By middle school, many kids stop reading for fun. Fresh out of elementary school, where their love of reading is nurtured through frequent read-alouds and independent reading periods, students in the middle grades delve deeply into reading for information and analyzing complex texts. It can be a jarring transition, the research shows.
One of the best ways to build voracious, engaged readers in the middle grades, experts say, is to offer an abundant and varied reading diet with plenty of choice in terms of genre and topic—and a special emphasis on pairing students with books they connect with, love, and feel inspired by.
Recently, we published a list of 25 essential high school reads, based entirely on suggestions from you, our audience of educators. Immediately, a number of middle school teachers asked for a similar list geared to their students’ age range, so we revisited the question on our social channels, asking educators to share the recent novels they wish they could’ve read in middle school—titles published within the last decade that would have moved, motivated, or meant a lot to them when they were middle school students themselves.
Nominations were diverse, with some favorites from the high school list making their way over to this one; Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, for example, garnered the most votes by far, taking the top spot. And although best-selling series like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter appeared quite a few times, as did Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog (recommended in the thread by YA superstar author Jason Reynolds), they didn’t make the cut for this list because they were published more than a decade ago.
- The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas’s emotionally wrenching debut novel finds Starr, an African American teen, torn between the affluent, predominantly white school she attends and the impoverished neighborhood where she lives. The fatal shooting of her childhood best friend by a police officer shatters her equilibrium, forcing her to choose where she stands. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: identity, race and racial injustice, grief and loss, activism.
- Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-Winning Stamped From the Beginning
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s reimagining of Kendi’s National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning sheds light on various manifestations of racist beliefs in our current society—where they originate from, why they still persist—and equips readers with strategies for recognizing and stamping out racist thoughts. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: race, racism and antiracism, American history.
Three refugee children—each living in separate parts of the world during different time periods, from Nazi Germany to Syria in 2015—fight to escape the violence of their home countries in Alan Gratz’s timely and moving work of historical fiction. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: warfare, family dynamics, trauma, the experiences of refugees.
- The Fault in Our Stars
John Green’s romantic roller-coaster ride—adapted into a feature-length film in 2014—follows Hazel Lancaster, a 16-year-old with terminal cancer, and a new friend from her support group as they embark on a journey to meet the author of Hazel’s favorite book. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: grief and loss, love and friendship, coming of age, identity.
- Dear Martin
Author Nic Stone drops readers deep into the life of her 17-year-old main character, Justyce, who suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of an unprovoked, racially charged encounter with a police officer. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: privilege, friendship, race and racial injustice, discrimination, the criminal justice system.
Lisa Fipps’s debut novel-in-verse finds protagonist Ellie on a journey of self-acceptance and discovery. When she’s in her swimming pool, Ellie feels weightless and free of the fat-shaming she experienced since her fifth birthday. But with the help of her support system—her therapist, a new friend, and her father—she develops the confidence to claim her space in the world. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: body positivity, bullying and fatphobia, identity, mental health.
- Ghost Boys
Jewell Parker Rhodes’s haunting historical fiction trails the ghost of 12-year-old Jerome, who was fatally shot by a police officer. While learning about the historical context that might have influenced the officer’s decision, Jerome keeps a watchful eye on his family and community as they mourn and struggle to carry on without him. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: grief and loss, race and racism, social justice and activism.
- The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives
In this journalistic piece of nonfiction, author Dashka Slater reveals the complexities of what transpired between two teenagers—Sasha and Richard—on a bus in Oakland, California, and the aftermath that ultimately transformed two families. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: gender and sexuality, race, discrimination, the criminal justice system.
- Hidden Figures
Margot Lee Shetterly shares the true stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden—the African American female mathematicians whose contributions played an integral role in some of NASA’s greatest accomplishments. The book was adapted into an Academy Award–nominated feature film. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: race and racism, science and space, history, the American civil rights movement.
- Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan’s 12-year-old eccentric and gifted lead character, Willow, lives a peaceful life with her adoptive parents, the only people who truly understand her. After a horrific car crash claims their lives, Willow sets out on a quest to process her grief and find love, joy, and connection with her new chosen family. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: belonging, grief and loss, family, friendship.
- When Stars Are Scattered
This heartbreaking yet hopeful graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed tells the story of Mohamed’s youth—primarily spent at a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing war-torn Somalia. After being separated from his mother, Omar navigates a series of difficult choices to decide what is best for him and his younger, nonverbal brother. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: family, hope and faith, love, fear.
- The Benefits of Being an Octopus
In Ann Braden’s emotional coming-of-age novel, school obligations and caring for younger siblings make seventh-grader Zoey feel like she is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. During a time where Zoey feels particularly voiceless, the debate club becomes a surprising outlet for her to speak her mind. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: identity and purpose, family, overcoming challenges.
- Orbiting Jupiter
Gary D. Schmidt brings the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” to life through 14-year-old Joseph, fresh from a stint in a detention center. The community, including main character Jack, is quick to judge him because of his history, but all Joseph wants is to find the daughter he’s fathered and never met. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: love, family, inclusion and exclusion, acceptance, judgment.
- Harbor Me
From the author of the National Book Award–winning Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson, the book tackles weighty subjects, including deportation and incarceration, through the lens of six fifth graders. After they are given access to an empty, unsupervised classroom where they can discuss anything they’d like once a week, readers get to know the fears and frustrations of this diverse group of kids. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: friendship, immigration, family, generational trauma, grief and loss.
- The Thing About Jellyfish
In Ali Benjamin’s delicately crafted heartfelt story, 12-year-old Suzy Swanson struggles to make sense of the circumstances that led to her best friend drowning. Convinced that the tragedy was linked to a rare jellyfish, she begins a course of scientific inquiry, crafting a plan and gathering evidence to prove her theory. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: grief and loss, friendship, science, coming of age.
- Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood
Comedian and political commentator Trevor Noah’s memoir mines his experiences as a mixed-race child in apartheid South Africa—a period during which the Immorality Act of 1927 outlawed interracial relationships, ostensibly making Noah’s very existence a crime. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: identity and purpose, race and racial injustice, oppression.
- Front Desk
In this story, based on author Kelly Yang’s own experience immigrating to America from China, main character Mia Tang runs the front desk at the Calivista Motel, working alongside her immigrant parents. Mia battles discrimination, racism, and language barriers—fiercely determined to become a writer, despite her mother thinking she should stick to math. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: race and racism, the American dream, immigration and identity, exclusion and inclusion.
Through the perspective of multiple narrators, R. J. Palacio shares the story of Auggie Pullman—a 10-year-old boy born with a genetic condition that causes facial differences—transitioning from a life of secluded homeschooling to the jarring experience of attending a mainstream elementary school for the first time. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: disability and difference, identity, bullying, coming of age, isolation and inclusion.
- Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus
Being the new kid at school is hard enough, but Dusti Bowling’s plucky protagonist, Aven Green—a 13-year-old girl born without arms—navigates the experience while continually answering questions about her disability. A rich friendship forms with outsiders Connor and Zion that opens doors for the trio to stumble upon and perhaps solve an intriguing mystery. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: disability and difference, isolation and inclusion, friendship.
- El Deafo
Cece Bell’s slightly fictionalized autobiographical graphic novel, recently made into an animated series, chronicles her trials and triumphs after losing her hearing. El Deafo spans Cece’s childhood and elementary school experiences, from her bout with meningitis and the introduction of her hearing device to adjusting to a new school and making friends as the new kid. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: disability and difference, loneliness, friendship, fitting in.
- The War That Saved My Life
In this story, set during World War II, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s main character, Ada, a young girl with a physical disability, has been confined to her family’s apartment for years because of her mother’s shame. As parents send their children from London to the countryside for safety, Ada sees an opportunity to escape and start living the life she’s been deprived of—against her mother’s wishes. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: disability and difference, loneliness, persistence and hope, freedom.
- Fish in a Tree
Despite attending many schools throughout her childhood, Ally Nickerson has deftly managed to hide her inability to read. But in this hopeful novel by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Ally finally confronts her fears alongside her new teacher Mr. Daniels, who encourages and helps her understand that it’s OK to learn and think differently. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: identity, self-esteem, dyslexia and difference, friendship.
- The Midnight Library
What if you could read your way into another story of your life? In Matt Haig’s charming fantasy novel, 35-year-old Nora Seed peruses the books in an infinite library and discovers that each magical volume gives her a glimpse into a life she might have led. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: identity and purpose, mental health, fantasy.
- Maybe He Just Likes You
Barbara Dee examines boundaries and consent through seventh-grader Mila, who starts to notice that she’s receiving a lot of unwanted attention from her male classmates. Mila takes refuge in a new pastime that teaches her how to stand up for herself and learns that what her friend brushes off as innocuous and harmless is actually rather harmful. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: the #MeToo movement, harassment, shame, respect.
- The Land of Forgotten Girls
From Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly comes the story of Soledad and Ming, two young Filipino sisters navigating life in Louisiana after being abandoned by their father. Though the girls have always found solace in fairy tales, Sol is starting to worry that her sister may no longer be able to distinguish between fact and fiction. Primary themes of interest to middle school students: grief and loss, family, the power of storytelling, hope.