Student-Centered Instruction

Book laying open with graphic representation of city building bursting from the pages

8 Must-Read Books for Kids

To me, summer reading is the distillation of the essence of both summer and reading! I imagine long stretches of reading in a beach chair or hammock, unencumbered by deadlines and assignments. Reading is as essential to summer as warm breezes, ocean beaches, and corn on the cob.

And now, as a new school year begins again and I return to my role as a reading specialist in a middle school, I always ask my students what they read over the summer. Invariably, they tell me about the two books they chose from the required middle school reading list. For many students, particularly for novice readers, this is just not enough. They come back to school and struggle to regain their stamina for reading.

I firmly believe that this doesn’t have to happen. The right book can make a reader, and I believe that it’s the duty of caring adults to help children find books that they enjoy. So, in that spirit, here are a few recommendations for the aspiring readers in your life. As teachers are looking to refresh classroom or school libraries and as parents are browsing bookstores or libraries for great new titles for their own children, you might want to consider one of these…

PSEC Children's Book Recommendations

#1: Stef Soto, Taco Queen

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres is one title I would recommend. Middle school is hard enough to navigate, but then throw in overprotective parents who insist on picking you up from school in a taco truck—embarrassing! This humorous book explores many themes from “frienemies,” to the popularity rollercoaster tweens face, and also accepting family as they are. Students from grades 4-8 will be able to relate to Stef as she tries to figure out how to handle the many problems she faces.” — Keri DiNapoli, elementary teacher

#2: Jubilee

Jubilee is a beautifully written story by Patrica Reilly Giff. Readers from upper elementary to adult will become captivated with Jubilee as she navigates her life in mute. Jubilee captures reader’s attention from the very first page, as Patricia Reilly Giff exquisitely brings her readers into the world of the story in a tranquil scene which very quickly becomes heart-beating action. Readers will soon be turning pages as they follow Jubilee’s search for answers that will change her life forever. Come along with Jubilee as she learns about family, friendship, and the power of inner courage as she works to find her long, lost voice.” — Tonia McGuire, elementary teacher

#3: Birchbark House Series

“Louise Erdrich is widely regarded as one of the great contemporary American novelists. While she is best known for her National Book Award winning work for adults, a real gem for young readers is her five-novel set, the Birchbark House Series. Erdrich provides readers with a wonderful account of life inside an Ojibwe Indian village on the shores of Lake Superior during the nineteenth century. The original award winning Birchbark House appeared twenty years ago and has been followed by four additional novels: The Game of Silence (2006), The Porcupine Year (2008), Chickadee (2012), and Makoons (2016). The main figure in a large cast of characters is seven-year-old Omakayas. The novels are full of suspense, adventure, and humor. These books are most appropriate for boys and girls in grades 4-8.” — David Walsh, Ph.D., psychologist and author

#4: I Will Be Fierce!

“In I Will Be Fierce!, each page consists of a limited amount of text paired with an abundance of beautiful and engaging illustrations, making this a great choice for students in kindergarten, first, and second grades. But the substance of each statement made by our brave, young narrator promotes important discussion topics for third and fourth-grade students, too. The story follows a little girl, determined to take on her new school day as if she is heading off on an epic adventure. Along the way, she is presented with situations in which she is sometimes timid and unsure. But each time, she finds a way to face her uncertainties with courage and confidence, making her a great role model for others. This book teaches us many powerful lessons, such as the importance of following your own path and standing up for others. Parents and teachers will find this book helpful as children are preparing to go back to school. Readers of all ages will relate to many of the scenarios throughout the book and will be inspired to take on the world with kindness, excitement, strength, and bravery.” — Laura Fornero, reading specialist.

#5: The Turtle of Oman

“In The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab, Aref Al-Amri, an 8 year old boy from Oman is moving to America. He is faced with leaving his country and everything he loves, especially his grandfather. Aref is unable to pack his suitcase and his grandfather Sidi is called in to help. Instead of packing, they go on many adventures together. Without Aref knowing, his grandfather puts a small stone from each place they visit in Aref’s suitcase. The author creatively uses humor to help students understand Aref’s resistance to moving to a new place, as well as some of the challenges that immigrants face today.” — Keri DiNapoli, elementary teacher

#6: Julián Is a Mermaid

“The book Julián Is a Mermaid is a beautiful story about love, acceptance, community, and celebration of identity. Written by Jessica Love and the winner of the 2019 Stonewall Book Award, this is one of the few picture books that centers on a gender nonconforming child that isn’t heavy handed and doesn’t reinforce limiting narratives. Instead, readers get to experience the imaginative and tender journey of a child whose grandmother ultimately helps him feel seen, known, and celebrated just for who he is. This stunning book is written for children ages 4-8 years old, but is relevant for people of all ages. The story itself is fairly simple and the narrative surprisingly sparse—but the illustrations and the resounding message of the text is expansive. In this beautiful book, we learn from Julián the jubilance and joy of belonging, and we find in his abuela a powerful role model for how to give children the gift of unconditional love.” — Erin Walsh, educator, consultant, and speaker

#7: Each Kindness

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson is an award winning picture book that dives into the complexities of identity, inclusion, and hurt. This realistic story prompts important conversations with students of all ages about empathy and the painful feelings of recognizing yourself as a bully or bystander. This is a great book to introduce during the first week of school, but remember to return to it often throughout the year! Woodson’s story will grow with your students as they grapple with the joys and challenges of friendship as well as deepen children’s intersectional understandings of economic disadvantage, race, gender, and homelessness.” — Kerry Grove, first grade teacher

#8: Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch

“As we wrap up our summer and begin to think about the new school year and making new friends I think of so many picture books that help us teach kindness to our children. Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch, by Eileen Spinelli, is a book that I always read to my students on Valentine’s Day. This picture book could easily become a back to school favorite as well. This book reminds us to reach out to others, help others, and spread kindness. It’s a sweet story about a lonely man that is told he is loved and it changes his entire attitude about himself and the way he acts around others. It is a heartwarming reminder about including others and looking out for one another.” — Pollyanna Buff, BOLT leader and teacher

What would you add to the list? Please share below in the comments!

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Teachers learning together in a circle

Our List to Get You Talking and Thinking

One of our goals at Pegasus Springs is to facilitate conversations about all aspects of educating and preparing students to learn and achieve. There’s an incredible amount of material being published that falls into this bucket, and we read and review a lot of it. While of course all of us may not always agree with every point or may sometimes think there are some additional nuances to consider, our Talk About It articles tend always to present us with some important and timely topics for both reflection and discussion.

So, to get you thinking… and hopefully talking with friends and colleagues, here’s the first installment in the Pegasus Springs Talk About It list for reading, listening and viewing.

Growth Mindset:

This is a brief video of John Hattie, Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, which connects to the importance of growth mindset for both teachers and students. His meta-analysis of thousands of research studies on the many influences of student outcomes provides educators with important information. I love that he says here our goal is not to ensure all kids reach their potential, but that they exceed their potential. Teachers truly do have the magical power to help kids reimagine even their own expectations for themselves.

On Grading:

“What Traditional Grading Gets Wrong” is among the most recent commentary on this important and often-debated topic. Former teacher and education consultant Joe Feldman, author of Grading for Equity, gets us thinking about “implicit racial, class, and gender biases.”

Collective Strength:

The ideas of collective efficacy and meaningful collaboration are central concepts with the Pegasus Springs Education Collective. This article, “The Power of Collective Efficacy,” discusses the important role of confidence and collaboration among educators working as a team in making a significant impact on school culture and achievement. The authors discuss ways collective efficacy (or its absence) manifests in a school and offer suggestions on how to develop it.

Dose of Inspiration:

It’s not a secret—teachers work incredibly hard and sometimes feel under appreciated. Here’s a reminder that the impact teachers have isn’t always known until after their students are much older. Listen to what Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, has to say about his 8th-grade English teacher. The really good part starts about 30 seconds in.

I hope you find these interesting and invite you to drop us a line at to share your thoughts or reading suggestions.


About the Author

Craig is co-founder of the Pegasus Springs organizations and Executive Director of the Pegasus Springs Education Collective. During his education career, he has served as a teacher, mentor, assistant principal, principal, and assistant superintendent. He has presented at regional and national conferences, and he is a recipient of the Association for Middle Level Education’s national Distinguished Educator Award.