12 Stellar Hi-Lo Titles for Striving Readers | Great Books

With diverse characters dealing with authentic, real-life issues, these 12 hi-lo titles will appeal to a plethora of ­interests and are recommended for collections serving tweens and teens.

Hi-lo (high-interest, lower reading level) books are designed to meet striving readers where they are. With fast-paced plots and controlled vocabularies, hi-lo titles are written with readability and accessibility in mind. This becomes all the more important at the secondary level, where students who are reading below grade level should be engaged with age-appropriate stories that are relevant to them. Hi-lo texts for the middle and high school audience typically run 100 to 200 pages with short chapters, easy-to-read fonts, and plenty of white space. While realistic fiction is the most common genre, these readable texts can span a wide range of interests, and the below selections include sports, action, horror, and fantasy. With diverse characters dealing with authentic, real-life issues, these hi-lo titles will appeal to a plethora of ­interests and are recommended for collections serving tweens and teens.

Middle School

BATES, Sonya Spreen. Oh Brother. Orca. 2020. ISBN 9781459824331.
Gr 6-8–When Lauren moves to a new school, she feels pressured to distance herself from her younger brother, who uses a wheelchair. Oh Brother presents a relatable teen friendship story and provides insights into having a sibling with a disability. While on the longer side for hi-lo middle school texts, a fast-moving plot and short sentences make this book accessible to striving readers.

JACOBS, Evan. Call Waiting. Saddleback Educational Publishing. 2020. ISBN 9781680217629.
Gr 6-8– Tweens Ryan and Tenley get sucked into a supernatural mystery that leaves them stranded in 1945 after they find an unplugged antique phone ringing at a vintage shop. With a ­high-interest, spooky theme and slim page count, this title is written between a second and third grade reading level and will appeal to horror fans.

LEVITT, Mike. Rugby Rookies. Lorimer. 2021. ISBN 9781459415720.
Gr 6-8– Maddy and her friends decide to start an all-girls rugby team despite the lack of support from their reluctant school and nervous parents. With tenacity and hard work, the girls are able to become an official team and prove that rugby can be a sport for all. The book, written at a second grade reading level, deftly deals with the topic of women in full-contact sports.

MANUEL, Jennifer. Head to Head. Lorimer. 2021. ISBN 9781459414280.
Gr 6-8– Emika learns the importance of leadership and cooperation after being appointed the cocaptain of her soccer team with Maram, a fellow player she detests. The Wolves team features a diverse cast of characters, including one with cerebral palsy, and the book celebrates confident girls in sports. Action-packed scenes on the field make for an accessible, engaging text for hi-lo readers.

MCLEAN, Dirk. Lone Runner. Lorimer. 2021. ISBN 9781459415928.
Gr 6-8– This title follows Michaela as she goes from being a solitary sprinter to joining her school’s cross-country team. After being shunned by runners at summer camp, she forges friendships with team members from a wide range of backgrounds, and the book actively celebrates Toronto’s diversity. Middle schoolers at a second grade reading level will root for Michaela as she steps out of her shell.

NARSIMHAN, Mahtab. Embrace the Chicken. Orca. 2020. ISBN 9781459827431.
Gr 6-8– Shivani, whose family has ­recently immigrated to Canada from Mumbai, is desperate to fit in and distance herself from her Indian culture. With her ­mother still learning English, Shivani tries to keep her away from her friends and her school’s upcoming ­fundraiser. Featuring dyslexia-friendly font and readable page layouts, Embrace the Chicken presents a relatable story of a teen struggling with self-acceptance.

PRENDERGAST, Gabrielle. The Crosswood. Orca. 2021. ISBN 9781459826625.
Gr 6-8The Crosswood follows Blue, who discovers his younger twin siblings are fairies. When they are kidnapped by their birth mother, a fairy queen, Blue must enter the mysterious Crosswood to rescue them and save his mother’s life. The fantasy genre is not often represented in ­hi-lo literature; however, the book presents a satisfying, immersive world for striving readers not yet ready for longer texts.

High School

FLORENCE, Melanie. Dreaming in Color. Orca. 2020. ISBN 9781459825864.
Gr 8 Up– Jen is an artist creating work ­inspired by her Indigenous heritage in Dreaming in Color. When she is ­accepted into a prestigious arts school, other students hurl racist insults at her, escalating to her work being ­destroyed before an important art show. With ­ultra-readable text written at a third grade reading level, this powerful book about embracing who you are will ­appeal to realistic fiction readers.

MANUEL, Jennifer. Open Secrets. Lorimer. 2021. ISBN 9781459415881.
Gr 10 Up– In this resonant story of the #MeToo era, Ana is a passionate musician who wants to make it big with her band Shadow Beat. When the owner of a local club begins doing favors for her music ­career, she starts to realize that she is ­being groomed—meaning there are ­sexual ­expectations to their agreement that she did not consent to. A gripping story, written at a second grade reading level, along with important themes like sexual abuse and misogyny, make this a must-buy for high school hi-lo collections.

MCADAM, Tash. Blood Sport. Orca. 2021. ISBN 9781459830905.
Gr 9 Up– This gritty mystery follows Jason, a transgender teen living in foster care. When Jason starts digging into his sister’s mysterious death, it leads him to start practicing at a boxing gym that may hold the answers. The plot is fast-paced for striving readers and deals with important contemporary themes, including ­LGBTQIA+ rights and human ­trafficking. At just over 100 pages, this slim book packs a punch.

TAYLOR, Wanda. No One’s Baby. Lorimer. 2021. ISBN 9781459414969.
Gr 9 Up– After she finds out she is pregnant, Black teen Lizzie decides to travel far from home to find her own birth mother. Her journey makes her reflect on her relationship with her adopted ­mother, who is white. A fast-moving plot, written at a second grade reading level, will keep hi-lo readers engaged. With gritty themes like teen pregnancy, abuse, and discrimination, this title deals with important ­issues head-on.

WALTERS, Eric. Overdrive. Orca. 2021. ISBN 9781459830899.
Gr 9 Up– Jake, a car enthusiast, gets into a street race with a classmate in Overdrive. When the racing leads to a serious car accident, Jake wrestles with whether to come forward with his involvement. The book, written at a second grade reading level, effectively balances its ­engaging, high-octane subject matter with the gravity of facing the consequences for bad decisions. Recommended for high school collections.

Kathryn Ferrante is the Director of ­Library Services at Renbrook School in West Hartford, CT. Her drive to match students with the right books fuels her passion for hi-lo literature.

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