I’ll be the first one to say that lurking around the juvenile section of Barnes and Noble isn’t the most comfortable thing to do as a grown person without a child. However, it just might be necessary. Even though I’m (arguably) not a younger reader anymore, I still love the power of a story meant for young people, also called “children.” It seems there’s an ability to approach serious subjects without an irony in kids’ books, and there’s no real reason we shouldn’t all be adding them to our repertoire on the regular. Books for children are just as complex and moving as “adult” fiction; sometimes, they are even more so. Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, once said, “You write the story that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write for children.” The following list is not full of books that you just missed as a child (i.e. there’s no Roald Dahl here). Instead, it is a collection of seven recent Middle Grade books that you never got a chance to read as a kid, but you should definitely check them out (no matter your age).
Wonder by R.J. Palacio // Wonder inspired this entire list. This incredible debut novel is about a fifth-grade boy, Auggie, who goes to school for the first time. Auggie has a rare facial deformity, which means making friends isn’t exactly a conventional experience. In fact, many of his interactions can be uncomfortable and hurtful, and the novel accurately reflects the way most of us react to seeing someone like Auggie. I can’t say this is my favorite book of all time, but I can say that it is incredibly moving and made me look at the world differently (which I think is what books are supposed to do). Wonder also began CHOOSE KIND, an anti-bullying pledge, run by Random House.
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage // Three Times Lucky is an excellent example of what you can’t get in all that “grown-up fiction” stuff. This novel has one of the most charming voices I’ve ever read, the voice of a Southern girl, Moses LoBeau. Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, try to unravel the truth behind a mysterious murder in their quiet town. Basically, this is the kids’ version of the Millennium Trilogy. Too far?
Mockingbird by Katharyn Erskine // You might be wary of reading this book because any novel with “mockingbird” in the title will undoubtedly be compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. Understandable. But although this novel is not a Harper Lee classic, it is sweet and tragic and good. The story follows eleven-year-old Caitlin, who has Asperger syndrome, as she deals with the death of her older brother, the person who made the most sense to her. This is another novel on the list that explores people who are outwardly different and finds that there are deep similarities between us all.
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, K.G. Campbell (illustrator) // Flora is a born cynic. Ulysses is a superhero squirrel. Together, they make a pretty unlikely team, but it’s a team that will make you laugh and hit you in the gut when you least expect it. Now, all of these books are “easy” to read for most of us (over the age of twelve), but this book is downright delightful. Its pages of beautiful, funny comic illustrations help illuminate the sweet and ridiculous story and only serve to further the adorableness of Flora and her Ulysses. Just go read it already.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Patricia Castelao (illustrator) //This novel is based on the real-life story of Ivan, a gorilla who lived in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. The funny, heartbreaking, first-person (first-ape?) account of Ivan’s life reaches out beyond species lines to touch readers. Reading this book, which can be done in one sitting, is like devouring a collection of free-verse poetry. Although Ivan is the one in a cage, he makes some spot-on observations about the people around him that cause us to question how we (mis)understand the world.
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman, Scotty Young (illustrator) // You probably know Neil Gaiman from Coraline, which was adapted into a stop-motion film in 2009. Pretty much anything Gaiman writes is hilarious and enjoyable, and Fortunately, the Milk is no exception. The novel features time travel, a family adventure, and that dreaded moment when there is cereal aplenty and no milk. You can also read this book in a single sitting, and trust me, you want to.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia // Admittedly, I’m partial to Historical Middle Grade novels; it seems like history is never as fun to learn as it is in a children’s book. Set in 1968, at the beginning of the Black Panther Party, the novel follows Delphne and her two sisters, Vonetta and Fern, as they spend a summer in a tumultuous community, with the mother who abandoned them. The sisters depend on each other, and the novel explores the social climate of the time, as well as the meaning of motherhood. It’s also beautifully written, so read it.
Which books intended for younger readers do you really enjoy?
Hilary Miller is currently an MFA student in Screenwriting at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA. When not not watching, writing, or talking about movies and television shows, she can usually be found making crock-pot creations, laughing, talking too loud, running, devouring a good book, eating, racking up cellular bills chatting with her bomb family, sticking her toes in the sand, or wishing she were Hermione Granger, sometimes all at once. And while part of her heart is still in Indiana, the rest of it belongs to her puppy, Estelle Getty.