The key to engaging reluctant teen readers is finding books that are both appealing and accessible. Here are some books that cover topics of high interest to teens, but are written at lower reading levels.
A Boy Called Twister, by Anne Schraff
This is one of many books that are called “hi-lo.” That’s the nickname for stories and books that cover topics of high interest to teens who are reading below their grade level.
A Boy Called Twister dives into the life of Kevin as he deals with being the new kid in high school. The book involves bullying, high school sports and big family secrets. While some of the themes are edgy, the story provides a good moral. This and other books by Saddleback Educational Publishing are designed to be approachable to reluctant readers, both in format and in theme.
Seven (The Series), by seven different authors
Seven is a collection of seven books about seven teenage boys whose grandfather dies and leaves them a mysterious note. Each book follows one cousin as he attempts to complete the tasks outlined in their grandfather’s will. These books are action-packed, making them a great choice for reluctant teen readers, especially boys. Another big selling point for this hi-lo series from Orca Book Publishers is that each book is written by a different author. The books have different writing styles and can be read in any order. Your teen may like getting to choose which one to read next!
Jacob and the Bee Man, by Kelly Winters
Jacob and the Bee Man is about a high school senior who gets caught committing a petty crime. This leads to an unusual punishment that helps him discover a new set of possibilities for himself in the most unexpected of ways. The book is written with beautifully simple language, and Jacob is someone readers can connect with and root for. Visit
Story Shares for this and other free stories. (Author’s note: I run this nonprofit literacy hub, which generates and distributes relevant and accessible content for struggling teen readers.) Story Shares also has free audio versions so readers can hear the words they see on the screen.
This book might call to mind The Hunger Games, but the writing may be more accessible to teens who are reading below grade level. Cassia is living in a society where individuals don’t get to make their own decisions. When an official program matches her to the boy who will be her mate for life, something goes wrong with the computer. The screen flashes the face of her best friend but matches her to another boy. Cassia finds that she has a lot to question: her society, her future and her forbidden love.
Matched is both a romance and an adventure.
At just under 60 pages long,
Bully is another great hi-lo option from Story Shares for reluctant readers. Short chapters and many photographs help make it even more approachable. Bully may be especially appealing to teenage girls because it provides a realistic and unique look into a theme that most of them know well. The story follows Holly, a high school bully who spends her days angry and isolated. When she stumbles across a strange ring in her front yard, she ends up forming an unlikely relationship — and her perspective begins to shift.
A Matter of Trust, by Anne Schraff
A Matter of Trust is part of the
Bluford Series, which is set in the inner city and follows the lives and problems of the students at Bluford High. The books get “real” with older teens and the issues they can face. If you’re not comfortable with themes that involve violence and substance abuse, proceed with caution. But teens who have previously sworn off reading tend to find themselves hooked once they’ve tried one of these page-turners.
Calamities, by Henry and Melissa Billings
Calamities is part of the best-selling Critical Reading Series. These nonfiction texts are a good option for readers who prefer fact over fiction. The books are visually catchy, and they cover real-life topics that are intriguing. This book covers “21 disastrous events that touched the world.” Other titles in this series include Daredevils and Aliens and UFOS. These books include critical-thinking questions that serve as a guide for interacting more deeply with the text.
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
A classic first published in 1967,
The Outsiders stands the test of time with high school students. It follows the life of Ponyboy, a teenager growing up in the Midwest. It’s a bit slow to start. But if readers stick with it, they’ll be drawn in and will find themselves rooting for Ponyboy and his friends as they deal with gang feuds, a fire and loss.
Holocaust: The Story of a Survivor, by Dee Phillips
Holocaust tells a Holocaust survivor’s story in an unconventional, highly visual way. It borrows from a popular format called a graphic novel. This book from Saddleback has many stylized pictures that will appeal to reluctant readers. Holocaust deals with heavy themes using very straightforward language. It is designed specifically for struggling teen readers.