Home libraries boost child cognition. These are the best books for every age.

Early reading experiences play an important role in brain development.

Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash
  • Recent studies have shown that children who grow up with books at home have increased literacy, numeracy, and information communication technology skills in adulthood.
  • Bookstores and libraries are great, but according to researchers, early exposure at the parental home matters because "books are an integral part of routines and practices that enhance lifelong cognitive competencies."
  • While age doesn't necessarily dictate reading level, here are titles suitable for children from a few months old up to 17 years.

When you're making small talk with friends old and new, they typically ask questions that involve your reading habits. People are often curious about the last book you read, what you're currently reading, and what titles are waiting in a neat little stack in your living room. Rarely does anyone ask what the first book you remember loving was, or what books from your childhood had the biggest impact on you, but it turns out that those early reading experiences are just as (if not more) important when it comes to your brain's development.

According to a 2018 study that involved 160,000 people, growing up with a home library of 80-350 books (the average in the U.S. is 114) results in adults with significantly higher levels of literacy, numeracy, and information communication technology (ICT) skills. Studies have also shown that reading increases white matter in the brain (boosting system-wide communication), and children who are read to regularly are less likely to be hyperactive and disruptive.

Libraries and publishers often give the option to sort books by age range, but not everyone progresses at the same pace. Those guidelines, and the distinctions made in this article, are generalizations and are meant to be flexible. That being said, here are some popular, best-selling, and well-reviewed books for the young reader on your shopping list.

Ages 0 to 1

Written and illustrated by John Stepsoe, this board book tells the story of a baby who wants nothing more than to play with his big brother.

Ages 1-2

"This is Baby" is Jimmy Fallon's third children's book. With illustrations of diverse babies by Miguel Ordóñez, it helps teach your little one how to find various body parts from their head to their toes.

Ages 2-3

The earlier children are exposed to a new language, the better. This bilingual board book, written by Karen Beaumont and illustrated by David Catrow, is a story of positive self-esteem that the Amazon synopsis says is "high on energy and imagination." Fatherly.com recently listed it among their top 16 books for two-year-olds.

Ages 3-4

A timeless classic by Maurice Sendak that most of us read growing up. If you don't own this one, now may be the time to add it to the collection.

Ages 4-5

The book that inspired an Oscar-winning animated short, "Hair Love" is written by Matthew Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. It tells the story of a father who has to learn a difficult new skill: how to style his young daughter's long and curly hair.

Ages 5-6

Dr. Seuss books are great for their re-readability, rhyme schemes, and unique art style. Children are looking for books that they can grab and read alone or with a parent at this age, so having this collection of five will give them some variety.

Ages 6-7

We would absolutely recommend the cartoon if we could, but "The Magic School Bus" as a book series is also really fun for children. This particular book touches on a subject that we especially love: space exploration.

Ages 7-8

The number one best seller in Amazon's "Children's Mystery and Detective Comics & Graphic Novels" section, this Dan Pilkey book is the fourth in the series, which you should consider collecting so that your 3rd grader can experience it all.

Ages 8-9

Another classic novel that most readers are probably familiar with (and one that comes with various adaptations), "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was written by Roald Dahl and first published in 1964. A cool bonus exercise could be reading the book then watching the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder to see how they compare and contrast.

Ages 9-10

The beauty of buying the full Harry Potter set is that your child can grow along with the characters. The books get progressively longer and there are some pretty mature themes in the later installments, but your pre-teen will have time to build up to those.

Ages 10-11

Learning about history and politics is a lot more fun and engaging for children when it's in the form of graphic nonfiction. This biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is written by Debbie Levy and illustrated by Whitney Gardner.

Ages 11-12

Written by Kelly Barnhill, this fantasy story focuses on a girl named Luna who is raised by a witch and accidentally given magic powers, which she must learn to control. In a review for The New York Times, Diana Wagman wrote that the book "educates about oppression, blind allegiance and challenging the status quo while immersing the reader in an exhilarating story full of magical creatures and derring-do."

Ages 12-13

The subject matter in Mildred D. Taylor's "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" is by no means light and whimsical, so you'll want to consider whether or not your 7th grader is ready for it. Set in Mississippi in the 1930s, the book deals with racism, social injustice, and violence, but also family, love, and perseverance.

Ages 13-14

Katharine McGee's novel tells the story of an alternate America where there is a wealthy, drama-filled royal family. If your teenager is into celebrity culture and all that comes with it, then they should give this a read.

Ages 14-15

This YA fantasy novel is the first in a trilogy written by Shelby Mahurin. There are witches, witch hunters, forbidden love, and humor to be had in the 528 pages of the book, which debuted at number two on the NY Times bestseller list and was chosen as Barnes and Noble's YA Book Club selection in 2019.

Ages 15-16

Described as a disturbing tale of a dystopian world where men rule and women have no civil rights, this 1985 book has gained popularity in recent years thanks to the hit television show of the same name. Author Margaret Atwood served as a consulting producer on the show, which means a lot of this multiple award-winning book's power has been translated onto the screen.

Ages 16-17

Emily M. Danforth's coming-of-age novel from 2012 is about a young girl in Montana who, upon discovering her homosexuality, is sent to a conversion camp by her conservative guardians. While the character in the book is younger (12 years old), parents and kids seem to agree that the mature themes are best appreciated by slightly older readers.

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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