by | Oct 9, 2023 | Exams, Front page posts, Reading & comprehension | 0 comments

Introduction to the reading list

For decades now I have been successfully preparing students for the 11+ exam.

Unsurprisingly (most weeks) I am asked by parents to recommend suitable books. As I’m quite picky over what I’m prepared to rate – it has been an ongoing challenge.

Now, finally, I have put my own 11 plus booklist together.

These are my own recommendations. I’m confident that each one is properly entertaining AND has the power to push up your child’s reading level.

Action and adventure books

These books are at the heart of the list. Dramatic, fast-paced, thrilling to read either independently or together.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston

Amazon Adventure by Willard Price

Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal

Broken Sky by L.A. Weatherly

Escape Room by Christopher Edge

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Girl, Missing by Sophie McKenzie

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

Race to Fire Mountain by Remi Blackwood

Silverfin by Charlie Higson & Kev Walker

The Book of Stolen Dreams by David Farr

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

The Ghost Warriors by Bill Tippins

The Girl who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook

The Night Ride by J. Anderson Coats

The Secret Lake by Karen Inglis

Theodore Boone By John Grisham

Thirteen by Tom Hoyle

Underwater Adventure by Willard Price

Funny books

The trick is to present all reading as good reading, no matter how simple and silly the book might be. 

Have some brilliant times playing about with the voices of different characters and wallowing in the silliness of this lot.

When the content is simpler, it is a good opportunity to discuss stereotyping. David Walliams has been accused of gender and racial stereotyping – particularly  in his earlier books. 

Have a look at the roles of women for instance – what’s his view of them as a writer and does it change? 

Enjoy talking about these cheery books with your child.

Agatha Oddly by Lena Jones

The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

Funny Girl by Betsy Bird

How to Train your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Spaceboy by David Walliams

The Boy with Wings by Lenny Henry

The Greatest Spy who never was by David Codd

The Summer I robbed a Bank by David O’Doherty

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Piven and Borgenicht

Worst Holiday Ever by Charlie Higson


These are great as a foil for the funny books. Most are probably a little too sophisticated for your child to read to themselves anyway. But with you reading they can sit back and consider all sorts of character and plot details. Why might the main character hide their feelings? What sort of ending would you give them if you were in control of the plot?

Don’t be afraid to address dated views together – why are stereotypes disappointing? How might they make a young reader feel?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll

Holes by Louis Sachar

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Fantasy books

This section is where authors let their imagination loose. Each book is packed full of creativity. There are classics in here. Has your child spotted the Christian references in CS Lewis’s  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for instance? 

Some fantasy books are more accessible (Cogheart, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) – some are more challenging (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). All are edge-of-the-seat exciting so judge which ones are best read aloud to your child, and which they might read to themselves.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

Dragon Mountain by Katie & Kevin Tsang

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A. F. Steadman

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

The Lost Files by Pittacus Lore

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

The Yelling Stones by Oskar Jensen

Historical fiction

Stories where characters are removed from their homes and put in challenging situations are ripe for discussion. Why did she make that decision? Why did he hide that from his father? These discussions will sky-rocket your child’s ability to infer meaning from the text.

Empathy is central to comprehension. These books are the ones I chose to read to my son – we lost ourselves in The Silver Sword, following the children’s route on the map at the front of the book and weighing up how we would choose to end their story if we had been on hand to give Ian Serrallier the benefit of our advice.

All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin

Enola Holmes by Nancy Springer

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

Spy by Rhian Tracey

Slave to Fortune by D. J. Munro

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

The Somerset Tsunami by Emma Carroll

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean

Windrush Child by Bengamin Zephaniah


Our family favourites are The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook and Spies, Code-Breakers and Secret Agents.  Biographies are a great addition to this section, but you have to watch footballers’ autobiographies for lifestyle content that may not be appropriate, so I’ve not included any here.  

As I’m very much a speed-reader for plot, I find that the pacing of autobiographical work can dip a bit for me, mid-book. Do discuss this together and accept that it’s ok to lose interest half way in, and give up (or to jump a chapter or two). Allowing rule-breaking like this is a great relationship-builder if you are both feeling the stress of exam preparation.

Amazing Survival Stories for Adventurous Kids by Bill O’Neill

Bellingham by Matt and Tom Oldfield

Business for Beginners by Lara Bryan

How to Stay Alive by Bear Grylls

Managing your Money by Jane Bingham

Saka by Matt and Tom Oldfield

Spies, Code Breakers and Secret Agents by Carole P. Roman

The Academy by T. Z. Layton

The Cosmic Diary of our Incredible Universe by

The Usborne Official Spy Handbook by Colin King

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Piven and Borgenicht

Unbelievable Football by Matt Oldfield

Contemporary fiction

This section is packed full of new books with modern themes. Dreaming the Bear immerses us in the icy wilderness of Yellowstone Park. Boy Underwater takes you from tears to laughter and back again. And Greenwild and The Lost Whale are cracking adventure stories.

If you love one of these –  then see what other readers bought who enjoyed it too. That’s the way to develop a broad and more varied reading programme as you discover new and exciting authors.

A Seven Letter Word by Kim Slater

Boy Underwater by Adam Baron

Boy, Everywhere by A. M. Dassu

Clap when you land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Dreaming the Bear by Mini Thebo

Greenwild the World Behind the Door by Pari Thomson

How I Became a Dog called Midnight by Ben Miller

The Lost Whale by Hannah Gold

The Song Walker by Zillah Bethell

The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Animal books

Who can resist a heartwarming animal tale. In this section there are wolves and foals and forgotten horses, mysterious wolves and a pig who thinks he’s a sheepdog.

A Secret of Birds & Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Call of the Titanic by Lindsay Galvin

Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Escape to the River Sea by Emma Carroll

Luna Wolf Animal Wizard by Alesha Dixon

My Friend the Octopus by Lindsay Galvin

Snow Foal by Susanna Bailey

The Black Stallion by Walter Farley

The Forgotten Horse by Elaine Heney

The Owl Keeper by Christine Brodien Jones

The Racehorse who wouldn’t Gallop by Clare Balding

The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith

The Starlight Stables Gang by Esme Higgs

Wild Summer by James DuBern

Wings of Glory by Dermot O’Leary

Best books for reluctant readers

If your child is a reluctant reader, encourage any reading at all. It is not by accident that Jeff Kinney has sold multiple-millions of his Wimpy Kid series. Try not to get too het up with the American slang and general informality of the text. If your child is able to independently read these then it’s a great start. 

I’ve included Robert Muchamore’s cherub series here too. These were removed from the library at my son’s primary school as being a bit too racy (teenager-ish) but are absolutely addictive and have dragged many reluctant reader into his world of child spies thwarting terrorism. 

Swing to the text at the bottom of this post, where I explain how to take the burden of reading away from a reluctant reader to rocket-boost their attainment. It will take the pressure off all of you as a family and has immediate and dramatic results.

The 11+ exam (in whichever form your child is taking) is challenging. If you have a few months left before the exam, read aloud to your child 5 nights a week. This one-to-one reading aloud and discussion of the plot and character motivations will have a direct and positive impact on their exam performance.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Slime by David Walliams

The Recruit by Robert Muchamore

Books to avoid

Having scrolled through various other lists of reading books for young people I can state categorically that Animal Farm by George Orwell is not the book for your child. It is a political allegory based on the events of the Russian Revolution. Just because it has animals on the front and seems reasonably skinny – it doesn’t mean it’s a children’s book. Weightier novels are wasted on the young. I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was far too young – I’ve no idea what I thought it was about.

Tom’s Midnight Garden seems dated and inappropriate. Swallows and Amazons is slow-paced and the racial stereotyping is uncomfortable (although interesting to address in conversations about the text). Lord of the Flies is better read when your child is older (it’s a GCSE text) along with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (which again deals in racial stereotypes) and Gulliver’s Travels. The Lord of the Rings is too challenging at this stage, although The Hobbit is exciting and worth dipping into. My students love the cave trolls in that one!

My reading tips

A regular and varied reading habit is essential for success at 11+ (and in the ISEB Common Pre-test). Grammar School students and those in academic Independent Schools, are expected to be confident readers. If you are keen for your child to gain admission to a grammar school or top private institution, you will need to address their home reading programme sooner rather than later.

But don’t despair…

For over two decades I have been preparing children successfully for the 11+ and I have found a tried-and-tested way to turbo-boost reading attainment over a period of a few weeks and months. 

If you would like me to take the responsibility from your shoulders, drop your child into my weekly online reading club.

Even if your child is reasonably close to their 11+ exam this powerful plan will boost their confidence (and their score) on the day.  

Having taught thousands of children over the years, I too trotted out the standard line to all parents about establishing ‘a regular and varied reading habit.’ With my first 2 children this proved easy. They loved reading.  All was well.

But my third child was reluctant to read. Without really noticing we found ourselves taking the reading away from him. He was tired at the end of a long school day, so we just read his books to him. 

As the weeks passed, we loved to chat about the characters. I found when my husband read ‘our’ book, I was a bit lost the following evening and our conversations were not the same. 

This led to us choosing our own books and sticking to them. A routine developed with a couple of nights of my husband’s book and a couple of my own. All of us loved spending the time together so it was a win-win situation.

Throughout the summer holidays my son didn’t read a single word either independently or aloud to us. We were ashamed of ourselves – with me being a teacher too…

When he returned to school for his first reading assessment though it was staggering to see the change in him. He had gone from being in the middle set of a large primary school, to being absolutely top of the top set. In 2 months. His comprehension skills had gone through the roof.

Since then I have urged all parents to read aloud in this way to their children, not sharing their own book with anyone. 

Reading should be for pure enjoyment at this stage in your child’s life – why else? 

If you don’t like a book, give up quickly. We found The Railway Children draaaaaged. Lost interest in Swallows and Amazons too (although our discussions about racism were brilliant). There are so many other books out there – so we were quick to agree to move on. An author has to earn loyalty in our house. It’s liberating to put a book down and move on, if it’s shamefully boring.

Here are the rules of reading aloud. Apologies for their bluntness, but the aim is to increase enjoyment (theirs and yours) whilst speedily pushing up attainment.

  1. Enjoy getting the reading wrong. Read the wrong line. Read a word back-to-front, Read in the wrong intonation (or the wrong ‘voice’ if you’re a frustrated stage actor). Children don’t tend to pick up on their own mistakes when they’re young. They just plough on like a robot and the meaning slips away. Model getting it wrong and going back. 
  2. Enjoy the reading. Keep the plot flowing. The worst thing you can do is to stop and start to ask worthy questions. 
  3. If you come across a new word just say what it means and keep moving forward. If you don’t know what it means then guess it together (and you can google it the following day and let them know).
  4. Don’t make your child read a page or a paragraph or a line. Their eyes will be on the text anyway so they will be hearing the word as they read it. 
  5. Introduce chatting about themes, characters, the values of the author and plot development –  comfortably. Don’t ask any questions at first. Use the excuse to recap last night’s reading to introduce a few. Why did she do that? Were there any clues that she was going to do it? What might happen to her in this chapter? Does the author like her? How do you know?
  6. Give up on boring books as soon as they become boring. There are millions of books out there. Pick a different one.


How much reading should students be doing daily?

They should see Sunday through to Thursday as reading nights. Anything you can manage will make a difference. Ideally around half an hour at a time. I would always prioritise reading aloud to your child from your own book, over their own independent reading (if 11+ exam success is your focus).

Are there specific titles that must be read?

Absolutely not. Dip in to any section and pick what interests your child. Stick with themes or jump about – it’s the process of reading that’s important and the conversations around the content.

How important is breadth? Should my child read different genres, or just stick with what they like.

They should stick with what they like. You can change up the content in the books you choose to read aloud to them.

Does listening to audiobooks count?

Although this is great for vocabulary and familiarity with great authors – the text is not in front of the child so they are not able to link the individual word with how it is spoken aloud. So these are valuable, but not an alternative to home reading with a book or Kindle.

On another note, great readers become great writers. Encourage your child to spot rich vocabulary, carefully chosen imagery (simile, metaphor, personification) and enhanced punctuation. Once seen on the page of their reading book it is only a hop and a step away from appearing in their own written work. If you’re interested in pushing up your child’s writing – including prepping high-scoring samples for their 11+ exam click this link to our writing clubs.