Stephanie Smallwood is an Early Literacy Specialist Librarian (and an awesome co-worker of mine!)
Middle grade literature is the equivalent to getting a driver's license to young readers. So much practice for so long leads up to the freedom of finally being able to sit down with a book ALONE and read it. This is a critical moment for children, so much can go wrong at this point: the books can be too hard, too easy, too boring, too far from their comfort zone, too close to their comfort zone, they can fall in love with a book that a friend doesn't like, and so on. Some kids love the freedom, others are overwhelmed and unsure how to choose. So much pressure! What's a librarian/teacher/parent/caring individual to do? Exactly what we've been doing here, talking about different books so when the child that needs that book is in front of us we have something in our head to put in their hands. So, here are a few books that have been important to me, a couple that I remember from my youth, and three that are new.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry: I read this in fourth grade and remember the story sitting with me for weeks. I had already been reading lots of historical fiction, but this was the first book I read about World War II. Prior to this book, bad and scary things happened to people 'a long time ago,' but this was set in 1943, my mother was alive while events similar to these were taking place. That fact mixed with Lowry's frank style made this book a real eye-opener for me, it was the point where I began to understand that there was much more to the world than I realized and scary things didn't just happen in books.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin: I remember the exact moment I put my hands on this book, I had just started seventh grade and was learning to use the 'big' library for the junior high and high school. I still didn't know my way around it and wasn't finding much I loved, but a paperback of the Westing Game was on display. I thought it looked strange, and the description didn't really sound like something I would like, but I checked it out anyway. And loved it. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. reading this book with a flashlight and when I finished promptly started over. I thought the mystery and the puzzles were so smart, but looking back I think it was the character of Turtle that really resonated with my 12 year-old self. Turtle wasn't perfect, her family didn't get her and she was a bit rude at times, but she still had value, and not just because she could solve a mystery. I needed Turtle that year, and I've sometimes wondered if that high school librarian didn't somehow know that and put this book in front of me.
The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes: This book is perfect in it's simplicity. Nothing huge, nothing overwhelming, but lots of things that kids this age think about. Is there something wrong with me? Is my teacher mad at me? Why is that other kid so mean? Henkes nails the average fears of children entering the big world of school and gives them the respect they deserve.
Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place (series) by Maryrose Wood: I have been telling nearly everyone I know that they need to read these books. I haven't quite gotten to the point of putting them in people's hands and standing over them tapping my foot while they read them, but close. Full of smart wit, these books are generally described as a cross between Jane Eyre and Lemony Snicket, but I think they are in a class by themselves. Icing on the cake? 'Incorrigible' is just the beginning of the interesting vocabulary.
Wildwood by Colin Meloy -- Oh how I wish Wildwood had existed when I was ten and desperate to devour longer and more complicated books that were at my interest level! This is a story that a child can completely lose themselves in, the world-building is incredibly detailed and the illustrations (by Carson Ellis) lend just enough. This book is certainly not for everyone, it is long and slowly paced, but is ideal for the reader that wants to really get in to a fantasy.