I find that middle grade novels, written for kids ages 8 to 12, are quite popular in the publishing world. After all, with book reports and daily reading logs, this age group is basically forced to read fiction. And after the success of the Harry Potter series, it isn’t just kids who are reading middle grade novels.
There are so many new middle grade novels out there, it can be hard to separate the great from the not-so-great. Sometimes you might want to reach for a tried-and-true title like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Bridge to Terabithia. But what if you want something tried-and-true but still new-to-you? Well, here are some classic middle grade novels you (or your child) might not have read (but I highly recommend that you do!).
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The 10 Best Classic Middle Grade Novels — how many have you read?
Rasmus and The Vagabond by Astrid Lindgren (1967) By the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, this tale is realistic instead of fantastic but just as much fun. Shy, nine-year-old Rasmus runs away from his Swedish orphanage, meets a hobo, and has a wild-yet-heartwarming adventure.
The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick (2000) Back before everybody and their mom was writing about post-apocalyptic worlds, Philbrick created this intriguing tale about a world where some people are genetically improved, and the new drug of choice is “mind-probing.” I like to call this novel “A Clockwork Orange for children” because the narrator’s post-apocalyptic slang gives the book a hip-yet-frightening vibe. The slang is also a great way to teach kids about using context clues to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words. (P.S. This is a middle grade novel and hence the plot is nothing like A Clockwork Orange; don’t be afraid to give this book to a child!)
Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (1969) I love this book so much – where to begin? Well, it inspired the song “Charlotte Sometimes” by the Cure — Robert Smith said that he loves this book so much he actually used lines from it in the lyrics of “Charlotte Sometimes.” So that’s pretty cool. It’s also a wonderfully-absorbing novel involving time travel, séances, and girls at a solemn British boarding school during World War I. Smart and beautifully melancholy, it’s the perfect book for snuggling up with on a cold, rainy day.
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White (1970) Of course you’ve read Charlotte’s Web, but have you read this one? About a swan who learns to play the trumpet and becomes a nightclub sensation, this middle grade novel is absolutely charming. And somehow, White manages to make everything — even a swan getting a room at a hotel — seem totally plausible.
Many Waters by Madeline L’Engle (1986) Sure, we all love A Wrinkle in Time (see my recent post about A Wrinkle in Time), but I think this story, about the twins from Wrinkle (Sandy and Dennys) going back in time to just before the great biblical flood, might be my favorite. It’s fascinating, beautifully-written, and a little bit racy at times! (Racy for eleven-year-olds, so don’t worry about giving it to a preteen.) I highly recommend it.
The Oz Books by Frank L. Baum (1900 – 1920) I know you’ve seen the movie, but have you ever read the original story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900? It’s worth it, in part to note the differences between the classic movie and the classic book (the witch has silver shoes instead of ruby slippers!). If you’re still hankering for more, check out some of the other Oz books — it was a series! My two favorites as a kid were The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, the two of which were morphed together to create the creepy-awesome 1986 children’s movie, Return to Oz. (P.S. You can read The Marvelous Land of Oz for free on your Kindle… Just one of the many reasons why I love my Kindle!)
The Tripod Trilogy by John Christopher (1967). Back before trilogies were the “thing,” Christopher wrote a wonderful series about life on earth in a post-alien-takeover world. In this case, the aliens may or may not be intelligent machines, and they control everyone through a metal “cap” that is implanted into children’s heads on their fourteenth birthday. Although the first book, The White Mountains, is good, my favorite is the second, The City of Gold and Lead, in which the protagonists enter on of the Tripods’ cities. The last one is The Pool of Fire, and there’s a prequel as well called When the Tripods Came.
Half Magic by Edward Eager (1954). Four children find a magic talisman that takes them on unexpected adventures into the past and across the world. Set in the 1930’s, this book manages to be both timeless and charmingly old-fashioned (think soda shops and silent movies). The story is quirky, clever, and a lot of fun. And if your child likes Half Magic, Eager wrote many other fantasy novels as well.
Callie’s Way by Ruth Wallace-Brodeur (1990) My grandma bought this book for me when I was eleven. It sat on my shelf for a while unread because it wasn’t Sweet Valley Twins or Baby-sitter’s Club. When I finally gave it a chance, it became one of my all-time favorite books. Although perhaps a little dated now (none of the characters have cell phones and everyone wears topsiders), it perfectly captures the emotional landscape of being a twelve-year-old girl. Callie as a narrator is funny and observant and pitch-perfect. Although one might describe it as a quiet, coming-of-age story about a girl who befriends a woman in a nursing home, Callie’s hilariously snarky (yet somehow also poignant) voice makes this book anything but “quiet.”
Blubber by Judy Blume (1974) A list of classic middle grade novels would feel incomplete without mentioning Judy Blume. Of course everyone’s at least heard of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but my all-time favorite Judy Blume book is Blubber. Thirty years before Mean Girls, and long before schools had anti-bullying assemblies, came this devastatingly-realistic novel about a class bully, her victim, and a protagonist who goes along with the crowd.
Interested in learning about more middle grade novels?
Check out my Great Children’s Literature posts!