I can still remember how my stomach ached the night before I started middle school. For many tweens, middle school is a messy funnel through which all the local elementary schools converge into one huge place. So many faces in a big crowd, with so many anxious questions. Who will I eat lunch with? Who can I really talk to? Who will hang out with me?
Fortunately, there are so many real contemporary stories out there to ease your tween’s worries. Here are some witty, honest novels about friendship with lots of humor along the way.
Ghost, by Jason Reynolds
I’m a big Jason Reynolds fan, and I was rooting for 12-year-old Castle Cranshaw, aka Ghost, from the first chapter. He has been calling himself Ghost ever since the night his dad got drunk and threatened Castle and his mom with a gun. Ghost ran that night and he has been running ever since. Although Ghost is fast, he has never tried out for a track team.
In this story, four wildly different kids—Ghost, Lu, Patina, and Sunny—first clash, until they’re chosen for an elite middle school track team, a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics, if only they can act their act together and get along. Ghost is bursting with anger, and he sometimes takes it out on other kids.
I couldn’t put this very real, emotional novel down. It is a complex, special story, and such a good page turner.
The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm
Eleven-year-old Ellie Cruz misses fifth grade and her old best friend. She even misses her goldfish who recently died. One day, her mom comes home with a snarky 13-year-old boy… who turns out to be her grandpa.
Grandpa, 76-year-old Dr. Melvin Sagarsky, has discovered the secret to reverse aging (thanks to a rare jellyfish), and now he’s going to middle school with her. The last thing Ellie needs right now is a teenage grandpa following her around, but she finds herself having spirited discussions with him about Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, and lots of moral scientific questions.
The dialogue is so witty and smart. My only (very small) dispute with this story is when 12 year-old Ellie befriends 14 year-old Raj, a goth eighth grader with several body piercings. I wasn’t sure why Holm decided to make her trusted friend so much older. That aside, this is my all-time favorite Jennifer L. Holm novel.
My Seventh Grade Life in Tights, by Brooks Benjamin
Seventh-grader Dillon wants is to be a real dancer, but his dad wants him to play football. When Dillon enters a contest to win a Dance-Splosion scholarship, everything changes. Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, want Dillon to kill the audition, and they even convince one of the snobbiest girls at school to help with him with his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders if maybe his friends should reconsider their ideas about dance studios being sellouts. His friends want Dillon to tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are, and it’s time for Dillon to think about what he wants.
A funny great read for Better Nate Than Ever fans, debut author Benjamin has written a great story about being who you are and doing what you love. It’s so full of spunk, ninja freestyle moves, and lots of heart.
The Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy Swanson is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Everyone says her friend’s death was an accident, but she can’t believe that sometimes things “just happen.” In her grief, Suzy retreats into a silent world in which she plans to prove her theory, even if it means traveling the globe solo.
I loved all the fascinating scientific facts about jellyfish in this story (and even swimmer Diana Nyad!) and Benjamin has said that she actually started writing this book as nonfiction, when something else took over, and she found herself writing about guilt, regret, middle school, and friendships.
This is such a beautiful, gut-wrenching novel that it made me cry. Bonus: The Thing About Jellyfish was recently optioned to be a movie, with a script to be written by Molly Smith Metzler from Orange Is The New Black.
Lily and Dunkin, by Donna Gephart
One summer morning, two soon-to-be eighth graders named Lily Jo McGrother and Dunkin Dorfman meet each other and their lives forever change. Lily knows in her heart she’s a girl, but the rest of world, including her father, insists on calling her Tim. But being a girl is not so easy when you look like a boy. Especially when you’re in middle school.
Dunkin, who struggles with bipolar disorder, has just moved into town and he’s hiding from a painful secret. He tries not to think about the past, his daily medications, or the speeding thoughts in his head.
Gephart has openly talked about what inspired this heartfelt novel: Lily’s story stemmed from a documentary she saw about a trans girl, and Dunkin’s story came from she’d promise made to her older son, who deals with bipolar disorder. Written in dual POV, Gephart has said she spent years researching this novel, and that really shows.
This is such an emotional story about what a real friendship is, even when it’s hard. I’ve been a big Gephart fan for years, and this novel is her best. I adore this book.
What are your favorite middle grade novels about friendships?