Middle grade readers are often headed to a new school, which can feel exciting, but also worrying. These nine realistic contemporary novels, both new and classic stories, will help both reluctant and ravenous readers face the unknown and also feel brave enough to take risks.
Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom, by Booki Vivat
Abbie Wu is pretty much always freaking out. Starting middle school has her anxiety spiking to new levels. One of her biggest worries is choosing an elective.
Each of Abbie’s best friends has “a thing.” Maxine is an aspiring actress who can’t wait to start drama class. Logan is a computer whiz who is amped for coding class. Abbie doesn’t have a thing. She signs up for study hall.
During her first study hall, Abbie feels doomed. Her teacher is the dreaded Ms. Skelter. Abbie thinks Ms. Skelter looks “like some kind of evil sorceress” with “creepy, bony hands.”
But study hall isn’t the worst part of school. Lunchtime is even more horrible. The lunch ladies at Abbie’s school are downright corrupt. They give the 8th graders the best treats while the rest of the school has to eat cafeteria mush.
Abbie decides to do something. She organizes a secret school-wide lunch exchange. Finally, Abbie has found her thing! Unfortunately, her new thing does not make the vice principal happy.
Booki Vivat tells the hilarious tale of Abbie Wu through playful prose, superb lettering, and energetic pencil-and-ink illustrations. Fans of the book will be happy to learn that there are two more titles in Vivat’s Frazzled series.
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger
Dwight is the weirdest kid in class. He digs holes and sits in them, he wears the same T-shirt for a month, and sometimes, when you ask him a question, he just says “purple.” Most of the kids in school ignore Dwight, until he makes an origami Yoda.
Strangely, the Yoda is wise beyond Dwight’s years and can predict the future. One student, Tommy, decides to find out whether origami Yoda is channeling the force, or if Dwight is just playing a prank.
A fantastic book full of humor and heart, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is a zany take on middle-grade life, awkward school dances and all. The book is the first in Angleberger’s Star Wars-themed series, which includes Darth Paper Strikes Back and The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett.
Invisible Emmie, by Terri Libenson
Emmie isn’t your typical outcast. She isn’t a super nerd who gets stuffed in trash cans and lockers. Emmie is just invisible.
School isn’t that bad when she’s hanging out with her best friend, Brianna. But ever since Bri got placed in advanced classes, Emmie spends most of the school day fending for herself. Emmie goes from class to class with knots in her stomach.
The only thing that makes the knots go away is drawing. The longer Emmie draws, the better she feels. Life is manageable until a love letter Emmie wrote to her crush goes public. How will Emmie survive being suddenly seen by her classmates?
Readers will relate to Emmie’s angsty sendup of all things middle school. Terri Libenson sly wit takes a crack at everything from chaotic bathroom lines to P.E. trauma. Libenson is also the creator of the Reuben Award-winning comic strip The Pajama Diaries.
I Funny: A Middle School Story, by James Patterson, Chris Grabenstein, and Laura Park
Jamie is a non-stop jokester. He tells jokes at school and while helping at his Uncle Frankie’s diner. Jamie even jokes about his wheelchair, calling himself a “sit-down comic.”
The middle schooler dreams of being a famous comic, but chokes when he’s behind a microphone. When his uncle suggests that Jamie enter a comedy competition, he isn’t so sure. What if people laugh for the wrong reasons?
Readers will love Jamie’s optimistic perspective and relentless jokester spirit. I Funny is a New York Times bestseller and one of the many hilarious books James Patterson has written about middle school.
Shug, by Jenny Han
Twelve-year old Annemarie Wilcox, known to her family as Shug, is tall, freckled, and flat-chested, and she’s very unsure about starting middle school. Not only is Shug smitten with Mark, her best friend from childhood, she’s worried about her parents, who keep fighting.
This is a great end-of-summer read with a voice that pulls you right in, and the first time I read this book, I got teary. Jenny Han writes with such amazing details, ones you can smell and taste and feel in this story about friendship and heartbreak and trying to be who you are, flaws and all.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
I’ll always feel grateful to Judy Blume for being the first author to push the boundaries and really give middle grade readers a glimpse of what it’s like when your body starts to change, or when you wish it would finally would. (“We must, we must, we must increase our busts.”)
I’ve read this classic many times since I first picked it up the summer before I started middle school. I adore Margaret Simon, who wonders out loud if she’ll ever fill out her bra or get her period. Margaret has just moved from New York City to the suburbs, and she’s anxious about starting a new life in the suburbs at a new school.
For parents of kids who are going to start middle school soon, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret might be the perfect conversation starter to open the door to talking about some big worries on their minds.
Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen
Another of one of my favorite middle grade novels with a strong-willed female protagonist who’s two years older than Judy Blume’s Margaret, Flipped is a comedy of errors told in alternating chapters by two funny eighth graders.
The first time Juli saw Bryce in second grade, she flipped. Bryce, on the other hand, ran the other way. Now, six years later, thanks to some chickens, their feelings for each other have flip-flopped. This is a funny fast read about misunderstandings and missed opportunities.
I love how this story shows what’s it’s like to be passionate about something in the world, and how making choices could affect you for the rest of your life.
Counting Thyme, by Melanie Conklin
Here’s another poignant middle grade novel that came out recently, by debut novelist Melanie Conklin, and it’s also about new beginnings.
Eleven-year-old Thyme Owens has to move from San Diego to New York City so her little brother can start a new cancer drug trial. Although this novel deals with a heavy topic (cancer) Conklin doesn’t let this weigh the reader down. It’s a sweet story about fitting into a new school, feeling homesick, falling for a boy, and facing a crisis.
Having moved many times in my life, I really enjoyed this message about starting over and facing challenges. If your soon-to-be-middle-schooler is feeling uneasy this summer, Counting Thyme is a great choice.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (For readers on the verge of transitioning to Young Adult novels)
I recently tuned into an NPR interview with Sherman Alexie and I remembered how much I LOVE The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
On his first day in the seventh grade, Alexie recalls opening up his math book and finding his mother’s name written in it. He realized the book was 30 years old and that’s when he knew he had to leave his home.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was inspired by Alexie’s own life story, about a 14-year-old “poor-ass” Spokane Indian named Junior, who was born with water on the brain, like the author.
Junior loves to draw and he fears the worst when he transfers from the reservation school to a rich, white school that’s 22 miles away from home. (“I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”)
This is such a funny, honest story about starting a new middle school, about preserving and pulling through, about self-discovery and lifting yourself out of a rough situation. The hilarious cartoon drawings will pull in the most reluctant readers, and the funny sharp writing makes this one of my all-time favorite novels.
Which middle grade novel is your child’s favorite this summer?