Teacher Esme Raji Codell has sifted through thousands of books as a children's literature specialist and author of the parent's guide, How to Get Your Child to Love Reading (Algonquin Books, 2003). Here are her top 5 picks for grades kindergarten through fifth grade, plus a list of recommended authors for good measure:


Hint: Reading early doesn’t mean reading better! Take your time and savor the world of picture books. Here's a list of books to get started:

  1. Fancy Nancy by Jane O'Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins, 2005) The color fuchsia, lace-trimmed socks, tiaras, French accents and frilly toothpicks, this little sister likes all things f-a-n-c-y FANCY, and she's generously willing to share her expertise in private lessons.
  2. An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle Books, 2006) Though most children encounter eggs cold, white and by the dozen in their refrigerator, this book brings eggs to life as the source of just that, in a multitude of colors, shapes, and textures. A lovely literary introduction to looking closely at the natural world.
  3. Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace (Chronicle Books, 2005) "If you want to grow up and be a big, strong pea, you have to eat your candy," Papa Pea would say. "If you don't finish your candy then you can't have dessert," Mama Pea would say. But yuck! Little Pea doesn't like candy! Can he make it through dinner to dessert…and a surprise ending? Gotta love vegetables with a twist.
  4. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2005) Roy and Silo walked together. And sang to each other. And built a nest together. And wound their necks around each other. But there was one thing Roy and Silo couldn't do together. With the help of a sympathetic zookeeper, these penguin partners were able to become a family. Based on the true story, this is a perfect blend of storytelling, science and sentimentality.
  5. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (Puffin, 1976) A bear mother and child and a human mother and child accidentally trade places during a delicious day of berry-picking on the hill.  Sweet as pie, this reassuring, straightforward classic story suggests that someone to take care of you is always right around the corner.

Other Authors: Ezra Jack Keats, Kevin Henkes, Tomie de Paola, Rosemary Wells, Eric Carle, Leo Lionni

First Grade

Hint: Turn on the closed-captioning feature of your television set to expose your child to sight-word vocabulary, even when you aren’t reading from books.

  1. The Giants and the Joneses by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Greg Swearingen (Henry Holt and Co. , 2005) Both Jumbeelia and Colette are avid collectors, and they both tire of their collections fairly quickly. The big difference between them is just that: Jumbeelia is a giant, and she has finally found a magic bimplestock to climb down and collect some adorable igglyplops, or human beings…namely, Colette and her siblings! With the help of a glossary, children will soon be bilingual in Giantese, and read-aloud has never felt so fresh and funny.
  2. The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds (Walker Books Ltd, 2004) "Just make a mark and see where it takes you," Vashti's art teacher advises. When a simple dot gets kudos in class, Vashti ups her own antie and makes quite a splash at the art show.
  3. The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss (Dr. Seuss Green Back Books, 2003) A collection of subtle stories about tolerance and the value of being different.  Do we love others even when they don't have stars upon thars?  What are the drawbacks of naming twenty three sons "Dave"?  And the pale green pants with nobody inside them...friend or foe?
  4. Heckedy Peg by Audrey and Don Wood (Voyager Books, 1992) In this introduction to the dark, moody, dreamlike world of fairy tales, a loving mother rescues seven children named for the days of the week from the clutches of a truly wicked witch. 
  5. Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi (Candlewick, 1995) More interested in books than timber-shivering or plank-walking, Henry is the laughingstock of the swarthy pirate crew. But when no one heeds his red-sky-at-morning warning and the ship is lost, it is Henry's book-smarts that save the day. This book demonstrates that readers are leaders!

Other Authors: Bernard Waber, William Steig, Aliki, David Weisner, James Marshall

Second Grade

Hint: A mix of picture books and short chapter books will help keep your new reader feeling confident!

  1. Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) One man uses his dream of photographing snowflakes to create a gift for the world.  This picture book biography is rich with discussion points, and is a pleasure to share across the grade levels.
  2. Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2004) A hilarious Zen guide to elementary education in the schoolhouse that was built thirty stories high.
  3. Rickshaw Girl by Matali Perkins (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2007) When Naima tries to maneuver her father's beautiful, newly-painted rickshaw, it appears she has brought rack and ruin to her family, possibly even causing her mother to sell a cherished bangle that has been passed down through generations. Dressed as a boy, she tries to create a new solution that will prevent further hardship. A wonderful example of modern multicultural children’s literature.
  4. The Empty Pot by Demi (Henry Holt and Co., 2007) An emperor announces a gardening contest to find his successor, but fraudulent foliage among the competitors is sprouting like weeds. The king has a trick up his sleeve to find the worthy winner.  This parable brings home the importance of honesty without being preachy.  Did you know this illustrator has been known to use a mouse’s whisker to paint these lovely, jeweled pictures?
  5. Poop by Nicola Davies (Candlewick Press, 2007) Every page flows over with absolutely fascinating fecal facts, from the double-dose of digesting power that pellets afford to rabbits or the tell-tale dumps of sloths, otters and hippos that speak (or stink) louder than words. Overall, a remarkably engaging and informative science book that rises far above its genre's foul beginnings, and will make a novice scientist out of your favorite fart-joke-teller (you know you have one).  I love this book so much, I keep a copy in my own bathroom.

Other Authors:  Jack Prelutsky, John Sciezka, Chris Van Allsburg, Ruth Stiles Gannett, Suzy Klin

Third Grade

Hint: Don’t fear series books!  Most lifelong readers have these on their reading menu as children.

  1. Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary (Harpercollins, 1992) Ramona tries to be good, but the prospect of pulling Susan’s boing-boing curls proves a little too hard to resist.  Introduce kids to the series star Ramona, and you’ll be introducing them to a friend for life! (Readers who want a more contemporary protagonist will fall in love with Clementine by Sara Pennypacker).
  2. Frindle by Andrew Clements (Aladdin, 1998)A boy invents a new word and makes an adversary of his dictionary-devout teacher.  Could it be that teachers are real people, too?  This author is a master of stories set at school, with conflicts that kids will readily recognize.
  3. The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse by Ursula Moray Willliams (Kingfisher, 2005) A toy ventures out into the wide world to seek his fortune and to help the man who made him.  This book is a sleeper that keeps listeners wide awake; I have shared it out loud with over a hundred children, and it never failed to delight. 
  4. Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt Trade Publishers, 2003) Though their crops may have withered, a seed was germinating in young Cesar Chavez, a child of migrants who would grow up to lead a 300-mile march for worker’s rights.  This is an extremely powerful book that underscores the bravery and resolve it takes to engage in non-violent protest, and rightly puts Chavez on the same scaffolding as Martin Luther King as a champion of peace.  Picture-book biographies like this one are a great way to get kids to find mentors outside of their own communities and experiences!
  5. Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism by Georgia Byng (Harper Collins Canada, 2004) It seems like Molly’s dreary world will never take an upward swing until she comes across a strange book in the library which introduces her to the mysterious and powerful world of hypnotism. She uses her power to do amazing things at a local talent show, and it seems like Molly will finally find the life she has been dreaming about. Little does Molly know that a criminal mastermind is hot on the trail of the precious volume that she holds in her hand. Fans of J.K. Rowling and Roald Dahl will love the snarky humor and suspense, and animal lovers will adore her pug companion.

Other Authors: Don Brown, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Patricia Polacco, Loreen Leedy, Roald Dahl

Fourth Grade

Hint: Big kids have vistas that are expanding; give them historical fiction to imagine the past, and fantasy to imagine the future.

  1. D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Parin D’Aulaires (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 1992) The definitive guide to Greek mythology for children, these high-octane adventures are accentuated by full-page illustration.
  2. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press, 2007) If Hugo can repair the robot-like "automaton" rescued from a fire, he feels sure its metal hand will write a note from his departed father, conveying a plan to keep him safe.  Set in and out of the sewers of Paris, the cinematic quality of this novel reinvents the fiction genre for a generation of visually literate children.
  3. City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2003) The generator that provides the life-force for the city has been running well for hundreds of years, creating a society that is ambivalent and content, few venturing into the darkness that envelopes the city's perimeter. But the flickering lights indicate that it may be time to generate some new ideas, and fast! A fantastic underground world is fully realized in this cliffhanging, heart-pumping sci-fi fantasy that even people who don't like sci-fi fantasy will enjoy, and serves as a great springboard into ecological discussion.
  4. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (Laurel Leaf, 1998) The Danish Resistance helps a family escape capture by the Nazis, with children playing a major role even in the most terrible of situations. (For kids who still have questions, a strong follow-up is Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy, based on the author’s aunt’s experience of survival in the Lodz ghettos.)
  5. The Wish Giver by Bill Brittain (HarperCollins Children's Books , 1990) Four creepy wishes are granted to four small-town folk, no trade-backs, no-nothing-backs.  This formalistically flawless story sends shivers up a reader’s spine.

Other Authors:  Kate DiCamillo, Dan Gutman,  Seymour Simon, Gail Carson Levine, John Bellairs

Fifth Grade

Hint: Non-fiction is real reading, too!  Mix in magazines, cookbooks, the sports pages and biography to make reading a real-world activity and not just homework, and to keep reluctant readers in the swim.

  1. King Matt the First by Janusz Korczak (Algonquin Books, 2004)A boy king attempts to run a country of children. Whether Matt is attempting a new reform involving the distribution of chocolate to all of his citizens, running to do battle on a war-torn front under a false name while a lifelike doll reigns in his stead, arranging for his population to attend summer camp or on a diplomatic mission to the land of the cannibals, every chapter ends with a cliffhanger.  In my opinion, one of the best children’s books of all time. 
  2. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (Scholastic Inc, 2002) A larger-than-life hero confronts racism while living on the street.  This story of a boy’s quest for family without a color line has amazing heart. 
  3. A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick, 2006) Living as the daughter in a family of spinster spiritualists, Maud Flynn is being preened to play the part of a ghost child scheduled to appear in staged seances in order to bilk a bereaved millionairess of her money. Detailed, descriptive writing delivers the reader to this weird world; we can practically smell the antiquity of the room, see the dust mites floating in the light from the ragged damask curtains that shroud a place out of time, and feel the stormy turmoil of Maud's own awakening as a moral person.
  4. Best Shorts:  Favorite Short Stories for Sharing by Avi and Carolyn Shute (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) The collection is just brilliant, pulse-perfect and page-turning. It includes Louis Untemeyer's "Dog of Pompeii" about a pet who gives his all to save a blind boy during a volcanic eruption, "Rogue Wave" by Theodore Taylor which will leave readers as breathless as if they were watching any movie on the big screen, ghostly stories, classic stories, multicultural stories... It's one of those rare books that makes anyone who reads it a better person, and anyone who reads it aloud a better teacher.
  5. The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois (Puffin Books, 2001) Professor William Waterman Sherman plans to spend his retirement crossing the Pacific in his hot-air balloon, but instead comes down on a volcanic island inhabited by inventors and gourmets.  A truly imaginative story that will have children’s senses of possibility flying high.

Authors: Eva Ibbotson, Lois Lowry, Brian Jacques, Karen Cushman, Pam Munoz Ryan