Five Fantastic Middle-Grade Novels to Read Right Now
Can we read? No. 66: A guest post from Hoang Samuelson
Hi there, and happy Wednesday.
ICYMI: in last Friday’s (How) Can we read? issue, I took a deep-dive into why poetry matters for kids. I really enjoyed writing this one (because it’s a topic I really enjoy banging on about, let’s be honest):
Also, if you’re looking for books to read to your kids as you discuss the war in Ukraine, Erica from What We Do All Day put together a superb list of Children’s Books About the Futility of War.
Now: I’ve got a surprise for you today — a guest post! One of the gifts that came to me while this newsletter was on hiatus in February was the realization that not only do I not have to do this entirely alone, I’d actually prefer not to, since collaborating with others and amplifying voices different from mine is not only awesomely fun but better for everyone. It took me awhile (years) to build relationships to the degree that makes guest posts possible, and I’m truly grateful. You’ll see more of them from now on.
It’s with great pleasure I introduce you to Hoang Samuelson, who kindly wrote about herself in the third person so I wouldn’t screw up any of the important details:
Hoang Samuelson is a writer, editor, and storyteller who has always loved books and believes there’s a story behind every meal. When she’s not writing stories about food or attempting to write fiction, she can be found reading middle-grade books along with her eight-year-old daughter Lily, who also loves books as much as she does! To find out more, check out her newsletter, Nourish Me, or her website at hoangsamuelson.com.
Five Fantastic Middle-Grade Novels to Read Right Now
Adventure, Wonder, and Discovery: These Books Have It All
It’s official: 52 years after the publication of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, arguably one of the best middle-grade novels of the 21st century, there will finally be a movie version. As an eleven-year-old new to this country, I remembered being wowed by the premise of this story—a girl around my age who grows up in an interfaith household, with one parent being Jewish and the other being Christian, Margaret Simon has to grapple with what it means to be raised in such a household, to have two religions and none at the same time. As someone who grew up in a strictly Catholic household, I was intrigued because it introduced me to the complexities of thought for middle school girls, thoughts that I could relate to, and helped me explore the possibility that one has some agency over what their religion or beliefs are. It was, in short, revelatory, and is the first of many middle-grade novels I’d read in my lifetime.
After that, I devoured the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Giver by Lois Lowry, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and every single Babysitters Club title. But it wasn’t until recently, when my daughter signed up to participate in a statewide reading competition called Oregon Battle of Books, that I was reintroduced to some phenomenal novels about eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-olds that I can’t get out of my head. These books lingered in my mind the way frosting of a delicious cupcake would—it made me want more after the last lick, not just because they are fun stories filled with adventure and excitement and tension, but also because they teach important themes, such as imagination, empathy, understanding, connection and friendship, all of which are so important nowadays, regardless of whether you’re a child or adult.
Here are my top favorite middle grade novels:
Jin, Alex, and Elvin are three kids from very different backgrounds who come together to solve an art-related mystery in one of the most culturally diverse hubs of New York — Harlem. The trio met and convened after Elvin’s grandfather was attacked late at night at a community garden. What started out as a simple hunt to find Elvin’s grandfather’s attacker turned into something much more sinister, full of history and nuance and action that I couldn’t put it down. The ending was beautiful, but perhaps the best thing about this book is the friendship that blooms between the three characters—Jin, Alex, and Elvin, as they explore what their Harlem means to them.
What do the characters in three famous books have in common with this particular book by British author Anna James? Think Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Anne from Anne of Green Gables, and Sara Crewe from A Little Princess. Three beloved characters make their appearance in this book about a girl named Tilly and her friend Oskar who travel inside the magical world of books and end up actually living in it. For Tilly and Oskar, the world inside books is a curious and sometimes troublesome one, and soon lines are blurred between reality and fiction. I loved the magical element of this novel, along with the idea of a secret library underneath a regular museum in London. It’s exciting, fun, and quite imaginative. My daughter loved this book the most out of all her OBOB competition titles, and I couldn’t agree more.
In a recent post on my newsletter, I wax poetic about this particular novel. In less than 250 pages, this book packs so many valuable lessons for kids in elementary and middle school. Ultimately, it’s a story about friendship and understanding across borders. I loved the book for the way it uses the school cafeteria as a central place for socialization and learning. After all, for many of us, the school cafeteria is one of the main places where we make new friends and hang out with our current ones. It’s where a lot of stuff happens, including bullying. Therefore, it was important to see how these interactions play out without the full supervision from adults.
The Storm Keeper’s Island follows eleven-year-old Fionn and thirteen-year-old Tara Boyle, who come to stay with their grandfather in Arranmore, an island off the coast of Ireland, only to discover a secret, magical world unlike anything they could ever imagine, filled with stormy nights. Inspired by her own grandparents, who also grew up in Arranmore, Doyle has created an amazing work of literature that is so different and wild and full of adventure and mystery. I can’t wait to begin the next one in the series, The Lost Tide Warriors and The Storm Keeper’s Battle.
Full disclosure: I am biased when it comes to anything related to the Babysitters Club (see introduction). The longtime book series about a group of entrepreneurial friends who start and maintain a babysitting business as middle schoolers will always hold a special place in my heart, for its depiction of female friendship and the art of growing up. So when I discovered that there is a graphic novel version based on my middle school favorite characters, I knew I had to read it. My daughter brought these home from school one day, and I gobbled them up like I was thirsty for water. Brightly colored and inviting, it’s a brilliantly done reincarnation of the popular series by Ann M. Martin and illustrated by a variety of artists and well worth reading. Best of all, it’s a graphic novel so you may even be able to finish it in a single afternoon!
Thanks so much to Hoang for these excellent suggestions, and for being the inaugural Can we read? guest post. Be sure to check out her newsletter, Nourish Me (sign up, you won’t regret it!), and her website at hoangsamuelson.com.
Is your middle-grade reader just not all that into reading? I found Brightly’s 7 Lessons for Parents of Reluctant Middle Grade Readers to be full of calm, common-sense tips and wisdom.
P.S. Know someone who could use some middle-grade recommendations? This post is public, so pass it on!