The fact that young adult books are being devoured by the not-so-young is so last news cycle. Hooked by propulsive storytelling, high stakes, and the sheer excellence of the authors working in YA, adult lovers of teen books are finding it harder and harder to pretend they care about age labels. But full-grown readers still might stop short at the idea of picking up a middle-grade book, pointed toward kids aged 12 and under. And yet, there’s something lovely about polishing off a great story in an afternoon, and middle-grade books are known for the impressive amount of magic—both the hocus-pocus kind and the storytelling kind—that they pack in per page. A great place for the first-time middle-grade reader (well, the first time since you were a middle grader) to start is with an author you’ve already met on the adult or YA shelves. And if you happen to share your bookshelf with a grade-school reader, these books will make for a perfect family book club pick:
Who Could That Be at This Hour?, by Lemony Snicket
I had no idea how much I wanted to read a hardboiled kids’ book till I picked up this one. Its narrator, a youthful Lemony Snicket, has brains, nerve, and a Philip Marlowe-esque patter (not to mention a lovely dame—well, a lovely girl—in his rearview). Daniel Handler (author of YA tale The Basic Eight, among others) as Snicket remembers what many writers forget: kids don’t need all their stories with a spoonful of sugar. They’re plenty capable of taking a tale of danger, intrigue, and a mysterious apprenticeship straight up.
Doll Bones, by Holly Black
Most of us have a memory or two of the end of play, of reaching that age when you’re expected to trade in imaginary worlds for homework and crushes. Black, best known for YA novels including Tithe and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, builds Doll Bones atop the precarious bridge between childhood and adolescence. Zach, Poppy, and Alice are best friends whose epic fantasy world centers on a creepy antique doll sitting in a cabinet in Poppy’s house. When Zach’s father throws out his toys in an effort to make him grow up, he decides to drop Poppy and Alice—but the antique doll demands one more act of tribute.
Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville
Miéville has set himself the task of writing a book in every genre, and we can be grateful he didn’t forget the kids—or us tall people at the back, who are allowed to read whatever the heck we want. One of my favorite things about Un Lun Dun is that, while it opens on the classic trope of a very special girl discovering she’s the “Chosen One,” she’s quickly put out of commission by a magical attack. Her best friend—a short brunette to her willowy blonde—who never asked to be more than a sidekick, suddenly finds herself in control, fighting a dark power in the richly imagined looking-glass city of Un Lun Dun, just beneath modern-day London.
Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins
Like Miéville, Collins, of Hunger Games superfame, tells a tale of an utterly ordinary modern-day city dweller, in this case a New Yorker named Gregor, who travels to an underground land to fulfill a prophecy (and perhaps save his mysteriously absent father). After falling through a laundry chute in pursuit of his little sister, Gregor finds himself in the Underland, a world of sun-starved semi-humans, sentient vermin, and a war brewing in which he must play a part.
Coraline, by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman has a knack for writing books that appeal to people aged 9 to 99. (8-and-unders might quail at some of Coraline’s creepy themes, centenarians might demand larger print.) Borrowing a bit from indelibly eerie 19th-century children’s story “The New Mother,” Gaiman builds a story of parallel universes, scrappy girls, and being careful what you wish for. Coraline is the kind of story that gets into a reader’s bones and stays there, like any great fairy tale.
The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale
The classic fairy tale of a shy princess, a noble horse, and conniving lady’s maid gets the full-length treatment by the best-selling author of Austenland. Ani, a princess turned goose girl, is a bright story-loving child who speaks best when speaking to animals. As in the fairy tale, Ani’s forced to change places with a mutinous lady-in-waiting on the journey to meet her betrothed. But Hale’s retelling diverges from its source, sending its princess on adventures that will be appreciated by both young readers who dream of being a princess and older readers who are just glad that this princess gets to do something interesting with her life.
What’s your favorite middle-grade read?