This past fall, I read and adored R.J. Palacio’s best-selling middle grade novel Wonder. It’s a riveting tearjerker about a boy named Auggie, who was born with a severe facial deformity and is entering the ruthless halls of middle school for the first time. Wonder is one of those rare, protagonist-driven books that weaves together heartbreak and humor, and appeals equally to young readers and adults. Here, I’ve chosen 10 additional books—for kids ages 8 to 12—that star an unforgettable main character and will resonate with grownups, too. These are fabulous books to read together as a family:
Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan
This is the story of 12-year-old Willow, an adopted African American girl who’s obsessed with gardening, disease, and counting by sevens. Her searing intellect and anthropologist’s mind make navigating middle school hard enough, but when her parents are killed in a car accident, Willow is challenged to rethink and rebuild her entire life. With the help of a school counselor and a supportive Vietnamese immigrant family, Willow somehow turns surviving into thriving. This is a story full of hard but hopeful lessons that’s an inspiration to all.
The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
One of the greatest works of American YA literature, The Yearling details the profound relationship of young Jody Baxter and his pet deer, Flag, in the harsh, unforgiving woods of interior Florida. Beautifully crafted with rich details on subsistence farming in the scrub, as well as poignant familial relationships, this Pulitzer-winning novel is a must-read, coming-of-age classic.
Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry
Winner of the 1990 Newbery Medal, Number the Stars tells a lesser-known story of World War II—that of the evacuation of Jews from Nazi-held Denmark. The story is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, whose family hides her best friend, Ellen Rosen, on the night of the roundup and ultimately smuggles her and her relatives to safety in Sweden. This important book confronts the concepts of good and evil, and the unbreakable bonds of friends and family.
I Funny: A Middle School Story, by James Patterson
Jamie Grimm wants to be the best standup comedian in the world, and he’s determined not to let his wheelchair, his bully cousin Stevie, or his new family situation get in the way of his dreams. This novel is a compassionate and comedic choice that explores both troubled pasts and promising futures and especially appeals to reluctant boy readers.
Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Set against the extreme conditions of the Great Depression and California’s agricultural system, Esperanza Rising details the remaking of a young Mexican girl’s life after she’s forced from her home in Mexico and into the hardships of American farming. Esperanza overcomes illness, the death of her father, and rampant discrimination in her new world to tell a young woman’s story of wisdom and endurance.
Holes, by Louis Sachar
Stanley Yelnats is under a multi-generational curse—one that’s followed him all the way to boys’ detention center Camp Green Lake, where he and his peers are forced to dig holes all day long. Stanley soon realizes this task of “character development” is also a mystery to be solved. This award-winning story of empty holes is filled to the top with dark humor and redemption.
Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
Thirteen-year-old Eskimo girl Miyax (known as “Julie” to her San Francisco pen pal) tries to escape her Alaskan village and unhappy marriage by fleeing to California, only to find herself lost in the middle of the tundra. To survive, Miyax befriends and is accepted by a wolf pack. This death-defying tale tells a bleak and beautiful story of adolescence in a way that will stay with readers young and old.
Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis
When a 10-year-old boy from Depression-era Michigan sets out to find a father he’s never even seen, it’s an adventure like no other—full of insight into history, poverty, racism, and more. Bud’s feats, combined with his astute “Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself,” make this selection a requirement for every book-loving household.
The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Patterson
Unruly and unmanageable Gilly Hopkins has been in the foster system for years, but she’s set on reuniting with her real mother despite being put in yet another home. A tale of survival and surrender told with humor, this story teaches the hardest of lessons: that what we want isn’t always what we need.
Eleven, by Patricia Reilly Giff
Sam, a struggling reader who is haunted by strange dreams, makes a mysterious discovery in the attic above his grandfather Mack’s room. He has trouble reading the secret message and must team up with, and rely on, his friend Caroline to unravel the story of his life. This book teaches the importance of love, family, and the timeless quest for self-identity.
What middle reader books do you think appeal to all ages?