What are the Best Books for Students Who Don’t Like to Read?
“Let’s get out our [independent/book club/whole class] books and open to page __!”
At least one student in the room experiences a shudder of disdain and a wave of despondency each time such words are uttered (many more students are likely experiencing this emotional response to the dread of reading on the inside).
Why Do Students Hate Reading?
Some students are revolted by the prospect of reading. Several common findings show up from teachers’ reports:
- They haven’t found a book, author, or genre yet that they like, and they don’t know where to begin
- They would prefer to occupy their time with different forms of media or more kinesthetic activities
- They find reading boring — not long after they start reading, they lose track of their place, get annoyed by having to reread difficult passages, or tune out when the author goes on and on about seemingly insignifcant details
- They have been ‘forced’ to read books in middle school that they didn’t enjoy, either because the books were neither interesting, relevant, nor accessible
- Their grades in ELA are somewhat dependent on scores from AR (accelerated reader) tests/quizzes, the questions of which mainly prompt students to recall basic information about the plot
Here’s the thing — all of these reasons are totally valid. It can be physically and mentally challenging to decode a text that may be full of difficult vocabulary, unfamiliar cultural references, background/historical knowledge, and more. It can be emotionally straining to tackle controversial or sensitive topics. Additionally, teachers who engage students in reading through whole-class novels alone (as opposed to including independent reading or smaller book club groups) risk isolating and turning off readers for the sake of what feels like efficiency. At some point between elementary school and high school, many students fall out of love with reading, an act that used to involve play and imagination and risk and creativity and fun. Add in multiple-choice exams and reading timelines and annotations, and the magic is understandably less apparent.
In What I Tell Students When They Say They Don’t Like to Read, Terry Heick shares with a hypothetical student: “If you say you ‘hate reading,’ that means you hate ideas and emotions. Feeling things. Exploring things. Achieving things. Next time you say you hate reading, say instead, ‘I hate feeling things,’ or ‘I hate stories and ideas written with words on pieces of paper that can help me achieve anything I’ve dreamed and can help me dream if I haven’t.'”
Such a statement might warrant a good chuckle to a student who is struggling with reading. As educators, sharing one’s own challenges with reading — as a child, teen, and adult — can help reluctant readers feel like they’re less alone and reduce the pressure to appear like they’re engaged in a book they can’t stand. What comes next? An awesome book to reignite enjoyment in reading. Here’s where we can help.
We’ve compiled a list of 33 of the best books for students who don’t like to read. How did these books make it onto our list?
- The books are often told by multiple narrators
- The books are written by diverse authors
- The books are written in different forms
- The books are accessible for readers of all levels
- The books touch on topics that are relevant to students’ lives today
- The books touch on topics that adults often try to shield teens from reading (even though teens are experiencing them vicariously or in real life)
Upon finishing these books, students are likely to ask an ELA teacher’s five favorite words, “What should I read next?” The great thing about these books is that many of them are part of a series, many are written by authors who have since published additional books, and many can act as a bridge to a new genre (like historical fiction, mystery, poetry, or memoir). The more a student can find and read books that are enjoyable and meaningful, the more confident they will become in identifying books they think they will like.
We hope these books are catalysts for your students and for teachers, who might benefit from venturing outside of the traditional canon and experimenting with new ways of fostering a love of reading in their classes.
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The Best Books for Students Who Don’t Like to Read
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiomara ‘X’ Batista shares her challenges with relationships, dealing with her overbearing mother, and using her voice in a world that wants her to be silent. Students will relate to X’s passion and attitude, as well as her bravery in saying difficult things out loud. As a novel written in free verse, The Poet X is accessible to students who may be intimidated by longer texts written in prose.
The Crossover Series by Kwame Alexander
Start with The Crossover — Book 1 in this series — and students will be clamoring for the sequels once they’ve finished! Twin brothers Josh and Jordan Bell are twin ballers in middle school who compete on and off the court. Their father’s illness becomes a game-changer for the family, which both boys deal with in different ways. Also written in free verse, this series promises to boost the confidence of readers who generally avoid longer novels.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Junior is one of the most entertaining and relatable protagonists from the books on this list. As a teenage boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Junior is shunned when he leaves his school to attend an all-white school on the other side of town to play basketball. Junior self-deprecatingly shares his daily struggles in navigating two cultures and forging his own path.
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
After his friend Hannah Baker takes her own life, Clay Jensen is surprised to discover a package with thirteen cassette tapes on his porch. In the first tape, Hannah shares that there are 13 reasons why she decided to end her life and that Clay is one of them. As he listens to each tape, he learns more about the pain Hannah endured on a regular basis, as well as the people in her life who harmed her. Students enjoy the multiple perspectives and suspense within this novel, which keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie
Fast-paced, action-packed, and full of themes that teens are grappling with in the present — dystopian novels tend to be a popular genre with reluctant readers. This trilogy is no exception. In this dystopian setting ‘the Society’ makes choices for its citizens: what to read, what to watch, what to believe, and the person with whom they’re most compatible. When Cassia witnesses a glitch in her matching ceremony, she becomes determined to find out which of two options might be best suited for her.
Maze Runner Series by James Dashner
Readers get hooked with Maze Runner — a dystopian novel where a teenage boy named Thomas wakes up in a strange place with unfamiliar boys, and a towering maze full of deadly predators. The only want to get out is through the maze, but no one has ever made it out alive. Readers will quickly become hooked to the engaging plot — thank goodness there’s a series!
Gym Candy by Carl Deuker
Gym Candy is particularly attractive to students who are also athletes. It tells the story of a high school football player who is extremely competitive (with others and himself), and who encounters an option to give him even more of an edge — steroids. Readers will be drawn in by Mick’s inner dialogue and drive to be the best.
House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Matteo is a monster — at least, that’s how society views him. Harvested in the womb of a cow by his father, El Patrón (lord of a country called Opium), Matteo is a teen when this novel commences. He knows that he must escape the dangerous confines of his father’s estate to avoid power-hungry family members, but how will he survive on the outside?
Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz
Alan Gratz might be the best kryptonite for students who don’t like to read, and Prisoner B-3087 is a great entry point to Gratz’s style. Yanek is a Jewish boy living in Poland during the Nazi takeover. Once he is taken prisoner, the words PRISONER B-3087 are tattooed on his arm. From that point, he travels to ten different concentration camps, where he experiences terrible forms of torture, starvation, and forced labor.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
This one’s not your average love story! Hazel feels defined by her cancer diagnosis. When she meets Augustus Waters in a Cancer Kid Support Group, her outlook on life and her own future change rapidly. Readers will fall for the authentic characters and the devastating conclusion that leaves them with a choice — to keep letting the negative things in life define us, or to persist.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before Trilogy by Jenny Han
Why is it so fun to read about embarrassing things that happen to people? At the beginning of this series, Lara Jean’s five crushes all receive the love letters that she has written to them in private over the last several years. What a nightmare! Readers will enjoy watching how Lara Jean navigates the relationships simultaneously and want to move quickly on to the next books in the series.
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Crank is one of over ten books written by Ellen Hopkins, whose books are all written in verse, and whose difficult topics include drug abuse, sexual assault, suicide, and depression — all things that 21st-century teenagers are exposed to, in various ways. In Crank, Kristina Snow starts out as a reserved, people-pleasing high school junior, but after she spends the summer at her father’s house and gets addicted to crystal meth, everything changes. As dark as Hopkins’ books can be, they provide an opportunity for readers to vicariously experience the destructive nature of drugs.
White Smoke by Tiffany Jackson
Students who have moved from place to place (or family to family) might relate well to Marigold, who finds herself living in a haunted house (despite its picture-perfect appearance). Weird things keep happening — harmless at first — but then Mari starts to hear voices and smell foul odors. Readers will soon discover that the secrets of the house on Maple Street are an extension of the town of Cedarville’s secrets.
All-American Boys by Brendan Kiely & Jason Reynolds
16-year-old Rashad is arrested for shoplifting. But here’s the thing — he didn’t do anything wrong. Quinn (Rashad’s white classmate) watches the cop assault and arrest Rashad at the bodega. Here’s the other thing — the cop has raised Quinn since Quinn’s father died in Afghanistan. As the entire community takes sides on the encounter, Quinn is the only witness who struggles with doing the right thing and what that might mean for his relationships. Readers will enjoy hearing this story, which is told from the alternating perspectives of Rashad and Quinn.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Books 1-4) by Jeff Kinney
If you teach a group of high school students who don’t like to read and ask them if there were any books they enjoyed in middle school, it’s likely that Diary of a Wimpy Kid was that sole book. Greg is an extremely relatable protagonist attending middle school and dealing with bullies, hormones, puberty, and social dynamics. When his friend Rowley starts to become more popular, and Greg tries to ride Rowley’s coattails to middle school elite status, hilarity ensues. The novel features funny drawings on each page, making it an accessible selection for students who are intimidated by longer prose novels.
Restart by Gordon Korman
Ever since Chase fell off the roof, odd things are happening. His memory is wiped out. He can’t even remember his own name, at first. People at his school start to treat him differently upon his return, and Chase sets out to discover who he was before the fall, and who he wants to be now that he has a second chance.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Who doesn’t love a story of a dysfunctional family? The family in We Were Liars is full of secrets. Four sisters (plus their spouses and children) all vacation together on a private island for the summer. Four of the sisters’ children forge what feels like an unbreakable bond until lies and secrets are revealed. Students will be desperate to learn which family member is responsible for a devastating event that happens on the island, and who will survive the aftermath…
One Of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
We’re not going to lie…the plot of this book starts off very similar to The Breakfast Club. On a random afternoon, five high school students have detention. One is a nerd, another a beauty, another a rebel, another an athlete, and another an outcast. Before the end of the detention session, one of them dies. How? Is it an accident? Or did someone have a motive? What about the fact that the outcast was going to spill the tea on all four of peers in detention? Readers will love trying to figure out who is guilty in this page-turner.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
There is a monster living in Conor’s backyard. The same monster from his nightmares that have plagued him since his mother became ill. The monster tells Conor that it will tell him three true stories and that Conor must then tell his own true story. If Conor lies, however, the monster will consume him. Among those stories, readers learn about Conor’s loneliness, his deadbeat father, his aloof grandmother, and the bullies that torment him at school.
The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
In this thrilling tale, a court nobleman recruits four orphans (including a rebellious boy named Sage) to impersonate the king’s long-lost son and become a ‘puppet prince.’ Readers will enjoy watching Sage and his three friends compete against one another, only to discover that they are all being taken advantage of. Even better, there are three more books that follow in the saga!
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp
Many of our reluctant readers seem to enjoy books with multiple narrators — especially unreliable ones! This is Where It Ends is set in the middle of a school shooting and is told from multiple perspectives over the span of 54 minutes. Tyler is the gunman. His sister Autumn (and her secret girlfriend Sylv) try to stay calm. Tomás (Sylv’s brother) tries to help a group of students and teachers who are trapped in a room with Tyler. Claire (Tyler’s ex-girlfriend) feels helpless outside of the school walls. While there’s no happy ending, students will be captivated by this gripping, emotionally charged selection.
Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older
Something strange is going on in Brooklyn. After a dead body breaks up Sierra’s first party of the summer, and the murals in her neighborhood start to cry literal tears, Sierra soon discovers the magic of shadowshaping — an art that instills the spirits of ancestors into artwork. As someone starts killing shadowshapers, Sierra must protect herself and the generations of future shadowshapers.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
The protagonist of this novel — 13-year-old Brian — is the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness. Left with only the clothes on his back and a hatchet from his mother, Brian must learn how to survive. As he learns how to build a shelter, hunt, forage, and make fire, he must also come to terms with his mother’s infidelity and the relationship he wants to have with his father. Will he ever be rescued? And if he is, how will he face his parents?
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
We haven’t heard of a student who started reading this book and failed to fall in love with it. Even the most resistant readers will relate to the protagonist — Will — who deliberates taking revenge on the person he believes murdered his older brother. Written in verse, and taking place within the span of an elevator ride down several floors, Long Way Down compels readers to think about the pros and cons of revenge.
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
At 12 years old, Jerome is killed by a cop who assumes that his toy gun is an actual weapon. Jerome returns as a ghost to witness the aftermath of his death — on his family and his community. During this time, Jerome meets the ghost of Emmett Till, who died under similar circumstances, and Sarah, the daughter of the cop.
Percy Jackson & the Olympians Boxed Set by Rick Riordan
Students love Percy Jackson books! Percy is the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. From The Lightning Thief to The Last Olympian, readers will enjoy accompanying Percy on his hilarious and adventurous journeys alongside monsters, beasts, demigods, and other tricksters from Greek mythology.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor and Park are two 16-year-old misfits who meet on a school bus on Eleanor’s first day of 10th grade at a new high school in the year 1986. Brought together by a bullying incident, they begin to connect through their mutual interests. As they grow closer, Eleanor fears that Park will realize what she deals with at home — a drunk, abusive stepfather. Readers will enjoy getting to know these well-developed characters and following what happens to Eleanor after Park attempts to rescue her from her abusive home situation.
Denton Little’s Death Date by Lance Rubin
If you knew the exact date when you would die, how would that change how you lived out the rest of your life? In Denton’s world, everyone knows their death date. Unfortunately for Denton, a high school senior, his death date is scheduled for the day of his senior prom. Readers will laugh out loud at the embarrassing, awkward, and befuddling situations that Denton gets involved in prior to prom night.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
15-year-old Lina is living in Lithuania with her family, until Soviet officers barge into her home, separate her father, mother, and younger brother onto crowded trains leading to Siberian work camps, and force them to survive the elements. Linda and her mother and brother are desperate to find their father but losing hope. As Linda documents the upheaval of her life, she hopes that the art she leaves behind will find its way into her father’s hands. Students who enjoy learning and reading about the Holocaust will enjoy learning about this lesser-told tale of the genocide of the Baltic people of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union.
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Set in a dystopian society where abortion is outlawed, parents have the legal option to send their teenager to be ‘unwound’ upon reaching a certain age. You can be unwound for various reasons, but most are condemned to the unwinding facility for being rebellious, delinquent, or in rare cases, a religious sacrifice. What does it mean to be unwound? In a surgical procedure, doctors remove each part of the body — while the person is still conscious — until nothing remains. These parts get distributed to people who need them in the outside world. One of the most intriguing scenes of the book details the process of unwinding from a person experiencing it in real-time. Readers will root for the three main characters who share their perspectives and unite to topple the authority behind the unwinding system.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Here we have the only book on our list that is narrated by a dog — Enzo, to be exact. Enzo operates under the belief that a dog who is ‘prepared’ will be reincarnated as a human in its next life. Enzo absorbs as much knowledge as he can from the TV, specifically about his owner’s passion for race car driving. He witnesses his owner get married, have a child, deal with a terminal illness, and engage in a custody battle. Students who love dogs or have dogs as companions will fall in love with this tearjerker.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
On the night of a big party, Justyce spots his ex-girlfriend attempting to start her car and drive home while intoxicated. A copy passing by assumes that Justyce is attempting to assault her, and arrests him in front of his classmates. To deal with the taunts and judgments from his peers, Justyce begins writing letters to the deceased Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Not too long after, Justyce and his best friend Manny are involved in another intense altercation with a cop, and shots are fired. Justyce is a compelling character, whose struggles are revealed through introspective letters to MLK.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give is one of those books that everyone should read before graduating high school. Its protagonist — Starr Carter — does her best to navigate two worlds: her poor neighborhood and fancy prep school. When Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her (unarmed)childhood best friend at the hands of a cop, she is afraid that people will find out she was the only witness. It is unbearable to hear the media and schoolmates label her deceased friend as a thug who ‘deserved it,’ and as the pressure mounts, Starr decides to speak up.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Natasha and Daniel are two teenagers living in New York City who meet on the day Natasha finds out her family is being deported back to Jamaica. Daniel is additionally struggling to meet the rigid and high expectations of his parents, who own a convenience store. Natasha is determined, wary, and practical. Daniel is outgoing, idealistic, and easy-going. In this case, opposites definitely attract, but how can they stop Natasha’s family from being deported to Jamaica, where Natash has never stepped foot?
Pride: A Pride & Prejudice Remix by Ibi Zoboi
Based on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Pride tells the story of Zuri Benitez, daughter of a proud, Afro-Latino family in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. When the wealthy Darcy family moves next door, Zuri comes to loathe them and their two teenage sons — Ainsley and Darius. As Zuri battles the expected trials of high school, she also has to balance pressures from her four sisters, attention from curious suitors, and dreaded college applications…not to mention, a growing shift in feelings toward Darius, the youngest Darcy brother. Readers will enjoy this classic tale retold in a modern, relatable voice.