Sizing Up: Rich picks for kids “reading” above grade level | Listen In


A teacher is reading aloud in a third grade classroom, and the students are captivated. All but two of them, that is. Blake and Adelaide are lost in their own thoughts as they fidget, doodle on scraps of paper, and stare at the ceiling. The selection is a perfect third grade read-aloud, so why are these two children not engaged? Because one size never fits all. That goes for clothing, and it certainly goes for books. Blake and Adelaide are reading well above grade level and have moved into more complex and challenging reads. They’ve already read the book the teacher is reading and enjoyed it, but they are ready for something new and exciting.

What about those children in the elementary grades who are reading way above their grade level? The focus in education is generally on those who are struggling just to keep up. The ones above grade level just don’t seem to need as much attention. Yet it is all about differentiation, isn’t it? Teachers wouldn’t dare ignore the instructional needs of the children in the lower quartile, would they? Differentiation demands that they serve the needs of all of their students. They somehow have to come up with a plan so that read-aloud time is useful and productive for all students. Enter audiobooks.

Audiobook publishers take some of the best books out there and hire talented performers to narrate them. In L.A. Meyers’s Bloody Jack, Katherine Kellgren brilliantly narrates the story of Jacky Faber, who is on a pirate ship setting sail from London in the late 1800s. Kellgren supplies a wonderful British accent to the feisty young woman and gives added punch to all of the derring-do. Her pirate accent is going to be a lot different from an American educator’s best attempt at one.

Audiobook publishers use the author as a narrator only rarely. They are terrific writers, but that does not guarantee they will be any good at presenting the work aloud. Still, hearing Jack Gantos narrate his “Joey Pigza” books and Dead End in Norvelt is listening at its best. Jon Scieszka’s reading of his hilarious “Frank Einstein” books brings the humor front and center in the zany stories. These narrators pull children in immediately.

A number of things go into selecting a book or audiobook for a child. We don’t just go online willy-nilly and choose one. It is always helpful to ask the child, “What is the last book you read (or heard) and liked?” Out pours valuable information that will help steer you toward what will best fit this student.

When dealing with audiobooks, reading level is no longer a concern. Freed from the constraints of print, all children can typically comprehend above grade level. In fact, the performance of a good narrator supports comprehension as the world in the book is brought alive with all the prosody and inflection it deserves. In Blake and Adelaide’s cases, they can read and comprehend just about anything but they are looking for a challenge. What has to be balanced here is finding a challenging book that is age appropriate. For example, Sherman Alexie’s Odyssey Award–winning audio, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a fantastic story as well as a revealing look into contemporary Native American culture. Nevertheless, this book is better left in the hands of teens since eight and nine year olds have not yet had the life experience to help them comprehend the issues raised in the book.

A list of audiobooks for high-achieving elementary-age children follows. Parents will be delighted with these choices; adults find these books compelling as well.


Beasley, Cassie. Circus Mirandus. Listen­ing Library. 6:19 hrs. 2015. ISBN 9781101892336. Read by Bronson Pinchot.

Micah Tuttle lives with his grandfather and hangs on the older man’s every word about a magical circus he supposedly visited as a child. When Grandpa falls ill, Micah realizes that the only way to save him is to contact the Lightbender from the circus.

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. Listening Library. 8:40 hrs. 2015. ISBN 9781101917114. Read by Cassandra Campbell.

Serafina lives in the basement of the famous Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, NC. A Vanderbilt nephew lives there, too, and when the two of them meet, they join forces to find out who is “disappearing” the children of guests at the estate.

Benjamin, Ali. The Thing About Jellyfish. Hatchette Audio. 5:24 hrs. 2015. ISBN 9781478907473. Read by Sara Franco.

Best friends Suzy and Franny had a fight and parted on bad terms. When Franny dies in a swimming accident, Suzy’s grief is fueled by her guilty feelings over their last meeting. She convinces herself that Franny died because she was bitten by a rare jellyfish and throws herself into proving that scenario.

Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker . The War That Saved My Life. Listening Library. 7:38 hrs. 2015. ISBN 9780553556537. Read by Jayne Entwistle.

This is the story of a young girl with a physical deformity who is moved to the countryside for safety, along with her younger brother, during World War II to avoid the bombings in London. There she is finally able to bloom and realize the possibilities that lie ahead for her.

Draper, Sharon M. Stella by Starlight. S. & S. Audio. 6:46 hrs. 2015. ISBN 9781442380394. Read by Heather Alicia Simms.

Stella’s African American family lives in a segregated town in North Carolina during the Great Depression. When it’s time to register to vote, Stella’s father is determined to assert his right—despite the threats from the KKK.

Gantos, Jack. Dead End in Norvelt. Macmillan Audio. 7:16 hrs. 2011. ISBN 9781427213563. Read by the author.

This novel is based on the author’s real life. Gantos grew up in Norvelt, PA, a community devised by Eleanor Roosevelt, with the wildest bunch of characters listeners will ever meet. It is hilarious and offbeat and perfect for this age group.

McNeal, Tom. Far Far Away. Listening Library. 10:58 hrs. 2013. ISBN 9780804121545. Read by W. Morgan Sheppard.

This is an intricately rendered contemporary fairy tale with an extraordinary sense of place. Told by Jacob Grimm, one of the famous Grimm brothers, the story follows Jeremy as he moves through a world fraught with problems. Jeremy falls in love with Ginger, and his life becomes far more complicated. The supporting characters are straight out of fairy tales with a slightly eerie cast.

Meyer, L.A. Bloody Jack: Being an Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary Jacky Faber, Ship’s Boy. Listen & Live Audio. 7:26 hrs. 2007. ISBN 9781593160944. Read by Katherine Kellgren.

Jacky Faber is on her own in long-ago London when she gets the idea to secret herself away on a ship and work as a deckhand. But the mariner’s life is restricted to males. Not willing to give up, Jacky dresses like a boy and sails off into a life far more dangerous and salty than she ever dared imagine.

Papier, Jacques. Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir. Listening Library. 3:02 hrs. 2015. ISBN 9781101925751. Read by Michael Goldstrum.

Jacques Papier lives happily with his parents and twin sister, Fleur. But Jacques is not picked for games at school, his parents dote on Fleur, and even the dog, Francois, ignores him. Follow Jacques on his hilarious journey when he finds out he is invisible—he is an imaginary friend.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Listening Library. 8:33 hrs. 2001. ISBN 9780807286005. Read by Jim Dale.

Rowling’s classic audio series is perfect for children who are drawn to all things imaginary. This first book starts the saga; intrigue, magic, humor, and magnificent characterization remain throughout each book in the series. Harry ages from 11 to 17 in the series, and plots become more complicated and the maturity level rises along the way as well, making this series ideal for kids who can handle more sophisticated books.

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Echo. Scholastic Audio. 10:37 hrs. 2015. ISBN 9780545788366. Read by Mark Bramhall, David De Vries, Andrews MacLeod, & Rebecca Soler.

This intricate story follows three different children and a harmonica during the time leading up to and after World War II. One is in Germany, another in an orphanage in the United States, and the third a migrant worker in California. The story hinges on music, and the beauty of this audio production is that music is provided throughout.

Sheinkin, Steve. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Listening Library. 3:49 hrs. 2014. ISBN 9780804167444. Read by Dominic Hoffman.

At a segregated naval base outside San Francisco during World War II, bombs were loaded daily onto ships heading to the Pacific theater. All of the men who loaded bombs were African American. On July 17, 1944, a bomb exploded as it was being loaded onto a ship, killing 300 sailors. When the remaining men were ordered back to work afterward, they refused and were court-martialed.

Stroud, Jonathan. Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase. Listening Library, 10:10 hrs. 2013. ISBN 9780804123167. Read by Miranda Riason.

Lockwood & Company is comprised of three young people with psychic abilities who team up to stem the growing problem of unsavory ghosts in London. Much like a detective agency, they are hired per case and compete for all their business.

Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. Listening Library. 3:55 hrs. 2014. ISBN 9780553397260. Read by the author.

This is Woodson’s memoir written in poetic verse. The form allows listeners the time and space to comprehend what it was like to grow up as an African American girl in the South and in Brooklyn in the 1960s and 70s.

Yelchin, Eugene. Breaking Stalin’s Nose. Recorded Books. 1:59 hrs. 2012. ISBN 9781464045615. Read by Mark Turetsky.

Sasha is the 10-year-old son of a soldier in Stalinist Russia. He wants nothing more than to join the Young Pioneers, Stalin’s version of the Hitler Youth. He believes in communism as the only way to live because his father believes in it and Stalin demands it. It is only after his father is arrested and disappears that Sasha realizes how dangerous and frightening his world has become.

Joan Kindig is a professor of children’s and YA Literature at James Madison University. She has served on Newbery, Caldecott, Odyssey Award committees.

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