If you think "classic" equals dusty and fusty, think again. When it comes to kids' books, classic means that the stories and characters are so engaging and compelling, readers have loved them for generations. Consider "The Hobbit", a tale so epic it spawned three movies! Or "To Kill a Mockingbird", whose suspense-filled courtroom drama has been keeping kids up past their bedtimes for decades. These and other classic books share timeless themes, page-turning pacing, and important lessons that are just as relevant to today's young readers as they were when they were written.
Below are 12 of the best kids' books for age 7 to teen that have stood the test of time. For more suggestions, check out these lists: Classic Books for Kids and 50 Books All Kids Should Read Before They're 12.
"Charlotte's Web," by E.B. White, age 7+. This gentle story with its kindly wisdom about friendship (among barnyard animals and a spider) will inspire readers to think about how we should treat each other and make and keep friends. Though it provokes tears near the end, it's never maudlin or sappy.
"The Hobbit," by J.R.R. Tolkien, age 8+. There's a perfect balance of nonstop adventure and richly imagined details in Tolkien's fantasy of Middle Earth featuring a wonderful main character: a hairy-footed little Hobbit who truly triumphs. A great read-aloud for kids 8 and up and read-alone for kids 10 and up.
"James and the Giant Peach," by Roald Dahl, age 8+. A boy is orphaned on page 1 and treated cruelly by his selfish aunts, and his only friends are giant insects in this charming, fast-paced fantasy. It's very satisfying to see poor, deprived James rise from his lowly state to become a leader with true friends.
"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," by C.S. Lewis, age 8+. The first of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series stars precious English children transported to a world where animals talk and great adventures and serious battles abound. It's full of Christian allegory, but some kids may simply enjoy the book's fairy tale aspects.
"A Wrinkle in Time", by Madeleine L'Engle, age 9+. Young Meg searches across time and space to find and rescue her physicist father in this sci-fi classic. Besides being an exciting story, its messages of individuality, nonconformity, friendship, and courage have inspired generations of readers.
"The Westing Game", by Ellen Raskin, age 10+. In this exciting whodunit, eccentric millionaire Samuel W. Westing gathers 16 potential heirs to his $200 million estate to compete in a mysterious game to discover who among them murdered him. It's compelling from the start -- a gripping mystery that never takes its foot off the gas pedal.
"Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," by Anne Frank, age 11+. The inspiring journal of a girl hiding from the Nazis in German-occupied Holland is both a must-read for young people learning about World War II and a meaningful book about the inner life of teens. Readers of any age will feel moved by Anne's great fears and everyday problems.
"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," by Mildred D. Taylor, age 11+. A family struggles to keep their small piece of land -- and their dignity -- in the face of racism in 1930s Mississippi in this compelling Newbery Medal winner. It's the best kind of historical fiction, in which powerful lessons from the past are tucked into an absorbing story with unforgettable characters.
"The Outsiders," by S.E. Hinton, age 12+. This book about greasers vs. the in crowd is super relatable. It's perfect for preteens (many read it in sixth grade) because that's when kids break into cliques and life becomes tribal. The feeling of being ostracized is timeless -- which is why this book remains relevant after almost 50 years.
"To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, age 12+. This Pulitzer Prize winner examines racism through the eyes of children Jem and Scout Finch in Great Depression-era Alabama, when an African-American man goes on trial for the alleged rape of a white woman. Though some of the characters and the society are racist, this book is one of our most eloquent appeals for tolerance and justice.
"Black Boy," by Richard Wright, age 14+. The award-winning author's autobiography is a brutal, disturbing portrait of his experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South during the 1920s. Hungry, degraded, and living under the constant threat of violence and death, Wright somehow emerged as a self-respecting man of ideas, so his story is as inspiring as it is upsetting.
"The Catcher in the Rye," by J.D. Salinger, age 14+. There's a reason this story of teen alienation and family trauma has remained a best-seller and has been assigned in high school for 60-plus years: Its emotional power and poignancy are as strong as ever, and Holden Caulfield's inner self is just as recognizable to teens today as it has ever been.