Kellie Celia is the Marketing Communications Manager, Publishing for Walden Media focusing predominantly on Walden Pond Press, a middle grade imprint co-published by HarperCollins and Walden.
There are many ideas out there about what type of book is “truly middle grade”: Books written with middle schoolers in mind; books for upper elementary school students; rare titles that can appeal to the 9-year-old and the 13-year-old reader alike. Some folks might say middle grade is anything more complex than a chapter book without the sex and romance of a young adult novel. Others might claim middle grade is defined by the age of the protagonist; any main character over 14 immediately pushes a book into young adult territory. Still others might classify middle grade by awards—if the reading level of a book is 3rd grade or above, but it is still eligible for the Newbery Award, then it can be considered middle grade. And I say, great! Any of these ideas could work.
But in the deep recesses of its heart, middle grade is so much more. Middle grade books keep a child reading after the excitement of learning how to read wears off, but before the demands of high school kick in. Middle grade represents changing circumstances, relationships, and bodies; fear of growing up too quickly or never growing up at all; an escape for kids who have few options or for kids who have all the options in the world. It represents that moment when, as a child, one is “on the cusp,” or, as Anne Ursu puts it so brilliantly in Breadcrumbs, “a line like this one is the line down which your life breaks in two. And you have to think very carefully about whether you want to cross it, because once you do it’s very hard to get back to the world you left behind.” It’s kind of an ephemeral feeling, but when you sense it, you know you have a great middle grade book in your hands. On that note, I’d love to share some of the titles that kept me reading, and those books I see and hear are helping kids today do the same.
While I love and highly recommend all middle grade titles at Walden Pond Press, I know my bias towards our books might impact my choices for this post. For that reason, I have not included any of the books we publish here.
THEN: The books the kept me reading through my “middle grade years” and continue to do so for so many kids today. I’ll assume many of you are familiar with these titles, so I won’t summarize them so much as explain why they help meet middle grade’s overarching goal: keeping kids reading.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Kids kind of love puzzles, at least, puzzles that they are motivated to figure out. Ask a sixth grade sports fan to show you how to calculate his or her favorite baseball pitcher’s ERA and he or she will likely jump at the chance. Ask him or her to show you how to multiply fractions and you may get a different response. Nothing beats a motivator like murder, money, and compelling characters. And this is what The Westing Game has in boatloads. The “I have to find out what happens” factor is tantamount here.
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
Books like Hatchet and The Sign of the Beaver speak to that “what if?” scenario/fantasy that almost every child has about being completely on their own. There is also something about being out in the middle of nature that is terrifying yet strangely compelling. I think it’s this factor that makes books like this one so timeless.
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
There is nothing quite like How to Eat Fried Worms. It’s the Captain Underpants or Walter the Farting Dog of yester-year and, even for adults, quite a clever read. You can’t help but turn the pages to find out how many ways the author can cook up to eat worms – fry them, microwave them, top them with all sorts of condiments, you name it.
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
To this day, this is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. You know that moment I described earlier in this post: the feeling that the characters in middle grade are “on the cusp”? There is no book that captures this moment better than Walk Two Moons. Timeless. Heart-wrenching. Compelling. And a great read-aloud. I’ve seen tough fifth grade boys who are reading at a second grade level end up being completely floored by this book. They always cry when Gram dies.
Goosebumps Series by R.L. Stine
What can I say about this series that hasn’t already been said? It’s spooky, but not too scary, funny but not stupid, simple but still entertaining. Plus, there are probably hundreds of books in the series by now. All a kid needs is to start with one book and he or she could go on reading for years.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, drawings by Stephen Gammell
Nothing has “creep” factor like Schwartz’s Scary Stories collection. The illustrations still haunt me to this day (I haven’t seen the new version will illustrations by Brett Helquist, which I’m sure is great, but the original is one of a kind). My quasi-friend Paula and I spent just about every 4th grade bus ride from school reading these stories to each other over and over again. Paula was kind of a bully, but every time I brought this book with me, she left everyone alone and was completely engrossed.
NOW: Here are some of the more recent releases that I see keeping kids reading through their MG years. I’m sure everyone already knows about the Wimpy Kids, Big Nates, and Origami Yodas out there—all fantastic MG options, but I’d like to highlight a few titles that perhaps aren’t always front of mind.
Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
One of my favorite middle grade books in recent memory. There is something about this story that captures that tween voice perfectly. It has an old school feel, but is still contemporary, there is a little adventure, a little mystery, a lot of laughs, and a tremendous amount of heart. The reading is still very accessible for children who may be struggling somewhat, but is not dumbed down. In short, a perfect combination of all things middle grade making it compelling readable for most kids.
Amelia Lost by Candace Fleming
I don’t know about you, but the story of Amelia Earhart captivated my friends and me when I was in elementary school. We could have spent weeks reading about her life. And there is something about the mystery surrounding her disappearance that still holds kids today, couple that with behind the scenes pictures and information about her life and you have a winning trio.
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
See my comments on The Westing Game. While a fabulous story in its own right, the motivating factors behind The Westing Game are very much at play here too.
Brixton Brothers Series by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex
There is something about the detective story, especially when you add in a dose of Mac Barnett humor, that just connects. Throw in some undercover librarians and you have one healthy dose of fun on your hands. Definitely a series that I can see most kids getting into.
Time Warp Trio Series by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith
Because this is a younger series, I can see some people placing it more in the chapter book realm. But let me go back to my feelings about middle grade – if you have a 6th grade child devouring this series, it’s serving the purpose that middle grade is made to serve: keeping that child reading. And I have seen this series, first hand, be devoured by third graders and sixth graders alike.
Lunch Lady Series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Again, not a series everyone would call “middle grade,” but this compulsively readable graphic novel series is original, hilarious, and empowers the iconic figure of the lunch lady.
Gregor the Overlander Series by Suzanne Collins
This series makes the concept of “dark underworld” accessible for younger kids. It’s nearly as compelling as The Hunger Games, and definitely a better fit for the middle grade space. I think this series sometimes gets overlooked since it was published before Collins became a household name with The Hunger Games, but it is an important piece of middle grade literature and guaranteed to spark interest.
I also don’t want to disregard all the magazine, online, non-fiction, and comic book reading that is going on in the middle grade space. All of this reading also goes to serve the purpose of middle grade and is definitely not to be discounted. The more options these transitioning students can read, the better the chance we have of creating a lifelong reader out of every “middle grade” child.