- This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Viktor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel is truly creepy which befits a "prequel" to Frankenstein. This novel looks at the family life if the young Frankenstein boys Viktor and Konrad. When the young twins and their cousin stumble upon The Dark Library filled with tomes on alchemy and the dark sciences, their father forbids them to ever visit the room again. Viktor is drawn to the the library, especially when Konrad falls deathly ill and the doctors seem unable to cure him. Filled with hope and foreboding, I imagine that Mary Shelley would enjoy this novel. My first stop after reading it was to revisit the original which I predict is what middle school readers will do as well. This is not a story for younger readers nor for the faint of heart. Oppel also wrote the adventure series about bats that begins with Silverwing, a fascinating adventure for readers in grades four through six. More recently he wrote Half Brother which takes middle school readers into the world of a young man whose family chooses to study and raise as chimpanzee in their family, soon to become a beloved half brother.
- A real horror is depicted in Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys which begins with the night in that Soviet officers barge into the home Lina, a young Lithuanian girl. The family is separated from the father and sent to Siberia where Stalin orders them to work in the beet fields under cruel conditions. Lina consoles herself and her family by drawing pictures and trying to find ways to get them to her father. The author is a Lithuanian refugee and much of this book is based on stories from her own family.
- The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen is capturing the hearts and minds of strong young women, whether they are runners or not. Jessica, a high school junior, looks to be in line for scholarships and accolades for her running prowess when an accident claims her leg. The novels traces her sorrow, depression, and climb back into an appreciation of her life and how she can use what she has to help others as well as herself. This could be a terribly treacly story, but it rises above this through the author's talent, humanity, and clear appreciation of running. Van Draanen has also written the Sammy Keyes detective girl series for readers in grades four and up. Runaway, a touching novel in the form of the journal of a girl who runs away from home and must fend for herself, is another Van Draanen novel that will be enjoyed by middle school readers.
- The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter is a truly odd book. It is this oddness that makes it so enjoyable. The three Hardscrabble children are used to having their father go off for weeks at a time to paint portraits of royal families around the world, but never before have they stayed with their odd great-aunt Haddie who lives in a full size playhouse near an old castle once owned by the Kneebone family. What follows is explorations of folk histories, magic, and some harsh realities. The story is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. It is book that demands a reader who is willing to ride its roller coaster of emotions.
- Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is simply beautiful as it tells the autobiographical story of a young Vietnamese refugee who is resettled in Alabama. Told in free verse, the story conveys the beauty of Saigon, the agonies of refugee camps, the slow process of adapting to a new country and customs, and the strength of family and hope. The poems are often humorous and almost always poignant.
- A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park follows the lives of two young people in Sudan. Salva is only 11 in 1985 when his home town is attacked by rebel soldiers. The story of his escape across the war torn countryside to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya and eventually to the United States is told honestly but without too much graphic description of the horrors. His inspiring efforts to help his homeland are mirrored in the alternating chapters about Nya. In 2008, Nya must walk long distances to get drinking water for her family. It seems like a miracle when Salva and his organization drill a well in the village, which also makes possible Nya's dream of going to school.
You may notice a conspicuous lack of fantasy on this list. You will have no problem finding this genre from middle school readers. These titles will help those who want more than vampires in their reading list.