Middle grade book recommendations for parents of kids ages 5-12

Modern Classics

Some really fantastic books came out after we grew up. Here are a few that you may have missed.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Posted by on Aug 29, 2016 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics | 0 comments

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

This lovely story chronicles the seventh grade year of a 12-year-old girl and her two best friends. The friendship is challenged as the girls sort through their new identities in the larger environment of middle school. One girl sends a boy a photo of herself in a bra, which gets circulated around the school, and the girl’s friend retaliates by posting a photo of the boy in his underwear on social media. The episode is handled deftly; you can see how the boy and girl got into this position, no one is vilified, and the parents and school administrators take it seriously. There are consequences for all, and it may serve as a cautionary tale for kids who could find themselves considering a similar action. Another plotline involves an older sister who is friends with a mean girl, and skips school and runs away for the day. She is found, and nothing terrible happens, though again, there are consequences for her behavior. Finally, the main character has a friendship with a boy, which develops, slowly and in an age-appropriate way, into something more. They do not kiss (though a later epilogue from ninth grade mentions their first kiss), and their friendship is a sweet model of how romance can develop. P&P...

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The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Posted by on Aug 23, 2016 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Crash! Pow!, Modern Classics, Poetry & Novels in Verse | 0 comments

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

This fun novel-in-verse captures both the quick rhythm of a basketball game and the turbulence of the first year of middle school. Josh Bell and his identical twin, Jordan, are the stars of their school basketball team and as close and competitive as brothers can be. Jordan’s crush on a girl drives a wedge between them, though, and Josh fears he’s being left behind. The story is compelling and moves quickly, with bright, playful language. A warning to parents of sensitive kids: The boys’ father, who is a former professional basketball player and a strong role model for the boys, dies of a heart attack at the end of the book. Won the Newbery Medal in 2015, as well as the Coretta Scott King Honor Award. P&P...

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Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

Posted by on May 19, 2016 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics | 0 comments

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

This is an excellent book for those navigating the rocky shoals of middle school friendships. Elise, an orphan who lives on a farm with her aunt and uncle, struggles through her first year of middle school. She shares a locker with a mean girl, and the bullying scenes feel true and torturous. Elise takes out her frustration on her loyal best friend, Franklin, in scenes that are equally heart-wrenching. Elise discovers a series of keys left to her by her father, each to a room in the barn that holds information about her parents and her past. As she works her way through the rooms, she comes to terms with her own strength and makes amends with Franklin....

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The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan

Posted by on Feb 9, 2016 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics, Poetry & Novels in Verse | 3 comments

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan

What a wonderful way to introduce kids to poetry! This lovely novel in verse tells the story of the final year of an elementary school that is being closed. It is told, astoundingly, by eighteen narrators, and all in various poetic forms, from haiku to free verse to found poem and more. The novel’s diversity is highlighted by the different voices and types of poetry used, and a wonderful theme of peaceful protest runs throughout. A guide at the end of the book directs readers to the form of the different poems included. The book touches on challenging topics, like divorce, bullying, the death of a grandparent, and racial and cultural differences, but because it is told through poems, they are addressed in an easy, though powerful, manner. The book is not yet released (I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from the author), but it is available for pre-order, and will be out in April 2016. Amazon...

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Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

Posted by on Nov 8, 2015 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Crash! Pow!, Modern Classics | 0 comments

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

This dreamy, lovely story was recommended to me by my cellist nine-year-old daughter. Set in 1890s London, it’s the story of a girl who was found floating in a cello case after the sinking of an ocean liner. Sophie is rescued by an eccentric academic who becomes her guardian. When authorities threaten to place Sophie in an orphanage, she and Papa flee to Paris in search of her mother, whom Sophie is sure lives despite evidence to the contrary. There she begins a wild adventure across the rooftops of Paris with her new friend, Matteo, and other orphaned children. The book is enchanting and riveting. There is one scene with kids fighting on a rooftop, but it is short and not too violent. Overall, this book is a wonderful world in which to spend a few hours. Amazon...

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Posted by on Feb 28, 2015 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Award Winners, Modern Classics, Poetry & Novels in Verse | 0 comments

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This 2014 National Book Award winner is not actually a novel, but rather a memoir-in-verse. Woodson tells the story of her childhood in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York through a series of spare and lovely poems. Verse books are a wonderful choice for kids who have trouble reading, because the text is clean and easy to read, but the themes are more mature. This book, in particular, is great because Woodson herself was a slow reader and always felt that her older sister was really the one who loved books, while she only wanted to play outside. And then she went on to win the National Book Award!  Woodson’s childhood (she was both in 1968) was at a unique juncture of history, where racial consciousness was growing, and the experience of being African-American in the recently Jim Crow South was in the process of a seismic shift. She encounters racism, as well as her parents’ divorce and her uncle’s incarceration. The book is a beautiful and accessible glimpse of recent history. Amazon  P&P...

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Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

Posted by on Jan 13, 2015 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics, Poetry & Novels in Verse | 0 comments

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

This is a gorgeous and lush novel in verse about the lost English settlement at Roanoke. It is told by two narrators – Alis, an English girl, and Kimi, a Roanoke girl. The girls become friends at great risk to themselves during the escalating tensions between their clans. The story is gripping and heartbreaking, all the more so because it is based on actual historical events, as detailed in the epilogue by Rose, a former social studies teacher. There is some violence, including murders of both a settler and a Roanoke man, the latter killed by a boy Alis’s age. Both of these events take place off-scene. In all, the story makes historical events accessible and compelling.  Amazon...

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The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Posted by on Nov 30, 2014 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics | 14 comments

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

This is a delicious mystery that centers on a girls’ finishing school in England in the 1800s. The seven mistreated girls at the school are serving their evil headmistress and her brother dinner one night when the adults both suddenly keel over. Once their shock subsides, the girls realize that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for independence. They have just a brief moment of merriment and cookies, though, before the doorbell rings. What follows is a series of tense days of hiding bodies and trying to uncover the true cause of death before they become the prime suspects in the investigation – or the next targets of the murderer. There is some mild romance (one of the girls has crushes on all the boys and uses her feminine wiles to get information and favors), but nothing more scandalous happens than a kiss on the cheek. Overall, it is an entertaining story about girls of different ages and temperaments pulling together.  Amazon...

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Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Posted by on Sep 30, 2014 in Age 8-12, Modern Classics | 4 comments

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

I so didn’t want this book to end. It’s beautiful and haunting and the illustrations are gorgeous. Ophelia discovers a boy locked in a closet in a museum filled with curiosities. She manages to free him, save her big sister’s life, and defeat an evil ice queen. The story is scary in parts – statues come to life, and misery birds chase Ophelia. It’s also sad. Ophelia’s mother has just died, and her father and sister are depressed and inaccessible. Ophelia is a relatable girl – she has to take puffs on her inhaler when things get too scary, and she’s forever wanting to run away. She is brave and goodhearted, though, and always ends up doing the right thing. A lovely fantasy for those who aren’t likely to get too spooked. Amazon ...

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Dreamwood by Heather Mackey

Posted by on Aug 5, 2014 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Crash! Pow!, Modern Classics | 0 comments

Dreamwood by Heather Mackey

What a fun adventure! This book is a fascinating alternative history of the American Northwest, in which the Native Americans (“First Peoples,” in this story) win every battle with the settlers, and have all the power in the society. Lucy, a settler, runs away from her boarding school in search of her father, a ghost clearer who has disappeared into the wilderness. Lucy and her friend Pete set off to find him, as well as the cure for the mysterious sickness that is killing off the trees. Lucy’s friend, Niwa, a princess of the First Peoples who is smart, brave, and daring, helps them along the way. There are some scary scenes, including a tree that eats people, and adult characters also searching for the cure are killed. Lucy succeeds in finding her father and he does survive, though it looks bad for a bit there. There is some light romance between Lucy and Pete. Amazon ...

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Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

Posted by on Jun 25, 2014 in Age 8-12, Modern Classics, Sparkle Ponies | 0 comments

Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

I read this book in a day. It was engrossing, to say the least. Based on the Brothers Grimm tale, it’s the story of a princess, Ani, who doesn’t quite fit in – she gets tongue-tied at tea parties and prefers to spend time outside with the animals. Her mother sends her off to another kingdom to marry the prince there instead of allowing her to inherit the throne, as is custom. On the journey, Ani is betrayed by her lady-in-waiting, who, with her henchmen, tries to kill Ani and present herself as the princess. Ani survives and hides out as the kingdom’s goose girl until she gathers her strength and makes a plan to present herself, win the hand of the dreamy prince, and find her voice. Parts of the story are scary, and there is a disturbing scene where Ani’s beloved horse is killed and its head hung on the wall over her home. Overall, an absorbing and more feminist version of a classic princess fairy tale. There are two sequels. Amazon...

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Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass

Posted by on Jun 13, 2014 in Age 8-12, Modern Classics | 0 comments

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass

A fun mystery with deeper themes, this is a story about a boy who receives from his deceased father a locked box that purports to hold the meaning of life, to be opened on his 13th birthday. Jeremy and his best friend Lizzy go on a summer’s worth of adventure through New York City trying to find the missing keys. Jeremy is cautious and a little nerdy; Lizzy is headstrong and given to pilfering small objects. The book gets more philosophical toward the end, as Jeremy and Lizzy start to think through for themselves the meaning of life. In all, it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking story, with positive family relationships and friendships. Plus, who can resist a locked box? Amazon...

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Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Posted by on Apr 26, 2014 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics, Sparkle Ponies |

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

A sensitive and dreamy girl, Hazel is a little lost in the real world. Her parents are getting divorced and her father is out of the picture. She recently transferred schools and has trouble fitting in. Her closest friend, Jack, is slowly slipping away – hanging out with other kids, and facing his own difficulties at home with a depressed mother. Then Jack is lured away by a white witch (based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen – like Frozen’s Elsa, but much nastier). Hazel embarks on a dangerous journey through the magical woods to save him. The story is lyrical and beautifully written, with many references to other stories, so it would be enjoyed by kids who are strong readers and love fairy tales. It would also be a good option for a kid book club. A note for parents of adopted kids: Hazel is Indian and was adopted by white parents at birth. At one point, she grieves that she doesn’t even know her own name, and considers staying in the woods with a couple she thinks might be her birth parents. She ultimately realizes that her adoptive mother is who she has and loves, and wants to return to. As a final note, it’s worth getting a hard copy of this book, as the illustrations, by Erin McGuire, are gorgeous. Amazon...

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Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Posted by on Mar 31, 2014 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics |

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Rebecca Stead has this amazing ability to tell a story that, on one level, hums along, intriguing but not shocking, and then at the end, reveal this whole separate plot that has been going on the whole time and you never even saw it coming. It’s like The Usual Suspects. She did this with When You Reach Me, and I enjoyed it so much I read this latest work of hers, where she does it again. Even when I knew to expect this from her, I was still shocked. She is that good. Anyway, Liar & Spy is about seventh grader Georges, who has to deal with bullies and moving into a small apartment after his dad loses his job. Georges befriends an odd kid in the new building, and they begin spy escapades that get increasingly dangerous. When Georges learns that his friend has been lying to him all along, he’s furious – until he finally reveals that he has been lying, too. Nice messages about friendship, being honest about the things that scare you, and standing up for yourself. Amazon ...

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Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

Posted by on Mar 28, 2014 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Award Winners, Modern Classics |

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

This book is a quick and fun read, the text interwoven with great illustrations and comic book interludes. It is also surprisingly poignant. It’s about a girl who befriends a superhero poet squirrel, and also about a girl whose parents are recently divorced. Flora has a challenging relationship with her mom, who is a chain-smoking romance novelist and is not very nice to Flora (though she comes around at the end). There is a tiny hint of romance in Flora’s friendship with the boy next door (they hold hands). The story has a sweet overarching message about loving each other despite all of our oddities. It won the Newbery in 2014. Amazon ...

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Posted by on Feb 18, 2014 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics |

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Wonder is the story of August, a 10-year-old whose face, due to birth defects, causes strangers to gasp and small children to cry. The book follows August, his sister and their classmates through August’s first year at a real school, when he is in fifth grade. Though definitely sad in parts, the overall story is uplifting and hopeful. As unique as August is, he is also relatable and likeable, from his obsession with Star Wars to his sweet old dog. As an added bonus, this is a surefire bullying-prevention book. Amazon ...

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When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Posted by on Feb 3, 2014 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Award Winners, Modern Classics |

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

As a sixth-grader in 1970s Manhattan, Miranda navigates everyday challenges for kids growing up in the city – changing friendships and the beginning of romance, differences of race and class – plus a few that seem more sinister – a crazy homeless guy, a friend who gets randomly punched on the walk home from school, and anonymous notes that seem to foretell the future. These disparate elements come together in one fell swoop in a stunning ending. This book is a great option for fans of A Wrinkle in Time. It won the Newbery in 2010.  Amazon ...

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May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

Posted by on Dec 6, 2013 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics, Poetry & Novels in Verse | 0 comments

May B. by Caroline Starr Rose

A novel in verse about a twelve-year-old girl who survives on her own on the American frontier of western Kansas. One summer, May is sent by her parents to help out for a few months at another homestead, just until Christmas. But when the couple she is serving disappears and no one knows May is alone, she has to survive hunger, blizzards, wolves, and an engulfing loneliness on her own. This story will appeal to fans of Little House on the Prairie, but it is grittier – and more realistic to the trials of that time. This is also a good selection for those who struggle with reading, as May has dyslexia, but yearns to read. The writing is simple, spare, and lovely.  Amazon ...

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The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

Posted by on Oct 15, 2013 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics |

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

Let me first note that stories where toys come to life send a chill down my spine. It’s hard enough worrying about the feelings of all the people I come into contact with, now I have to worry about the toys, too? I tell you all this because Edward Tulane is a large, porcelain toy rabbit. I avoided the book because of this, but finally read it, and am so glad I did. The book follows Edward across decades and numerous owners, as he learns to love. The story is sad – Edward sinks to the bottom of the ocean, is buried in a garbage heap, and hung, crucifix-style, on a post to scare birds. One of his owners, a little girl, dies. But the hard parts make the ending, when Edward finds love and is reunited with his first owner, all the more rewarding. If you have a kid sensitive enough to value the message, but not so sensitive as to be traumatized by everything poor Edward goes through, it’s a great read....

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Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

Posted by on Sep 24, 2013 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics |

Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder

Rebecca’s mom packs up the car one day and drives Rebecca and her baby brother from Baltimore to Atlanta, leaving behind Rebecca’s dad, her home, and her best friend. Pretty rough, right? They go to stay with Rebecca’s grandmother, and while there, Rebecca discovers a magic bread box that can grant any wish (cue the ominous music). Rebecca tries to navigate middle school social politics, her anger at her mom, her guilt about her dad, and this amazing secret she has. There is a cringe-inducing climax, when Rebecca realizes that the box has been stealing from people all along, and Rebecca gets blamed for it. While difficult to read, I think there is actually a nice message for kids that you can really mess things up, and the world keeps going. There is also a mildly scary scene when Rebecca is trapped in the basement of a senile woman (too difficult to explain), but it’s over pretty quickly. Amazon...

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Savvy by Ingrid Law

Posted by on Aug 27, 2013 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Award Winners, Modern Classics |

Savvy by Ingrid Law

A really cool story of a kid whose family members all have secret magical abilities which are revealed to them on the 13th birthdays. The book takes place on the days leading up to Mibs’ 13th birthday, when she learns that her father has been in a horrible car accident and rushes to try to help him, while also trying to figure out the crazy, uncontrollable things that are going to happen to her body when she turns 13. The book is a nice mix of real world emotional angst (with a little romance, including a first kiss) and magic. Won a Newbery honor. Amazon...

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Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Posted by on Aug 27, 2013 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Crash! Pow!, Modern Classics, Read Aloud, Series |

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

As you probably know, this series follows Harry Potter from age 11, when he discovers he’s a wizard and heads off to wizarding school, through age 17, in which he defeats the dark wizard Voldemort. Book 1 is pretty light and almost cartoony (though parents reading it aloud to their younger kids should be aware of a scene in Chapter 15 in which a creepy Voldemort drinks unicorn blood). The books get darker and more intense quickly, however, and by the seventh book, Harry is abandoned by one best friend, another is tortured while he listens, and multiple beloved characters are killed. Rowling does an amazing job with character development, and there are some great messages here about loyalty, friendship, and courage. It’s a terrific series, but parents may want to delay their kids’ starting it for as long as possible; once they begin, it’s all but impossible to hold them off of the later and darker books. Amazon  P&P Kids who like this book might also like Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Mysterious Benedict...

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The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

Posted by on Aug 24, 2013 in Age 5-8, All Book Recommendations, Award Winners, Modern Classics, Series |

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

This book was published in 2005, but it feels much older, like Anne of Green Gables or Little Women. It centers on four sisters from ages 12 to 4, whose mother has died and who spend three weeks in the summer with their father in a rented cottage on a fancy estate. The girls befriend the boy who lives in the estate and get into all sorts of trouble along the way. The sibling relationship is great, the four sisters are distinct and likeable. There is a little light romance (the oldest sister has an unrequited crush on the 19-year-old gardener). Overall, an easygoing and enjoyable story. It won the National Book Award, and there are two sequels for those who want to hear more about the Penderwick sisters. Amazon...

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Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur

Posted by on Aug 22, 2013 in Age 8-12, All Book Recommendations, Modern Classics |

Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur

This book wrung me out. It’s the story of a girl whose father and brother have been killed in a car accident, and whose mother has walked out. She is left alone in the house for a few weeks before her grandmother figures out what’s going on. Granny comes to get her and takes care of her while she tries to put herself back together. It is so restrained in the emotion which for some reason makes it hit all the harder. I like that the grown-ups are shown as flawed and complicated, but it’s definitely Aubrey’s story. There’s also a nice friendship between Aubrey and the girl next door. Amazon...

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