a big batch of old and new middle-grade favorites

During the first couple months of 2020
— in that eons-ago time when my library was open —
I was merrily reading and compiling a list of middle-grade reads that struck my fancy.
I thought I’d post those titles today
along with some older favorites I’ve never happened to mention before.
There are old and new titles here including four Newbery Medal winners.
The first five books have lengthier reviews;
the last dozen have just short descriptions.
Hope you find something just right for some kids you love, or for yourself!

new kid cover

New Kid, by Jerry Craft
published in 2019 by HarperCollins Children’s Books
249 pages

This is the first graphic novel to win the coveted Newbery Medal, so I was eager to give it a spin.

It’s the story of Jordan Banks, a 12-year-old boy, nicest kid ever, who longs to go to an art magnate school but whose parents elect to send him instead to a prestigious private school where he finds himself one of the few kids of color in his grade.

Jordan’s experiences over the course of that year comprise this account.  At school, he finds himself in frustrating and deeply uncomfortable situations with the new school culture, racist assumptions, and socio-economic divisions all creating turmoil.  At home in his Washington Heights neighborhood, Jordan struggles to maintain old friendships and his long-held sense of identity.

That all sounds really heavy.  The joy of this book, though, is that even though Craft nails the difficult challenges Jordan faces, the book soars equally with humor, friendship, uncommon kindness, strong familial bonds, and a really awesome protagonist.  It’s an exceptional piece of diverse fiction that tips stereotypes on their heads and stands firmly in the contemporary scene.  A companion novel, Class Act,  focusing on one of the characters introduced here, is due out this Fall. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

roll of thunder hear my cry

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor
published in 1976 by Dial Books for Young Readers
276 pages

Why did it take me this long to read this extraordinary story? For many readers, it has long been one of their all time favorites.

Cassie Logan, age 9, spitfire and narrator of this account, is part of the Logan household, a fiercely-loving family working together to make ends meet during the Great Depression, to preserve their cherished land purchased years ago by Cassie’s grandfather, and to stand strong and safe amidst the horrific, violent racism threatening their lives in southern Mississippi.

Cassie learns both ugly truths and rich principles over the course of a year when night riders terrorize the local Black population, when injustice cruelly strikes her family, when key choices on the part of Black and White members of the community can carry deadly consequences.

Winner of the Newbery in 1977, Taylor writes with a vivid, commanding voice creating characters who are etched in our hearts.  A brilliant, heartrending, and still-relevant read for ages 10 and up.

the one and only ivan

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, illustrations by Patricia Castelao
published in 2012 by HarperCollins Children’s Books
300 pages

Here’s the third Newbery Medal winner on the list today.  I wanted to read this book for several reasons:

1. It’s a beloved favorite of so many.
2. A sequel is coming out this May. (The One and Only Bob; due out on May 5)
3. A film version is coming out this August. (The One and Only Ivan; scheduled for release on Aug. 14)

What I discovered is an affectionate friendship story related by a gorilla named Ivan, a compassionate fellow who has lived for nine thousand eight hundred and fifty five days in a small cage in a tacky tourist trap called the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where countless humans press their noses up against his glass walls to stare at him and where his pal Stella, an injured elephant, is forced to perform daily.

Money is getting tight for Mack, the pitiless owner of the Mall, so he brings in a new baby elephant named Ruby who does indeed prove to be a big draw. When Stella asks Ivan with her dying breath to see to it that Ruby does not share her fate, Ivan has to draw on his intelligence and his artist’s knack to pull off a triumphant rescue operation.

The novel’s pacing, delivered in Ivan’s straightforward, uncomplicated voice in teeny-tiny chapters, makes this a dream for readers daunted by pages and pages of text. It’s easy to see why this poignant, feel-good story of camaraderie, infused with warm humor, is a crowd favorite. Read it aloud with kids ages 6 and up who can handle Stella’s death, or hand it to stout readers ages 8 and up, before the sequel and film come out!

the dark lord clementine

The Dark Lord Clementine, by Sarah Jean Horwitz
published in 2019 by Algonquin Young Readers
329 pages

There are about a gazillion middle-grade fantasy titles, and not being an insatiable fantasy fan I approach each one with a hefty dose of skepticism.  Can this one break away from the pack and make me want to keep reading it allllll the way to the end?

This one did that easily, I think in great part due to it not taking itself and the fantasy genre way too seriously.  Instead it reads a bit like The Princess Bride movie, a quest tale threaded through with copious wry humor.

Clementine is heir to the throne of the notorious Dark Lords, a wretched lot who regularly perform dastardly deeds keeping the surrounding populous in fearful thrall. Recently she has watched in horror as her father, the current Dark Lord, falls prey to the curse of an equally despicable Whittle-Witch.  Clementine must find a cure for her father while feigning his on-going potency lest the local peasants discover their overlord’s weakness.

Only thing is, in the process of shoring up her malevolent family’s power, Clementine discovers unsettling things. Like, she’d rather create beauty than pain; and these odious hedgewitches and villagers she’s supposed to oppress are pretty great people.  For all its humor, the novel also explores poignant ideas of identity and sacrificial love making it a deliciously satisfying read. Ages 9 and up.

here in the real world

Here in the Real World, by Sara Pennypacker
published in 2020 by Balzer + Bray
308 pages

Realistic, contemporary fiction can be pretty dark and these days my heart cannot bear too much added darkness, so I opened this book with some timidity.  The cover image is a little foreboding, two small figures amidst an enveloping, dark, jungly space, a shattered church, a title that sounds grounded in the dismal side of reality.

However, I really loved this story, and although pain is woven through it, the overall finished tapestry is one of hope, kindness, the capacity for love, sweat, and loyalty to help heal injuries dealt out in this real world of ours.

Ware is 11-1/2, an artistic soul who prefers quiet space and time in order to explore his rich, imaginative, inner world of ideas and dreams. His parents, however, have signed him up for dreaded Rec camp, a sort of YMCA summer day-program which for Ware is a nightmare of jangling noise, careening kids, relentless physical exercise, and supposedly Meaningful Social Interaction.  Ware finds a surprising way of getting through this scenario — he skips Rec altogether, scrambling over the wall to an adjacent property, a demolished church, where he meets feisty Jolene, hard at work planting a garden in the rubble.

Ware and Jolene work to convert this space to the refuge they need, even as events in the larger community conspire to thwart them. As Ware discovers what’s at stake for Jolene, he becomes determined to protect this space, to maintain optimism and hope.  Jolene accuses him of living in a “Magic Fairness Land” that doesn’t exist in this life.  Here in the real world, bad stuff just keeps crashing down on a person.  Who is right?

I love the validation Pennypacker gives to this gifted, introverted young boy, and I really love the cast of characters who come alongside to strengthen him — Walter the bartender, Uncle Cy the documentary filmmaker, and his grandmother, known as Big Deal. Pennypacker also uses the unusual setting of a crumbled church to bring an uncommon amount of religious conversation into the novel, exploring ideas of the possibility of inner change and of what is holy and sacred, in profound ways.  For readers unversed in religious concepts of baptism, communion, holiness, these  themes may feel strange. For other readers, they will provide a great deal of food for thought and discussion. Ages 9 and up.

Now — here are one dozen classics you might give a whirl if you’re looking for time-tested reads, probably best suited for ages 8 – 13. I’ve listed the original publication date. All of these have been re-issued many times and should be easy to find.

the saturdays

The Saturdays – Elizabeth Enright – 1941
The four Melendy children pool their allowances so each one can have a turn to spend the wad on a Saturday adventure of their choice, all of which go a bit off plan! If you like the Penderwicks or the Vanderbeekers, this is like an earlier version of those family stories. There are three sequels.

the wolves of willoughby chase

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken – 1962
A masterful, gothic adventure with a grim governess to beat all! The “Wolves” series has about 11 or 12 books in it and is an all-time favorite of many a 10-year-old girl.

the railway children

The Railway Children – E. Nesbit – 1906
The lives of three upper-class children are upended when two strange men suddenly appear at their home and escort their father away. From their new rural home near a railway the kids enjoy adventures, forge new friendships, and investigate their father’s disappearance.


The Story of the Treasure Seekers –  E. Nesbit – 1899
I haven’t put the Bastable children series on my blog before, in part due to the antiquated language which requires experienced listeners/readers. However, my kids thoroughly enjoyed the wit and antics of these six children who set out to “restore the family fortunes” after their father’s business fails. It’s old, so some colonialist attitudes are part and parcel. There are a couple of fun sequels.

the family from one end street

The Family from One End Street – Eve Garnett – 1937
Daily episodes in the life of a happy-though-poor family of seven children make up this lively account. Warm and funny, and of all the books on this list, most easily read to younger children. It was a breakthrough book in British children’s literature for portraying a working class family rather than a mid-to-upper class household.

the trumpet of the swan

The Trumpet of the Swan – E.B. White – 1970
Louis, a trumpeter swan, is born with an inability to make any sound. His father, determined to see his son flourish, steals a trumpet in an epic smash-and-grab from a music store! Yes, this cover does not hint at the nature of this unusual story! Between that instrument and a little schooling, Louis becomes a huge celebrity and wins the affection of his one true love. For some reason this title is lesser known, but our family loved it. It’s funny, surprising, and entertaining.

from the mixed up files of mrs. basil e. frankweiler

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler  – E.L. Konigsburg – 1967
Here’s the final Newbery winner on today’s list. Claudia and her little brother run away and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where they stumble upon a mystery to solve involving the museum’s new statue. A massive favorite for many kids and a great window on NYC in the 1960s.

danny the champion of the world

Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl — 1975
This wildly subversive story follows a dad and son with an uncommonly close relationship who run a little filling station just a hop, skip, and a jump from the local bigwig’s estate, an estate where the plebeians are forbidden to hunt pheasants.  The two of them hatch the most extraordinary pheasant-poaching expedition of all times. A wild ride!

gentle ben

Gentle Ben – Walt Morey – 1965
In the wilds of Alaska, a young teenage boy grieving the death of his older brother befriends Ben, a bear that was captured as a cub and is being grossly mistreated by his owner. A story less commonly read currently, that’s surprisingly good. A treat for animal lovers, to be sure.


Brighty of the Grand Canyon – Marguerite Henry — 1953
This story of a little burro who lives in the Grand Canyon and wins the hearts of all who encounter him, takes on a tautness you might not anticipate when he has to help solve the murder of an old prospector. Many kids fall madly in love with this book at around age 9. Mine sure did!

the pushcart war

The Pushcart War – Jean Merrill – 1964
One of my son’s favorites in the middle-grade years, this is a classic, triumph-of-the-little-guy story. When truckers try to rid NYC of the small wooden pushcarts used for peddling everything from flowers to hot dogs, the peddlers band together and fight back. Full of humor and memorable characters.

the mouse and the motorcycle

The Mouse and the Motorcycle – Beverly Cleary – 1965
Lots of people are familiar with the Ramona books or the Henry Huggins books, but not as many read the stories starring Ralph S. Mouse, which were some of my favorites as a kid. This is the first one, the story of a mouse feeling quite cooped up in his crowded home who wants adventure and gets his chance courtesy of a toy motorcycle and a kind boy named Keith.
You can find dozens and dozens and dozens more great titles via the Fiction tab at the top of the blog.

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