I was that small, quiet sixth grader who found comfort in two places: playing the clarinet in the school band and reading books from the school library. When I wasn’t practicing my scales, I was devouring stories about shy kids like me, kids who shuttled between two homes every week, kids who wanted to change the world but struggled to speak up. The protagonists I found on the page eased my anxieties during this time.
Starting middle school is such a big leap for so many, and fortunately today there are plenty of realistic, brave stories to help with the transition. Here are five great books to help your soon-to-be-middle schooler in this new universe.
Babymouse: Tales from the Locker, by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
My older daughter was a big Babymouse fan, and the graphics in this new series are just as fun as I remembered. The premise is very real when Babymouse worries that her whiskers don’t look as good any of the other middle schoolers. Fortunately, she soon realizes that she doesn’t really want to fit in. She’d rather stand out (nice twist!). For her, this means joining the film club to write and edit her own movie. Unfortunately, Babymouse lets the movie go to her head and she ends up pushing away her friends. Just as unfortunate, her tone gets quite bossy at times, which made me miss the amusing, playful Babymouse from her younger days. That said, I have a feeling Babymouse fans headed to middle school will latch onto this new series. It’s a fast read that will appeal to reluctant readers on the younger side.
Forget Me Not, by Ellie Terry
This debut novel really moved me. I’ve never met a girl like Calliope June, a seventh-grader who has both Tourette syndrome and an unstable mother. After another break up, Callie’s mother says it’s time to move again, this time to St. George, Utah, where the kids at her new school quickly notice her facial tics and the noises she doesn’t mean to make.
It’s only Jinsong, her Asian-American neighbor and the student body president, who wants to get to know Callie better, even if he struggles with pressure from other kids to do otherwise. I like the way the chapters flip between verse and prose in Callie and Jinsong’s voices, like when Callie’s teacher asks her to tell the class about herself: “Teachers always do/And I hate it more each time….I wish this ugly carpet would swallow me whole.”
Author Ellie Terry, who has Tourette syndrome, clearly poured herself into these characters with much vulnerability. A beautiful character-driven story about self-acceptance and longing for connection.
How to Survive Middle School, by Donna Gephart
I wish I’d had this book when I was starting middle school. Sixth-grader David Greenberg’s idol is comedian Jon Stewart, so he spends all his free time with his best friend recording YouTube episodes starring his pet hamster. Until school starts and David’s best friend abandons him. It’s not the first time. David’s mother abandoned him years earlier, and these moments in the story made me reach for a box of tissues. Not for long, though, as David finds comfort in Sophie Meyers, a homeschooled redhead who smells like peppermint. I couldn’t put down this story about family, friendship, betrayal, and survival. The best part? It’s really funny.
George, by Alex Gino
Perhaps because I was a kid who carried secrets through my childhood, I’m drawn to protagonists who feel like they have to keep secrets. The world looks at George and sees a boy, but she knows that she’s a girl. George fears she’ll have to keep this a secret forever, until her teacher announces their class play, Charlotte’s Web, and George really wants to be Charlotte. Even if her teacher says she can’t even try out for the part, because she’s a boy. Although this story takes place in fourth-grade, I think it’s a must-read for any pre-teen. This is such a breathtaking debut and beautiful, important story. I fell in love with George.
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander
Another gripping novel-in-verse, this one is great for kids who love to play sports, although it’s much more than a basketball book.
“Be careful though,
’cause now I’m CRUNKing
and my dipping will leave you
G on the floor, while I
to the finish with a fierce finger roll…
Straight in the hole:
Dred-headed Josh is sure that he and his twin brother, bald-headed Jordan, will go pro like their father, who once played professional ball in Europe. Until life falls apart. First, a girl named Alexis—Miss Sweet Tea—comes between them. And then something is wrong with their father’s heart. A quick read told with hip hop energy, I whizzed through this vibrant story about growing up and growing apart, and about breaking rules and making new ones.
What books would you recommend to anxious middle-schoolers-to-be?