Ordinary Kids, Extraordinary Stories

I love contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction. As a kid, I was delighted to discover Beverly Cleary’s BEEZUS AND RAMONA. Finally, a big sister with an embarrassing little sister, just like me! Judy Blume’s ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME MARGARET? was a hot topic on the sixth grade playground where my friends and I whispered about scenes in the book and smoothly segued into conversations about ourselves. That’s what I love most about stories featuring ordinary* kids, they reflect on real life and let readers know they are not alone.

Today’s contemporary realistic fiction moves beyond just school and friendship stories, and adds a little extra spark. Is it because today’s readers are more sophisticated? Or that authors are competing with TV, Internet, and video games? Probably both. In any case, the books listed below cover common issues among ordinary kids in a unique way.

HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL by Donna Gephardt follows David as he navigates the first difficult year of middle school, loses and gains friends, and deals with bullies–all very common issues for this age. Extra spark: David aspires to be like Jon Stewart on the Daily Show and becomes a local celebrity with his own YouTube videos.

THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z by Kate Messner follows Gianna as she struggles to complete a huge school project and deals with a rival on the track team. Extra spark: Gianna lives in a funeral home and is embarrassed by her father driving to her school in his hearse. Also, she must deal with her grandmother’s diagnosis of dementia.

A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT by Linda Urban follows Zoe who dreams of playing piano at Carnegie Hall, but is instead stuck with an organ. And her best friend recently deserted her. Extra spark: her father is afraid to leave the house, her mother works all the time, and the boy bully she was afraid of becomes a friend.

THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF GIRLS by Frances O’Roark Dowell follows two best friends as they drift apart in middle school. Extra spark: the story is told in alternating points of view, letting us know neither is the mean girl. They’re both under peer pressure and trying to find their best self.

SCHOOLED by Gordon Korman follows the worst loser in school who is secretly nominated for class president and tortured throughout the school year. Bullying, conformity, peer pressure, check. Extra spark: this year’s nominee is a kid seemingly straight from the sixties, the last kid on a hippy-style commune. His first time attending school is as a complete innocent venturing into the playground jungle.

What are your favorite contemporary realistic middle-grade stories? And what gives them that extra spark?

*By ordinary kids I mean kids with functional families that go to school, as opposed to kids possessing magical abilities or orphans.

Karen B. Schwartz writes contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction, and is currently working on I AM NOT A PINK GIRL about a tomboy, Alex, and her ultra-feminine stepmother-to-be, Dee Dee, who’s determined to make a lady out of Alex. Extra spark: Dee Dee has a murky past full of secrets that Alex is determined to reveal in an attempt to stop the wedding.

Karen B. Schwartz
  1. My favorite genre in MG and you listed many that I love. Others I’m crazy about are Wendy Mass’s Every Soul a Star and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, another Donna Gephart–As if Being 12 and 3/4 isn’t bad enough… and the Millicent Min series by Lisa Yee.

    On the younger MG side, the Moxy Maxwell series by Peggy Gifford and Alison McGhee’s Julia Gillian and the Art of Knowing. Love, love, love these. I just checked out the new one, Julia Gillian and the Quest for Joy, and can’t wait to read it.

    Would When You Reach Me be considered realistic? Maybe not because of the whole relativism/time thing…. but in case it would be, I wanted to add it. It’s brilliant.

    Karen, I have a chapter book out on sub now and the MC is named DeeDee (though she’s not girly). Great minds think alike!

  2. I just finished Walls Within Walls by Maureen Sherry. A fantastic mystery set in NYC.

    Also read Diane Stanley’s Mysterious Case of the Allbright Academy.

    Both of these mysteries are normal kids that find the answers to two totally different kinds of mysteries.

    I really hope Walls Within Walls wins some sort of recognition in the mystery circles!

  3. We definitely have the same taste in books, and I love your WIP blurb! You listed many of my favorites, and I’m adding the others to my must-read list.

  4. I’m all about contemporary fiction, too. This is a great list. I also love the Joey Pigza books, and Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree.

    (Step-mother named Dee Dee = Perfect!)