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Books with a Child Protagonist (Bildungsroman Novels)

Whether you’re participating in the Lifetime of Reading Challenge, or simply interested in reading bildungsroman books with child protagonists, we’ve curated a diverse list of recommendations! 

Slanted Blue, Teal and Pink book covers

What Kinds of Books are On This List

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.

What is 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!

The Best Child Protagonist Novels

The Hidden Life of Cecily Larson book cover

Book Summary

Cecily Larson, 4 years old through teens; also at 94 years old

In 1924, when Cecily was only 4, her mother reluctantly left her at an orphanage and promised to return when she had money to support her. However, three years later, her mother hasn’t returned, and Cecily is “adopted” by a traveling circus. She’s assigned to be the “little sister” of a glamourous bareback rider and believes she’s found the family she has always dreamed of. By the time Cecily is a teenager, she’s seen the problems in her traveling world. When she falls in love with a roustabout named Lucky, her life changes again in a dangerous way.

In 2015, Cecily is 94 and has a quiet Minnesota life with her daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandson. When her great-grandson has a project for school, the family takes DNA tests, and the results reveal a tragic story Cecily has kept secret for decades. Four generations are forced to reevaluate what “family” really means.

The Book Girls Say…

The connections between the characters aren’t clear in the early chapters of the book, and the POV and timeline change frequently. If you prefer linear reads, this may not be the best choice.

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Million Things book cover

Book Summary

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.

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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.

The Book Girls Say…

In the vote for our readers’ favorite classic novels, it was a decisive victory! A full one-third of our readers submitted To Kill a Mockingbird as one of their three all-time favorites, with the majority of those readers listing it first.

Fifty-five years after the publication of this classic, Harper Lee published a Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee actually penned this novel in the late 50s (the decade in which the story was set), but her early publisher had reservations and recommended she take a different approach – resulting in To Kill A Mockingbird. People either love or hate Go Set a Watchman. If you adore Atticus Finch, you might be happier not reading this book, but it does tackle the important reality of the racial tensions brewing in the South in the 1950s.

The Outside Boy book cover

Book Summary

Christy Hurley, 11 years old

This novel is told from the first-person point of view of young Christy, a Parvee boy traveling with his father and extended family from town to town. The Pavee are Ireland’s nomadic ethnic minority who carry their possessions in their wagons. Christy has only ever known the nomadic life, but after his grandfather dies, his father decides to settle down temporarily. Staying in one town allows Christy and his cousins to attend school and mass, but they remain outsiders to the locals.

The Book Girls Say…

Jeanine Cummins, who is of Irish and Puerto Rican heritage, is also the author of the 2018 novel American Dirt.

The Waters book cover

Book Summary

Dorothy “Donkey,” 11 years old

Hermine Zook lives on an island in Michigan’s Great Massasauga Swap. As an herbalist, Zook has offered healing to the local women for generations. Zook is estranged from her three daughters, but the youngest daughter has left her own 11-year-old daughter to grow up on the island.

Dorothy (“Donkey”) spends her days exploring the wild landscape and digging into her math books, all the while wanting nothing more than for her mother to return for her. But soon the innocence of her childhood will be turned upside down by family secrets and violent men.

The Book Girls Say…

This novel is getting a lot of buzz as the January pick for the Today Show’s popular Read With Jenna book club. With that said, however, this character-driven book might not be for you if you dislike reading about characters who continuously make poor decisions. The women in this book are equally fascinating and frustrating. Also, be aware that this book contains some detailed and graphic scenes of animal cruelty.

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Out of My Mind Book Cover

Book Summary

Melody, 10 years old

Melody, a nearly 11-year-old girl, is different from other 5th graders. She has a photographic memory, so she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She also has cerebral palsy, which has caused her to be unable to speak, move, or communicate with anyone and she is constantly frustrated with trying to tell people what she wants. Despite being smarter than her classmates (and the adults trying to diagnose her), they treat her as mentally challenged. Still, Melody refuses to be defined by CP and she’s determined to make sure everyone knows it.

The Book Girls Say…

When we asked our readers what books we should add to this list, Out of My Mind was the top recommendation.

Lightning Strike book cover

Book Summary

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 answers 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.

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Peace Like a River Book Cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

91% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Reuben, 11 years old

The narrator of this novel is 11-year-old Reuben Land. His older brother, Davy, is accused of murdering two people who had been terrorizing the family. Suspecting that justice will not weigh in his favor, Davy flees. But Reuben, together with his father and his little sister, chases Davy across the North Dakota Badlands, determined to catch up with him. Meanwhile, a federal agent is tailing the Land’s Airstream trailer

The Book Girls Say…

This novel, which is widely considered a modern classic, is heavy on religious themes with nods to various biblical stories. One particular emphasis is their father’s faith and the miracles that they witness along the way as they search for Davy. While the writing is said to be outstanding, the story can also feel bleak at times.

Wonder Book Cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Auggie, 10 years old

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 include his classmates. While there are also chapters told from the perspective of his teenage 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…

Although this book is middle-grade fiction, we feel like it should be required reading for everyone. In a time when the world could use more kindness, this book that inspired the Choose Kind movement is the ultimate uplifting read that still offers plenty of depth for an excellent book club discussion.

We highly recommend that you pick up Auggie & Me after finishing Wonder. This collection of three additional stories allows you to see the world through the points of view of Julian, Charlotte, and Auggie’s oldest friend, Christopher.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry book cover

Book Summary

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!

Book thief book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

94% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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 heartbreaking 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.

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Odie O’Banion, 12 years old

Set in 1932 during the Great Depression, This Tender Land follows four orphans who have escaped the abusive Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota. The kids set off down the Mississippi River and have to survive the environment while being pursued by the school. They have to decide whether to trust each stranger they encounter and discover themselves along the way.

The Book Girls Say…

Equal parts adventure and heart, this book is often described as a modern classic and compared to Huckleberry Finn.

This Tender Land spent nearly six months on the New York Times bestseller list.

This Tender Land is included free with an Audible Membership as of 11/8/23.

Number the Stars book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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.

Kindle Unlimited as of: 01/18/2024
Painted House book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

92% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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.

Starfish book cover

Book Summary

Ellie, 12 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.

Room book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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.

The Book Girls Say…

While this book is about a five year old boy, it is very much an adult novel. Room contains ample adult language and themes, including sexual assault.

Tree Grows in Brooklyn book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Francie Nolan, childhood through teens

This novel captures a unique time and place in Brooklyn after the turn of the century. It provides a poignant, and at times meandering, look at life in the 1910s that still deeply resonants with many readers as reflecting a universal experience.

Francie Nolan needed to be made of stern stuff from her earliest days. 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. Neighbors often scorn her 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.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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! While this book is about a child, it is an adult novel that deals with some challenging issues.

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Treasure of the World Book Cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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 named 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 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 mustered 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.

Author Tara Sullivan was born in India, then spent her childhood in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic. She received a BA in Spanish literature and cognitive science from the University of Virginia and a MA/MPA in Latin American studies/nonprofit management from Indiana University.

The Island of Worthy Boys book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Aiden and Charles, ages 11 and 12

Life in late nineteenth-century Boston is tough, and Aiden and Charles 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. 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. The pressure damages their friendship and puts their futures at risk.

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Little House in the Big Woods book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

100% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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 also in hopes that they will challenge you to think critically about what we can continue to learn from the problematic elements.

Beautiful Country book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

92% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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 overstay their visas and are not in the US legally, which means they must find work 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 The Babysitters Club 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.

The Book Girls Say…

Both Book Girls were teenagers in the 1990s, so Angela found it especially powerful to read about Qian Julie’s experiences growing up in that decade. Her sweatshop experiences, for example, were things we grew up thinking only happened in other countries when, in fact, they were part of Qian Julie’s reality in the United States. While Angela really enjoyed this memoir, some readers found it difficult to read about Qian Julie’s traumas, including her father’s abusive treatment of her cat.

Qian Julie went on to graduate from Swarthmore College and Yale Law School, and became a partner in a law firm with her practice focusing on civil rights litigation.

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Silver Star book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

Bean Holladay, 12 years old

Author Jeanette Walls is well known for her memoir, The Glass Castle, and the tale of her incredible grandmother in Half Broke Horses. Unlike these two books, Silver Star is a work of fiction, although her life experiences undoubtedly influenced it.

This novel tells the story of two sisters, 12-year-old Bean (a spunky girl along the lines of Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird) and her older sister, Liz. After being abandoned by their mother in California, the sisters take a bus to a mill town in Virginia, where their widowed uncle lives alone in a decaying mansion that’s been in the family for years.

The Book Girls Say…

If you’ve read Jeanette Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle, you won’t be surprised by her ability to write vividly about the struggles and triumphs of dysfunctional families. Her first foray into fiction doesn’t quite live up to her memoir, but it’s very well-written and worthy of a read!

Kindle Unlimited as of: 01/18/2024

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Whistling Past the Graveyard book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

98% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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 grounded, 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…

This book is described by many as The Secret Life of Bees meets The Help meets To Kill a Mockingbird. If you are interested 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.

Heads Up: This book does include some domestic violence.

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Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

97% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

What happens when a reclusive legendary author loses her money in a Ponzi scheme? She’s forced to write a book for the first time in decades, but 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, but Alice soon ends up spending more of her time with Frank, Mimi’s 9-year-old son.

Frank is witty, stylish, and not at all like the other kids in his school. Alice 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…

If Elizabeth’s daughter, Mad, was your favorite character in Lessons in Chemisty, then we think you’ll enjoy Be Frank With Me! Like Mad, Frank doesn’t have much in common with the other kids at school. While these two children are unique in very different ways, both manage to steal the show.

Kindle Unlimited as of: 09/27/2023
Girl in Translation book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

95% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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.

Washington Black book cover

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

96% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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.

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29 Books with a Color in the Title

Book Girls’ Readers Rate This Book

90% Would Recommend to a Friend

Book Summary

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 who has an extra fascination with poison. When a series of mysterious events occur 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.


We hope you enjoyed this book list and found several books to add to your TBR (to be read list). If you’re choosing a book for our reading challenge, you are also welcome to read any other book that meets the challenge prompt.

If you have a suggestion for a book that you think would be a great addition to this list, please fill out this form.

You can read all about the Lifetime of Reading Challenge and sign up for a free printable challenge book tracker here.

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Angela & Melissa

The Book Girls are best friends who jointly read over 200 books per year. We started Book Girls' Guide in 2019 to help others de-stress and find joy through the power of a great book. We do in-depth research on thousands of novels and non-fiction titles each year to provide curated book lists covering a variety of genres.

Jessica

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.

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