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Welcome to the Lifetime of Reading Challenge! Throughout this self-paced reading challenge, you’ll enjoy a wide range of books featuring main characters of different age ranges, starting with children in adult fiction or memoirs about childhood.
We know that every childhood experience is unique, so we’ve curated a diverse list of books with child protagonists. Each of these books with a child as the main character features a kid under 12. The list has a wide range of adult fiction recommendations, including both contemporary and historical fiction, mystery, adventure, and even a few classic works of children’s literature. Along with that variety, there will also be a mix of enjoyable light reads and deeper topics.
You can read all about the Lifetime of Reading Challenge, find links to book recommendations for the other age ranges, and download your free printable book tracker here.
One of our readers, Anna, introduced us to a classification of books that are perfect for this monthly challenge prompt – Bildungsroman!
Bildungsroman is a compound German word, combining the words for education and novel into a single new word for books in which the main character is growing as a person and figuring out who they are morally and psychologically. We love coming-of-age books when the characters are discovering the world around them and their unique place in it. While the books on our list with the youngest characters don’t all fit into this category, you’ll find plenty that do!
You are welcome to choose any book that you’d like to read for the challenge. We hope that our list of novels with a child protagonist will help you get started. As always, we’ve selected a combination of new books and older books that are usually available without a wait from your local library.
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The Best Child Protagonist Novels
Girl in Translation
by Jean Kwok
Kimberly Chang, 11 years old
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, New York, the eleven year old finds herself caught between two worlds. By day, she is a devoted and exceptional student, but by night she works in a Chinatown sweatshop and sleeps in an apartment without heat. Kimberly struggles to straddle her two worlds with the weight of her family's future resting squarely on her young shoulders.
The Book Girls Say... The first half of the book takes place when Kimberly is in the 6th grade. Throughout the second half of the book, she progresses through middle and high school. We chose to put the book on this list because of the focus on her struggle to adapt to a completely new life at a young age.
Book Girls' Readers Rate This Book ⭐⭐⭐⭐
93% Would Recommend to a Friend
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry
by Fredrick Backman
Elsa, 7 Years Old
Seven-year-old Elsa and her 77-year-old grandmother are both a bit different. But, Elsa is safe and happy when she's able to retreat into her grandmother's stories where the characters don't have to be "normal."
When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s instructions lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and old crones but also to the truth about fairy tales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.
The Book Girls Say...Elsa runs into a character from one of Backman's other books, Britt-Marie!
The Cape Ann
by Faith Sullivan
Lark Erhardt, 6 years old
Told from the perspective of Lark, this book gives an all too common look at a family struggling through the Great Depression in a small Minnesota town. She and her mother have big dreams of purchasing of home of their own. Her mom is dedicated to saving for the house they picked out of a catalog, called the Cape Ann. However, her father is harsh with his words and treatment of Lark and he has a gambling problem that threatens every penny her mother has saved. As Lark prepares for her first holy communion, she becomes more aware of those around her, wondering who is really sinning and how people became who they are now.
This book is heavily character-driven as you see Lark's relationships with and observations of others around her.
by William Kent Krueger
Cork, 12 years old
In this prequel to the popular Cork O'Conner mystery series, we see Cork as a child in 1963. His dad is the Aurora, Minnesota sheriff, who must investigate after Cork finds a body hanging in a tree.
As his dad runs the official investigation, Cork looks for answer of his own. Together, they must decide if they trust their head or their hearts. This father/son book shows how events from our youth continue to shape us long after they pass.
Number the Stars
by Lois Lowry
Annemarie Johansen & Ellen Rosan, 10 Years Old
Set in 1943 Copenhagen, Number the Stars is the story of 10 year old Annemarie and her best friend, Ellen. While they're attending school every day like normal, the country faces food shortages, and Nazi soldiers are all around town. As Hilter's regime gains power, the Jewish citizens of Denmark, including Ellen's family, are "relocated." Annemarie's family agrees to keep Ellen in their home, at significant risk to her and themselves.
The Book Girls Say...If you're looking for a short book to kick off the year, this is your winner at only 137 pages. While it's technically a middle grade book, it's been enjoyed by readers of all ages since its original publication in 1989 and attention as the Newbery Medal winner in 1990. If you read this one in the 90s, especially if you were a child or young adult at the time, it's worth a re-read now.
A Million Things
by Emily Spurr
Rae, 10 years old
This novel takes place over 55 days, during which our protagonist Rae must fend for herself and her dog, Splinter, after her mother disappears. She walks Splinter, cooks, and cleans like everything is okay.
Rae's mom has disappeared before, but she always returns, so Rae holds out hope that it can happen again. But, when grumpy neighbor Lettie needs help one night, the unlikely duo learns to rely on each other. But Lettie doesn't know Rae's big secret.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce, 11 years old
This is the first book in the ten book series of Flavia de Luce mystery novels, set in 1950 England. The protagonist is 11 year old Flavia, a quirky and precocious aspiring scientist with an extra fascination with poison. When a series of mysterious events begin occurring around her property, her life as a detective begins. Things escalate when a dying man is found in the cucumber patch, and Flavia is thrilled to investigate and track down clues.
The Book Girls Say...From what we can tell, the entire series takes place when Flavia is 11 & 12, so if you've already read this one and enjoyed it, you can pick another and still fit right into the theme.
The Island of Worthy Boys
by Connie Hertzberg Mayo
Aiden and Charles, ages 11 and 12
Life in late nineteenth-century Boston is very difficult, and Aiden and Charles both struggle each day to earn enough money to feed themselves (and in Aiden's case, also his mother and sister). The two adolescent boys survive the wicked Boston streets by forming an alliance. Together, they rob drunken sailors in the brothel district, but things go wrong one night and they accidentally kill their target.
To avoid arrest, the boys flee the city and con their way into the Boston Farm School. In 1889, this school only accepted boys with squeaky-clean pasts (certainly not those with criminal records), which made it the perfect hiding place for Aiden and Charles. But soon they struggle to keep their stories straight and the pressure damages their friendship and puts their futures at risk.
The Silver Star
by Jeannette Walls
Bean Holladay, 12 years old
Set in 1970 small-town California, The Silver Star is a novel by the author of a best-selling memoir, The Glass Castle. The main character is 12 year old "Bean," who is left with her 15 year old sister when their mom takes off to find herself. They decide to head to their uncle's house in Virginia, where money is still tight despite his residence in an old family mansion. The girls begin to adapt to life at a new school, but it's not all smooth sailing.
by Lisa Fipps
Ellie, 11 years old
Fifth-grader Ellie loved swimming until she didn't anticipate the consequences of wearing a whale swimsuit to her Under the Sea birthday. The other kids quickly made the connection to her weight.
She is tired of being fat-shamed by other students and her mom. Luckily, she has some allies, and their support helps her regain her confidence.
The Book Girls Say...This Printz Honor winner is a middle-grade book but receives high-ratings and praise from adult readers. It's written in verse, making it a quick yet powerful read if you're short on time.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
Francie Nolan, childhood through teens
This is a beloved American classic set in the 1910s that brilliantly describes a unique time and place and captures the universal experience of adolescence.
From her earliest days, Francie Nolan needed to be made of stern stuff. Growing up in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn, New York demanded fortitude, precocity, and strength of spirit - and Francie has each of these in spades. She is often scorned by neighbors for her family’s erratic and eccentric behavior, including her father's taste for alcohol and her Aunt Sissy’s habit of marrying serially without the formality of divorce. No one, least of all Francie, would say that the Nolans’ life lacked drama.
The Book Girls Say... Francie is under age 12 for the first half of this classic novel, and then ages through her teen years in the second half of the book. While this character-driven novel is beloved by many, others find it to be tedious and wish it was a bit shorter than its 496 pages.
Beautiful Country: A Memoir
by Qian Julie Wang
Qian, 7 years old + aging through elementary school
In 1994 at age 7, author Qian Wang moved with her family from China to America. Before the move, her parents were successful professors. Despite the Chinese word for America, Mei Guo, meaning beautiful country, life is much harder for the family here. Her parents are not here legally, which means their work is in sweatshops instead of classrooms.
Qian escapes to libraries to avoid the teachers and classmates who shun her limited English. Over time, she's able to master English through her study of books like the Bernstein Bears, and begins to glimpse some of the magic of New York City, like Christmas at Rockefeller Center. However, her world changes again when her mom gets sick.
This memoir gives a unique insight into the hidden life and struggles of children trying to thrive in a place where they must also remain hidden in many ways.
A Painted House
by John Grisham
Luke Chandler, 7 years old
Bestseller John Grisham is known for his page-turning courtroom dramas, but in A Painted House, he's writing fiction based on his own childhood. The main character is 7 year old Luke and the setting is rural Arkansas in 1952. Luke lives in a small, unpainted home with his parents and grandparents in a cotton field.
For six weeks each year, there is an influx of pickers on the farm from Mexico and the Ozarks. Young Luke sees and hears things not usually encountered at his young age, and finds himself the holder of secrets that endanger the cotton and his family.
by Esi Edugyan
Washington Black "Wash", 11 Years Old
Set in the early 19th century, 11-year-old Wash is a slave on a Barbados sugar plantation. When he's selected as a manservant for his master's brothers, he's terrified, but soon realizes that Christopher Wilde is actually an abolitionist. He's also an explorer and inventor, exposing Wash to many wonders that are more incredible than anything in his imagination.
When a bounty is placed on Wash after a murder, Christopher flees with him and their adventures continue worldwide. A story of both betrayal and redemption, Washington Black was named one of the best books of 2018 by the New York Times Book Review and countless other publications.
by Emma Donoghue
Jack, 5 years old
Jack and his mother live in a single room. To five-year-old Jack, the room is his entire world - where he eats, sleeps, reads, and plays - he knows nothing else. But for his mother, the room is a prison where she's been held captive for the past seven years. She is devising an escape plan, but are they prepared for what comes next if the plan actually works?
This book is told entirely from Jack's pragmatic perspective, and it's also a beautiful celebration of the parent-child bond.
WARNING: Room contains ample adult language and themes, including sexual assault.
Whistling Past the Graveyard
by Susan Crandall
Starla Claudelle, 9 years old
Starla is only 9 years old when she makes a series of decisions that change her life overnight. It's 1963, and she lives with her strict grandmother in Mississippi. Despite being ground, Starla sneaks out to see the annual 4th of July parade. When she's caught, she believes her grandmother's threats of reform school and sneaks out again with the intention of finding her mom all the way in Nashville.
Starla is offered a ride from a black woman, Eula, traveling with a white baby, quite the controversial scene in the 1963 South. Their journey is full of adventures, sometimes dangerous, and long chats that help Starla redefine family and understand more about the world she lives in.
The Book Girls Say... If you are interesting in reading more about this period of southern history through the eyes of a child protagonist, consider adding Boy's Life by Robert McCammon to your TBR list. Like Whistling Past the Graveyard, Boy's Life is also set in 1960s but this time in Alabama. This novel similarly examines racial prejudice and segregation, but it also includes elements of magical realism. As an added bonus, Boy's Life is currently free with Kindle Unlimited.
This Tender Land
by William Kent Kruger
Odie O’Banion, 12 years old
Set in 1932 during the Great Depression, This Tender Land follows four orphans, including the narrator, who is 12 years old. They escape the abusive Lincoln Indian Training School and set off down the river. The group must survive the environment while being pursued by the school.
The kids have to decide whether to trust each stranger they encounter, and end up discovering themselves along the way. Equal parts adventure and heart, this book is often described as a modern classic and compared to Huckleberry Finn.
The Book Girls Say... Melissa's husband has read This Tender Land and said it lives up to all the great reviews!
Here I Am!
by Pauline Holdstock
Frankie, 6 years old
While extremely intelligent with an extraordinary memory, Frankie's emotional and relational skills are not advanced. When he's home alone with his mother, she passes away. He first tells his teacher, but when she isn't kind, he comes up with quite a plan. Frankie sneaks onto a ship headed for France, where his father is on a trip. Then, plans to present himself to the police so they'll help him find his dad.
Throughout the book, Frankie narrates everything from his young point of view. To fill in the gaps for readers, there are a variety of other narrators including his dad, grandmother, and teacher.
The Book Girls Say...Seeing the family's struggle from a 6 year old point of view, while also being let in on the full picture from the grown-ups is the perfect book to demonstrate how differently the same situations can be understood by adults and children.
Treasure of the World
by Tara Sullivan
Ana, 12 years old; Daniel, 11 years old
Set in a desolate and impoverished Bolivian silver mining community, this middle grade fiction tells the story of twelve-year-old girl Ana. She bravely volunteers to take her eleven-year-old brother's place when their father demands that he begin working in the silver mines despite his illness. Ana gives up her dreams of school and a future outside of the mining village to protect her brother from the dark and dangerous mines, but the men who work there see her as a girl who is just in their way. When a tragic accident happens, Ana is forced to muster the courage to survive and find a way to save her family.
The Book Girls Say... Although it's written for a younger audience, this beautifully crafted 400-page novel will be equally eye-opening for adult readers. The author also wrote Golden Boy, one of the popular books from our Africa reading list.
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
Liesel Meminger, 9 years old through 15 years old
Liesel Meminger is a 9 year old foster girl living in Nazi Germany in 1939. While trying to avoid all the death around her, she learns to read and begins stealing books. Soon, she's sharing the books with neighbors and the Jewish man hidden in their basement.
It's a heart-breaking read like so many others that cover this subject, but the Book Thief also underscores the vast power of books to help you through a terrible time.
The Book Girls Say...The book follows Liesel's story until she's 15, but much of it occurs in her younger years, so we opted to include it here over the teen list.
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
Max, 8 years old
This unique book is actually narrated by Bubo, the imaginary friend of 8-year-old Max. Because Max is on the spectrum, Bubo has been around years longer than most imaginary friends, and he worries about the day Max will spot believing in him. Bubo loves Max and does his best to protect him from bullies and guide him through potentially awkward situations. When something happens to Max at school, Bubo is the only one who knows about it and must figure out a way to save him, even though he can't communicate with anyone else.
The Book Girls Say...This one will tug at your heartstrings for Max, Bubo, and any imaginary friends from your past!
Be Frank With Me
by Julia Claiborne Johnson
Frank Banning, 9 years old
Frank is witty, stylish, and not at all like the other kids in his school. His mom is a reclusive, legendary author, who lost all her money in a Ponzi scheme. So when she's forced to write a book for the first time in decades, her eccentric nature has the publisher concerned about their investment.
They send an assistant, Alice, to Mimi's mansion to keep an eye on the writing progress. However, Alice soon ends up spending more of her time with Frank. She quickly appreciates his unique personality and becomes obsessed with finding out who Frank's dad is...and whether family friend Xander is more than a friend.
The Book Girls Say...Melissa read this one and was instantly drawn to Frank, just like Alice in the book. While Frank doesn't narrate this one like most of our selections, we just couldn't resist including him.
by RJ Palacio
Auggie, 10 Years Old
Technically, Wonder is aimed at kids in 5th-7th grade, but this story grabbed the hearts of all ages and became a #1 bestseller across ages in the early 2010s (and was later adapted into a popular family movie).
Ten-year-old Auggie has a facial deformity that previously prevented him from attending a traditional school. In his own words "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse." Wonder begins from Auggie's point of view as he starts 5th grade, but soon switches to also include his classmates. While there are also chapters told from the perspective of his teenaged sister, her boyfriend, and others, Auggie remains the focus of the story throughout. The multiple perspectives create a beautiful portrait of Auggie's community as they struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
The Book Girls Say... In a time when the world could use more kindness, reading this book that inspired the Choose Kind movement would be a great way to start the new year!
To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Scout, 6 years old
You probably read this classic back in high school (or at least you were supposed to), but we recommend you give this famous book another read. Chances are you'll get even more out of it this time around!
If you aren't familiar with the story, it's set in Alabama in 1933 and told from the perspective of a 6-year-old girl called Scout. Her widowed father, Atticus Finch, is a crusading local lawyer who risks everything to defend a black man accused of a terrible crime.
Little House in the Big Woods
by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura, 4 years old
This is the first book in the Little House on the Prairie series, based on the real-life adventures of author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little Laura is just four in this first book, and she grows up throughout the nine books of the series (not reaching age 13 until the 6th book).
Little House in the Big Woods takes place in Wisconsin in 1871, where Laura lives in a log cabin with her Pa, her Ma, and her sisters. This first book introduces readers to the challenges of pioneer life, and in later books the family travels by covered wagon from Wisconsin to Kansas where they establish a homestead.
The Book Girls Say... If you're interested in other classic children's titles, consider Where the Red Fern Grows (narrated by Billy, age 10) or Lord of the Flies (the boys are ages 6-12).
We recommend each of these books with a major caveat. These books are considered classics, but due to their age, they include inappropriate attitudes and language that are unfortunately reflective of the times. We don't condone these elements of the books, but we also believe that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. We've included these books on the list in hopes that you'll enjoy the overall stories, but that they will also challenge you to think critically about what we can continue to learn from the problematic elements.
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Thursday 29th of December 2022
I’d like to add The Graveyard Book (infant through teens) and Anne of Green Gables (12-teens) to this list.
Wednesday 30th of November 2022
Another title: Last Bus to Wisdom (Ivan Doig) With an 11 year old protagonist. One of my favorites!
Wednesday 30th of November 2022
Great list! I would add This is How it Always Is (Laurie Frankel) with a 5 year old protagonist. A wonderful book!
Wednesday 30th of November 2022
That's a great one, I know we have it on another list as well - maybe books set in the 2010s!
Sunday 23rd of January 2022
I've read 11 of these already, but see at least 4 I want to me. Thanks for these lists I always love to get ideas for new titles!
Sunday 16th of January 2022
I'm just about to re-read The Cay. I actually remember my mom reading this book to me and my younger sisters when we were little. I think it's a perfect book for this month because one of the protagonists is 11 years old.