How reading across fiction genres might build kids’ brain skills

Is your child a sci-fi lover, a history fan, or a fantasy nut? Discover kid-approved fiction books that pack surprise developmental skills.

Miranda Fields Stephani had been regularly reading the Epic Zero sci-fi series with her seven-year-old son. Then one day, he broke a flowerpot.

“Instead cleaning it up, he went to the garage and tried to build a machine to take him to an alternate universe where the pot was still whole!” says Stephani, of Summerfield, North Carolina. She and her son wound up repotting the plant in this universe, but Stephani was amazed to see how the book had fired up his problem-solving skills.

It’s no secret that reading is good for children both developmentally and cognitively. Studies have shown that kids who are readers or who are read to do better on standardized tests, have better concentration, experience less depression, and become better writers and, of course, stronger readers.

“There's a lot of research support for the idea that kids who read—and who read more widely across the genres—are going to do better across the board in terms of learning,” says Pamela Maslin Sullivan, a professor in the early, elementary, and literacy department at James Madison University. (Here are some ideas to get kids focused on reading.)

And though nonfiction famously helps develop critical-thinking and analytical skills, the many genres of children’s fiction have unique ways to develop socio-emotional as well as problem-solving skills. Multiple studies show that reading fiction can help develop empathy and reduce prejudice; another study in the journal Science suggests that reading literary fiction hones the brain’s ability to understand that other people's beliefs and desires can be different than their own. (This article explains more about the benefits of socio-emotional learning in kids.)

All genres offer developmental benefits, but each genre is especially strong at forming certain skills. For instance, “Science fiction can help with imagination and thinking creatively,” says Nancy Davidson, a 37-year veteran of library management. "Contemporary fiction helps to promote empathy and emotional development.”

Better yet, if you can get your little historical fiction fan to try some mystery reading on the side, the benefits might be even bigger.

“Reading diversely gives kids an opportunity to see both mirrors and windows,” says Francine Falk-Ross, a literacy program coordinator and chair of the NYC School of Education at Pace University, referring to the idea that books can teach a child to see themselves reflected or offer a window into another person's experience.

Read on to discover which skills your kids can build while enjoying different fiction genres, plus some recommendations from reading experts.

Want your kids to challenge their assumptions? Try science fiction.

“What I think science fiction does especially well is create an openness to understanding the world in different ways than we thought we know,” says Esther Jones, associate provost and dean of faculty at Clark University, who researches how sci-fi affects readers’ thinking. She gives the example of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, in which readers start learning about the mundane lives of teens, only to find out much later (spoiler alert!) that the kids are actually clones.

“We take for granted that we know what it means to be human,” Jones says. But when readers receive that new information, they have to rethink their perspective. “It helps us develop empathy, different perspectives, different ways of understanding and engaging the world.”

Check out:
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. A group of kids find themselves time-traveling as they search for a missing man whose far-out science experiment stretches space and time.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez. After meeting Gabi, Sal Vidón discovers the two of them can cross space and time … but that might destroy the universe.

Want your kid to gain memory skills? Try fantasy.

It’s well documented that fantasy can develop creative thinking. And it might do even more.

Fantasy fiction usually involves a whole different world, and readers often have to keep track of the changing rules—like which characters have special powers, which spells work where (think Harry Potter), or what invented languages mean (such as the Elvish language in Lord of the Rings).

Fantasy requires a lot of active working memory,” says Jule McCombes-Tolis, director of reading and language development at Fairfield University.

Check out:
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. Tween Percy comes face-to-face with ancient Greek gods and goddesses and fights ancient monsters.

Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond: The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta.
Sixth grader Kiranmala discovers she might actually be an Indian princess from another world who’s been sent to save Earth.

Want your kid to develop problem-solving skills? Try mystery.

“Mysteries help to develop logic, reasoning, and problem-solving,” Davidson says. One of her favorites includes the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol. In each book, a fifth-grade detective solves 10 mysteries, dropping clues along the way so readers can try out their own sleuthing skills.

Check out:
Zap! by Martha Freeman. When the police won’t investigate after the power mysteriously goes down, 11-year-old Luis Cardenal and his friend Maura set out to find the culprit themselves.

Izzy Newton and the S.M.A.R.T. Squad by Valerie Tripp. Brainy buddies (Izzy Newton! Allie Einstein! Charlie Darwin!) discover mysteries in middle school and use science skills to sleuth their way through.

Want your kid to develop empathy? Try historical fiction.

By seeing through a character’s point of view, kids can better understand others’ experiences and choices. Sullivan says that’s true “especially if you’re reading first-person.” For instance, librarian Mara Houdyshell says the Newbery-winning seafaring adventure The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi can show tensions between social classes and ethnicities in the 1800s, as well as the limits placed on girls at that time.

Here’s another benefit: “Historical fiction helps with seeing sequences and cause-and-effects,” Davidson says. Understanding how history brought us to the present can teach children how to understand chains of events.

Check out:
Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne. Jack and Annie journey through time and space to meet famous figures from history and solve their problems.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Ten-year-old Kenny tells the story of his family’s road trip from Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama … where his grandmother’s church is bombed.

Want your kid to build resilience? Try contemporary fiction. 

Reading about modern kids weathering tough situations can help children process and learn to handle similar real-life issues.

"A book is a place where a reader can safely practice new experiences—if they later encounter those situations in real life, they’ve had a chance already to consider, to analyze, to feel,” says middle-grade and young adult author Elana K. Arnold. "If readers find a situation in a book to be ‘too much,’ they’re empowered to set down the book and walk away."

For instance, Houdyshell says Newbery Medal winner The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, about a girl who runs away from her legal guardian because she thinks she’ll be abandoned, allows children to safely explore upsetting topics like the death of a parent and navigating poverty.

“It’s a way to come face-to-face with fears in a safe way,” says Kerie Stein, a second-grade teacher and reading interventionist. “Learning helps alleviate the fear of the unknown.”

Check out:
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. Young Viji and her disabled sister run away from their abusive father to live on the streets of India, where they team up with more children struggling to survive.

George by Alex Gino. George—a boy on the outside but a girl on the inside—really wants to play Charlotte in the school’s Charlotte’s Web production. But her teacher says no. Can George find the bravery to show everyone her true self?

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