Reading Nation
My Favorite Books to Share with Students who Struggle

My favorite books to share with students who struggle…and to help me be a kinder and more thoughtful person.

I'm known in my families, the one at home and the one at work, as a practicing bibliotherapist. As a teacher and parent, when my kids were faced with a problem themselves or needed to be more empathetic when others were challenged, I went to the books. Here are four of my favorites:

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (Nancy Paulsen Books). 

The protagonist is a girl who we know from the research on dyslexia, has a brain that works differently. With eighteen states with dyslexia legislation this seemed topical. But it is not preachy, just a really good read. Two things I especially appreciated about this book are the realistic description of a great teacher and the message that we all have strengths. I would recommend this as a read aloud.

The Lightening Thief by Percy Jackson and the Olympians (Disney-Hyperion). 

By now the book has had several sequels and has been made into a movie and also a newish graphic novel. The graphic format especially appeals to me for independent reading. Percy's problem with algebra is only one of the issues he faces as he finds out he's the son of Poseidon. But I don't want to spoil your reading with too much information as this is a super adventure that encourages kids to stick together to solve problems. Readers will not be bored or able to put it down.

The Wild Book by Margarita Engle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 

You'll find this in your READ 180 library (Stage A). The dedication says it all, "For young readers who dread reading and for those who love blank books." Fefa is a struggling reader whose mother provides her with a blank book for her to use to contain the words that seem to "spill off the page". This makes the case for exploiting the reading and writing connection and the text which almost looks like poems with hooks like "Doomed" and "Justice" draw you in to how her growing control of words solves a serious family problem.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Knopf Books for Young Readers). 

You'll find this in your READ 180 library, too. And I can't resist the play on words, this book is simply wonder-ful. Beautifully rendered with compelling characters including the protagonist who has a significant facial difference. His attempt to get people to look past the outside speaks to all of us. It's soon to be a movie, Julia Roberts is one of the leads. If you're one of the few who haven't read the book, try to before 2017 when the movie comes out – a strategy I encourage in general with book and movie tie-ins. First establish your own mental model before going to the movie. I'll be standing in line for opening weekend as I really like both this book and Julia Roberts.

At this time of the school year, kids understand learning to read is hard and it will take substantial effort to improve. These books provide the kind of inspiration that will encourage students perspiration and persistence.

A recent study found that teachers and parents value kindness over academic success. As well as deepening understanding of our struggles, I think these books help students to be better readers and all of us to be better people – kinder and more compassionate.


Francie Alexander is the Chief Academic Officer of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She works across both the education and consumer divisions of HMH, advising on the creation of educational products and services for children both in and out of school.

Francie also serves as a spokesperson on educational best practices, literacy, and parenting. She has been a frequent guest on NBC's TODAY Show, has written columns for The New York Post, and was "The Book Nanny" for Los Angeles Family Magazine. Additionally, Francie has authored more than 40 Scholastic titles including Dots! Dots! Dots!: At the Museum, Clifford's Phonics Fun, and How Does Your Salad Grow?

  • sallyd

    Thank you, Francine for these book recommendations! I always try to provide inspiring texts for my struggling readers to read. I appreciate your suggestions! Sally