It seems that every month features a bookish celebration (or five!), and one celebration I can absolutely get excited about is Middle Grade March. This month-long festival is dedicated to reading Middle Grade books (novels for kids ages 8-12)—a category that happens to be one of my very favorites!

I’ve been reading Middle Grade novels since I was a Middle-Grader myself, and it’s a habit I refuse to quit. I was introduced to a number of favorite Middle Grade novels as a child. Several more favorites were discovered during my years as an elementary school teacher and tutor. These days, I find many Middle Grade favorites through reading aloud with my kids. I also continue to seek out Middle Grade novels for my own personal reading enjoyment, because I firmly believe that this category of books is not just for kids—Middle Grade novels have much to recommend themselves to adult readers: they are often shorter than adult novels, offering the satisfaction of finishing a book in just one or two sittings. Middle Grade novels (at least the ones I enjoy) are not afraid to tackle challenging topics and themes, but they are gentler in their approach and often incorporate humor and hope into their stories. Middle Grade novels tend to have creative premises, engaging storylines, and characters you can root for; what’s not to love about that?!

My complete list of Middle Grade favorites would be at least one hundred titles long, but I’ve managed to pare that longer list down to just a dozen standouts to share with you today. My hope is that this list will introduce you to some novels you haven’t read; hence, I’ve left off the perennial favorites you likely enjoyed in school. (However, if you haven’t read classics like Charlotte’s Web, The Secret Garden, The Giver, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, The Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, or the Harry Potter series, PLEASE prioritize those titles!) Every book here was a 5-star read for me, and all of these books are ones that I imagine kids would love too (which may or may not be of interest of you, depending on whether you are picking up these books for your kids or for yourself!). There are a few books on this list that I haven’t yet read with my own kids; however, I’ve read a majority of these titles with Charleston (read-alouds are noted here with an *asterisk), and every one of the books we read together received at least a 4.5-star rating from him as well, so it’s safe to say that these titles are also kid-approved.

*The Twenty-One Balloons, by William Pene DuBois (1947): This Newberry Award winner, published decades before I was born, tells the story of a professor who decides to spend his retirement floating above the sky in a hot air balloon. His trip is derailed when his balloon crashes in the middle of the ocean, on the island of Krakatoa—which happens to be inhabited by twenty families who have discovered fortune on the island and established their own utopia, replete with fantastic inventions, international cuisine, and an orderly and welcoming community. We know from the beginning that Professor Sherman’s time on the island ended in disaster. . . this is the story of what occurred before a volcano eruption upended paradise on that fated island.

With its winsome illustrations, quirky premise, tongue-in-cheek narration, and a setting every child (and adult) would LOVE to make their home, this delightful novel is a feast for the imagination. My one great sadness about this book is that it has not yet been made into a movie!

*No Children, No Pets, by Marrion Holland (1956): When they inherit an apartment complex near the beaches of Florida, the Sanders family heads south to take possession of the building. Upon arrival, Jane and Don, their four-year-old sister Betsy, and their widowed mother are surprised by what they find: a poorly maintained facility filled with prickly senior citizens who are not happy with the Sanders’ defiance of the complex’s No Children, No Pets policy. Despite the icy welcome, the children quickly make themselves at home: they befriend a bright young boy who always seems to be hanging around; work on making improvements to the complex; and attempt to grow close with some of the residents. As their time in Florida unfolds, the children stumble into a handful of mysterious circumstances. All is not what it seems—it just might be better!

This book won my heart with its charming characters, their humorous antics, and the endearing relationships they form. The summer beach setting is fun and believable, and though the book was written in the 1950s, it feels more vintage than dated. There are some surprising plot turns I didn’t see coming, and I loved the themes of found family and giving strangers the benefit of the doubt. Perfect for fans of the Boxcar Children.

*In Grandma’s Attic, by Arleta Richardson (1974): Arleta Richardson grew up in the 1930s hearing all about her storyteller grandmother’s memories of her own childhood on the family’s Michigan farm. Grandma Mabel shared stories of missing buggies and awkward petticoats, of Ma’s forgetfulness and Mabel’s carelessness, of answered prayers and unanswered knocks on the door. Threaded into each story were lessons on faith, love, family, and how to find humor in every moment, and Richardson has compiled these stories into a collection of enchanting books that are warmhearted and comical, providing an enlightening glimpse at history while highlighting the humor and insights of everyday life on a farm.

This series holds such a special place in my heart, as my mom read the stories aloud to our family when I was growing up. I have many wonderful memories of us laughing together around the dinner table as we listened in on Mable’s antics. And the books’ morals and overt Christian lessons have remained with me just as much as the laugher these stories always brought. The books in this series are a great next-read for families who have read and loved the books in the Little House series.

The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin (1978): Samuel Westing is dead, and when sixteen unlikely individuals are invited to the reading of his will, they find themselves involved in a race to solve his murder and thereby inherit his vast fortune. Part And Then There Were None, part 39 Clues, this exciting mystery is filled with colorful characters, more than a few red herrings, and some plot twists that I never saw coming. Funny, clever, and a pure page-turner, this is a book I wish I had gotten to read as a child, but devoured as an adult. It’s already on our TBR for next year’s 4th Grade Read-Alouds, and I can’t wait to reread it with the kids!

*The Ordinary Princess, by M. M. Kaye (1980): Princess Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne of Phantasmorania—Amy for short—is the youngest of seven princesses, and as the youngest, there is great anticipation that she will also be the most extraordinary. And when little Amy is born, she is the most extraordinary baby. But that changes the day of her christening, when an unwelcome fairy grants her the gift of ordinariness: Amy grows up to be as Ordinary as can be, and without the beauty of her older sisters, she fails to win the affections of a suitable prince. Before Amy’s parents resort to desperate measures for finding her a husband, Amy takes matters into her own hands by running away to live undercover as a kitchen assistant at the neighboring palace. She fits right in and soon gains a friend in a handsome man-of-all-work within the palace walls. And because this is a fairy tale, you’d better believe there is some romance and a Happily Ever After in store for our young protagonist!

Don’t be put off by the unassuming title and cover: this simple but wonderful story is filled with beautiful language and delightful humor, clever allusions to other fairy tales (particularly Sleeping Beauty), and strong lessons about noble character and the value of inner beauty above what others see. Amy is a charming princess you’ll love to root for, and the side characters and setting are just as beguiling. I wish Disney would make this their next feature film; the Disney Princess cannon needs Amy among its ranks!

*Adventures with Waffles, by Maria Parr (2005): Trille and Lena are neighbors and the best of friends—at least, Lena is Trille’s best friend, but he’s still not too sure what she thinks about him. What he does know is that she is his favorite partner in crime, and that life with Lena is always an adventure. From rescuing animals and careening down snowy hillsides, to indulging in Auntie Granny’s delicious waffles and searching for a new dad for Lena, the twosome is always getting into trouble but, more than that, they’re always having fun. But life for these two isn’t always easy; together they must face the death of a loved one, misunderstandings, and a separation that they are unsure they will survive. Along the way they learn so much about loyalty, family, and how to show the ones we love how much we care.

Trille and Lena are a delightful pair: their friendship and adventures are sweet and laugh-out-loud funny, with little nuggets of insight sprinkled in. I appreciate kids’ books that are comical without resorting to inappropriate humor or poor behavior, as well as books featuring adults (and kids, too, for that matter!) who are funny but not a laughing stock, and we get that here in droves. We enjoyed learning about the Norwegian customs and culture, and I liked the subtle Christian themes (present but not at all forced) and incorporation of harder subjects (like bullying, death, and loneliness) that are handled delicately but are not the book’s focal point. Pair with Pippi Longstocking for a fun classic/contemporary book flight.

*Astrid the Unstoppable, by Maria Parr (2009): Astrid is the only child growing up in the mountain village of Glimmerdale, and though this red-headed daredevil wishes for a few local peers, she is content in her role as the town dynamo and in her relationship with her best friend, a grouchy septuagenarian named Gunvald. Astrid’s days consist of skiing the slopes and running into mischief with a few of the locals, but her life is mostly tame. When a mysterious visitor arrives in town, Astrid discovers that everything she thought she knew about those closest to her was built on a lie. As she struggles to make sense of these discoveries, more pieces of the past are revealed to Astrid and to us, her readers, who are treated to plenty adorable Astrid-isms, quaint Scandinavian culture, and funny moments along the way.

This is the second book from Maria Parr on this list, but I had to include it alongside Adventures with Waffles because I love it just as much! Astrid is a lovable protagonist with a spunky side kids will admire and kind-heartedness and wit that adults will appreciate. I have a soft spot for unlikely friendships, and the dynamic between Astrid and Gunvald is absolutely the sweetest. Parr doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, from absent parents to childhood behavior issues, but the cute dialogue and snappy pace keep the story lighthearted, and the redemptive ending is wonderful. Fans of Heidi and Anne of Green Gables are sure to love this.

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio (2012): Our narrator, ten-year old August (Auggie) Pullman, was born with a severe facial deformity, and because he has undergone numerous surgeries throughout his life, he has never had the chance to attend school.  Now Auggie is starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep middle school; being the new kid in school is never easy, but it proves to be particularly tough for Auggie, whose unique face makes him an outcast among his peers.  Auggie is painfully aware that the other kids view him as a freak, but he faces these seemingly insurmountable social challenges with bravery, humor, and grace.

Auggie’s conversational narration is brilliant, and both his experiences and his reactions to them ring true, but my favorite parts of the book are those narrated by other kids in Auggie’s life. These alternate perspectives add depth to Auggie’s story and highlight the issues faced by “normal” kids in Auggie’s sphere: issues that, while less obvious than Auggie’s challenges, are equally painful. 

Wonder is a powerful book whose poignant themes of kindness and courage deserve to be shared.  While its subject matter would seem to lend itself to a story of suffering and heartbreak, Wonder manages to remain positive and uplifting without being preachy or overly sentimental.  It’s been years since I read this, but I’ve never forgotten the commencement speech given by Auggie’s principal at the end of the book in which he encourages his students to “glimmer in their kindness” because “if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you . . . the face of God.” It’s a message we could all stand to hear repeated again and again.

*The Map Trap, by Andrew Clements (2014): Sixth-grader Alton Barnes has always loved maps, ever since his parents pulled his name from the map in a glove compartment on their way to the hospital where he was born. His cartography love isn’t reserved for geographical maps (though he’s crazy about those too); he also loves to make maps and charts of everything he sees, from the brain composition of his teachers and classmates, to the scents found around campus, to the clothing preferences of the kids at his school. Alton’s mapmaking is a personal endeavor, until one day when his folder of Top Secret (potentially offensive) maps goes missing. Alton MUST reclaim his maps before the entire school learns about them and many feelings (not to mention his own reputation) are destroyed.

What a unique premise for a novel! I adored Alton and his love of maps and was fascinated by the various types of maps and charts described in the book. There is a fun mystery at the book’s center, but beyond that, this is a story of friendship, of overcoming the assumptions we make about others, of the power of honesty and kindness, and of leaning into our passions and strengths while allowing others to do the same. I love that the virtue of owning one’s mistakes (especially when those mistakes have the potential to harm others) is upheld. There is also a very fun twist involving Alton’s teacher that I didn’t see coming; having once been a young, naïve teacher myself, the inclusion of a first-year teacher and her relationship to her students was fun to see. This book, like all of Andrew Clements’ novels, is great for young readers (and adults too) seeking stories about ordinary kids overcoming unusual challenges and finding their unique place in the world.

*The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, by Karina Yan Glaser (2017): The five Vanderbeeker children do not remember life outside their brownstone on 141st Street. The brownstone basement has seen Isa transform into an accomplished violinist, and the roof is home to her twin sister, Jessie’s, brilliant water wall. The brownstone is where Hyacinth grew into a talented crafter and where little Laney taught her pet rabbit how to do tricks, where their mother baked goodies for the whole neighborhood and their father honed his skills as a maintenance man. Oliver’s scribbled family portrait from six years ago still covers his parents’ bedroom wall. But then the family receives an unexpected eviction notice just days before Christmas. The five Vanderbeeker children cannot bear to leave their home, so they take it upon themselves to change their disgruntled (and mysterious) landlord’s mind and convince him to let them stay. Their attempts at winning over “The Biederman” range from comical to disastrous, and as eviction day grows closer, the family makes many discoveries about their landlord, their fellow family members, and most of all their appreciation for their cherished home.

The members of this iconic family are so endearing, and their connections with each other, their home, and their neighbors are truly special. The story itself is predictable but sweet and filled with wonderful lessons of family, kindness, and savoring life’s simple pleasures. This is the first in a five-book series; I haven’t yet read the other books in the series and cannot vouch for them, but if they are anything like this first installment they are sure to be a treat.

*Mystery on Magnolia Circle, by Kate Klise (2021): In this middle-grade twist on Rear Window, Ivy (so-named because her parents met in a phlebotomy class!) is a 10-year-old amateur sleuth whose summer plans are derailed when she falls down some stairs on the first day of vacation, badly breaking her leg and leaving her homebound for the next several weeks. Ivy is joined in her misery by her best friend Teddy, who is grieving the sudden loss of his beloved dog. But the friends’ awful summer takes a surprising turn towards adventure when Ivy witnesses a potential burglary taking place at the apartment complex across the street. Ivy and Teddy chase the trail of clues to determine the culprit. And of course, no summer adventure would be complete with out some surprise revelations, new happy discoveries and a few more unfortunate heartbreaks, and the formation of some new friendships.

Charleston and I adored this book! I enjoyed the mystery element, but liked the friendship and family stories even more. Ivy is a delightful narrator with an upbeat personality, insatiable curiosity, and an eagerness to teach, to help, and to learn. There are some excellent themes of compassion, overcoming prejudice, and learning to make the best of a challenging situation, PLUS we get a positive portrayal of optimism and grit (a refreshing contrast to the victim mentality elevated in many contemporary children’s books). Set in the 2020s, there are some modern elements (such as cellphones and other technology) that orient this book to the present day, but the story and overall messaging are cozily nostalgic.

We’ve enjoyed many of Kate Klise’s other Middle Grade novels, too! Favorites we’d recommend include Homesick and the 43 Old Cemetery Road series (which Charleston devoured last summer).

The Sisterhood of Sleuths, by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (2022): Maizy is a fairly typical middle-schooler who loves creating movies with her best friend Izzy and helping her mom out at her thrift store. Change is on the horizon for Maizy, though, with her big brother heading off to college and Izzy (now wanting to be called “Isabella”) no longer interested in the things the two of them used to do. When a box of vintage Nancy Drew books is dropped off at her mom’s store, Maizy is ready and eager for the diversion. Not only are these books pretty great, but the box came with a mystery: inside was a picture of Maizy’s grandmother, Jacuzzi—but Jacuzzi denies knowledge of the pictured women and claims no responsibility for the box of books. Maizy is joined by two unexpected sidekicks as they look into the mystery of where the books came from, and how they tie in with Maizy’s family history. And when the trio begins researching the author of the Nancy Drew series for a school project, they discover there is much more to these books and this series than meets the eye.

As a longtime Nancy Drew fan, the premise of this charming novel immediately appealed to me, and I could not have been more delighted by the story itself. The primary mystery is a breezy but fun one, with all the “whodunit” elements of a Nancy Drew novel (but a tad more believable). I liked seeing the multigenerational stories come together, and I was intrigued by the Carolyn Keene history lessons that are threaded into the story. I learned a lot and came away with an even deeper appreciation for the Nancy Drew series (despite a few disappointing revelations about the books’ origins). I also really loved Maizy who is smart, intelligent, and unafraid of forging her own way in the world, while still remaining loyal to her friends and true to her convictions. She navigates typical pre-adolescent issues such as feeling pressure to grow up when she isn’t ready and growing into and out of friendships, and these themes fit nicely within the story, coming to some important lessons without feeling preachy or pedantic. Middle grade readers of all ages will enjoy this book, which will be nostalgic for existing Nancy Drew fans and will likely serve as a fun introduction to Nancy Drew mysteries for those yet to be initiated into the young sleuth’s fan club.

Are you a fan of Middle Grade novels? Do you have any favorites? Please share them with me!

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