Hi-Lo & Mighty Reads: 15 engaging and ­accessible series for ­reluctant and striving readers

With controlled vocabularies and short page counts, hi-lo (­high-interest, low-readability) books present engaging, age-­appropriate options for students reading below their grade level. This roundup of new and forthcoming series highlights a wide range of titles for collections serving elementary, middle, and high school ­audiences.

With controlled vocabularies and short page counts, hi-lo (­high-interest, low-readability) books present engaging, age-­appropriate options for students reading below their grade level. These books feature fast-moving plots, authentic characters, and engaging topics written with accessibility in mind. By bridging the gap between what students can and want to read, hi-lo texts are designed to help build fluency and comprehension.

This roundup of new and forthcoming series highlights a wide range of titles for collections serving elementary, middle, and high school ­audiences, with books ranging from first grade to fourth grade reading levels. From survival stories to edgy YA fiction to nonfiction explorations of mythology and sports, there is something here for every interest.


 

Middle Grade & Tween

CHAN, Marty. Haunted Hospital. 144p. ISBN 9781459826205.
JOYCE, Mere. Jelly Roll. 120p. ISBN 9781459826298.
KUIPERS, Alice. Pia’s Plans. 112p. ISBN 9781459823785.
LEVY, Joanne. Fish Out of Water. 144p. ISBN 9781459826595.
ea vol: (Orca Currents). Orca. Aug. 2020. pap. $10.95.
Gr 5-8 –Teens grapple with real-life ­issues including anxiety, gender roles, and bullying in these latest releases. In Jelly Roll, Jenny learns to stand up for herself while working with Austin, who bullies her because of her weight. Fish wants to learn to knit socks for his bar mitzvah project in Fish Out of Water, but is frustrated by the gender stereotypes he encounters pursuing passions others consider “girly.” In Pia’s Plans, Pia confronts her perfectionism and anxiety while fighting with her best friend and sustaining an injury before a big track meet. A group of four friends get more than they bargained for during a paranormal role-playing game in an abandoned hospital in the suspenseful, ­horror-inspired Haunted Hospital, which deals with topics such as illness and homelessness. These titles all include dyslexia-friendly features, such as ample spacing between words, a highly readable font, and ­colored paper to ­reduce contrast. VERDICT Written at a second to third grade reading level, these quality, relatable novels are ideal for students at the middle school level who benefit from ultra-readable formats.

JACOBS, Evan. VCR from Beyond. 88p. ISBN 9781680217605.
SHELTON, Donna. Lucky Me. 88p. ISBN 9781680217599.
––––. The Secret Room. 91p. ISBN 9781680217582.
ea vol: (Vintage Rose Mysteries). Saddleback. Feb. 2020. pap. $8.95.
Gr 5-8 –Tweens come across strange and supernatural objects at the Vintage Rose Antique Shop in this series with a ­macabre edge, written between a second and third grade reading level. ­Tenley and her family inherit the ­antiques shop from a long-lost aunt in The Secret Room. When Tenley ­discovers a stash of hidden objects in the basement, she unleashes a possessed doll. The magical items she finds set the stage for the rest of the series. In Lucky Me, Ana’s good luck charm, a rabbit’s foot from the antiques shop, wreaks havoc as she starts at a new school. Alex ­purchases a VCR from the store in VCR from Beyond, and begins acting erratically after watching the tape inside. Readers will enjoy the mythology-building that occurs between the books, with different characters and incidents slyly mentioned across the titles. VERDICT At less than 100 pages each, these slim volumes are an entertaining twist on the horror genre.

TADDONIO, Lea. Frankensteve. ISBN 9781532135019.
––––. A Hairy Problem. ISBN 9781532135026.
––––. Hallow-Weenie. ISBN 9781532135033.
––––. Pain in the Neck. ISBN 9781532135040.
ea vol: 48p. (Shiverwood Academy). ABDO/Magic Wagon. 2019. Tr $19.95.
Gr 3-8 –Vampires, werewolves, and monsters attend Shiverwood Academy in this new middle grade series. While the setting is spooky and the characters are supernatural, the problems they navigate are all too human. In Frankensteve, Steve worries about embarrassing ­himself trying out for the talent show because his limbs fall off. Jackson is a werewolf navigating his body’s changes during the full moon in A Hairy Problem. In Hallow-Weenie, Damien fears disappointing his dad, the bogeyman, when he reveals he would rather give people treats than scare them. Colin, a vampire, feels like he is lacking because his fangs have not grown in yet in Pain in the Neck. These relatable stories of growing up feature bright layouts and cartoon-inspired graphics. Short chapters are easy to read with three to four sentences per page and bold fonts ­accenting different words. VERDICT Written at a second grade reading level, this series is a charming hi-lo alternative to Jack Chabert’s “Eerie Elementary” and Kate Klise’s “43 Old Cemetery Road” series.

 

YA Fiction

AINSLIE, Claire. Detained. 96p. ISBN 9781541556928; ISBN 9781541572911.
BAILEY, Loren. Star-Crossed. 105p. ISBN 9781541556904; ISBN 9781541572935.
PRATT, Jeffrey. Team Player. 104p. ISBN 9781541556898; ISBN 9781541572942.
RICHMAN, Sarah. Family Ties. 102p. ISBN 9781541556911; ISBN 9781541572928.
ea vol: (AI High). Lerner/Darby Creek. 2019. Tr 19.99. pap. $7.99.
Gr 6 Up –This science fiction series takes place in a future where human and android teenagers attend high school together after decades of discrimination and separation. Each title, written at a fourth grade reading level, explores the friction and friendships that develop as the students adapt to this new situation. Star-Crossed follows Alyssa, a human, and Reid, an android, as they develop feelings for each other and begin dating, despite objections from both of their families. In Team Player, Danny is threatened when an android player takes his spot on the football team. He and the team grapple with the implications that her heightened abilities bring to the sport. Max begins vandalizing in protest of android discrimination in Detained. When he gets placed in detention, he meets a human named Oliver, but their friendship endangers both of their places in their communities. In Family Ties, Julie questions her family’s prejudiced views after becoming friends with a group of androids. VERDICT “AI High” effectively builds a world using a unique premise, with themes of prejudice that parallel the real world.


 

AUGUSTINE, Myriad. Ace of Hearts. 160p. ISBN 9781459415027; ISBN 9781459415003.
CORREIA, Tony. Prom Kings. 176p. ISBN 9781459414099; ISBN 9781459414075.
HARWOOD-JONES, Markus. We Three. 168p. ISBN 9781459414730; ISBN 9781459414716.
LIANG, Bridget. What Makes You Beautiful. 168p. ISBN 9781459414136; ISBN 9781459414112.
ea vol: (Real Love). Lorimer. Aug. 2020. Tr $27.99. pap. $8.99.
Gr 9 Up –This series starring LGBTQ+ characters explores teen romance through an intersectional lens. Jassie has feelings for two different people at her summer camp in We Three, but must navigate new territory when the three begin to date as a triad. In Ace of Hearts, Alvin grapples with others’ expectations for his romantic life after he starts at a new school and realizes he is asexual. Charlie uses rom-com clichés to try to get a date to the prom with his dream guy only to fall for his wingman in Prom Kings. Against the backdrop of the protagonist’s conservative family’s expectations, What Makes You Beautiful follows Logan as she starts questioning her assigned gender and transitions to her true identity as Veronica. The books present vibrant, supportive queer communities, and characters are both ethnically and neurodiverse. Written at an upper-elementary reading level, these titles are on the longer side for hi-lo fiction, but the fast-moving YA romantic plots will keep readers engaged. VERDICT These texts stand out for their authentic depictions of LGBTQ+ teens; recommended for high school collections.

CARTER, Brooke. Double or Nothing. 152p. ISBN 9781459823815.
SHIPLEY, Jocelyn. Stranded. 120p. ISBN 9781459823891.
SPIDER, Star. Hey Jude. 96p. ISBN 9781459826359.
ea vol: (Orca Soundings). Orca. Aug. 2020 pap. $10.95.
Gr 8 Up –These gritty novels, which include ultra-readable features like increased spacing and dyslexia-friendly fonts, depict teens grappling with issues such as addiction and mental illness. In Double or Nothing, teen genius Ester deals with a debilitating gambling addiction. When she falls into debt after a high-stakes poker game, she and her sister become embroiled in a risky plot with a dangerous pair of gangsters. Kipp is living on the streets while grieving the loss of his girlfriend from an overdose in the suspenseful Stranded. When a wealthy stranger invites him to stay with her, he jumps at the chance but learns that another boy disappeared in the house. In Hey Jude, Penny is weighed down by her responsibilities at home, where she is caring for her younger sister who has depression. When Jack, who is trans, captures her heart, she must learn to prioritize herself. The realistic themes are woven seamlessly within compelling plots and explored through relatable characters. VERDICT These engaging, fast-paced books are written at a third grade reading level and depict difficult topics with sensitivity.

 

Sports and Action

COLEMAN, K.R. Off Course. 103p. ISBN 9781541556881; ISBN 9781541573000.
LAROCHE, Jannette. Stranded. 93p. ISBN 9781541556867; ISBN 9781541573024.
MARTIN, R.T. Spinning Out. 93p. ISBN 9781541556850; ISBN 9781541573017.
NEAL, Elizabeth. Heat Wave. 90p. ISBN 9781541556874; ISBN 9781541572997.
ea vol: (Road Trip). Lerner/Darby Creek. Jan. 2020. Tr 19.99. pap. $7.99
Gr 6 Up –On road trips that quickly turn catastrophic, teens must rely on grit and determination to survive life-threatening situations. In Spinning Out, two couples on their way to a ski resort get lost in a treacherous snowstorm. Tempers flare after Jesse and Kevin lose their way and must hike through the woods in Stranded. A trio of friends head to a music festival in Heat Wave, only to get lost in the desert with a flat tire. In Off Course, twins Nora and Livi are on their way to a college interview when they veer off the road to find a hidden movie set. Relatable relationship drama between siblings, friends, and significant others is woven into the high-stakes action in these titles written at a fourth grade reading level. VERDICT The entertaining plots pack a punch and are an excellent choice for striving readers in middle and high school, particularly adrenaline seekers.

HOWLING, Eric. Long Bomb. 128p. ISBN 9781459414846; ISBN 9781459414846.
LEVITT, Mike. Rugby Rivals. 128p. ISBN 9781459414945; ISBN 9781459414921.
O’BRIEN, Alex. The Comeback. 120p. ISBN 9781459414822; ISBN 9781459414808.
SANDOR, Steven. Easy Out. 120p. ISBN 9781459414907; ISBN 9781459414884.
ea vol: (Sports Stories). Lorimer. Aug. 2020. Tr $27.99. pap $8.99.
Gr 5-8 –The athletes in these stories must overcome setbacks to succeed. In The Comeback, Chris’s psychologist suggests he try playing soccer to help with his depression. When stigma around his mental health threatens to derail the team, Chris learns that honesty is the best policy. After Mo’s baseball team gets bumped up to a harder league in Easy Out, he must deal with the unrealistic expectations of his father, a former baseball legend. In Rugby Rivals, Sam gets transferred to elite Rosedale Heights to play rugby. At school, he is bullied by snobby teammates, while at home his Pop is living with dementia. Spindly Ed may not seem like he’s built for football in Long Bomb, but he works to garner the respect of the standoffish quarterback after he gains a spot as a receiver on the team. VERDICT The in-depth game play will attract sports fans in these titles written between a second and third grade reading level. The books also skillfully take on relevant issues including racial discrimination, economic disparities, and mental illness.

YU, Bill. Desert Determination. illus. by Thiago Vale & Yonami. ISBN 9781532135118.
––––. Forest Fortitude. illus. by Thiago Vale & Yonami. ISBN 9781532135125.
––––. Island Endurance. illus. by Thiago Vale & Yonami with Grafimated. ISBN 9781532135132.
––––. Winter Willpower. illus. by Vincenzo Pietropaolo. ISBN 9781532135149.
ea vol: 32p. (Survive!). ABDO/Magic Wagon. 2019. Tr $20.95.
Gr 3-7 –In these action-packed graphic novels set in different climates, characters show perseverance in dangerous circumstances, from surviving an avalanche to getting stranded on a deserted island. Each title begins with true stories of people in life-threatening situations, followed by a fictional narrative. The books incorporate survival skills that readers can learn from, such as how to start a fire and how to respond when encountering a wild animal. Page layouts include eye-catching illustrations, along with a readable number of panels per page, with text written at a third grade reading level. Readers will appreciate a survival guide based on scenarios covered in the book, writing prompts, and a glossary. VERDICT With a unique mix of fiction and nonfiction depicting the ever-popular subject of survival, this high-octane series will draw in a wide range of readers.

 

Nonfiction

ABDO, Kenny. History of Baseball. ISBN 9781532127373.
––––. History of Basketball. ISBN 9781532127380.
––––. History of Football. ISBN 9781532127397.
––––. History of Golf. ISBN 9781532127403.
––––. History of Gymnastics. ISBN 9781532127410.
––––. History of Soccer. ISBN 9781532127427.
ea vol: 24p. (History of Sports). ABDO. 2019. Tr $18.95.
Gr 3-8 –This new series chronicles the history of soccer, baseball, gymnastics, and other sports. Each book explores the sport’s origins, development over the decades, championships and leagues, and noteworthy players. While titles do highlight female athletes, they tend to focus on male leagues and players. The text is written at a second grade reading level and uses a controlled ­vocabulary, with around three sentences per page. ­Despite the low page count of each volume and the brevity of the text, each book is full of facts and effectively conveys these substantial topics. A glossary and table of contents are included, along with a QR code that links to a website with curated online resources. Ample use of primary source images and modern photographs of athletes makes the titles suitable for older students. ­VERDICT Highly readable for striving readers and full of information, this series is ­recommended for school and public ­libraries serving hi-lo readers.


 

BESEL, Jen. Fox Pups. ISBN 9781623101381.
––––. Kittens. ISBN 9781623101398.
––––. Koala Joeys. ISBN 9781623101404.
––––. Panda Cubs. ISBN 9781623101411.
––––. Puppies. ISBN 9781623101428.
––––. Tiger Cubs. ISBN 9781623101435.
ea vol: 24p. (Baby Animals). Black Rabbit/Bolt Jr. 2020. Tr $29.95.
Gr 1-4 –Full of adorable photographs of fox pups, tiger cubs, and more, these broad overviews explore different types of baby animals. Written at a first grade reading level, each title covers the animal’s diet, home, and how it grows up, along with a smattering of fun facts, including amusing weight comparisons between newborn animal babies and common household items. These basic introductions do not offer in-depth details, and text features such as maps and diagrams sometimes feel like a missed opportunity to provide more specific facts. Page arrangements are attractive and easy to follow, with one short paragraph positioned next to an eye-catching photograph. Vocabulary words are bold, with a definition on the same page. ­ VERDICT While more entertaining than informative, this cute series will have wide appeal at the elementary level with its irresistible subject matter.

BOWERS, Matt. Individual Sports at the Paralympics. ISBN 9781681518299; ISBN 9781681525570.
––––. Team Sports at the Paralympics. ISBN 9781681518305; ISBN 9781681525587.
––––. Water Sports at the Paralympics. ISBN 9781681518282; ISBN 9781681525563.
––––. Wheelchair Sports at the Paralympics. ISBN 9781681518275; ISBN 9781681525556.
ea vol: 32p. (Paralympic Sports). Amicus. Jan. 2020. Tr $32.80. pap. $9.99
Gr 1-4– The amazing feats of athletes at the Paralympic Games are profiled in this new series, which highlights a range of parasports. The titles are enhanced by in-depth information on various Paralympic events. Readers of all abilities will be delighted by sports they may not have been exposed to before, such as sitting volleyball. Bowers highlights the mechanics of the game and any specialized equipment that may be required. A “Q & A” feature on most pages addresses common questions about the games. The text is written at a first grade reading level, with one to two paragraphs per page alongside layouts with bright colors and a full-page, captioned photo. ­VERDICT Jam-packed with information, this well-designed series takes a deep dive into the wide world of parasports.

GISH, Ashley. Dragons. ISBN 9781640261952; ISBN 9781628327588.

––––. Leprechauns. ISBN 9781640262188; 9781628327816.
––––. Mermaids. ISBN 9781640261976; 9781628327601.
––––. Unicorns. ISBN 9781640003552; ISBN 9781628327830.
––––. Vampires. ISBN 9781640262218; ISBN 9781628327847.
––––. Werewolves. ISBN 9781640262225; ISBN 9781628327854.
ea vol: 24p. (Amazing Mysteries). Creative Education. 2020. Tr $20.95. pap. $9.99.
Gr 3-5 –This new series explores mythological creatures, from dragons to mermaids to unicorns. Each book offers a brief overview of the creature, with a description of its features, behavior, and depictions across the world and in pop culture. A short story from folklore can be found at the end. Keywords are highlighted and defined at the bottom of each page. The text, written at a third grade reading level, is highly readable, with short sentences and no more than one paragraph per page. Full-page images are included throughout, and a muted color scheme makes these hi-lo titles more enticing to older readers. ­ VERDICT With many students interested in folklore and mythology, this series will appeal to striving readers at the upper-elementary level.

LEAF, Christina. Kolmanskop: The Diamond Mine Ghost Town. ISBN 9781644871614.
––––. Six Flags New Orleans: The Ruined Theme Park. ISBN 9781644871621.
OWINGS, Lisa. Salton Riviera: The Deserted Resort Community. ISBN 9781644871638.
––––. Skara Brae: The Lost Neolithic Village. ISBN 9781644871645.
ea vol: 24p. (Abandoned Places). Bellwether. Jan. 2020. Tr $19.95.
Gr 4-8– This series, written at a third grade reading level, tackles a range of abandoned locales, from a lost Neolithic village to a recently abandoned amusement park. Each title sets the scene with fascinating images of the deserted places as they are now before exploring their often mysterious histories. These topics could serve as a segue into world history topics such as mining in Africa (Kolmanskop) and Hurricane Katrina (Six Flags New Orleans). The narratives are fast moving and told over four digestible chapters. Each page features one short paragraph, along with full-page color photographs and eye-catching graphics that help readers visualize each setting. The text is augmented with additional features such as maps and a time line, along with an index, a glossary, and a further reading list. VERDICT Chronicling the rise and fall of destinations around the world, this ­series will draw in readers with its striking covers and engrossing true stories.

RATHBURN, Betsy. Artificial Intelligence. ISBN 9781644872840.
––––. Bionic Pets. ISBN 9781644872857.
––––. Drones. ISBN 9781644872864.
––––. Nanotechnology. ISBN 9781644872871.
––––. Self-Driving Cars. ISBN 9781644872888.
––––. Virtual Reality. ISBN 9781644872895.
ea vol: 24p. (Cutting Edge Technology). Bellwether/Epic. Aug. 2020. Tr $19.95.
Gr 3-8– These well-crafted books take a deep dive into innovative technologies such as nanotechnology, self-driving cars, virtual reality, and drones, exploring how they work and their histories and future uses. These often complicated topics are effectively distilled into readable, engaging text with only a few sentences per page, written at a second grade reading level. Abundant quality text features, including bold words, photographs with labels, diagrams, and time lines, also help readers comprehend complex concepts. A pros and cons chart in each book discusses the real-world implications of emerging technologies. Attractive, machinery-inspired graphics accompany photographs of the different technologies and those who use them. VERDICT ­Providing an entertaining and easy-to-understand look at new technologies, this series is a must-have for elementary and middle school libraries in need of STEM-oriented hi-lo titles.


Kathryn Justus is director of library ­services at the Renbrook School in West Hartford, CT.

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