Jen Robinson has been reading middle grade literature since the 1970s. She has never stopped, though things like college, grad school, starting a business, and having a child have slowed her reading pace at different times. She especially enjoys reading outdoors. Jen blogs about children's and young adult books and children's literacy at Jen Robinson's Book Page: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com. She also publishes a bi-weekly Growing Bookworms newsletter, and shares reading-related links @JensBookPage and http://facebook.com/GrowingBookworms
I wouldn't go as far as Jeanne Birdsall to say that middle grade fiction saved my life (see the May/June 2013 issue of Horn Book Magazine). But I do think that it made me who I am today. I believe that middle grade novels helped me to develop my core value system. I learned resilience from Sara Crewe and independence from Pippi Longstocking. I learned about loyalty from Anne Shirley. I learned that it's ok not to fit in from Meg Murray. I learned to love mysteries from John Bellairs and to be fascinated by dystopias from John Christopher. I learned from Zilpha Keatley Snyder to search for the unexpected and from Elizabeth Enright to value everyday pleasures. All of these authors spoke to me, not by writing books dripping with overt messages, but by creating relatable characters, and putting them in interesting situations.
There are plenty of other middle grade titles that I've read since becoming an adult that have had their impact on me, too. Here are 12 that have stayed with me (and/or that I expect to stay with me in the future). All are books that I heartily recommend to others, and any one of them would make a great starting place for someone looking to tip a toe into middle grade fiction, whether child or adult. They are in alphabetical order by author.
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. I adore the Penderwick family, and recommend this book (and sequels) to people ALL the time. These books remind me, in the best possible way, of my treasured Elizabeth Enright novels (but fresher, for a modern audience). The first book, especially, captures that feeling of summer stretching out endlessly ahead, full of possibility. The Penderwicks is about family relationships (it features four sisters living with their father), friendship, and loyalty. Reviews: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2006/04/the_penderwicks.html, http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2008/05/the-penderwicks.html, http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2011/05/the-penderwicks-at-point-mouette-je anne-birdsall.html
The Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins (also known as The Underland Chronicles). Before Collins became hyper-famous as the author of The Hunger Games series, she wrote this five book middle grade series set deep beneath New York City, featuring large, intelligent insects and rodents. Here's what I said in my review (http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2006/02/some_recent_rea.html) of the first two books: "They're about a mis-matched team of characters of different races going on a quest (shades of the Lord of the Rings, but in a much shorter, easier to digest story). They have to learn to get along, despite vast differences in mind-set and habits, and they face peril and adventure." Other reviews: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2007/02/gregor_and_the_.html and http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2007/07/gregor-and-the-.html. I first read these as library copies, but then purchased the set for my husband, who also adored them.
The City of Ember (and sequels) by Jeanne DuPrau. I found the premise of the City of Ember irresistible, and read each of the books in this series as quickly as I could upon publication. The first book begins in a city located deep underground, completely isolated from the larger world (if there even still is a larger world). With supplies, including light bulbs, running out, two 12 year olds search for a way out. This book is filled with secrets and suspense, and is MUCH better than the 2008 movie would suggest. I only have reviews of the third and fourth books of the series: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2006/06/the_prophet_of_.html and http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2008/07/the-diamond-of.html.
Shug by Jenny Han. I love Shug because I think that it perfectly captures the transition to middle school (something that middle grade readers are anxious about, and that, as an adult reader, I for some reason find endlessly fascinating). Uncertainty over one's social standing. Guilt over friends one is drifting away from. Hesitance to grow up. All set against difficult, but realistic, family dynamics. The end of my review (http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2006/11/shug_jenny_han.html) from 2006 has stayed with me: "Upon finishing this book, my first thought was that I wanted to buy it for the three sixth grade girls who I know. I think that it's a near-perfect window into starting middle school, and the struggle to balance being oneself against fitting in."
Penny from Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm. Penny from Heaven is a historical novel set in 1950's New York. The story is episodic, but the historical details ring true, and the characterization is phenomenal. In my review (http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2006/10/penny_from_heav.html), I concluded: "Penny from Heaven has an old-fashioned feel, focusing on somewhat quirky characters, and mostly ordinary life events. There's much for an adult like myself to love about this book: the writing, the pathos, the suspense, the humor." I listened to this book on audio in 2006, and still have a hint of Penny's voice in my head. Penny from Heaven won a Newbery Honor in 2007.
See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles. See You at Harry's is the most recently published title on my list (May, 2012). It about a quirky family who owns a restaurant, and a very sad thing that happens to them. It is brilliant and devastating, and the kind of book that stays with the reader forever. The characterization and family dynamics are spot-on, as are (it seems to me) the details of running a family restaurant. My review: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2013/02/see-you-at-harrys-jo-knowles.html
RULES by Cynthia Lord. RULES is about a teenage girl whose younger brother has autism. The rules of the title are rules that she writes out for him, to help him to understand what other people do and don't find acceptable (since he can't intuit these things the way most people can). Cynthia Lord brings authenticity to this book as the parent of a son who has autism. RULES won a Newbery Honor in 2007, and has since evoked a tremendous level of reader response among kids and adults. My review: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2006/06/rules_cynthia_l.html
Heat by Mike Lupica. Heat was a Cybils finalist in 2006 (I was a Round 2 judge), and a personal favorite of mine that year. It's about a 12-year-old boy named Michael who is a very promising baseball player, but whose chance to play is threatened by a series of personal problems. Heat also features a great sidekick, and a nice little, age-appropriate romance. It's a love letter to baseball (which helped me to love it), but it's also just a well-written story with a lot of heart. My review: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2007/02/heat_mike_lupic.html
Holes by Louis Sachar. Holes is another classic, winner of the 1999 Newbery Medal, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, among others. Like The Giver, it's one that I think all adults should read (and no, watching the movie doesn't count, although it is a fun movie). Holes is about a boy named Sanely Yelnats whose family curse results in his getting sent to a juvenile detention facility, where he is forced to dig holes all day. Which doesn't sound interesting, but it is. There are compelling social dynamics between the boys at the facility, and a fascinating tying together of nearly-forgotten historical threads as the plot progresses.
The Mysterious Benedict Society (and sequels) by Trenton Lee Stewart. I like The Mysterious Benedict Society books, particularly the first one, because they take kids with unique talents (including puzzle-solving ability), and give them real (if over the top) mysteries and adventures. A mysterious, wealthy man essentially collects a team of children, and escapades follow. These are books that are pure, escapist fun, and will allow adult readers to reconnect with their 10-year-old selves. Reviews: http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2007/09/the-mysterious-.html, http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2008/05/the-mysterious.html, http://jkrbooks.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/the-mysterious-benedict-society-an d-the-prisoners-dilemma-trenton-lee-stewart.html
And there you have it. 13 titles (and series) that, in one way or another, will nurture your inner child, providing hours of entertainment along the way. If you want to read middle grade, you can't go wrong with these books.