Back-to-school can be exciting and nerve-wracking for kids, but nothing soothes the soul better than a good book.
To help kids get back into the groove of learning, making new friends, and facing new challenges, I’ve curated a fantastic list of middle grade novels.
And because I am a HUGE Taylor Swift fan, I’ve selected 13 stories for young readers to enjoy.
THE DO MORE CLUB by Dana Kramaroff
A Jewish boy’s bravery and kindness are tested after an antisemitic attack on his middle school in this rousing novel-in-verse.
Ever since twelve-year-old Josh Kline found an antisemitic note in his family’s mailbox in third grade, he has felt uncomfortable about his Jewish identity. At a new school where he’s pretty sure he’s the only Jew, he’s hoping to just keep religion out of everything . . . until the morning someone sprays swastikas all over the building. That’s when everything changes.
In one of the school counseling groups set up in response to the attack, Josh finally reveals that he is Jewish, and quickly finds out there’s more to the other kids in his grade too: All of them have their own struggles. Maybe Josh can do something to help—to “repair the world” as his rabbi teaches, by starting a Do More club to spread kindness. But making a difference is never simple, even when you have new friends by your side.
Fast-paced and conversation-starting, Josh’s story is an empowering examination of prejudice, bullying, and how to take the first step toward change.
MRS. SMITH’S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS by Beth McMullen
A girl discovers her boarding school is actually an elite spy-training program, and she must learn the skills of the trade in order to find her mother in this action-packed middle grade debut.
After a botched escape plan from her boarding school, Abigail is stunned to discover the school is actually a cover for an elite spy ring called The Center, along with being training grounds for future spies. Even more shocking? Abigail’s mother is a top agent for The Center and she has gone MIA, with valuable information that many people would like to have—at any cost. Along with a former nemesis and charming boy from her grade, Abigail goes through a crash course in Spy Training 101, often with hilarious—and sometimes painful—results. But Abigail realizes she might be a better spy-in-training than she thought—and the answers to her mother’s whereabouts are a lot closer than she thinks…
DEAR STUDENT by Elly Swartz
When Autumn becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper, she is faced with a dilemma—can she give fair advice to everyone, including her friends, while keeping her identity a secret?
Starting middle school is rough for Autumn after her one and only BFF moves to California. Uncertain and anxious, she struggles to connect with her new classmates. The two potential friends she meets could not be more different: bold Logan who has big ideas and quiet Cooper who’s a bit mysterious. But Autumn has a dilemma: what do you do when the new friends you make don’t like each other?
When Autumn is picked to be the secret voice of the Dear Student letters in the Hillview newspaper, she finds herself smack in the middle of a problem, with Logan and Cooper on opposite sides. But before Autumn can figure out what to do, the unthinkable happens. Her secret identity as Dear Student is threatened. Now, it’s time for Autumn to find her voice and her courage and follow her heart, even when it’s divided.
A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE BY Lisa Moore Ramee
Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)
But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?
Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn’t think that’s for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.
Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn’t face her fear, she’ll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real.
A WORK IN PROGRESS by Jarrett Lerner
A young boy struggles with body image in this poignant middle grade journey to self-acceptance told through prose, verse, and illustration.
Will is the only round kid in a school full of string beans. So he hides…in baggy jeans and oversized hoodies, in the back row during class, and anywhere but the cafeteria during lunch. But shame isn’t the only feeling that dominates Will’s life. He’s also got a crush on a girl named Jules who knows he doesn’t have a chance with—string beans only date string beans—but he can’t help wondering what if?
Will’s best shot at attracting Jules’s attention is by slaying the Will Monster inside him by changing his eating habits and getting more exercise. But the results are either frustratingly slow or infuriatingly unsuccessful, and Will’s shame begins to morph into self-loathing.
As he resorts to increasingly drastic measures to transform his appearance, Will meets skateboarder Markus, who helps him see his body and all it contains as an ever-evolving work in progress.
AIR by Monica Roe
Twelve-year-old Emmie is working to raise money for a tricked-out wheelchair to get serious about WCMX, when a mishap on a poorly designed ramp at school throws her plans into a tailspin. Instead of replacing the ramp, her school provides her with a kind but unwelcome aide―and, seeing a golden media opportunity, launches a public fundraiser for her new wheels.
Emmie loves her close-knit rural town, but she can’t shake the feeling that her goals―and her choices―suddenly aren’t hers anymore. With the help of her best friends, Emmie makes a plan to get her dreams off the ground―and show her community what she wants, what she has to give, and how ready she is to do it on her own terms.
Air is a smart, energetic middle grade debut from Monica Roe about thinking big, working hard, and taking flight.
SMALL SPACES by Katherine Arden
After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think—she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.
Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.
Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. As the trio head out into the woods—bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them—the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.”
And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.
FREE LUNCH by Rex Ogle
Instead of giving him lunch money, Rex’s mom has signed him up for free meals. As a poor kid in a wealthy school district, better-off kids crowd impatiently behind him as he tries to explain to the cashier that he’s on the free meal program. The lunch lady is hard of hearing, so Rex has to shout.
Free Lunch is the story of Rex’s efforts to navigate his first semester of sixth grade―who to sit with, not being able to join the football team, Halloween in a handmade costume, classmates and a teacher who take one look at him and decide he’s trouble―all while wearing secondhand clothes and being hungry. His mom and her boyfriend are out of work, and life at home is punctuated by outbursts of violence. Halfway through the semester, his family is evicted and ends up in government-subsidized housing in view of the school. Rex lingers at the end of last period every day until the buses have left, so no one will see where he lives.
Unsparing and realistic, Free Lunch is a story of hardship threaded with hope and moments of grace. Rex’s voice is compelling and authentic, and Free Lunch is a true, timely, and essential work that illuminates the lived experience of poverty in America.
SWEET AND SOUR by Debbi Michiko Florence
For as long as she can remember, Mai has spent every summer in Mystic, Connecticut visiting family friends. And hanging out with her best-friend-since-birth, Zach Koyama, was always the best part.Then two summers ago everything changed. Zach humiliated Mai, proving he wasn’t a friend at all. So when Zach’s family moved to Japan, Mai felt relieved. No more summers together. No more heartache.But this year, the Koyamas have returned and the family vacation is back on. And if Mai has to spend the summer around Zach, the least she can do is wipe away the memory of his betrayal… by coming up with the perfect plan for revenge! Only Zach isn’t the boy he used to be, and Mai’s memories of their last fateful summer aren’t the whole truth of what happened between them. Now she’ll have to decide if she can forgive Zach, even if she can never forget.
AMINA’S VOICE by Hena Kahn
Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.”
Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.
Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.
FALLING SHORT by Ernesto Cisneros
Isaac and Marco already know sixth grade is going to change their lives. But it won’t change things at home—not without each other’s help.
This year, star basketball player Isaac plans on finally keeping up with his schoolwork. Better grades will surely stop Isaac’s parents from arguing all the time. Meanwhile, straight-A Marco vows on finally winning his father’s approval by earning a spot on the school’s basketball team.
But will their friendship and support for each other be enough to keep the two boys from falling short?
ONE TRUE WAY by Shannon Hitchcock
A heartening story of two girls who discover their friendship is something more. But how, among their backward town, will Sam and Allie face what they know is true about themselves?
Welcome to Daniel Boone Middle School in the 1970s, where teachers and coaches must hide who they are, and girls who like girls are forced to question their own choices. Presented in the voice of a premier storyteller, One True Way sheds exquisite light on what it means to be different, while at the
same time being wholly true to oneself. Through the lives and influences of two girls, readers come to see that love is love is love. Set against the backdrop of history and politics that surrounded gay rights in the 1970s South, this novel is a thoughtful, eye-opening look at tolerance, acceptance, and change, and will widen the hearts of all readers.
KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE by Kristi Wientge`
Karma Khullar is about to start middle school, and she is super nervous. Not just because it seems like her best friend has found a newer, blonder best friend. Or the fact that her home life is shaken up by the death of her dadima. Or even that her dad is the new stay-at-home parent, leading her mother to spend most of her time at work. But because she’s realized that she has seventeen hairs that have formed a mustache on her upper lip.
With everyone around her focused on other things, Karma is left to figure out what to make of her terrifyingly hairy surprise all on her own.