The absolute best way to improve your vocabulary is to read more, so we’ve assembled this collection of eight 5th grade level books that can help you amplify your personal dictionary! Including the best classics for 5th graders and modern page-turners that will boost your ELA confidence in time for middle school, this list has something for anyone in grade 5 looking for a great read.
Classic Books for Grade 5
These four “classics” (meaning, for the sake of this article, anything published prior to 2005) are 5th grade level books renowned for their extensive vocabulary and sophisticated humor or subject matter.
1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
This 1877 tale, formatted as an anthropomorphic autobiography from a horse’s point of view, is a must-read for animal lovers. One of the best-selling books of all time, this read follows the horse Black Beauty as he’s sold to various owners, undergoing mistreatment and hardships throughout his life before a peaceful retirement. Sewell wrote this novel to criticize animal cruelty, particularly advocating for fairer treatment to horses in England.
“Ginger used to like it very much, but sometimes when she came back I could see that she had been very much strained, and now and then she gave a short cough. She had too much spirit to complain, but I could not help feeling anxious about her,” (Sewell, chapter 24).
2. Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
This 1961 fantasy adventure follows Milo, a young boy that receives a magical tollbooth that transports him into a magical world called the Kingdom of Wisdom. On his adventure to explore this new place, he is joined by Tock—a huge, talking “watchdog” with a clock on each side. Its potential for vocabulary acquisition manifests in one of the book’s settings: Dictionopolis, a city with a “word market” that showcases the power of language. As you can probably tell, this book is a Alice in Wonderland or Chronicles of Narnia–style joyride for lovers of puns, wit, and word-based humor.
“The bee, who had tangled himself in some bunting, toppled to the ground, knocking Milo over on top of him, and lay there shouting, ‘Help! Help! There’s a little boy on me.’ The bug sprawled untidily on a mound of squashed letters and Tock, his alarm ringing persistently, was buried under a pile of words,” (Juster, pg 37).
3. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A coming-of-age adventure story, Treasure Island can be called the blueprint for modern pirate tales! Coupled with an expert use of diction, the intense plot and many vibrant characters make this a read students haven’t been able to resist since its 1880’s publication. Protagonist and narrator Jim Hawkins kicks off an expedition for treasure after the death of his father, and the resulting adventure is filled with drama that will keep you turning the pages!
“As I was waiting, a man came out of a side room, and at a glance I was sure he must be Long John. His left leg was cut off close by the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird. He was very tall and strong, with a face as big as a ham–plain and pale, but intelligent and smiling,” (Stevenson, chapter 8).
4. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
An award-winning young adult science fantasy story, A Wrinkle in Time follows Meg Murry as she is whisked away by supernatural beings to travel the universe in search of her father. Accompanied by her brother Charles and schoolmate Calvin, they visit planets of mystical beings and explore the unknown while avoiding The Black Thing, an evil dark cloud attacking the universe. This masterfully written novel is packed with symbolism and rich diction.
“Darkness has a tangible quality; it can be moved through and felt; in darkness you can bark your shins; the world of things still exists around you. She was lost in a horrifying void,” (L’Engle, chapter 4).
Modern Fiction Books for Grade 5
If you’re someone who cringes at the outdated, don’t worry—here are four modern novels with pristine diction ranging in complexity and masterful storytelling suitable for 5th graders, from children’s literature to middle grade to YA.
1. See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
If you’re fascinated by space (who isn’t?), this adventurous and heartwarming fiction novel might be the perfect next read for you! 11-year-old protagonist Alex wishes to launch his iPod into space for aliens to listen to (like the Golden Record time capsule launched in 1977)—so, he takes his dog with him to journey around the American Southwest, recording his experiences for the ETs that may tune in one day. An inspiring, moving, and optimistically existential read, the narrative style will captivate you and keep you reading!
“That’s my dog, I named him after my hero, Dr. Carl Sagan, who was one of the greatest astronomers of our time. Dr. Sagan helped send Voyagers 1 and 2 into deep space and put a Golden Record on them with all kinds of sounds from our planet, like whales singing and people saying hello in fifty-five languages, and the laugh of a newborn baby and the brainwaves of a woman in love and mankind’s greatest music like Bach and Beethoven and Chuck Berry,” (Cheng, pg 4).
2. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
Published in 2022, the next read in this list of 5th grade level books is a retelling of a classic Korean folktale (“The Tale of Shim Cheong”). Mina’s homeland has faced devastating storms for hundreds of years, and its people throw a beautiful maiden into the sea yearly in hopes of appeasing the Sea God. In order to save her brother’s beloved from being sacrificed, Mina jumps into the sea instead. Her self-sacrifice sweeps her into the spirit world, and she endeavors to wake the Sea God and save her homeland. A thematically and vocabulary rich feminist story, this is a must-read for young women and fantasy lovers.
“The elders say Shim Cheong was fashioned by the Goddess of Creation to be the Sea God’s final bride, the one to ease all his sorrows and usher in a new era of peace in the kingdom. She has skin forged from the purest of pearls. She has hair stitched from the deepest night. She has lips colored by the blood of men,” (Oh, chapter 1).
3. The 1,000-year-old Boy by Ross Welford
Have you ever heard someone call you or a friend an “old soul”? That typically means that they seem wise or mature beyond their years, but that phrase gets literal in The 1,000-year-old Boy—as you can tell from the title, protagonist Alfie is a 1,000 year old preteen with the gift (or curse) of living forever. After everything he loves is destroyed, he begins a mission to search for a way to grow old and… die. We know, it sounds morbid, but this vocabulary and detail-rich story brings forth a heartwarming message about family, friends, and the beauty of life.
“Then I saw it: the yellow tube of a ballpoint pen withdrawing through a large hole in the back fence. Someone was using it as a peashooter to fire paper pellets at me, and she was a good shot. I went over to the knothole and stooped to peer through it, and almost immediately felt a hard kick on my backside. Spinning round, I saw the tiniest girl grinning wickedly and cackling,” (Welford, chapter 5).
4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The final read in our collection is a rather spooky read from the same author that wrote Coraline, and it’s the only work to ever win both the Newbery (USA) and Carnegie (UK) medals. The Graveyard Book follows Nobody Owens (Bod), who lives in a graveyard, raised by ghosts! He explores the vast graveyard but cannot venture outside of it, as he’d be in danger from the man who killed his family. This whimsical journey demonstrates Gaiman’s mastery of storytelling, and its precise vocabulary and exceptional imagery truly immerse you in Bod’s strange world.
“Bod snorted and walked off, kicking at imaginary stones. On the northwestern side of the graveyard things had become very overgrown and tangled, far beyond the ability of the groundskeeper or the Friends of the Graveyard to tame, and he ambled over there, and woke a family of Victorian children who had all died before their tenth birthdays, and they played at hide-and-go-seek in the moonlight in the ivy-twined jungle,” (Gaiman, pg 31).
Upgrade Your Reading and Writing with Piqosity!
We hope at least one of these acclaimed 5th grade level books piqued your curiosity, or at least inspired you to pick up a book on your own! Reading is an important and effective way to retain and improve your vocabulary and reading comprehension skills, so make sure to keep reading as you enter middle school. If you want more book recommendations at a 5th grade reading level, make sure to look into these books to read over the summer!
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