Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Middle School students may be closer to the same reading levels than they were in first or second grade, but their maturity and interests vary greatly.  This list is one that should be regarded as having the potential to please everyone but it is almost certain that not every title will be appropriate or appealing to everyone.  

Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel Fattah is told through the eyes of a young Palestinian girl who must travel through Israeli territory to help her grandmother.  

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe by Douglas Adams  and its many sequels has become a classic of science-fiction and humor.

Watership Down by Richard Adams resonated with me when I read it because it is far more than just a story of rabbits who need to find a new home.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie faces many of the problems of every young man with the added conflict of having to live in two worlds--that of the reservation which is home to his family and his heritage and that of the white high school that recruits him to play basketball.  The cartoon drawings in the book help to add  humor and understanding to a difficult life.  Warning:  The story is very frank about what young men deal with as they mature, including sexual issues.  Sherman Alexie gets mixed reviews from people who care about Native American stories and may be offensive to some people on that level.  That said, it is an interesting story that will move and motivate many readers.

City of the Beast by Isabel Allende  (and two others in the series) follows a young boy as he joins his grandmother on an expedition in the Amazon.  There is a good mix of magic and reality in this book by a highly respect Latin American author.

Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez is based on the author's experiences growing up in the Dominican Republic under the harsh dictatorship of the time.

Chains;, Fever, 1793; and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson perhaps seem at first glance to have little in common besides having the same author. The other tie that quickly becomes evident is the outstanding storytelling.  The first two of these are historical--the first about free African Americans living in the American Colonies at the time of the Revolution and the second is about the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Both will hold interest to the last page.  A parent of a daughter told me a few years ago that she wished her daughter and every 8th grade girl would read Speak before entering high school.  It tells of a young girl who goes to a party in that summer between 8th and 9th grade where something so terrible happens that she quits talking.  Her story is slowly, often painfully, revealed in a manner that warns girls of what could happen in a seemingly innocent setting--both in what happens to the main character and in how easily her friends are able and willing to mistreat her.

Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby is also about a girl who is mistreated, but this time the setting is much less common.  She leaves an orphanage to join a circus wonder show.  Needless to say there are many odd characters.  This book is tough to read at times with its stories of child abuse. It is also moving and an interesting window into circus life.

My Life With the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis offers some lighter reading as a girl living in Chicago in the 1960s grow to believe that her family is the reincarnation of the family of Abe Lincoln (her father's initials are A.B.E. for one thing) and decides she has to protect her father from Lincoln's fate.  Her father is very involved with the Civil Rights movement and she gets dragged along to much of the activity, too.

Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos is the story of a Muslim girl whose family is illegally in the United States and how they work to be legal and safe and accepted.

Playground by 50 Cents surprised me as I usually don't have high expectations for children's books written by celebrities.  This novel by a rapper is well written and poignant as it talks of a young boy trying to fit in with the crowd while struggling to understand his parents.

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis is my favorite of all of Curtis' books.  It is also written for older readers than the popular Watston's Go to Birmingham--1963 and Bud, Not Buddy.  This book takes us to Canada and the first town specifically built for escaped slaves from the United States.  Elijah is the first child to be born there so he does not understand slavery until he travels to Detroit and sees the reality of it.  As with every Curtis book, the story has plenty of humor along with strong historical information.

Toby Alone by Timothee de Fombelle will be an easy reader for many middle school students but this interesting adventure of a small boy for whom a tree is the totality of his universe carries a big environmental impact that will be enjoyed and pondered long after the last page.

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd weaves a mystery around a missing cousin who comes to visit.  Only the boy dealing with life on the autism spectrum has the kind of thinking skills to find a solution.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper will change the way you look at people with severe disabilities.  It is all too easy and common to think of someone who can not speak or control their muscles as somehow mentally inferior.  The narrator of this story knows that first hand because she has dealt with cerebral palsy her entire life.  A text to speech machine lets her prove how much she knows and can do but may not be enough to help her make friends.

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer takes dystopian novels to a high level.  Set in a land between Mexico and the United States that is run by a cruel dictator who expects that cloning will keep him alive with harvested organs, this is the story of one of the clones.  It is powerful storytelling.

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle made me laugh out loud.  Middle Schooler Nate travels alone from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to live his dream of auditioning for a Broadway show.  His small town reactions to the big city are perfect as are the descriptions of stage parents.

The Big Splash and Sidekicks by Jack D. Ferraiolo are lighthearted looks at almost typical life.  The Big Splash  is what the students in one middle school calls a practice of  carefully directing water balloons at classmates to help make clear their standing in the social pecking order.  Sidekicks  reveals some of the difficulties of being an adolescent super hero, from the perils of wearing tights to developing  a crush on your arch-enemy who somehow turns out to be a girl.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos is based on the author's childhood in the actual town of Norvelt, a city with an interesting history of its own.  The story is filled with interesting characters, typical pre-teen angst, and some surprises.  It won the Newbery Award.

The  Princess Bride by William Goldman did not cross my path until I was an adult but its humor and adventure is perfect for middle school readers, too.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon was written for adults but soon became popular with young adult readers.  The narrator experiences life through the view of a high functioning autistic teen who uses math to explain much of what he sees and hears.  This situation can make life confusing and difficult but it also helps him solve a mystery.

Project Sweet Life by Brent Hartinger features a group of boys willing to work hard to avoid having to work over one of the last sweet summers of high school.  Humor builds as every project they devise to keep them out of the workforce leads to new problems.

The Saint of Dragons by Jason Hightman uses a rather familiar plot of a boy discovering his magical powers to take the reader on a high adventure with dragons and prophecy and unexpected developments.  There is a sequel, too.

I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Leib is maybe best explained by noting that the its author is a producer of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and worked for the Simpsons TV show.  It is non-stop sarcastic humor about a friendless boy who is willing to go to any lengths to buy votes in a school election.  Luckily, he has been financially wheeling and dealing long enough and well enough to have plenty of money to spend.

The Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mobus  creates an alternative world in New York City that includes famous figures who have played a part in the history of the city.  It has high adventure while introducing myriad characters, historical and fictional.

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville takes the reader to alternative version of famous cities of the world.  Un Lun Dun is almost like London but not really.

Monster by Walter Dean Myer is not for the faint of heart.  It is the powerful story of a young African American boy who is about to go on trial for robbery and murder.  He keeps going over the crime, both in a movie he is directing in his mind and in his journal, and can not be confident that he is innocent or was unintentionally somehow responsible.  This is a very powerful look at jails, the court system, and life in a tough neighborhood.

A Step From Heaven by An Na is deceptively brief  and easy to read.  The story is not easy, however, as it tells of a girl moving from Korea with her dysfunctional family and trying to adapt to life in the United States.

This Dark Endeavor and Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel show the talent and diversity of this author who visited Emerson a few years ago.  This Dark Endeavor  is the author's imagining of what happened to the Frankenstein brothers before the more famous story.  It is has mystery, love, magic, and events that make it a true work of horror.  Half Brother  has horror of another kind--the horror a boy feels first when is life is torn apart when the family "adopts" a chimpanzee to be his little brother for research purposes and again when they take that brother away.

Life As We Know It; The Dead and the Gone; and This World We Live In  by Susan Beth Pfeffer imagine a world thrown into chaos when the moon is knocked out of its orbit. The first book tells the story through the eyes of a teen girl in rural Pennsylvania.   The second takes us to New York City and the event as it affects a young man, and the third is both of their stories.  

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs uses old photographs that the author discovered in antique shops and at flea markets to create the characters who inhabit this peculiar home and haunt the boy who sets out to discover how they are a part of his grandfather's life.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is a powerful story of a Lithuanian family who is exiled to Siberia by Stalin.  I recently convinced one of my adult book clubs to read this.  They enjoyed the experience.

Scrawl by Mark Shulman is written as a journal required in a high school detention setting.  I confess that I am partial to journals and letters and such, so maybe not everyone will find it as interesting, moving, and enjoyable as I did.

The Schwa Was Here My Neal Shusterman was my first introduction to this author who remembers the ups and downs of social situations in middle and high school much the same way I do.  I liked the idea of someone being so bland that he was invisible and then others putting that talent to good use.

Runaway and The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen are both about girls running.  Runaway is the journal of a girl who runs away from home and tells of her experiences living on the streets and struggling just to get a meal and a place to sleep.  The Running Dream tells the story of a girl who was a champion runner until a tragic accident takes her legs.  She must learn to be strong for herself and so she can help others.

The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede melds the history of the Westward Expansion with magic in intriguing ways that will probably lead the reader directly to the sequel.

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