fox. We also read the story from Pax’s point of view who is so confused but hopes his boy will return. Fortunately, Pax is adopted by a leash of foxes who teach him to survive in the wild and Peter is helped by a grumpy war-veteran hermit. Yes, this is a coming of age book but it’s also a commentary on war and the power of friendship.
The Last Dogs: The Vanishing by Christopher Holt
Holt is an amazing writer and the story is a fast-paced, unique dystopian adventure that your kids will thoroughly enjoy. All the humans are gone. Max, a yellow Lab, knows that he must find and save his human family. From the moment he escapes the kennel at the vet’s, Max and his friends, Rocky and Gizmo, face huge obstacles in his quest to find his humans — starving wolves, no food, a gang of subway rats, a house of cats, and the controlling Corporation, a “perfect” society for dogs where everyone works and no one can leave. Exciting — I loved the entire series.
Black Beauty Puffin Graphics + (The Graphic Novel and Original Text in One Volume) by Anna Sewell
Puffin Books is releasing children’s classic novels as graphic novels. This is one of the first along and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book also contains the original narrative text as the second half. I think this is a fantastic way to introduce kids to classic novels, don’t you? Kids can read the graphic novel, then read the original narrative text.
Always Clementine by Carlie Sorosiak
I highly recommended this book as a family read-aloud choice — it’s a heartfelt story of friendship, adventure, and care for animals that will appeal to many ages and interests. Our narrator, Clementine, is a genius lab rat who is freed by a lab tech and hidden in the mailbox of a former chess champion. Clementine narrates everything that happens in letters to her friend Rosie, a chimpanzee who is still trapped in the lab. She’s found by the chess champion’s grandson, and he and his grandfather vow to keep her safe which is tricky because the lab is hunting her down. Clementine’s voice is compelling and believable. I loved this book so much and didn’t want it to end!
Haven: A Small Cat’s Big Adventure by Megan Wagner Lloyd
After an insecure start to her life, Haven lives in a safe home with the loving Ma Millie. But when Ma Millie gets sick, Haven bravely leaves the safety of her home to get help. On her journey, Haven befriends a fox who helps her through the woods to the farm and then the town. They don’t realize it, but all the while, they are stalked by a predator who attacks the fox just as they’re almost home. Adventure, danger, friendship, and new beginnings, this is a sweet story that any animal lover will enjoy.
Above World by Jenn Reese
The gist of the Above World series is that the humans were created to live into tech-dependent, animal-morphed groups who were lab-created for different climates — mer people, snake people, centaur, bird people –and the groups have mostly remained separate from each other. The main character, Aluna, a Kampii (mer), has left her clan in order to discover why the clan is dying. In Mirage, she and her unique group of friends must try to convince the Equian colonies that the evil Karl Strand is trying to take over Above World. These books pack in the action and adventure with such creative storytelling, I highly recommend them!
Nonfiction for Animal Loving Tweens
Who Would Win? Whale vs. Giant Squid by Jerry Pallotta, illustrated by Rob Bolster
Kids can’t get enough of the Who Would Win? books that pit two ocean carnivores against each other. First, you’ll learn facts about a sperm whale, then you’ll learn about the giant squid. Finally, read what happens when these two creatures face-off. Can you predict who will win? See all the addicting informational books in the Who Would Win series.
What If You Had Animal Hair!?
Can you imagine waking up to find you had hair like a . . . polar bear? (It would be easier to play outdoors in cold and wet weather!) Or how about a three-toed sloth? (You’d ever be alone since your hair is the home for many harmless insects.) In the same structure as all of the What If You Had books, read about the animal’s hair then see how it would be for you to have it, too. Animals include: Arctic fox, giant pangolin, porcupine, zebra, and more. Finish with information on how human hair grows then how to take care of it. Good stuff. Also read: What If You Had an Animal Nose!? and What If You Had Animal Teeth!?.
The Superpower Field Guide Moles by Rachel Poliquin, illustrated by Nicholas John Frith
Good pacing, illustrations and diagrams, and a conversational tone make the information about Rosalie, a mole, accessible. This continues the series which started with Beavers, another fantastic nonfiction book that I couldn’t get enough of!
Ostriches: The Superpower Field Guide by Rachel Poliquin, illustrated by Nicholas John Frith
You think you know. But you have no idea…how cool and weird and amazing ostriches are. Not until you read this book. I read it cover to cover in one sitting because it was so incredibly interesting and compelling! I mean, the ostriches have TOE CLAWS OF DEATH. For real. And their bones are just bizarre yet for a really good reason! What you think is their knee is their ankle bone. Not to mention their eyeballs are the biggest of any land animal. But let’s not get too much into all the fascinating facts that you’ll learn; let me just sum up by saying that this book will get you excited about the ostrich.
Science Comics: Bats Learning to Fly by Falynn Koch
Factual information is embedded within this graphic novel story about a lost little bat who observes a tour group in the desert learning about bats from a tour guide. When the little bat gets hurt, he’s taken to a wild animal hospital where he meets other kinds of bats. At the hospital, the bats lively conversations help the little brown bat learn more about bats — what they eat, how they fly, different species, echolocation, and where they live. SO well done!
Primates The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks
Well-told in comics, this graphic novel captures the intersecting stories and scientific advancements of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas who have spent their lives studying primates.
Mercy The Incredible Story of Henry Bergh: Founder of the ASPCA and Friend to Animals by Nancy Furstinger
This little nonfiction chapter book packs a big punch — it’s the absolutely fascinating life of a rich (and formerly lazy) man named Henry Bergh who devoted his life and his money to saving maltreated animals in the late 1800s. (He also is persuaded to start campaigning for children as well because they were often treated just as badly or worse!) This is one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books EVER. One of the reasons I like this book so much is that the writing is excellent and the author paints a complete picture of a man who is flawed. The print is big (yeah!) and the illustrations throughout add to the narrative. FANTASTIC and I highly recommend this narrative nonfiction chapter book for schools and libraries.
Two Truths and a Lie by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Lisa K. Weber
This book is GENIUS! It’s an impressive dare really for kids to read and figure out what is true and what is a lie. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE how the authors engage the readers’ brains in such a way! I can’t resist their dare. And I hope most kids wouldn’t be able to either. The conversational tone in which this book is written makes it flow smoothly. That, plus the addition of many illustrations and photographs make this one hard-to-put-down nonfiction middle grade book. Will you, dear readers, be able to discern the lies of the authors?
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